Recently, I was pondering the story of the Magi and the Star of Bethlehem in the Gospel of Matthew and found myself plagued with tons of questions. Who were the magi? Where were they from? What was this pro-astrology story doing in the Bible? These and countless other questions piqued my curiosity and led me on a journey for the truth. What I discovered managed to completely shatter many of the preconceptions I had about the Epiphany story, while at the same time filling me with wonder and awe at the truth. Below, in Q&A style, I have summarized my findings for your reading pleasure. May they surprise and fill you with the same awe and reverence for God’s saving power in history on this wonderful Feast in Epiphany like they did for me!
Who were the Magi?
There are actually A LOT of theories about these mysterious men from chapter 2 of Matthew. Their exact origin is unknown; all we basically know is that they were from the East. Whether or not they were astrologers has been up for question. Some scholars interpret the wise men to be Chaldean priest-sages, while others assume they were from the priestly caste of the Medes and Persians. There are reasonable arguments for both positions (priest-sages vs astrologers). Those in favor of the priest-sage argument point to the fact that if the Magi a small group of astrologers, this would affirm the highly-condemned (among Jews at the time) pseudo-science of astrology. Rather, they were priestly-sages familiar with the prophecy of Balaam in the Book of Numbers.
I see him, but not now.
I see him, but not near.
A star will come out of Jacob.
A scepter will rise out of Israel,
and shall strike through the corners of Moab,
and break down all the sons of Sheth.
Those in favor of the astrologers argument simply argue that while the Magi were astrologers, having been exiled among Jews they would have become familiar with the popular prophecy of Balaam in the Book of Numbers.
Did the Magi actually have names?
Contrary to popular belief, the names and number of Magi are the result of a legend. In Ravenna, Italy, there is a church called the New Basilica of Saint Apollinaris, with a mosaic dating back to the sixth century depicted the Magi. In the image (pictured below), above the heads of the Magi, we can see the three names popularly associated with the magi: +SCS BALTHASAR +SCS MELCHIOR +SCS GASPAR.
What was the significance of the gifts they brought?
While Church tradition has colored the gifts of the wise men with rich theological symbolism, the historical significance of the gifts at the very least represents the Magi’s homage to the future “King of the East.” In fact, the three gifts (gold, frankincense, myrrh) were considered a standard way to honor a king or deity in biblical times. The individual importance of each gift is up for question. Some perceive that the gifts were merely products of the Magi’s country of origin. The Church sees the gifts as a fulfillment of the prophecy of Isaiah about Jerusalem’s restoration, where nations and kings will come and “bring gold and frankincense and shall proclaim the praise of the Lord” (Isaiah 60:6). Most folks though are familiar with the spiritual symbolism attributed to the gifts in the Church hymn “We Three Kings”: gold representing his kingship, frankincense a symbol of his priestly role, and myrrh a prefiguring of his death and embalming.
Did the Magi worship the Christ child?
Despite some scriptural translations having the Magi worship the Christ child, a more correct translation would be that they paid Him homage. The reason behind this, according to some sources, is the Magi were probably monotheistic, and likely only recognized the Christ child as fulfilling the prophecy of an eastern king.
Finally, why would the Bible promote astrology?
For early Christians the story of the Magi in the Gospel of Matthew was a source of controversy. A simple reading of the story seemed to advocate the practice of astrology, something strongly condemned throughout Judeo-Christian history. Thankfully, some of the early Church Fathers reasoned to an explanation for the complication the story brought to the Gospel of Matthew. For Origen, a belief in the widespread knowledge and influence of Balaam throughout Mesopotamia provided the answer:
If Balaam’s prophecies were included in the sacred books by Moses, how much more would they have been copied by those who were then living in Mesopotamia, among whom Balaam had a great reputation and who are known to have been disciples in his art. It is said that the race of Magi descends from him, and that their institution flourishes in eastern lands, and that they [the Magi] had copied among them all of Balaam’s prophecies, including “A star shall arise out of Jacob” [Num 24.17]. The Magi had these things written among themselves, and so when Jesus was born they recognized the star and understood that the prophecy was fulfilled.
Origen – Homilies on Numbers 13.7
The most popular explanation for the astrology in the story of the Magi comes from Saint Jerome. He wrote that whether or not the Magi knew of Christ’s birth from the teaching of demons (astrology) or the prophecy of Balaam, the coming of God’s Son (marked by the star of Bethlehem) meant the destruction of the whole power of astrology:
A star shone in heaven,
brighter than all the stars,
and its light was ineffable,
and its novelty caused astonishment ;
all the other stars
together with the sun and moon
became a chorus for the star,
and it outshone them all with its light ;
and there was perplexity [as to] whence [came] this novelty so unlike them.
Thence was destroyed all magic,
and every bond vanished ;
evil’s ignorance was abolished,
the old kingdom perished,
God being revealed as human
to bring newness of eternal life,
and what had been prepared by God had its beginning ;
hence all things were disturbed
because the destruction of death was being worked out.
Ignatius’ Letter to the Ephesians 19.2-3
- The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah, Alfred Edersheim.
- The Magi and the Star in the Gospel of Matthew and Early Christian Tradition, Tim Hegedus, Waterloo Lutheran Seminary, Wilfrid Laurier University, 2003, http://www.erudit.org/revue/LTP/2003/v59/n1/000790ar.html.
- The mythical interpretation of the Gospels [microform] ; critical studies in the historic narratives, pp. 46-47, Dr. Mill. 1861?
- New Testament Studies: Philological, Versional, and Patristic, Volume 10, Bruce Manning Metzger.
- The New American Bible, Revised Edition (NABRE), the official translation used by the USCCB.