The appearance of the wise men, also known as the Magi, was a pivotal moment in the opening chapters of Matthew’s Gospel. Although they did not spend Christmas with baby Jesus in a manger or with Joseph and Mary, the shepherds, and the animals, their visit to Jesus was still incredibly important, as they carried three symbolic gifts: gold, frankincense, and myrrh.
Even today, there is a common misconception among readers of the Bible and among most scholars about why the magi came to visit Jesus on His birth night.
Who Were The Three Wise Men?
The Greek word μαγoι (mάgoi) can be translated either as “wise men” or “magi” in English. This name originally referred to a caste of ancient Persian priests and astrologers.
The phrase eventually comes to encompass anyone who possesses occult knowledge or abilities. In Acts 13:6, the false prophet Bar-Jesus is also identified using similar language. When referring to Bar-Jesus, the New International Version uses the word “sorcerer.” However, it might also be indicative of someone who is dishonest.
The sages are typically referred to using the first meaning of mάgoi. Like these wise men of Persia, the magi were interested in the heavens (after all, they were following a star). The magi are kings but are never referred to as such in the Bible.
During the reign of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, wise men from the east traveled to Jerusalem to inquire, “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.”
Later on, Herod called the Magi secretly and discovered from them the exact time of the star’s appearance. “Go and search carefully for the infant,” he told them as he sent them off to Bethlehem. “If you do, please let me know immediately so that I can also pay my respects to him” (Matthew 2:7–8).
When asked about Jesus, the magi respond merely that He is “the king of the Jews,” whose birth they had witnessed through a miraculous star. Their desire to worship Him was openly declared (Matthew 2:2). People went to tremendous lengths to present Jesus with gifts because they thought He was a king.
Gold, frankincense, and myrrh were the three gifts that the Magi brought to Jesus. These three presents were the most lavish ever given to a monarch, and rightfully so. In most cases, they were also brought in from the Arabian Peninsula or Africa, demonstrating that the educated individuals brought the best of their respective continents.
Christ’s deity as the Son of God is symbolized by the divine quality of gold. Frankincense, a fragrant resin traditionally burned as an offering to God, may symbolize Christ’s willingness to give His life for the sake of the world. Conversely, myrrh is commonly used as an embalming spice. It’s a symbol of loathing and woe. It’s possible that this foreshadows Jesus’ death as a mature man.
Did The Wise Men Arrive 12 Days After Jesus’ Birth?
According to Christian belief, the 12 days mark the passage of time from Jesus’ birth to the visit of the Three Wise Men. The celebration of Epiphany, which Christians commemorate on January 6, marks the end of the 12 days, which begin on Christmas Day (or, in some traditions, the day following Christmas). However, the Holy Scripture suggests that the magi visited Jesus much later.
Dedication Of Jesus
Mary and Joseph carried their newborn son to the temple to worship the Lord as required by the Law. Leviticus 12:2–4 lays out the specific dates that must be observed for this commitment.
Mary’s days of purification had to occur at least 40 days after Jesus was born. A lady would be considered unclean for a whole week. A male infant was expected to be circumcised on the eighth day. A woman’s ritual cleansing had to be completed within 33 days back then.
After that, the new parents were to bring their infant to the temple for a dedication service and give an animal sacrifice to the Lord as a means of atonement for the mother’s sins. The Lord required this sacrifice in order to appease Him and heal the woman’s bleeding problem. What a beautiful coincidence that the sacrifice was “a lamb of the first year” and a bird (a baby pigeon or a turtledove).
This looks to be a symbolic representation of Jesus, the Lamb of God, and the Holy Spirit, who descended upon the disciples in the form of a dove. Two young pigeons or two turtledoves are mentioned in some versions of this story, and the woman was able to bring them.
Mary And Joseph Offered Birds
Mary sacrificed two young birds, according to Luke 2:24. The fact that Mary and Joseph couldn’t afford to buy a lamb as a burnt offering is another piece of evidence that they were financially strapped.
According to popular belief, Mary and Joseph would have received priceless gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh when the Three Wise Men arrived 12 days after Jesus’ birth. If such were the case, Mary may have offered a lamb as a sacrifice to atone for her sins and be cleansed.
Since the Scripture states that Jesus’ dedication and Mary’s purification occurred at least 40 days after His birth, it follows that the Magi couldn’t have visited before then.
The Wise Men Arrived “Into the House”
The day Jesus was born, it was in a place where animals were kept. It may have been a cave or a stable, but more than likely it was a relative’s basement where animals were housed during the winter. Our term for “inn” comes from the Greek for “upper room,” suggesting that Mary and Joseph remained in the basement of a Bethlehem home.
After the census was over and everyone had left, Mary and Joseph’s family invited them to join them in the top chamber. After seeing the temple, they would have remained there until she was well enough to travel back to Nazareth.
Luke tells us that Mary and Joseph went back to Nazareth after Jesus was dedicated to the temple (around 40 days after His birth; see Luke 2:39). Thus, it is also feasible that the Wise Men were guided to Nazareth by the star, although it is highly improbable that their journey would have taken almost two years.
Mary And Joseph’s Poverty
There’s no way the Magi could have arrived at Jesus’ birthplace 12 days later; the timing just isn’t right. Since Joseph and Mary were practicing Jews, they might have used the money they made from selling gold, frankincense, and myrrh to buy a lamb as an offering to God. They didn’t bring lambs as the impoverished were supposed to, though; instead, they brought fowl.
How Old Was Jesus When The Wise Men Came?
It has been suggested that the Magi did not visit Jesus until He was two years old and the family had moved to Nazareth. According to Matthew 2:1–11, the Magi “came into the house and saw the young child.”
When you consider that King Herod ordered the deaths of all the children under the age of two, it’s easy to see why some have speculated that Jesus was close to two years of age when the Magi arrived.
Matthew’s usage of the Greek word paidíon, which is translated as “young child,” is etymologically accurate. A childling (of either sex), according to Strong’s Hebrew and Greek Dictionary, is a baby or a young boy or girl who is halfway between being an adult and a toddler. The use of Herod’s decree as a basis for determining Jesus’ age is questionable as well.
It’s possible that Herod was just “covering his bases” by making Jesus much older than He actually was. The Wise Men were obligated to submit their findings to Herod (Matthew 2:8). If it had been six months, a year, or more before Herod realized they hadn’t returned, he may have ordered “two and under” to guarantee Jesus’ death.
Herod’s order to murder all male children under two wasn’t made arbitrarily. No leader would wish to order the execution of his own boys because they would one day serve in his army. Fearing for his kingdom, Herod ordered the deaths of all male children, but he would spare those who could prove beyond a doubt that they were bearing the King of the Jews.
Matthew reveals that those Herod sought were “according to the time that he had ascertained [ekribosen] from the wise men.” He may have had some inkling that Jesus wasn’t quite two years old, but he probably rounded up to that age for the sake of his order.
To this day, the age of Jesus when the wise men came to visit remains a subject of debate among many scholars. According to Matthew’s Gospel, however, the Magi came to see Jesus at a time when King Herod was actively plotting the murder of the Messiah and had ordered all infants under the age of two to be killed. That puts Jesus’ age in that range, at the very least.
One thing we may learn from the Wise Men’s visit to Jesus and the Holy Family is how they pay their respects. When they discovered Him, the Magi worshipped Him, regardless of how old He actually was.