The Magi: Who They Were, How They’ve Been Remembered, and Why They Still Fascinate

Reviewed by:

G. Connor Salter, Professional Writing alumnus from Taylor University, Upland, IN.


The Magi: Who They Were, How They’ve Been Remembered, and Why They Still Fascinate


Eric Vanden Eykel


Fortress Press

Publication Date:

October 25, 2022




218 pages


The New Testament narratives about Jesus’ birth have many surprises, but perhaps the strangest ones are “the Magi.” These men appear unannounced in Jerusalem, leave Herod suspicious that a new king is around, give Jesus exotic gifts, then disappear. Two thousand years later, scholars still debate who the Magi were. As Eric Vanden Eykel discovered, the difficulty is that most books about the Magi are “more of the same or a bit nutty.” He aims for a middle ground, taking readers through:

  • What details the Gospel of Matthew gives about the Magi
  • What the word “magi” meant to Matthew’s audience
  • How early Christian writings (including apocryphal works and the church father’s writings) depict the Magi
  • How modern works, like O. Henry’s famous short story “The Gift of the Magi” and Barbara Brown Taylor’s book Home By Another Way, depict the Magi

Eyken makes it clear from the start that writing about the Magi is difficult because so little is known. The Gospel of Matthew gives few details about the Magi. No other canonical Biblical texts mention them. Tracing how the word “magi” is used elsewhere in the Bible and in ancient texts from the same period gives some possibilities but nothing definite. In fact, Eyken admits early on that he’s not convinced the Magi visit happened. He describes his goal as “to examine the Magic not as historical figures but as fictional characters in Matthew’s narrative.” However, he also states he’s going to approach the subject in a way that could fit the historical view, so readers need not agree with him.

More conservative readers may feel concerned about Eyken’s approach. Still, he makes good on his claim that this book will work regardless of whether readers see the Magi as historical or purely literary figures. Once or twice he questions events connected to them—for him, the fact that no source outside Matthew mentions the slaughter of the innocents means that Matthew probably invented it to parallel the Egyptian slaughter of the infants mentioned in Exodus. However, even there, Eyken states his view and moves on. He doesn’t present a case for why readers should take a liberal (or conservative) view on how much history is in Matthew. He does an admirable job of keeping the main thing the main thing.

Eyken’s insights into what the Magi’s visit communicates about Jesus are interesting. Mark L. Strauss has argued in Four Portraits, One Jesus that each Gospel emphasizes Jesus as having a certain role and that Matthew emphasizes Jesus as the Messiah. Eyken follows in that tradition, showing how the Magi saying they seek “the one born king of the Judeans” underlines Jesus’ role as the prophesied heir to the throne of David.

However, Eyken also makes it clear that readers need to understand the traditions that have accumulated about the Magi. Looking at particular texts throughout Christian history, he shows how their story has been retold with various amounts of dramatic license to serve different writers’ needs. His overview of modern stories featuring the Magi (from serious retellings like Brown’s Home Another Way to comedic novels like Christopher Moore’s Lamb) show how the process continues today.

How the Magi have been portrayed as “good Gentiles” (holier than Herod’s Jewish scholars who missed Jesus’ coming) makes for particularly interesting reading. As Christians continue to wrestle with the unfortunate history of Christians slandering or persecuting Jewish people, it’s vital to understand how Bible stories have sometimes been retold to support what Eyken calls “Judeophobia.”

The Magi may not give the answers that some readers expect, but Eyken answers all the questions he sets out to answer. He gives an informed, scholarly, yet readable look at what place the Magi hold in Christian tradition, and why it’s worth knowing that history.


Rating (1 to 5 stars)

4 stars

Suggested Audience:

Christians interested in the Magi as a literary feature in the Gospel of Matthew, or understanding how past depictions and retellings have informed their own view of the Magi.

Christian Impact:

As noted above, Eyken takes a more liberal approach to the Gospel of Matthew than some readers will like, but he does an admirable job of focusing on the main subject. His discussion about what place the Magi hold in Christian tradition leaves readers with plenty to think about, especially regarding the subtext in some traditions (messy racial overtones surrounding “the Black Magus” Balthazar, Judeophobic comments about the Magi being better than the Jews).

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The Magi: Who They Were, How They've Been Remembered, and Why They Still Fascinate

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