No Nativity scene or Christmas play is complete without them: Three regal figures, wearing crowns or turbans, rubbing shoulders with the shepherds as they crowd around the manger to present their gifts to the Christ Child.

As Bible scholar Brent Landau points out, thanks to their role in the traditional Christmas story, the Three Kings (or Wise Men or Magi) are better known to the general public than far more pivotal New Testament figures like the Apostle Paul or John the Baptist.

It’s ironic, then, that most of what everyone thinks they know about these visitors from the east doesn’t come from the New Testament but from legends and traditions that have coalesced over the centuries. They weren’t kings, nor does “wise men” quite do them justice. There were likely more than three of them, and they most certainly weren’t present at the manger when Jesus was born but showed up weeks or months later.

Clearly Matthew didn’t include them in his Gospel so they could be extras in historically inaccurate Nativity plays. Their brief appearance serves a far more vital Gospel role, one that’s been largely obscured by their popular Christmas image.

A brief, mysterious account

Of the four Gospel writers, only Matthew records the visit of the Magi. It’s a brief account, spare on detail and shrouded in mystery. Matthew offers no specifics about the visitors’ identity, number or place of origin, merely calling them “Magi (Greek magos, plural magoi) from the east.” He’s equally vague about the timeframe, stating they arrived sometime “after Jesus was born.” They first visited Herod before trekking out to Bethlehem, to the house where the mysterious star had led them. After paying homage to the child (not the infant) Jesus and presenting their gifts, they returned to their own country, never to be heard from again.

It may seem strange that Luke, whose own Nativity account is considerably longer than Matthew’s, makes no mention of the Magi. As a thorough historian, he surely could have provided a more detailed record of the visit than Matthew does. Moreover, as a gentile author, Luke had a special affinity for foreigners and outsiders, and these pagan visitors from the east would’ve been a natural fit for his version of the Nativity.

God’s Word, however, has a way of subverting human expectation. Both Matthew and Luke were led by the Holy Spirit to record exactly the details that they did. And Matthew, writing for a Jewish audience, was quite intentional about including this brief, mysterious account of the Magi. But to appreciate why, it’s essential to see the Magi as his original readers would have seen them.

In search of the historical Magi

In the ancient world, the magoi were a priestly caste from Babylon and Persia who specialized in astrology, interpreting dreams, and magic. In fact, the English words “magic” and “magician” derive from this name. By the time of Jesus, magos had broadened to mean any practitioner of the occult or mystic arts. The word appears in the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Old Testament, to denote the astrologers and magicians at the court of Nebuchadnezzar in the book of Daniel. Philo of Alexandria refers to the pagan seer Balaam and to the Egyptian sorcerers in Exodus as magoi. And in the book of Acts, Luke describes Elymas, who opposed Paul and Barnabas at Cyprus, as ho magos, the sorcerer.

But when it comes to the mysterious figures in Matthew’s Nativity, translators have shied away from these loaded descriptors and opted for the more neutral “wise men,” or else simply transliterated magoi as Magi. This is understandable, given that God condemns such occult practices elsewhere in Scripture. And “wise men” is not incorrect either; the magoi would indeed have been considered wise men in a secular sense, as those who possessed secret, arcane knowledge.

Nevertheless, the connection with astrology and magic would not have been lost on Matthew’s original readers, Jewish or otherwise. In their day, signs in the heavens were associated with the rise of rulers, and magoi from Persia or Babylon were considered expert interpreters of such signs. They would visit the court of a new king as foreign dignitaries complete with entourages, to pay homage to the monarch and bring him royal presents.

Popular Christmas tradition assumes there were three Magi who visited Jesus because of the number of gifts, and that they represented a wide range of lands stretching from Yemen in southern Arabia as far east as India or China. But early Christian art depicts anywhere from two to a dozen Magi, typically in Persian garb. Most likely they were from a single place in Babylon or Persia, or possibly northern Arabia around Syria and Jordan; Matthew writes that they returned to their own country (singular) after their visit to Bethlehem.

The star and the gifts

Aside from the Magi themselves, the most iconic elements of their story are the star they followed to Bethlehem and the gifts they brought the Christ Child. Both have been subjects of broad speculation over the years. Regarding the star, it has been argued that it could have been a natural phenomenon, such as a comet or a supernova or an unusual alignment of the planets. Conversely, it may have been a unique supernatural manifestation, possibly an angel taking the appearance of a star.

Whichever the case, the magoi who were experts in such matters saw the star “when it rose” (a Greek astrological term) and viewed it as a sign of the rise of the true king of the Jews. During the final leg of their journey from Jerusalem to Bethlehem, the star took a more directional turn, coming to rest over the specific house where Jesus and his family were staying. Drawing upon current astronomical research, Bible scholar Colin Nicholl has made a compelling case that a comet under specific conditions could have accounted for what the Magi saw, by the providence of God.

