Open Matthew 2:1-12.
You’ve seen the Christmas cards. Three wise men. On camels. Following a star. Balthasar, Caspar, and Melchior — three kings of orient according to western tradition. So we build nativity scenes with a manger and kings and camels and shepherds and sheep and the donkey that carried the very pregnant Mary. There probably weren’t three wise men: their caravan would have been larger for safety’s sake. The Bible doesn’t say they rode camels either. We made up the bit about the donkey too.
And they weren’t “wise men.” Magi were originally a class of Persian priests who practiced astrology and other magic arts. In Daniel 2 (LXX) they’re bundled with enchanters and sorcerers as advisors to the king of Babylon. In Acts 13:6-8, a Cypriot ruler had a magos advising him, and Paul despised him. The word usually has negative connotations in Jewish literature—a trickster/deceiver. Matthew hints at that when he says that Herod was “tricked” by the magi (2:16).
So what we have is a bunch of Persian astrologers peering up into the heavens for omens. From our perspective, they’re totally misguided, trusting superstitions. Nevertheless, on this occasion, God shows up. They’re looking for signs of the gods, and God gives them a sign—a star, placed in such a way that it leads them to Jesus.
I am gob-smacked! God isn’t supposed to do that. Theologians who study divine revelation have proper categories through which God makes himself known: creation (his handiwork), history (his activity), humanity (his image), with the person of Christ as the ultimate revelation. Astrology isn’t on the list. God messes up our categories.
And this isn’t the first time! As Moses led Israel towards the Promised Land, the Moabites hired a foreign prophet named Balaam to curse them. He wasn’t a very good seer: his donkey saw more than he could. But he was good at raking in fees from his prophecy business. Like others of his day, he believed different nations had different gods, so he would attune himself to the god of a people to learn their future. If their god was angry he would announce their demise; if their god was favourably disposed he declared good fortune. So what happens when a paid, polytheistic, pagan prophet listens to Israel’s god? God shows up! Balaam realizes that the God of Israel has declared good things for them, and his prophecy becomes part of the Bible!
Here’s a bit of what Balaam said:
Numbers 24:17 (ESV)
A star shall come out of Jacob, and a sceptre shall rise out of Israel.
Centuries after Balaam’s time, the star of Israel’s ruler finally rose. When he came, it was once again the pagan prophets who recognized him. Temple and Torah were the normal categories of revelation (as in 2:4), but the Jewish leaders knew nothing of the birth of their king. So God stepped outside the categories, revealing himself to those who sought revelation through the occult.
It’s hard to keep our theology systematic when God does that. When you pray, expect the unexpected. God is at work. He’s always doing more than we imagine. He reveals himself in whatever language people understand, in whatever way they’re searching for him. Even if they’re looking in all the wrong places.
The Christmas star wasn’t God. It was the means God used to lead the magi to his Son. Jesus is the revelation we seek.
What others are saying
H. Balz. “μάγος” in Exegetical Dictionary of the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1990–), Volume 2, 371:
The term μάγος is derived from the name of a Median tribe that served as priests in the Persian religion (Herodotus i.101) and were involved in astrology and astronomy. Consequently in antiquity astrologers, interpreters of dreams, and soothsayers from the East were called magi (cf. Herodotus vii.37; Porphyry De Abstinentia iv.16; also Isa 47:13; Dan 2:2; Josephus Ant. xx.142), with emphasis on their secret knowledge and their capacity for magic. Jewish texts recognize the knowledge of the magi (Philo Spec. Leg.. iii.100), while in the rabbinic literature the magi are known predominantly as deceivers and charlatans (b. Šabb. 75a; cf. Deut 18:9ff.; 2 Kgs 9:22).
Craig S. Keener, The Gospel of Matthew: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans., 2009), 100:
Without condoning astrology, Matthew’s narrative challenges his audience’s prejudice against outsiders to their faith (cf. also 8:5–13; 15:21–28): even the most pagan of pagans may respond to Jesus if given the opportunity (cf. Jonah 1:13–16; 3:6–4:1, 10–11). For one special event in history, the God who rules the heavens chose to reveal himself where pagans were looking (cf. Acts 19:12, 15–20; A. B. Bruce 1979: 1:70).
Craig A. Evans, From Jesus to the Church: The First Christian Generation, (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 2014), 3:
When the magi in Matthew’s Gospel inquire after him who has been born “king of the Jews,” because they have seen his star (Matt. 2:1–2), they are probably alluding to Numbers 24:17 (or at least Matthew’s Jewish readers would assume so).
Naturally, the Jewish people assumed that the prophecy of Numbers 24:17 spoke of the coming of a Jewish ruler. The prophecy is quoted in a collection of messianic texts in one of the Qumran Scrolls (see 4Q175 1.9–13). In 1QSb 5.20–29 the prophecy is cited along with Isaiah 11 and is applied to the anticipated “leader of the nation” who will conquer Israel’s enemies. In the great war against the “sons of darkness,” Numbers 24:17 will be fulfilled (1QM 11.5–7). In the Damascus Document the text is applied to the coming king and the “interpreter of the Law” (CD 7.18–8:1 [ = 4Q266 frag. 3, 3.20–23; 4Q269 frag. 5, lines 3–4]). The Aramaic paraphrases of Jewish Scripture (i.e., the Targumim) regularly paraphrase and interpret Numbers 24:17 as referring to the anticipated royal Messiah: “When the strong king from those of the house of Jacob shall rule, and the Messiah and the strong rod from Israel shall be anointed.”
Update 2016-12-17: Christianity Today just published an article by Chad Ashby: Magi, Wise Men, or Kings? It’s Complicated.