Who Were the Magi,
and Why Were They Wise?

“Where is the newborn King?” the Magi from the East asked the people of Jerusalem. “We saw his star at its rising and have come to do him homage” (Mt 2:1–12). The Magi followed the star to the newborn King and then, having been warned in a dream, returned home to Persia by another route. The Greek term magi has often been translated as “wisemen,” but to the modern mind these “wise men” look rather naïve and superstitious. After all, what was the basis of their reasoning? How did they make their decisions? By stars and dreams, no less! To the modern mind, this hardly seems like a program for rational decision making. Was there really some kind of secret wisdom that brought the Magi to the presence of the Infant Jesus? Or was it perhaps just some kind of superstitious nonsense?

The modern mind also typically wants to know the specific intent of the human author of the Gospel of Matthew in this particular narrative. Was the intent historical? Did the sacred author really intend to assert that the Magi were real people from the East who came to visit the Christ Child? Or did the author perhaps just intend to make a theological assertion about this Jewish child and his relation to the Gentile nations?

Traditionally the Magi in the Gospel of Matthew were thought to be historical persons, not merely a literary construct made for a theological purpose, but the modern approach to the Gospels does allow room for either interpretation. As the Second Vatican Council’s Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation reminded us, the Evangelists certainly have a historical intent and tell us the honest truth about the life, teaching, death, and resurrection of Jesus (Dei Verbum 18–19), but the Catholic interpretation of the Gospels does not insist that absolutely every narrative in the Gospels is a historical event. Given the general historical intent of the Gospels, however, if we want to contest the historicity of a particular narrative reasonably, we must have sufficient grounds for calling it into question. This exegetical point was emphasized by Benedict XVI specifically with regard to the infancy narratives about Jesus, and it is far from certain that there is in fact any good reason to doubt their historicity. Jean Cardinal Daniélou and many other Scripture scholars, Catholic and Protestant alike, have effectively argued that the infancy narratives are intended to be historical accounts.1

“Wise men still seek him” — so the saying goes. We often see it on bumper stickers and Christmas cards. And the Christian faith certainly does assert that wise men and women still seek Jesus, the Messiah, the Christ, the King of the Jews. But what exactly is the wisdom that these Magi from the East are supposed to have had? Is this really the way people of good will are supposed to find their way to Jesus Christ and come to know him, by following stars and interpreting dreams? The nature of the Magi’s reasoning can indeed seem rather puzzling. To the modern mind, the deliberations and decisions of these so-called Wise Men seem more foolish and naïve than those who would deliberately choose not to undertake such a journey. What could these Magi from Persia have been thinking, anyway? Is it possible for the modern mind to understand them?

Certainly the Magi were expecting at least that a child had been born who was destined to be a king of the Jews. They had some basic familiarity with Jewish tradition and prophecies. They had a significant interest in Judaism and knew that the Jews were expecting a Messiah King to be born. They also seem to have thought that this new King of the Jews would have special significance for their own nation, not just for the Jewish people. They wanted to go and do him homage and bring him the traditional gifts that people at that time gave to a king. The Gospel narrative does not tell us how many magi came to Jerusalem from the East, but the account does make it clear that these magi believed that Jewish tradition was a vehicle of divine truth, even though they probably considered themselves disciples of Zoroaster, the Persian prophet and religious reformer who taught about heaven and hell hundreds of years before Christ. And they believed that the Jewish religion and this new King of the Jews had some sort of universal significance for all people. They attributed some sort of transcendent and cosmic meaning to the birth of the new Jewish Messiah King. Was that a kind of wisdom on their part? Or was it perhaps just misplaced admiration and misguided wishful thinking?

In the ancient Jewish tradition, the birth of a king or great leader like Moses was often accompanied by the appearance of a star. In the pagan traditions of ancient Babylon and the Middle Eastern nations, we find the same idea. Perhaps the Persian magi thought that their “star” was some kind of heavenly being, sort of like what Jews and Christians call an angel. After all, in the Gospel narrative this is no ordinary star. And it does not behave like an ordinary star, either. For instance, it somehow points out a particular house. The Magi probably took it to be some kind of intelligent sign, a personal message that the King of the Jews, the Messiah, had been born. And what a bold conclusion that was! Before they began their journey to Jerusalem, how did they know that this star actually indicated the newborn King of the Jews, anyway? The author of the Gospel makes it clear that they were open to divine signs. It’s not always easy to be open to providential signs. Could such openness really be a source of wisdom? Or is it rather just some ancient superstition?

