Facts about the magi in the Bible that will intrigue you to learn more about the Christmas story in the scripture.
The Bible is filled with amazing stories of God and people. Some still carry a sort of mystery to them. I believe the Magi in the Bible (or wise men) is one of those stories.
I recently wrote a post about the gifts of the Magi that can be read here: Gold, Frankincense and Myrrh – Understanding The Wise Men’s gifts
Since I wrote that post, I thought it would also be neat to write on the topic of the wise men. We look at “11” unusual facts that you may have never seen or heard of about the magi
But before we start, I do want to clarify that the topic of the wise men is still a mystery. There are a few books out there on the topic, but a lot of them don’t have secure sources. For example, The Revelation of the Magi is a pseudepigraphical apocryphal book claiming to have been written by the Magi in the Bible.
I want to steer away from anything that doesn’t have a solid source or that can be tied to Gnosticism. So, we will look carefully through the scriptural story of the magi and what Bible dictionaries and commentaries have to say on the topic.
We also will take a look at historical tradition and how we got our image of what and who the Magi were.
Alright, let’s get to the fun stuff! Below you will find the Story of the Magi in Matthew as a refresher or a study tool. I hope this makes it easier instead of having to open a new tab and look up the story or having to grab your Bible.
After that, you will find 11 unusual and interesting facts about the Magi!
The Story of the Wise Men
Taken from Matthew 2:1-12 KJV
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. When Herod the king had heard these things, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him. And when he had gathered all the chief priests and scribes of the people together, he demanded of them where Christ should be born.
And they said unto him, 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.Then Herod, when he had privily called the wise men, enquired of them diligently what time the star appeared.
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.
When they had heard the king, they departed; and, lo, the star, which they saw in the east, went before them, till it came and stood over where the young child was.When they saw the star, they rejoiced with exceeding great joy.
And when they were come into the house, they saw the young child with Mary his mother, and fell down, and worshipped him: and when they had opened their treasures, they presented unto him gifts; gold, and frankincense and myrrh. And being warned of God in a dream that they should not return to Herod, they departed into their own country another way. And they said unto him, 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.
Then Herod, when he had privily called the wise men, enquired of them diligently what time the star appeared.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.
When they had heard the king, they departed; and, lo, the star, which they saw in the east, went before them, till it came and stood over where the young child was. When they saw the star, they rejoiced with exceeding great joy.
And when they were come into the house, they saw the young child with Mary his mother, and fell down, and worshipped him: and when they had opened their treasures, they presented unto him gifts; gold, and frankincense and myrrh. And being warned of God in a dream that they should not return to Herod, they departed into their own country another way.
Facts about the Magi
Fact 1 – Magi were Wise Men
Have you ever wondered what the difference is between magi and wise men? The magi were classified as wise men since they understood things beyond the common man. Smith’s Bible Dictionary states,
“The Magi took their places among “the astrologers and stargazers and monthly prognosticators.” It is with such men that we have to think of Daniel and his fellow exiles as associated. The office which Daniel accepted ( Daniel 5:11 ) was probably rab-mag –chief of the Magi” Smith’s Bible Dictionary – Magi
Fun fact: Magi is plural, but the singular term is Magus.
Fact 2 – The Magi were like the Prophet Daniel
The earliest Greek translation found in scripture for magi is found in Daniel 2:2, 10, where they translated the Hebrew term astrologer into magi (Greek). Daniel the prophet was considered to be a chief astrologer or chief Magi. It’s interesting to note that even the Chaldeans were classified as astrologers as well.
This makes sense that they understood the meaning of the star.
Also, the word magi is connected to the word priest in the Persian language.
Fact 3 – The Magi Were Most Likely Believers in Yahweh and the Coming Messiah
*I am making this a fact based on my deduction and understanding. But I preface this with “most likely,” giving room for the other side of the coin.
Because of the connection with being astrologers. There are statements made claiming that the Magi were magicians or sorcerers and even involved in the occult. This could be true, but the prophet Daniel, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego were considered magi yet were believers in Yahweh and served Him only. (Check out the book of Daniel for details).
