The bible tells us of "wise men" who came seeking the Christ child after His birth. They had followed a star and were coming to worship Jesus, and to bring Him gifts. This study discusses: who these men were, where they were from and how they knew that Jesus had been born. It discusses why these Gentiles would come to worship "the King of the Jews", and also addresses some of the common myths about them. Additionally, this study discusses their relationship with the prophet Daniel.
The actual term used to describe these men in the original text is not kings or wise men, but "Magi". The term magi was used as the name for priests and wise men among the Medes, Persians, Babylonians, and Chaldeans. They are rumored to have been adept in the secret learnings originated from Egypt, and later in Chaldea. Magi were known as being astronomers, astrologers, or even magicians. Unger’s Bible dictionary describes Magi as "the astrologers, those who prophesy by the stars, those who predict by the new moons."
There is no clear indication of where these particular Magi where from except that they were from "the East". Because of the use of the term "Magi", they are often claimed to have been from Persia or Chaldea. Psalms 72 10-11 speaks of three kings who will come to worship the coming Messiah, and based on this verse it is also believed that these men were each from a different country/continent - namely Africa, Asia, and Europe.
10 The kings of Tarshish and of distant shores
Because this verse prophesies that three kings will come to worship Christ and present Him with gifts, we have the tradition of the Magi being kings and believing that there were three of them. Another reason that it is believed that there were three Magi is because there were three gifts given to Jesus. Since the gifts given were customary gifts that kings would give to show respect, this also allows some to conclude that they were kings. But there is no clear indication from the bible that there were actually three Magi, or that they were kings.
The names given by tradition to the "three kings" are: Melchior, Gaspar, and Balthasar, but there is no biblical basis for this.
In the nativity scene we see the image of the baby Jesus in the stable with Mary and Joseph, the shepherds, and the three kings around Him. A study of the biblical details of the account will show us that this could not have actually been the case. Jesus was indeed born in the manger, but we see in Matthew 2:11 that when the Magi came to see Jesus he was actually in "a house", and no longer in a stable. The Magi did not make it to see Jesus immediately after His birth, and thus would not likely have been there at the same time as the shepherds. Since Herod decreed to kill all of the babies born in Bethelehem that were of age three or younger, we can assume that Jesus was around two years old when the Magi visited him.
There is much speculation about the star which the wise men followed. Some claim that it was a comet or a meteor, but since the star appeared to them prior to them going to see king Herod, and they followed the same star until it led them to where Jesus was born this could not have been a comet or meteor, but must have been an actual star. The Magi were watching for the appearance of a new star in a certain region. Once it appreared they knew that the Messiah was born. They would not have been able to immediately arrive to where Jesus was, so it is unclear how much timed passed, but we know that they came from a far off country.
An interesting question is: How did these Magi even know to look for a sign? How did they know that there was a Messiah coming? The shepherds would have known because they were Jewish and the old testament has prophecies predicting the coming Messiah, but how did these Gentile know? Why did they even know about "the king of the jews", and why did they come to worship Him?
Some believe that the Magi knew from the prophet Daniel! One of the two other places where the word Magi is mentioned is in the bible is in Jer 39:3,13 where it gives the name or title of one of the Chaldean officers sent by Nebuchadnezzar to Jerusalem as Rab-mag. This is interpreted, by some, to mean "chief of the Magi". We know that when Daniel served under king Nebuchadnezzar that he was there to interpret the king's dreams and predict the future for the king. He was among the king's magicians, enchanters, sorcerers and astrologers. Since there were Magi serving under king Nebuchadnezzar during the same time as Daniel, it is believed that Daniel may have told them about the coming Messiah.
Aside from this, there is much proof that there was a wide spread belief during the time of Christ's birth that a Messiah was going to be born. This was not only believed among the Jews, but by some Gentiles as well. Roman historians ( Suetonius and Tacitus) verify the fact that there was a belief “in the East” that a Messiah would be born in Judea. We can see that this was commonly believed by the fact that wise men went and asked king Herod where Jesus was to be born. They assumed that Herod already knew about the prophecy, and that it had been fulfiled. We also see that when Herod questioned the "chief priests" about the matter, they knew exactly what the magi were asking about and told him the precise location where Jesus was born - in Bethlehem of Judea.
God made sure that the coming of Jesus was known by all. Since the Magi were accustomed to looking to the stars for their answers, God spoke to them through the stars. We see that God spoke to the Jewish shepherds using an angel because this is the means by which they were accustomed to communicating with God. But note also that God spoke to the Magi in a dream in Matt 2:12 warning them not to go back to Herod. God will speak to you in "your own tongue".
Regardless of what "religion" these wise men followed or what mystical activities they practiced, they fully believed that Jesus was the Messiah coming to save the world, and they traveled from their place of origin with the sole intent to come and worship Him and to bring Him gifts. As soon as they saw the child they fell down and worshipped Him. They did not need anyone to confirm who he was or what His destiny was. Some even refer to these wise men as the first Christians.
El Dia de los Reyes (The Day of the Kings) is the day in many Christian cultures where they celebrate the Magi's visit to Jesus. It generally falls on January 6th. It is termed El Dia De Los Reyes in Hispanic cultures, and goes by other names such as. Three Kings Day, The Epiphany, and Little Christmas in other cultures. In some areas this day is a holiday in which schools are closed. In some cultures the children leave shoes out as gifts for the kings and receive gifts in the morning. The term The 12 days of Christmas refers to the days from Christmas (Dec 25th) to this day. As such, many count this day as the day when you take down the Christmas decorations.
3 When King Herod heard this he was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him. 4 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. 5 "In Bethlehem in Judea," they replied, "for this is what the prophet has written:
6 "'But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
7 Then Herod called the Magi secretly and found out from them the exact time the star had appeared. 8 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."
9 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. 10 When they saw the star, they were overjoyed. 11 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. 12 And having been warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, they returned to their country by another route.
13 When they had gone, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream. "Get up," he said, "take the child and his mother and escape to Egypt. Stay there until I tell you, for Herod is going to search for the child to kill him."