Kathy Petersen’s Blog

When did the Magi come to see Jesus?

Posted in Christianity by Kathy on January 7, 2008

Most versions of the Christmas story (church plays, movies, nativity scenes, etc.) will show Three Wise Men at the manger with Joseph, Mary, baby Jesus, and the shepherds. But this doesn’t hold weight with the Bible. Some will argue “we don’t know when the Wise Men came–it could have been that night, but it could have been some time afterwards.” I argue that it could not have been that night, and could not have been for some time afterwards.

First, there is the plain implication that the star they followed did not appear until Jesus’ birth, and they came a long journey. The account does not deny the possibility of the star appearing prior to His birth–say, at His conception, thus giving them nine months to make the journey–but that is not the implication.

Second, the Wise Men (the number is never given, so to say the number with any certainty is implausible) went first to Herod’s castle, and while the distance from Jerusalem to Bethlehem is not great, it is unlikely that after arriving at Jerusalem to meet the king of the Jews, and having a conference with Herod (most likely a long, formal affair), they would have time to run down to Bethlehem all in the same night.

Third, Jesus’ birth is plainly told to be in a stable, yet when the Wise Men get there, the family is in a house, and He is said to be a “child” not a “baby.” While I can appreciate the speed at which Joseph would have secured proper lodgings in Bethlehem, it is unlikely that if there were no room at the inn, that a house would suddenly be vacant that night or the next morning.

But these are all inferences. The real proof is comparing the Biblical accounts with each other. The history becomes apparent: Jesus was born; on the 8th day, He was circumcised; on the 40th day, He was presented at the Temple; the next account of Him that we can be sure of his age is when He was 12 and went to Jerusalem to the Feast of the Passover; then “when He was about 30 years old” He began His gospel ministry.

Where do the Wise Men fit in? Well, let’s look at what is said about their visit. They arrive some time after His birth, after seeing Herod and being told to go back to report to him where the King of the Jews is, so that he can kill Him. They see Jesus, give Him the precious gifts, and return home without going to see Herod. The night they saw Jesus, they were warned of God in a dream not to go back to Jerusalem. Some time after that (perhaps even the same night), Joseph was warned of God in a dream to leave Israel, so he fled with his family to Egypt. He didn’t come back until after the slaughter of the boys–who were aged 2 and under, which indicates that the Wise Men were not looking for a newborn. Not until after Herod died and his son reigned in his stead did Joseph return to Israel.

So, Joseph and family must be in Israel when Jesus was 8 days and also 40 days old. It is possible but not probable that the entire preceding paragraph–from the Wise Men’s visit to Herod until his death, and from Joseph’s fleeing to Egypt and returning–was within the space of less than 32 days. Highly improbable. Since Herod killed all the males from 2 years old and under, this account took place when Jesus was less than 2 years old. Therefore, the Wise Men came to see Jesus sometime between when He was 40 days old and 2 years old. Not at the stable, but at the house; and not as a baby, but as a young child.

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  1. Daniel Downs said, on January 27, 2008 at 2:06 am

    Wow! That is a very good analysis. I could only add that if the Magi were from Parthia, which was east of Israel, then they were ambassadors with a military escort to a place under where a treaty with Rome governed. Josephus wrote many Jews lived in Parthia, and historian Steven M. Collins also believes the Magi were Levites who served as priests as well as ambassadors. As such, they sought out Jesus to identify and honor him as the next legitimate king of the Jews (in Parthia).

  2. screamofcontinuousness said, on February 19, 2008 at 8:52 pm

    this is very much in line with how we do our manger scene at Christmas in our home. We have the wise men on a separate book shelf all the way across the room. They only begin moving towards the Bethlehem set after Christmas day. In order to fit into the church calendar we have them arrive around Epiphany, but by then the setting is a home and carpenter’s shop. It’s quite interactive.

