The next portion of the Christmas story takes us to chapter two of Matthew’s gospel…
“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 has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star in the east and have come to worship him'” (Matthew 2:1-2 NIV).
So who exactly were these “Magi”? While it is traditional to refer to them as “kings” or “wise men,” (1) it may be surprising to learn that it is probably more accurate to refer to them as astrologers
You see, the term “magi” was used to identify the priests and wise men among the ancient civilizations of the Medes, Persians, and Babylonians. These men were said to be highly skilled in divination, astrology, and the interpretation of signs. This was not unlike modern-day astrologers who believe that the movement and arrangement of stars and planets can have an impact on human events. The idea is that a person who possesses the ability to interpret these alignments will also have the ability to foretell the future.
Perhaps the clearest Biblical warning against this type of activity is found in Deuteronomy 18:10-12…
“Let no one be found among you who sacrifices his son or daughter in the fire, who practices divination or sorcery, interprets omens, engages in witchcraft, or casts spells, or who is a medium or spiritist or who consults the dead. Anyone who does these things is detestable to the LORD…” (NIV).
In light of this, we might question why God would choose to announce Jesus’ birth to these men when the Bible says such things are wrong. Well, here’s how one commentator addresses this question…
“The star used in the Biblical account was to announce the birth of Christ, not to foretell this event. God gave the star to the Magi to proclaim to them that the child had already been born. We know that the Child had already been born because in Matthew 2:16, Herod gives a command to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and vicinity that are two years old or younger in accordance with the ‘time which he had ascertained from the Magi’ (NASB)… The star guiding the Magi was not used to predict, but to proclaim the birth of Christ.” (2)
So these astrologers suddenly came upon a real sign in their observations of the stars- the sign of the one true God. This is not an unbiblical idea for as God once said through the prophet Isaiah, “I revealed myself to those who did not ask for me; I was found by those who did not seek me. To a nation that did not call on my name, I said, ‘Here am I, here am I'” (Isaiah 65:1). God met the Magi on their own field so to speak, and guided the astrologers by a star.
But how exactly did these men come to associate this star with Jesus’ birth? Unfortunately, we don’t have enough detail to say with certainty how or why the Magi connected the appearance of this star with the King of the Jews. However, there is one interesting possibility to consider. Remember that the term “Magi” was used to identify the priests and wise men of the Medes, Persians, and Babylonians. There is one Biblical personality who is more closely associated with these groups than any other. That person was the prophet Daniel who lived in the 6th century B.C.
In thinking over this question, it’s interesting to note that the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar placed Daniel in charge over all the wise men of Babylon (see Daniel 2:46-48). Later in Daniel 6:28, we also read that Daniel prospered during the reigns of two leaders named Darius (who was a Mede) and Cyrus the Persian.
So while we don’t have any direct Biblical evidence to explain how the Magi connected the Star of Bethlehem to Jesus’ birth, it’s possible that God may have given Daniel some advance information regarding this event. If that was the case, then it’s also possible that Daniel passed this information to the Magi of his day. From there, the Magi conveyed that information from generation to generation until the time of its fulfillment. Again, while there is no Scriptural evidence to support this theory, it would serve to explain how the Magi knew about Jesus’ birth.
Another question regarding the Magi is this: How many Magi came to visit Jesus? Well, tradition tells us that there were three Magi named Melchior, Caspar and Balthasar. But even though it’s customary to think of “The Three Wise Men” who visited Jesus, there’s a good chance there were more than three. Here’s why…
“…Magi from the east came to Jerusalem and asked, ‘Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star in the east and have come to worship him.’ When King Herod heard this he was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him” (Matthew 2:1b-3 NIV).
Jerusalem was large, important town. If the entire city was troubled over the appearance of these men, it’s likely that they showed up with a large contingent. There’s another possible explanation that involves Herod himself, but we’ll get to that part next.
Finally, we should note that the Bible does not say that the Magi came on the night of Jesus’ birth; in fact, it’s possible that their visit occurred much later, perhaps as many as two years later.
(1) The Revised Standard Version, American Standard Version, King James Version, and New King James Version are all examples of Biblical translations that identify the Magi as “wise men”
(2) Geisler,N. L., & Howe, T. A. (1992). When Critics Ask : A Popular Handbook On Bible Difficulties Victor Books