I believe this makes it a great possibility that these Magi followed in Daniel’s footsteps (or had Hebrew roots) and had an understanding of the Messianic prophecies. Meaning they would have had to study and be familiar with the Torah, historic texts, and the prophets.
They also didn’t view Jesus as just a newborn King of the Jews but as a deity, as they bowed down and worshipped him. Matthew 2:11
*Interesting to note there is also a theory that the Magi were descendants of the tribe of Levi.
Fact 4 – They Came from a Country in the East
Where did the Magi come from?
Now, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, saying, “Where is He who has been born King of the Jews? For we have seen His star in the East and have come to worship Him.”
Matthew doesn’t give an exact location, but what we do know is that the term “magi” has a Persian background. Hence the reference comes from Daniel 2, which is seen in fact #2.
It is suggested in Holman’s Bible Dictionary that the Magi may have been from Persia, Babylon, or from the Arabian Desert.
If the magi came from Perisa, aka modern-day Iran, it would be an estimated 1,400+ miles to Bethlehem, from Babylon/Mesopotamia 600+ miles to Bethlehem. The Arabian Desert would have a similar distance.
In my post about Jonah, I mentioned The Pony Express Riders would travel around 75 miles a day, interchanging horses every 5-20 miles.
So, it took these wise men a LONG time to get to Jesus. But they must have understood and valued the prophecies to have gone on such a long strenuous journey.
Fact 5 – There Might Have Been More Than Three Wise Men
Here we go…time to crush our mental image of the three wise men. Technically scripture doesn’t say how many wise men came to visit Jesus.
Traditionally the west views it as three wise men because three gifts were given to Jesus. This makes a lot of sense. One gift per person to the King of Kings.
But in Eastern tradition, they believe it was 12 magi that showed up. Which is the number of government in scripture (check out more on Numbers in the Bible). This also makes a lot of sense.
This would also connect with the theory of the Magi being descendants of the tribe of Levi. They could have represented each tribe of Israel.
But the thing is that there could have been 5 or even 7. Shoot, there could have been just 2 wise men. We are just not 100% sure about “3” wise men.
What we do know is that it was more than one. The term magi is plural.
Also, it is highly plausible that the wise men did have a caravan of servants with them as they traveled. But they are not mentioned in the Bible.
Fact 6 – The Gifts Made Jospeh, Mary, and Jesus Wealthy
We know there were three gifts given to Jesus. Gold, Frankincense and Myrrh. All three were reserved for kings and diety because of their value. So, I highly doubt that these wise men came from a great distance to give a tiny bit of each gift.
They came to worship the King of Kings, who they knew was diety…they knew he was the Messiah. They brought gifts to honor Him. They brought them enough that they could escape Herod and travel to Egypt. They had enough to be a foreigner there in Egypt and to come back.
For more on what the gifts represent spiritually and naturally, please checkout out my post below.
Fact 7 – Herod Feared and Respected the Magi
Herod was the Roman-appointed king of Judaea. He had power and authority. Yet, here come the Magi 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.” When Herod the king had heard these things, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him.”
Herod was troubled by this news from the wise men. The word trouble in Greek is:
ταράσσω tarássō, tar-as’-so; of uncertain affinity; to stir or agitate (roil water):—trouble. To roil water is To make (a liquid) turbulent or muddy, or cloudy by stirring up sediment.
Now you would think that the king of Judaea would have said, “You know what, last time I checked, I WAS KING…I don’t like what these magi are saying…go capture them and kill them.”
I mean it makes sense. The Magi are saying that Herod shouldn’t be king but that this baby should be. I’m pretty sure kings of the past have cut people’s heads off for far less.
Herod the Great doesn’t do that. He sheepishly seeks out priests to confirm the matter than calling the magi themselves to him to inquire.
He doesn’t threaten them, he doesn’t confront them, he doesn’t even disagree with them, but he goes along with them, acting like he’s interested.
This states that the Magi had the power and authority that most likely was greater than Herods. This is probably coming from the country in the East they came from.
But sadly, what Herod does is attack the weak and helpless…
Then Herod, when he saw that he was mocked of the wise men, was exceeding wroth, and sent forth, and slew all the children that were in Bethlehem, and in all the coasts thereof, from two years old and under, according to the time which he had diligently inquired of the wise men.
