The visit of the magi to the Child-Messiah, recorded in Matthew 2:1-12, is one of the most familiar biblical scenes to most Christians.The perception of this event has been unfortunately marred by a large number of popular misconceptions. Some of these derive from the popular song, “We Three Kings of Orient Are.” Consider the following list of erroneous assumptions about the magi:
- They were three in number.
- They were kings.
- They were from the Orient (i.e, the Far East).
- They were named Caspar, Melchior, and Balthazar.
- One of them was a black man.
- They visited the baby Jesus in a stable.
- They followed an astrological or astronomical phenomenon to Bethlehem.
All of these ideas compose what might be called the mythology of the magi. Some of the misconceptions can be corrected by simply reading Matthew 2:1-12. Others can be dispelled by a logical reading of the text giving attention to its Jewish background.
The idea that there were three kings named Caspar, Melchior, and Balthazar dates from medieval times, as well as the idea that one of them was black. No number of magi is mentioned by Matthew, but the fact that they presented three different types of gifts (“gold, and frankincense, and myrrh” in 2:11) probably gave rise to the traditional number.
Also, they are not called kings, but magi—a special caste of religious men in Persia which we will examine later. Matthew 2:1-2 says that they were from “the east.” In modern times we might think of lands like the Far East, but that is not the way the term was used in biblical language. The “east” was the region beyond the Euphrates River. This would be the area of ancient Persia—today, the countries of Iran and eastern Iraq. This would also argue against the idea that one of them was black, although this is remotely possible if one of them came from as far as India. Their names, of course, are purely traditional.
Far more prevalent is the idea, perpetuated by millions of nativity scenes, that the magi were present with their camels along with the shepherds at the manger of the baby Jesus. This idea conflates Matthew with Luke’s account, particularly Luke 2:15-20, and is refuted by statements in Matthew 2:1-16. First, we read in Matthew 2:1, “Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men from the east came to Jerusalem.” Furthermore, Matthew 2:11 states, “And going into the house (not a stable), they saw the child (paidion in Greek, not brephos, the word for ‘infant’ in Luke 2:12, 16).” Jesus could have been as much as two years old, since Herod ordered all the boys from two and under to be killed (Matt. 2:7, 16). Whatever age Jesus was at this time, He was definitely not a baby in a manger. He was a young child living with his parents in Bethlehem before their flight into Egypt (Matt. 2:13-15).
Some think that the magi were astrologers who had discerned through their stargazing that the sign of a Jewish king had appeared and that he had been born somewhere in Israel. While the magi may have engaged in some form of astrology, it is difficult to comprehend how God would communicate His will through a means He had so strongly condemned (Deut. 18:9-14, Isa. 47:12-14). If we allow for such a method of divine communication, how can we condemn the utilization of astrology for fortune telling today? Others suggest that the magi had observed some unique astronomical phenomenon—a comet, a supernova, or a planetary conjunction. The astronomer Kepler observed in AD 1603 an unusual conjunction of planets and found that in 6 BC there had been an unusual conjunction of Jupiter, Saturn, and Mars. Therefore, Kepler placed the nativity of Jesus at that time. Although this explanation has satisfied many, it does not explain the fact that the magi referred to “his star” (Matt. 2:2). Furthermore, it is difficult to comprehend how such an astronomical phenomenon could have moved to Bethlehem and how it “went before them until it came to rest over the place where the child was” (Matt 2:9). If a comet or meteor had performed that feat, there would have been no house or town remaining from the heat!
Having evaluated some myths surrounding these interesting visitors, what can be concluded about their identity and their knowledge about the promised Jewish king? Furthermore, what was the nature of that wondrous “star” which prompted their long journey? There is no necessity to look beyond the sacred Hebrew Scriptures for a correct understanding of Matthew 2:1-11.
Part 2 will look at those Scriptures for some answers to these questions.