The next part 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).
Who exactly were these “Magi”? Well, these men have been traditionally referred to as “kings” or “wise men.” (1) However, it may come as a surprise to find that it is probably more accurate to refer to these men as “astrologers.”
You see, the term “magi” was used as a name for the priests and wise men among the ancient civilizations of the Medes, Persians, and Babylonians. These men were thought to be highly skilled in things like divination, astrology, and the interpretation of signs.
In light of this, here’s a question that often comes up when people learn about the real identity of the Magi. That question is this: “Why would God announce Jesus’ birth to a group of astrologers when the Bible says that astrology is something that’s wrong?” You see, astrology is the belief that the movement and arrangement of the stars and planets can have an impact on human events. The idea is that a person with the ability to interpret the alignment of the stars and/or planets will also have the ability to foretell the future.
Perhaps the clearest Biblical warning against this type of activity can be found in Deuteronomy 18:10-12 where we read this…
“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).
So how can we explain the appearance of the star that announced Jesus’ birth to such men? Well, here’s how one scholar-type person handles 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 as they went about their observations of the stars- the sign of the true God. This is not necessarily an unbiblical idea because 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? Well, even though the Bible tells us that the Magi saw the star of the King of the Jews, we don’t have enough detail to say with certainty how or why they connected it with Jesus’ birth. However, there is one interesting possibility that we can consider.
Remember that the term “Magi” was used for the priests and wise men among the Medes, Persians, and the Babylonians. Of all the people of God that are spoken of in the Bible, there is one person who is more associated with these groups than anyone else. That person would be the prophet Daniel who lived in the 6th century B.C.
In thinking over this question about the Magi, it’s interesting to note that the Old Testament book of Daniel tells us that the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar placed Daniel in charge over all the wise men of Babylon (see Daniel 2:46-48). And later on in Daniel 6:28, we 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 been speculated that God may have given the prophet Daniel some advance information regarding this event. If that’s the case, then it’s also possible that Daniel gave this information to the Magi of his day since they all reported to him.
From there, the Magi went on to pass along this information from generation to generation until the time of it’s fulfillment many years later. Again, while there is no direct information in the Bible to support this theory, it would serve to explain how the Magi knew about Jesus’ birth from the star that they saw.
Another question about the Magi is this: How many Magi came to visit Jesus? Well, tradition tells us that there were three Magi and that their names were Melchior, Caspar and Balthasar. But even though it’s customary to think of “The Three Wise Men” who came to see Jesus, the chances are actually pretty good that there were a lot 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, then it’s likely that they showed up with a pretty large group that gathered lots of attention. There’s another possible explanation that involves Herod himself, but we’ll get to that part next.
Anyway, we should also notice that the Bible does not specifically say that the Magi came on the night of Jesus’ birth- in fact, it’s possible that their visit occurred much later, perhaps even up to 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