Magi, Wise Men, or Kings? It’s Complicated.
Magi, Wise Men, or Kings? It’s Complicated.
They’re the three men in glittering velvet robes and fake beards in the living nativity at church. Sometimes they tow a live camel. Bearing gifts, they traversed afar, following yonder star through the back of the sanctuary in the grand crescendo of our beloved annual Christmas pageant. I’m speaking, of course, of the Magi. Or is it wise men? Wait, kings?
Perhaps if Luke the historian had written about them in his Christmas account, we might have had precise details. But Matthew’s account is vague, shrouded in mystery: “Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men from the east came to Jerusalem…” (Matt. 2:1).
Intrigue swirls around these festooned foreigners. Where did they come from? With a wink Matthew writes, “the East.” Indeed, his description is so utterly “specific” that church traditions in dozens of countries claim to be their country of origin. And who were they? Technically speaking, Matthew calls them magi—but what are magi? Are they kings? Wise men? Sorcerers? Astrologers?
Christians have been trying to nail down their identity for millennia. As early as A.D. 200, Tertullian was laying out arguments that the Magi, while astrologers by trade, were considered kings. To the contrary, John Calvin felt strongly about anyone who would label them “three kings”: “Beyond all doubt, they have been stupefied by a righteous judgment of God, that all might laugh at [their] gross ignorance.” Adding a further wrinkle, first-century naturalist Pliny the Elder wrote several chapters about the Magi wherein they sound more like something from a Harry Potter novel. He details their skill in magic arts—including pouring boiled earthworms in the ear to cure a toothache!
Despite the disagreement, here are a few facts. The word magus is of Persian origin; however, Basil indicated that they were not confined to a specific empire but “scattered all over the country.” First-century Jewish historian Philo referred to Balaam from Numbers 22–24 as a magus. This anachronism indicates that by the first century A.D. it may have been adopted for more general use. Herodotus’s accounts of magi in his Histories (440 B.C.) portrays them as conniving political figures vying for royal power. Various kings in the ancient world frequently consulted these men because of their skill in interpreting omens, signs, and the stars.
These external witnesses corroborate the picture of magi we see in the Old Testament. The Persians and their magi crop up in the biblical timeline in the days of Daniel and Esther. One particular statement concerning King Xerxes’s magi might raise an eyebrow: “Then the king said to the wise men who knew the times…the men next to him being…the seven princes of Persia and Media, who saw the king's face, and sat first in the kingdom” (Esther 1:13–14). These seven men—clearly magi—are also labeled “wise men” and “princes.” So, are the titles interchangeable? And what do they signify?
As we reconsider these familiar Christmas characters, could it be Matthew was being intentionally vague with his coy “magi from the East”?
Call Them Magi.
The term magi is the precise Greek word used in Matthew’s gospel. His story demonstrates that the Magi were astrologers and interpreters of omens—following a star and dreaming dreams. When they arrived in Jerusalem, their curt bluntness had King Herod spitting out his morning coffee: “Where is he who has been born king of the Jews? For we saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him” (Matt. 2:2).
These visitors were like a blast from the Hebrews’ past. The book of Daniel chronicles how he and his companions spent 70 years exiled among magi in the East. King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon was in the habit of gathering the best and brightest from his vanquished foes into an advisory body of wise men, stargazers, and dreamers. When he captured Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah, he added them to his menagerie of magi, “and in every matter of wisdom and understanding about which the king questioned them, he found them ten times better than all the magicians and enchanters (Greek magi) in his whole kingdom” (Dan. 1:20).
In one episode from the book of Daniel, Nebuchadnezzar had an ominous dream. Summoning his magi and enchanters, he demanded, “If you do not tell me what my dream was and interpret it, I will have you cut into pieces and your houses turned into piles of rubble” (2:5). When the magi only succeeded in coming up with excuses, Daniel rescued them all with the dream and interpretation from the Lord. In awestruck gratitude, “the king placed Daniel in a high position and lavished many gifts on him. He made him ruler over the entire province of Babylon and placed him in charge of all its wise men” (2:48).
The whole episode with Daniel and the magi should feel like biblical déjà vu. Another famous Old Testament king had a penchant for keeping his court packed with wise men, astrologers, and magicians: Pharaoh of Egypt. Genesis tells of a young man named Joseph who was carted off to exile in Egypt. One night Pharaoh awoke from a terrifying dream. He found that none of his magicians could provide an interpretation. It was Joseph, the Hebrew exile in prison, who provided Pharaoh with God’s interpretation. In response, Pharaoh clothed Joseph like a king, “and they called out before him, ‘Bow the knee!’ Thus [Pharaoh] set him over all the land of Egypt” (Gen. 41:43, ESV). Long before Daniel, Joseph knew what it was like to have magi bow before him.
When you call Matthew’s journeymen magi this Christmas, don’t be surprised to find them bowing before a Hebrew and heralding him as king. At Jesus’s birth, recognize how the tables have turned. This time, a star led the Magi into exile, sojourning in search of the scepter rising out of Israel (Num. 24:17). This time, they do not find a man seated at the right hand of Pharaoh or Nebuchadnezzar, but a child seated on his mother’s lap. As they bow and worship, they become the first to recognize the end from the beginning. This child would surpass both Daniel and Joseph as chief of the magi: “And Jesus came and said to them, ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me’” (Matt. 28:18).
Call Them Wise Men.
