Many people understand Christmas from Christmas cards, Christmas carols and decorations in shopping malls, rather than understanding from the scripture. There weren’t any Christmas trees or Christmas carols on the air, but pain, oppression and poverty on the very first Christmas eve. The first Christmas was a poor one, but in our time it is a dazzling display of wealth beyond belief as it has become the most commercialized event of the year. Once wise men and shepherds came to worship Jesus, and today we have wild parties and the babe of Bethlehem has been replaced by a fat huckster called Santa. Most pictures depict the nativity scenes with Mary, Joseph, baby Jesus, shepherds, farm animals, three kings and a star. If you read the Christmas story in the scripture, many of the details you assume present at the manger are actually absent. Specifically, you will find that there were no three kings present on the first Christmas, and there was no star shining down on the manger.
Who were these mysterious travelers from the East?
Matthew records that “After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem.” Who were these Magi or wisemen? How many were there? When did they come? From possible definitions of the Greek word μάγος (Strong 3097) ‘magos’, these Magi were probably Median astrologers or scientists belong to a sacred priestly sect. They were certainly not kings. (Note: some miss-interprets Psalm 72:10-11 and Isaiah 60:6). Early traditions hold they were Babylonian astrologers or Persian Zoroastrians. However, Bible does not specifically identify who these Magi are. Bible does not have a record of their names, the number, and the country they came from. All that the bible tells us is that Magi came from the East and brought three gifts. We can understand from the Matthew’s account that these distant travelers not only possessed great knowledge in scripture, astronomy and science but also were wealthy and very powerful. These men traveled a great distance at great expense but with great certainty in their mission. They knew with absolute certainty that a great king has been born.
To travel across the harsh desert terrain through enemy territories, facing strong winds, high heat in the day and sub-zero temperatures in the night with oriental pomp and adequate cavalry escort to insure their safety for months and years, certainly terrified Herod (Matthew 2:3). To come into king’s palace and ask him in his face “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him” is certainly an insult that would have cost their lives. Herod must have known who these wise men were for there is no record of Herod making any attempt to overtake Magi.
There were no three kings present at the manger
Scripture tells us that the wisemen went to Jerusalem when they arrived, and they didn’t go to the stable or the cave where the new-born baby Jesus was laid, on the first Christmas eve. We don’t know exactly when they came for sure, but scripture is clear that when they came to Jerusalem they went to the house where Mary and the young child stayed (Matthew 2:11). There are several inferences in scripture that suggest the wisemen came long after the birth of Jesus.
First, we know from Luke’s account, 40 days after the birth of Jesus, Mary and Joseph took Jesus to the temple to present him to the Lord (Luke 2:22). Complying with the customary of the Law of Moses Mary and Joseph offer a pair of doves. According to the Old Testament Law a pair of doves or two pigeons are allowed as a substitute for a normally required sacrificial animal, only in the case of those who cannot afford, who are destitute in their poverty. This indicates that Mary and Joseph were extremely poor. Now, if the wisemen came before this temple visitation, Mary and Joseph would have those very expensive and valuable gifts in their hands. It was a violation of God’s Law and unthinkable to Mary and Joseph, to come to the temple and present two turtle doves while sitting on a treasure chest of Gold, frankincense and myrrh. It is safe to assume that between Jesus’ birth and visitation of Magi there was at least 40 days that had elapsed.
Second, when wisemen came looking for the ‘King of Jews’ we read Herod was troubled (Matthew 2:3). Here is a cruel and blood thirst king ruling over Jews for 2 decades. The last thing he wants to hear is another king coming to depose him from his throne. Not only Herod was troubled, but also all Jerusalem with him (v3). Very interesting! Why would all Jerusalem be troubled along with Herod?
Matthew doesn’t tell all the details, but we know that Jerusalem was waiting for the Messiah to come and deliver them from this Roman oppression. The Jews had already known and experienced what happened when Herod became afraid and saw any opposition. When the king got frightened the whole of Jerusalem became frightened because they know how the king reacts to this kind of situation. Their fears were well justified when Herod sent a decree to slaughter every male under 2 years (Matthew 2:16). We notice in v7, Herod called the Magi secretly and inquired them the exact time the star had appeared. He was trying to find out how old this child would be. He was in his calculation to order the slaughter of children under 2 years (Matthew 2:16 – Then when Herod saw that he had been tricked by the magi, he became very enraged, and sent and slew all the male children who were in Bethlehem and all its vicinity, from two years old and under, according to the time which he had determined from the magi). This also suggests the timing of the arrival of Magi to Jerusalem -Jesus could have been as old as 2 years when they arrived.
Third, when the angel of the Lord appears to the shepherds in the field he said “This will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in cloth and lying in a manger (Luke 2:12). The Greek word (Strong 1025) used for ‘Baby‘ here is βρέφος (brephos) refers to an infant or a new-born child. Now, in Matthew’s account of the visitation of Magi in ch.2, it uses the word ‘child‘, and the Greek word (Strong 3813) is παιδίον (paidion) which refers to a young child, and Jesus was no longer an infant. This is also an indication of the timing of the arrival of Magi.
