They typically receive fourth billing in Christmas plays. Outfitted with oversized bathrobes and foil crowns, they present shoeboxes to the baby doll in the manger. Nearby are cattle-a-lowing, angels, and shepherds too young for speaking parts.
They are the “wise men.” Immortalized in Matthew 2:1–12 and seared into our collective consciousness by the song “We Three Kings,” these figures have been a mainstay in retellings of Jesus’s birth for centuries.
But what do we really know about these men? Narrative padding has tended to stifle their profound importance in Matthew’s Gospel. Yet by looking at things afresh—what they aren’t and what they are—we can better appreciate their role in heralding the gospel itself.
Indeed, God can use even pagan astrologers to inaugurate the worship of the world’s divine King.
Mental pictures of biblical stories can gain traction even if they don’t quite square with Scripture. Let us first, then, recalibrate some things about these “three kings of Orient” by asking six specific questions.
1. How many were there?
Tradition pegs their number at three. One is hard-pressed, however, to find that detail in Matthew 2. Three, which dates back at least to Origen (AD 185–254), comes from ascribing the number of gifts (gold, frankincense, myrrh) to the number of men bringing them.
But church history is not uniform here: Two men appear in the ancient catacomb of Peter and Marcellinus, four in the catacomb of Domitella, and eight or twelve in other medieval lists.
We simply do not know. Matthew just uses the plural.
2. What were they?
The traditional “wise men” or “kings” are not found in Matthew’s account either. He simply calls them “Magi” (Greek magos).
Who are these mystery figures? Magos derives from a Persian word denoting a priestly caste, but it’s also used for interpreters of astrological signs or dreams. Philo uses magos for the Egyptian sorcerers of Exodus 7. Josephus uses it for dream interpreters. In the Greek of Daniel 2, magoi appear with the Babylonian enchanters and wise men consulted by Nebuchadnezzar to interpret his dream. Acts 13:6–8 describes Bar-Jesus/Elymas as a magos. Some believed magoi legitimately possessed supernatural abilities; others deemed them charlatans.
The Magi were likely specialists in dreams and astrological phenomena. . . . They were ‘wise men’ only in a secular sense, and it’s unlikely they were real kings.
Matthew’s magoi were likely specialists in dreams and astrological phenomena, as attested by their interpretation of the star. They were “wise men” only in a secular sense, and it’s unlikely they were real kings.
3. Where were they from?
“Orient” is a largely outdated word for eastern Asia. In the hymnody it probably derives from the Latin oriens, which means “east” and is a fine translation of what Matthew actually says: “magoi from the East” (2:1). The English word “Orient,” however, confuses things.
These magoi were likely from Persia, Arabia (Syria/Jordan, not Saudi Arabia), or Babylonia. Some church fathers, such as Clement of Alexandria, favored Persia, since it was a hotbed of Zoroastrian astrology. Other fathers, such as Justin—partly based on the typical sources of the spices mentioned, partly based on Psalm 72:15—favored Arabia. Babylonia is also a great candidate, since its magoi would have come into contact with Israel’s Scriptures during the captivity.
Babylonia is a great candidate [for the Magis’ origin], since they would have come into contact with Israel’s Scriptures during the captivity.
They came “from the East” (2:1) and “went back to their territory” (2:12). We know little more—but they probably did not come from “the Orient.”
4. When did they visit Jesus?
Traditional nativities place the magoi with the shepherds at the stable on the night of Jesus’s birth. This harmonization of Matthew 2 with Luke 2 is well-intended, but it misconstrues some details. In Matthew, the magoi apparently arrived some time after the birth—perhaps weeks, even months.
Matthew 2:1 reads, “Now after Jesus was born . . . magoi from the East came to Jerusalem”—implying a time gap. Word reached King Herod, who assembled his advisers, consulted the magoi, and dismissed them to Bethlehem (2:4–9). It would be nearly impossible to fit these proceedings in the gap between the birth and the angelic appearance to the shepherds that night (Luke 2:7–8).
Further, if the star appeared at or shortly before Jesus’s birth, it would have taken days or weeks for the magoi to travel from “the East.” Upon their arrival (2:9–11), Matthew describes Jesus as a “child,” not a “baby” as in Luke 2:12. And the magoi visit him in a house, where the family apparently relocated after the birth. Finally, Herod decrees the death of boys 2 years old or younger, “according to the time ascertained” from the magoi (2:16). The magoi weren’t there that first night but sometime later. The combined Matthew/Luke sequence runs: Jesus’s birth, angels/shepherds, circumcision, presentation at the temple, visit by the magoi, flight to Egypt, and resettlement in Nazareth (where the storylines reunite—Matthew 2:23 and Luke 2:39).
But, of course, that sequence makes for a complicated live nativity.
5. Why did the star prompt them to go to Jerusalem?
Why did these magoi, upon seeing a star, go to Jerusalem looking for “he who has been born king of the Jews” (Matt. 2:1–2)?
The hymns envision the star floating along, “westward leading, still proceeding,” guiding the magoi from “the Orient” to Jerusalem. Matthew’s account does not actually say this. Something like that occurred on the short trip south to Bethlehem (Matt. 2:9), but Matthew is silent on the initial westward trip to Jerusalem. There’s a different explanation.
