Yesterday’s post provided a brief overview of the Epiphany, commemorated on January 6, or Twelfth Night, the final day of Christmastide.

As the Epiphany remembers the visit of the Gentile Magi, or Wise Men, it is worthwhile examining who they were. A helpful page from Our Redeemer Lutheran Church (Missouri Synod) of Lexington, Kentucky, has many answers. This is useful for those new to the faith or for those who are teaching children about the New Testament and the life of Christ.

Excerpts from Dr Richard P Bucher’s article follow (2017 update — unfortunately, the link is no longer active). Emphases are mine, except for the titles:

2. What are “magi”?

The original Greek in Matthew 2:1ff., calls the men who came to visit Jesus magoi, the plural of magos. The English word “magi,” is based on this Greek word, but is actually the Latin plural of magus, which in turn is simply a transliteration of the Greek New Testament word magos. Confused, yet?! More importantly, what does Matthew 2:1-12 tell us about magi? The text reveals that they had the wealth and knowledge to travel and offer lavish gifts; they also had knowledge about the stars (“We have seen his star in the east . . .” Matthew 2:2) …

Fortunately other ancient literature comes to our aid in helping us to understand who magi were. From the Jewish historian Josephus, the Greek historian Herodotus, and the writings of Strabo, a clearer picture of the people called the magi appears. The magi first appear in history in about the 7th century B.C. in the Median empire (Herodotus I, ci). It is possible that we see examples of them in Daniel 2 and Jeremiah 39. At the time of the birth of Jesus they were an ancient priestly caste dwelling within the Parthian empire that practiced astrology (note: at this time, “astrology” was a hybrid of astrology and what we now call astronomy). They were adept at interpreting dreams (which we possibly get a flavor of as early as Daniel 2). Also at the time just prior to the birth of our Lord, the magi formed the upper house of the council of the Megistanes, whose duties included the election of the king of the Parthian empire (Strabo, XI, ix, 3). Thus, the magi at this time were very possibly “king makers.” (Sources: D. W. Jayne, “Magi,” The Zondervan Pictorial Encyclopedia of the Bible, vol. 4:31-34; Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews and The Jewish War; Herodotus, The History of Herodotus; A. Holmstead, History of the Persian Empire).

5. How many magi were there?

Unknown. Matthew 2:1-16 simply uses the plural. We know there were two or more. It is interesting that Christian art from the first centuries of the Church show various numbers of magi, ranging from 2 to 8.

6. Where did they come from?

The only thing we can say with certainty is “from the east” (Matthew 2:1). Our best knowledge is that members of the Magian priesthood existed in Parthian empire at this time, which encompassed a large area to the east of the eastern frontier of the Roman Empire.

7. Did the magi visit baby Jesus while He was still in the manger?

No. Matthew’s Gospel clearly says that the magi entered a house (2:11).

8. How old was Jesus when the magi visited Him?

The Biblical data to guide us in answering this is as follows. (1) We know from Luke’s Gospel (2:21) that Jesus was circumcised at 8 days old; (2) We also know from Luke 2:22-24, that when the 40 days of Mary’s “uncleanness” had passed (see Leviticus 12:1ff.), they presented Jesus, their first born son in the temple in Jerusalem, according to God’s Law (Exodus 13:2ff.; Numbers 3:13, 8:17. (3) Herod asked the magi when they had first seen the star (Matthew 2:7) and on this basis later killed all of the male children in Bethlehem, age two and under (Matthew 2:16). In addition to this, there is (4), that the magi came during the reign of King Herod, whom we know died in 4 BC;

On this basis we can lay out the following with a fair amount of certainty. Jesus was between 41 days and 2 years old when the magi arrived. The magi had to have come after Jesus’ presentation in the temple, that is, after Jesus was 40 days old. Why? Because, Matthew’s Gospel tells us that after the magi departed, an angel warned Joseph to flee to Egypt, since Herod would seek to kill Jesus. According to Scripture, Joseph left that very night and went to Egypt (2:13-15). This would have left no time or opportunity for the presentation in the temple, which we know happened

9. Was the star an ordinary star?

No. It was clearly supernatural. For, according to Matthew 2:9, the star moved ahead of them until it was directly over the house where Jesus was and then stopped. No ordinary star does this. Rationalists have long tried to come up with a natural explanation for this star, that it was a comet, conjunction of two planets, or some other phenomenon. But, first of all, there is no proof for their natural explanations. And second, as said above, this star did things that normal stars do not.

12. What is the significance of the visit of the magi?

The account of the magi is rightly celebrated as an epiphany of our Lord. In other words, the main significance of this account is that God so wonderfully revealed the identity of Jesus as Messiah and King of the Jews to these Gentile magi. It seems to be a wonderful fulfillment of the prophet Simeon’s prophecy, that Jesus would be, “a light of revelation to the Gentiles” (Luke 2:31).