The Arrival of the Magi
Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, magi from the east arrived in Jerusalem, saying, “Where is He who has been born King of the Jews? For we saw His star in the east, and have come to worship Him.” (2:1–2)
The events described in this passage probably occurred several months after Jesus was born. We see from 2:11 that Jesus’ family was now staying in a house rather than the stable where He was born (Luke 2:7). Jesus, therefore, would already have been circumcised, and Mary would have completed her period of purification (Luke 2:21–27). The fact that she offered “a pair of turtledoves, or two young pigeons” (Luke 2:24) instead of the normal lamb (Lev. 12:6–8) indicates that the family was poor. Had this offering been made after the magi with their expensive gifts (Matt. 2:11) had already visited Jesus, the lamb could easily have been afforded and would have been required.
bethlehem of judea
As it still is today, Bethlehem was then a small town five or six miles south of Jerusalem, in the fertile hill country of Judea (Judah). It is cradled between two ridges and was located along the main ancient highway from Jerusalem to Egypt. It was once called Ephrath, or Ephrathah, and is referred to by that name several times in the Old Testament (Gen. 35:16; Ruth 4:11; Ps. 132:6; Mic. 5:2). The town came to be called Bethlehem after the conquest of Canaan under Joshua, its new name meaning “house of bread.”
It was at Bethlehem that Jacob buried Rachel (Gen. 35:19), the traditional site of whose tomb is still shown to tourists today. It was also here that Ruth met and married Boaz (Ruth 1:22; 2:4) and that their illustrious grandson, David, grew up and tended sheep (1 Sam. 17:12, 15). By the time of Jesus’ birth, it had long been called “the city of David” (Luke 2:4, 11). The prophet Micah specifically promised that the Messiah would come from this small village (5:2).
herod the king
This Herod, known as “the Great,” is the first of several Herods mentioned in the New Testament. Julius Caesar had appointed his father, Antipater, to be procurator, or governor, of Judea under the Roman occupation. Antipater then managed to have his son Herod appointed prefect of Galilee. In that office Herod was successful in quelling the Jewish guerilla bands who continued to fight against their foreign rulers. After fleeing to Egypt when the Parthians invaded Palestine, Herod then went to Rome and in 40 b.c. was declared by Octavian and Antony (with the concurrence of the Roman senate) to be the king of the Jews. He invaded Palestine the next year and, after several years of fighting, drove out the Parthians and established his kingdom.
Because he was not Jewish, but Idumean (Edomite), Herod married Mariamne, heiress to the Jewish Hasmonean house, in order to make himself more acceptable to the Jews he now ruled. He was a clever and capable warrior, orator, and diplomat. In times of severe economic hardship he gave back some tax money collected from the people. During the great famine of 25 b.c. he melted down various gold objects in the palace to buy food for the poor. He built theaters, race tracks, and other structures to provide entertainment for the people, and in 19 b.c. he began the reconstruction of the Temple in Jerusalem. He revived Samaria and built the beautiful port city of Caesarea in honor of his benefactor Caesar Augustus (Octavian’s title). He embellished the cities of Beirut, Damascus, Tyre, Sidon, and Rhodes, and even made contributions to rebuilding work in Athens. He built the remarkable and almost impregnable fortress of Masada, where in a.d. 73 nearly a thousand Jewish defenders committed suicide rather than be captured by the Roman general Flavius Silva.
But Herod was also cruel and merciless. He was incredibly jealous, suspicious, and afraid for his position and power. Fearing his potential threat, he had the high priest Aristobulus, who was his wife Mariamne’s brother, drowned—after which he provided a magnificent funeral where he pretended to weep. He then had Mariamne herself killed, and then her mother and two of his own sons. Five days before his death (about a year after Jesus was born) he had a third son executed. One of the greatest evidences of his bloodthirstiness and insane cruelty was having the most distinguished citizens of Jerusalem arrested and imprisoned shortly before his death. Because he knew no one would mourn his own death, he gave orders for those prisoners to be executed the moment he died—in order to guarantee that there would be mourning in Jerusalem. That barbaric act was exceeded in cruelty only by his slaughter of “all the male children who were in Bethlehem and in all its environs, from two years old and under” (Matt. 2:16) in hopes of killing any threat to his throne from the One the magi said had been born King of the Jews.
magi from the east
Few biblical stories are as well known, yet so clouded by myth and tradition, as that of the magi, or wise men, mentioned by Matthew. During the Middle Ages legend developed that they were kings, that they were three in number, and that their names were Casper, Balthazar, and Melchior. Because they were thought to represent the three sons of Noah, one of them is often pictured as an Ethiopian. A twelfth-century bishop of Cologne even claimed to have found their skulls.
