Who Were the Magi?

There are perhaps no more enigmatic people in the New Testament than the Magi who came bearing gifts for the Christ-child. Who were they? Where were they from?

Matthew records their visit to honor to the newborn King of the Jews: “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, saying, “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” (Mt 2:1-2).

CLUES IN THE BIBLICAL TEXT

In order to identify the magi, we need to first strip away the traditions and legends that became associated with them much later in history. For example, the magi are unnamed in Matthew’s gospel, yet their traditional names – Melchoi, Caspar, and Balthassar – are likely derived from an Armenian infancy gospel dated to around AD 500, which gives them the names Melkon, King of Persia; Gaspar, King of India; and Baldassar, King of Arabia.1 The idea that they were Chinese mystics comes from a eighth-century Syriac manuscript in which the magi come from the far-off land of Shir (possibly China).2 Few scholars, however, give any credence to the theory of the magi being Chinese mystics, likely because its primary source is of such late date and the fact that there are better candidates.

Papyrus P77 dates to the second or third century and is among the earliest surviving copies of Matthew’s gospel. Photo: Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

Leaving aside later traditions and legends, I believe the earliest written description of the magi is the most accurate. Unlike accounts that were written hundreds of years later, the Gospel of Matthew was written in the first century, likely in late AD 50 or early 60.3 His description of the magi (Gk. μάγος, magos) provides three clues that might help us with their identity:

-They were “from the east” (Mt 2:1)

-They came to pay homage to a new king after seeing a star (Mt 2:2)

-They brought gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh  (Mt 2:11) 

I would note that that nowhere in the biblical text does it state the number of magi who came, nor that they came from a great distance, nor that they were kings.

THE USUAL SUSPECTS

An astronomy tablet from Babylonia, currently housed in the Louvre Museum. Photo: Todd Bolen / BiblePlaces.com

Various groups are usually suggested to identify the enigmatic magi; Some believe they were Babylonian astrologers, others that they were Persian priests (perhaps Zoroastrians), or even Chinese mystics. This is usually based on clues in ancient extra-biblical texts

To be clear, there were no Babylonian or Persian empires at the time of Christ’s birth. The Seleucids had taken over the area once ruled by the Babylonian’s and Persians, and the Seleucids, in turn, had given way to the Parthian empire.

Still, could the magi have been part of a group of astrologers who traced their training back to the Babylonian astrologers of old? Could they have been priests who still practiced a version of Persian religion? Is there a better group to identify the magi with?

MAGI FROM THE EAST IN ANCIENT SOURCES

In the first century, when Matthew was writing his gospel, what might the average person living in Judea or Galilee thought of when they read of the magi? A look at how this Greek word is used in ancient sources is helpful.

A marble bust of Herodotus from the second century AD. It is currently housed in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. It was discovered in Benha, Lower Egypt in the 19th century. Photo: Metmuseum.org / Wikimedia Commons / CC0 1.0

a. Magi as a Tribe

Herodotus records that the magi were one of the ancient Median tribes: “Deioces, then, united the Median nation by itself and ruled it. The Median tribes are these: the Busae, the Paretaceni, the Struchates, the Arizanti, the Budii, the Magi. Their tribes are this many.”4  

In the Behistun Inscription, King Darius, claims that a man from the Magi tribe named Guamata pretended to be Smerdis, the brother of King Cambyses and took the throne. “Afterwards there was one man, a Magian, Gaumata by name; he rose up from Paishiyauvada…he thus deceived the people [saying) “I am Bardiya the son of Cyrus brother of Cambyses”; afterwards all the people became estranged from Cambyses (and) went over to him, both Persia and Media and the other provinces; he seized the kingdom.”5

b. Magi as Persian Priests

The word magi could also refer to class of Persian priests who were highly revered by the kings of Persia.

