Jesus’ Birth – The Wise Men (Magi)

When Was Jesus Born?

Note: The following Post is taken from an upcoming book by Joseph Lenard entitled Mysteries of Jesus’ Life Revealed—His Birth, Death,  Resurrection, and Ascensions. For an overview and complete chapter listing of this fascinating study, click here.

Who Were the Magi?

 Biblical Description of the Magi from Matthew 2:1-12

The account of the story of the birth of Jesus and of the visit of the Magi is forever etched in the minds of most people. They see the Magi in most manger scenes related to the traditional celebration of Christmas.

Let’s look more closely at this visit of the Magi to discover who they actually were and when they actually came to worship Jesus.

The Gospel of Matthew is the only Gospel that tells us about the visit of the Magi, who came from the east to visit Jesus in Bethlehem. As Brent Landau states in the Introduction to his recent translation of a forgotten ancient manuscript, Revelation of the Magi – The Lost Tale of the Wise Men’s Journey to Bethlehem (2010):

“The Magi – usually known as the ‘Three Wise Men’ or ‘Three Kings’ – are easily the most famous of the visitors who appear at Jesus’ birth . . . Whether or not one is a churchgoer, practically everyone has heard of them.”

Note that this translation is of an ancient manuscript (pre-fifth century) that claimed to be the eyewitness account of the wise men; it was hidden for centuries in the vaults of the Vatican Library and only recently discovered by Landau.

Here is the account of the Magi given in Matthew:

“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 in the east and have come to worship him.’

When King Herod heard this he was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him. When he had called together all the people’s chief priests and teachers of the law, he asked them where the Christ was to be born. ‘In Bethlehem in Judea,’ they replied, ‘for this is what the prophet has written:

“But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for out of you will come a ruler who will be the shepherd of my people Israel.”’ (Micah 5:2)

Then Herod called the Magi secretly and found out from them the exact time the star had appeared. He sent them to Bethlehem and said, ‘Go and make a careful search for the child. As soon as you find him, report to me, so that I too may go and worship him.’

After they had heard the King, they went on their way, and the star they had seen in the east went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they were overjoyed. On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasurers and presented him with gifts of gold and of incense and of myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, they returned to their country by another route.

When they had gone, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream. ‘Get up,’ he said, ‘take the child and his mother and escape to Egypt. Stay there until I tell you, for Herod is going to search for the child to kill him.’

So he got up, took the child and his mother during the night and left for Egypt, where he stayed until the death of Herod. And so was fulfilled what the Lord had said through the prophet: ‘Out of Egypt I called my son.’

When Herod realized that he had been outwitted by the Magi, he was furious, and he gave orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under, in accordance with the time he had learned from the Magi. Then what was said through the prophet Jeremiah [Jeremiah 31:15] was fulfilled.” (Matthew 2:1-17 NIV)

What do we learn about the Magi from the biblical account? They came “from the east” to Jerusalem, spoke with Herod, and then went to Bethlehem; they had seen “his star in the east;” they came to worship the King of the Jews; they followed the star which “went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was,” and they were overjoyed when they saw the star; they brought expensive gifts and worshiped Him; and they returned to their own country.

Secular history can add some additional insights.

Secular History of the Magi
Background of the Magi

Church tradition gives us most of what we associate with the Magi. Church tradition says that there were three of them, although the biblical account does not actually provide a number. Over the years, the tradition became increasingly embellished: Names were given to the Magi, they were viewed as Kings, etc. Supposed relics from the Magi emerged in the 4th century.  These relics were transferred from Constantinople to Milan in the 5th century and were later transferred again to Cologne in 1162, where they are still enshrined.

Most of church tradition regarding the Magi is regarded as wild speculation.

In his internet article “Who Were the Magi?” (November 1999), Chuck Missler stated that it is widely believed that the Magi were “a hereditary priesthood of the Medes (known today as the Kurds) who were credited with profound and extraordinary religious knowledge.” Darius the Great elevated the Magi over the state religion of Persia because they had proven themselves capable of interpreting dreams. According to Missler, the Magi were not originally followers of the Prophet Zoroaster, which came later; They “. . . became the supreme priestly caste of the Persian Empire and continued to be prominent during the subsequent Seleucid, Parthian, and Sasanian periods.”

