The Christmas season is almost over for another year!
Almost—but not quite! Traditionally, there are twelve days of Christmas, as the popular Christmas carol says, and as always, January 6 will again be the twelfth and last day of the season. Some churches keep January 6 as Christmas Day, but it is more commonly observed as the Feast of Epiphany, commemorating the visit of the wise men—known by many as magi—to the infant Jesus at Bethlehem.
This event, described in Matthew 2, gives rise to many questions, a few of which true Christians should know the answers to. For instance, who were these wise men? Were they pagan, Mesopotamian astrologers? What was the "star" that they followed? Where did they come from?
A little bit of research and letting the Bible interpret itself will give us the answers.
A Difficult Scripture
Notice the account in Matthew 2:1-3, 7-12:
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 have seen His star in the East and have come to worship Him." When Herod the king heard these things, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him. . . .
Then Herod, when he had secretly called the wise men, determined from them what time the star appeared. And he sent them to Bethlehem and said, "Go and search diligently for the young Child, and when you have found Him, bring back word to me, that I may come and worship Him also."
When they heard the king, they departed; and behold, the star which they had seen in the East went before them, till it came and stood over where the young Child was. When they saw the star, they rejoiced with exceedingly great joy. And when they had come into the house, they saw the young Child with Mary His mother, and fell down and worshipped Him. And when they had opened their treasures, they presented gifts to Him: gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Then, being divinely warned in a dream that they should not return to Herod, they departed for their own country another way.
Of the gospel writers, Matthew alone mentions this episode. Mark and John make no comment whatsoever about Jesus' birth, while Luke, who writes the most about the events surrounding His birth, leaves this scene out. Matthew's single, brief passage has sparked a great deal of imaginative speculation over the centuries, and we will deal with some of it as we answer some of our questions.
Were They Astrologers?
The first "magi myth" that we should question is the tradition of "we three kings." The Bible nowhere states how many magi visited the infant Jesus. Although Matthew mentions three types of gifts they presented to the Son of God, there may have been two, three, or more of them. Some have even thought there might be as many as twelve!
Regardless of how many there were, the question remains, "Who were they?" Because the wise men saw and followed a "star," many believe that they were pagan astrologers. However, throughout Scripture, God soundly condemns astrology. Notice a few quite pointed examples:
» And take heed, lest you lift your eyes to heaven, and when you see the sun, the moon, and the stars, all the host of heaven, and you feel driven to worship them and serve them. (Deuteronomy 4:19)
» If there is found among you, within any of your gates which the Lord your God gives you, a man or woman who has . . . gone and served other gods, and worshipped them, either the sun or moon or any of the host of heaven which I have not commanded, . . . then you shall bring out to your gates that man or woman who has committed that wicked thing, and shall stone to death that man or woman with stones. (Deuteronomy 17:2-3, 5)
» Let now the astrologers, the stargazers, and the monthly prognosticators stand up and save you from these things that shall come upon you. Behold, they shall be as stubble, the fire shall burn them; they shall not deliver themselves from the power of the flame. (Isaiah 47:13-14)
In addition, the wise men who visited Jesus knew in advance who they were going to visit and that the purpose of their visit was to worship Him (Matthew 2:2, 11). It is highly unlikely that heathen, idolatrous astrologers would go to the great effort to travel many, many miles to give honor to the son of a deity they did not worship. With this evidence, we can be quite certain that these magi were not pagan astrologers.
What Was the Star?
Many historians have attempted to determine the date of Jesus' birth by looking for records concerning comets, meteors, supernovae, conjunctions of planets, and the like.
What was the "star" that led the wise men to Jesus Christ in Bethlehem? Was it a physical star at all? Whatever it was, the "star" (Greek aster) was definitely of miraculous origin; it was no ordinary, physical star. For instance, it had the ability to move. Matthew writes that the star "went before them, till it came and stood over where the young Child was" (Matthew 2:9). No star we have ever seen can do that! Even shooting stars—really meteors burning up in the atmosphere—cannot change directions and stop over a specific place!
"His star" (verse 2) was possibly—perhaps even probably—an angel. These spirit beings have a glorious appearance like a radiating star, and they can certainly move and change directions to show someone the way. Stars in the Bible often symbolize angels, for example:
» [Where were you] when the morning stars sang together, and all the sons of God shouted for joy? (Job 38:7)
» His tail drew a third of the stars of heaven. . . . And war broke out in heaven: Michael and his angels fought against the dragon; and the dragon and his angels fought. (Revelation 12:4, 7)
What Are Magi?
The Bible mentions two types of magi:
Jeremiah 39:3, 13 is the earliest of ancient records mentioning magi:
Then all the princes of the king of Babylon came in and sat in the Middle Gate: Nergal-Sharezer, Samgar-Nebo, Sarsechim, Rab-saris, Nergal-Sarezer, Rabmag, with the rest of the princes of the king of Babylon. . . . So Nebuzaradan the captain of the guard sent Nebushasban, Rabsaris, Nergal-Sharezer, Rabmag, and all the king of Babylon's chief officers.
