Arrival of the Magi (Matthew 2:1-12)

Submitted by admin on Sun, 2007-05-27 08:44.

Posted in | printer-friendly version »

Close to the end of Herod the Great’s rule, magi (astrologers) arrived in Jerusalem. While in their own land, situated a considerable distance to the east, they had seen a star that caused them to conclude that the king of the Jews had been born. They seemingly thought that this would have been known in Jerusalem, prompting their inquiry about the location of the newborn king. Their purpose for wanting to see him was to prostrate themselves before him, acknowledging him as king and presenting him with precious gifts befitting one who would eventually reign. (Matthew 2:1, 2)

News about their arrival and inquiry greatly disturbed Herod and the general populace of Jerusalem. Herod called for the chief priests and Jewish scribes to assemble and then asked them where the “anointed one” (the Christ) would be born. Based on the prophecy of Micah (5:1[2]), they answered, “Bethlehem of Judah.” (Matthew 2:3-6)

Thereafter Herod arranged a secret meeting with the magi and found out from them just when they had seen the star. It would appear that he wanted to raise no suspicion about his real intent and so sent them to Bethlehem unaccompanied by anyone from his court. He requested that they carefully search for the newborn king and, upon finding him, report back to him, as he, too, wanted to prostrate himself before him. (Matthew 2:7, 8)

Upon starting out for Bethlehem, the magi again saw the star they had seen earlier and were overjoyed. The star went ahead of them, leading them on their way. Then, in Bethlehem, based on the position of the star in relation to the houses, the magi located the home where the child was, entered, saw him with his mother Mary, prostrated themselves before him, and presented gold, incense, and myrrh as gifts. Warned in a dream not to return to Herod, the magi returned to their own country by another route. (Matthew 2:9-12)


The inhabitants of Jerusalem must have known how seriously Herod viewed any possible threat to his rule, and this may be the reason for their alarm about the inquiry of the magi.

The quotation from the prophecy of Micah departs considerably from the extant text of the Septuagint (which reflects the wording of the Masoretic Text) but preserves the basic thought. The Septuagint reads, “And you, Bethlehem, house of Ephrathah, few are you to be among the thousands of Judah. From you will come forth to me the one to become ruler in Israel.” Matthew 2:6 says, “And you, Bethlehem, [in the] land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you will come forth a ruler who will shepherd my people Israel.”

Reference works, based on the way the comments of Josephus are commonly interpreted, usually place the death of Herod in 4 BCE. This date appears to be too early to fit Luke’s account about the start of John’s proclamation of repentance and the baptism of Jesus. In the fifteenth year of Tiberius Caesar, who succeeded Augustus Caesar in 14 CE, John began to serve as a prophet. At the time of his baptism by John, Jesus was “about thirty years old.” (Luke 3:1-3, 21-23) A 4 BCE date for Herod’s death would place Jesus’ birth approximately two years earlier (c. 6 BCE), raising a question regarding his being “about thirty years of age” in the fifteenth year of Tiberius (28/29 CE). A commonly proposed solution is to interpret the “fifteenth year of Tiberius” to mean the fifteenth year from the start of his coregency with Augustus Caesar (or between 11 CE and 13 CE instead of 14 CE).

Josephus (Antiquities, XVII, viii, 1; War, I, xxxiii, 8) indicates that Herod the Great ruled for 34 years after the execution of Antigonus and 37 years after the Romans had made him king. He also refers to an eclipse of the moon taking place shortly before Herod’s death. (Antiquities, XVII, vi, 4) A partial eclipse of the moon did occur on March 13, 4 BCE (Julian calendar). Because this eclipse was partial, some favor 5 BCE as the year in which Herod died. In that year two total eclipses occurred, one on March 23 (Julian calendar) and the other on September 15 (Julian calendar). Not until January 9 (Julian calendar) of 1 BCE did another total eclipse of the moon take place, and the year 1 BCE would more closely agree with Jesus’ having been about 30 years of age at the time of his baptism (after John began his activity in the fifteenth year of Tiberius or in 28/29 CE, according to the usual reckoning).

On September 2, 31 BCE, the forces of Octavius (later Augustus Caesar ) defeated those of Mark Antony (Marcus Antonius) in a naval battle near Actium in Greece. (Antiquities, XV, v, 2) Josephus places this event in the seventh year of Herod’s reign. When counted from the time Herod ruled after the death of Antigonus, six full years and some months of his reign had passed, with about 28 years of a 34-year rule remaining or with about 31 years of a 37-year rule remaining. Those who favor the 4 BCE date for Herod’s death start the count from the year 37 BCE, which they take to be the beginning of the 34-year rule. The minority view is that the Romans appointed Herod as king late in 39 BCE and that his first official regnal year began in 38 BCE and ended in the month of Elul (August/September) of 37 BCE. When Herod’s reign as a Roman appointee is counted as starting in the year 38/37 BCE, this would support the 1 BCE date for Herod’s death.