The only legitimate facts we know about these particular magi are the few given by Matthew in the first twelve verses of chapter 2. We are not told their number, their names, their means of transportation to Palestine, or the specific country or countries from which they came. The fact that they came from the east would have been assumed by most people in New Testament times, because the magi were primarily known as the priestly-political class of the Parthians—who lived to the east of Palestine.
The magi first appear in history in the seventh century b.c. as a tribe within the Median nation in eastern Mesopotamia. Many historians consider them to have been Semites, which if so, made them—with the Jews and Arabs—descendants of Noah’s son Shem. It may also be that, like Abraham, the magi came from ancient Ur in Chaldea. The name magi soon came to be associated solely with the hereditary priesthood within that tribe. The magi became skilled in astronomy and astrology (which, in that day, were closely associated) and had a sacrificial system that somewhat resembled the one God gave to Israel through Moses. They were involved in various occult practices, including sorcery, and were especially noted for their ability to interpret dreams. It is from their name that our words magic and magician are derived.
A principle element of magian worship was fire, and on their primary altar burned a perpetual flame, which they claimed descended from heaven. The magi were monotheistic, believing in the existence of only one god. Because of their monotheism, it was easy for the magi to adapt to the teaching of the sixth-century b.c. Persian religious leader named Zoroaster, who believed in a single god, Ahura Mazda, and a cosmic struggle between good and evil. Darius the Great established Zoroastrianism as the state religion of Persia.
Because of their combined knowledge of science, agriculture, mathematics, history, and the occult, their religious and political influence continued to grow until they became the most prominent and powerful group of advisors in the Medo-Persian and subsequently the Babylonian empire. It is not strange, therefore, that they often were referred to as “wise men.” It may be that “the law of the Medes and Persians” (see Dan. 6:8, 12, 15; Esther 1:19) was founded on the teachings of these magi. Historians tell us that no Persian was ever able to become king without mastering the scientific and religious disciplines of the magi and then being approved and crowned by them, and that this group also largely controlled judicial appointments (cf. Esther 1:13). Nergal-sar-ezer the Rab-mag, chief of the Babylonian magi, was with Nebuchadnezzar when he attacked and conquered Judah (Jer. 39:3).
We learn from the book of Daniel that the magi were among the highest-ranking officials in Babylon. Because the Lord gave Daniel the interpretation of Nebuchadnezzar’s dream—which none of the other court seers was able to do—Daniel was appointed as “ruler over the whole province of Babylon and chief prefect over all the wise men of Babylon” (Dan. 2:48). Because of his great wisdom and because he had successfully pleaded for the lives of the wise men who had failed to interpret the king’s dream (Dan. 2:24), Daniel came to be highly regarded among the magi. The plot against Daniel that caused him to be thrown into the lions’ den was fomented by the jealous satraps and the other commissioners, not the magi (Dan. 6:4–9).
Because of Daniel’s high position and great respect among them, it seems certain that the magi learned much from that prophet about the one true God, the God of Israel, and about His will and plans for His people through the coming glorious King. Because many Jews remained in Babylon after the Exile and intermarried with the people of the east, it is likely that Jewish messianic influence remained strong in that region even until New Testament times.
During both the Greek and Roman empires the magi’s power and influence continued in the eastern provinces, particularly in Parthia. As mentioned above, it was the Parthians that Herod, in behalf of Rome, drove out of Palestine between 39 and 37 b.c., when his kingship of Judea began. Some magi—many of them probably outcasts or false practitioners—lived in various parts of the Roman Empire, including Palestine. Among them was Simon of Samaria (Acts 8:9), whom tradition and history have come to refer to as Simon Magus because of his “practicing magic” (Greek, mageuō, derived from the Babylonian magus, singular of magi). The Jewish false prophet Bar-Jesus was also a sorcerer, or “magician” (Greek, magos). These magicians were despised by both Romans and Jews. Philo, a first-century b.c. Jewish philosopher from Alexandria, called them vipers and scorpions.