Perhaps the word magi feels a little too foreign for you. Have no fear! Wise men is a perfectly acceptable translation. Cicero describes magi as being “wise and learned men among the Persians.” In fact, the Hebrew word wise men is used much more frequently in the Old Testament to designate this class of astrological advisors. Gentile kings valued these men for their wisdom concerning the affairs of the kingdom.
Many of the early church fathers saw significance in wise men bringing gold, frankincense, and myrrh “from the East.” In the estimation of Justin Martyr, Clement of Alexandria, and Tertullian these gifts were particularly Arabian in nature. Martin Luther agreed. He writes concerning the wise men, “At first they did not consider this king to be God, but in the usual manner took him [Jesus] for a temporal king, just as the queen of Sheba considered Solomon a king, coming to him with presents from her country.” Luther read Matthew 2 and thought: Foreigners from Arabia bringing gifts and seeking wisdom in Jerusalem? We’ve heard this story before.
The story echoed in the wise men of Matthew 2 comes from 1 Kings 10: “When the queen of Sheba heard about the fame of Solomon and his relationship to the Lord, she came to test Solomon with hard questions. Arriving at Jerusalem with a very great caravan—with camels carrying spices, large quantities of gold, and precious stones—she came to Solomon and talked with him about all that she had on her mind.” During her visit, the depth of Solomon’s wisdom took her breath away: “In wisdom and wealth you have far exceeded the report I heard” (1 Kings 10:7). Laying her gifts of gold, spice, and precious stones before him, she blessed the Lord for making Solomon king.
Maybe you prefer to call the visitors bearing treasure chests of gold, frankincense, and myrrh wise men this Christmas. As you do, follow them in the footsteps of the queen of Sheba across the wilderness in search of the wisdom of God in Jerusalem. However, as Matthew tells it, the wisdom of God was not to be found in the king’s palace in Jerusalem, but in the small town of Bethlehem. As you watch them lay their gifts before baby Jesus, realize that “something greater than Solomon is here” (Matt. 12:42). This little child is himself the Wisdom of God. May you join the Arabian Queen in her prayer: “Because of the Lord’s eternal love for Israel, he has made you king to maintain justice and righteousness” (1 Kings 10:9).
Call Them Kings.
But what of calling them kings? After all, they always wear crowns in our Christmas pageants, and we all know the carol “We Three Kings.” The medieval church heavily preferred this designation—much to the dismay of many of the Reformers. But Matthew’s Magi would not be the first wise men to be considered kings: Joseph and Daniel—both Hebrew magi of sorts—were elevated to royal status. We also find magi receiving royal honors elsewhere in ancient literature. In Histories, Herodotus chronicles a bizarre episode in the Persian Empire where two magi brothers staged a coup for royal power. After King Smerdis died, one of the magi, also named Smerdis—who bore a striking resemblance to the late king—sat on the throne as an impersonator!
As early as the second century Tertullian considered the Magi to be kings. He argued their visit fulfilled Solomon’s prayer in Psalm 72—“May the kings of Sheba and Seba present him gifts.” But Tertullian found Isaiah 60 to be the most compelling evidence: “Nations will come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn…and all from Sheba will come, bearing gold and incense and proclaiming the praise of the Lord.” It’s impossible to miss the clear parallels to Matthew 2.
We may never know whether the Magi were literal kings, but the idea of kings bringing treasure from Babylon is a compelling way to envision the beginning of Matthew’s gospel. In the days of Isaiah, King Hezekiah received a friendly envoy of Babylonians in Jerusalem. In a moment of hubris, he showed them “the silver, the gold, the spices, the fine olive oil—his entire armory and everything found among his treasures” (Isa. 39:2). Isaiah warned Hezekiah that these Babylonians had made a mental note of his storehouses: “The time will surely come when everything in your palace, and all that your predecessors have stored up until this day, will be carried off to Babylon. Nothing will be left, says the Lord” (Isa. 39:6). Sure enough, in 587 B.C. the Babylonian king, Nebuchadnezzar, did just that, capturing and plundering Jerusalem. In fact, Daniel recounts a raucous party in the Babylonian capital where the Babylonian king used the golden cups from the Lord’s temple to take shots (Dan. 5:1-4).
So, if you prefer to call the Magi kings this Advent season, recognize how you are proclaiming the return of Jerusalem’s treasuries from exile. As these kings travel the road from Babylon in the East to Jerusalem, they bring back the gold, frankincense, and myrrh stolen so many years before from David’s house. This is what Isaiah promised would happen. The same foreigners that looted Jerusalem would one day, “rebuild [her] walls, and their kings will serve [her]” (Isa. 60:10). Matthew shows us that what Nehemiah and Ezra experienced under Cyrus the Persian was a mere foretaste of the riches God would return to his Messiah in Jerusalem. At Christmas, the kings bring the treasures back to Jerusalem. It signals the beginning of the eternal restoration of David’s wealth, the rebuilding of David’s city, and the rejoicing of David’s people.
Call them Magi. Call them wise men. You can even call them kings if you’d like! When it comes to Matthew’s Christmas narrative, the more the merrier. Each label shines a light on a different facet of the story. Whatever you choose to call them this holiday season, these men are the first in the canonical New Testament to bow and worship the Lord Jesus. This Christmas we would do well to follow their example.
Chad Ashby is a pastor at College Street Baptist Church in Newberry, South Carolina, and writes regularly at After+Math He is a graduate of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and Grove City College.