Many people go through life and never become open to the possibility of a sign from God or an angel. But sometimes people become open to divine signs by becoming hopelessly dissatisfied with everything else. They get frustrated, bored, and unhappy with everything in the world, even with all that science and technology have to offer. Life becomes empty and meaningless to them. They are ready for an entirely different kind of search. They begin looking for something to give their lives a higher meaning and purpose. And then something comes along that is mysterious, and they know in their hearts what it means and why it has appeared to them. Finally they have a higher purpose, a quest, a pilgrimage, something to live for. But have they acquired wisdom, or just become superstitious? The Magi belonged to a culture in which communication with spirits was very common and often mandatory. They were not inclined to view their lives or the cosmos as a meaningless concatenation of events. Everything that happened had divine significance which could be discerned with the proper spiritual assistance. Is that not just pagan superstition?

The Christian faith maintains that God is constantly speaking to all people and guiding them through life with signs of his loving presence. Christians believe that all those who sincerely seek such signs of his presence can find them. Those who earnestly seek God in prayer are able to recognize his providential activity in their lives, not because they are falling into a delusion, but because he is continually revealing his presence to all who turn to him in their hearts. At each and every moment, the Creator is initiating a dialogue with each and every person on the face of the earth, as he has with each and every person who has ever lived. And if that is truth about God, then certainly the pagan magi who came to Bethlehem were wise to recognize and follow the divine signs which they were given.

In the broad sense of the term, magi (like druids and shamans) were the priests and priestesses of the ancient pagan religions. They were in fact what we now call wizards and witches. They formed secret societies and had rites that were very influential in the ancient Near East and India, and typically directed the ancient pagan kings in their major decisions. Pagan nations were routinely guided by magic, divination, and occult practices. Pagan religions in general were based on pantheism, necromancy, sorcery, astrology, magic, and the occult. There is evidence that the ancient pagan religions developed later than primitive monotheism and had degenerated from it. Zoroaster, among others, apparently called for a return to monotheism, but the general pagan tendency was toward polytheism. Magi regularly identified kings by magic and called them epiphanies (i.e. manifestations of gods). Such divinations were part of the social role played by the magi in the ancient pagan cultures of Greece, Persia, and India, which Alexander the Great had temporarily united.

The ancient cultural situation was rather complicated. The ancient Hebrews considered magic to be a supernatural method of gaining information, one that could produce true knowledge and true predictions on occasion, but one that was also opposed to God’s will and unlawful. The Hebrews believed that people really communicated with angels, demons, and the souls of the dead, but that this involved trusting spirits who were not always good or necessarily truthful. Magi and false prophets were thus considered by the Hebrews to be unreliable and very prone to error and deceit. But the Hebrews always admitted that pagan magi sometimes prophesied truly. In other words, they believed that the black arts actually worked but were fallible.

In the Hebrew Scriptures, we might consider Balaam, for instance, the false prophet (a magus) from Mesopotamia, to whom the Magi or “Wise Men” from the East who come to Bethlehem over 1000 years later are very similar, who occasionally had true communications from God and angels and believed them by the grace of faith, even though he also led people into serious error and eventually had to be killed (see Num 22–24 and 31). The early Christians by the light of faith found it significant that the oracles of Balaam can be considered messianic, and that one of the oracles says “a star shall rise in Jacob.” Modern Scripture scholars do not find the connection very probable, but the light of faith does have the power to transcend the light of reason.

