The magi were a learned priestly caste that specialized in the study of the stars and planets. They developed a complex system linking the movements of the stars with historical events. Although Matthew says only that the magi who visited Jesus were "from the East," the center for the magi was in Persia. They had formed themselves into a guild of scholars and seers during the time of the Medes in the seventh century B. C.. When the Persians conquered the Medes in the sixth century B. C.., the magi readily adjusted to Persian rule. Indeed, they were highly honored. The royal and the wealthy alike sought advice from them. When Zoroastrianism became the official religion of Persia-still surviving today in parts of Iran and among the Parsees of India-the magi integrated their lore with the practices of that religion.
People in the Mediterranean world expected a leader who would guide the nations into a golden age of order and prosperity. No one was surprised that magi should seek to honor one whom the stars had announced. It is also understandable that their arrival in Jerusalem would be treated with awe and respect. It also caused Herod to take desperate measures to protect his throne.
No one knows how many magi visited Jesus. The number three is suggested by the three gifts: gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Some early traditions give the number as twelve. The names Gaspar, Melchior, and Balthasar are first mentioned in the sixth century. Also, no one knows whether the men who visited Jesus were Persians or Jews from the East who had become magi. Such early Christian art as the paintings in the second century catacombs of Priscilla in Rome shows them dressed like Persians. As early as the third century, people began to believe that the magi who visited Jesus were kings.
The word "magic" comes from magi. Some of them earned their livings and cultivated power by soothsaying and performing tricks. Two such people are censured in the New Testament: Simon Magus (Acts 8.9) and Elymas the Magician (Acts 13.8). But Matthew speaks with respect of the magi who traveled so far and so long to worship the child born king of the Jews.