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!

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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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50 COMMENTS

  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.

  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.

  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.”

  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?

  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….

  9. I got the connection between the Chaldeans and the magi; always figured it was Daniel, when he was listed as head of the Chaldeans under Nebuchadnezzar, who told them of the star to follow and find the King of the Jews, since they were astrologers. However because of the 3 gifts, I kind of assumed there were 3 of them plus their caravan (no caravan traveled far without armed guards and camel herds in that time because all the supplies had to be carried along and there were brigands to contend with along the route.)

  10. (2) Yahshua was not born in a manger (a trough in which livestock are fed that is mockery and blasphemous against the Holy One of Israel and I believe the word manger was purposely used to mock Yahshua.) Also, a crib is a baby bed and not a trough. However, the Holy Scripture clearly says: “The Torah/Word/became flesh and tabernacled among us (among the Hebrew people.”(John 1:14) after all, wasn’t He born on the Day of Sukkot/Feast of Tabernacles – in a Sukkah/Tent/Tabernacle? .. Have to continue I’ve run out of space…

  11. To the East of Judea was Parthia, an empire of loosely connected states, whose wars with the Romans had spilled into Judea and prevented Herod occupying his own thrown for several years. At the time of Jesus birth there was unrest, an uneasy treaty with Rome, and an unpopular (soon to be murdered) king in Parthia. Magi have appeared repeatedly in the history of the Parthian Empire as those who have advised and appointed kings. Little wonder then, that when Parthian kingmakers boldly arrive in Herod’s Palace looking for the new king, Herod is troubled, and “all Jerusalem with him”.

    • You are correct. The Parthians aligned with the Hasmonean dynasty and drove Herod out of Jerusalem and Herod took a complicated route to Rome. He asked Mark Anthony to help him drive the Parthians back across the Euphrates river. So when this entourage arrived in Jerusalem(about 1500-1700 strong) Herod was definitely afraid and disturbed. This Magi confirmed most of the kings in the East and Herod was a political appointee and not confirmed as royal.

  12. Re.Yahshua was wrapped in “Swaddling Clothes”, most Christians don’t know that the so-called Swaddling Clothes were the clean-washed-blood-stained-garments of the Temple Priests who did the sacrificing of the animals. These Garments possess an intrinsic Holiness, after all, Yahshua was and is The High Priest. This connects with Rev.19:12-13 12He has eyes like blazing fire, and many royal crowns on His head. He has a name written on Him that only He Himself knows. 13HE IS DRESSED IN A ROBE DIPPED IN BLOOD, and His name is The Torah/Word of YHWH.
    Praise YAH! SHALOM!

  13. The tradition of three magi does come from the fact that there were three gifts. There might have been only two, there might have been five. Also, Matthew states (Mat. 2:11) that they visited Jesus at a house, not a stable. The fact that Herod ordered all male children up to the age of two to be killed indicates that Jesus may have been almost two years old when they visited. Evidently, Joseph and Mary decided to stay in Bethlehem after Jesus’ birth. What does it matter? The Bible is true, even if later tradition distorted the story.

  14. Thanks, Dr. Schaser! A very important issue especially in comparison to Luke’s story. I believe Matthew’s is more adequate concerning Jesus’ birth and his early ears. I wrote an article some 3 years ago, using the Torah code method and found that Jesus was born on 14 Tishri 3757 (that is, about 23 September 5 BC) with incredible statistical significance. I sent a copy to Dr. Eliyahu Lizorkin. If you are interested, let me get in touch with you, so you can read it yourself. Also, I would be interested in more sudies of yours.

  15. They WERE wise men, at least, because they were not Jews. They recognized Jesus, the Jews did not….
    Magi from the east – possibly Persia, evetually they were zoroastrian priests.

    • Günther, thank you for your contribution to the discussion. I agree with your assessment of the magi being priests from Persia, but to say that “the Jews did not” recognize Jesus isn’t the picture we get from the Gospel. In Matthew, Jesus’ Jewish disciples follow him (cf. 4:19-22; 9:9; 19:27), Jews pursue Jesus in the hopes of getting healed (e.g., 9:20, 27; 20:34), and “great crowds” of Jews follow him throughout the narrative (cf. 4:25; 8:1; 14:13; 19:2; 20:29; 21:9). Many Jews recognized and followed Jesus according to Matthew; by contrast, the magi do not follow Jesus — they return to their own country (2:12) — and they do not identify him as their king, but rather as the “king of the Jews” (2:2).

  16. I think Maria would have prepared for the birth of her child like any mother would. So she would have had clothe ready ! I have another question , Josef was told in a dream to flee to Egypt with his family and come back when being called! Maria and Josef went to the Tempel after eight days for Jesus circumcision , which Tempel? To flee to Egypt would have taken weeks! I would like to have your thoughts on that. I find a lot of speculation in the stories of the wise men. The gifts come from different regions!

    • Thanks for contributing to the discussion, Donata. The Temple that Jesus and his family visit is in Jerusalem (see Lk 2:22). Luke has the visit to the Temple, and Matthew has the trip to Egypt.

  17. Why would any king travel and go to worship another king? That’s just ridiculous. So who would worship the “King of Jews”? Of course only the Jews would travel to meet and greet the long awaited Messiah, the “King of the Jews”. There is no question in my mind that these “magi” were Jews coming to worship one of their own, the newborn Saviour of the world. Aetheists would not come to worship Him. There were no Christians back then. Muslims would not go to worship Him. So that only leaves one group who would go, the Jews.

  18. Magi were not stupid, and were not afraid of Rome. Parthia defeated Roman armies a few times, & knowing what God did for their leader Daniel centuries before, (who also probably told them to watch for the star) these “king makers” could come into Jerusalem confidently. Only unwise in assuming that this King would already be known of by Herod and by His own people. When talking to Herod, the magi make a point of Jesus being “born” King, knowing that Herod had bribed his way to this title. Google “We Three Kings? Missler” for a more detailed summary.

  19. The wise men in the East truly followed the star in September/October not December. The magi are truly from the East. Iam from a country in the far East. My grandfather predicted that the Messiah’s star that shone during His birth will shine again at a specific location in our Mountain Kekem when His return is near. My grandfather died in 2011 and this prophecy begaun in 2016. The star only appears during the end of September and begining October. Come November/December it goes off.

  20. We are reading the modern meaning of wise into the biblical Greek word magos, which was a different thing in those days. Yet in their “foolishness” (which is implied by the author of the article) they not only discerned that the King of the Jews had been born but also that He deserved to be worshiped. They were so convinced of their interpretation of the heavenly sign that they decided to come and do just that. Judging by that fact alone they were indeed wise (in the biblical sense).

  21. Thanks you Dr. Schaser. Unfortunately, your only aim is to demonstrate that these were not so wise men, linking them to Balaam. I beg to differ. These men were very wise, because they saw the star, understood its significance and ACTED. They journeyed for many months to get to Jerusalem, something the Scribes and experts of the Law did not do even for the short distance from Jerusalem to Bethlehem. They were among the first worshipper of Messiah! Not for money or fame like Balaam. Instead, they brought fitting gifts. They were wise for obeying the revelation!!!

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