Who Were the Magi? It's Not About Trivial Details - It Concerns Us All

The answer is not just natural but supernatural – they had natural lives and origins, but they also had supernatural lives and significance, as do the great Saints, whose actions change the world.


The question regarding the truth about the Magi is asked by nearly everyone nearly every year.  We are an age of inquirers…and doubters.  We are also overwhelmed by information and opinions.  Too often, the proper information gets lumped in with the opinions, leaving us scratching our heads as to the reality.  In this confusion, the Divine authority of Christ’s Church, and her teachings, must never go overlooked or be forgotten.


The first important answer to the question in this article will serve as the foundation upon which all other details must be laid:  the Magi were real men who assiduously sought the Truth.


As St. Ignatius of Antioch states, who was one of the earliest Fathers of the Church, born within fifty years of the appearance of the Star which guided the Magi:


“A star shone forth in heaven above all the other stars, the light of which was inexpressible, while its novelty struck men with astonishment. And all the rest of the stars, with the sun and moon, formed a chorus to this star, and its light was exceedingly great above them all. And there was agitation felt as to whence this new spectacle came, so unlike to everything else [in the heavens]. Hence every kind of magic was destroyed, and every bond of wickedness disappeared; ignorance was removed, and the old kingdom abolished, God Himself being manifested in human form for the renewal of eternal life. And now that took a beginning which had been prepared by God. Henceforth all things were in a state of tumult, because He meditated the abolition of death.”

-       Epistle of St. Ignatius to the Ephesians, ch. 19



The Magi, then, were the ones to whom, in a particular way, God manifested a new and extraordinary work: His birth as man among men, as the King of Kings and Lord of Lords.


The Magi were pagans who, like Abraham, were called by God in an extraordinary and supernatural way, to seek Him out and commit their lives to Him.  The work they were about to perform must be seen as greater in significance than all other details about their origin.  That being said, let us review what we know about them.


From Whence They Came


The Magi were “wise men from the East” of Jerusalem. They may have lived in the far East or in a neighboring country.  They were of the influential priestly caste in Persia and skilled in astrology.  Though the word “magi” is connected to “magician” they were not sorcerers, as their religion forbade such practices.


The Magi were not kings and the Fathers of the Church never regarded them as such.  Tertullian’s comment that they were “wellneigh kings” is the closest to such a statement, but it simply reflects the importance of their priestly caste and their significance in fulfilling Psalm 72, which says:

“May the kings of Tarshish and of the isles render him tribute, may the kings of Sheba and Seba bring gifts!” (Ps. 72:10)


The Magi fulfill this verse by coming from afar, bearing gifts, and paying tribute to the Lord, though they are not kings nor from the regions mentioned in the verse.


The Church has embraced the names Caspar, Melchior, and Balthasar for the three Magi, names which date back to the 7th Century.  The names, as also the number of the Magi, have long been debated.  That being said, the Church celebrates the Feast days of these Saints on January eleventh, first, and sixth, respectively.


Why Did they Travel?


One important aspect of the Magi is that they saw and believed, as all Christians are called to do when Our Lord speaks to us.  But the question is: what led them to do so, since they were pagans and not of the People of Israel?


There are two important answers to this question.  The first is that the Magi were possibly of the same region as Balaam, the false prophet who attempted to curse Israel but was forced, instead, to utter blessings upon them.  Further, Balaam prophesied, by God’s command:

“I shall see him, but not now; I shall behold him, but not near: a star shall rise out of Jacob, and a scepter shall spring up from Israel.” (Numbers 27:17)


Thus, as followers of the tradition of Balaam, the Magi recognized the Star, which did not function according to the standard system of heavenly movement, to be this sign indicating the arrival of the King of the Jews.  St. Thomas, St. Jerome, and St. Remigius, among others, place importance on this prophecy of Balaam in discussion of the Magi.


Second, even if the connection to Balaam is doubted, it is important to note that the Magi would have been familiar with the Jewish prophecies of the Messiah since the Hebrew tradition had survived in Persia, as it did in other regions where the Jews had been scattered in exile.


