What are “magi” anyway?

Let me begin by stating who the “magi” were not, at least according to Scripture. There is no evidence in Matthew’s Gospel (2:1-18) — the only one to mention the magi — that they were “three kings.” This tradition may have evolved because Psalm 72, which was perhaps a coronation psalm, contains a reference to kings rendering tribute and homage to Israel’s king.

The New Testament also does not state that there were three of them. Probably the number three became associated with them because they offered three gifts. In fact, artwork has portrayed them in varying numbers through the centuries, and the Eastern (Orthodox) Church has always depicted them as 12 in number. They were not named in the Bible, although a much later tradition named them Gaspar, Balthazar, and Melchior.

So who were they then? The term “magi” originally referred to a caste of Persian priests, astrologers who looked to the stars as guides. We don’t know their place of origin, except that it was clearly from somewhere east of the Holy Land. The gifts they brought (aromatic gum resins) suggest Arabia or the Syrian desert as a possibility of their origin.

So whoever they were or were not, these mysterious people who came to worship Jesus were models of pagan foreigners who came to believe a promise made to the Jewish people long before. We mark their coming with the Feast of the Epiphany on January 6 at the end of the 12 days of Christmas.

Ann Naffziger

Ann Naffziger

Ann Naffziger is a scripture instructor and spiritual director in the San Francisco Bay area. She has has written articles on spirituality and theology for various national magazines and edited several books on the Hebrew Scriptures.


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