There is debate over the ethnic identities of Matthew’s magi. Some argue that these travelers from the East were Jews who had learned the arts of magic and astrology in Babylonia after the Jewish exile in 586 BCE. Others hold that these visitors to Judea were Gentiles. While it is possible that these ancient star-followers were Jews, the textual data in Matthew and Israel’s Scriptures support the conclusion that the magi were Gentiles.

Those who see the magi as Jews note that the Jewish exiles interacted with Babylonian magi according to the Greek translation of Daniel. When Nebuchadnezzar has a disturbing dream, he calls for interpreters among “the enchanters, and the magi (μάγους; mágous), and the sorcerers, and the Chaldeans” (Dan 2:2 LXX). “Magi” is an Old Persian term that described Zoroastrian priests; according to Daniel, these figures attempt to interpret the king’s dream along with the “Chaldeans”—another word for “Babylonians.” Since the Jewish Daniel proves to be the greatest interpreter in Babylon, he becomes the “leader” (ἄρχοντα; árchonta) of the “enchanters, magi (μάγων; mágon), Chaldeans, and sorcerers” (Dan 5:11 LXX). Thus, some readers speculate, perhaps Daniel taught Jewish traditions to his underlings (or even converted some of them to Judaism), so that we should identify Matthew’s magi as learned Jews who emerged from Daniel’s intellectual lineage. The main problem with such speculation is that Daniel and his fellow Jews are never called “magi” themselves; to the contrary, the Septuagint distinguishes them from the magi: Daniel and his Jewish friends were “ten times wiser than all the enchanters and magi (μάγους; mágous)” (Dan 1:20 LXX). Thus, while Daniel becomes the chief of all sages under Nebuchadnezzar, Scripture provides no evidence that Daniel was one of the magi or that Jews became magi while living in Babylon.

While the thesis of Jewish magi is without textual support, the data in Matthew suggest that the magi were Gentiles. First, the visitors to Jerusalem ask, “Where is he who has been born king of the Jews?” (Matt 2:2). This question about the “king of the Jews” suggests that the magi are not Jews themselves, or else they would have asked, “Where has our king been born?” Indeed, since only Gentiles use the phrase “king of the Jews” elsewhere in Matthew (cf. 27:11, 29, 37) it’s likely that the magi are Gentiles also—Jews, on the other hand, refer to the “king of Israel” (27:42). Second, if the magi were learned Jews under the tutelage of Daniel’s sagacious successors, then why don’t they already know that the Jewish Messiah must be born in Bethlehem? Based on the prophecy of Micah, the Jewish chief priests and scribes know that the Messiah will be born “in Bethlehem of Judea” (2:5) but the magi do not. This lack of knowledge does not fit the scenario of Jewish magi trained in biblical tradition; instead, Matthew’s presentation suggests a non-Jewish ethnic background for the magi.

The Gospel narrative recalls verses from Israel’s Scriptures that foresee Gentiles bringing gifts to Israel. Once the magi arrive in Bethlehem, they offer Yeshua “gifts (δῶρα; dora)” of “gold and frankincense (χρυσὸν καὶ λίβανον; chrusòn kaì líbanon) and myrrh” (Matt 2:11). This scene echoes the Psalms’ picture of other nations bringing “gifts” (δῶρα; dora) to Israel (cf. Ps 72:10 [71:10 LXX]; 76:11-12 [75:11-12 LXX]). Isaiah 60:5-6 calls these foreign gifts the “wealth of the Gentiles,” which includes “gold and frankincense” (χρυσίον καὶ λίβανον; chrusíon kaì líbanon). Matthew also notes that the magi bring “myrrh” (σμύρνα; smúrna)—an aromatic resin that the Jewish Queen Esther receives from a Persian king (see Est 2:12 LXX). More, the oil made from myrrh—called στακτή (stakté)—is said to have been an item of trade among traveling Gentiles in Joseph’s day (see Gen 37:25 LXX), and royal figures of other nations offer it as tribute to King Solomon (cf. 1 Kgs 10:25; 2 Chron 9:24 LXX). Thus, it is fitting for Matthew’s traveling Gentile magi to offer myrrh to Jesus, the King of the Jews. Insofar as the Gospel’s eastern visitors recapitulate biblical passages about non-Jews offering treasures to Israelites, it makes the most sense to see Matthew’s magi as Gentiles whose worship of Jesus foreshadows his commission to make disciples of “all the nations” (Matt 28:19).