Xenophon notes that Cyrus the Great would use these magi to offer sacrifices to the gods before his battles:

  • “But though they had got to the camp, the pickets, acting on the orders of Cyrus, would not let them in till dawn. With the first faint gleam of morning Cyrus summoned the Persian Priests, who are called Magians, and bade them choose the offerings due to the gods for the blessings they had vouchsafed.”6
  • “Thus he took pains to show that he was the more assiduous in his service to the gods the higher his fortunes rose. It was at this time that the Persian priests, the Magians, were first established as an order, and always at break of day Cyrus chanted a hymn and sacrificed to such of the gods as they might name. And the ordinances he established service to this day at the court of the reigning king. These were the first matters in which the Persians set themselves to copy their prince; feeling their own fortune would be the higher if they did reverence to the gods, following the man who was fortune’s favourite and their own monarch. At the same time, no doubt, they thought they would please Cyrus by this.”7

The famous Audience Relief from Persepolis depicts King Darius on the throne, the crown prince Xerxes standing behind him, and a magi standing right behind Xerxes.

The Audience Relief from the treasury at Persepolis depicts (from right to left) King Darius I on the throne, the crown prince Xerxes standing behind him, followed by a magi, an armor bearer, and guards. Photo: A. Davey / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY 2.0

The Jewish philosopher, Philo, who wrote early in the first century, recorded that, “Among the Persians there is the body of the Magi, who, investigating the works of nature for the purpose of becoming acquainted with the truth, do at their leisure become initiated themselves and initiate others in the divine virtues by very clear explanations.”8

c. Magi as magicians

By the first century, the word magi had taken on a more general meaning, referring to people who had special knowledge in the magical arts. In Acts 13:6-8, Paul and Barnabas encounter a magi (magician): “When they had gone through the whole island as far as Paphos, they came upon a certain magician [Gk. μάγος, magos], a Jewish false prophet named Bar-Jesus.” Similarly, Philip, Peter, and John encountered a magi (magician) named Simon in Samaria, who “practiced magic [Gk. μαγεύω, mageuō]” (Acts 8:9).

It is interesting that in the Septuagint (Greek translation) of Daniel, the magicians in Nebuchadnezzar’s courts are called magi as well (Dan. 1:20, 2:2, 2:27). Some have even proposed that there may have been a group of astrologers or astronomers whose ancient Babylonian training was passed down from one generation to another. Perhaps they were familiar with Daniel’s prophecy of the 70 weeks (Dan. 9:24-27) and knew the time of the Messiah’s birth close, although this is speculation.

SUMMARIZING THE ANCIENT SOURCES

A coin of the Parthian king Phraates IV. Photo: Classical Numismatic Group / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 3.0

In light of the evidence above, many scholars believe that the magi came from the area of ancient Babylon and Persia (under Parthian control when Christ was born), which would satisfy the biblical criteria that they came “from the east” (Mt 2:1). Perhaps those from the tribe of Magi were the first to become the caste of Persian priests that were so highly valued by the king. Given their fixation on the star, some attempt to make a connection between the magi and earlier groups of astrologers or astronomers or astrologers from Babylon.

However, given that the word magi had assumed a more general meaning by the first century, it could also refer to wise men in general, those with special knowledge, particularly in the magic. Thus, in many modern English translations, the word magi is simply translated wise men. This is in keeping with their apparent role in the courts of the the ancient kings, particularly in Babylon or Persia. The magi may have been a priestly caste who dabbled in astrology and magical arts, and were revered for their knowledge, often consulted by the kings of old. Perhaps the Parthian king, Phraates IV (ca. 37-2 BC), who was likely ruling at the time of Christ’s birth, also used magi/wise men in this way, and sent them to honor to the newborn king when informed of the significant sign in the heavens.

