One of the most evocative elements of the nativity story is the visit of the Magi described in Matthew’s Gospel: visitors from the East followed a star, bringing gifts and giving homage to Christ in Bethlehem. There is a huge and often very speculative literature about these men who captured the imagination of so many. Some think this episode is an insertion – a purely symbolic event that emphasises Jesus’ royal authority. But I think that if God exists, and his Son was born into his own creation, the story of the Magi makes sense.
It was common in Jesus’ day for people to believe that stars heralded the birth of famous people or special events. Magi didalso sometimes act as diplomats, travelling to meet foreign rulers- for example some travelled to greet Nero. It would have been unusual for people like this to travel so far west in response to a star, but perhaps they would have done so on a very important occasion.
The first Magi were a tribe of priests from among the Medes, who advised and interpreted dreams for the king of Persia. Later, this title was used to refer to learned men and priests specialising in astrology, dream interpretation and sometimes magical arts – including members of the Babylonian court. Even later this term was used in a negative sense to refer to quacks, deceivers or seducers – although the writer of Matthew doesn’t say anything negative about them.
While astrology is certainly not science, the Magi displayed some characteristics that are beneficial among scientists today, including open-mindedness and tenacity. It is traits like these that have enabled scientists around the world to produce completely new vaccines – including the novel RNA ones – in record time.
God has often used people from other nations, including the kings of Babylon in Daniel’s time, to accomplish his purposes. In a similar way, God used the Magi’s study of the stars to honour his Son’s birth. They were certain this star heralded the arrival of a new king of the Jews, and for some reason were willing to follow wherever it led, eventually paying their respects to a Jesus in a very ordinary home – a far cry from the palace in Jerusalem where they expected to find him. Matthew says that the Magi were overjoyed to see the star reappear as they approached Bethlehem, and opened their treasures for the child, giving him lavish gifts. I find it incredible that these dignitaries would honour a child from what was clearly quite a poor family.
The visit of the Magi may only appear in Matthew’s Gospel because it was written in Greek, for a non-Jewish audience. The Biblical writers couldn’t mention every detail of Jesus’ life, and the Magi may well have had a dubious reputation for Jewish audiences, as astrology was condemned by the biblical prophets. Matthew seems to want us to notice that the Jewish chief priests and scribes had not spotted anything indicating birth of a messiah, but the Gentile scholars had.
John’s Gospel describes Christ as the Word, or Logos in Greek: the source of reason as well as the author of creation. Whether or not the Magi were ‘wise men’ before they set off on their journey, they may well have been a bit wiser after they had seen Jesus. Many of Jesus’ own people rejected or tried to kill him – and eventually they succeeded (temporarily!) – but just as God created people of every nation, so he is sought by them. Like the visit of queen of Sheba to Solomon, foreign dignitaries came bearing gifts and seeking wisdom.
We aren’t told how Jesus’ family reacted to the visit of the Magi, but they clearly let these very splendid visitors into the house. This incident must have a been a huge surprise to many people in the town at the time, but after all they had been through maybe Mary and Joseph were used to being surprised.
It makes sense to me that when such a momentous event took place in creation, there was a sign in creation to mark it. A number of people have tried to identify the astronomical object that the Magi followed, and that discussion is important, but an equally significant factor is that God was at work in these men’s lives. When they saw an object they thought was significant, they were willing to drop everything and spend months travelling to find the new king.
If the Magi were alive today, they might have been astronomers. From media stories about conflict between science and religion, and even debates among some Christians, we could easily think these are some of the least likely people to find God. But I know this is wrong, and I have just read a biography co-written by an astronomer who became a Christian in his fifties.A scientist’s drive to follow the data – especially historic, biblical and experiential data in this context – has led a number of scientists who I know to find God.
Perhaps there are people in your life who you assume wouldn’t want to talk about Jesus? A first-century Jewish audience might have thought the same about Eastern astrologers, but it seems they defied expectations. This Christmas, do we perhaps need to be a bit more open-minded ourselves, and ready to welcome those who have been on unexpected journeys in 2020?
This is an extended and edited version of a post that first appeared on the London Institute for Contemporary Christianity Connecting With Culture blog.
 At some point including Zorosatrians.
 The word that is often translated ‘worship’ can be interpreted in a number of ways, including prostration, obeisance and homage.
 To include characters like these who would have been faintly scandalous for the early church in the gospel narrative is perhaps a clue to its historicity.
 And later devastating, as the horrific consequences for the people of Bethlehem of Herod not finding Jesus are spelled out in chapter two of Matthew.
 Look out for the post coming in a couple of weeks time.