It is one of the most beloved parts of the Christmas story, an event celebrated by Christians all over the world: the arrival of “wise men” from the East to pay homage to the newborn Christ child.
The story exists solely in the Gospel of Matthew and there is no reference to it anywhere else in the New Testament.
According to Matthew 2: 1-12, in the days of Herod the king, “wise men” (magoi) from the east, not "kings" as Christmas carols proclaim, came to Jerusalem looking for the “newborn king of the Jews.” The wise men explained that they had seen his star in the east and came to worship him.
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King Herod assembled all the chief priests and scribes and asked them where the Christ, the long-expected Jewish messiah, was to be born. The Jewish experts replied that the messiah was to be born in the tiny village of Bethlehem as some of the prophets had foretold.
Herod then summoned the foreign visitors in secret and questioned them in detail about the astrological portent they had seen, and then told them to go find the royal child and report back to him where the child was to be found for he, Herod, wanted to pay him homage as well.
The wise men followed the miraculous star until it “came to rest” over the exact spot where the child was. They went into the house where the child was, worshiped him, and gave him gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. But after being warned in a dream not to return to Herod, the wise men departed for their home country by another way.
New Testament Scholars Consider the Magi to Be Legendary
It goes without saying that many mainstream New Testament scholars consider this entire episode to be legendary. There is no confirmation of the wise men in any secular sources or in the other texts of the New Testament.
Despite attempts to find an ancient astronomical event that could correspond to a traveling star – Halley’s comet, a super nova, or a planetary conjunction – none really fits exactly either chronologically or in terms of what the text actually describes (a moving star that “comes to rest” over the exact spot).
That’s why experts such as the late Catholic New Testament scholar Raymond Brown – author of the authoritative "The Birth of the Messiah" – conclude that, as Brown put it, “those who wish to maintain the historicity of the Matthean magi story are faced with nigh insuperable obstacles.”
In addition, the experts see evidence of the evangelist copying aspects of various Old Testament stories, a technique known as midrash. For example, just as pharaoh sought the life of the newborn child Moses and massacres Israelite children, so, too, King Herod seeks the life of the new lawgiver, Jesus, and is willing to massacre all the male children of Bethlehem to do so.
Thus, the argument goes, the Magi story, like the story of George Washington cutting down the cherry tree, is not meant to be taken as literal history but as a myth.
Intriguing Confirmations from Ancient Historians
Nevertheless, the story about the visit of the Magi does have many intriguing plausibilities that should give even the die-hard skeptic pause. For one thing, we know from historical sources that there were, in ancient Persia, a priestly caste or order of “Magi” who were world-famous as astrologers.
In fact, according to the Roman historians Dio Cassius and Suetonius some of these eastern Magi even visited Rome. Further, Suetonius and another Roman historian, Tacitus, report that there was a belief in the ancient world that a world-ruler would rise from Judea. The Magi, Suetonius wrote, “had spread over all the Orient an old and established belief, that it was fated at that time for men coming from Judaea to rule the world.”
In addition, much of the story makes sense in light of what we know about that period. While there is no record of a massacre of newborn male infants in Bethlehem at this time, there probably wouldn’t have been. In a tiny village such as Bethlehem, with only about 300 residents, the number of newborn males would have been only a handful.
Secondly, we know from the writings of the first-century Jewish historian Josephus that wiping out potential rivals is precisely something that Herod would have done. He was so paranoid and ruthless he famously executed 45 members of Mark Antony’s retinue, his brother-in-law Aristobulus, his mother-in-law Alexandra, his second- and much-loved wife Mariamme and no fewer than three of his own biological sons.
In fact, around the time when Jesus was born Herod went on a murderous rampage against anyone who supported a potential successor to his rule. He executed 300 of his own soldiers and a number of Pharisees who predicted “Herod’s throne would be taken from him, both from himself and his descendants.”
What Does the Visit of the Magic Really Proclaim?
But what’s really interesting is this: Whether you view the visit of the wise men as literal history or as midrash, what was Matthew’s purpose in including this episode right at the beginning of his gospel when the other evangelists don’t even mention it?
After all, most scholars agree the Matthew is the "most Jewish" of the Gospels, and he repeatedly quotes Jesus as saying that his disciples are to go to the "lost sheep of the house of Israel."
But while there are versions of Christianity that see Jesus as coming solely for the chosen few, for good Christians only, throughout the Gospels there are passages that suggest Jesus’ mission was actually meant for the entire world.
In fact, in Matthew’s Gospel the very first people who recognize Jesus as divine -- as someone to be “worshipped” -- are not his fellow Jews, or even his closest followers, but the Magi, pagan astrologers from “the East.”
In addition, Matthew also contains the story of the Roman Centurion in Capernaum, who tells Jesus he knows that Jesus can cure his servant because he, as an officer, knows what it is like to give a command and have it immediately carried out. Jesus marvels at this and says, “Amen I say to you, in no one in Israel have I found such faith (8:10).”
The visit of the Magi, whether historical or not, proclaims that Jesus was born for everyone – rich and poor, Jew and Gentile, righteous and sinners. In fact, in Matthew’s Gospel Jesus tells the religious elites of his age that prostitutes and swindlers are more righteous in the eyes of God than they are. “Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God ahead of you” (Matt. 21:31).
Imagine if someone today walked up to the pope, or the archbishop of Canterbury, or the latest TV evangelist, and said, “In God’s eyes, the drug addicts and hookers on skid row are more likely to go to heaven than you are.”
And that is ultimately the secret of the Magi, lost to Christians over the ages:
The whole world can celebrate the birth of the Christ child because he came, and died, for the whole world.
“I see that God shows no partiality,” says Jesus’ follower Peter after the Roman centurion Cornelius joins the Jesus movement. “Rather, in every nation whoever fears him and acts uprightly is acceptable to him” (Acts 10: 34).
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