The word "Rabmag" is merely transliterated because the original translators did not understand its meaning, and even subsequent translations have left it untranslated. However, it has since been correctly deciphered as "chief magus."
The best translation authorities say that "magus" (a singular form of "magi") comes from an old Pahlavi Persian word mag or mog, meaning "priest" or "great one." Thus, a man by the name of Nergal-Sharezer was the "rabmag" or "chief magus" of the Babylonians at this time (about 586 bc) when they were conquering Jerusalem.
The magi of Babylon were heathen physicians, priests, and learned men, and it is said that from them descended a line of evil, perverted priests and sorcerers (said to include Haman of the book of Esther and Barjesus or Elymas of Acts 13). It is not at all likely therefore, that the magi of Matthew 2, seeking to worship the newborn King of the Jews, could be included with the likes of these men!
Daniel 2:48 gives us a quick glimpse of another kind of magi:
Then the king promoted [rebah] Daniel and gave him many great gifts; and he made him ruler [shelet] over the whole province of Babylon, and chief [rab] administrator [cagan] over all the wise men [chakkiym] of Babylon.
Using the Brown, Driver & Briggs Hebrew Lexicon, we can define some of the key terms:
» "promoted" (rebah)—to grow long, tall, or great; to increase; to make great.
» "ruler" (shelet)—to have power, to rule (over), to make ruler.
» "chief" (rab)—(adj.) great; (n.) a captain, a chief.
» "administrator" (cegan)—a prefect, a governor.
» "wise men" (chakkiym)—(adj.) wise; (n.) a wise man
The verse tells us the Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar elevated God's servant Daniel to the ranks of the great in Babylon. He made Daniel a ruler, an official of great power over his kingdom. This promotion made Daniel the chief or lord over all the other wise men (magi) of Babylon.
This act of Nebuchadnezzar gave Daniel the power and the opportunity to make significant changes in the way the magi operated in Babylon. He may have held this post for the rest of his long life, and such a long tenure would ensure that many of his changes would endure. We could also speculate that, understanding the Seventy Weeks Prophecy (Daniel 9:20-27), he could have passed along to the magi the need to watch for strange tidings in Judea around this time.
We should also remember that a large number of Jews, Levites, and Benjamites still lived in Babylon and the surrounding areas, for only a small percentage of Judeans returned from exile to Jerusalem (Ezra 2:64-67). Some of them, following the example of Daniel, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-Nego, may have been magi or governors. It is most probable, then, that the magi who visited the young Jesus would come under this second category of God-fearing, high-ranking rulers.
Of Orient Are?
Finally, where did these wise men come from? As explained in Francis W. Upham's book, The Wise Men (1869), there are two Greek expressions for "East" used in Matthew 2:1-2, 9.
Firstly, in verse 1: "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." "The East" is ton anatolon, the common Greek expression for "eastern regions," particularly those far distant.
Secondly, in verses 2 and 9:
"Where is He who has been born King of the Jews? For we have seen His star in the East, and have come to worship Him." . . . When they heard the king, they departed; and behold, the star which they had seen in the East went before them, till it came and stood over where the young Child was.
In both verses, "the East" is te anatole, literally, "the rising," which could mean either that the magi saw the star when it first appeared—at its rising—or that they saw it from their vantage point east of Jerusalem, the direction in which the sun rises. The latter is more natural and to be preferred. The magi, while in a place east of Jerusalem, saw the star, and it led them west.
The more important expression, then, appears in verse 1. The magi were from "the East," a land or lands far away from the Judea of 4 bc. This could not mean Arabia for two reasons: 1) The New Testament explicitly identifies Arabia in Galatians 1:17, so why not here as well? 2) Though we know Arabia is east and south of Palestine, commonly expression of the time considered Arabia to be in the south, not the east. Further, any nearby country would have been named specifically and does not qualify as "distant."
In the distant east lay the Parthian Empire, little known today, but it rivaled the Roman Empire for hegemony of the world at the time. Parthia included all the conquered lands of Babylon, Persia, Bactria, and many other countries on the east side of the Euphrates River. It was to these lands that the Assyrians had exiled some of the ancient house of Israel, and many of their descendants had remained in the region.
The Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological, and Ecclesiastical Literature by John J. McClintock and James Strong, in its article "Magi," says that some of the ancient magi claimed Abraham as their ancestor. If this were true, it would add evidence that the magi were Israelites who were desirous to honor the One who could be their rightful King, especially since the miraculous star made His birth so auspicious. (For more on the magi being Israelites from Parthia, please see The "Lost" Ten Tribes of Israel . . . Found! by Steven M. Collins, pp. 205-278.)
Altogether, this biblical and historical evidence indicates that the magi of Matthew 2 were not pagan astrologers whose observations of the heavenly bodies led them to the infant Jesus. Rather, they were probably God-fearing descendants of the exiled house of Israel who were led to Bethlehem miraculously, likely by an angel, just as they were "divinely warned" to flee back to their homeland after their visit (Matthew 2:12).
Once again, we see that if we are willing to break free of the bonds of the world's traditions, the historical evidence backs up the Bible record and leads us to the truth.
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