Imagining the Magi

In the Gospel of Matthew, “wise men (magi) from the East” come to Jerusalem after the birth of Christ, asking, “Where is he who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star rising in the East and have come to worship him.” (Matt 2:1–2) Matthew goes on to record their dialogue with Herod and arrival in Bethlehem with gifts for the child. But the Gospel says no more about the identities of the Eastern visitors. Who were these strangers who traveled such a long way to see a Jewish baby? What did they make of him?

Matthew says, “They fell down and worshipped him” (2:11). Tradition holds that, as the shepherds were Jews, the magi were the first gentiles to recognize and acknowledge the divinity of Christ. Martin Luther disagreed: “They honored him as a king,” he declared in a sermon on that passage. “Nor was the worship like that done to God because, in my opinion, they did not recognize him as God.” Luther cautioned against speculating on further details about the magi’s visit. “What conversation they had with Mary and Joseph I leave to the imagination of idle minds.”

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