Victor Paul Wierwille is in agreement with Missler’s position regarding the Magi and Zoroasterism and has stated:

“Ancient records indicate that the earliest Magi lived in Media and Persia as a religious caste before the time of Zoroaster (ca. 600 BC), the founder and prophet of the Zoroastrian religion. Prior to Zoroaster, the Magi religion is thought to have been a type of nature worship.

When Zoroastrianism became prominent in Persia, many Magi adopted it as their own and became the priesthood of that religion. Following the death of Zoroaster, the Magi splintered into two major sects: (1) those who continued following the religion of Zoroaster [the “Eastern Magi”], and (2) those who returned to the ancient forms of nature worship, especially emphasizing sun worship.”

What were the teachings of Zoroaster that the Magi from the east (Persia) adhered to at the time of Christ? Actually, there were significant parallels between Zoroaster’s teachings and those of the Old Testament. Wierwille states the following related to Zoroastrians:

“Zoroastrians believed in one supreme God who created the heavens and the earth, who authored all that is good. They also believed in a spiritual adversary who authored evil. They believed in a coming redeemer, a prophet who would be sent by God to save mankind. They strictly forbade the worship of idols. They believed in angels and in devil spirits and in the eventual triumph of good over evil. They set forth a system of laws and ethics stressing a strict code of moral behavior.”

While the teachings of Zoroaster would have influenced the Magi at the time of Jesus, the influence of Daniel – who served in both the Babylonian and Persian courts and had status over the “wise men” – would also have influenced the Magi’s beliefs; and these beliefs would have made them receptive to an astronomical sign in the sky as a portent of a coming Redeemer.

Were the Magi Astronomers or Astrologers?

A question which is frequently asked is whether the Magi were astronomers or astrologers.  The answer to the question is important, because astrology was clearly condemned by God in Scripture (Deuteronomy 4:19).

Matthew 2:1 states that the Magi were “from the east.” They were men “respected for their knowledge of religion, astronomy, and the spiritual significance of astronomical phenomena.” King Herod was specifically interested in obtaining their astronomical observations related to “the star”. Henry Morris states in his article When They Saw the Star (2014) that the Persian Magi in particular

“. . . were very competent observational astronomers, not astrologists. If they were not Jews or Jewish proselytes (either of which is a good possibility), they were Zoroastrians, and the Zoroastrian religion was similar to Judaism in many respects, among which was an aversion to astrology.”

Even as Zoroastrians, the Magi would not have worshiped the stars, as they believed in one supreme God, who created the heavens and the earth. So we can conclude that they were not astrologers who worshiped the stars. They were, rather, very competent astronomers who made careful observations of the starry heavens.

Daniel’s Influence on the Magi 

Scriptures Available through Daniel to the Wise Men

A strong case can be made that the Magi were students of the Hebrew Scriptures. The knowledge of a future King of the Jews who was to be the Redeemer might have first come to the Magi “in the east” through the Scriptures available to them through Daniel and the other Hebrews who took their holy writings – the Old Testament up to that point (Daniel 9:2a) – with them to Babylon. Daniel was taken captive by the King of the Babylonians, Nebuchadnezzar, in his first attack on Jerusalem in 606-605 BC. At that time he took many of the brightest young Jewish men to Babylon to be trained for service in the Babylonian court.

Because of Daniel’s God-given ability to interpret dreams and visions, he was appointed by Nebuchadnezzar (Daniel 4:9) and later by his son, Belshazzar, to be “chief of the magicians [master of the ‘Magi’], enchanters, astrologers, and diviners” (Daniel 5:11 NIV). Later, Daniel also served in the courts of the Medes (King Darius; Daniel 9:1) and the Persians (King Cyrus; Daniel 10:1). Daniel had a remarkable term of service in these eastern courts, service that was clearly orchestrated by God.

Daniel would likely have introduced the Magi to the one true God and shared with them the Scriptures which told of Him to whom Daniel prayed daily. After all, Daniel shared with the Kings of Babylon, Media and Persia that his ability to interpret dreams and visions came from God. Surely, he would also have shared these things with the Magi.

In addition, Daniel might very well have shared the prophecy given in the Book of Numbers, the fourth oracle of Balaam, foretelling the coming of a Promised One: “A star will come out of Jacob; a scepter will rise out of Israel(Numbers 24:17 NIV). Although this prophecy does not provide a time frame, it would have offered the invaluable insight that this “star” would come out of Judah in Israel at some future date.