According to Josephus (Antiquities, XVIII, iv, 6), Philip the tetrarch, the son of Herod by Cleopatra of Jerusalem, died after a 37-year rule in the twentieth year of Tiberias’ reign, which would have been 33/34 CE. This would harmonize with a date of 4 BCE for Herod’s death. But there are editions of the Antiquities dating from before 1700 that read “twenty-second year of Tiberius,” supporting the 1 BCE date for the death of Herod.

The chronological references in the writings of Josephus regarding Archelaus and Antipas are usually understood as supporting the 4 BCE date for Herod’s death. In 6 CE, Augustus Caesar banished Archelaus after a rule of about nine or ten years. (Antiquities, XVII, xiii, 2; War, II, vii, 3; Cassius Dio, LV, 27, 6) Antipas, based on numismatic evidence, ruled 43 years. His rule ended in the second year of Caligula (Gaius Caesar) or in 38/39 CE. Caligula, on the basis of letters from Agrippa, banished Antipas for requesting to be elevated from tetrarch to king. (Antiquities, XVIII, vii, 2; War, II, ix, 6) In connection with Archelaus and Antipas, arguments in support of the 1 BCE date for Herod’s death primarily rest on assumptions about a coregency for Archelaus and antedating for Antipas.

In the extant text of Josephus, acknowledged mistakes and inconsistencies in the way he dates events exist. For example, according to his Antiquities (XIV, ix, 2), Herod was made governor of Galilee at the age of 15, but 25 is regarded as having been the correct age. In Antiquities (XVII, xiii, 2), Josephus indicates that Archelaus was banished in the tenth year of his rule, but, in War (II, vii, 3), he says that it was in the ninth year. Consequently, without clear corroborative evidence from other sources, one simply cannot be certain about various dates.

A definitive answer respecting the year of Jesus’ birth is not possible, and conflicting views will doubtless continue to be advocated. As the prime focus of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John is on Jesus’ activity after his baptism, there is no pressing need for seeking a definitive solution about the year of his birth.

Throughout the centuries, many have been troubled by the account about the magi. The Israelites were directed to have nothing to do with astrological observations and other means used by surrounding nations in attempts to predict future events. (Deuteronomy 18:10-12; compare Isaiah 47:13, 14; Jeremiah 27:9, 10; 29:8, 9.) Although Matthew was not moved to do so, many have felt the need to explain that astrology is wrong and have even concluded that the appearance of the “star” and the subsequent arrival of the magi in Jerusalem figured in a satanic plot to bring about Jesus’ death as a child. Divine intervention only came to prevent the magi from returning to Herod. In cases where God is perceived as being far away from the magi, nothing about them is regarded in a positive light.

When, however, a person looks upon this account as an evidence that God can lead sincere seekers to a noble goal and make allowances for their seriously flawed views, the account takes on a very different meaning. Whatever partial knowledge the magi may have had about the significance of the birth of a future king of the Jews, they acted on it. The child they planned to acknowledge as king and for whom the precious gifts were intended would not then have been able to favor them in any special way. Their only reward would have been finding the object of their quest, a quest, which, on the basis of their limited knowledge, deserved considerable effort.

May it, therefore, not be that the account serves to show that God is not far away from any member of the human family? Our heavenly Father did not prevent the magi from finding his Son, acknowledging him as king, and leaving their precious gifts, and what God allows is his work. May we not rightly conclude that sincere seekers (regardless of how very wrong some of their views may be) can find Christ and the heavenly Father through him and be favorably received?

Numerous traditions arose in the centuries that passed about the magi, with their being designated as three kings (probably based on the three gifts). Caspar, Melchior, and Balthasar are the names by which they came to be known in the West. In the East and Ethiopia, they came to be called Hor, Karsudan, and Basanater. Among the Armenians, they were Kagbha, Badadakharida, and Badadilma. In Syria, they came to be known as Larvandad, Gushnasaph, and Hormisdas. None of these traditional names have any historical support. Matthew’s account reveals nothing about how many undertook the journey nor is any clue provided about their identity or their land of origin. Still, the absence of specifics has not prevented numerous conjectures from being made about them even in recent times.