The Gospels report that many of the Jewish leaders in Jesus’s day thought that Jesus was a false prophet, a magician who worked wonders by means of the black arts, which were demonic. But some Jews (e.g., the shepherds at the manger) and some Gentiles (e.g., the Magi at the house in Bethlehem) received the word of God through angels and believed it, as the Blessed Virgin Mary did, thus recognizing Jesus as a true Prophet, King, and Messiah, and eventually as the Only-Begotten Son of God. The magi who came to Bethlehem from the East probably would have thought that Jesus was a manifestation or son of a god, like many Hindus still do today. In the pantheistic religions, there is no concept of creation ex nihilo, and matter and souls are often thought to be eternal and divine by nature. Divinity in various forms manifests itself to the human senses through nature and idols, and human persons themselves can be avatars of gods. Many Hindus, for example, believe that Krishna, Buddha, and Jesus are incarnations of Vishnu. Basic principles of ancient Eastern religions are often found in modern mythologies like the Star Wars series, and these ancient principles would have formed the mentality of the magi who came to Bethlehem to worship the child Jesus.

There is an early pious tradition that the Magi later heard the Apostolic preaching through St. Thomas, believed it, and were baptized and confirmed. Their relics were supposedly discovered by St. Helena in Persia and are now in the Cologne Cathedral in Germany. We really do not know whether this ancient story about the apostolic conversion of the Magi is history or legend, and nothing really hangs on its historicity either way, but there is considerable historical evidence that the Apostolic doctrine and the Divine Liturgy had in fact reached as far as southern India by the end of the first century.

The Magi in the Gospel are said to believe the prophecy from Micah when they hear it, namely that the Messiah (a King of the Jews) would be born in Bethlehem. The Jewish scribes and Herod (another king of the Jews, but an Edomite from Idumea, installed by the Romans) also believe the prophecy, but Herod believes it only in order to oppose it. He is thus the first notable Anti-Christ. The author of the Gospel of Matthew makes it very clear that Herod is not a true convert to Judaism, and has no real religious interest in following the Law of Moses. Herod puts his faith not in the power of God but in the power of the Roman Empire, symbolized by the Roman eagle which he had erected at the entrance of the new Temple that he built for the Jews. His motives are self-interested and purely pragmatic, and he is secretly an enemy of God and the Jewish religion. He slaughters the infants in Bethlehem specifically because he eliminates all rivals, and any baby identified as a Jewish king by pagan magi is immediately a rival to his dynasty. Herod has the opportunity to know the truth about Jesus through the Jewish prophets and the pagan magi, but Herod is a person who loves himself more than the truth. The faith that he sees in the Jews and in the Magi does not inspire him to turn from his evil ways.

When we contemplate the overall meaning of the Gospel narrative, we find two paths indicated by which people of good will come to faith in Jesus. One path is through Judaism and the discernment of true prophets of God. The other path is through paganism, which lacks the necessary means to discern true prophets but does contain some truths which originate in divine revelation and are believed as such. The Catholic Church recognizes that there is often a secret grace present in paganism, not because of it, but in spite of it. Christ is present in every culture, offering the gift of faith to everyone.2 In a certain sense, then, the Catholic Church does teach that there are in fact some good and wise magi (wizards and witches), but specifically identifies them as those who have a true basic faith in God the Creator in spite of the prevalent errors in their pagan religions. Their occult practices are certainly evil, but they often do not recognize them as evil, and thus they are not necessarily culpable. The act of divine faith in which the word of God is believed through actual grace is true wisdom, but the act is often partial and incomplete.

The fullness of the Divine Faith as it is found in Apostolic doctrine and the Church would lead all magi of good will to abandon their occult practices and any other moral or theological errors into which they had fallen. And this spiritual principle applies as well to all the aspiring young wizards and witches whom we often encounter in our own time. Our culture has been undergoing a process of re-paganization for many years now, and it is not surprising that there is a corresponding resurgence of interest in the occult. St. Augustine believed that occult practices often involve real fallen angels (demons) who partially materialize and speak to humans and deceive them. He also proposed that Christ bound Satan and his angels through the Cross and has thereby temporarily removed them from the material world, but that Satan and his angels will one day be released and allowed to materialize fully once again and to deceive the nations and attack the Church.

As the Gospel of Christ the Only-Begotten Son of God was carried to the nations, many magi, druids, and shamans were hostile to the Catholic faith and opposed the missionaries of the new religion. In Ireland, lorica prayers were typically recited by Christians to obtain divine protection against evils, physical or spiritual, especially against the powers of darkness. The lorica prayers replaced pagan incantations and spells when the Irish embraced Christianity. In the early Irish Church, lorica prayers were numerous. They usually contained an invocation of the Holy Trinity and were recited in the morning while getting dressed. Some were written in Gaelic, and some in Latin. Lorica is a Latin word which originally signified a piece of protective armor worn as a breastplate. The particular lorica prayer that appears below is attributed to St. Patrick and has often been called “The Breastplate of St. Patrick.” Whether in Latin, Gaelic, or English, we should continue to use such traditional prayers and recommend them to our Christian brothers and sisters whenever they experience spiritual opposition from the occult.

