The Visit of the Wise Men

In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise me from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, “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.” When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet:

‘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.’”

Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. Then 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.” When 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. 10 When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. 11 On 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. 12 And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.

New Revised Standard Version Bible: Catholic Edition, copyright © 1989, 1993 the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

What to do with this educator’s commentary

This commentary invites you as a teacher to engage with and interpret the passage. Allow the text to speak first. The commentary suggests that you ask yourself various questions that will aid your interpretation. They will help you answer for yourself the question in the last words of the text: ‘what does this mean?’.

This educator’s commentary is not a ‘finished package’. It is for your engagement with the text. You then go on to plan how you enable your students to work with the text.

Both you and your students are the agents of interpretation. The ‘Worlds of the Text’ offer a structure, a conversation between the worlds of the author and the setting of the text; the world of the text; and the world of the reader. In your personal reflection and in your teaching all three worlds should be integrated as they rely on each other.

In your teaching you are encouraged to ask your students to engage with the text in a dialogical way, to explore and interpret it, to share their own interpretation and to listen to that of others before they engage with the way the text might relate to a topic or unit of work being studied.

Structure of the commentary:

The world behind the text

The world of the Matthew’s community

The world of the text

Text & textual features

Characters & setting

Ideas / phrases / concepts

Questions for the teacher

The world in front of the text

Questions for the teacher

Meaning for today / challenges

Church interpretations & usage

The World Behind the Text

See general introduction to Matthew.

The world of the text

Text & textual features

Matthew’s infancy narrative can be strongly linked to his need to demonstrate Jesus’ lineage – and in particular his connection to King David and the anticipation of a Messiah. Perhaps more for this text than others be sure you know the content of Matthew as a writer.

Structurally, this passage can be divided into two halves: the meeting of the wise men with King Herod in Jerusalem and their meeting with Jesus in Bethlehem.

This text is situated after Matthew’s genealogy pointing to Jesus as the Messiah and then detailing how the birth of the Messiah took place through Joseph from the house of David.

Through an angel in a dream, Joseph is encouraged to take Mary as his wife even though she is already with child and to name the child Jesus. The writer of Matthew follows this text with Joseph having another dream that the child is at risk of Herod destroying him and to travel to Egypt. This allows the writer of Matthew’s gospel to again use Old Testament prophecy to illustrate who Jesus is and to draw parallels between Jesus and Moses.

In this text, the writer of the gospel of Matthew does not give exact details of Jesus’ birth. What is important is where it occurred and the initial reactions to him. Jesus is born in a house in Bethlehem, the place where David was anointed King, signifying that Jesus is the Messiah who will be born from the house of David. The presence of the wise men, as Gentiles, is significant for Matthew’s community, that those who are not of the Jewish tradition can recognise Jesus as the Saviour. King Herod is not a ‘true’ king, he has been appointed by the Romans. The inclusion of King Herod in the text places Jesus’ birth before 4BCE.

This text is in the second chapter of the gospel of Matthew. But even at this early stage there is a dark foreboding and threat of death already present along with some moments of joy. Jesus’ life is already being threatened and secular power, in the person of Herod is seeking to have control over the will of God. The writer references Micah, Isaiah, Psalms and Numbers from the Old Testament.

Characters & setting

Herod the Great (72BCE-4BCE)

Herod was known as a ruthless ruler known for arranging the deaths of rivals and those who disagreed with him. He has been appointed by the Romans as King of Judea.

Herod the Great was known as a builder, undertaking significant projects including rebuilding and enlarging the Temple.

On his death, Herod the Great stipulated the division of his kingdom between his three sons so they could not match his greatness. Herod Antipas was given Galilee and Perea an area to the east of the Jordan River. He is ruler at the time of Jesus’ ministry and death.

Wise Men

In the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) translation they are ‘wise men’ but in other translations they appear as ‘the Magi’. Some scholars believe that these travellers from the East may have been from Persia (Iran) where there was a tradition of astronomy and astrology, which at the time was regarded as a science. The people who studied the stars were referred to as ‘magus’ meaning powerful.

