Mary, did you know that the Three Wise Men never made it to Bethlehem that night?
The Christmas Story, along with the Nativity scene (however ethnically incorrect those participants may be), always tells the story that includes the three wise men, or “magi” as the later translations of the Bible write it. So let’s take a look.
In the gospel of Matthew, the entire story of Jesus’ birth is omitted. In fact, other than this specific narrative of the Magi, all of the details of the nativity (which means “circumstances of a birth”—I had to look it up) come from the historical gospel writer, Luke, who most likely got his information directly from the lips of Mary herself in her later years. And since Matthew’s gospel account was more a narrative aimed at the Jewish believing audience of the time, the first couple chapters are intent in establishing the Davidic heritage in establishing Jesus as the expected Messiah.
At the end of chapter one, Matthew tells us that Mary’s husband, Joseph, after receiving a vision in a dream, decides to remain faithful to Mary and… marry her?
When Joseph woke up, he did what the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took Mary home as his wife. But he did not consummate their marriage until she gave birth to a son. And he gave him the name Jesus.
Though, according to Jewish custom, his name was not given to him until the day of his circumcision 8-days later
The very next verse begins the second chapter, where the Magi are introduced:
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 when it rose and have come to worship him.”
*The KJV translates this as “Now when…”, and has led to the conclusion that the Magi were indeed there that night. But as we’ll examine, this can’t have happened.
The Magi (or Wise Men), were “professional” astronomers & astrologers (who also dabbled in other magic arts), with references to their “priestly” organization dating back to the time of Darius the Great, nearly 500 years before. In this case, Matthew’s inclusion of them in the story is an important one, allowing later astronomers to validate the time of the recorded events according to known astronomical observations.
But in our current context, it is most important to pay attention to the fact that these men were “from the east.” The Bible doesn’t say where, but they clearly weren’t parked in their cars outside of town. These priestly, overdressed Magi, came in slow caravan to Jerusalem, leaving their point of origin only after they saw the star in their western sky. They saw it rise in the morning (either a star or a planet, as the sky would be dark in the west at that time), then they would have had to discuss what they saw to determine its significance. Only once identified would they have then followed it westerly until they arrived in Jerusalem, some time later.
Can we know whether this took a day, a week, a month, or a year, or is there not enough in the text to say? Well, let’s continue. (Of course, even if it took just one day to get there, they simply could not have arrived to be present on the day or evening of his birth.)
Eventually, the Magi arrived in Jerusalem to gain, as was customary, permission from the ruling authority. Then, after alerting Herod to their presence and to Jesus’ birth, Herod sent them on their way, instructing them to “report to me, so that I too may go and worship him.”
Then the star they had followed re-appeared and led them straight to where Jesus and his parents were staying at the time. They presented the baby and his family with their gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh, and then skipped town according to a vision they had regarding Herod.
When Herod realized that he had been outwitted by the Magi, he was furious, and he gave orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under, in accordance with the time he had learned from the Magi.
Since the trek to Bethlehem from Jerusalem is only 6 miles, just a couple hours by foot or camel, then why might Herod be inclined to kill all two-year-olds and younger, based on what he “found out from them [to be] the exact time the star had appeared”?
Now, because of Levitical law
When the time came for the purification rites required by the Law of Moses, Joseph and Mary took him to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord.
According to this account, then, we know that the royal family remained in the Bethlehem/Jerusalem area for those first 40 days, at a minimum. So here’s the rub. We also know that they skipped town immediately after the Magi’s visit and headed to Egypt in the west (which was, in Biblical times, at a minimum, a 10-day journey in the opposite direction from their home in Nazareth to the north):
When [the Magi] had gone, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream. “Get up,” he said, “take the child and his mother and escape to Egypt. Stay there until I tell you, for Herod is going to search for the child to kill him.”
This would clearly indicate that the Magi didn’t visit Jesus until after those first 40 days, which also suggests that they originated from a place that was about that far in traveling distance (likely from as far as Media-Persia). There is no way for the gospel account of Luke to harmonize with Matthew if this were not the case. And as we must always take note, this all made perfect sense to the first-century believers to whom these accounts were given.
So, while we clearly don’t have any more specifics than that, it is quite evident that our “three wise men” (if there were indeed three at all) could not and did not arrive at the Nativity that Christmas Day or evening, and are truly misrepresented in the Christmas scene altogether. Their participation in the Christmas story is exceedingly important (which is why it’s in there), but it’s time we tell the story a little more accurately.
Sorry to all of you who have a “complete” Nativity scene on display each year. But perhaps now your “wise men” pieces should be placed somewhere else in the house.