The magi from the east (the word literally means “from the rising” of the sun, and refers to the orient) who came to see Jesus were of a completely different sort. Not only were they true magi, but they surely had been strongly influenced by Judaism, quite possibly even by some of the prophetic writings, especially that of Daniel. They appear to be among the many God-fearing Gentiles who lived at the time of Christ, a number of whom—such as Cornelius and Lydia (Acts 10:1–2; 16:14)—are mentioned in the New Testament.
When these magi, however many there were, arrived in Jerusalem, they began asking, “Where is He who has been born King of the Jews?” The Greek construction (saying is a present participle emphasizing continual action) suggests that they went around the city questioning whomever they met. Because they, as foreigners, knew of the monumental birth, they apparently assumed that anyone in Judea, and certainly in Jerusalem, would know of this special baby’s whereabouts. They must have been more than a little shocked to discover that no one seemed to know what they were talking about.
During that time there was widespread expectation of the coming of a great king, a great deliverer. The Roman historian Suetonius, speaking of the time around the birth of Christ, wrote, “There had spread over all the Orient an old and established belief that it was fated at that time for men coming from Judea to rule the world.” Another Roman historian, Tacitus, wrote that “there was a firm persuasion that at this very time the east was to grow powerful and rulers coming from Judea were to acquire a universal empire.” The Jewish historian Josephus reports in his Jewish Wars that at about the time of Christ’s birth the Jews believed that one from their country would soon become ruler of the habitable earth.
As seen in the writings of the Roman poet Virgil (70–19 b.c), Rome was expecting its own golden age. Augustus Caesar, Herod’s benefactor, had for some time been hailed as the savior of the world. Many magi could be found in the great cities of the west, including Athens and Rome, and were frequently consulted by Roman rulers. The Romans were looking for a coming great age, wise men from the east had long influenced the west with their ideas and traditions, and—though the particulars varied considerably—there was a growing feeling that from somewhere a great and unprecedented world leader was about to arise.
We are not told how the God of revelation caused the magi to know that the King of the Jews had been born, only that He gave them the sign of His [the One called King] star in the east. Almost as much speculation has been made about the identity of that star as about the identity of the men who saw it. Some suggest that it was Jupiter, the “king of the planets.” Others claim that it was the conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn, forming the sign of the fish—which was used as a symbol for Christianity in the early church during the Roman persecutions. Still others claim that it was a low-hanging meteor, an erratic comet, or simply an inner vision of the star of destiny in the hearts of mankind.
Since the Bible does not identify or explain the star, we cannot be dogmatic, but it may have been the glory of the Lord—the same glory that shone around the shepherds when Jesus’ birth was announced to them by the angel (Luke 2:9). Throughout the Old Testament we are told of God’s glory being manifested as light, God radiating His presence (Shekinah) in the form of ineffable light. The Lord guided the children of Israel through the wilderness by “a pillar of cloud by day … and in a pillar of fire by night” (Ex. 13:21). When Moses went up on Mount Sinai, “to the eyes of the sons of Israel the appearance of the glory of the Lord was like a consuming fire on the mountaintop” (Ex. 24:17). On a later occasion, after Moses had inscribed the Ten Commandments on stone tablets, His face still glowed with the light of God’s glory when he returned to the people (Ex. 34:30).
When Jesus was transfigured before Peter, James, and John, “His face shone like the sun, and His garments became as white as light” (Matt. 17:2). On the Damascus road, just before Jesus spoke to him, Saul of Tarsus was surrounded by “a light from heaven” (Acts 9:3), which he later explained was “brighter than the sun” (26:13). In John’s first vision on the Island of Patmos, he saw Christ’s face “like the sun shining in its strength” (Rev. 1:16). In his vision of the New Jerusalem, the future heavenly dwelling of all believers, he reports that “the city has no need of the sun or of the moon to shine upon it, for the glory of God has illumined it, and its lamp is the Lamb” (Rev. 21:23).
