The “magi” who visited baby Jesus of Nazareth after his birth in Bethlehem near the end of the 1st century BC are often misunderstood and somewhat of an enigma. Popular songs and plays refer to them incorrectly as “3 Kings,” while few have much of an idea who these men were and what country or culture they came from. The book of Matthew is the only surviving 1st century AD record of these mysterious magi who visit Jesus as a very young child—the other three Gospels do not mention this occurrence, and no reference is made to their visit in any other New Testament book. However, an 8th century AD Syriac manuscript recently discovered in the Vatican Library claims to be a first person account of the magi who visited Jesus. This document, unfortunately, does not give us all the answers about the magi. It is called The Revelation of the Magi, and some scholars believe the original account may have been composed as early as the middle of the 2nd century AD. Yet, it is also considered a fictional story (or fact based fiction), not written by the actual magi who visited Jesus. The story claims that the magi who visited Jesus were monk-like mystics from a distant land called Shir (perhaps China), and descendants of Seth who have been guardians of a prophecy that a brilliant star would one day appear to herald the birth of God in human form (a possible reference to the star mentioned by Balaam in Numbers 24:17). An interesting detail of the story reveals that the magi discover the “star” is actually a luminous child directing them to Judea—perhaps the author’s depiction of an angel. The word for “star” used in the Greek New Testament had a variety of meanings in ancient Greek literature, including an angel. Although The Revelation of the Magi may contain some historically relevant information, the details are likely fabricated. Ancient historical texts give a more accurate picture of who these magi were. The word magi (plural) originally comes from Old Persian magush, transmitted through Greek as magos (singular) / magoi (plural). The earliest reference comes from the Old Persian Behistun Inscription of Darius (ca. 520 BC) which unfortunately does not shed light on any specific meaning, while a Greek text of Heraclitus (ca. 6th century BC) claims the magi participated in impious rituals. Later texts are clearer about who magi are and what they do. Herodotus recorded two meanings for magi—one as a tribe of the Medes, and the other as special caste whose actions include interpretation of omens and dreams (Herodotus, Histories). Pliny the Elder wrote that the magi practiced some type of magic and wrote magical texts (Pliny, Natural History). Other Hellenistic period authors additionally associate the magi with Chaldean astrology. This association seems to have been generally understood during the period, as the Greek term for magi is used in the Septuagint (LXX) of the book of Daniel in reference to advisors of Nebuchadnezzar who were consulted for making decisions and interpreting dreams (Daniel 1, 2, 4, 5). In the New Testament, two additional magi are recorded in the book of Acts—Simon and Elymas (Acts 8; Acts 13). Details about exactly what these two men do are not included in the text, but Simon is said to perform amazing acts and Elymas appears to be a trusted advisor of Sergius Paulus the proconsul. Josephus mentions magi who were advisors and dream interpreters of Nebuchadnezzar, and he also recounts a later story about a man who pretended to be a magi working in the court of Felix who appears to have skills of persuasion (Josephus, Antiquities). A few other texts from the Hellenistic and Roman periods convey the same meanings for magi. All of these texts about magi suggest that the magi who visited Jesus were of the same general designation—educated, intelligent men who were experts in astrology, interpreted dreams, and served as advisors to rulers. The magi in Matthew follow a “star” to find Jesus (Matthew 2:2), are apparently a class of men revered as knowledgeable and wise since they are requested to advise Herod, the chief priests, and the scribes about the birth of the Messiah (Matthew 2:4-8), are “warned in a dream” to avoid Herod (Matthew 2:12), and originally came from "the east” (Matthew 2:1). The descriptions of the magi in Matthew 2 are perfectly consistent with the various texts about magi from the 6th century BC through the 1st century AD.
Where did they come from? The place in “the east” that the magi originally came from appears to have been either Persia (which encompassed Media after the 6th century BC) or Chaldea, where this class originated and where astrological advisors and dream interpreters called magi had been in regular use for hundreds of years. Unfortunately, the location cannot be narrowed down any more specifically than that because of the lack of information we have about these specific magi that visited Jesus. It should come as no surprise that masters of astronomical observation, dreams, advisement, and probably divination came from the area of ancient Mesopotamia though, since these activities had been in practice there for thousands of years prior to the magi mentioned in the book of Matthew. Although we may never know how many magi visited Jesus, their names, or the specific city that they came from, our current corpus of ancient texts gives a moderate understanding of who they were, and that the description of the magi recorded in the book of Matthew is historically accurate.