Rethinking the Wise Men

Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men from the east came to Jerusalem, saying, “Where is he who has been born king of the Jews? For we saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.”  Matthew 2:1-2


Take a good look at this nativity scene.  Study it for a moment.  It should look similar to every other nativity you’ve ever seen before.  Jesus is lying in a manger filled with hay; the major characters are in or around a stable of some sort; the star would be shining above; the shepherds came from the field, where they had been watching their flocks; and the 3 wise men came bringing gifts.  It’s a nice picture, and we think “That seems about right.”  But it’s not.  One of the things on my list, according to scripture at least,  doesn’t belong.

I enjoy the song “We Three Kings of Orient Are.”  It’s well known to most Christians, and gives real insight into the gifts, particularly myrrh.  Gold is pretty self explanatory, frankincense is a incense fragrance; but what is myrrh?  Myrrh is a natural herb that also has an aroma, but even the hymn describes it as bitter.  It was used to anoint the dead.  The first day of the week after the crucifixion, you know when Mary Magdalene and the other Mary came to prepare the body of Jesus, they would have been carrying myrrh among other things.  This is foreshadowing, all the way back at Jesus’ s birth, that there was something different about this child.  That’s a good teaching from the “We Three Kings” song.  The problem is that they may or may not have been from the Orient, most likely were not three, and were definitely not kings.  Other than that, it’s fine.

Here’s what the ESV study Bible says about wise men: “In earlier times, wise men referred to priests and experts in mysteries in Persia and Babylon, but by this time it applied to a wide range of people whose practices included astrology, dream interpretation, study of sacred writings, the pursuit of wisdom, and magic.”   Magi is the Greek word from which we get wise men, and these would have been in Babylon and Persia, Greek speaking regions of the mid-east previously ruled over by Alexander the Great.  If they were kings from the Orient the Gospel would have not used magi

And why could there not be three?  Because there are three gifts listed it’s easy to imagine three wise men.  But from the history of this day, it would have been more likely that these obviously wealthy men traveled by caravan route, perhaps the Silk Road.  It would not have been safe for so small a group (3) to travel these routes, and there is strength in numbers.  If three guys traveled all this way carrying valuables and money, they would never have made it.  We can’t say for sure, but it’s not highly probably for there to be only three.

I’m going to take for granted that you know some of the events of Matthew 2, such as the angels warning the wise men not to return to Herod.  When Herod realizes they are not coming back, he orders all children in the province age 2 and under to be executed.  For this reason, and also that they had traveled from “afar,” the wise men would not have been at the manger.  That was the night of Jesus’s birth.  It was temporary.  We know that Jesus was circumcised when he was 8 days old, and was sanctified in the Jerusalem temple.  After Jerusalem, his parents returned with him to Nazareth.  That’s where the wise men would have visited.  Their worship would have been in the home of Joseph and Mary, in Nazareth not Bethlehem, and Jesus would have been a year or two old by this time.  Just like the angel choir was not a choir, the wise men do not belong in the nativity scene.

Is it wrong to put the wise men in the nativity?  They are a part of the Christmas story after all.  I’m not saying to pluck the wise men from your front yard and take them back in the garage.  Nor am I suggesting you fire the three kids planning to be the wise men in your pageant tonight.  Let’s just realize that some of our Christmas traditions, even the really Christians ones, are from our tradition and not the scriptures.  What really matters is that the Light of the World is coming into the world; everything else is details.

17 thoughts on “Rethinking the Wise Men

  1. Great point. One of my previous pastors used to teach the same point each year at Christmas time. After laying out his argument, he’d also dispel the myth of the world’s perception of angels as being cute baby angels, beautiful women angels, and yes, the thought that someday we’ll be given wings! I don’t know why, but everytime he preached about one, it was always linked to the other.

  2. I went back and read the post in which you refer to. Hmmm…you are definitely sounding like my previous pastor. You are much more detailed in your observation/explanations than he was, however.

  3. Pingback: Pages tagged "three wise men"

  4. You know, I was thinking my way through the Nativity scenario today. I think it’s possible that the Magi did make it to Bethlehem shortly after Jesus was born, but before he was circumcised in the Temple.

