While I’ve heard this story many times, I find that every time I read it I have more questions than I did before. In our modern tellings of this story, we often portray the magi as three wise men. They followed a star to where Jesus and his family were staying. We acknowledge Herod’s plot to kill baby Jesus. Yet in the reading of this text, there are so many details that continue to intrigue me.
Who are the magi?
Unlike it is said in the old Christmas hymn, there were not necessarily three kings baring gifts for Jesus. Some traditions claim three, while others claim there were a dozen or more Magi who visited Jesus. Because of the length of the journey and the provisions needed, it is more than likely that these wise men did not travel alone.
But who were they? It is likely they were religious advisors to the court, possibly from Babylon. Remnants of Jewish people continued to reside in Babylon, even after being granted their freedom. Because there were still Jews residing among the people of Babylon, their religious experts were aware of the beliefs of the Jews. It is possible this knowledge contributed to the magi’s journey when they saw the star rise.
What was the “star” that led them?
It could have literally been a star that appeared in the sky. However, astronomers have proposed that it could be a comet or the aligning of a couple planets. Religious scholars speculate that it could have been a “star” visible only to the wise men. Along this vein, some scholars suggest that the “star” could have been an angel that guided the magi to Bethlehem. Regardless of what this “star” actually was (a star, another astrological sign, or an angel), we know that the appearance of this star led the magi to Jesus.
Why was Jerusalem disturbed by the news that the King of the Jews had been born?
Verse 3 in this passage says, “When King Herod heard this he was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him” (NIV). Through historical records, we know that Herod was an exceptionally power-hungry ruler who did everything he could to hold onto his reign. The news of a rightful heir to the Jewish thrown would be a threat to him.
But I am left to wonder why Israel was disturbed alongside him. One explanation offered by Michael J. Wilkins in his commentary on Matthew is that those who were disturbed by this news were those who aligned themselves with Herod and the power of Rome. The religious institutions of Jerusalem had sold out to Herod and to Rome. The birth of Jesus, the King of the Jews, would pose a threat to this power they shared with Herod.