Another tradition is that each of the visitors came from Europe (Turkey), Asia (possibly as far as India), and Africa. This idea developed from where the gifts could have come from. Some depictions of the wise men show these racial differences.

Chief priests and scribes

Herod consults with the chief priests and scribes of the people. The writer of Matthew’s gospel is making a distinction between Herod and the people as followers of Judaism. In the text, ‘chief priests’ is plural. There was only one chief priest at a time, so this suggests that Herod consulted either past and present chief priests or it is a wider group of senior priests. The writer of Matthew is already setting up the priests and scribes as a threat to Jesus. In the gospel of Matthew, they will also be involved in the trail of Jesus, resulting in his death.  

Mary and Joseph

In the gospel of Matthew, Joseph is the main character in the birth of Jesus. He receives the dreams/messages that move the narrative forward and is the link to the house of David. It is his family line which has Jesus (the Messiah) born in Bethlehem. This part of the infancy narrative has no mention of Joseph, concentrating on the ‘child with Mary his mother’ placing emphasis on how Jesus’ birth occurred, and that Mary is his true mother.

Jerusalem and Bethlehem

There are two settings for this text, Jerusalem, an important centre of power for the Jewish people both religiously with the Temple and for governance: and Bethlehem, the home of King David. There is a contrast with King Herod and his kingship in Jerusalem appointed by the Romans and the kingship of David who was anointed at Bethlehem and chosen by God. Bethlehem is about 10kms from Jerusalem. It was recognised as the place where the Messiah would be born.


Righteousness: This is a Jewish term that is important in Matthew’s gospel. In the biblical tradition, righteousness referred to the covenantal relationship between Israel and God. The covenant sets out how the Israelites were to live out the covenantal requirements in everyday life. A righteous person was one who kept the Torah not only legalistically but also as practical expressions of ‘doing what God wants.’ Claiming one was descended from Abraham and, therefore, belonging to God’s people, was not sufficient for John. He believed that one must do want God wants and live according to the requirements of the convent. 

Baptism: John was not a Christian and the baptism he offered is not the same as the later Christian ritual of Initiation (Sacrament of Baptism). Some theologians believe it was a variation on a Jewish practice at the time which involved the immersion into water to achieve ritual purification. Therefore, baptism was an outward sign of repentance and it could be repeated. 

Kingdom of Heaven: is the preferred term used by Matthew for the ‘kingdom of God’ or the ‘rule of God.’ This term was used to represent a state of affairs rather than any institution or place. John considered the present social and religious structures were not reflecting the values proper to the Kingdom of Heaven. 

At this time, there was a belief that the world as it was known, was in the grip of Satan. This captivity was manifested through poverty, sickness, disease, the Roman occupation, the tyranny of local rulers, heavy taxation and debts. John’s call for repentance was not just for the forgiveness of sins but also for a radical and deep-seated change of the state of affairs. He challenged the nation as a whole to transform societal relationships, values and lifestyles in order to better reflect those of the Kingdom of Heaven.  

Holy Spirit: The Spirit that brought about Jesus’ conception was now commissioning Jesus to bring about God’s dream for the world. Jesus’ Spirit empowered mission will reclaim human lives for a new humanity. 


‘And you, Bethlehem…’

The writer has included a paraphrased version of Micah 5: 2-5. The passage in Micah outlines that the Saviour will be born in the humble village of Bethlehem. The Saviour will bring peace from God to the ends of the earth and the people will live in security.

Star – At both ends of the gospel the writer of Matthew has major natural phenomena to connect Jesus to God, the appearance of stars, eclipses (Matt 27: 45) and earthquakes (Matt 27: 51, Matt 28:2) suggests power over heaven and earth. In ancient times there was also the idea that the births of great figures were connected to astral events. It is likely that the writer of Matthew has used the star symbolically. The most likely astronomical phenomena to have occurred around the time when we place Jesus’ birth is a conjunction of stars and planets.

The house

The text is situated in a house with the understanding that this is Joseph and Mary’s family home. The writer of Matthew then has them travel to Nazareth via Egypt to avoid the wrath of Herod.