    First off, I think it was actually a “lucky” thing that there was no room for them in the inn. If there was a census going on in Bethlehem it would not be unusual for the Roman soldiers to stay in the inn, especially since the Jews would not have let a Roman stay in their homes. If Jesus had been born in an oshpisa, the soldiers might have caught on to him.

    He was however born in a stable, and the holy family would have stayed in a Jewish home, if available, as soon as possible. This would have made a search for Jesus much more difficult.

    Herod was only guessing at Jesus’ age (under 2) and the Bible doesn’t seem to indicate that the Magi went anywhere besides Bethlehem. It isn’t unreasonable to think that the Magi came to Bethlehem within two days of Jesus’ birth.

    I do think it unlikely that everyone showed up at once, though.

    Very interesting thoughts….

  5. In my mind, the time the wisemen showed up becomes irrelavent to some of the other problems in the last comment.

    1) There was nothing “lucky” about the place or time of Jesus’ birth. The Old Testament prophets had predicted his birth in Bethlehem, and it was the divine providence of God that brought all of these events from history into place. Luck had nothing to do with it.

    2) Jews didn’t “let” the Romans do or not do anything. Israel was an occupied territory, and the Jews were subjects to the Roman empire. Now, it may be true that Romans did not stay in Jewish homes; that’s because the Romans considered the Jews to be sub-human by thier standards of civilization.

    3) Roman soldiers weren’t looking for Jesus. They couldn’t have been “on to him” because they could not have cared less. Herrod was a Jewish puppet of the Roman empire, but he was a Jew. The arrival of the Magi searching for a new King of the Jews disturbed him greatly. The Romans would not have given it a second thought. They only crucify Jesus after false witnesses claimed he was planning to overthrow the Roman empire and sit on the throne in Jerusalem.

    And finally, on the subject of Magi, they saw the star appear and then came from “afar.” All we know for sure from scripture is that they came from afar, but in the first century A.D. noone came from any distance very quickly. It could have been months before they reached Herrod in Jerusalem, but even it was only a matter of days, we know Jesus was circumcised in the temple when he was 8 days old. It would have taken perhaps a full day of travel to get from Jerusalem to Bethlehem, and Jesus was no longer there. We believe the path Jesus took was from Bethlehem to Jerusalem, back to Nazereth, the wise men saw him there, and then his family fled to Egypt while all the children 2 and under were being slaughtered. Are we certain, or can we be certain? No; but it is the most likely.

  6. BTW, no disrespect meant toward Kreitsauce. I enjoy an intellectual banter like this one. At least you’re thinking for yourself. Some Christians gave that up a long time ago. Good for you. And of course, feel free to agree or disagree, I will keep posting your comments.

  7. Just try posting something that the atheists don’t like! There’s some rabid ones out there!

    Grrr! 😉

    To be fair, you Christians have your share of nutjobs!

  8. Not to nitpick, 🙂 but Jesus wasn’t circumcised in the Temple – he was most likely circumcised in a synagogue, on the eighth day – or possibly even at home. He was taken to the Temple on the 40th day so that his parents could make the sacrifice of the two turtledoves, for ritual purification of the mother and child. (Keep in mind that this was *not* a sacrifice for sin, but only for purification, because there is no sin in giving birth, nor in being born) but that’s what they went to the Temple for, and they did that on the 40th day.

  9. @ Judith,

    In the original post, I said he was circumcised when 8 days old and then sanctified in the Temple. Later in the comments I messed up. Everything you’ve written is correct, as verified by Luke 2. Very well said.

  10. That is correct. What really matters is that we commemorate Jesus’ coming into the world. After all His entrance into the world was heralded by great rejoicing. The angels are seen as rejoicing because of this. It is more than appropriate that we too rejoice because of this,knowing that a Savior has been born.
    Celebrating the birth of Christ is not a commanded observance. Neither is celebrating the crucifixion or resurrection. A decision to join or not join in the commemoration of these events is a matter of choice. Christians observe these events because these events are central to the Christian belief system. I trust that this examination of the issues surrounding the Christmas celebration will provide the information necessary to make an informed choice.

