The Magi took extraordinary efforts to pursue the saviour of the world based on their astronomical knowledge. While seeking the king of the Jews, they also announced the birth of the Emmanuel to King Herod, the priests, and the Jewish scholars in Jerusalem. However, King Herod considered the child as a threat while the priests and the Scribes simply ignored the message. They all missed the great treasure that the wise men from the east had diligently searched and located. The kings presented gifts to the King of the Jews, and Jesus in return blessed them with salvation. Christians venerate the wise men as saints. Jesus and his message of salvation is the treasure which we must value above everything else (Mt 13:44-46) like the Magi.
(Mt 2:1) When Jesus was born in Bethlehem, in Judea, during the days of King Herod, wise men from the East arrived in Jerusalem. (2) They asked, “Where is the newborn King of the Jews? We saw the rising of his star in the East and have come to honour him.” (3) When Herod heard this he was greatly disturbed and with him all the people in Jerusalem. (4) He called a meeting of all high ranking priests and experts of the Law and asked them where the Messiah was to be born. (5) They told him, “In the town of Bethlehem in Judea, for this is what the prophet wrote: (6) And you, Bethlehem, land of Judah, you are by no means the least among the leading cities of Judah, for from you will come a leader, the one who is to shepherd my people Israel.” (7) So Herod called the wise men to a private meeting and found out from them the exact time when the star had appeared. (8) Then he sent them to Bethlehem with the instruction, “Go and search carefully for the child. As soon as you have found him, report to me, so that I too may go and honour him.” (9) After the meeting with the king, they set out. The star that they had seen in the East went ahead of them and stopped over the place where the child was.
(10) The wise men were overjoyed on seeing the star again. (11) They went into the house and when they saw the child with Mary his mother, they knelt down and worshipped him. They opened their treasure chests and offered to him their gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. (12) They were warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, so they returned to their home country by another way.
The central theme of the Magi’s visit is the Jewish rejection and the Gentile acceptance of Infant Jesus.
(1) When Jesus was born in Bethlehem, in Judea, during the days of King Herod, wise men from the East arrived in Jerusalem.
Bethlehem, in Judea
The Evangelist Matthew specifies the birthplace of Jesus as “Bethlehem, in Judea” to distinguish it from another Bethlehem near the Sea of Galilee that was part of the tribe of Zebulun (Josh 19:15). Bethlehem is six miles south of Jerusalem and its former name was Ephrath. Bethlehem means “the house of bread” because it was a fertile land for farming and animal rearing.
Some Old Testament events had happened in Bethlehem. Jacob’s favourite wife Rachel died on the road to Ephrath (Bethlehem) and he buried her near Ephrath where Jacob erected a pillar to mark her grave (Gen 35:19-20; 48:7). Ruth lived and married Boaz here (Ruth 1:22). Bethlehem was the home and city of David (1 Samuel 16:1; 17:12; 20:6). God had promised to David that the Messiah would come from his descendants (1 Chr 17:11-14). Prophet Micah had specified that the Messiah will come from Bethlehem (Mic 5:2).
During the days of King Herod
Herod, the king of Jews, was half Jew and half Idumaean. The Roman Senate with Antony’s recommendation first appointed him as governor in 47 BC, and in 40 BC gave him the title as king. He ruled the Jews for a lengthy period until his death in 4 BC. His title is Herod the Great because he was an able ruler, brought peace and order amid chaos, constructed prominent structures including the reconstruction of the Temple of Jerusalem. He was generous to his people when they had economic difficulty and starvation. King Herod was at Jerusalem when the Magi arrived from the East though he had other residences.
The Magi were Medes from the Median tribe that was part of the Persian empire. They had tried to overthrow the Persians and establish the rule of Medes. When that failed, they became a tribe of priests like Levites of Israel. They also served as teachers and advisors of the Persian Kings. Hence, they were men of holiness and wisdom.
Magi were experts in all branches of knowledge. They were also astrologers, fortune tellers, and interpreters of dreams. The Bible does not specify how many wise men came. One tradition is that they were 12. The universal acceptance of there being three has links to the three gifts the Magi gave to Infant Jesus. The legends gave them names: Melchior, Gaspar, and Balthasar.
Matthew does not specify the Magi as kings. Some Old Testament texts predicted the visit of kings with the same gifts that Magi brought (Ps 72:10, 15; Isa 60:6). That led to the interpretation that the Magi were kings. Another interpretation came from Palms 72:11. “All kings bow down to him, and all nations serve him.” According to the Western church tradition, “Balthasar is often represented as a king of Arabia or sometimes Ethiopia, Melchior as a king of Persia, and Gaspar as a king of India” (https://www.britannica.com/topic/Magi).
