The Magi first appear in history as a tribe in the emerging Median Nation in the Seventh Century B.C. They were a hereditary priesthood, functioning as priests and diviners, offering sacrifices and interpreting dreams. They dressed in white robes and wore tall, somewhat conical hats made of felt which had long flaps covering their cheeks.
Their craft of divining made them valuable advisors to kings, which allowed the priesthood of the Magi to possess and maintain great political power as world empires would rise and fall (Median, Babylonian, Persian and Parthian Empires). Some Biblical scholars believe the "magicians" in Nebuchadnezzar's court would have been Magi (Dan. 2:2, 10, 27).
By the Fifth Century B.C., the term "magi" became synonymous with the Greek word for "wizard" and "sorcerer." The Magi and their arts were associated with sorcery during the time of the Romans. The book of Acts speaks of two men as "sorcerers" - Simon the Sorcerer (Acts 8:9-11) and Elymas the Sorcerer (Acts 13:6-8). The Greek words for "sorcery" and "sorcerer" are derived from the word for Magi. In fact, our English word "magic" came from the Latin word "magicus" which is traced back to the magical arts of the Magi.
While the Magi in the West were known for their magical arts, the Magi of the East (Persia) were known as astrologers. They foretold the future and gave advice based on the stars and the signs in the heavens. The Magi who came to worship Jesus when He was born were "from the East" (Matt. 2:1).
During the time of the Greek Empire, a council known of as the Megistanes was instituted whose duty it was to assist in the election (and if necessary, the deposition) of a king; as well as to serve as advisors in governing nations. The Magi were given senior positions in this council. By the First Century, the Magi were known as "king makers."
When the Magi come to Herod in Jerusalem seeking "He who has been born King of the Jews" (Matt. 2:2), they would not have been traveling alone. These "king makers" would have arrived in Jerusalem in force with great pomp and would have been escorted by a large cavalry of soldiers. This helps us better understand the reaction to their visit: "When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him" (Matt. 2:3).
The Magi enjoyed high religious and political power in Persia until the Seventh Century A.D., when they were driven out by the Muslims. They migrated to India where their ancestors can be found today.
1. Misconceptions Regarding the "Nativity"
The typical Nativity scene has Joseph, Mary, and Jesus in a manger surrounded by shepherds, animals, and three wise men.
We are not told how many wise men came to see Jesus. The number "three" has come from "expanded" accounts of the nativity in the Apocryphal Gospels of the Second Century. Not only do these accounts identify the Magi as "three" men or kings, they are given names: Melchior of Persia who brought the gift of gold, Balthazar of Arabia who brought the gift of myrrh, and Gaspar of India who brought the gift of frankincense. The names and number of these Magi are the product of legend, not inspiration.
Another problem with the typical manger scene is that the Magi were not at the manger. The shepherds found baby Jesus lying in a manger (Luke 2:16), but the Magi found Mary and Jesus in a house (Matt. 2:11).
2. The Purpose for the Gifts
Gold, frankincense, and myrrh were all typical gifts one would have given to royalty (Matt. 2:11). Gold is a precious metal which has been valued through the ages. Frankincense is a whitish substance made from the sap of a tree grown in Arabia and India. Myrrh is a gummy substance made from a tree found in Arabia, Egypt, and Persia. It was used as a perfume (John 19:39). All three gifts were valuable, and would have sustained the family as they fled to Egypt to escape the wrath of Herod (Matt. 2:13-15).
3. December 25th
Many people observe Christmas as the birth of Christ. There are some problems with this practice.
First, we are not told the date of Jesus' birth. Any date would be a guess, and we would have a 1 in 365 chance of being right. It is not very likely that Jesus was born in December. "Now there were in the same country shepherds living out in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night" (Luke 2:8). Historians tell us that shepherds would not have had their flocks out at night in the middle of winter. This was done in the warmer months of the year.
Where did December 25th come from? In 354 A.D., Liberius (considered by many to be one of the early popes of the Catholic Church) ordered that December 25th be adopted as the date of or the celebration of the birth of Christ. Why this day? "December 25 was already a festive day for the sun god Mithra and appealed to the Christians as an appropriate date to commemorate the birth of Jesus, the 'Light of the World'" (Lincoln Library of Essential Information). The Winter Solstice was a time when pagans celebrated the rebirth of the sun. It was made into a celebration of the birth of the Son.
It may surprise some people to learn that the Bible does not tell us to celebrate the birth of Christ. We have no command to do so, and no example of any Christian or any church in the Bible celebrating the Lord's birth. It is not sinful to observe a festive season of exchanging gifts and spending time with family. However, we have no Scriptural authority to celebrate any day at the birth of Christ.
As with any other Bible subject, it is important that we allow the Scriptures to speak for themselves and not allow legends or traditions to shape our understanding of the facts.
The Magi played an important role in the early life of Christ and His family. They allowed Herod and the Jews to know that a King had been born, who Herod correctly identified as the Christ (Matt. 2:4). Their gifts sustained the Lord's family as they hid from Herod's wrath.
These wise men traveled a great distance to worship the King. Wise men still seek Him. Will you worship Jesus as your Lord and Savior, not just one day a year, but every day?