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.

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100 COMMENTS

    • It doesn't matter to me who may or may not have been present at my Savior's birth.
      I am a Gentile and firmly believe that Jesus Christ was God on Earth.
      How blessed we are to have a God who loves us so much that He sends His only begotten son to sacrifice Himself to save us from our sins. Jesus truly is the Lamb of God. I love Him with all of my heart and soul.

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    • The number of the Maji does not really matter . But I feel that the fact that they were Israelites that had been exiled 700 years earlier is much more important .
      As the sons of of Jacob are blessed because of their ancestor’s . And GODS love An promises to your roots . Undeserved by you ,but as your ancestors loved you . So has GOD loved them .

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    • But there were wise men/magi that came to visit our Savior. Scripture does not say how many wise men there were but the fact no manger is mentioned is not problematic at all because the scripture said the three wise men came to see a "child", not an infant. It also says the magi visited the "house" where the family was staying so this was some time later, not at the birth in a manger. We construct stuff in our heads as true from long held tradition.

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  1. It is amazing how our long held traditions keep us from the obvious. Thank you, Dr. Schaser for challenging us to pay attention to what is REALLY in the text.
    • Hi William. This has nothing to do with your post. Just wondering if you have any relational links back to Sheho Saskatchewan.
      Skibinski is a familiar last name in that area where I originally came from.

      Thanks
      Ken
    • But what are the facts, evidence, proof of when those tombs were placed there? Who said these are the wise men from scripture? I'm not saying they aren't but how do you know they are? I'm willing to accept an answer like it's on record by someone (need a name) who lived in that first century that the bodies there are the "three wise men".
    • Thank sir for the information I know that,you are not against the verses of Matthew but you giving us more details we appreciate your work that you have done

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    • William Why would they end up in Germany? They came from the East and returned with the Good news of Jesus ' birth visiting Jesus in the house a year after His birth. My personal opinion the " star " was an angel. Can't see stars during the day.

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  2. That they were scholars is at once apparent; no one who was better connected with reality would have approached such a monster asking innocently "Where is he who is born king of the Jews?" But eventually it dawns on them what they've done, and they slip out of sight after visiting Bethlehem. They, like other scholars, are so focused on their specialty that that only is what is real to them, while political reality doesn't even register on their radar. As for the later myths about them, people have always preferred myths to facts...
  3. I've been a christian for 30 yrs. and have always heard it taught that we only guess that there were three magi because only 3 gifts are presented. And it's doubtful they arrived alone but probably had a whole retinue of servants with them. And they could very well have been on horses, not camels as all the Christmas cards depict. What is noteworthy is the fact that they worshiped Jesus and no one forbid it. I do wonder about those shepherds....how old were they? Did they all die before the manifestation of this Christ, His ministry?
  4. The Manger was where Jesus was born, and judging by the reaction of Herod, it may have taken the magi over a year to travel to Bethlehem, by which time they were in a house.

    How likely is it that the Maji had the prophecy from Daniel when he was in captivity in Babylon relating to the birth of Messiah? Is there any basis for this idea?
    • Good question. Since Matthew doesn't give us any indication that the magi were familiar with Israel's Scriptures or prophetic tradition, we don't have a textual or historical basis for such an idea.
    • Jesus was prob 2 years old in His own house, by the time the Magi got to visit. This is the truth vs popular myth which many choose to beleive by putting up their nativitity sets.

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  5. Recuerde Sr Dr Eliyahu que la palabra "Sabio" se aplicaba y se aplica al conocedor en profundidad de la palabra de el camino de salvación de Dios Yavhe. Y la palabra se interpreta, porque la mayoría de las veces no se describe como "recetario de cocina". Saludos y gracias.
  6. It seems to be, that no one correctly states what is written about Balaam...it is Balak that wants him to curse Israel, and every time Balaam informs him he will only do what the LORD tells him to do. So what does Balak say? “What hast thou done unto me? I took thee to curse mine enimies , and behold, thou has Blessed them altogether.”
    • Clement, I think what you missed is that Balaam eventually *does* manage to curse the Israelites, just not by his words of prophecy, He advises Balak to tempt the Israelites with foreign women, and it works.
  7. I suppose that the Wisemen coming from the east is well accepted. In that case may I ask, if there has been any indication of how far East of Jerusalem (or Bethlehem) they had come from? Was it just Iraq, Ur of the Chaldean or even as far as modern day Pakistan?
    • Matthew's text doesn't tell us the exact location, unfortunately. However, "magi" are associated with magicians of Babylonia in Daniel (cf. Dan 2; 5), and the word itself is a loanword from Media-Persia. So either of these places would be appropriate as places of origin for Matthew's magi.

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  8. It has been shown there was an astronomical event at the time of Jesus' birth. This event aligned a few planets which to the naked eye appeared like a very bright heavenly object. This was what was observed by the(most probably Jewish) scholars from east of Israel. The actual birth of Jesus took place on 12/08/03BC-not 100%sure of the year. However it is provable. I am not sure where you can research this, but if one astronomer knows about it, then others will too. They used an app which maps the movement of the skies, and went back in time....
    • Go to Luke and read his account, in the 6th month, Hebrew time, also, Elisabeth was in her 6th month, also they went back to Nazareth after 40 days, also the star reappeared for the wise men.
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