The Magi, then, would have been men ready and eagerly waiting for the Messiah.  When the revelation came to them, they left everything to follow the Star and this divine inspiration.  As St. Augustine says, the Magi were to become the first fruits of the Gentiles.


Called By God


We must not overlook the fact that the Magi were men called individually by Almighty God to set out on a journey to find His Incarnate Son.  The means by which He did this were fitting. He had sent the angels to the Jewish shepherds since they were trained in the Covenant and familiar with the apparitions of angels.  To the pagan Magi, He used heavenly signs, for they were accustomed to seeking the Truth by these means, and they would take note and respond.


St. Augustine suggested that they were also enlightened by the angels to understand that this Star was the sign of the birth of the Christ, the King of the Jews.  Pope St. Leo the Great said that it was not only an outward display that caught their eye but an inward illumination with the light of faith.


What Was This Star?


In addition to the origin of the Magi, and their calling, the means by which God led them to the Christ Child is important to reflect upon, for it was, among other things, a gift to the Magi.


The Star was clearly not of this world, as St. Thomas Aquinas describes.  First, Thomas supposes that the Magi needed to travel not only by day but also by night, thus implying that the Star shone clearly during the day as well, atypical for a “star,” to say the least.  


Second, the confusion which the Magi experienced upon nearing Jerusalem, where they had to ask the location of the newborn King, reveals that the Star, which had guided them for so long of a journey, was now hidden in some manner.

“Where is he who has been born king of the Jews? For we have seen his star in the East, and have come to worship him.” (Matt. 2:2)


They had followed His Star for so long, but at that moment it was no longer guiding them.  When the Star is mentioned next, it is introduced by the expression “and behold,” as if it had suddenly returned to visibility.


Third, the Star moved in a manner completely contrary to the heavenly bodies, stopping at one moment, and going ahead of them the next.

“And behold, the star which they had seen in the east, went before them, until it came and stood over the place where the child was.” (Matt 2:9)


Finally, in the last line of this verse, we see that the Star had moved along until it stopped “over the place” where the newborn King resided.  This description moves the reader to see the Star as something completely subjected to the power of God, who was intent on revealing, by supernatural means, the location of His Incarnate Son.


Reflecting on the fact that the Star “stood over the [exact] place where the child was,” St. John Chrysostom taught that this Star must have been a rational invisible power which had taken the form of a Star.  It was much like the “brightness of God” who had appeared to the shepherds, the Holy Spirit who later appeared as a dove, the “light from Heaven” that converted St. Paul, or even the “pillar of fire” which guided the Israelites in the wilderness.  Pope Leo the Great spoke of it as a newly created Star, whose brilliance and beauty convinced all who beheld it that it was a sign of something marvelous to come.  The Magi were not simply keen observers of the heavens but those to whom God had shown something remarkable.


Transformation of the Magi


Like Abraham, the Magi were called from their pagan home to venture to a new land, not to take possession of that territory but, instead, to take possession of Paradise.


By going to Jerusalem first, the Magi were responsible for the fact that the birth of Christ was first, and fittingly, publicly proclaimed there.


Thus, the coming of the Magi is not merely a cute aspect of the precious story of the Incarnation; it is the powerful and dramatic story of one of the great theophanies of salvation history, experienced by individuals who courageously followed and obeyed God’s inspiration. 


In the end, changed by their obedience and their encounter with God-made-man, the Magi, like St. Joseph, were able to hear the subtle voice of God, who, through a dream, sent them home by a new and renewed path.  It is veiled to us now, but we must all suppose that these Wise Men took home the Truth about Christ and zealously spread it among their own people, as we are all likewise called to do, having experienced the beauty and power of the Christ Child.



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  1. In 1622 the Blessed Virgin Mary told Sister Mary of Agreda that the Star of the Magi was created by one of her Seraphim Angels as this story is recorded in Ciudad De Dios published in 1657. It was brilliant and shined both day and night. It was only 200 feet above the ground. The 3 Magi were holy kings; they were not astronomers. Each King brought the exact same gifts in the same size 3 chests; each brought gold, frankincense and muir.


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