We know the Magi followed a star – but what motivated them? Were they more Brian Cox or Chani Nicholas – and can we explain the star they followed?
Or perhaps you’re on the other end of the spectrum, viewing them as early astronomers at the top of their game – basically Galileo before Galileo was even around.
But, based on ancient sources and common practices of the time, are we able to reach a reasonable conclusion about this mysterious group of individuals? Are we able to work out if they were spiritual searchers or scientists? If they were horoscope or horo-nope?
Join us as we investigate the Magi’s practices – and what their astrological and/or astronomical expertise might reveal about one of the most well-documented figures in the Bible: Jesus.
Keen to learn about the Magi before we get started? Discover more with our piece: Who were the Magi?
The story of the Magi is found in the book of Matthew, which was written by someone traditionally believed to be a friend and follower of Jesus. Hitting the rewind button to take us right back to Jesus’ birth, Matthew’s narrative is full of mysterious and miraculous claims, from unusual celestial events to the fulfilment of ancient prophecies (more on those later ...)
But what does Matthew’s ancient account have to say about the Magi? Admittedly, we don’t get any information about their personal beliefs or spiritual practices – they’re never directly called ‘astrologers’. However, we learn that they’re ‘men who studied the stars’ (Matthew 2.2) – they’re not just glancing up at the night sky; they’re dedicated to understanding it.
In the same verse, we’re also told that they’ve travelled ‘from the east’. This suggests that the sign in the sky meant something to them. They couldn't just dismiss it with a wave of the hand; they had to explore.
Without Matthew’s writings expanding on the Magi’s practices, can context help us understand what the Wise Men were really up to?
Although we now define astronomy as a science and astrology as a spiritual practice, it wasn’t always this way. In fact, it wasn’t until the late seventeenth century that we really began to separate the two out. So, how were they understood in ancient times?
At this point in history, different cultures were developing both their study of the skies and what the stars might mean for their lives in different ways and at different paces. However, generally speaking, astrology and astronomy were much more closely linked than they are today – and religion was part of the mix too.
As our ancient ancestors gained a greater understanding of the night sky – its patterns and its movements – they often felt drawn to ask questions about meaning: what are these patterns saying? How might they affect my life? Is a greater being/beings trying to communicate something to me? Can the stars predict what will happen tomorrow?
Maybe that’s something a lot of us can relate to, even all these years later.
This question has stumped scholars for a long time – and their names have contributed to the mystery. Translated from the Greek, the term ‘Magi’ can mean both conjurer or sorcerer, and yet can also refer to a subclass of Persian priests.
Given the common connection between the practices of astrology and astronomy at the time, we could reach a conclusion that the Magi were practising either astrology or astronomy – or both. And, regardless of whether we view the Magi as astrologers, astronomers or something in between, Matthew’s message remains the same: something huge is happening here.
Do we know what was going on up there at the time? Is there a way to explain this celestial event Matthew’s writing about?
There are a few potential contenders. For starters, some scholars have suggested that the Magi may have originated from Babylon: the birthplace of astrology. And within Babylonian astrology, the constellation of Cassiopeia is said to bring forth an unusually bright star every 300 years. Known as ‘The Woman with Child’, it signifies a new heir – and guess what? Some have calculated that this star appeared shortly after the birth of Jesus.
Another popular suggestion is a conjunction between planets and stars. A conjunction occurs when two or more celestial bodies appear to ‘meet’ in the night sky, for those of us looking up from Earth. These objects can appear to group together, causing an unusually bright light, for several days or even weeks. Experts have narrowed it down to a few possible conjunctions, including the alignment of Jupiter – a planet astrologically associated with royalty – Saturn, the moon and the sun in the constellation of Aries in 6 BCE (fitting in with more recent estimates that Jesus wasn’t actually born in 0 CE).
Ultimately, like much of the story of the Magi, an air of mystery surrounds the existence or plausibility of the star. This fits into the wider narrative of the Bible, which describes a creator God who is capable of things beyond human understanding – from shifting around stars in the night sky to bringing people back to life.