Both the Hebrew (kôkāb) and the Greek (astēr) words for star were also used figuratively to represent any great brilliance or radiance. Very early in the Old Testament the Messiah is spoken of as a “star [that] shall come forth from Jacob” (Num. 24:17), and at the end of the New Testament He refers to Himself as “the bright morning star” (Rev. 22:16). It was surely the glory of God, blazing as if it were an extremely bright star—visible only to the eyes for whom it was intended to be seen—that appeared to the magi in the east and later guided them to Bethlehem. It was a brilliant manifestation of “the sign of the Son of Man” (see Matt. 24:29–30; Rev. 1:7). The Shekinah glory of God stood over Bethlehem just as, centuries before, it had stood over the Tabernacle in the wilderness. And just as the pillar of cloud gave light to Israel but darkness to Egypt (Ex. 14:20), only the eyes of the magi were opened to see God’s great light over Bethlehem.
That the magi were not following the star is clear from the fact that they had to inquire about where Jesus was born. They saw His star in the east, but there is no evidence that it continued to shine or that it led them to Jerusalem. It was not until they were told of the prophesied birthplace of the Messiah (2:5–6) that the star reappeared and then guided them not only to Bethlehem but to the exact place “where the Child was” (v. 9).
These travelers from the east had come to Palestine with but one purpose: to find the One born King of the Jews and worship Him. The word worship is full of meaning, expressing the idea of falling down, prostrating oneself, and kissing the feet or the hem of the garment of the one honored. That truth in itself shows that they were true seekers after God, because when He spoke to them, in whatever way it was, they heard and responded. Despite their paganism, quasi-science, and superstition they recognized God’s voice when He spoke. Though having had limited spiritual light, they immediately recognized God’s light when it shone on them. They had genuinely seeking hearts, hearts that the Lord promises will never fail to find Him (Jer. 29:13).
On a plane trip several years ago I was hoping that whoever sat next to me would take a nap and not want to talk, so that I could get some urgent work done. The Lord obviously had other plans, because as soon as the man next to me saw I was studying he asked if I were a teacher. I replied that I was not a classroom teacher but that I did teach the Bible. His next question was, “Can you tell me how to have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ?” After I explained the way of salvation, he received Christ. He was looking for God’s light and, like the magi, when he saw it he knew it.
2 The Magi saw a star “when it rose” (NIV text note; see Notes, vv. 1–2). What they saw remains uncertain.
- The German astronomer Johannes Kepler (d. 1630) pointed out that in the Roman year AUC 747 (7 BC), there occurred a conjunction of the planets Jupiter and Saturn in the zodiacal constellation of Pisces, a sign sometimes connected in ancient astrology with the Hebrews. Many details can be fitted to this suggestion (cf. Brown, Birth of the Messiah, 172–73; NIDNTT, 3:735), not least that medieval Jews saw messianic significance in the same planetary conjunction. Moreover, the conjunction occurred in May, October, and November of 7 BC, and one of the latter two appearances could account for 2:9. But there is no solid evidence that the ancients referred to such conjunctions as “stars”; and even at their closest proximity, Jupiter and Saturn would have been about one degree apart—a perceived distance about twice the diameter of the moon—and therefore never fused into one image.
- Michael Molnar (The Star of Bethlehem: The Legacy of the Magi [Piscataway, N.J.: Rutgers Univ. Press, 1999]) suggests that twice in 6 BC the moon comes in front of Jupiter, totally obscuring it (a lunar “occultation” of Jupiter), and that astrologically this indicates a royal birth. He then makes other connections to tie this to the birth to Judah. The problem is that these occultations were not visible in Babylon (the most likely provenance of the Magi) since Jupiter at that time of year was below the horizon. Molnar acknowledges the point, but thinks the Magi might nevertheless have calculated the occultation without witnessing it. Matthew, however, stipulates that the Magi “saw” the star (v. 2). Moreover, Molnar’s theory does not align well with v. 9 (see below).
- Kepler himself preferred the suggestion that this was a supernova—a faint star that violently explodes and gives off enormous amounts of light for a few weeks or months. A recent defense of this view is that of Mark Kidger (The Star of Bethlehem: An Astronomer’s View [Princeton, N.J.: Princeton Univ. Press, 1999]), who argues for a nova in 5 BC, preceded by three precursors (e.g., a triple conduction of Saturn and Jupiter in Pisces in 7 BC). There is little confirming evidence, and it is difficult on this theory to account for 2:9.
