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The term magi was used in Greek to refer to "a wide range of astronomers, fortune tellers, priestly augurers, and magicians." The reference to the star makes it most likely that, unlike Simon Magus in Acts 8:9, these men were astrologers. The text is not clear about where they came from, for "the east" could refer to Persia, where the people to whom the term was originally applied lived, to Babylonia, which was said to be full of astrology, or to the desert areas east of Palestine, where the types of gifts the magi brought were often found. What is clear is that these men saw some type of astronomical phenomenon ("star" could refer to any one of a variety of such phenomena), quite possibly a particular planetary conjunction, and interpreted it to mean that a king had been born in Judea.
Even as early as A.D. 110 Christians struggled with the account of these magi. Ignatius (Ephesians 19:3), followed by many other ancient writers, argued that by means of this event these occult sciences ended. However, we do not read that evaluation in Matthew. The fact is that the Bible is quite unapologetic not only about these magi, but also about Daniel, who was more learned than all of the magi of Babylon (Dan 1:17, 20), having been trained as a Chaldean or astrologer-priest (Dan 1:4, compare Dan 2:2). Likewise, a Jewish contemporary of Matthew viewed Balaam as a magi who had received true revelation from God (Philo On the Life of Moses I, 50 [I, 276-77]). However, neither Philo writing about Balaam nor the writer of Daniel believed that divine revelation came to their respective subjects through astrology, but that the fact that the person was an astrologer did not seem to hinder God from giving them his prophetic Spirit. In the case of Matthew it is different, for the revelation of the birth of Jesus comes to them through their astrological observations.
The truth is that the Old Testament does speak against a large number of occult arts (e.g., Ex 22:18; Deut 18:10), but astrology is not among them. The Hebrew term for astrologer appears only in Daniel 1:20 and 2:10. Even in the Greek Old Testament it is only in Daniel that the term magi appears. Unlike the case with other occult arts, the Old Testament is more concerned with the weakness or inability of the astrologers when compared with the Spirit of God in Daniel than with their evil nature. This does not mean that the Old Testament approves of astrology, but simply that it does not contain a specific condemnation of it.
All of this, however, does not explain what Matthew is trying to say. Who are these magi (whether there were two or ten of them, for the text only indicates that there was more than one)? There were many Jewish magi in the ancient world, but since these men ask for "the king of the Jews" (rather than "our king" or something like that), they are being presented as pagan magi. They come to Herod, the reigning king of the Jews (although he was an Idumean by race), who gathers the Jewish leaders. What is more, the city of Jerusalem hears about this and is "frightened" or "disturbed" just like Herod is. None of these Jewish people (for Herod practiced Judaism, at least when living in Judea) makes any move to seek Jesus, let alone to worship him. It is the pagan astrologers who have come to worship him and who go on to fulfill their purpose. Now Matthew is known as a very Jewish Gospel, but there is also a clear theme in Matthew about Jesus' rejection by the Jewish people and the gospel reaching out to the Gentiles. Of course this outreach of the gospel is clear in Matthew 28:19-20, but the dual theme is even clear as early as Matthew 8:10-12 (and John the Baptist in Mt 3 indicates the rejection of the Jewish leaders). Thus throughout Matthew we learn about Jews rejecting Jesus and pagans showing faith.
Now the meaning of the story becomes clear. God speaks to some pagan astrologers by means of natural revelation through the language that they would understand (either a planetary conjunction or a comet or some other astronomical phenomenon). They respond in faith and travel a long distance seeking the king to honor and worship. Their revelation is imperfect, for Jerusalem appears to have been a guess (Would not a king be born in the capital city?); and it is only after getting information from Scripture that their trip to Bethlehem is confirmed by the reappearance of the "star" (the apparent disappearance and reappearance is what makes some scholars believe this to be a planetary conjunction in which the planets came together, then parted, then reconverged). Meanwhile the Jewish people have the Scriptures that clearly indicate the birthplace of the Messiah, yet far from carefully watching that town, even when confronted by the magi they respond with upset and anger rather than faith.
Can God speak through astrology? Yes, for he did it once. Is it then a normal means of his revelation? By no means! God has given us his Word, a far more accurate and fuller means of revelation. Yet when his people are ignoring his Word, it may well be that God will speak to some pagan through the stars and that pagan will respond with a faith that shames the indifference of the people who claim to be God's and who are custodians of his revelatory book.
Raymond E. Brown, The Birth of the Messiah (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1977), p. 167.