What I Learned from the Magi
From the time I was a child, I found the Magi the most intriguing of all the characters in the Christmas story. Who were these very strange people who journeyed from so far just to see the baby Jesus and offer him his first Christmas presents? I can remember looking at our nativity set and noticing their colorful, exotic and lavish robes; their humble, yet noble postures and the camels that had transported them from so far away. Yet, it wasn’t the shepherds, or even Mary and Joseph. No, I confess it wasn’t even the baby in the manger who captivated me as a boy. It was the Magi. I still needed to learn that it was the child that captivated them.
It wasn’t until years later that I understood it was my instincts and fascination as a child that were leading me to investigate these mysterious strangers, supported by both history and theology, the two great loves of my adult learning life. So, who were these Magi, and why does Matthew tell us about them?
In brief, the Magi were among the cultural elites of the kingdom of Parthia, which lay to the east of the Roman Empire—comprising today portions of Iraq and Iran. Indeed, the Romans were never able to defeat the Parthian Empire, which menaced its eastern boundary. The Magi were Zoroastrians from the priestly caste, who believed in one God, a cosmology of good and evil and an eschatology where evil would be defeated by good and a Savior would come. Zoroaster, their founder, lived about the same time (sixth century BC) as the Babylonian captivity when the cultural elites of Judah were dragged away into captivity for 70 years.
We don’t know any details about the interaction at the highest levels of the intellectual and diplomatic circles between these Zoroastrians and Daniel (who mentions them) and his friends. But given their status, I think it is likely that those Zoroastrian priests had carefully studied the Jewish books. Otherwise, why would they be aware of, let alone care about, the ascending dynasty of the “King of the Jews” whose star they had seen? We know the Magi were from an elite priestly caste who were political king-makers—though not kings themselves. They practiced the “science” of astrology and read in the movement of the stars and planets the rise and fall of dynasties. They were deeply respected—and feared.
Which leads us back to Matthew’s gospel, Herod the Great, and the “slaughter of the innocents,” which he initiated after the Magi’s visit. Herod himself had already fled for his life during an earlier Parthian invasion of Palestine, being forced to retreat to Rome for three years (40-37 BC), until the Romans could push the Parthians back out of Herod’s borderline kingdom. Now, when they came again seeking the new “King of the Jews,” what was the paranoid Herod to think, but that the Parthians had found a new ally who would rise up to depose him? Notice, however, that even as he slaughters the children, he doesn’t touch these powerful Magi. He is terrified because he knows they represent the full power and authority of Rome’s greatest undefeated enemy.
All of this is background for our understanding of just who it is that comes to worship the Christ child, bringing him gifts worthy of a king (gold), a priest (frankincense) and a prophet/king (myrrh). They are ambassadors from the court of the Persian (Parthian) Empire of the east, who have come to recognize and celebrate his birth. These gifts they bring lay down Matthew’s intriguing breadcrumbs on the trail to identifying the baby Jesus.
Thus, Matthew has done something extraordinary in contributing to our Christmas worship. He has tipped his hand by letting us know where his story is headed. Jesus will not be a Jewish king only. He comes as the Ruler of the whole world. What was foreshadowed in Solomon’s reign (Ps 72) is now becoming fulfilled in Bethlehem. You see, it is no accident that Matthew’s gospel ends with Jesus’ statement of the great commission and its scope of “all the nations.” Perhaps, in a way, we can think of the Magi as the first missionaries, sent to the world to proclaim the birth of its Savior. That which has begun in Matthew 2 will find its completion in the accomplishment of Matthew 28 on the far side of the cross and empty tomb.
At the center of it all is the child, who is God’s gift to the whole world. The Magi knew who Jesus was, and that is why they came. And that is what I learn from them—who Jesus is. So now my fascination is with Christ and not with them. Yet I remain grateful to these Magi, who in their coming have revealed Christ more fully to me. Now it is my turn, each day, to come to Christ, to bow down and worship him, and offer him my gifts, and to make disciples of all the nations. That is what I learned from the Magi.
Tom Pfizenmaier, Ph.D.
Associate Professor of Formation and Leadership Development, Director of the Discipleship Initiative and Dean of the Hamilton Campus Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary