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We read in Mtt 2:1-2:

After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem and asked, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.”.

As per the First Commandment, God alone is to be worshipped. It is not written if the Magi realised that the newborn babe they were searching for was God's Only Son. And it is traditionally believed that the Magi were Gentiles. But why did Herod say that he too wished to worship the newborn King (Mtt 2:8) ? Agreed that he had a hidden agenda, but why Herod, himself raised as a Jew, did not correct the Magi? That leads one to the conclusion that the Magi indeed saw Jesus as the Saviour. The gift of frankincense they offered him (though listed second by Matthew in 2:11), also points to the fact.

My question therefore is: Why did the Magi want "to worship" Infant Jesus after identifying him as King?

PS: Psalm 72:11 (KJV) says that all kings shall "fall down" (prostrate) before him. Prostration is a physical symbol of paying utmost respect or acknowledging submissiveness, and not necessarily of offering worship.

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    This doesn't answer the question as I hoped, but was an interesting article read yesterday about Magi and Zororastarians ncregister.com/features/… Maybe the answer has something to do with that religion?
    – Peter Turner
    Jan 9 at 21:53
  • This sound like promotion, but I am sincere. Dr. Stephen T. Chang shone a light on the Magi in his book The Great Tao. "My" priest says, Taoism is interesting. 😊
    – deEr.
    Mar 20 at 20:28

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It is true that proskun, one of several Greek words translated as "worship", can give rise to such a question as this. It is used in Matthew 2:2, 8, 11 & 4:9, 10. This word means 'To kiss (the hand) toward.'

It can be shown why the verses you ask about mean actual worship, and not just bowing down in obeisance, as in acknowledging a person to be a king, or perhaps bowing low to a magistrate in a court of law. In our Western society, we are more likely to stand up for a magistrate, or a monarch! So, we need to get into the mind-set of people in the first century, and to know how they viewed matters.

Knowing the meaning of other Greek words related to worship will help to show this. Bear in mind that in the K.J. all these words are translated as "worship".

Glory, esteem - doxa as in Luke 14:10

To be reverential, pious - eusebeo as in Acts 17:23

To serve, cure, heal - therapeeuo as in Acts 17:25

Religious observance - threskeia as in Colossians 2:18

To worship publicly - latreuo as in Acts 7:42

A worshiper - proskunetes as in John 4:23

To venerate, reckon venerable - sebazo as in Romans 1:25

This shows that the richness of the Greek language Matthew was using had words other than 'proskun' that he could have used to be precise about avoidance of actual worship, due to a lesser meaning, if that had been the case. It had not. Matthew meant to say 'worship' as proven by him using exactly the same Greek word when Jesus was tempted by Satan in the wilderness. Consider:

"And saith unto him, All these things will I give thee, if thou wilt fall down and worship me. Then saith Jesus unto him, For it is written. Thou shalt worship the Lord thy God, and him only shalt thou serve." Matthew 4:9-10 K.J.

This means that in exactly the same way Satan wanted Jesus "to kiss the hand toward" him, in worship, the Magi wanted to worship the infant King. Herod knew they meant that because the prophecies about a coming Messiah, who would "raise up the tent of David" as King was due to be born around that time. Herod, of course, could thole no rival to what he considered to be his throne, so he hypocritically said he, too, wanted to worship this babe when he had murder in his heart.

No, Satan, Jesus, the Magi and Herod were all said by Matthew to speak of worship, not just a prostration of submissiveness or utmost respect.

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  • sorry to disagree, but this was not worship in a religious sense, it was doing homage. (see my answer) Not to say it is wrong for Christians wot worship Jesus as the Son of God, but the magi identified him as the "king of the Jews," and they action were typical of oriental subjects doing objects to a king. Jan 9 at 21:45
  • Thanks, Anne for the well sourced answer. Please also elucidate if the Magi indeed saw Jesus as the Son of God worthy of worship. Jan 10 at 1:56
  • @KadalikattJosephSibichan Matthew's account shows they rejoiced when the star led them to the house where the child and his mother were. That was proof that they'd been right to make that immensely long, dangerous journey, guided from above. After they had paid homage and left their expensive gifts, they were warned in a dream (from heaven, no less) not to return to Herod but to go back via a different route. They obeyed. If any of them had been unsure about worship, by then they would have had no doubts! It does not say if they viewed Jesus as the Son of God.
    – Anne
    Jan 10 at 14:42
  • Also note the answer to your other Q, hermeneutics.stackexchange.com/questions/90167/… where 10 translations that say 'worship' (from 1769 to 1993) are listed.
    – Anne
    Jan 10 at 14:55
  • Thanks, Anne for connecting the inputs. Jan 11 at 1:57
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To Anne's excellent answer, I add a curiosity. The wise men brought three gifts to present to Jesus: gold, frankincense and myrrh. To my knowledge there are only two other passages in the Bible that mention all three together, in Song of Songs and in Revelation. The first speaks reverentially of the arrival of King Solomon, and in Matthew, Jesus is called something greater than Solomon. The second speaks of the wicked kings of the earth, who lament the loss of their treasures. The wise king arrives at the wedding bearing gifts for the bride. The foolish kings are stingy and despise offering tribute to the savior of the world.

What is that coming up from the wilderness
    like columns of smoke,
perfumed with myrrh and frankincense,
    with all the fragrant powders of a merchant?
7 Behold, it is the litter of Solomon!
Around it are sixty mighty men,
    some of the mighty men of Israel,
8 all of them wearing swords
    and expert in war,
each with his sword at his thigh,
    against terror by night.
9 King Solomon made himself a carriage
    from the wood of Lebanon.
10 He made its posts of silver,
    its back of gold, its seat of purple;
its interior was inlaid with love
    by the daughters of Jerusalem.
11 Go out, O daughters of Zion,
    and look upon King Solomon,
with the crown with which his mother crowned him
    on the day of his wedding,
    on the day of the gladness of his heart. (Song of Songs 3:6-11)

9 And the kings of the earth, who committed sexual immorality and lived in luxury with her, will weep and wail over her when they see the smoke of her burning. 10 They will stand far off, in fear of her torment, and say,

“Alas! Alas! You great city, you mighty city, Babylon! For in a single hour your judgment has come.”

11 And the merchants of the earth weep and mourn for her, since no one buys their cargo anymore, 12 cargo of gold, silver, jewels, pearls, fine linen, purple cloth, silk, scarlet cloth, all kinds of scented wood, all kinds of articles of ivory, all kinds of articles of costly wood, bronze, iron and marble, 13 cinnamon, spice, incense, myrrh, frankincense, wine, oil, fine flour, wheat, cattle and sheep, horses and chariots, and slaves, that is, human souls. (Revelation 18:9-13)

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Many translators render this verb as "do homage to" rather than "worship." I think this is a good interpretation. They wanted to pay homage to him:

Matthew 2:11

and on entering the house they saw the child with Mary his mother. They prostrated themselves and did him homage. Then they opened their treasures and offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. (NABRE)

The act of prostration was not "worship" in the modern sense. It was a typical formal greeting of a subject to a king, child to a parent, or other person of inferior rank to a superior.

Thus, the magi wanted wanted to pay homage to "the one who has been born king of the Jews." And that is exactly what they did.

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