  11. We were commanded to remember His death when He instituted the Lord’s Supper. “Do this in rememebrance of me…” “Each time you do this you proclaim the Lord’s death until He comes again.” I Corinthians 11:23-29.

  12. Herod was NOT a Jew. He was an Edomite from Edom through his father and was born in Edom. His mother was an Arab. He was appointed king of the Jews by Rome, but was not himself a Jew. That is only one reason the Jews hated him so much. The Magi (a term/name for a priesthood in Babylon) came two years after the actual birth, it say that in the bible. Herod sent the soldiers to kill the babies 2 years and under “…according to the time the Magi told him…” Please note also that Jesus was not an infant when they got to him. The word used in Englush is Child, not babe. It is even clearer in the Greek as the word used specifies one that could walk, what we would call a toddler. If you read Scriptures about this without preconcieved ideas, it becomes much clearer.

    It also helps to be a student of secular Ancient History… ;-D

  13. It took some time for the wise men to arrive; note the scripture says they went into a house and that yes, Jesus was a child not a babe. There remain timeline issue that are difficult to resolve however.

    In Matthew’s Gospel the wise men are warned in a dream not to return to Herod and Joseph is warned to take his family and flee to Egypt. They only return after Herod is dead, and we are not told how long that is. In Luke’s Gospel we read that Jesus was circumcised at the end of eight days and also that Mary came to the temple in Jerusalem as was required for her purification. Did they travel from Bethlehem to Jerusalem and then to Egypt, or did they go to Egypt and back in one week’s time? Or had the already been back in Nazareth for 2 years before the flight to Egypt occurred?

    I’m not suggesting an inaccuracy with the scriptures; I’m saying we don’t know everything.

  14. Herod was a “Judaized” Edomite; he practiced the Jewish faith although he was not accepted as a Jew by the Pharisees. From the Roman point of view, however, they installed a Jew to rule over the Jewish province as was their custom. He was not fully accepted by Rome as a Roman nor accepted by the Jews as a Jew, and his political power was little more than that of a puppet. He would have still been threatened by the notion that a “king of the Jews” had been born.

  15. The birth was in Bethlehem, basically a suburb of Jerusalem, as it was very close. They repected all the biblical rules. They waited the period of time for the purification of women, as prescribed by Moses (about 6 weeks, if my memory serves me correctly) then presented Him in the Temple at Jerusalem at the same time as her purification. After that they traveled back home to Nazarath. About 2 years later the Magi showed up in Nazarath. If you look at maps of the time and trade routes used (such as the silk road) you will note they probably came from the Chaldees (Persia/Babelon area) via the desert to Jerusalem., following the star. Then Herod sent them to Bethlehem it says, but notice it does not say they went there. No it says they followed the star to where the child and his mother were. We know that was Nazarath.

    These “WiseMen” were not really so wise, but were highly educated. Not the same thing. The entire world knew about Herod and his mental problems. He had murdered some of his sons because he was “protecting” his throne. He murdered their mother later, whom he loved, if he ever loved anyone. This was common knowledge of the time. There were even jokes about him. So they would take the road back circling around the other way and going the normal trade route back. The Holy Family did go to Egypt and it was not for a week. They were mos tlikely there for a year or so. When they came back they made a wide circle around Jerusalem, because the entire country had gone into war after Herods death, including Jerusalem. The Romans helped take these various places back and they crucified thousands around the walls of Jerusalem, so naturally the Holy Family avoided it. Galilee was almost as bad. Sephoris, walking distance from Nazerath and the capital of Galilee was destroyed. This is the time and place the Zealots began, by the way. They captured the entire populace and sold them as slaves. God sent the Holy family to Egypt to rotect them, and protect them it did. I will not al it lucky, because I am a Christian and dont believe in luck, but I will say it was provedintial and they were in Gods hands. Please pardon the various typos as I am “pecking” this out on an old tablet that has no keyboard, delete key nor real backspace. Sometimes I click for one key and it puts in a different one…sigh.

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