Who were the Wise Men?

This series of Advent blogs continues with answers to basic questions about the visit of the Wise Men.  The biblical text of Matthew 2:1-12 says,

After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem and asked, ‘Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star in the east and have come to worship him.” When King Herod heard this he was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him. When he had called together all the people’s chief priests and teachers of the law, he asked them where the Christ was to be born. “In Bethlehem in Judea,’ they replied, “for this is what the prophet has written: “But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for out of you will come a ruler who will be the shepherd of my people Israel.” Then Herod called the Magi secretly and found out from them the exact time the star had appeared. He sent them to Bethlehem and said, “Go and make a careful search for the child. As soon as you find him, report to me, so that I too may go and worship him.” After they had heard the king, they went on their way, and the star they had seen in the east went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they were overjoyed. On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold and of incense and of myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, they returned to their country by another route.

Who were these magi or wise men? Historians know that there were Persians who studied astronomy, philosophy, religion, medicine, and other disciplines. With such a wide variety of expertise, they were indeed “wise men”! But how did these people know about a prophecy of the Jewish Messiah since they lived in a different country?

The answer probably lies in the fact that the people of Judah were taken to Babylon as captives around 600 BC. With no Temple there in which to do sacrifices, the religious leaders focused on the scriptures that they had, which God had spoken through prophets in the past. With individuals such as Daniel serving in the palace of Babylonian and Persian kings (see the book of Daniel), it would follow that the Persian magi would have been exposed to the Hebrew scriptures.

For example, these wise men may have known about the coming King because of prophecies such as Numbers 24:17. It says, “I see him, but not now; I behold him, but not near. A star will come out of Jacob; a scepter will rise out of Israel.” With knowledge of astronomy and religion, these magi may have understood both the star in sky and its prophetic implication.

At first, these wise men came to Jerusalem, since it was Israel’s capital. Since they were looking for a King, that would be a logical place to start. Because only King Herod was there, the magi continue their search. They came later to Jesus in Bethlehem. Jesus had already been born, and He and His family were then living in a house, not in the stable. (This is why these wise men didn’t show up the night Jesus was born.) The magi worshiped Jesus first, and then gave three gifts to Him, but there may have been more than three magi.

Why did these wise men worship an infant? That’s the subject of the next blog.

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