|Who Were Those Guys?|
Our knowledge of the Magi is somewhat limited. At the time of Christ’s birth, castes of learned men from outside Palestine existed in parts of the ancient world. Many scholars believe this particular troupe came from Persia. And although Christmas cards and carols usually depict just three wise men (an assumption based on the trio of gifts—gold, frankincense and myrrh—in Matt. 2:11), their entourage was most likely larger than that.
The early Christian writer Tertullian concluded from certain Old Testament prophecies (Psalm 72:10; Isa. 49:7, 60:3) that the wise men must have been Eastern kings of power and wealth. Who else could undertake the trek to Jerusalem, gain audience with Jewish and Roman leaders along the way, and be able to afford such extravagant gifts?
As for their spiritual orientation, magos, the Greek word from which magi is derived, could mean a variety of things. In the ancient world, this same root word was used to speak of a learned man, a scientist … or a sorcerer. Indeed, beyond its appearance in Matthew 2:1-12, magi is found two other times in the New Testament, both referring to occult activities (Acts 8:9; 13:6-12).
However, Matthew 2 in no way implies that the men immortalized in my little porcelain manger scene practiced the dark arts. Rather, their trip to Jerusalem seems motivated by a familiarity with the Jewish belief that a special leader would be coming, possibly from prophecies dispensed by Daniel during his captivity in Babylon. The Magi’s gifts and careful, guarded interaction with Herod imply wisdom and sincere piety, not occultism.
So what connection, if any, exists between the Magi of Matthew 2 and present-day astrology? After all, weren’t they looking for answers in the stars?
Astrology Then and Now
When we think of astrology in its modern context, we picture horoscopes, signs of the zodiac and squishy, fatalistic predictions based on the alignment of celestial bodies. But in ancient times, astrology included what we now accept as the legitimate science of astronomy. Both shared the same mystical roots. The Columbia Encyclopedia notes, "The earliest astronomers were priests, and no attempt was made to separate astronomy from astrology."
The wise men may have been part of some ancient priestly guild that mixed the two. Besides studying the stars and planets and assuming their influence on human affairs, the wise men also had at least some grasp of the Jewish scriptures. But that human understanding—not to mention the guiding light of a supernatural beacon—could only take them so far. Commendably, they made it all the way to Jerusalem by following the star. But they needed help to make it all the way to Jesus.
Upon arriving in the holy city, they still had to ask, "Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews?" This company of wise men may have been practitioners of astrology, but their stated purpose in traveling so far ("We saw His star in the east and have come to worship Him") shows that they were not just idolatrous pagans. They followed the light they had in an apparent quest to meet a Deity they didn’t know. We should note that the wise men personally worshiped Jesus, sacrificially followed God’s leading and took a public stand for their beliefs. Therefore, far from being an implicit endorsement of horoscopes or astrology, the story of the wise men reflects genuine faith and obedience.
It is touching that Jesus’ birth was made known to lowly shepherds and these non-Jews from the East. Clearly, the Christ child was to be the Savior for all people. These "wise men" sought the One who is Himself wisdom. They carried with them earthly treasures on their quest for the One who is the heavenly treasure. And even with a star for guidance, the Magi had far less divine enlightenment than we do.
This Christmas, as you position the Magi among the shepherds and livestock (which is itself anachronistic, but that’s another article), rest assured that their level of devotion conveys a faith and wisdom that can be an inspiration to us all.
Alex McFarland is Plugged In's teen apologetics expert. For more on his ministry and speaking schedule, visit alexmcfarland.com.
Published December 2008