ANOTHER CANDIDATE

I believe another group deserves consideration: perhaps the magi were Nabataean wise men from the courts of King Aretas IV (ca. 9 BC – AD 40). Let’s consider the evidence:

A map of major empires in the first century. Both the Parthian empire and the Nabataean kingdom lay to the east of Jerusalem. Image: Gabagool / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY 3.0 / Adapted by Bryan Windle
  • The kingdom of Nabataea was an independent empire, whose territory included parts of modern southern Syria, Jordan, the Negeb of Israel, the Sinai, portions of the eastern deserts of Egypt, and the northwest region of Saudi Arabia.9 This would indeed satisfy the biblical criteria of the magi coming “from the east” (Mt 2:1).
  • There were longstanding ties between Herod the Great and Nabataea. Herod’s mother was Nabataean, and he may have spend part of his boyhood at Petra. As king of Judea, Herod maintained political relations with Nabataea. Aretas IV even gave one of his daughters to Herod’s son, Antipas for a wife.10
The Treasury at the ancient Nabataean capital of Petra in modern-day Jordan. Photo: Diego Delso/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY-SA 4.0
  • Given the great distances they traveled, particularly through the heat of the desert, Nabataeans no doubt had a significant grasp of astronomy and used it for directions when they traveled by night. A new star would have caught their attention.
  • The Nabataeans were renowned traders, who amassed great wealth by controlling many of the trade routes along the Incense Road, from Arabia through their capital of Petra and onto the coastal port of Gaza.11 Along this route, the Nabataeans transported frankincense and myrrh from places, such as Yemen, in Arabia, to the Mediterranean. In fact, when Christ was born, Nabataea held a virtual monopoly on the frankincense trade.12
  • Early Church Fathers, such as Clement of Rome13 and Tertullian14 associated Arabia with the land of myrrh and frankincense. Justin Martyr, writing in middle of the second century, explicitly stated that the Magi came from Arabia.15
  • Nabataean’s had access to gold, both through trade, but also because it was native to their territory. Strabo noted that the Nabataeans did not need to import gold and silver because it was to be found in their land. He wrote, “The Nabataeans are a sensible people, and are so much inclined to acquire possessions that they publicly fine anyone who has diminished his possessions and also confer honours on anyone who has increased them….Some things are imported wholly from other countries, but others not altogether so, especially in the case of those that are native products, as, for example, gold and silver and most of the aromatics, whereas brass and iron, as also purple garb, styrax, crocus, costaria, embossed works, paintings, and moulded works are not produced in their country.”16
The gifts of the magi may have looked like these: (Left) A gold Nabataean pendant with garnet dating to ca. 2nd to 1st century BC. It is currently housed in the Schmuckmuseum Pforzheim. Photo Credit: Neck Bürgin. (Center) A ceramic Nabataean unguentarium in which perfumes like frankincense were kept. Photo: Metmuseum.org/Public Domain. (Right) A calcite alabaster beehive jar was the type of jar used for myrrh; these are found all along the trade route from the area of modern-day Yemin up to the area of ancient Petra. This one dates to the second century BC. Photo: The British Museum/CC BY-NC-SA 4.0

To be clear, I’m not the first person who has suggested the magi were Nabataean.17 However, I believe this idea has merit and has been largely ignored by many in the academic community who continue to point to the older theories of priests/astrologers from the area of ancient Babylon or Persia (although they rarely mention that this area was under Parthian control at the time of Christ’s birth).

In short, Nabataean magi would arrive “from the east” (Mt. 2:1) and, since they had political dealings with Herod and the Jews already, it would be understandable that they would seek to pay homage to a newborn king of the Jews (Mt. 2:2). As renowned travelers though the desert, they would have been intimately familiar with astronomy. Moreover, they had ample access to the three gifts they brought: gold, frankincense and myrrh (Mt 2:11). 

CONCLUSION

The reality is that we cannot know with certainty who the enigmatic magi were.

A bronze coin of the Nabataean king, Aretas IV, dating to 3 BC. Photo: Classical Numismatic Group / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 3.0

A case can be made, based ancient writings, that they were priests and/or astrologers who served as wise men in the courts of the Parthian kings who controlled the territory once held by the Babylonians and Persians. This assumes magi still held the role in the Parthian courts that their caste had earlier had filled for the Persian kings. 

I also believe the idea of Nabataean magi has merit and needs to be studied in further detail. My hope is that this article contributes to the discussion and advances this idea further. It seems reasonable to to me to imagine that the Nabataean king, Aretas IV, who was reigning at the time of Christ’s birth would have his own magi, wise men who might divine from the night skies that a new Jewish king had been born. Perhaps Aretas sent these high-ranking magi to find the new king and present him with the best gifts their land had to offer in order to honor him.