From the East
East of Jerusalem can mean Arabia, Persia, or Mesopotamia. The traditional concept is that Magi came from Persia.
Arrived in Jerusalem
The Magi came to Jerusalem, the capital city of Jews because they assumed that the King of the Jews might be born in that royal city. The star that guided them withdrew for a while, facilitating them to inform the birth of the Messiah to Herod the king of Jews, the priests, and the Jewish scholars. They symbolized the royal, priestly, and prophetic representatives of God. He thus communicated to them the incarnation of His Son as the eternal king, priest, and prophet. However, the narrow minded leaders ignored the important message because it came through the Gentile kings.
(2) They asked, “Where is the newborn King of the Jews? We saw the rising of his star in the East and have come to honor him.”
Where is the newborn King of the Jews?
The Jewish leaders were clueless about the birth of their king. They came to know of it from the Gentile astronomers. The Jewish scholars, with documentary backup, told the Magi that the eternal King of the Jews would be born in Bethlehem. Still, the Jewish elite did not search for their own king.
The question of Magi, “Where is the newborn King of the Jews?” implies that the Magi were not Jews. People in the East had a belief that a sovereign king of the world would arise from Judea. Both the Jews and Gentiles were awaiting the divinely promised king.
A star can be any celestial object. Modern astronomers calculate that it was Jupiter and so, not a star in the strict modern concept. There was an ancient belief that a new star would appear at the birth of a ruler.
(3) When Herod heard this, he was greatly disturbed and with him all the people in Jerusalem.
King Herod gained authority over the Jews from the Roman emperor. The Jews could not accept him as their king because he was of mixed blood and not a descendant of King David. Based on their scriptures, the Jews needed that their rightful king should always be of the lineage of David. So, Herod was anxious about the rejective mentality of Jews toward him and he was vigilant to safeguard his kingship. His fanaticism for power made him kill even his wife Mariamne, her mother Alexandra, his sons Antipater, Alexander, and Aristobulus. Such an insane and power-obsessed king would eliminate an infant born as the legitimate king of Jews to replace him. The Jews in the whole Jerusalem troubled because they knew how Herod would get rid of any king born as their liberator.
(4) He called a meeting of all high-ranking priests and experts of the Law and asked them where the Messiah was to be born.
High ranking priests
The High Priest must be the living head of the Aaronic family. However, the Roman rulers broke tradition to appoint a person of their choice in that prestigious position. The term ‘High ranking priests’ refers to the current High Priest along with his predecessors.
Experts of the Law
Scribes were transcribers of the law and readers in the synagogue. Later they also became interpreters of religious and civil laws. Some Bible scholars assume that Herod summoned the Sanhedrin, the supreme council of over 70 representatives, considering the importance of the matter.
Where the Messiah was to be born.
King Herod knew that there were prophecies surrounding the birth of the Messiah. So, the High Priests and Scribes should be able to tell him the birthplace of this divine saviour.
(5) They told him, “In the town of Bethlehem in Judea, for this is what the prophet wrote…
The scriptural experts knew the birthplace of the Messiah.
(6) “And you, Bethlehem, land of Judah, you are by no means the least among the leading cities of Judah, for from you will come a leader, the one who is to shepherd my people Israel.”
The High Priests and the Scribes quoted from the prophet Micah 5:2.
Who is to shepherd my people Israel.
The Bible characterizes kings as shepherds of their people. It even considers God and Messiah also as shepherds of the people (Ezek 34:1-10). In Psalm 23:1, David says, “The Lord is my shepherd.”
(7) So Herod called the wise men to a private meeting and found out from them the exact time when the star had appeared.
Herod called the wise men to a private meeting.
Herod was plotting in his mind to frustrate God’s plan of salvation. He used extreme secrecy since he did not trust anyone, including the Jewish leaders he consulted. He did not follow the Magi or send his soldiers along with them for fear that they might get suspicious or that the Jews would accept and defend the newborn King who might soon replace him.
The time of the star’s appearance
Herod cleverly hid his anxiety at the announcement of his ‘rival’s’ birth. He made it a point to ascertain the time of the star’s appearance to estimate the newborn king’s date of birth. Based on that, he later ordered to kill children aged two or below.
(8) Then he sent them to Bethlehem with the instruction, “Go and search carefully for the child. As soon as you have found him, report to me, so that I too may go and honor him.”