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28 COMMENTS

  1. It is widely known that the Book of Daniel is a non-historical book. Hence, Daniel teaching Jewish traditions to the Chaldeans was not possible.

  2. Wow! Great insight of scripture. This reminds me on a point of Apostle Paul concerning the gentiles of being grafted into a natural plant. Glory be to God of Israel. Hallelujah

    • Thanks for reading, Wanyina. Yes, Paul has much to say about Gentiles being grafted in Romans 9-11. IBC is about to teach a course on these chapters, so maybe you want to consider enrolling.

  3. Dr. Schaser, I wonder…if the magi knew enough about God’s religion to predict the birth of the savior, why do we imagine that they dropped out of sight after the visitation? It makes more sense to me to think that after the magi, chroniclers were sent to watch Jesus grow. There might have been at least four of those people. And they may have written in the names of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. But to imagine that the magi went home and continued life as normal is too much for me to believe. Am I going too far with the supposition?

      • What kind of “pagan imagery” are you thinking of, David? If you provide an example or two, we can likely offer you some answers that don’t necessitate the magi being chroniclers or Gospel writers.

        • yes, and I am going on hearsay…a child of God born of a virgin is one example. Another one is a God who dies as a sacrifice. I have read about more “coincidences”, and I don’t like to read much into it. Still, it seems to me that there are departures from strict Judaism that surface in the NT that are called foundational ideas for Christianity. Also, even though the scripture says that the magi returned home, that doesn’t preclude them from sending someone to observe the child God, or whatever, and engaging with him. Really, now that I think about it, to imagine that they did no follow up on this incredible prophecy is too much to believe.

          • Thanks for this response, David. It’s best not to think in terms of a “strict” or standardized “Judaism” in the first century, but rather serveral strands of Judaism (or “Judaisms”) of which the earliest Jesus movement is one. Notions of God’s suffering for salvation appear throughout Hebrew Scripture, and the deaths of Jewish martyrs making atonement predate the Gospels (see the Jewish Maccabean martyr literature). More, miraculous conceptions pervade Israel’s Scriptures, and the Gospel stories of Mary’s conception build on these. In fact, language of Jesus being called “Son of the Most High” in Luke’s birth narrative first appears in the earlier Dead Sea Scrolls. The Jews who wrote the Gospels were Hellenized like other Jews throughout the Roman Empire, but nothing in the Gospels diverges from Judaism in favor of paganism.

          • We are very happy that you’ve joined our discussion forum. Would you believe that these articles are only a taste of what Israel Bible Center has to offer? We also provide comprehensive teaching on a variety of biblical, historical, and cultural topics. You might begin with The Jewish Gospel of Matthew or The Hebrew Psalms: How To Worship God. You’ll be amazed at the Jewish world that awaits you. Don’t delay another minute: enroll now!

    • Thanks for your question, David. Matthew explicates that the magi go home after seeing Jesus (see Matt 2:12), so any supposition beyond that data can’t be substantiated. On the Gospel writers as chroniclers, Luke — the only other Gospel that offers information about Jesus’ childhood (Lk 1-2) — begins by specifying that the author was not an eyewitness (see Lk 1:2), and there’s no internal evidence for the other Gospel writers watching over Jesus during his infancy or adolescence.

  4. Calvary greetings, really love the conversation will love to be part of it, what can i do to be part.. Thank you..

    • Thanks for reading, Ngozi. Our student outreach team will follow up with you about enrollment options.

  5. Dr. Schaser, Thank You so much ! You and all of the team, Bless me sooo. I Love These Articles !!! You All are so merciful to the hateful responses. Many Prayers for You All.

    • Israel Bible Center equips you with the tools you need to enter into the Jewish world of Scripture. We provide first-rate teaching, and the opportunity to learn from some of the world’s top scholars. As a student, you will be able to interact personally with our teaching faculty, and gain access to hundreds of hours of Bible courses, including The Jewish Gospel of Matthew and The Hebrew Psalms: How To Worship God. Become a part of the community of teachers and students at Israel Bible Center today!

  6. my idea is that the magi certainly sent chroniclers to keep tsbs on Jesus’s life. and when Jesus died, they took their writings back to the people who commissioned them. after a lively edit session, to couch this Jewish story in their own language and imagery, we have now the Gospels. it’s an interesting idea that might be worth considering.

  7. I would like to suggest that anyone seeking more information on this also read the books written by Steve M. Collins – especially the one titled Parthia. They are well researched and highly informative.