Regardless of who the magi actually were, Matthew’s description of wise men coming to pay homage to the newborn king has the mark of authenticity when seen within the historical backdrop of the ancient near east. Magi were not mythical; they were real people whose history seems to have stretched back hundreds of years and probably spawned the generic title, magos, which was used to describe any person who had wisdom and special knowledge, particularly with magical arts.

In the end, the sad irony in the Christmas narratives is that gentile magi came to honor the newborn king, while the Jewish chief priests and king did not.

Men riding camels on the caravan route to Bethlehem. Photo: LifeintheHolyLand.com via BiblePlaces.com

COVER: Journey of the Magi, oil on canvas, by James Tissot ca. 1894. Image: Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

ENDNOTES:

1 Robin M. Jensen, “Witnessing the Divine.” Biblical Archaeology Review. 17.6 (Dec. 2001): 28.

2 Strata: Lost Syriac Text Gives Magi’s View of the Christmas Story,” Biblical Archaeology Review. 37. 6 (2011): 14–15.

3 Irenaeus wrote that Matthew wrote his gospel while Peter and Paul were still living and preaching in Rome. (Against Heresies, 3.1.1 – Online: https://www.newadvent.org/fathers/0103301.htm)

4 Herodotus, Histories, 1.101.1. Online: https://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.01.0126%3Abook%3D1%3Achapter%3D101%3Asection%3D1 (Accessed Dec. 11, 2022)

5 Behistun Inscription 1.11. Online: https://www.worldhistory.org/Behistun_Inscription/ (Accessed Dec. 12, 2022).

6 Xenophon, Cyropaedia, Book 4, C5 [14]. Online: http://www.yorku.ca/pswarney/Texts/cyropaedia.htm (Accessed Dec. 11, 2022)

7 Xenophon, Cyropaedia, Book 8, C1, [23]. Online: http://www.yorku.ca/pswarney/Texts/cyropaedia.htm (Accessed Dec. 11, 2022)

8 Philo, Quod omnis probus liber sit (Every Good Man is Free), 74. Online: https://www.earlyjewishwritings.com/text/philo/book33.html (Accessed Dec. 12, 2022).

9 David F. Graf, “Nabataeans.” Anchor Bible Dictionary. In The Anchor Bible Dictionary, ed. D.N. Freedman. (New York: Doubleday, 1992), 6207.

10 Dan Gibson, “The History of Nabataea.” Nabataea.net. 2002. https://nabataea.net/explore/history/history/ (Accessed Dec. 12, 2022).

11 “The Ancient City of Petra,” American Museum of Natural History. https://www.amnh.org/explore/ology/archaeology/the-ancient-city-of-petra2 (Accessed Dec. 12, 2022).

12 Dr. Scott Stripling (personal communication, Dec. 3, 2016).

13 1 Clement 25:1. Online: https://www.earlychristianwritings.com/text/1clement-lightfoot.html (Accessed Dec. 12, 2022).

14 Tertullian, Against Marcion 3.13. Online: https://www.newadvent.org/fathers/03123.htm (Accessed Dec. 12, 2022).

15 Justin Martyr, Dialogue With Trypho, 78:1. Online: http://www.earlychristianwritings.com/text/justinmartyr-dialoguetrypho.html (Accessed Dec. 12, 2022).

16 Strabo, Geography, 16.4.26. Online: https://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/Roman/Texts/Strabo/16D*.html#note201 (Accessed Dec. 12, 2022).

17 The Anchor Bible Dictionary notes that A. Charbel proposed that the Magi were Nabataean back in 1985. While it gives the following information, I could not find Charbel’s work: Charbel, A. 1985. Matteo 2, 1–12: I Magi Nella Corniche del Regno nabateo. StPat 32: 81–88.

2 comments

  1. I’ve long thought the Nabataean’s are prime possibilities for being the Magi because they had such “easy” access to the gits they brought to honor the birth of Jesus.

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