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Who Were the Magi?

Although it is traditionally celebrated on 06 Jan, the Latin Rite of the Catholic Church celebrates Epiphany on the Sunday nearest to that date. Epiphany is the celebration of the visit of the magi to the new-born Jesus. Umm, so what’s a magi?

Magi is the plural of the Latin wordmagus. The ancient Greeks called themmagosand the ancient Persians,mogh, all very similar. The name originated in the 6th century BC and referred to followers of Zoroaster, a religious leader from Persia (modern-day Iran). In Greek, the word eventually replaced the older word for magician (goēs). English adopted the word from the Latin around 1200.

The truth is we don’t know for certain who or what they were. There’s a lot of speculation but little fact. They have been portrayed as oriental kings, wise men (many English Bible translations use this), astrologers and who knows what else. They are often depicted as kings in paintings but the Bible nowhere refers to them as such. If they were kings, Herod would likely have been much more concerned with their arrival.

The belief that they were astrologers comes from the fact that they noticed the Star of Bethlehem. At this time there was not much difference between an astrologer and an astronomer. Astrologers studied the stars but did so for purposes of divination, not learning about the universe. Any observations they made were to assist them in their divinations.

A point that is often overlooked, but which is rather important, is that they were Gentiles. Although Jesus is the Jewish Messiah, He was sent to redeem the Gentiles as well and the visitation of the magi can be viewed as the revelation of the newborn King to the Gentiles. The magi were not knowledgeable about the Bible. Herod had to tell them that the Messiah was prophesied to be born in Bethlehem. They do not seem to know what it was they were going to find when they reached their destination.

Magi Trivia

  • The Bible does not say that the magi saw Jesus in Bethlehem. If the Star of Bethlehem appeared when Jesus was born, it would have taken them some time to prepare for an make the journey. By then Jesus, Mary and Joseph may have returned to their hometown. Of course the star could have appeared long enough before Jesus’ birth so that they would arrive there shortly after His birth.
  • We also don’t know how many of them there were. Traditionally there were three but the Bible is silent on the actual number. They have been identified as Melchior, a Persian scholar; Caspar, an Indian scholar; and Balthazar, an Arabian scholar. Again, this is an extra-biblical tradition.
  • The birth of Jesus is not the only time we see the magi in the Bible. In Acts 13:6-11 Peter encounters the magician Simon Magus. Simon acted as an advisor of Sergius Paulus, the Roman proconsul at Paphos on the island of Cyprus.
  • Marco Polo claimed that he visited the tomb of the magi in Tehran in the 1270s.


Text © 2017 Gary J. Sibio. All rights reserved.

The image of the magi is in the public domain courtesy of


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Written by Gary J Sibio

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  1. That is an interesting thought about the magi visiting Nazareth rather than Bethlehem, but that is not what Matthew says. Chapter 2 verse 8 specifically says of Herod that “he sent them to Bethlehem” – this being after he had been told by his “chief priests and scribes” that Bethlehem was the place where the Messiah was destined to be born.

    According to Matthew, Mary, Joseph and Jesus escaped to Egypt, where they stayed until after Herod’s death. Joseph wanted to go back to Judaea, from which it can be assumed that this was his homeland – otherwise why would he have made that decision? Instead he headed north and settled in the remote (to Judaeans) district of Galilee. It is only Luke who suggests that this was where they started from.

    This could easily have been years after the birth of Jesus – the chronology is far from certain – and it is therefore highly unlikely that the magi would have hung around all that time for the family to return from Egypt!

    One has to bear in mind that a great deal of the Christmas story is symbolic and should not be taken as literal truth. Matthew and Luke were far more concerned with the message than with accurate history – just look at how many times they point to instances of events “fulfilling what was said by the prophet”. They do this for a purpose, which was aimed at their contemporary readers/hearers who are being addressed a matter of decades after the supposed events.

    • While it is true that Herod sent them to Bethlehem, it doesn’t mean that the Holy Family was still there. Why would they hang around there any longer than they had to?

      I have to disagree with you about not taking the Bible literally. (Literally in the sense of how it would have been viewed by its original audience.)

      • Gary, If the holy family were not in Bethlehem when the Magi arrived, how do you explain the next few verses that talk about them finding Jesus and Mary and presenting their gifts? It would be very odd storytelling to have people sent to a certain place (i.e. Bethlehem) then arriving at a “house” that we have then to assume was not in the place to which they had been directed!

        Also, bear in mind verse 13, in which the family clearly flee to Egypt “when they (i.e. the Magi) were departed”. I don’t think there1s any way of getting round the normally understood sequence of events if you accept the story as told by the writer of Matthew’s gospel (who may not necessarily be the apostle).

        I agree with you that all texts should be understood in the spirit in which they were written and it is also necessary to appreciate that the intended audience is far more likely to be a contemporary one than one thousands of years into the future! The author of Matthew knew all about telling stories to make a point – hence the quoting of several parables told by Jesus that are not intended to be actual recountings of actual events.

        My point is that modern readers make a serious mistake if they cannot appreciate the difference between fact and fiction. Both are vitally important, but the importance of fiction is not that it is fact!

  2. For an event that was recorded no less than four times in the same book, you’d think we’d have some more information on the magi. Balthazar and Melchior are pretty standard but I see all manner of different spellings for the third magus; Kaspar, Gaspar, Jasper, etc…

    But you are correct to point out that those names are found nowhere in the bible or even the apocryphal works. Their number isn’t even called out specifically and is generally assumed to be three because three gifts were listed by Matthew

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