Below is an excerpt from my Cathedral News (the Cathedral’s quarterly magazine) article from the upcoming issue:
One of the most colorful parts of any nativity scene is the three wise men or magi. They are usually depicted in colorful robes and bear the traditional gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. Often they will be accompanied by the camels or, more rarely but more correctly, the horses on which they rode. Interestingly, in their appearance in the gospel of Matthew the wise men are not enumerated; the number three is associated with them due to the three gifts.
As interesting and colorful as the magi appear, what is their purpose in the story? The key to understanding this is in the origin of the term magi, which is from a Greek root meaning magician or one who engages in augury. This activity is strictly forbidden in scripture as being blasphemous, but the word magi in the Hellenistic era meant a follower of Zoroastrianism, the ancient Persian religion now extinct in Iran but still followed by the exiled Parsi community. The magi are, in this sense, the ultimate Gentiles; magi is a term like “crowd”, “dogs”, and others that in the New Testament denotes a Gentile who accepts the good news of the gospel just as the chief priests and scribes struggle with it.