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The Magi in the Gospel of Matthew

by Dr. B. Brandon Scott

This is a panel from a Roman sarcophagus, 4th century CE, found in the cemetary of St. Agnes in Rome. Public domain image.

This is a panel from a Roman sarcophagus, 4th century CE, found in the cemetary of St. Agnes in Rome. Public domain image.

The Crèche

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 Star

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.

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A Roman coin that was part of Augustus’ imperial propaganda claiming his divinity and the favor of the gods. Via Wikipedia, published under of the GNU Free Documentation License.

The head of Augustus Caesar is on the front of this coin, and on the back is his uncle Julius Caesar’s comet symbolizing the ascent of his soul to heaven and his deification. It reads “The Divine Julius.” This coinage was part of Augustus’ imperial propaganda claiming his divinity and the favor of the gods. Via Wikipedia, published under of the GNU Free Documentation License.

The Magi follow the star from the east. The east is the place of exile, as emphasized in the third part of the genealogy that opens this gospel: “after the deportation to Babylon” (Matthew 1:12). They enter the holy city of Jerusalem which is the home of King Herod. Matthew’s gospel is remapping sacred geography. The holy city becomes a place of murder and from the place of exile come those who understand where God is leading.

There is a comical element here. As experts on the stars, they follow it all the way from “the east” and then lose it as they approach their final destination. And of all people to ask for directions, they choose King Herod who tricks them into betraying the new king of the Jews. This is a bit of a Marx Brothers routine with a dark side.

As soon as they leave the king’s presence and the holy city of Jerusalem, the star reappears and leads them to the child in Bethlehem. The appearing/disappearing/reappearing star is both comical and indicates that God has abandoned Jerusalem in favor of the no status Bethlehem.


They enter his “house” where they find the child, not a baby, with his mother (see Matthew 2:11). Joseph and Mary are residents of Bethlehem. We should imagine the child as around two years old (see Matthew 2:1).

They present him with three gifts. The gold symbolizes his title as king of the Jews, but the frankincense and myrrh are more ambivalent. They are often used in preparation of a corpse for burial. These are strange gifts to present to a royal child.

The Magi story ends in tragedy. Dreams and angels intervene. The Magi go back to the east by another route and in a dream an angel instructs Joseph to flee into Egypt. This completes the reordering sacred geography. Egypt, the place of Israel’s enslavement, now becomes the place of refuge for God’s son.

Enraged at being tricked, Herod then kills all the male children two years and younger in Bethlehem. The final act of this tragedy is the patriarchal mother Rachal weeping for her children “because they were no more” (Matthew 2:18).


This story encapsulates major themes of Matthew’s gospel.

It prepares a reader for the story’s ending in the tragedy of Jesus’ execution.
Sacred geography has been reordered. The places of exile and enslavement are no longer threatening, while the holy city is dangerous. At the resurrected Jesus’ command, Matthew’s community will have to leave their comfort zone and go out among the nations to find disciples (Matthew 28:19).