Who were the wise men?

December 16, 2022
George T. Ferrier

Since the Bible says they came from the east (v. 1), the wise men (magi in the original; G3097) were likely from Persia or southern Arabia, both of which lay east of Israel.1 That they used the term “King of the Jews” for Jesus would suggest that they were Gentiles (v. 2).

From the name “Magi” we get the English words “magic” and “magician.” In Daniel’s time, the Magi (magicians and enchanters) specialized in the study of astrology, magic arts, and possibly other occult practices (Dan. 1:20; 2:2, 27; 5:7). The Babylonians referred to them as the “wise men” (Dan. 2:12, 18, 24, 27; 5:7-8, 11-12).2 As well, these wise men were also proficient in astronomy, philosophy, science, and medicine.

From the three gifts they brought with them, many have assumed there were only three men, one with each gift (v. 11). Tradition also suggests three men naming them Caspar, Balthasar, and Melchior.3 However, in truth we cannot be certain of their names, nor do we know how many magi traveled to Jerusalem because Scripture is silent on this matter.

Numbers 24:17 says “…A Star shall come out of Jacob; A Scepter shall rise out of Israel…” With many Jews remaining in Babylon after the 70-year captivity ended, and with the diaspora spreading to other lands, the Magi could have been familiar with and maybe even studied this and other Old Testament prophecies concerning the Messiah. Well-versed in astronomy, these men would also have noticed the appearance of an unfamiliar “star.” It is also possible that the Lord spoke directly to these seekers, perhaps in a dream.
Following the star, these seeking hearts came to Jerusalem, a short distance from Bethlehem. It is reasonable that they would have expected the Son of David to be born in Jerusalem. After the chief priests and scribes told Herod that the prophets foretold the Christ was to be born in Bethlehem, the king sent the Magi there exhorting them to search diligently for the child (v. 8). When the wise men set out for the little town, the star “went before them till it came and stood over where the young child was” (v. 9). In other words, the star went ahead of them, leading them.

There have been many natural explanations about the “Star in the East.” These accounts invariably involve how the planets aligned at that particular moment in history resulting in a bright light. However, the “star” was probably not an ordinary star, planet or comet. The extraordinary movement of the star (v. 9) suggests something or Someone else. Both the Hebrew and Greek words for star can be used figuratively to represent any great brilliance or radiance. It is more than likely the glory of the Lord guided these seeking men much like the pillar of cloud guided Israel by day and the pillar of fire by night soon after their redemption from Egypt. This star was a manifestation of the Shekinah Glory, the very presence of God.
The same outshining of God’s glory that guided these wise men, also shone around the shepherds many months earlier when the angels announced the Lord’s birth (Luke 2:9). Since there is no evidence from Scripture that anyone else saw this “star” it appears that God was specifically leading these true seekers to Christ. The magi visited Jesus in a house (v. 11), not in an inn or stable (Luke 2:7) suggesting some time had elapsed since His birth. The Lord may even have been in His second year, considering Herod’s order to kill all the male children in Bethlehem under the age of two (Matt. 2:16). When these men from the east saw Christ, they fell down and worshipped the young Child. Having been warned by God in a dream not to return to Herod, they returned home using another route. The main lesson for us today is that God rewards true seekers, bringing them to Christ.

1 Archaeological Study Bible (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2005), Electronic Version
2 Complete Word Study Dictionary (Chattanooga, TN: AMG Publishers, 2013), Electronic Version
3 Baker Illustrated Bible Dictionary (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Publishing Group, 2013), Electronic Version