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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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