Three wise men, kings from the East, follow the Star of Bethlehem to the manger where Mary lay with the baby Jesus, and present the newborn king with gold, frankincense, and myrrh. But who were the ”wise men,“ really? Magi is a Latin word deriving from an Old Persian term for the Zoroastrian priestly caste; the English word magic derives from it. Matthew 2:1-12, the lone mention of the ”wise men“ in the Scriptures, tells us that after visiting Jesus, the Magi ”departed into their own country,“ indicating that, contrary to popular belief, the Magi were all from the same kingdom, not three different ones.
Scholars now believe the Magi were representatives of the Indo-Scythian ruler Azes II, king of Bactria, in what is now Afghanistan. A political descendent of Alexander the Great, Azes would have been influenced by happenings in the West, and it was certainly in his interests to get into the good graces of the future King of the Jews. Religious art tends to portray one of the kings presenting Jesus with a vessel made of gold, but it is more likely that ”gold“ alluded to in the Gospel is shorthand for ”money“—most likely bronze coins of Azes II like this one.