How many Magi visit Jesus in the Bible? Where do they come from?

The answers, for many, are as easy to recall as the first line of the beloved Christmas hymn: “We three kings of Orient are.” And yet, in the Gospel of Matthew, there are not three of them. Nor is a region specified beyond the very general “east.” Also, they’re not kings.

The wise men have become essential to the iconography of Christmas, but as religious studies scholar Eric Vanden Eykel argues in his new book The Magi, the difference between the accepted imagery and the text of the gospel is instructive. We can learn something about biblical interpretation by looking at all the ways people have read the Magis story. CT spoke to Vanden Eykel about the biblical account of Matthew 2:1–12, the many interpretations and creative retellings, and the gifts the Magi can give an attentive reader today.

How would the Christmas story be different if we didn’t have Magi? What would we lose if they weren’t in the Gospel of Matthew?

They’re there as witnesses—the Magi provide that in Matthew, and the shepherds provide that in Luke.

In Matthew, without the Magi, Joseph and Mary are just at home.

When the Magi come into the story, they validate that the birth has taken place and that a specific type of person has been born. This is not just a baby. The Magi’s interest is in the king of Judeans, so Matthew has them recognizing that not only has this person Jesus been born, but he’s been recognized as a king.

My reading is that this is very political.

How is the biblical account of the Magi political?

Contemporary readers, we have been conditioned to read this as a story about people seeking God, but I just don’t think that’s what Matthew’s doing here. In Luke, the shepherds are very much going to Bethlehem to see a divine figure, but that’s not in Matthew.

The Magi come and ask about a king. And before that, the genealogy in Matthew is all about David and setting up Jesus’ descent from the royal line of David.

Then you have the star. In Jewish literature, Matthew knows stars are linked with rulers like the king of Babylon and whoever is the star rising out of Jacob.

In a Roman context, you absolutely have to pay attention to the star of Caesar—the Julian star. Everyone in that culture knows that Julius Caesar was recognized as a divine figure when a star appeared in the sky after his death, and that story is so prevalent across the empire under Caesar Augustus (who calls himself the son of God), because the imagery of the star appears on the coinage. People learn the symbol from their money—this is what a star suddenly appearing in the sky means in this cultural context.

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I was surprised by how much early Christians, when they read this story, really focused on the meaning of the star. Ephrem the Syrian, for example, writes all these Nativity hymns interpreting the star. Were the Magi astrologers? What does the word Magi actually mean?

It’s where our word magic comes from. So if I was going to translate the word as woodenly as possible, I’d be tempted to translate it magician. But that has a connotation for us that it wouldn’t, exactly, in the original context. They weren’t performers but respected religious professionals.

The most common translation is wise men, because that’s a nice, neutral term. It makes them sage-like figures, so that does capture part of the identity, but not really the fullness of the religious aspect. The translation I would just give an F to is kings. In the ancient world, Magi cannot mean “king,” though the idea they were kings is ingrained in the tradition early on and that does rightly point to the political core of the story.

Some translations do use astrologers, I think because of the importance of the star in the story and the fact they’re interpreting a star. But in the ancient world, Magi are not known as astrologers. They’re first and foremost people who can understand dreams and visions and omens.

I think it makes sense to leave it as Magi and wrestle with the complexity of that.

In your book, you’re not really interested in the historicity of the Magi. You see the question of extra-biblical confirmation as a kind of dead end. Why is that?

My primary focus is the text. I’m interested in the story Matthew tells. Their historical existence doesn’t matter to the way we understand what Matthew was doing. The meaning of the text doesn’t depend on the Magi being historical figures.

I also think we have to be honest about the evidence that’s available to us. Unnamed, unnumbered Magi from a country that’s not specified—how would you go about proving that as a historical fact? On the other hand, what kind of evidence could you find to disprove it?

Why don’t we focus on what we have? We have story and the way the story has been remembered and interpreted.

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I take the text very seriously, and I want to focus on the meaning of the text, not speculate about the history behind it.

This Bible story in particular attracts so much speculation—historical speculation, fictionalization, and various retellings. I can’t think, for example, of any other unnamed people in the Bible who have widely known names in Western culture like Caspar, Melchior, and Balthazar. Why do you think that is?

The term Magi is such a loaded term. For the earliest readers, it’s very complicated. Magic and astrology have negative connotation for them, but it does sort of seem from Matthew’s story that there’s a legitimacy to astrology.

Patristic authors don’t like the idea of revelation happening outside of the Christian community, so they say things like “Well, it wasn’t a star at all; it was Jesus himself or an angel.” Or they point out the Magi could only get partial knowledge from the star and that’s why they go to Jerusalem and ask for directions, and the direction they receive is from the Scripture.

By comparison, no one needs to do this kind of apology for the shepherds. They’re just shepherds. And then, once you get these extended explanations, it kind of snowballs. You get iteration after iteration, and they become memes. Even really early, the Magi are immediately recognizable.

I saw a Nativity scene the other day that was all cats. It took me a while to figure out which one was Joseph, but I knew automatically which ones were the Magi. They had hats and gifts.

I once saw a Nativity that was made from thread spools. Even with just abstract objects, you know immediately which ones are the Magi.

I’m looking at a Nativity in my house right now, and they have crowns, which is part of that kings tradition. There really is a pull to kind of fill out the story that Matthew gives us.

Part of the pleasure of your book is reading some of the stranger speculations and retellings of the Magi story. What’s going on, for example, with the Armenian Gospel of the Infancy?

The Armenian Gospel of the Infancy is just wild—a text that’s known to scholars of apocrypha but is not really outside our small circle. In this text, they are kings. They travel with an army. And after they find Jesus and give him their gifts, the text says they will, in the future, disavow the Savior. They don’t go back to the East or wherever and tell people about Jesus; they disavow him.

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The way I interpret that is the text is reflecting some of the real tensions around people who don’t recognize Jesus as savior. There is an issue in those early centuries, for example, with what scholars call the parting of the ways—when Jews and Christians start defining themselves over and against each other—and you get some anti-Judaism in this text. There’s an unfortunate Judeophobic tradition. Some people turn their back on Jesus, and the text tries to make sense of that.

What can the Magi teach us about biblical interpretation? Tracing the history of wild speculation about the Magi and more careful readings of the text, what do we learn about reading the Bible?

There’s really no substitute for a good, careful reading. Go back and reread, and try to read it as if you’ve never read it before. That’s an important lesson of the Magi.

I also think we do well to consider the larger tradition and ask how people have understood the text. Start, for example, with the hymns of the Magi, like “We Three Kings,” and why they are called kings. What does that tell us about the text?

Readers can show us a lot about a text and help us understand a text. What are they focusing on? What do they understand it to mean? What are they missing? You can ask what Matthew meant, but then also look at the history of biblical interpretation.