In antiquity, astrological wonders were understood to accompany political events, from the star landing in what becomes Rome to the star presaging the destruction of Jerusalem. Herod was no mere paranoid fool when he detected something politically amiss with the star’s appearing (Matt. 2:7).
Magoi were experts in such astral phenomena. But what about this star drew them to Jerusalem? The most plausible explanation lies in Israel’s Scriptures. As learned men who interacted with various religious literature, the magoi would have been familiar with Jewish political or messianic oracles. And one of the central political prophecies in the Hebrew Scriptures is Balaam’s oracle.
In Numbers 22–24, Balak of Moab summoned the pagan Balaam to curse Israel. Balaam was a performer of incantations and divinations (Num. 23:23; Josh. 13:22). He came “from the east” (23:7), and was labeled a magos by Philo. But this pagan seer, otherwise a scoundrel (2 Pet. 2:15), blessed Israel by prophesying its deliverer-king via the symbol of a star:
I see him, but not now; I behold him, but not near: a star will arise out of Jacob, and a scepter shall rise out of Israel; it shall crush the forehead of Moab. (Num. 24:17)
This future figure is also described as “a man from [Jacob’s] seed who will rule many nations” (Num. 24:7).
Of great importance is the verb used in Numbers 24:17: the star “will arise.” Matthew alludes to it in 2:2 and 2:9, with the magoi seeing the star “in its rising,” which is derived from the word in Numbers 24:17. Matthew does not specify whether it was a supernova, comet, planetary conjunction, or other supernatural event—only that it “arose” and “appeared” (2:7, 16).
Balaam’s star oracle was read messianically in other early Jewish writings: Dead Sea Scrolls, Sibylline Oracles, Aramaic translations of Numbers (replacing “star” with “king”), and rabbinic tradition.
The star fulfilled a well-known Jewish messianic prophecy within a broader ancient sensitivity to astrological politics.
In short, the star fulfilled a well-known Jewish messianic prophecy within a broader ancient sensitivity to astrological politics. The magoi observed the star and recognized that the true king of Israel, the one promised by God of old—not the one appointed by Caesar, whose neurotic obsession for self-preservation was exacerbated by the star—had entered the world. It’s a fascinating collision of earthly revelation with divine revelation through the mouth of a pagan! That is what prompted the magoi to look for Jesus in Jerusalem.
6. What is their significance for Matthew’s nativity?
What role, then, do the magoi play in Matthew 2?
Foreign dignitaries visiting new rulers was not uncommon. It happened to Herod the Great himself, and Pliny lists magoi in the entourage honoring Nero. So when the magoi “fall down and pay homage” to the boy Jesus (Matt. 2:11), it could simply signify respect for the one they believed to be Israel’s future earthly king.
This, by itself, is immensely significant in Matthew’s Gospel.
Matthew goes to great lengths to portray Jesus as embodying Israel’s entire history. Matthew’s genealogy places him in King David’s line (Matt. 1:1, 17). His father Joseph’s dream leads to Egypt to escape a murderous king—much like the patriarch Joseph’s dreams led to Egypt, where Moses would be born, escape a murderous pharaoh, and deliver the people. In this way God said “out of Egypt I have called my son” (Matt. 2:15; cf. Hos. 11:1): Israel as God’s firstborn culminates in Jesus as God’s true firstborn and deliverer.
But, as Matthew proceeds to recount, the bulk of Israel in Jesus’s day would reject him as their deliverer-king. The nativity anticipates death; the myrrh of the magoi points to that of the cross (Mark 15:23) and tomb (John 19:39). Israel’s leaders who knew the Scriptures (Matt. 2:6) wanted nothing to do with the “star arising from Jacob.”
Instead, it is thoroughly pagan Gentiles—perhaps from a nation that had held Israel captive, if the Babylon theory is right—who alone read the Scriptures rightly and came to herald the true King.
It is thoroughly pagan Gentiles—perhaps from a nation that had held Israel captive, if the Babylon theory is right—who alone read the Scriptures rightly and came to herald the true King.
But there’s more. By responding to a starry light and bringing gifts, these magoi fulfill Scripture in another way—every phrase of Isaiah 60:1–6 reads like a script for Matthew’s scene. The nations, here represented by the magoi, respond to the rising of the LORD with “gold and frankincense” and “good news.” When the magoi bow down, they implicitly signal what Matthew later makes explicit (28:19–20): Jesus is not just Israel’s king, but their king, possessing authority over all nations.
When the magoi “pay homage” to Jesus (2:11), the verb can also mean “worship,” as in many English translations. Matthew leaves it open-ended. But no doubt, as the full identity of Jesus unfolds, their instincts prove right. For this boy is not only “king of the Jews,” not only king of all nations, but the fully divine Son and Lord—Immanuel himself.
The wonder of Christmas, then, is that pagan astrologer magician-types are transformed to worship the incarnate divine Son through reading and responding to the ancient words of a pagan seer. Indeed, this is good news for lost sinners of all kinds throughout the world.