Who were the three Wise Men?

According to the Gospel of Matthew, wise men from the east visited Jesus shortly after his birth. Having followed a star that signified the savior’s birth, they had come to worship the new king and to bring gifts in the form of myrrh, frankincense and gold. This episode in the Nativity story has baffled many people ever since. Because Matthew doesn’t give a lot of background information on these wise men and the reasons of their visit, the narrative has been subject to many different interpretations. However, with today’s knowledge of Ancient Near Eastern cultures, we might just be able to understand this episode a little better.three-kings-1340012

The words of Matthew
Before we can delve into the cultural background of this story, it might be good to read the actual words in the Gospel Matthew. Matthew the Evangelist – allegedly the same person as Matthew the Apostle – was a Jewish follower of Christ who had an excellent knowledge of the Hebrew Scriptures. He wrote mainly for a Jewish audience and his main goal seems to have been to convince the Jews that – based on their own Scriptures – Jesus was the Messiah:

Matthew 2 (NIV)
1) After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem 2) and asked, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.” 3) When King Herod heard this he was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him. 4) When he had called together all the people’s chief priests and teachers of the law, he asked them where the Messiah was to be born. 5) “In Bethlehem in Judea,” they replied, “for this is what the prophet has written:

6) “‘But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
for out of you will come a ruler
who will shepherd my people Israel.’[b]”
7) Then Herod called the Magi secretly and found out from them the exact time the star had appeared. 8) He sent them to Bethlehem and said, “Go and search carefully for the child. As soon as you find him, report to me, so that I too may go and worship him.”

9) After they had heard the king, they went on their way, and the star they had seen when it rose went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was. 10) When they saw the star, they were overjoyed. 11) On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. 12) And having been warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, they returned to their country by another route.

Bethlehem
Now let us go through this text line by line. The first line is already highly significant:

1) After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod…

The first statement in this text is that Jesus was born in Bethlehem, just like his forefather King David. According to the prophet Micah (Michah 5.2), the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem:

But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, though you are small among the clans of Judah, out of you will come for me one who will be ruler over Israel, whose origins are from of old, from ancient times.

Matthew thus immediately addresses his Jewish audience.

The Magi
The second statement is more unusual.

1) …Magi from the east came to Jerusalem 2) and asked, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews?…”

Matthew mentions Magi coming from the east to visit Jerusalem. This is indeed a pretty vague statement. The original Magi were a class of priests among the Medes and the Persians. Their connection to Zoroastrianism, the most important Iranian religion, is unclear. In the Avesta, the holy book of the Zoroastrians, the term ‘moghu’ is used to signify ‘members of the tribe’. Among the Medes and the Persians, this may have acquired a more specific meaning as ‘members of the priestly caste’. The term ‘magus’ is thus a general term for an Iranian priest, who may or may not have been a follower of the prophet Zarathustra.Faravahar

The Zoroastrians, among other things, expected the coming of a savior who would lead the forces of Good to their ultimate victory over the forces of Evil: the ‘saoshyant’. This belief is pretty similar to the Jewish belief in the coming of a Messiah. What Matthew may have been trying to convey is that Jesus was not only the savior of the Jews, but also of the Gentiles. The idea that the Gentiles would one day come to Jerusalem to bow down to the One True God can be found both in Isaiah 2.2-5 and Micah 4.1-5. Matthew’s mention of the Magi is thus a significant example of the universalist orientation of Early Christianity. Even more significant is the fact that the mention of the Magi and their belief in a savior implies that peoples from non-Abrahamic traditions may receive valid prophecies as well.

Babylonian astrologers
The identification of the Magi as traditional Zoroastrian priests appears to be valid, but there are other possibilities too. After saying that they had come to Jerusalem to seek the new king, the Magi say:

2) “…We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.”

This is where the story of the Star of Bethlehem originated. Apparently the Magi saw the appearance of a certain star as a sign that their savior had been born. However, astrology did not play a particularly big role in Zoroastrianism. It is true that the Greeks and Romans had come to associate the Magi with astrology and all kinds of other esoteric knowledge, but this is because they used the term ‘magus’ to refer to any kind of oriental priest. Among the Greeks and the Romans, a priest was nothing more than the leader of a sacrificial ceremony and everyone could become one. Among many Near Eastern people, however, like the Persians, the Babylonians, the Egyptians, the Indians and even the Jews, the office of priest was hereditary, so the priests formed a social class. Because of their prestigious position within society, the Greeks and Romans began to ascribe great esoteric knowlegde and even magic abilities to these ‘magi’ (hence the word magic).

