Who Are Those Guys? The Three Wise Men and What You Need to Know About Them
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In the 1969 movie Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, the characters who bear the title names were making every effort to escape from the posse led by lawman Joe Lefors and an Indian tracker called Lord Baltimore. Despite their best efforts, every time they looked back the white hat of Joe Lefors would appear on the horizon. When it did, Butch would turn to Sundance and say, “Who are those guys?”
We might be tempted to ask the same question about the men described in chapter 2 of Matthew’s gospel who came seeking the “one who has been born king of the Jews” (Matt. 2:2). They arrived in Jerusalem from the East, most likely from the Parthian Empire in Persia, and began their inquiry in King Herod’s court. Their arrival was doubly dangerous—it was dangerous because Jerusalem was the eastern edge of the Roman Empire and Rome and the Parthians were at war. It was doubly dangerous because King Herod was notoriously ruthless and murderous toward any contender for his throne. These “wise men”—rather unwisely, it would seem—came to Herod asking about the birth of the king of the Jews, saying, “We saw his star when it rose and (we) have come to worship him” (Matt. 2:2).
Who are those guys known as the wise men? One Christian tradition says there were three; another says there were twelve of them. They brought gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh, which may be the basis for the Western church’s tradition of three. They were not kings—this is a tradition that probably came from reading Psalm 72:11 into the account: “May all kings fall down before him, all nations serve him!” As Christmas traditions developed over the years, the Magi acquired names and later a song with a boy and a drum. These are familiar and comforting traditions, but they are not found in the text in Matthew, the only gospel that contains the account.
We do know something about “these guys” from Matthew’s gospel. Matthew calls them “Magi,” a Greek word from which our English word magician is derived. But they were not sleight-of-hand tricksters, which is what we tend to think of when we hear the title magician. Instead, these men were scholars of the priestly caste in ancient Persia and were well respected throughout the pagan world for their knowledge of astrology, medicine, and dream interpretation.
One member of this priesthood, who predated “these guys” by more than a thousand years, was the renowned Balaam of Pethor in Persia. His story is found in Numbers, chapters 22-24, near the end of Israel’s exodus from Egypt. Balaam was widely known as a powerful diviner and seer, two ancient crafts steeped in astrology and the dark arts. Diviners like Balaam were employed to access the domain of the gods to request blessings and curses in the physical realm. Balak, King of Moab, hired Balaam to curse the Israelites who were poised on his eastern border attempting to enter Canaan.
But Balaam’s access to the domain of the gods was interrupted by God Almighty. “Go to Balak,” Yahweh told him, “but you will say what I tell you to say.” Numbers 24 recounts Balaam’s fourth oracle; a prophesy given to him by Yahweh:
“(T)he oracle of him who hears the words of God, and knows the knowledge of the Most High, who sees the vision of the Almighty, falling down with his eyes uncovered: I see him, but not now; I behold him, but not near: a star shall come out of Jacob, and a scepter shall rise out of Israel; it shall crush the forehead of Moab and break down all the sons of Sheth.” (Num. 24:16–17 ESV)
Balaam’s prophecy states that not there in Moab—and not now but later—a unique star will appear to announce a king who “will destroy all the sons of tumult” (v. 17). “Sons of tumult” is the more accurate translation used by the New King James Bible. Balaam’s oracles were preserved not only in Israel’s history but also in the priestly writings of Persia. And there they sat on their clay tablet shelf in Persia for thousands of years as generations of priestly Magi lived and died.
The great winemakers throughout the world preserve the great vintages from other winemakers. In a similar way, the world’s great scholars preserved in their libraries the writings of other peoples and nations. In the Magi’s library would have been the prophecies given by Daniel—a Jewish prophet in the court of the great kings of Persia, like Nebuchadnezzar, Cyrus, and Darius. Daniel had survived over fifty years in the company of the best diviners in Persia, and his prophecies, dream interpretations, and the reading of mysterious handwriting on walls were well known by the Magi priests. One of Daniel’s prophesies about events during a period marked out by seventy weeks would prove especially useful to the Magi who came to Jerusalem.
As holy men and scholars of history and the heavens, the Persian Magi in the first century B.C. had a proud heritage of a long line of diviners going all the way back through Balaam to the time of the tower of Babel. When they noticed an unusual star in the heavens, they wondered, observed, and studied their records. They would have again discovered Balaam’s vision and oracles. Further research would have brought to light Daniel’s prophecy of weeks of years and perhaps even the archived “Bethlehem Ephrathah” prophecy from the Hebrew writings of the prophet Micah (Mic. 5:2). Putting together all the data points, the Magi concluded that a trip to Jerusalem was at hand.
The announcement by a star of the promised Messiah’s birth in Bethlehem was a celestial event for the world to see. Matthew’s account of the visit of the Magi introduces several important themes that appear later in his gospel:
First of all, they show that the birth of Jesus had an impact on the entire world. The Messiah had arrived in Israel, and the Gentiles—represented by the Magi—had taken notice.
Second, their worship points to the “Great Commission” given by Jesus to bring the gospel of salvation to all the nations (Matt. 28:19).
Third, the events recorded by Matthew present the stark contrast between the surprising response of faith by Gentiles and the stunning lack of faith among the Jews (Matt. 8:11, 12; 12:21). As the Gentile Magi come to worship the promised king, Herod and the Jewish religious leaders are busy plotting the murder of the Messiah.
Finally, we see the fulfillment of God’s promise of sending the seed of the woman who will crush the head of the serpent (Gen. 3:15). Called the protoevangelium (the first announcement of the gospel), this promise of a redeemer for fallen humanity is realized in the birth of Jesus.
Now, the mystery hidden for ages and sought by Jews and Gentiles alike was revealed. The mystery is the grace of God in Christ who reconciles sinners to their holy Creator. The gift of God’s Son and the forgiveness he brings is the point of Christmas. The Magi saw the star, sought the Son, worshipped him, and gave him their precious gifts.
“Those guys” are believers who come to worship and give, and by so doing receive the best gift of all: eternal life as children of God in Christ. They recognized the eternal significance of that first Christmas. We, too, must not miss the point.
For further reading:
"Magi, Wise Men, or Kings? It’s Complicated" by Christianity Today
The Wise Men: Who They Were and How They Came to Jerusalem by Francis Upham
Don Strand holds a Master of Arts in Theology, is an ordained minister, and serves his local church as elder, teacher, and worship leader.