I. I clothe myself today
In the strong power of an invocation of the Trinity,
In the faith of the Trinity in Unity, the Creator of creation.

II. I clothe myself today
In the power of the Incarnation of Christ and that of his Baptism,
In the power of his Crucifixion and that of his Burial,
In the power of his Resurrection and that of his Ascension,
In the power of his Coming on the Judgment Day.

III. I clothe myself today
In the power of the love of the seraphim,
In the obedience of the angels,
In the ministration of the archangels,
In the hope of resurrection unto reward,
In the prayers of the patriarchs,
In the predictions of the prophets,
In the preaching of the apostles,
In the faith of the confessors,
In the purity of the holy virgins,
In the deeds of righteous men.

IV. I clothe myself today
In the power of heaven,
In the brightness of the sun,
In the whiteness of snow,
In the splendor of fire,
In the speed of lightning,
In the swiftness of wind,
In the depth of the sea,
In the stability of the earth,
In the firmness of rock.

V. I clothe myself today
In God’s Power to pilot me,
In God’s Might to uphold me,
In God’s Wisdom to teach me,
In God’s Eye to watch over me,
In God’s Ear to hear me,
In God’s Word to give me speech,
In God’s Hand to guide me,
In God’s Way to lie before me,
In God’s Shield to shelter me,
In God’s Host to secure me,
Against the snares of demons,
Against the seductions of vices,
Against the lusts of nature,
Against everyone who meditates injury to me,
Whether far or near, whether few or many.

VI. I invoke today all these powers
Against every hostile merciless power which may assail my body or my soul,
Against the incantations of false prophets,
Against the black laws of heathenism,
Against the false laws of heresy,
Against the deceits of idolatry,
Against the spells of witches, and smiths, and wizards,
Against every knowledge that blinds the soul of man.

VII. Christ protect me today
Against poison,
Against burning,
Against drowning,
Against wounding,
That I may receive abundant reward.

VIII. Christ with me,
Christ before me,
Christ behind me,
Christ within me,
Christ under me,
Christ above me,
Christ at my right,
Christ at my left,
Christ in lying down,
Christ in sitting,
Christ in rising up.

IX. Christ in the heart of every person who thinks of me,
Christ in the mouth of every person who speaks to me,
Christ in every eye that sees me,
Christ in every ear that hears me.

X. I clothe myself today
In the strong power of an invocation of the Trinity,
In the faith of the Trinity in Unity, the Creator of creation.

  1. Cf. Pope Benedict XVI, Jesus von Nazareth, Prolog-Die Kindheitsgeschichten (Vatican City: Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 2012), in English as Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives, trans. Philip J. Whitmore (Image).
  2. See Acts 10:34–35 and the declaration Dominus Iesus by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (2000).
Dcn. Tracy Jamison, OCDS About Dcn. Tracy Jamison, OCDS

Deacon Tracy Jamison was raised in a Christian family as the son of a Scotch-Irish evangelical minister in the Campbellite tradition. As an undergraduate he majored in Biblical and Ancient Near Eastern Studies at Cincinnati Christian University, where his parents had been educated. At this institution he met Joyce, who was completing a degree in Church Music, and after graduation they entered the covenant of Christian marriage in 1988. Through the study of philosophy and the writings of the Early Church Fathers, Tracy was received into the full communion of the Catholic Church in 1992. Under the influence of the theological writings of St. John Paul II he began to study the works of St. Teresa of Avila and St. John of the Cross and entered formation as a Secular Carmelite of the Teresian Reform. In 1999 he completed the doctoral program in Philosophy at the University of Cincinnati, and in 2002 he made his definitive profession as a Secular Carmelite. In 2010 he was ordained as a permanent deacon of the Archdiocese of Cincinnati. Currently he is an associate professor of philosophy at Mount St. Mary’s Seminary of the West.