Apparently, Daniel also entrusted the Messianic vision he received to this group of Magi. He would have told them – as recorded in Daniel 9:21-22 – about his visit from the angel Gabriel and the message and vision of the 70 Weeks (“week” here being a seven-year period) prophecy (Daniel 9:24-27). Contained within this prophecy was the knowledge that after 69 Weeks (69 x 7 = 483 years) “the Anointed One [the Redeemer, Jesus] will be cut off [crucified], but not for himself” (Daniel 9:26 NIV). The Magi would have therefore learned from Daniel the precise time frame for this Jewish Messiah, prophesied in the Scriptures. It is not hard to imagine that Daniel later entrusted the Magi to welcome the Redeemer, when He was born in Bethlehem (Micah 5:2).

Over the next 500 years, these important prophecies would likely have been passed down among the Magi, from generation to generation. When the Magi at the time of the birth of Jesus saw what were to them unmistakable cosmic signs, their observations of the heavens and their writings would have alerted them to the birth of this prophesied Jewish Messiah. Wild camels could not have prevented them from travelling to see this King of the Jews with their royal gifts. And so it was.

Gifts of the Magi – From Daniel?

So, how did the Magi know to take the specific gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh (Matthew 2:11) when they went to pay homage to the young child Jesus? Perhaps, this too was instruction from Daniel, passed down from generation to generation of the Magi. The gold and frankincense were customary gifts brought to Kings (Isaiah 60:6). Perhaps Daniel also instructed them to bring myrrh, which was customarily used to anoint a body before burial. This would have been symbolically appropriate, understanding as they did that the Anointed One would eventually be “cut off” (crucified).

Matthew’s Gospel tells us that these three gifts were brought by the Magi.  Gold spoke to His kingship (Jesus as the true King of Kings), frankincense was an incense used in priestly duties (Jesus as the perfect High Priest), and myrrh was an embalming spice, offered in anticipation of His death (Jesus as the supreme Savior, who came to die for the sins of mankind).

How is it that the Magi understood the full scope of Jesus’ earthly ministry when those in Jerusalem could (would) not? Once again, Daniel seems to be the answer. Some Bible scholars have speculated that the very gifts brought by the Magi might have been provided by Daniel himself and been passed down through the Magi generations until the appointed time.

In his website post Did Daniel Provide the Gold, Frankincense and Myrrh for the Magi? Nelson Walters offers the following observations:

“These were the gifts of a wealthy man. Was Daniel wealthy enough to leave these gifts as an inheritance? We have learned already that Nebuchadnezzar made Daniel Chief of the Magi. Later he was made chief administrator of two kingdoms, both Babylon and Persia under four different kings . . . He was most likely a eunuch. Nebuchadnezzar entrusted all the young Hebrew captives to the ‘Master of the Eunuchs’ in Daniel 1:3. Being wealthy and having no heir would make it completely likely that Daniel might leave his fortune as an inheritance to give to the messiah.

This is a tradition known throughout the Middle East: That Daniel did leave his vast fortune to provide for the study of astronomy among the Magi and for gifts for them to carry to the messiah upon his birth. The Bible does not [corroborate] this tradition. We will never truly know if it’s true until we ask Daniel ourselves in the millennial kingdom. Personally I hope it is true. I think it adds to the character of one of God’s greatest saints that even in his death he provided all he had for his Messiah.”

The gift of the gold was certainly timely, as it gave the earthly parents of Jesus, Joseph and Mary, the funds needed to travel to Egypt with the young child Jesus, to remain there until after the death of King Herod (Matthew 2:13-15), and then to return to Nazareth (Matthew 19-23).

We know that Joseph and Mary were poor in earthly possessions before the Magi arrived with their gifts, as they were only able to bring “a pair of doves or two young pigeons” to the Temple presentation of Jesus (Luke 2:24b). They brought the two birds because they could not afford a customary lamb offering (Leviticus 12:8).

It appears, then, that the Magi made their visit and gave their gifts – including the gold – after the Temple presentation of Jesus, which means that the Magi could not have been present with their gifts on the day of Jesus’ birth. Unfortunately, church tradition has it wrong again; and church manger scenes typically include the Magi with the others gathered around the newly born Jesus. We now know that the Magi did not arrive when Jesus was born or even when he was an infant; they arrived in Bethlehem when the family moved from Nazareth to Bethlehem, when Jesus was a “toddler.”

Note: In my next Post I will provide evidence regarding the Star of Bethlehem and its appearance during the birth of Jesus.