According to popular renditions of the Christmas story, three wise men follow the star of Bethlehem to Jesus’ manger. This common Christian retelling of Matthew’s birth narrative is imprecise for more than one reason. First, the text never says how many wise men travel to Bethlehem; the number three simply aligns with Matthew’s reference to three kinds of gifts: gold, frankincense, and myrrh (see Matt 2:11). Second, Matthew doesn’t mention a “manger” (that’s Luke). Finally, while most English translations call these travelers from the east “wise men,” Matthew’s original readers may not have understood them to be particularly wise!
The Greek word translated “wise men” is magi (μάγοι), a Persian loanword used to describe astrologers who may have functioned as Zoroastrian priests. For these pagan tourists to waltz into Jerusalem and ask about the location of a newly born “King of the Jews” — especially while Herod already reigns as king of Judea (!) — is not a smart geo-political move. Moreover, these so-called wise men agree to meet with Herod after he finds out their messianic mission, and they blindly trust his lies about wanting to worship this newborn king (see Matt 2:7-9). When the men are warned in a dream not to return to Herod, the king realizes that he had been “mocked” (ἐνεπαίχθη) – the same word used to describe the “mocking” of Jesus as “king of the Jews” (cf. Matt 20:19; 27:29, 31, 41). When the intellectually questionable magi dupe Herod, Matthew presents Herod as being especially slow on the uptake!
According to Philo of Alexandria, a first-century Jewish philosopher and contemporary of Jesus, Balaam the seer was a magos (μάγος; the singular of magi), and he is one of the least intelligent figures in all of Scripture (see Philo’s Life of Moses 1.264). As Balaam rides his donkey on his way to curse the Israelites (see Num 22:22-35), God sends an angel that only the donkey can see. When Balaam begins to strike the donkey for refusing to move, the donkey speaks to Balaam and calmly explains the irrationality of his behavior, and the angel affirms the donkey’s explanation. Balaam’s donkey is smarter than he is! When Balaam finally gets around to cursing Israel (see Num 23-24), God turns his would-be curse into a blessing – the so-called seer, who Philo calls a magos, turns out to be totally inept.
There is good reason to think that Matthew also understood Balaam to be a magos, since the evangelist alludes to Balaam’s curse-turned-blessing via the “star” that the magi follow to Bethlehem. At the conclusion of Balaam’s speech, the seer predicts the coming of a figure who many Jews of Matthew’s day interpreted as the Messiah: “I see him, but not now; I behold him, but not near. A star (כוכב; kokhav) shall come from Jacob and a scepter shall rise out of Israel” (Num 24:17). Just as Balaam the magos sees a star rise out of Israel, Matthew’s magi say of Jesus, “We have seen his star at its rising, and have come to worship him” (Matt 2:2). While Matthew’s link from Balaam to the magi may not present the latter as particularly “wise,” as with Balaam, God gives these Gentiles a vision of a star that points them to the king of the Jews.