This is a panel from a Roman sarcophagus, 4th century CE, found in the cemetary of St. Agnes in Rome. Public domain image.
A visit of the three wise men is a central figure in a crèche scene. Along with the shepherds, they surround Jesus’ manger with his mother Mary beside him and Joseph standing at her side. Outside the stable are angels and a star over topping all.
This scene occurs in no gospel. Christian imagination created it by combining various elements from the birth narratives of Matthew and Luke. These two birth stories are so different that about the only thing they agree on is that Jesus was born in Bethlehem, and they do not even agree on how his parents got there.
The birth narratives in both Matthew and Luke are fictions and should be read as such. Seeking historical evidence to explain the events described is a category mistake. But astronomers will keep trying anyway. Check this example on the Forbes website.
Wise Men Become Magi
The author of the Gospel attributed to Matthew narrates Jesus’s birth through the story of the Magi.
“Magi” comes from the Greek magoi, through the Latin Vulgate translation. Jerome transliterated the Greek into Magi, probably indicating that he did not understand what it meant. The King James translated magoi as “wise men,” following on the medieval legends that raised the status of Magi to wise men and even three kings. The text does not say how many Magi there were. The number three comes from the number of their gifts. (Raymond Brown, The Birth of the Messiah, pp 197-200, has an excellent summary of this history. Dr. Eric Vanden Eykel’s book, The Magi, has expanded this into a major study. Listen to an interesting Bible and Beyond podcast with Dr. Vanden Eykel, The Magi and the Star in the Christmas Story.).
The Revised Standard Version (1952) and New Revised Standard Version (1989) both used wise men, but the New International Version (1983) and New American Bible (2011), and the latest version of NRSV (2021) all have used Magi, following Jerome’s transliteration.
The shift to Magi and away from wise men indicates that recent scholarship has become unsure what the word means in the Matthean context.
The Greek word magoi is a transliteration of the Persian magush, who were Zoroastrian priests. They were experts on the motion and reading of the stars, i.e., astronomy and astrology. Greek authors did not have a clear understanding of either Zoroastrianism or what the Persian priests (magush) actually did. They viewed them as involved in the dark arts, able to control gods, demons, and the weather, to interpret dreams, and to work incantations.
Jewish authors held this same view. Daniel 2:2 in the Septuagint, the Alexandrian Greek translation of the Hebrew scriptures, offers a good example of this Jewish Greek usage.
And in the twelfth year of Nebuchadnezzar’s reign, it happened that visions and dreams befell him, and he was disturbed in his sleep. And the king ordered that the enchanter and magicians and sorcerers of the Chaldeans be brought in to tell the king his dreams. (Daniel 2:1-2 Septuagint.)
The magicians (magoi) are associated with enchanters and sorcerers and Chaldeans, and they interpret dreams and visions among other things.
In English we should think of magoi as magicians, enchanters, astrologers, wizards, or fortune tellers. English has no exact representation, which is why more recent translations have used Magi.
Magi for Greeks and Jews has a negative sense because of involvement in the dark arts. Jews especially took a dim view of these arts. That should not be overlooked in the Matthean story. The stories of the magicians Simon (Acts 8:8-25) and Bar-Jesus (Acts 13:6-11) exhibit this negative aspect.
The ancients thought of celestial events as signs from the gods. Augustus interpreted a comet in 44 BCE as Caesar’s soul ascending to the heavens, thus marking the deification of Julius Caesar, his uncle. A temple in Rome was dedicated to Deified Julius which included a statue of Caesar with a comet affixed to his forehead. Many coins were issued honoring this event.