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The Bible refers to the three wise men in the gospel of Matthew:

Matthew 2:1-2  Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judaea in the days of Herod the king, behold, there came wise men from the east to Jerusalem, Saying, Where is he that is born King of the Jews? for we have seen his star in the east, and are come to worship him. 

The Bible tells that they came “from the east to Jerusalem.”  East of Jerusalem, at that time, was the Parthian Empire—the area of Babylon, which was founded in 250 BC as an independent kingdom. The Parthian Empire rivaled Rome, and Israel was a buffer state between the two contending empires.  

Wise Men/Magicians/Magi

The word we translate “wise men” is “magos,” which means a Magian, Oriental scientist, a magician, a sorcerer, or wise man. In our modern day dictionaries, the word “magian” is defined as relating to the magi of ancient Persia. Biblically we have a record of magi dating back to the days of Daniel the prophet. Daniel, who was taken to Babylon in 606 BC in the first seige of Jerusalem by Nebachadnessare, was appointed by Nebuchadnezzar to rule over the “wise men of Babylon.”

Daniel 2:48  Then the king made Daniel a great man, and gave him many great gifts, and made him ruler over the whole province of Babylon, and chief of the governors over all the wise men of Babylon.

When the Medes and Persians conquered Babylon, they established a hereditary priesthood of wise men, also known as magicians or magi.  It was from this hereditary priesthood in the Persian Empire that came wise men, following a star, searching for the baby who was born King of the Jews. Just as Daniel had been made the ruler of the wise men of Babylon by Nebuchadnezzar, when the Medo Persian King Darius the Great reigned, he appointed Daniel to be master of the magicians.  

Daniel 4:9  O Belteshazzar [Daniel’s Babylonian name], master of the magicians, because I know that the spirit of the holy gods is in thee, and no secret troubleth thee, tell me the visions of my dream that I have seen, and the interpretation thereof.

A State Religion

Because the Magi were able to interpret dreams, King Darius declared the magi to be the state religion. The priestly caste of the Magi remained during the Greek Empire and became very influential after the death of Alexander the Great when the empire was divided into three large kingdoms, the Seleucid, Parthian, and Sasanid Empires.  The Parthian Empire, which stretched from the northern reaches of the Euphrate (now central-eastern Turkey) to eastern Iran, contended with Rome during the time of Herod and occupied much of what we know as Palestine.

During this time, the Magi held a dual priestly and governmental authority.  Some have called them “king-makers”  because of their power to give rule and authority.  So when the wise men, the magi, entered into Jerusalem and inquired of Herod, he was greatly alarmed.  Remember, these “king-makers” asked Herod questions about the birth of “he that is born King of the Jews” because they had “seen his star in the east” (Matthew 2:2). Again, Herod was alarmed.

More Than Three?

These wise men were not three men on camels (as they are portrayed in Christmas traditions).  The designation of only three is probably derived from the fact that only three gifts are recorded as having been given to the Christ Child.    It is much more likely that this was a cavalry of formidable men on horseback who rode into Jerusalem.  It’s no wonder that Herod was troubled. So also was the entire city.

Matthew 2:3  When Herod the king had heard these things, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him.

When Herod heard the words of the magi, he was both troubled and felt threatened.  Herod had been named by Rome to be king of the Jews and he was sent to rule in Jerusalem and have authority over the Jewish people.  Another to come would have threatened his rule. It is evidenced that Herod took the claim seriously by his actions.  He conspired to do something.  He called upon the chief priests and scribes and demanded that they tell him where Christ would be born.  (Matthew 2:4).  Interestingly, this reveals that Herod expected the Jewish Scriptures would be able to answer his question, probably because he was aware of prophecies of the Jews that had already been fulfilled.  The priests and scribes answered Herod with…

Matthew 2:5-6 …In Bethlehem of Judaea: for thus it is written by the prophet, And thou Bethlehem, in the land of Juda, art not the least among the princes of Juda: for out of thee shall come a Governor, that shall rule my people Israel.

Herod was so convinced that he decided he must secure his position and authority. With evil intent, he deceitfully sent forth the wise men.

Matthew 2:8  And he sent them to Bethlehem, and said, Go and search diligently for the young child; and when ye have found him, bring me word again, that I may come and worship him also.

And Herod purposed in his heart to kill any child, two and under, who would pose a threat to his rule (Matthew 2:16)

Summary: Who Were the Wise Men?

The wise men were the magi of the Parthian Empire.  The Bible only mentions three gifts presented to the Christ Child—gold, frankincense, and myrrh—therefore it has been thought there were only three magi.  It is much more likely there would have been a large cavalry of Parthian wise men/magi.  Also, because of an out-of-context application of Psalm 72:11 Yea, all kings shall fall down before him…, the magi have come to be known as the Three Kings.  Tradition has even suggested that we know their names—Gaspar, Balthasar, and Melchior.  We must remember that the Bible does not support them being three kings, nor does it validate the names suggested by tradition/legend.  

Although Herod’s intentions and desires were evil and self-motivated, God’s purpose and plan always reign sovereign.  Herod required that all children two and under were to be killed (Matthew 2:16);  but God, in His providence and omnipotence, protected the promised Child who had been born a baby in Bethlehem, His promised Son who had been given to save the world (Isaiah 9:6, John 3:16).

And being warned of God in a dream that they [the magi] should not return to Herod, they departed into their own country another way.  And when they were departed, behold, the angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream, saying, Arise, and take the young child and his mother, and flee into Egypt, and be thou there until I bring thee word: for Herod will seek the young child to destroy him.  When he arose, he took the young child and his mother by night, and departed into Egypt. (Matthew 2:12-14)

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