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Those Mysterious Magi

We all grew up with stories about three wise men who brought gifts to the baby Jesus. But just exactly who were these magi and how many were there? A detailed tradition has grown up around just a few verses from Matthew, chapter 2. “Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, magi from the east arrived in Jerusalem, saying, “Where is He who has been born King of the Jews? For we saw His star in the east and have come to worship Him.”

Magi’ is untranslated in my Bible which tells me that perhaps the translators were not sure of the meaning. This word in Hebrew, Rav-mag, is used twice in O.T., in Jer 39:3, 13. It means soothsayer, magician, or chief soothsayer and refers to high-ranking officials and leading officers of the Babylonian king’s court. The New American Standard Bible (NASB) describes them as a “caste of wise men specializing in astronomy, astrology, and natural science”.

Some English translations use ‘wise men’ instead of ‘Magi’, perhaps because of a comment by Philo of Alexandria, a Jewish philosopher and historian who was a contemporary of Yeshua. He mentions favorably an eastern magi school which provided training in the natural sciences with less focus on magic and witchcraft.

What made the magi decide to travel to the west looking for the ‘King of the Jews’? Did they know about the Mazzaroth and Daniel’s prophecy? (Mazzaroth means either constellation or zodiac.)

Remember that 600 years earlier Daniel and many other officials had been taken prisoner to Babylon, which is 700 miles east of Jerusalem. There were actually three separate deportations of the Jews so plenty of opportunity to carry this prophetic story in the stars into Babylon. Had these Babylonian magi been watching the night skies and waiting 600 years for the stars and constellations to line up?

Did the magi know about Daniel 9:25 and how to decipher it? “So you are to know and discern that from the issuing of a decree to restore and rebuild Jerusalem until Messiah the Prince there will be seven weeks and sixty-two weeks; it will be built again, with plaza and moat, even in times of distress.”

It seems they did not have the scriptures. When they arrived in Jerusalem they had to ask where the messiah was. They apparently did not know Micah 5:2. “But as for you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, little to be among the clans of Judah, from you One will go forth for Me to be ruler in Israel. His goings forth are from long ago, from the days of eternity.”

After the magi’s visit with King Herod, as they continued on to Bethlehem, “they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy” when they saw the ‘star’. So what exactly did they see? They saw Jupiter (the king planet) circle (retrograde motion) Regulus (meaning ‘king-maker’) three times while in the constellation of Leo (lion of Judah). If they had been traveling from Herod’s palace at Herodium, which is about 7 ½ miles south of Jerusalem, the ‘star’ would have appeared to stand still directly over Bethlehem. They brought expensive gifts, and they bowed down to him. They believed he was a king.

Why is this information coming out now, after 2000 years? Perhaps we have reached another “fullness of the times”. It started with the work of biblical astronomers Johann Kepler and Isaac Newton. Kepler, (1571-1630), was key figure in the 17th century scientific revolution with the publication of his 3 Laws of Plantetary Motion. More recently was the invention of the computer. Then came the Pentium chip which enabled more sophisticated computer programs to use the calculations made by Kepler to show us what goes on in the heavens. Presently we have astronomy programs such as Stellarium© and Starry night© that can show us exactly what could be seen in the heavens thousands of years ago and thousands of years in the future.

We live in exciting times. Just as the magi rejoiced exceedingly with great joy when they saw the ‘star’, so shall we when we see our Messiah face to face.