  3. Withrow Stockton said, on December 10, 2008 at 1:26 pm

    There were no jet planes or amtrak in bibical days. They (the wise men) saw His star and sojourned toward it. If they came from Persia, it would have taken 2 years to get to Nazareth. When they got there, they did not go to a Inn and a manger, they went to a house. They did not pay homage to a Babe, but Child (toddler). St. Matt 2nd chapter

  4. Ben Stancill said, on December 29, 2008 at 9:38 pm

    I think the family went home to Nazareth not long after Jesus birth and that events in Matthew and Luke are from a Passover visit to Jerusalem and Bethlehem some two years after his birth.

  5. Ben Stancill said, on December 29, 2008 at 10:09 pm

    I think traveling by camel the trip from Babylon to Jerusalem a distance of about 700 miles would take about 35 to 40 days…

  6. Ken Sears said, on February 27, 2009 at 11:00 am

    I fully agree that the Magi arrived approximately two years after the birth of Jesus. The traditional, and admittedly beautiful image of the shepherds and wise men gathered at the stable is certainly inaccurate.
    There’s another element of the traditional story (including the way we often see it played out in movies) which is probably inaccurate. It’s highly unlikely that Joseph and Mary arrived in Bethlehem, with evening drawing to a close and Mary on the donkey’s back already suffering birth pangs, and went from, as it were, hotel to hotel only to find everything was booked. It is far more probable that Joseph had family in Bethlehem (they went there, after all, because it was his ancestral home), and that, in fact, they stayed with them. Not in an “inn”. And there’s no basis for assuming that Mary was on the verge of delivering the moment they got to town. The word “inn” in the scriptures could just as easily be translated “house”, and the phrase “there was no room in the inn” is likely better translated “there was no place in the house”, i.e., no suitable place – with a gang of people gawking – to have a baby. So, they went out to the stable.
    Consequently, the “house” to which the Magi came two years later is most likely the very same house in which Jesus was born. And why did the family stay there those two years rather than return to Nazareth? It’s not hard to figure. In Nazareth there were only suspicions and gossip awaiting them. You can understand why. But in Bethlehem – stories of a birth accompanied by angelic visitations. Family and friends could only consider this a good “omen” and a sort of feather in their cap, for themselves and their town. Joseph could ply his trade just as well in Bethlehem as anywhere else. There was every reason to stay, probably for good, until they were forced out by Herod’s attempt to murder the Christ child.

  7. […] Claus and who have popularized three wise men showing up at the stable where Jesus was born (but they actually came later according to the Biblical account and there could have been more than three magi). So let us listen […]

  8. Vel said, on December 9, 2011 at 2:25 pm

    But what about Luke 2:39: “When Joseph and Mary had done everything required by the Law of the Lord, they returned to Galilee to their own town of Nazareth.”

    In Luke’s written account, these verses immediately follow the encounter with Anna at the Temple (when Jesus is 40 days old).

    Luke doesn’t mention the Magi or the trip to Egypt.

    Would you say that between Luke 2:38 and Luke 2:39 the events in Matthew 2 take place?

    • Kathy said, on December 27, 2011 at 2:19 pm

      The Bible often skips certain things, but it doesn’t mean it didn’t happen. For instance, Kings and Chronicles both cover much of the same time period and many of the same kings, yet one book sometimes omits something that another book records. In that case, it appears that one book is focused on the kings of Judah only, while the other tells the history of both Judah and Israel. Matthew also omits some of the fathers in Jesus’ genealogy, so that there would be parallelism and three sets of 14; this is done not as an error, but for ease of memorization, in a time when many people couldn’t read and oral tradition was so important. At the close of John’s gospel, he notes that not only did he not tell everything he could have about Jesus’ life, that *no one* could because He did so much “the world could not contain them” if they had been written.

