The Mystery of the Wisemen: Who Were they?
If you grew up in church like I did, the wisemen have always been a part of the way you think about the Christmas story. If you were one of the lucky ones, you even played a wiseman in a Christmas drama. The rest of us were stuck wearing bathrobes, wrapping towels around our heads, and watching our flocks by night. Regardless of your role in the Christmas pageants of your youth, you are probably like me—you probably have a few questions about these wisemen. During this season, I’m writing a series of articles to address four of the most important questions regarding the wisemen. First, who were they?
In the middle ages (oh, the middle ages), the wisemen were numbered at three, named Balthazar, Gaspar, and Melchior, and even sainted! There is, however, no historical or biblical data to back up this medieval speculation.
Matthew introduces the wisemen with a simple statement,
behold, wise men from the east . . .
Biblical speaking, that’s all we know about them. Well, that’s almost all. The word translated wisemen in the ESV, CSB and KJV is the Greek word magoi, which is why the NIV simply translates the word as magi.
Magi, or wisemen, were known throughout the first century world and were present in the court of almost every ruler. They were highly esteemed royal advisors whose role was part astrologer, part magician, and part priest. When the king had a difficult decision to make, he would call the wisemen together to help him discern the signs in the stars or the will of the gods.
The word “magoi” is only used one other time in Scripture. The Greek version of Daniel chapter 2 lists King Nebuchadnezzar’s advisors as “magicians, enchanters (magoi), sorcerers, and Chaldeans.” In fact, Daniel was a part of this group of advisors although he did not participate in some of their sinful practices (like discerning God’s will by reading the stars). Eventually, Daniel ascended to the top of the pecking order of Babylonian/Persian wisemen.
It’s possible, and perhaps likely, that Daniel wielded such great influence that even after his death, the wisemen of Babylon continued in his tradition, waiting for the arrival of the Messiah, and scurrying to Jerusalem at the appearance of the star; but it is important to clarify that any such assertion is speculative. Even still, it is my favorite personal speculation regarding the wisemen. It is also possible, however, that the wisemen of Matthew 2 came from the court of another capitol city. Almost every ruler’s court had wisemen. It is possible that wisemen in many different places were influenced by Jewish people, the Hebrew scriptures, and the messianic prophecies as the Jewish people were scattered across the Assyrian, Babylonian, Persian, Greek, and Roman empires.
Without speculation, all we can definitively say is simply what Matthew tells us—they were magi from east of Jerusalem. If we press any further, we might end up numbering them, naming them, and sainting them!