Who Were the Magi and Was There Really A Christmas Star?
In the Gospel of Matthew we learn of the Magi who visit the Holy Family after following a star to Bethlehem. This is an amazing story of the birth of Jesus, but can any of this story be confirmed by scientific records or analysis? Who were the Magi, where did they come from, and why did they make the trip? Was there an actual star or astronomical event which matches the Biblical description of the ‘Christmas Star’? Can any of these events, if confirmed, help us establish when the birth of Jesus actual took place?
”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 was born king of the Jews? We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.”
The Magi, often referred to as the wise men, traveled from the east, most probably from the area of Baghdad. Tradition tells us there were three wise men, but the actual number is uncertain. All we know for certain is there were more than one. Magi is the plural form of Magus, followers of Zoroaster, or Zoroastrianism. These men would have been highly intelligent, educated in astronomy, astrology, alchemy and other forms of esoteric knowledge. These men would not have been rulers, or kings, but it is highly probable they would have been advisors to kings and other high officials. The Magi had been advising rulers since at least the sixth century B.C. and some believe they played a major role in selecting many kings. Since large numbers of Jews had previously been in exile in Babylon, the Magi would have certainly known a great deal about the Jewish customs and prophesies, including the prophecy of a star foretelling the birth of a great king, of the Messiah.
‘ I see him, but not now, I behold him, but not near. A star will come out of Jacob; a scepter will rise out of Israel. He will crush the foreheads of Moab, the skulls of all the people of Sheth. Edom will be conquered, but Israel will grow strong. A ruler will come out of Jacob and destroy the survivors of the city.”
If such a unique astronomical event were to take place, it is understandable that a group of Magi would have been dispatched to gather more information and to pay their respects, to worship, this new king. They would have had a keen interest in any new king in the region, but this king was prophesied to be unique, special, and someone of great importance. With this in mind it is likely the Magi would have sent some of their best and most capable members. The journey from Baghdad to Bethlehem would have been a trek of approximately 1,000 miles by the route the group would have taken. While it is unclear exactly how many Magi made the trip, it is an almost certainty they did not travel alone. Being wealthy individuals, the Magi would have certainly had servants and bodyguards to assist and protect them during the trip. This entourage could have been quite large and would have traveled an estimated ten to twenty miles per day. This would have resulted in a trip of just over 60 days, or approximately 2 months.
So this is who the Magi were, and why they would have made such a long and potentially dangerous journey, but what triggered this journey? We said they would have been familiar with Jewish prophecy and the coming of the Messiah, but what made them start out at this particular time in history? Matthew tells us they followed a star which travelled from east to west in the night sky. It was apparently a very visible and even spectacular event. It would stand to reason such an event would have been recorded somewhere other than the Bible, by someone other than Matthew, and many believe it was.
The ancient Chinese closely watched the stars, planets and other heavenly bodies. Not only did they have a strong knowledge of the night skies, they were also meticulous record keepers. In 7 B.C. the Chinese recorded the conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn. In 6 B.C. they also recorded the massing of not only Jupiter and Saturn, but also Mars. The conjunction of these three planets would have been both very rare and very brilliant. As brilliant as these events would have been, the only known astrological event which would appear to move across the sky would be a comet, not a star or a conjunction of planets.
In the year 5 B.C. the Chinese recorded yet another event, a comet which their records report appeared in the night sky for 70 days. The comet originally appeared in Capricornus and then moved to the west. This time line matches the Biblical story exactly. The census of Caesar Augustus, which is why Joseph and Mary were traveling to Jerusalem, was held in 5 B.C.
Colin Humphreys with the University of Cambridge believes the combination of all of these events spurred the Magi to action. The conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn, followed by the triple alignment of Jupiter, Saturn and Mars would have signaled the Magi something major could be about to take place. When these events were closely followed by the appearance of the comet, it was seen as a sign of a great king being born in the west, in Judea. The Magi responded to these events and went in search of the new born king.
The visit of the Magi should not be confused with the visit of the Shepherds. The shepherds visited the Holy Family while they were still in the stable. Matthew tells us the Magi found the baby Jesus in a house. It is reasonable to expect Joseph would have moved Mary and the new born baby out of the stable as soon as better accommodations became available. One would expect this to have been within a day or so of Jesus’ birth. Some believe Jesus may have been up to two years old when the Magi visited, but I feel this to be unlikely. Joseph and Mary would have presented Jesus at the temple eight days after His birth to be circumcised. After this there would have been no real reason for the family to remain in Bethlehem. They would have left the majority of their possessions at home and Joseph would have needed to return to work. So it seems probable the Magi visited Jesus within two weeks of His birth.
This brings up the question of why King Herod later had all of the boys two years old and younger living in Bethlehem put to death. If the infant Jesus was less than ten days old, killing all infants two years old and younger would have been excessively cruel, even by Herod’s standards. The Gospel of Matthew gives us a potential answer. King Herod asked the Magi when they first saw the star which had brought them to Judea. The comet was visible for just 70 days, but the combined celestial events were much longer. The comet appeared in 5 B.C, but the conjunction of planets began in 7 B.C. two years before the Magi arrived at Herod’s palace, which may have accounted for Herod’s decision to kill all two year olds and younger.
The time line of the census, the astrological events, and the records of the comet all closely match the account recorded in the Gospel of Matthew. While there are certainly other possible explanations for these events, the similarity is hard to ignore and for many provides convincing evidence the story Matthew told was historical rather than a fabricated myth.
A few final thoughts before we depart the subject of the Magi. Their true purpose, the meaning of their gifts and their number are questioned by many. Some believe the Magi were each from different countries and represented the entire world as they came to worship the new born King. As mentioned, tradition holds there were three Magi. This could have been based on the fact the Magi brought three gifts, gold, frankincense and myrrh and it was assumed each Magi gave only one gift. Many scholars believe the gifts represented the life of Jesus. Gold represented royalty, frankincense represented deity or the priesthood and myrrh was used to anoint a person who is going to die. Jesus was to be the King, the High Priest, and would die as a sacrifice for us all. It is also possible these gifts financed the Holy Family’s subsequent trip and prolonged stay in Egypt as they fled King Herod who they feared was still trying to kill the young Jesus.
In some cases these Magi or wise men are called three kings, as in the well known Christmas song. There is no evidence these men were actual kings, but as mentioned earlier it is possible their counsel was instrumental in the selection of kings in their homeland. These counselors would have been well educated and familiar with many ancient texts. This would have included copies of the ancient Jewish scriptures, today’s Old Testament, which could have been left behind during the Babylonian exile in the preceding centuries. This would help account for their knowledge of the star and its true meaning. This star, or comet, signaled the coming of the Messiah. This Christmas star was the first in a series of events which would eventually change the world, forever.