As for the gifts, interpreters have long sought to find spiritual symbolism behind the gold, frankincense and myrrh. Gold, it is said, is a royal gift, signifying Jesus’ role as king. Frankincense is used in worship, pointing to Jesus’ divinity. Myrrh is an anointing oil used in burial, indicating Jesus’ humanity and anticipating his death and resurrection. In addition, Isaiah mentions gold and frankincense in a prophecy about Israel with Messianic echoes.

But Matthew, who frequently appeals to fulfilled prophecy in his Nativity account, makes no such claims about the gifts of the Magi. Such expensive presents were given as a matter of course to new monarchs as an expression of homage and respect. The Magi were simply offering the customary gifts fit for a king, which underscored Matthew’s point that Jesus was the promised royal figure from the line of David. It’s also likely that the gifts were a providential means of support for Jesus’ impoverished family during their stay in Egypt.

Irony and a hint of scandal

It’s about 1,200 kilometres from the city of Babylon in Iraq to Jerusalem, over a month’s journey by caravan in Bible times. It’s even farther from the cities of Persia in Iran, but a group of pagan astrologers was willing to make that journey so they could worship the promised king of the Jews – all because they had seen an unusual star in the sky.

By contrast, it’s less than 10 kilometres from Jerusalem to Bethlehem, a couple of hours on foot. And yet Herod wasn’t interested in making that trip – which is not surprising – and neither were the Jewish chief priests and scribes, who knew Micah’s prophecy that Messiah would be born in Bethlehem. Meanwhile, the magoi from the east completed their journey and “rejoiced exceedingly with great joy” as they worshipped the royal Messianic child.

There’s inescapable irony in Matthew’s account here, but also a hint of scandal for his initial Jewish audience. Unlike traditional Christmas plays, these Jewish readers would not have cast the magoi in a favourable light. To what extent these visitors were actually involved in the occult arts is not clear. Matthew does not say. But they were gentiles associated with astrology and magic, if only by reputation. Casting them as positive examples would’ve had the same effect as the Good Samaritan in Jesus’ parable. It would’ve jumped off the page and bristled the hackles of pious Jews – which is exactly as Matthew intended.

Light and hope for the nations

Matthew begins his Gospel with a genealogy of Jesus as the son of David and the son of Abraham. His purpose is to show his Jewish readers that Jesus the Messiah is not only the prophesied Davidic king, but also the prophesied descendant of Abraham through whom all nations would be blessed. He emphasizes this point by including in his genealogy four women – Tamar, Rahab, Ruth and Bathsheba – three of whom were gentiles and a fourth who was the wife of a gentile.

At the end of his Gospel, he records Jesus’ Great Commission to “make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” From beginning to end, Matthew presents a Messiah who is not only the saviour of Israel, but the promised light and hope for the nations. When he notes the angel’s words that Jesus would save his people from their sins, he means all people – Jew or gentile, male or female – who would put their trust in Jesus.

The Magi from the east perfectly serve this radical message of grace. Although limited in scriptural knowledge and relying on pagan divination, they came to recognize and worship the true Messiah – in fact becoming the first gentiles to do so. Together with the women in Matthew’s genealogy, they would’ve leapt off the page and grabbed the attention in a way mere statements of fact never could. Their presence marks the moment when the light and hope of the Gospel first began to dawn on the nations outside of Israel. And that’s not so bad for a group of extras from historically inaccurate Christmas plays.

Sources and further reading

Chad Ashby, “Magi, wise men, or kings? It’s complicated,” Christianity Today, December 16, 2016.

Brent Landau, “The magi,” Bible Odyssey, accessed December 6, 2019.

Greg Lanier, “We three kings of orient aren’t,” The Gospel Coalition, December 15, 2017.

Ivan Mesa, “Was the star of Bethlehem a comet? An interview with Bible scholar Colin Nicholl,” The Gospel Coalition, December 24, 2015.

Allen Ross, “The visit of the wise men (Matthew 2:1-12),” Bible.org, March 15, 2006.

Mark Ward, “What do we really know about the three wise men?Logos Talk, December 7, 2017.

David Weintraub, “Can astronomy explain the biblical Star of Bethlehem?The Conversation, December 23, 2014.

Why did the magi bring gold, frankincense and myrrh?Biblical Archaeology Society, November 26, 2019.

Bible scholar Brent Landau asks ‘Who were the magi?’Biblical Archaeology Society, December 03, 2019.

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