      So, it appears to me that Luke’s focus is elsewhere, and just does not bring up the story of the Magi, Herod’s murderous jealousy, and the flight to Egypt — perhaps because the story was already well-known from Matthew’s already-circulating gospel account, or that it just wasn’t as important to the non-Jewish audience that Luke’s account was directed to. Matthew’s account was directed to Jews, so is replete with references to Jewish Scriptures and how that Jesus fulfilled them; a Gentile audience would not know the Hebrew Scriptures so well, nor would they necessarily need to have it proven that Jesus fulfilled various prophecies, so Luke might just leave out some things that happened as being relatively unimportant to his audience at the time, without there being any serious discrepancy.

      I’ll give you a page from my own history to further elucidate: I grew up in MS and lived there all my life, until I got married and then for a few years lived in Chicago with my husband until we moved back to Mississippi. This past summer, we moved to New Mexico, and I’ve met a lot of people, all of them wondering where I’m from. Often, I’ll just say, “I’m from MS and we moved here in July”, without referencing the two years that I lived in Chicago. This doesn’t mean they didn’t happen, nor that what happened there was completely unimportant — indeed, my first child was born when we lived there, so it was quite a momentous occasion! However, at the time that I’m speaking to people, most of the time it is unnecessary to reference the time we lived in Chicago.

      And it is true that after Joseph and Mary did everything that was required of the law, they moved back to Nazareth; it just may not have been immediately afterward — just as I was born in MS and moved from there to NM, but lived for two years out of MS in Chicago.

  9. Julia said, on December 21, 2011 at 6:13 am

    I agree with your chronological order of Jesus’ birth, but I have been recently studying this very thing. I have learned that Jewish people would start counting the age of the child from conception, so technically Jesus would have been 9 months old at birth. Also we read in Luke that after Jesus was dedicated in the temple in Jerusalem, that Joseph and Mary went to Nazareth. In Matthew we read after the dedicated that they went to Egypt after being warned to go there, and when Herrod died they came back to Nazareth. Also learned that in hebrew the word for house refers to synagoge, temple, as well as house. So none the less knowing that they consider you almost a year old when you are born, it is possible that he was not very old using our standards when Herrod sought to kill him. But did the wise men come before his dedication in the temple, I guess we can only wonder.

    • Kathy said, on December 27, 2011 at 1:59 pm

      I have never heard that the Jews counted from conception, though I know that is still true of the Chinese. Where did you read that? I would like to see. Someone else questioned specifically about the dedication at the temple, so I will be responding to that more in depth on his comment.

  10. jude said, on December 29, 2011 at 8:30 pm

    the gospels refer to his circumcision on the 8th day etc – doubtful if they count from conception – furthermore, even with our technology today, assessing this moment is not very accurate – n’est pas?

  11. Jim said, on January 2, 2013 at 2:46 am

    Hi, I just stumbled onto this site while doing research on this question for a Bible project I’m working on. The trouble here (as I see it) is that Matthew’s gospel shows Joseph at first endeavoring to go to Judea upon the family’s return from Egypt, which would seem to strongly indicate that they’d left for Egypt from Bethlehem, not Nazareth. And yet, Luke indicates that they returned to their ‘home town’ of Nazareth right after the events in the temple, which would have to have been before the flight into Egypt, considering the wording of Matthew.

    The way I reconcile these two accounts uses the idea that following the Presentation in the Temple, the family returned to Nazareth, but didn’t stay long–perhaps just long enough to wind up their affairs there before returning to Bethlehem–perhaps they felt that as the Messiah, Jesus should be raised in the city where His birth had been prophesied. The Magi came to see them in Bethlehem, they fled into Egypt from there, with the intent of returning to Bethlehem once everything was safe–but when Joseph heard about Archaleus ruling in Judea, and was then warned in a dream, he decided to go to Nazareth, instead. It was a perfectly logical choice; he knew people there, and work and housing and friends would undoubtedly be easy to find…

    Don’t know what you think of that, but it works for me! Thanks for your insights; they helped me focus my own thinking!

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