The gifts

The wise men present Jesus with gold, frankincense and myrrh. Various interpretations have been placed on these gifts – that gold is for a king, incense is for God and myrrh is for the mortal man as it is connected to burial. There is a reference in Isaiah 60: 3-6 that those who come from Sheba, in the east, will bring gold and frankincense and the writer of Matthew might have been referencing this.


The wise men are overwhelmed with joy when the star stops. Biblically, joy is regarded as something coming from God. It is based on the keeping of promises and hope. It is long lasting.


In Matthew’s infancy narrative dreams convey divine messages. The wise men are warned not to travel back to Herod.

The wise men kneel down to pay Jesus homage and offer him gifts. This is not simply the reverence paid to any ruler but a recognition that Jesus is ‘God with us’. At the end of the gospel of Matthew (Matt 28), the disciples will pay homage to Jesus.

Questions for the teacher:

What is the text saying? What am I wondering about the text?
How can you enable your students to engage with the actual text? What might they wonder about?
What of this information is important to share with the students?

The world in front of the text

Questions for the teacher:

Please reflect on these questions before reading this section and then use the material below to enrich your responsiveness to the text.

How do you respond to the text?
What does the text tell us about the world that God desires? What might the Holy Spirit be asking you and asking us to do?
In what ways do you hope your students will respond to the text? What do you want them to know, believe and do?

Meaning for today/challenges

The writer of Matthew’s gospel reveals Jesus to be the Messiah, the new Moses and Emmanuel ‘God is with Us’. He does this through the use of Old Testament references and events in the text. While the author could have no sense that the gospel would be read today, 2,000 years later, the text still challenges readers that Jesus is the Messiah and is worthy of worship. Just as the wise men pay homage, we are also challenged to bear witness.

The recognition by ‘outsiders’ of who Jesus truly is could also be relevant to faith communities which are becoming more culturally diverse. As people join from other cultures there may be challenges in the differences with prayer practices and ways of celebrating.

Church interpretation & usage

The Feast of the Epiphany which uses this text is one of the Church’s oldest feasts and predates the celebration of Christmas on 25 December.

St Francis of Assisi is credited with creating the first nativity scene but there are depictions of the wise men paying homage to the infant Jesus from the late third century CE. From the Renaissance there are nativity scenes depicting both the shepherds from Luke’s gospel and the wise men from the gospel of Matthew. This combination of the two narratives and further depictions in Christmas cards and children’s bibles and books has led to confusion about the two separate narratives and the original context in which they were written.

Detail of sixth-century mosaic at the Basilca of Sant’Apollinare Nuovo in Ravenna, Italy.

A sixth century mosaic in Ravenna in northern Italy has the wisemen named as Balthasar, Melchior and Gaspar. These names have become synonymous with the wise men although Matthew does not say how many there were but only that there were three gifts.

‘We Three Kings’ is a popular Christmas carol written in America by John Henry Hopkins Jr in 1857. It is particularly used for the Feast of the Epiphany. There is nothing in Matthew’s gospel to suggest that the wise men were kings, but the gifts they give are fitting for a king and were expensive. Due to the writer of Matthew making extensive use of the Old Testament there are verses from the Old Testament (Isaiah 60: 6, Psalms 72) suggesting the visiting by royalty and kingly gifts. Hopkins made use of this in writing the carol, drawing from other traditions around the wise men, including their names and connecting the gold, frankincense and myrrh to the individuals.

In many Spanish speaking countries and parts of Europe it is the wise men who bring Christmas gifts to children. This occurs on January 6.

Liturgical Use

This text is used on the Feast of the Epiphany, traditionally celebrated on 6 January as the 12th day of Christmas celebrations, and now celebrated on the Sunday between January 2 and 8. ‘Epiphany’ means manifestation or revelation. The identity of Jesus is revealed to the wise men.

The text for the Sunday immediately after Christmas, the Feast of the Holy Family uses the text after this one, ‘The flight into Egypt’ where the Holy Family leave Bethlehem for refuge in Egypt after Herod the Great commands the killing of all male children two years old and younger in Bethlehem and surrounds.