The following is post number 10 in my series, “The Nativity Through Abrahamic Literature”. This post centers around the visit of the wise men and comes from the Gospel of Matthew 2:1-12, from the New Revised Standard Version with annotations from The New Oxford Annotated Bible with Apocrypha: New Revised Standard Version 4th ed. Edition by Michael D. Coogan
1In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem,i 2asking, ‘Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.’ii 3When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; 4and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born.iii 5They told him, ‘In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet:
6 “And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
for from you shall come a ruler
who is to shepherd my people Israel.” ’iv
7 Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. 8Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, ‘Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.’ 9When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. 10When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. 11On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure-chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.v 12And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.
iKing Herod is Herod the Great (ruled 37–4 bce), who was confirmed as the client king of Judea by the emperor Augustus (31 bce–14 ce). Herod was only partly Jewish and was notorious for reacting savagely to potential rivals, particularly Jewish rivals. Bethlehem was David’s hometown and where he was anointed king of Israel (1 Sam 16.1–13). The wise men or Magi were a class of Parthian (Persian) priests, renowned as astrologers.
iiAs Gentiles, the Magi do not ask for the king of Israel, but for the king of the Jews (27.11,37). The star has been variously explained as a supernova, a comet, or a notable conjunction of the planets, but its meaning is probably symbolic; see Num 24.17
iiiThe chief priests would have included the current high priest and a larger priestly college, based in Jerusalem. The scribes were lawyers, teachers, and interpreters of the Torah (Sir 39.1–11).
ivMic 5.1,3; cf. 2 Sam 5.2.
vFrankincense and myrrh were costly, resinous gums derived from trees and shrubs (Isa 60.6; Song 3.6). Because of their aromatic qualities they were often employed in religious rituals. The mention of three gifts is probably the origin of the postbiblical tradition that there were three wise men.