Who Were the Magi or the Three Wise Men?

Sometime later—how much later is unknown, but certainly not the night of Jesus’ birth or else Mary could have afforded to give a lamb as the offering for her purification—“Magi from the east” made their way to Bethlehem to offer due homage to Jesus (Mt 2:1–12).

Herodotus, always content to codify a fantastic rumor, thought the Magi were a class of Persian priests who flaunted awesome powers of magic and astrology; others consider them to have been Nabateans based on imagery found in Isaiah 60:1–7 and the type of gifts they brought to Jesus. More reasonably these Magi were urban scholars from Babylonia (in their day, Parthia), at home among the academies and libraries of Babylon, who fastidiously studied the remnants of a rich and hoary 4,000-year-old Mesopotamian civilization. By the end of the first century BC the use of cuneiform as a literary medium had very nearly expired, but these learned and wise men of Babylon still probed the mysteries of the universe through already ancient cuneiform texts that recorded means of reckoning time and tracking the starry host. In addition, Babylon was home to a large and influential Jewish population that had found it more economically expedient to remain “by the waters of Babylon” (Ps 137:1) than return from exile to Judea, and from them these Magi certainly knew the stories and prophecies of the Old Testament as well (cf. Num 24:17; Isa 60:3).

The Journey of the Magi. Routes for the journey of the Magi follow the path of geographical logic—from the Transjordanian spice route to Jerusalem by way of Jericho, then back east via a more southern route. Any way they went the Magi had to skirt one or more of Herod’s palace fortresses. It was a journey of great personal risk, one that took the Magi, like Abraham, far from their comfort zone into a land known only to God. Overcoming every obstacle, the travelers persisted—and rejoiced when at last they gazed at the divine child face-to-face.

So the Magi—traditions say three in number and even provide their names: either Bithisarea, Melchior and Gathaspa (Latin) or Balthasar, Melkon and Gaspar (Armenian)—set off on a most remarkable journey, to find a baby who was beginning an even more remarkable journey of his own. They certainly traced one of the great caravan routes of antiquity, north, west and then south along the bend of the Fertile Crescent toward Judea, following roughly the same path that Abraham had trod two millennia before. Geographical logic suggests that once the Magi reached Damascus they probably would have continued to follow the caravan route due south, toward the Arabian Peninsula.

It was perhaps somewhere along this Nabatean spice route that they secured gifts of frankincense and myrrh (aromatic gum resins) and gold. Turning westward at the northern end of the Dead Sea, the Magi would have crossed into Judea at Jericho, passing in the shadow of the large and sumptuous winter palace of Herod the Great. The king was suffering through the last and very paranoid years of his reign. Arriving in Jerusalem, the Magi inquired, perhaps naïvely, for the one “born king of the Jews” (Mt 2:1–2). Herod saw only Parthians, bent on grabbing control of his realm and reestablishing a legitimate (though puppet) Jewish ruling line, as they had tried to do at the beginning of his reign thirty-five years before. Although it is unattested in sources outside of the Gospel of Matthew, Herod’s response to kill all of the potential candidates who might usurp his throne is true to his character (Mt 2:3–8, 2:16–18).

The Magi presented their lavish gifts to Mary, Joseph and Jesus. Echoes of royal visits such as that of the Queen of Sheba to Solomon abound (e.g., 1 Kgs 10:1–10), as do prophecies that anticipate kings and nations flowing to a rising light in Judea:

Arise, shine, for your light has come,
and the glory of the LORD has risen upon you…
Nations will come to your light,
and kings to the brightness of your rising…
A multitude of camels will cover you,
the young camels of Midian and Ephah;
All those from Sheba will come.
They will bring gold and frankincense,
and will bear good news of the praises
of the LORD.… (Isa 60:1–6)

Warned in a dream not to retrace their steps through Jerusalem, the Magi returned to their eastern homes “by another way” (Mt 2:12). Possibly they left Bethlehem by following the narrow, twisted bottom of the Nahal Kidron, winding their way through the wilderness and past Herod’s fortress at Hyrcania to the upper end of the Dead Sea, then around its top to the Transjordanian highway and home. This became the “monk and pilgrim” route connecting Jerusalem and Bethlehem with the Judean Wilderness monasteries during the Byzantine period. Or, they followed the ridge heading southeast out of Bethlehem past the Herodium to En-gedi, then crossed the Dead Sea at the Lisan Peninsula. Either way would have minimized contacts with Herod and his henchmen.

For Joseph and Mary, the practical outcome of the Magi’s visit was that they now had adequate funds to live on their own in exile. Mary and Joseph may have been refugees at this point in their lives, but at least they were not destitute. Correctly sensing that Herod wouldn’t rest until all threats to his throne were removed, the holy family set off for Egypt (Mt 2:13–15), far from Herod’s influence and realm.

This is an excerpt from the bestselling Rose Then and Now® Bible Map Atlas.

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