This truly reveals what kind of man Herod was.
Fact 8 – The Magi Were Not at the Birth of Jesus
Here is another fact to blow up the imagery of the wise men for us. Nowhere does it state that they met Mary and Joseph in the manger at the birth of Jesus.
It states in Matthew 2:11, And when they were come into the house, they saw the young child with Mary his mother…
Looks like they were living in a house, not in a manger.
And these are the facts we know….
Herod wanted to kill all boys ages two and under.
It took the magi a long time to get to Bethlehem. So the birth could have taken place before they even got to Bethlehem.
So, Jesus was anywhere from the age of two to a newborn when the Magi came to Him.
All those beautiful pictures and nativity scenes depicting them there at birth are probably not as accurate as we have thought.
Fact 9 – The Magi Believed God Spoke in Dreams
“And being warned of God in a dream that they should not return to Herod, they departed into their own country another way.”
I love this about the Magi. They believed God spoke through the prophets of old as they studied to see when the Messiah would come, but they also believed God still spoke.
They heeded the warning and left. Interestingly enough, God then speaks to Joseph in a dream, warning him to flee to Egypt.
Fact 10 – In the 3rd Century Is When the Magi Were Considered Kings
Here are some western historical facts about the Magi. These are things we have grown to think of as truth because of tradition. There is just no real scriptural backing to know if it is true.
It was around the 3rd Century when the magi were considered to be kings. Many believe this is because of the interpretation of the fulfillment of prophecy in Psalm 72:10-11
“The kings of Tarshish and of the isles shall bring presents: the kings of Sheba and Seba shall offer gifts. Yea, all kings shall fall down before him: all nations shall serve him.”
In the 8th Century, western culture gives the three Magi names and kingdoms. We then carry this down in our tradition of the Christmas story .
- Bithisarea (Balthasar) – King of Arabia or Ethiopia
- Melichior (Melchior) – King of Persia
- Gathaspa (Casper) – King of India
Fact 11 – Only the Gospel of Matthew Mentions the Visit of the Magi
Out of 4 gospels, Matthew is the only one that shares the story of the Magi. Even though Matthew is considered to be a synoptic gospel, Mark and Luke don’t share the story.
Matthew wrote his gospel for the Jewish people. He goes into detail in the genealogy of Christ…all 41 generations! His goal is to show the Jewish people that Jesus is the Christ, the Messiah.
So, the story of the Magi must give some kind of significant meaning to the Jewish people. Most likely to show Jesus fulfilling prophecy at the very start. Also, the Jewish culture could be very familiar with Magi and what they represented in Jewish culture at the time.
Quick Recap of All 11 Facts about the Wise Men in the Bible.
Here is a quick list of the facts mentioned above if you would like to write them down quickly without the need to scroll.
- The Magi were wise men
- The Magi were like the Prophet Daniel
- The Magi were most likely believers in Yahweh and the Coming Messiah
- They came from a country in the East
- There might have been more than 3 Wise Men
- The gifts made Joseph, Mary, and Jesus Wealthy
- Herod feared and respected the Magi
- The Magi were not at the Birth of Jesus
- The Magi believed God spoke in Dreams
- In the 3rd Century, is When the Magi Were Considered Kings
- Only the Gospel of Matthew Mentions the Magi
Well, I hope you have enjoyed this article. I will say I had a ton of fun learning about the magi, and it really added an even deeper beauty to the Christmas story. These individuals sacrificed a ton to see Jesus.
Not adult Jesus who was doing miracles, but Jesus as a tiny child…a baby, or a toddler. It’s beautiful!
Feel free to drop me a comment below! I would love to hear from you.
Melissa is a passionate minister, speaker and an ongoing learner of the Bible. She has been involved in church and vocational ministry for over 18 years. And is the founder of Think About Such Things. She has the heart to equip the saints by helping them get into the Word of God and fall more in love with Jesus. She also enjoys family, cooking, and reading.
She has spoken in churches in California, Oregon, Texas, and Mexico and has been featured in Guidepost Magazine and All Recipes Magazine. Read More…