“Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judaea in
the days of Herod the king, behold, there came wise
men from the east to Jerusalem, Saying, Where is he
that is born King of the Jews? for we have seen his
star in the east, and are come to worship him.”
For 2,000 years, the Wise Men of the East have intrigued us. Who were they? From whence did they come? Whom were they seeking? And why? And what was that star they were following?
Traditionally, we have pictured the manger scene with Mary, Joseph, and the baby, and on one side shepherds and on the other Wise Men, as they all adored Him. But many today state, as though it were common knowledge for everyone except ignoramuses like me, that in fact the wise men didn’t arrive until at least a year later, because it would take them at least that long to prepare for the journey and travel that distance.
I respectfully disagree. Always ready to fly in the face of so-called modern wisdom, I suggest that the Wise Men arrived in Bethlehem either at the time of Jesus’ birth or within 40 days thereafter. This is not a major point of doctrine, and I’m willing to listen to anyone who wants to prove me wrong. But I think the best reading of the Scriptures points to this conclusion.
What Was the Star?
First, what about the Star? For centuries scholars have tried to explain it. A meteor? A comet? A planetary conjunction? A supernova? Possibly some of these phenomena might explain how the Wise Men could have seen this Star while they were in the East and have followed the Star westward to Jerusalem. But Bethlehem is about seven miles southeast of Jerusalem. How, then, could the Star have suddenly made an abrupt 90+ degree turn at Jerusalem and led the Wise Men southeast to Bethlehem?
No, the Star of Bethlehem defies all scientific explanation, because it was a miracle of God. Either the Star was a special celestial light which God created and placed in the heavens at the right time and place to lead the Wise Men, or – and I think this is the better explanation – the Star was what theologians call a theophany – a pre-incarnate appearance of God to men. In the Old Testament God appeared to Moses in the form of the burning bush, and to the children of Israel wandering in the wilderness He appeared as the shekinah glory. The Star was a similar theophany, an appearance of God, this time in the Person of the Holy Spirit, because the role of the Holy Spirit is to lead men to Christ.
Who Were the Wise Men?
Scripture tells us only that they were “wise men” from the East. For those living in Judea, the “East” could be anywhere from Babylon to China. The most likely explanation, however, is that they were members of a priestly caste that exerted great influence in Persia and Babylonia, a caste known as the magoi or Magi. Probably they followed the Zoroastrian religion which was influential in Persia at that time. The Zoroastrians were monotheists, worshipping a god called Ahuramazda, and they believed in an eternal conflict between good and evil. The forces of good, and Ahuramazda, were represented by light, and the forces of evil by darkness. The Magi were the intellectuals in Persia, and some of them held important positions in the king’s cabinet. They were not actually kings, and the Scriptures do not call them kings; but Tertullian (circa 200 A.D.) says they were “well-nigh kings” and played a major role in selecting kings from those of the royal lineage who were eligible. Some of them practiced astrology, seeking Ahuramazda’s wisdom by tracing the signs of the heavens. Particularly they would look to the heavens for signs of a coming king. Naturally, then, the appearance of the Star of Bethlehem would draw their excited attention.
God does not approve of astrology. But in this instance He accommodated the knowledge and desires of the Magi by creating this special Star to guide them to Him Who is born King of the Jews.
Where Did the Wise Men Go?
A journey from Persia would have taken several weeks, at the very least, and preparations would have been necessary. But this does not mean the Magi could not have been present at Jesus’ birth. God, in His perfect foreknowledge, could have caused the Star to appear in Persia well in advance of Jesus’ birth, sufficiently in advance that the Magi could have completed their journey in time.
Led by the Star, the Magi came to Jerusalem, where they inquired of the birth of the King of the Jews. King Herod was not aware of the birth, apparently, but the chief priests and scribes confirmed that Jesus was to be born in Bethlehem (Matthew 2:5-6, quoting Micah 5:2). And Matthew 2:8 says that “he [Herod] sent them to Bethlehem.”
“When they had heard the king, they departed; and lo, the star, which they saw in the east, went before them, til it came and stood over where the young child was.” Matthew 2:9)
“They departed;” but where did they go? The chief priests and scribes had said Jesus was to be born in Bethlehem, and Herod sent them to Bethlehem. So the natural flow of the text would lead us to conclude that the Magi went to Bethlehem. If in fact they had not followed the counsel of the chief priests and scribes and the directions of Herod, and went to another place, Matthew would have told us that. Any natural reading of the text leads us to conclude that the Magi went to Bethlehem, and there they worshipped Jesus.