When looking for a class of priests who may have percieved the appearance of a star as a sign of the birth of a king, the Babylonian priests are the best candidates. Unlike the Zoroastrian magi, the Babylonian priests did focus mostly on astrology. Ever since the third millennium BC they had been recording remarkable events, both in heaven and on earth, in order to find a correlation between them. The Babylonians believed the whole cosmos to be interconnected, so by looking at the stars they believed that they could predict events on earth. For example, the appearance of a planet in a certain constellation could mean that a king in the east would die within 100 days. Perhaps the appearance of a bright star in the west signified the birth of a new king to them. The most important collection of omens are the Astronomical Diaries, in which the priests recorded unusual events with a scientific precision. Although the underlying beliefs of these Babylonian priests were false, their work did contribute to the advancement of mathematics and legitimate astronomy.

A star will come out of Jacob…
The theory that the Biblical Magi were Babylonian astronomers seems to make slightly more sense than the idea that they were Zoroastrian priests. However, this theory is still not perfect. Let us read on:

3) When King Herod heard this he was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him. 4) When he had called together all the people’s chief priests and teachers of the law, he asked them where the Messiah was to be born. 5) “In Bethlehem in Judea,” they replied, “for this is what the prophet has written:

6) “‘But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
for out of you will come a ruler
who will shepherd my people Israel.”

This passage again brings our attention back to the Jewish prophecies. Herod recognized the appearance of a star as a sign of the birth of the Messiah. In fact, he didn’t even need the priests and scribes to find that out. He only consulted them to find out where the Messiah would be born. The priests and scribes then refer to a prophecy that seems to be a combination of the prophecy in Micah 5.2 – in which it is stated that the Messiah will be born in Bethlehem, and the prophecy of Balaam in Numbers 24:17:

17) “…A star will come out of Jacob;
a scepter will rise out of Israel…”

This prophecy led the Jews to associate the coming of the Messiah with the appearance of a star. In fact, another Messiah claimant, Simeon Bar Kosevah, leader of the Jewish Revolt of AD 132-136, was nicknamed ‘Bar Kokhba’, which means ‘Son of the Star’ in Aramaic. This again indicates that the Gospel of Matthew is aimed mainly at a Jewish audience, although the mention of the Magi – Gentile priests who apparently believed in a Messiah as well (like the Zoroastrians) and who used astrology to foresee future events (like the Babylonians) – may have been a way to appeal to a wider audience by claiming that the coming of the Messiah was prophecized by Gentile prophets too.

HerodtheGreat2

Herod
The story continues with Herod asking the Magi to tell him the location of the newborn king, so that he might worship him (Matthew 2.7-8). Of course Herod’s real intention was to kill the new Messiah. King Herod the Great (r. 37-4 BC) was widely loathed among the Jews. Although he practiced Judaism himself, he was seen as a dishonest Jew who only cared about worldly power and good relations with Rome. He is indeed known to have killed two of his sons because he feared that they might dethrone him. The idea that a Jewish king would try to kill the Messiah rather than welcome him as the true king was to a Jewish audience the ultimate sign of the evil nature of Herod.

Three kings
The story of the Magi ends with the Magi finally finding the newborn king and honoring him with gifts like myrrh, frankincense and gold. Although the value of gold as the most important source of material wealth is obvious, the value of myrrh and frankincense might be less known among a modern audience. Frankincense, first of all, was an aromatic substance that was used in religious ceremonies all around the ancient world. It thus signifies the role of the Messiah as a high priest. Myrrh is an aromatic substance with a similar role as frankincense, although it is mostly associated with embalming the dead. It thus signifies Jesus’s death and resurrection. Because the Magi came bearing three gifts, early Christians soon started to assume that there had been three Magi. The number three als corresponds with the three sons of Noah: Shem, Ham and Japheth. This, combined with the prochecy in Psalm 72.11 – “May all kings bow down to him and all nations serve him” – may have led to the idea that the three Magi were three kings, each descended from one of the sons of Noah. This idea, however, is clearly apocryphal.

Further reading
To learn more about Zoroastrianism, the religion of the original Magi, I would recommend Peter Clark’s Zoroastrianism: An Introduction to an Ancient Faith (1998). To learn more about Babylonian astrology Herman Hunger’s Astronomical Diaries (2014) is a good place to start. For a good commentary of the Gospel of Matthew, The New Interpreter’s Bible (1995) is a great option.