Matthew is the only Gospel writer that tells us about the Magi. These travelers were called wise men, which in the ancient Greek is MAGOI. They were the doctors, scientists, and prophets of their time. Well-studied men interested in dreams, astrology, magic, apothecary, and medicine. They were not kings; it appears that was first suggested by Tertullian (died c. 225). He probably referred to the Old Testament passages that say kings will come and worship the Messiah (Psalms 68:29, 31; 72:10-11; Isaiah 49:7; 60:1-6).

One Christian understanding is that the three wise men coming to Jesus represent the return of the three sons of Noah who went off to three continents way back in Genesis (often the Magi are depicted as a European, an African, and an Asian). Ancient records tell us their names: Melchior, Caspar, and Balthasar. You can see their preserved skulls in a cathedral at Cologne, Germany even today. Early tradition says there were not three, but twelve wise men. In reality, there were most likely many dozens of travelers in their company.  

Why would Magi from the area of Persia (modern Iran and Iraq) come to seek out an Israelite King? One speculation is that the Magi may have learned of the Hebrew Messiah from the prophet Daniel—exiled to their land 500 years prior. Daniel rose in the ranks of Babylon to become a wise man himself. In Chapter 9 of Daniel, the Angel Gabriel comes to Daniel with specific details of the coming of the Messiah that are simply amazing! It make sense that he would have shared these conversations with the Babylonian Magi.

There was a general expectation (even among the Pagans) of a messiah or great leader rising from Judea to power. Not very long after Jesus was born, the Roman historian Seutonius wrote: “There had spread over all the Orient an old and established belief, that it was fated at that time for men coming from Judea to rule the world.” Tacitus, another Roman historian of the age, wrote: “There was a firm persuasion…that at this very time the East was to grow powerful, and rulers coming from Judea were to acquire universal empire.” The Jews were awaiting the coming of a Messiah to free them from Rome—they actually were expecting a New Moses and a New Exodus.

The Magi came following “the star.” There are many different theories about this remarkable star. The famous astronomer Kepler (d. 1630) first suggested that there occurred a conjunction of the planets Jupiter and Saturn in the zodiac constellation of Pisces. Kepler later preferred the view that the Christmas star was a supernova. Others have suggested comets, such as Halley’s Comet. But Halley’s would have flown past in 12 B.C.—a few years too early. Besides, among the ancients, a comet was never seen as a good omen.

So what was the star? After a little digging, here’s what I found most interesting: The Greek word star (ASTER) is used generally of any luminous body other than the sun and moon. It can mean radiance, brilliance, fire, or glowing light. And this particular light was seen from hundreds of miles away, moved, vanished, reappeared, changed directions, hovered. Could it be the Shechinah Glory of God, that is the Glory Cloud seen in ancient Israel? The cloud of fire was witnessed with Abraham at the sealing of the covenant, Moses at the burning bush, leading the Israelites through the desert, descending on the tabernacle, and later filling the Temple of Solomon. When Israel fell away from the Lord, the Shechinah Glory left the Temple and disappeared from Jewish history. Could this Glory Cloud be the same that led the Magi; returning to lead the New Exodus with Jesus, the new Moses?

The Magi found the child and worshipped him, opening their hands and giving unusual gifts of great worth. King Herod displayed an open hatred and hostility toward Jesus, attempting to kill the boy. The chief priests and the scribes were indifferent toward Jesus, unaware and uninterested. This is the way the world approaches our Lord: with a bended knee, a clenched fist, or a careless shrug.

If you are even half as interested in the Jewish and Roman culture of the time of Jesus, if you find great insights with the original Greek and Hebrew languages, and if your heart is tugged by how to LIVE the Gospel by applying in-depth study, I welcome and invite you to join us Tuesdays at 1:00 in the St. John Community Room with the Catholic Community Scripture Study. Every week we dig deeply, line-by-line, into the Holy Word with a lively group! Each week we record a shorter version of the study posted on our parish YouTube page. You can sample a study, or “tune in” regularly if you are not able to join us for the live class. Currently we are in a deep dive in the Gospel of Matthew, still walking through the Sermon on the Mount in Chapter 6. We also have small groups meeting throughout the week at different times and other study options. Watch the bulletin, the weekly e-mail updates, the website, or feel free to contact me!