[The Bible is an “Eastern” book. It was written many years ago in the “East” which today we refer to as “The Middle East.” As such, there are many customs and idioms that are not familiar to the “Western” mind.]
This time of year, many Christians all over the world remember the birth of Jesus Christ. The story is retold in a variety of ways. There are nativity scenes, plays, sermons, etc. One of the elements that has been associated with this story is the record of the Magi.
I am putting this two-part article about the Magi here in the Eastern Eye category because by having some understanding of their background as well as travel in Biblical times will shed much light on this topic.
If you haven’t read Part 1, please Click Here.
What Did They Observe?
Countless pictures, stories, plays, and even songs depict the Magi “following” a star. It’s as if this star is guiding them to go left, then right, and then finally right to Jesus. If that were the case, then what in the world were they doing in Jerusalem saying, “Where is he?”
The Scriptures say that they said, “We have seen his star in the east, and are come to worship him.” First of all, if they saw the star in the east, why did they travel west? Something doesn’t seem to make sense, so let’s look a little closer.
The words “in the east,” really help to clear things up. Those words would be better translated as “in the rising.” It literally means the rising of a star shortly before sunrise, referred to in astronomy as the heliacal rising of a star. The Magi had been observing a star, over a period of time, before sunrise, until the star would have been obscured by the brightness of the morning sun.
Since they came to Jerusalem looking for the king, “his star” has to be referring to the king’s star. So, what star were they observing? Keep in mind that in ancient times, except for the sun and moon, the lights in heavens were called “stars,” and that included planets as well.
Was It a Giant Search Light?
Tradition promotes that this particular star was a brilliant light in the sky. But there is no indication that anyone, including the Magi, saw a bright light. Even the shepherds who were out at night didn’t notice it. It was the message from the angel that guided them to Jesus in the manger. The Bible never ever mentions the brilliance of this star; the focus is on its significance.
It is obvious that the Magi studied the heavens and because of what they observed they traveled to Jerusalem to worship this king. And almost all scholars today put the birth of Jesus somewhere between 7 B.C. and 1 B.C. So, one could take the time to study what took place in the heavens during that time to try and figure out what the Magi had observed.
There are astronomical occurrences that happen all the time. There are eclipses, conjunctions, massing of planets, etc. It is certainly beyond the scope of this article to examine even the major astronomical occurrences during that time frame.
But keep in mind, to the uneducated and untrained eye, all they see are stars in the sky. Casual observers can point out the Big Dipper and the Little Dipper. But for those who study and observe the heavens and know what to look for, there is a wealth of information that they can see.
Perhaps that is what fascinates me the most about this record. Far, far away, some men observing the heavens knew that the long awaited king of Israel had been born! They must have known how important and significant he was because they made a very long journey with one purpose in mind. They came with gifts to see him and worship him.
The Planet Jupiter?
Many scholars agree that “his star,” the one that the Magi had observed over a period of time, was, in fact, the planet Jupiter. Jupiter has long been called “the king planet.” But it was not just seeing Jupiter in the sky, but rather where in the sky they had observed it.
During that time frame, over a one year period Jupiter was in conjunction with other planets in the constellation of Leo, on seven different occasions. Leo, “the lion,” commonly references the tribe of Judah.
This heavenly orchestration of Jupiter also included Regulus, “the king star,” as well as Venus, “the bright and morning star.” It is recorded that on August 27, 2 B.C., visible in the Persia sky, was a massing of four planets, including Jupiter and Venus in the constellation of Leo.
Many scholars believe that it was this event that completely convinced the Magi and they decided to make the journey. I know that there is debate and differences concerning these astronomical details. There are a number of books and articles written that you can read and study if you like.
But in taking even a little closer look at the Magi, one cannot dispute the reason for their journey. They studied the heavens. They had knowledge of a promised king to Israel. He was to be THE king of Israel. From what they observed they knew that he had been born. And, they were right!
The Magi Arrive In Jerusalem
Obviously, knowing THE king had been born in Israel, the Magi traveled to the capital, Jerusalem. How excited they must have been. How they must have expected everyone to know all about it.
The fact that they got an audience with King Herod is proof that these men were well respected. They weren’t just some strangers wandering into town talking about a king. If that were the case, they never would have had a meeting with Herod.
It is amazing when you read the account given in the Gospel of Matthew that no one else was aware of this great event. Herod called the religious leaders together to find out where the Christ was to be born. That he inquired of them about “Christ” is further indication of who the Magi believed had been born.
Herod, once he knew the location that had been prophesied of where Christ should be born, had a private conversation with the Magi. He asked them “diligently,” the Bible says, about the time they had observed “his star.”
Later we find out that Herod decided to murder all male children aged two and under, “according to the time which he had diligently enquired of the wise men.” This is further proof that the Magi had been observing the stars over a period of time. It is also an indication that by the time the Magi arrived, Jesus was no longer a newborn.
A Confusing Verse
When the Magi left Jerusalem headed to Bethlehem, there is a verse that has caused some confusion. It says, “…they departed; and, lo, the star, which they saw in the east, went before them, till it came and stood over where the young child was.” This verse has led some to think that a star actually came down, unnoticed by everyone except the Magi, and hovered over the manger.
It is really very easy to understand. They were leaving Jerusalem and heading south to Bethlehem. It had to have been very early in the morning, because when the sun comes up, we cannot usually see stars.
We can observe the sun and moon during the day travel from east to west from our vantage point. We cannot observe a star traveling from east to west in one night. As we observe the movement of stars, we see their position change from night to night.
Depending on the position of a particular star, we may observe it one night in the east. Other nights we may observe it in the southern sky. On other occasions, we may see it in the western sky.