Herod trusted the Magi who believed Herod and planned to return to him. They appreciated his apparent goodwill and “humility” to accept the newborn king and pay him homage.
(9) After the meeting with the king, they set out. The star that they had seen in the East went ahead of them and stopped over the place where the child was.
The star disappeared for a while. That made the Magi search for the newborn king in the palace of King Herod. A natural phenomenon like a cloud hid the star for a long time. However, God made the star visible when they came out of Herod’s palace, to guide them to Bethlehem.
(10) The wise men were overjoyed on seeing the star again.
The Magi could not get any help from King Herod, except that he could tell with the help of the scripture scholars that the child must be born in Bethlehem. It was the God-sent star that guided them to Infant Jesus.
(11) They went into the house and when they saw the child with Mary his mother, they knelt down and worshipped him. They opened their treasure chests and offered to him their gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.
On entering the house
According to the scholars, by the time the Magi arrived, Jesus might have grown few months and the Holy Family might have found someone’s house for their temporary stay in Bethlehem until Mary could travel back to Nazareth with the baby. So, Matthew writes that the Magi entered not a stable but a house.
They saw the child with Mary his mother.
The evangelist mentions the Child Jesus first because that was their purpose of the long and tedious journey from the Far East. Though Joseph was present, Matthew mentions only Mary, the mother of the infant.
They prostrated themselves and did him homage.
The Magi saw divinity in the child. So they fell and worshipped the Infant Jesus. They came not to see a standard king but a divine Saviour of the world, which includes the Jews and Gentiles. That motivated them to travel a humungous distance to see this unknown child with no invitation from a palace or a royal family.
Offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.
According to tradition, the Magi were of different ages. Melchior was an old man with grey hair and long beard, who presented gold, acknowledging the kingship of the child. Gaspar (Caspar) was young and beardless who brought frankincense honouring Jesus as God. Balthasar was middle-aged, dark-complexioned with a black beard carrying myrrh, portending his sacrificial death.
The offerings represent the three-fold functions of Jesus. Frankincense is an aromatic that is used in holocaust offerings because animal sacrifices do emit a bad odour. It stood for Jesus, the new High Priest and the Lamb of God who sacrificed his life replacing all the earlier animal sacrifices. People used myrrh in perfuming ointments to anoint the representatives of God: prophets, priests, and king. So, it stood for the prophetic role of Jesus. Ancient people used myrrh for embalming the dead bodies. Thus, it also signified the death and burial of Jesus. The offering of gold, the king of metals, represented the kingship of Jesus, though his kingship differed from that of worldly kings. These three valuable gifts would have stood the Holy family in good stead at a difficult time because of their unexpected stay in Bethlehem and later in Egypt as refugees.
(12) They were warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, so they returned to their home country by another way.
The Magi also believed in the dream and avoided reporting back to King Herod. So, they had to leave secretly, hiding from the king and his officers to save the life of the Infant Jesus.
Story of Magi after they left Bethlehem
A 14th-century cleric John of Hildesheim in his writing Historia Trium Regum (The History of the Three Kings), gives the story of what happened to the Magi: The three wise men, Melchior, Balthazar, and Gaspar, were kings of “Ind, Chaldea, and Persia.” They travelled non-stop from their own lands, “in great haste.” When they departed Bethlehem after worshipping the Infant Jesus, they continued together until they reached the Hill of Vaws, or Hill of Victory, on the border of Ind. It was here that the star first appeared to the Magi. There was a watchtower there. Before leaving to their own countries, the three kings agreed to meet at that place once a year. They also decided that their burial should be at the Hill of Vaws.
Years later, a star appeared above the cities in which the kings lived just before Christmas, signifying to them they were near death. They gathered at the Hill of Vaws and built a large tomb for them. When they died, the grieving local people buried them in the same tomb.
Queen Saint Helena, the mother of the Roman Emperor Constantine, collected the bodies of the three kings and brought them into the church of Saint Sophia in Constantinople in the Fourth century. At a later period, because of the persecution of Christians, Emperor Mauricius moved the relics to a church in Milan. In the 12th century, Roman Emperor Frederick I rewarded the relics to Archbishop of Cologne Rainald von Dassel for offering him military aid to win a war in Italy against Milan. So, the archbishop moved the relic to Cologne in 1164. (https://archive.archaeology.org/online/reviews/threekings).
The Church in Cologne keeps the relics now above and behind the high altar of the Catholic Cathedral there. The church venerates Magi as saints. The tradition of exchanging gifts during Christmas season has its origin from the three kings who gave gifts to Infant Jesus.