When Did the Wise Men Arrive?
Matthew does not state a definite time frame. But remember, Bethlehem was not Joseph’s place of residence. Joseph resided in Nazareth, about 60 miles north of Jerusalem. But Bethlehem was his ancestral home, “because he was of the house and lineage of David” (Luke 2:4), and so he and Mary traveled from Nazareth to Bethlehem to register for the census and taxation.
But he would not have stayed in Bethlehem very long. According to Luke 2:22, at the time of Mary’s purification 40 days after Jesus’ birth, Joseph took Mary and Jesus to the Temple in Jerusalem. (He may also have previously taken them to the Temple for Jesus’ circumcision on the 8th day after His birth; Luke 2:21 tells us Jesus was circumcised on the 8th day but does not say He was taken to the Temple for that purpose). Remember: Bethlehem is southeast of Jerusalem; Nazareth is north of Jerusalem. After traveling to the Temple on the 40th day, and possibly after the 8th day, there would have been no reason for Joseph and his family to return to Bethlehem. Leaving Jerusalem, he would have traveled north and returned to Nazareth.
Now, as explained above, the Magi must have visited Jesus in Bethlehem. But Jesus would not have been in Bethlehem more than, at most, 40 days after His birth. So the Magi must have visited Him in Bethlehem within 40 days of His birth.
Some note that Matthew 2:11 speaks of the Magi entering the “house,” and the Greek word oikos cannot refer to a stable. It may be, however, that after the first night or two in the stable, Joseph was able to rent a room in the inn. Also, stables sometimes were attached to houses or inns.
Herod’s order to slay the male Hebrew children age two and under does not prove Jesus was already that age at the time of the coming of the Magi. Herod simply did not know the exact date of Jesus’ birth and set that age to make sure Jesus did not escape.
Why Were the Wise Men Interested In Jesus’ Birth?
From the appearance of the Star in the East, the Magi knew that the King of the Jews was to be born. But Judea was a small nation without much political power and at that time under the domination of Rome. One can understand why they would be interested in signs in the heavens that foretold the birth of a Roman emperor, or a Persian king, or an Egyptian pharaoh; but why would they travel across the desert to worship a newborn King of the Jews?
One possible explanation is that, being learned in matters of law and government, they understood and appreciated the republican principles of Jewish law.
Another related explanation is that they knew of the Old Testament prophecies of the coming Messiah. The Magi were learned in the laws, histories, and beliefs of many cultures, but they had a special reason to appreciate the Hebrew Scriptures.
Around 605 B.C. King Nebuchadnezzar had conquered Jerusalem and taken Daniel and his friends captive to Babylon. There, we are told in Daniel 1:19-20, King Nebuchadnezzar communed with Daniel and his friends after their studies, “and in all matters of wisdom and understanding, that the king inquired of them, he found them ten times superior to all the magicians [magoi] and astrologers that were in all his realm.” In Chapter 2 Daniel prevents the king from killing all of the Magi, and in 4:9 he is called “master of the Magi.”
Very likely, the Magi of Christ’s time would have been familiar with the writings of their earlier “master of the Magi,” Daniel. And from Daniel 9:24-27, the Magi could have understood that the time of the coming of “Messiah the Prince” was at hand.
Why Are the Wise Men Significant Today?
Jesus Christ took upon Himself human flesh and became a Man among men, to die for our sins and redeem us. But He also came to redeem the nations. Isaiah 9:6-7 tells us that ‘the government shall be upon His shoulder, and He shall be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, the Prince of Peace. Of the increase of his government and peace there shall be no end, upon the throne of David, and upon his kingdom, to order it, and to establish it with judgment and with justice from henceforth even for ever.”
Luke’s Gospel records the adoration of the shepherds but does not mention the Magi. Matthew’s Gospel records the adoration of the Magi but does not mention the shepherds. Luke recorded the shepherds’ worship to emphasize that Christ came to redeem commoners like us, to save individuals and to transform our hearts. Matthew recorded the Magi’s worship to emphasize that Christ also came as Lord of the nations. We need to understand both if we are to truly and fully appreciate the miracle of Christmas.
So we at the Foundation for Moral Law wish a Merry Christmas to all, and God bless us every one!