Can you think of someone who shares your star sign – maybe a friend, or even your favourite A-Lister? Since you were born at a similar point in the year, astrology teaches that the stars have the same core message for you both – if you’re both on the same page of Cosmopolitan, you’d be reading the same horoscope.
But Matthew takes this celestial phenomenon as a sign about just one person. In a world without billboards and Insta ads, the night sky is spelling out a message, signalling to the world that someone spectacular has been born – someone the Magi have to visit.
Getting your head around Matthew’s account that Jesus’ birth was written in the stars? That’s just the tip of the iceberg. Matthew, and others in the early Church, believed that Jesus had already been written about – hundreds of times, in fact, and over hundreds of years.
When we look at Matthew’s account, we’re reading the words of a guy who had a solid understanding of the Old Testament – the Hebrew Scriptures. The Old Testament provides hundreds of verses promising the arrival of someone special, prophecies made by multiple authors over hundreds of years. And Matthew joins up the dots, connecting these prophecies to the birth, life and death of Jesus.
In the chapter before we meet the Magi, Matthew provides the ancient equivalent of ‘Who Do You Think You Are?’ He lists Jesus’ family line to show he has royalty in his blood, picking up on the prophecy found in Isaiah 9.7, which predicted a promised one who ‘will rule as King David's successor.’
Matthew continues to use royal language to highlight to his readers that there’s something special about Jesus; he’s the one they’ve been anticipating, but he’s also different from the leaders before.
But would the Magi have been expecting a monarch? It could be interpreted that they were expecting a king, particularly as the first place they stop is at Herod’s palace, asking: ‘Where is the baby born to be the king of the Jews? We saw his star when it came up in the east, and we have come to worship him.’ (Matthew 2.2).
And, if this was the case, you can imagine how much of a shock it would have been to discover that this figure wasn’t within palace walls, but born into a small family who were living away from home and already under threat.
As if Matthew’s account didn’t have enough mystical events to keep our brains whirring, he adds yet another layer of intrigue to his account.
After visiting Jesus, the Magi ‘returned to their country by another road, since God had warned them in a dream not to go back to Herod’ (Matthew 2.12), the monarch at the time. Herod had requested that the Magi return to tell him where Jesus was so he could kill the infant and protect his throne.
Plus, we get another example of dream messaging to keep Jesus out of harm's way (and you can keep your eyes peeled for another prophecy here, too):
‘After they had left, an angel of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph and said, “Herod will be looking for the child in order to kill him. So get up, take the child and his mother and escape to Egypt, and stay there until I tell you to leave.”
‘Joseph got up, took the child and his mother, and left during the night for Egypt, where he stayed until Herod died. This was done to make what the Lord had said through the prophet come true, “I called my Son out of Egypt.”’ (Matthew 2.13–14).
So, in just a few short chapters, we get a narrative packed with signs in the night sky, the fulfilment of prophecy and messages passed on through dreams.
The Christmas story isn't always the easiest to get our head around – like lots of other parts of the Bible. It contains things that don’t seem to make sense, like why does one baby get a spectacular birthday party with guests who’ve made a huge cross-country trek to get there?
But all this fits into the Bible’s wider narrative. Lots of the Bible offers insights into humanity – our strengths, our weaknesses, what matters to us and how we express that. But the Bible also offers a depiction of a multifaceted God, a higher being who brought the world into existence and is capable of the unimaginable – things that seem impossible by human standards. Through the work of multiple authors, it tells a story of a God who delivers on his promises.
And it also offers an invitation: to discover what the Bible’s portrayal of this higher being could mean for your life.
Interested in exploring what the Bible has for you to discover – without the tricky language and cultural barriers? Join our email community for people who are curious about the Bible but wouldn't normally read it. We'll unpack what the Bible has to offer you on the things that matter to you today, like love, loss, peace and acceptance.