The Magi

Published by DonDavidson on

I’ve seen many Christmas pageants and Nativity scenes in my time, and most depict the newborn baby Jesus in a manger surrounded by Joseph, Mary, farm animals, shepherds, and three kings bringing gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. There’s no harm in that, but historians and biblical scholars say that’s not the way it actually happened.

First of all, who were the magi? They weren’t kings, but educated men who specialized in astronomy and astrology. Matthew 2:1 says they came “from the east.” They probably came from areas near Babylon—which is now Iraq—for the Babylonians were well known for studying the stars and trying to draw meaning from them.

By the way, if the magi were coming “from the east,” how is it that they saw the famous star of Bethlehem “in the east,” as Matthew 2:2 is usually translated? The Greek in Matthew 2:2 is en té anatolai, which is the plural of en té anatolé. The latter means “in the east,” but some scholars believe the plural form has a different meaning, along the lines of “in the first rays of dawn.” So the magi saw the star in the direction of the west, but as dawn was breaking.

The traditional view that there were three magi is suspect, too. Matthew doesn’t actually tell us how many magi came, but only that they brought three gifts—gold, frankincense, and myrrh. The traditional view assumes that since there were three gifts, there must have been three magi, but this is essentially speculative. We do not really know how many magi came.

Next, there are good reasons to believe the magi arrived well after the time of Jesus’ birth. Perhaps the best reason, to my mind, is that when King Herod tried to kill the infant Messiah he ordered that all Bethlehem boys under the age of two be murdered, per Matthew 2:16. This was after he had “secretly called for the magi and determined from them the exact time the star appeared.”[1] This strongly implies that the star had appeared close in time to Jesus’ birth, and that the birth had occurred as much as two years before Herod’s ghastly order—an order which was issued shortly after the magi visited the holy family and then departed.[2]

In addition, if the star first appeared near the time of Jesus’ birth, then many weeks or months must have elapsed to give the magi time to journey to Jerusalem and then to Bethlehem—a distance of more than 600 miles through hostile desert, and significantly farther if, as seems likely, they followed the trade route, which went northwest up the Euphrates River to Syria and then southwest through Syria and Damascus. We must also add a few more days to their journey since Matthew 2:1-7 seems to indicate that the magi spent at least a few days in Jerusalem being interrogated by King Herod before being allowed to continue on their journey to Bethlehem (which was about 6 miles south of Jerusalem).

And while I do not subscribe to the traditional view that Jesus was born in a stable, a barn, or a cave (for more on that, click here), he was certainly living in a “house” by the time the magi arrived, per Matthew 2:11.

On a side note, I’ve read a number of theories about what the star of Bethlehem may have been—such as an alignment of Jupiter and Saturn in 7 B.C., or possibly a comet (the latter seems pretty credible to me, but we have no historical evidence to support it). Unfortunately, we don’t really have a definitive answer to that, to my knowledge.

None of this should dampen our post-Christmas celebration of the magi’s visit. In fact, I find great joy and satisfaction in imagining their visit the way it may have actually happened, for it doesn’t change the essentials—that the magi journeyed a long way to worship the baby king, bringing costly gifts which probably helped sustain Joseph and Mary during their flight to, and brief exile in, Egypt.[3]

Happy New Year!

[1]. Matthew 2:7

[2]. See Matthew 2:11-12 and 2:16.

[3]. See Matthew 2:13-15.


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