- Others have suggested comets, what some older writers refer to as “variable stars.” The most likely is Halley’s Comet (cf. Lagrange), which passed overhead in 12 BC; but this seems impossibly early.
- Ernest L. Martin opts for a number of planetary conjunctions and massings in 3/2 BC. This suggestion depends on his entire reconstruction and late date for Herod’s death (see comments at v. 1), which is no more than a possibility. The theory also shares some of the difficulties of point 1.
- In the light of 2:9, many commentators insist that astronomical considerations are a waste of time: Matthew presents the “star” as strictly supernatural. This, too, is possible and obviously impossible to falsify, but v. 9 is not as determinative as is often suggested (see comments at v. 9).
- Because it is difficult to imagine a “star” of any conceivable astronomical variety guiding the Magi along the road to Bethlehem, Allison (Studies in Matthew, 17–41) suggests that the “star” is actually a guiding angel. It is easy to list many texts in which stars and angels are linked; it is more difficult to find convincing parallels in which a star simply represents an angel. Moreover, the difficulty many find with v. 9 is not nearly as great as some have thought (see comments at vv. 9–10).
The evidence is insufficient to come down firmly on one particular astronomical theory.
Matthew uses language almost certainly alluding to Numbers 24:17: “A star will come out of Jacob; a scepter will rise out of Israel.” This oracle, spoken by Balaam, who came “from the eastern mountains” (Nu 23:7), was widely regarded as messianic (Tg. Ps.-J.; Tg. Onq.; CD 7:19–20; 1QM 11:6; 1QSb 5:27; 4QTest 12–13; T. Jud. 24:1). Both Matthew and Numbers deal with the king of Israel (Nu 24:7), though Matthew does not resort to the uncontrolled allegorizing on “star” frequently found in early postapostolic Christian writings (cf. Jean Danielou, The Theology of Jewish Christianity [London: Darton, Longman, 1964], 214–24).
Granting Matthew’s informed devotion to the OT, he surely knew that the OT mocks astrologers (Isa 47:13–15; Da 1:20; 2:27; 4:7; 5:7) and forbids astrology (Jer 10:1–2). Nevertheless, it was widely practiced in the first century, even among Jews (cf. Albright and Mann). Matthew neither condemns nor sanctions it; instead, he contrasts the eagerness of the Magi to worship Jesus, despite their limited knowledge, with the apathy of the Jewish leaders and the hostility of Herod’s court—all of whom had the Scriptures to inform them. Formal knowledge of the Scriptures, Matthew implies, does not in itself lead to knowing who Jesus is. Just as God sovereignly worked through Caesar’s decree that a census be taken (Lk 2:1) to ensure that Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem would fulfill prophecy, so God sovereignly used the Magi’s calculations to bring about the situation this pericope describes.
The question the Magi asked does not tell how their astrology led them to seek a “king of the Jews” and what made them think this particular star was “his.” The widely held idea that the ancient world was looking for a Jewish leader of renown (based largely on Josephus, J.W. 6.312–13 [5.4]; Suetonius, Vesp. 4; Tacitus, Hist. v. 13; Virgil, Ecl. 4) cannot stand close scrutiny. The Josephus passage refers to Jewish expectations of Messiah, and the others probably borrowed from Josephus. The Magi may have linked the star to “the king of the Jews” through studying the OT and other Jewish writings—a possibility made plausible by the presence of the large Jewish community in Babylon.
We must not think that the Magi’s question meant, Where is the one born to become king of the Jews? but, Where is the one born king of the Jews? (see Notes). His kingly status was not conferred on him later on; it was his from birth. Jesus’ participation in the Davidic dynasty has already been established by the genealogy. The same title the Magi gave him found its place over the cross (27:37).
“Worship” (see Notes) need not imply that the Magi recognized Jesus’ divinity; it may simply mean “do homage” (Broadus). Their own statement suggests homage paid royalty rather than the worship of Deity. But Matthew, having already told of the virginal conception, doubtless expected his readers to discern something more—namely, that the Magi “worshiped” better than they knew.