As the Magi left Jerusalem early in the morning, before sunrise, Jupiter, “his star,” the star they had been observing for so long, was visible in the southern sky. What an added blessing for them to again observe this star in the direction that they were headed.
What About Tradition?
I know that tradition has these men “following” yonder star. Tradition tells us the star guided them right to the manger. And, somehow, no one else could see it but them.
But if that is true, and they had been following a guiding star for 200 to 500 miles, as scholars estimate, why go to Jerusalem? If the star was “guiding” them, why stop following it and go to Jerusalem?
Every one has free will to decide what they will believe. You can follow tradition and believe that one night, far, far away, three wise men in the east saw a brilliant star in the sky and began to follow it as it guided them. Somehow, they knew this announced the birth of Jesus, and somehow, no one else saw it, not even the shepherds.
After letting this star guide their every step, for what some estimate 2 to 4 months, on the way to the manger, they arrived in Jerusalem thinking that their journey was over. But, alas, the next morning, there the star was, once again, and it led them right to Jesus, as it hovered over the manger. And of course no one else saw it there either.
That is basically what tradition says. But tradition must always take a back seat to the Scriptures. And, get ready, because there is more to this story that clashes head-on with tradition.
The Magi Arrive in Bethlehem
The Bible says that when the Magi arrived in Bethlehem, they came “into the house.” The only account of the Magi coming to Bethlehem is recorded in the gospel of Matthew. The only account of the birth of Christ is recorded in the Gospel of Luke. They are two entirely different records.
In the Gospel of Luke, there is no mention of a house, Magi, or gifts. In the Gospel of Matthew, there is no mention of an inn, a manger, swaddling clothes, or shepherds. Now I am well aware of how many times different Gospel records can complement each other by adding details to an identical event. These two records cannot be talking about an identical event.
In the Gospel Luke, Jesus is born and laid in a manger. The shepherds come to the manger and find a baby wrapped in swaddling clothes. In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus is in a house, and referred to not once, but four times, as a, “young child.”
I know that this is not at all what tradition teaches. I have seen the movies, the plays and the nativity scenes. When I was little I even sang the song, “We Three Kings.” But the Magi just weren’t there at Christ’s birth.
What About The Gifts?
Speaking of “three kings,” let’s look at the gifts they presented to Jesus. No one knows the value of those gifts, except that all three were costly. Isn’t it remarkable how God provided such abundance? Because of Herod’s murderous plan, Joseph needed to move the family to another country. The gifts from the Magi provided more than enough to take care of all that they needed.
If I were to tell you that as a boy, one year for Christmas I received clothing, toys, and some cash from my relatives, would you say that I received gifts from three relatives? Could I have received some clothing from two or three aunts, and maybe toys from a couple of uncles? Why do we then assume that there were only three Magi?
In biblical times, they traveled long distances in caravans, mainly for their safety and protection from robbers. The Scriptures never indicate how many Magi there were. It only talks about three kinds of gifts.
Back to that night in Iowa, at the McDonalds restaurant, I asked the girl waiting on me why they always have three wise men at every nativity scene. I mentioned to her that the Bible says that there were three types of gifts, but it doesn’t say how many men there were.
She got very upset with me and told me that’s what her father had told her and that he was a minister and that he should know. I didn’t press the issue. I paid for my food and I was on my way. Perhaps there are some who will get upset when they read this. That is not my intention.
And, as I mentioned before, whatever you believe about the Magi does not affect your salvation. But if we are not careful in our handling of Scriptures on matters that do not directly affect salvation and our walk with God, how can we be sure that we will when they do?
And might I be so bold as to add that if we are going to reach people with the good news of what Jesus Christ accomplished for all of mankind, then how can we do that by promoting myths and fairy tales?
There is a lot more that could be discussed on this topic, but I think I have spent plenty of space already. Much has been written by others about this topic, biblically, historically and astronomically, as well as many viewpoints and opinions. I have included some below for those who are interested in looking into this further.
More than anything else, I sincerely hope that this information has caused you to think about what you believe. Why do you believe what you believe? Is it because of what someone else said, or is it because of what you have read, thought about, and understand?
Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judaea in the days of Herod the king, behold, there came wise men from the east to Jerusalem,
Saying, Where is he that is born King of the Jews? for we have seen his star in the east, and are come to worship him.
When Herod the king had heard these things, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him.
And when he had gathered all the chief priests and scribes of the people together, he demanded of them where Christ should be born.
And they said unto him, In Bethlehem of Judaea: for thus it is written by the prophet,
And thou Bethlehem, in the land of Juda, art not the least among the princes of Juda: for out of thee shall come a Governor, that shall rule my people Israel.
Then Herod, when he had privily called the wise men, inquired of them diligently what time the star appeared.
And he sent them to Bethlehem, and said, Go and search diligently for the young child; and when ye have found him, bring me word again, that I may come and worship him also.
When they had heard the king, they departed; and, lo, the star, which they saw 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 exceeding great joy.
And when they were 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 unto him gifts; gold, and frankincense, and myrrh.
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In addition to the the reference books listed on each Eastern Eye article, here are a few of many, many books that are related specifically to the topic of the Magi that you may want to check out. Click the link and it will take you to Amazon.
There are a number of books that you can read to get insight on customs, manners, idioms and meanings from the Eastern culture in which the Bible was written. The best I know of were written by by Bishop K. C. Pillai. I have had the pleasure of listening to recorded teaching by him.
He wrote three books, and they are hard to find, and are usually over priced. But, if you want to you can check this link to see what Amazon has to offer. Light Through an Eastern Window
Another great resource that I have used for years is a book called, “Manners and Customs of the Bible,” by James Freeman. Mine was printed in 1972 and I know they have newer additions. For the newest edition, just click the link and it will take you to Amazon. The New Manners and Customs of the Bible (Pure Gold Classics)