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Who Were the Three Magi?

During Christmastime, the Magi are often spoken of , referred to as the ‘three wise men.’ The only time that the Magi officially appear in religious text is in the Gospel of Matthew. The only other Gospel with a narrative centered on the Nativity (Luke’s) does not mention the Magi. In this article, you will learn who the Magi were and what was their significance in religious circles.

What are Magi?

Magi were known figures of the ancient world, which translated into ‘wise man’ in Latin. In many different religions and cultures, they represent a member of a priestly caste, such as the Zoroastrians of ancient Persia. Following the conquest of Babylon by the Persians during the 6th century BC, Babylonian religious practices started to influence Zoroastrian ways and beliefs. The Persians’ idea of magi was one who was seen as a keeper of true and ancient wisdom. The Babylonians saw the magi as a sorcerer, magician, or astrologer. For the most part, they were looked upon as a trickster.

The Magi in the Gospel of Matthew

In the Gospel of Matthew, there is no specific mention of the ‘three wise men’ and Matthew refers to the men as ‘some wise men’ that come to Jerusalem from the East. They followed a new star, which traditionally makes reference to the birth of a ruler. They ask for assistance from King Herod the Great, who was the Roman King of Judea (from 37 to 4 BC) so that they can find the ‘infant King of the Jews.’ It is their wish to pay homage to the child.

Herod sends the men to Bethlehem and orders them to return when they locate the child because he is also interested in paying his own respects. At the end of their travels, the men find the infant in a house (not a manger according to Matthew) where the star they had been following paused. They worship the child and offer gifts: the infamous gold, frankincense, and myrrh.

The men also have a dream, which warms them to avoid Herod, who sees the child as a rival. When they travel home, they take a different route. It is said that Herod plotted to kill the infant.

Jewish, Christian, and other religious passages that involved the magi spoke of kings paying tribute with gifts to the infant. Because of this, early Christian writers called the magi ‘kings’ in their accounts.

The Symbolism of the Gifts

Jewish rituals state that only three kings of people were anointed: kings, priests, and prophets. The gift of kings is gold, while frankincense is associated with priests. The pungent scent of myrrh is one that is set aside for the prophet who typically has a quick tongue. When the infant Jesus receives all three gifts, it symbolizes a triple anointment

In the article titled, “Tales of the Magi,” you will learn the names of the three wise men, as well as a few legends associated with the ‘kings.’