2 Their astrological deductions from the “rising” of a star had convinced the magi of a royal birth in the “westland” (Palestine), hence the title “King of the Jews.” The idea that a special star heralded the birth of famous people (and other significant events) was widespread in the ancient world.38 The magi were presumably aware of Herod’s royal position, and perhaps assuming that a birth had taken place within his family they had come to find out more.
Both astronomers and biblical historians continue to try to identify the nature of the rising of the star and its subsequent movements on the basis of Matthew’s brief description and of astronomical data, but with little consensus. Three recurrent suggestions40 perhaps deserve a mention.
- A comet. Comets have long been held to herald the arrival of important figures on the world stage, and a comet visible in the western sky might well explain the journey of the magi, but unfortunately astronomers have not been able to identify a comet which would have been visible at about the right historical date. Halley’s comet appeared in 12–11 b.c., too early to fit the chronological data of the gospels.
- A planetary conjunction (rather than a single star, as Matthew describes it). The favorite candidate here is a conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn in the constellation of Pisces, which would have taken place in 7 b.c., and which could have been interpreted to mean the birth of a king (Jupiter, the royal planet) in Palestine (Saturn was thought to be the planet representing the “westland”), while the constellation of Pisces represented the last days. This unusual conjunction thus indicated, “There will appear in Palestine in this year the ruler of the last days.”
- A nova (or perhaps a super-nova). This is the result of a stellar explosion and produces an extremely bright phenomenon which usually lasts for a number of months. This was the preferred theory of Johannes Kepler, even though he also noted the planetary conjunction of 7 b.c. Chinese astronomers recorded a nova which was visible for 70 days in 5/4 b.c., which would fit a date shortly before the death of Herod.
While proponents of at least the second and third of the above theories are convinced that their astronomical results sufficiently match Matthew’s description, those of us who are not astronomers may find it hard to envisage either of these phenomena first “rising,” then “leading on” the magi and eventually “coming to rest” in such a way as to indicate a specific location, even when due allowance is made for the phenomenal viewpoint of the story-teller’s language. Despite the fascination of astronomical explanations it may in the end be more appropriate to interpret Matt 2:9 as describing not a regular astronomical occurrence but the miraculous provision of what appeared to be a star which uniquely moved and then stopped (or at least which appeared to observers on the ground to do so), though of course there is no improbability in a natural astronomical phenomenon being the basis on which the magi made their initial deductions and set off on their journey.
The nature of the “homage” of the magi (the verb recurs in vv. 8 and 11) is not clearly spelled out, except for the offering of expensive gifts, such as might befit a royal birth. Their “prostration” (v. 11, literally “falling”) was a familiar act of homage in Eastern society, a recognition of social superiority. Neither term requires the attribution of divinity to the one so honored, and Matthew’s narrative does not indicate that the magi had any such notion (they came looking for a “king,” not a “god”), though he might expect his Christian readers with hindsight to read more into the “worship” of the magi.
2:2 king of the Jews. When the magi ask for information about “the one who has been born king of the Jews,” Matthew portrays Herod’s response as one of agitation over this potential rival to his throne. The repeated emphasis on Herod as king (2:1, 3, 9) and his power to suppress any rivals (2:16) indicates that Matthew 2 is about political as well as religious authority and claims. For Matthew, Jesus is the Messiah or “king of the Jews.” As such, he threatens Herod’s claim to be king of the Jewish people, the very position granted to him by Roman authority. Herod understands Jesus to be a threat and responds by killing every boy in Bethlehem who might be the one whom the magi came to find (2:16), necessitating that Joseph and Mary take Jesus and flee to Egypt. Even when they return to Israel after Herod dies, they avoid coming under the rule of Herod’s son Archelaus by settling in the north, in Galilee.
 MacArthur, J. F., Jr. (1985). Matthew (Vol. 1, pp. 25–30). Chicago: Moody Press.
 Carson, D. A. (2010). Matthew. In T. Longman III & D. E. Garland (Eds.), The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Matthew–Mark (Revised Edition) (Vol. 9, pp. 111–112). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.
 France, R. T. (2007). The Gospel of Matthew (pp. 68–69). Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publication Co.
 Brown, J. K. (2015). Matthew. (M. L. Strauss & J. H. Walton, Eds.) (p. 23). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books.