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).