  8. I love the truth. I love your teachings. By coming into your enlightened study of the Scriptures, I see the proper aiming hitting the target dead on! The nations as the magi, included in worshipping the Jewish God of Israel with gifts in the pre-picture of the thousand year reign of the Kingdom of God to King Jesus is magnificent! Disciple the nations! It all comes together in reality! Thank you for your working the Greek and Hebrew in Jewish hands!

    • Israel Bible Center equips you with the tools you need to enter into the Jewish world of Scripture. We provide first-rate teaching, and the opportunity to learn from some of the world’s top scholars. As a student, you will be able to interact personally with our teaching faculty, and gain access to hundreds of hours of Bible courses, including The Jewish Gospel of Matthew and The Hebrew Psalms: How To Worship God. Become a part of the community of teachers and students at Israel Bible Center today!

  9. I don’t think the evidence from the text necessarily indicates that the magi were ignorant of where the Messiah was to be born, although they might have been. Herod, hyper-paranoid about losing his throne, had a very practical reason to know this and yet even he didn’t know.

    • Thanks for your comments, Neville. Since the magi ask where the Messiah is to be born (2:2), the data indicates they didn’t already know the answer — they saw and followed the star, but that seems to be all the guidance they have. Like Herod, the magi seem to be unaware of the Bethlehem reference in Micah.

      • I am no scholar of the Greek language, but my interlinear doesn’t read that way nor do any of the 28 English translations I checked. They don’t ask where he was born. They ask where he IS, and refer to him as “the one who was born King of the Jews”.

        • That’s right, Neville. My wording above is imprecise and, therefore, I can see how it could lead to confusion — sorry for making you check 28 translations. The reference to Matt 2:2 above wasn’t meant as a precise rendering of the verse, but rather as a paraphrase (albeit a sloppy one). Literally, the Greek has the magi asking, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews?” (ποῦ ἐστιν ὁ τεχθεὶς βασιλεὺς τῶν Ἰουδαίων; Matt 2:2). Since they need to ask the question, it suggests that they don’t know already (like the chief priests and scribes do) that this figure must be born in Bethlehem (cf. Matt 2:6; Mic 5:2). Therefore, this lack of Judaic knowledge suggests that the magi are Gentiles rather than Jews. Herod, too, who is Idumean (as opposed to Judean), is ignorant of this Jewish-messianic information.

        • Israel Bible Center equips you with the tools you need to enter into the Jewish world of Scripture. We provide first-rate teaching, and the opportunity to learn from some of the world’s top scholars. As a student, you will be able to interact personally with our teaching faculty, and gain access to hundreds of hours of Bible courses, including The Jewish Gospel of Matthew and The Hebrew Psalms: How To Worship God. Become a part of the community of teachers and students at Israel Bible Center today!

          • Yes, they could certainly be gentiles! Or even gentiles taught by Daniel. But their question doesn’t bring any evidence, because they didn’t ask where he was *born*. They asked where he *is*. (Where who is? The one born King of the Jews.)

          • You’re right, Neville. But Jesus is born in Bethlehem, and he’s still there when the magi arrive; thus, had the magi been aware of the Micah prophecy, their first stop would have been Bethlehem, rather than Jerusalem. The context supports the magi arriving shortly after Jesus’ birth (2:1) since their question leads Herod to asks “where the Messiah was to be born” (2:4) and he tells the magi to go to Bethlehem (2:8). Had the magi known that the Messiah would come from David’s city (per Micah), they wouldn’t have needed to go throughout these preliminary interrogative steps before finding Jesus.

        • The Matthew 2 / Luke 2 timeline is challenging, and Matthew 2 by itself seems just as difficult. Whatever the magi told Herod, it raised the possibility that Jesus was born up to 2 years earlier. The passage tells us that. Did the magi come prior to Simeon/Anna encounter? Not simple.

  10. Also, the magi may have arrived as much as 2 years after Messiah’s birth, based on the text, with no particular reason to expect to find him in the town of his birth. In fact, the holy city seems like a great place to start asking, if one assumed that he was known and worshipped already.

  11. David Inman.Any idea can beworthy consideration but to reach that status there nust be some proof. The Magi obviously Had some idea that a child was to be born.My personal opinion is that Gentiles are a streatch as why would they care??/The lost tribe would care as they had the OT which contains that prophesy. Yours has no proofs

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