Fourth, the interesting verse found in Matthew 2:2 – “Where is He who has been born King of the Jews? For we saw His star in the east and have come to worship Him.” This statement implies that the star appeared when the king was born. And it also seems that the massacre of the innocents (Matthew 2:16) is related to the time of the appearance of the star, which also suggests Jesus was no longer an infant when the Magi arrived.
The Bible doesn’t say exactly if the star appeared when the child was born. And it doesn’t also say when did the star first appear to the Magi either. Some suggest that the star appeared to the Magi two years before the birth of Christ giving them enough time to present at the Christmas Eve. But, there is a problem with that idea. If the star appeared to the Magi two years before the birth of Christ then we would have to admit that the Magi received the astronomical salutation before the Blessed Virgin had received the Angelic Salutation. That is questionable.
After examining these two gospel accounts and also examining Harmony of the Gospels, I personally believe, though it is not exactly clear, that the Magi came to see Jesus sometime after 40 days (after the purification days were completed) of Jesus’ birth, maybe many months or years later.
There was no star shining down on the manger
What Exactly Was the Christmas Star? There are various theories about the Star of Bethlehem ranging from a supernova to a comet to an alignment of planets. This Star is not a natural phenomenon, but something unexplained by science. The foundations of the Christian faith are built on supernatural convictions. Notice how Matthew identifies the star of Bethlehem (Matthew 2:2) – “His Star” or “the star of the Messiah” betokening his birth. It is unique. Bible teaches that God has created all the stars, He knows the number of the stars and their names (Psalm 147:4; Isaiah 40:26). In that sense all the stars are His, after all. However, this is a unique and certainly one of the most spectacular supernatural phenomena ever witnessed by Magi.
- Stars do not rise in the West
Astronomical bodies normally move from East to West due to the earth’s rotation on its axis in the opposite direction. Most bible versions say that the Magi have seen the star ‘in the East’. Some suggest it could meant the wisemen saw the star rising in the Western sky, while they were still in the East, and traveled west following it. If they saw the star over Israel, it would indicate that the star was not a stellar object, because stars do not rise in the West. This is not a normal behavior of an astronomical entity.
- Inaccurate translation of the Greek text
There is an ambiguity in the term ‘in the East’. It is not the most accurate translation of the Greek text. The ESV (also NIV and NLT) translates it more accurately and uses ‘when it rose’ – “For we saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him” (Matt. 2:2 – ESV). Scripture does not tell us where the star rose or if they followed it to come to Jerusalem. Magi saw a celestial phenomenon in the sky that led them to conclude that the Messiah had been born, and made a decision to go to Jerusalem and asked Herod where to find this “King of the Jews”. The expression “king of the Jews” which later embellished to the cross of Christ is the phrase every Jew understood to be synonymous with the concept of “Messiah”. They were not looking for just an ordinary king but for the Messiah which they might have learned from ancient sacred writings, and perhaps from Balaam’s (Num 24:17) and Daniels (Dan 9:24) prophecies. According to Jewish ancient literature they expected the appearance of an extraordinary star at the time of the Messiah’s coming; “Messiah shall be revealed, a bright and shining star shall arise in the east” (Zohar in Exod. fol. 3. 3, 4. & in Numb fol. 85. 4. & 86. 1.).
- Magi saw a rising of light, not a light coming down
The Greek word used here for ‘star’ is ἀστήρ (Strong 792) astér refers to a ‘luminous meteor‘ or a ‘light‘. The word ‘East’ (Strong Greek 395: ἀνατολή) anatolé refer to ‘a rising‘. When we put these two words we get ‘rising of light’. We read in Exodus 13:21-22, the Israelites were guided by a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night during their exodus in the wilderness. That was not just symbolism but a real supernatural phenomenon -it was the visible manifestation of divine presence (Shekinah glory).
Christ, the light of the world
The star of Bethlehem is like the miraculous pillar of fire which stood in the camp by night during Israel’s Exodus, and an allusion to a Balaam’s prophecy in Numbers 24:17 – “I see him, but not now; I behold him, but not near; A star shall come forth from Jacob, A scepter shall rise from Israel, And shall crush through the forehead of Moab, And tear down all the sons of Sheth.” This prophecy was fulfilled partly in David, but principally and completely in Christ. The “star” and “scepter” may be considered as names and titles of the Messiah; He is called “the morning star“, (Revelation 22:16 ) for his glory, brightness, and splendor, and for the light that comes by him, and the influence of his grace, and the blessings of it on the sons of men. It is the shekinah glory that the shepherd saw when the angel of the lord appeared to them (Luke 2:9). That could be the same phenomenon (the Shekinah Glory) seen only by Magi from the East. The star led Magi from Jerusalem directly to the place where Joseph and Mary were staying, and it stopped over the place where the child was (Matthew 2:9). This child is the light of the world.
The Bible does not record anyone else seeing it. No indication of shepherds in the field seeing it. And Herod didn’t see it; none of the chief priests and scribes saw it; only the Magi in the East saw it. God had preordained the star of Bethlehem to appear at this time to indicate that Christ had been born, just as He had ordered history to lead up to this point.
The Great Christ Comet: Revealing the True Star of Bethlehem, by Dr. Colin R. Nicholl
Various Exposition Commentaries, Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance Greek and Hebrew words
A Rabbinic Source Commentary And Language Bible, Dr. Al Garza
Various teaching by Dr. John MacArthur, Dr. R.C. Sproul