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.’ ” 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 treasures 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. Matthew 2:1-12 (NIV)
Our Christmas Pageants have it all wrong. The Three Kings weren’t kings, and probably were not limited to three.
So who were the Magi? Where did they come from? What was the star? None of these questions have been answered with certainty, although we do have some clues.
The Magi were a group of wise men from Babylon or Persia who specialized in studying astronomy, astrology, and natural science. The Greek word used is the plural of μάγος [magos] — “a person noted for unusual capacity of understanding based upon astrology (such persons were regarded as combining both secular and religious aspects of knowledge and understanding)—‘a wise man and priest, a magus.’ . . . . In Mt 2:1 μάγοι may be translated as ‘men of wisdom who studied the stars.’” (section 32.40, Louw, J. P., & Nida, E. A. (1996). Greek-English lexicon of the New Testament: based on semantic domains. New York: United Bible Societies.)
The traditional “three” comes from the three gifts named in the passage, but quite likely there were more, possibly many more. The danger involved in trekking from Babylon or Persia to Israel made travel in large, armed groups essential. Even if they tagged along with a caravan, they probably had servants and bodyguards. Their arrival at Herod’s court in Jerusalem caused quite a commotion.
Why did they come to seek the newborn King of the Jews at this time? Merely sighting a star, no matter how exceptional, does not seem to produce sufficient reason to think the Jewish Prince had arrived. And why would they care, anyway?
Various theories attempt to explain the star – a nova, supernova, comet, or conjunction of planet with astrological significance. We don’t really know, but because this exceptional light moved, the first three don’t fit. Some argue that the movement of Jupiter (star of the supreme god) and Saturn (the star of the king) in a rare triple conjunction in the constellation Pisces (the god of wisdom, life and creation), joined with Mars (the star of the West) in the last conjunction in 7 B.C. was the sign they followed. Others believe the star was a miraculous light from God.
Was it only the astrological significance of these conjunctions that caused the Magi to travel, or was something else involved?
To find a clue, look to the Old Testament book of Daniel. After being taken into captivity, Daniel had been appointed as the head of all the wise men or Magi in Babylon (Daniel 2:48; 4:9; 5:11). That empire was later conquered by the Persians who made Daniel a high official in their kingdom as well. Although pagans, the Magi were probably aware of the God of the Jews, and may have read the many prophecies about the Promised One in the Hebrew scriptures.
One of Daniel’s prophecies concerned the exact time of the arrival of the Messiah, or Christ, based on the 70 weeks of years in Daniel 9:24-27. If the Magi in fact had read the prophecies of Daniel, the appearance of either the planetary conjunction or a miraculous ‘star’ would give them the confirmation they needed to make the long journey to Bethlehem. An even earlier prophecy by a magus named Balaam, from a city in the Babylonian empire, connected a star to a future Israelite King (Numbers 24:17). So magi whose ancestors had likely been trained by Daniel were convinced to make the long journey to worship the Promised Messiah, because the prophecies had been proven true!
In the last blog, we saw how the angels appeared to the ‘blue collar’ shepherds. Now they appear to ‘white collar’ scholars and star-gazers.
How would they appear to us today? As ivory tower academics? A government research group? NASA scientists?
This video clip below gives a glimpse of what this event might happen today –