Another little interesting chapter in our misunderstanding of the setting of the Christmas story is found in our perception of the wise men. This story, only found in the book of Matthew, is one that is seemingly familiar to all Christians. However, when you really look into the story culturally and historically, it is amazing to see how may misconceptions surround this event. Let’s do a careful reading and look at several things we thought we knew about the wise men and discover what the facts really are.
- There were three wise men: No number is mentioned in the account in Matthew. The fact that three different types of gifts were presented (gold, frankincense, and myrrh) has given rise to the idea that there must have been three men that carried them. There actually could have been any number of men.
- They were kings: The bible account does not call them kings, but calls them magi. The word magi, sometimes translated wise men, is the root word from which we get our word “magic”. They were learned men who were knowledgeable about many things including the stars. They were often placed in positions in the king’s court and were consulted for interpretation and guidance. For example, Nebuchadnezzar, in the Book of Daniel had a stable of court magi whom he consulted on various items including interpreting his dreams. When Daniel was able to interpret the King’s dream and the magi couldn’t, Daniel was promoted to head magi.
- They were from the Orient (the Far East): The Bible says “from the east”. The east in Bible times was the desert land east of the Jordan and more specifically present day Saudi Arabia. This is where frankincense and myrrh were grown and produced. Another interesting thing to note is that the wise men said they saw the star “in the east” and they followed it. If they were from the east and the star was in the east and they followed it, they would have ended up in a far different place than Israel! This problem stems from the translation, “in the east”. That same phrase can also be translated, ”at its rising”. The magi saw the star when it appeared in the sky in such a position that made them think that it said to them that the savior of the Israelites had been born and they actually followed it to the west to get to Jerusalem.
- One of them was a black man: Highly unlikely considering where they came from. One thing most scholars now agree upon was that at least one of them was probably a woman. The reason they have come to that conclusion is that the wise men stopped and asked for directions (just kidding)!
- They visited the baby Jesus at the manger scene: Nativity scenes all have the wise men with their camels standing around the manger. The wise men aren’t even mentioned in Luke’s account of the nativity scene. In Matthew 2:1 it says, “ Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem, wise men came from the east to Jerusalem”. Then in Matthew 2:11 it says, “when they came into the house”, this was not the same Greek word that they used to describe the place where Jesus was born. Also, it says that they saw the “child” and this is not the word that Luke uses to describe the baby Jesus. The word that is translated child in Matthew is a young boy and not the word for baby. Jesus could have been as much as two years old when the magi finally saw him because that was the age that Herod thought the baby might be after he talked to the magi and asked them how long it had been since they saw the star. Whatever age Jesus was when the wise men saw Him, He was not a baby in a manger, but a young child living in Bethlehem with His parents before they fled into Egypt and eventually settled in Nazareth.
All of these differences surrounding the Nativity Story were very revealing to me because I realized that I had let someone else explain God’s word to me. A careful study exposed some interesting facts that were different than I had been taught. None of these facts really change the meaning of the story, but it definitely helps give you a better mental picture of the story as it probably played out. Next Christmas season try to remember some of these new mental pictures as you celebrate the birth of our Savior.
About the author:
Bob is the creator of this site and a disciple of Ray Vander Laan. Along with his wife of 50 years, he teaches a Bible study at Christ’s Church in Roswell, NM. He is also an avid hunter and fisher.
I especially like the word study on Magi, in the Greek I had learned it does mean wise one. Roy Blizzard and David Bivin of the Jerusalem School of Synoptic Studies note that these wise men could have been Jews. There was a flourishing community of Jewish scholars still present in Babylon from the disbursement. It explains why they would have been learned men in the foretelling of a future Hebrew Messiah. Sounded interesting to ponder. So much more to learn from looking at scripture through Hebrew eyes. Happy New Year.
Re: one of them being a black man, there is debate amongst scholars over whether the Midianite wife of Moses was very dark-skinned. If as you propose, they had come from Arabia, one of them may have been a Midianite. Most scholars would accept that they had some Babylonian origin, even though Babylon itself was largely in ruins by the time of Christ. Babylonian “magi” had taken their astronomical and religious training to far parts of the Greek empire, and, in truth, it’s hard to know exactly how far from the east they might have come, even from as far away as India. If so, it may have taken quite some time for them to travel all the way to Israel. That would mean Christ may well have been much older than a neonate. However, to conjecture that he could have been 2 years old is probably not right. Herod was probably “playing safe” with his order to kill all children around Bethlehem under 2 years, perhaps just to cover a margin of error, perhaps because the Magi themselves did not know exactly when Jesus had been born (they hadn’t seen him yet). And perhaps Herod was just a maniacal killer. He certainly was known to be totally paranoid about his own position.