In the nativity account according to the Gospel of Matthew we read that when Jesus was born an astronomical event occured - the appearance of a unique star in the east! As a consequence, Magi arrived in Herodian Jerusalem, from the East, inquiring about a "new-born king" for whom they had come to offer worship, follow the star to Bethlehem and offer expensive gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh to the infant Jesus:
"Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem saying. . .
"Where is he was has been born king of the Jews? For we have seen his star in the East, and have come to worship him" ( Matthew 2:1-2).
" . . and lo, the star, which they had seen in the East went before them, till it came to rest over the place where the child was" (Matthew 2:9)
Who were the Magi?
The Matthean Gospel is alone among the other three Gospels in its reference to the Magi. Who, then, were these "Magi" who followed the eastern star all the way to Jerusalem? Are they simply a literary or poetic creation by St. Matthew in order to add colour to the nativity account or did Magi actually exist in the ancient world? In fact, "Magi" were real historical figures in Babylonian antiquity. Their activities, functions and learning are well documented by ancient historiographers.
Herodotus Description of the Magi
Herodotus, who lived in the fifth-century before Christ, the celebrated ancient Greek father of "history-writing" (historiography), and the chronicler of the Greco-Persian wars, provides us with some very valuable historical information concerning that ancient class of people known as the Magi. Thus it is clear that by the time of the birth of Christ, Magi were an already well-established and ancient caste of people. He explains that Magi (Old Persian "Magu")*, originated from Medes (today's northern Iran), and were an elite class or caste of Medes within the Persian empire. After an unsuccessful attempt to gain political control of the empire, the Medes turned from politics to piety, becoming the teachers and illuminators of the Persians, specialising in the interpretation of dreams. Herodotus also informs us that Magi also assumed priestly functions with Persian society. This means that Magi would have been Zoroastrian priests (at that time Zoroastrianism was the dominant religion of Persia). Indeed without them no official sacrifice could be offered in Persia.
Philo of Alexandria's Description of the Magi
Additionally, the Persian Magi were esteemed as honourable and virtuous sages. Skilled in philosophy, medicine and natural science, they became the scholars of Persian society. Indeed Philo of Alexandria commends the Magi for their research of nature:
"And in the land of the barbarians. . . there are very numerous companies of virtuous and honourable men celebrated. Among the Persians there exists a group, the Magi, who investigating the works of nature for the purpose of becoming acquainted with the truth. . . initiate others in the divine virtues, by very clear explanations."(Philo, Every Good Man is Free, 74. See also, On Special Laws 100)
The Magi as Astrologers
Nevertheless astrology was their special expertise. Consequently they believed, like most people in antiquity, that Heaven communicated its desires and intentions through signs, comets, stars and astronomical phenomena. Indeed, a person's destiny was considered determined by the stars under which one was born.
The Matthean Magi
Consequently, there is no need to imagine that the Matthean account of these Magi following a star to Bethlehem is simply a nice story for children. On the contrary, the appearance of an extraordinary star over Persia would have most certainly aroused the curiosity of some Persian Magi, of that time, interpreting it as a message from Heaven announcing the birth of a divinely appointed King.
What do we know specifically about the Magi whom St Matthew describes? To begin with it would seem that they were regarded as men of aristocratic rank even in Jerusalem. This is evidenced by the fact that they had instant access to King Herod's court. Their gifts also suggest that they were men of some wealth. How did they travel to Judeah from Persia? Because the journey would have taken them across desert regions, it seems most feasible that they employed camels for their journey. How many Magi came to worship Jesus? Matthew does not give us an exact number, he simply speaks of Magi in the plural. However based on the number of gifts offered to Jesus, three, it is traditionally considered that their number corresponded to the gifts:
". . . and going into the house they saw the child with Mary His mother, and they fell down and worshiped Him. Then, opening their treasures, they offered Him gifts, gold and frankincense and myrrh." (Matthew 2:11).
* In Later times the term "magus"/ "magos" would evolve into a pejorative designation, a synonym for "sorcerer", "soothsayer", "magician", "fortune teller", "charlatan" etc. (eg. Simon Magus). However the "Magi" described by Herodotus and chronicled in St Matthew were an esteemed and honourable caste of Persian society.