By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
The story of the Three Wise Men visiting the infant Jesus shortly after his birth in Bethlehem is a well-known feature of the Nativity story. And yet the only account of the visit of the Wise Men or ‘Magi’ is found in the Gospel of Matthew: the other Gospel which treats the birth of Jesus doesn’t mention the Magi.
Let’s take a closer look at what the Gospel of Matthew says about the Epiphany, or visit of the Wise Men to see Jesus Christ. Before we offer an analysis of the story as Matthew recounts it, let’s briefly summarise what the Gospel says. This is based upon the account found in the King James Version, Matthew 2:1-13.
Summary of the Wise Men visiting Jesus
The word Epiphany means ‘showing’, ‘manifestation’, or ‘appearance’ in ancient Greek. And the word is principally used in Christianity to refer to the manifestation of Jesus to the Gentiles (i.e., non-Jews): namely, when the ‘wise men’ visited, and paid homage to, the infant Jesus.
Matthew tells us that ‘wise men from the east’ came to Jerusalem, asking the king of Judea, Herod, ‘Where is he that is born King of the Jews?’ Word had already spread that the Messiah, whose coming fulfilled the old prophecy, had been born. The wise men claimed that they had seen ‘his star in the east’ and have come to worship him.
Herod was not at all pleased to hear that the prophecy had supposedly been fulfilled, and that the King of the Jews had arrived. Herod knew of the prophecy which stated that the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem, so he called the wise men to him, and asked when they had seen the star.
He then sent the wise men to Bethlehem, telling them to find the child, and then to report back to him so that he could go and worship the child as well. Of course, in reality, Herod wants to find the boy so he can have him killed.
The star guided the wise men to the place in Bethlehem where the child was found, and they went inside the house and saw Mary with the young child. They immediately fell to their knees and worshipped him. They presented the baby boy with gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.
God then warned the wise men not to return to Herod, so they went home to their own country without returning to tell him where the boy could be found.
Analysis of the Epiphany story
Although it is commonly said that there were three wise men, Matthew doesn’t actually mention their number. It’s just assumed that there were three because they brought Jesus three gifts: the famous trio of gold, frankincense (an aromatic resin used in perfumes and incense: the word is French and literally means ‘high-quality incense’), and myrrh (a gum resin used in incense and perfume, as well as for medicinal reasons).
But like many of the things people think they know for definite about the Bible, such as the number of each animal Noah took onto the Ark and the number of Commandments, the number commonly assumed as correct is not biblical fact. Nor are the names later attached to them – Caspar, Melchior, and Balthazar – mentioned at any point in the Bible.
Of course, ‘wise men’ is the English translation of the original Greek. The word used in the original Gospel is magoi, which is known to us as Magi, from the Latin. This is where we get the word magic, because the Magi or ‘wise men’ were known for their arcane learning and knowledge of astrology.
But who were these ‘wise men’ or Magi? They are often assumed to have been Zoroastrian priests: Persians who followed Zoroaster. The Greek word magos comes from the Old Persian magus, which is in turn derived from the Avestan magâunô which refers to the religious caste into which Zoroaster was born.
Zoroastrian priests were astrologers, then, who were used to looking at the stars and reading significance into them. And euhemerism – the branch of study which seeks to provide scientific or historical origins for myths and religious phenomena – offers one explanation for this ‘star’ which Matthew tells us the wise men saw in the east.
Modern astronomers have been able to work out, with some precision, that in around 7 BC there was a super-conjunction between Jupiter and Saturn, which involved these two large planets being visible close together in the night sky.
Such a large, bright ‘star’ would have been out of the ordinary and thus would doubtless have piqued the interest of star-gazers and professional astrologers like the Zoroastrians. Although the two planets would not have appeared to form one large star, their conjunction would have been sufficiently unusual to suggest that some important, rare event was occurring.
However, we also know that Halley’s Comet, which is visible from Earth every 76 years, would have been seen in the night sky in 11 BC. This means, though, that the Magi would have been kept waiting for perhaps as long as seven years until the Messiah arrived (the birth of the historical Jesus is generally thought to have occurred in around 4 BC).
The interval between both Halley’s Comet and the Jupiter-Saturn conjunction doesn’t matter too much when we view the story for what it is: namely, an account written much later, which was perhaps based upon older recollections of something mysterious being seen in the night sky ‘around the time’ of Jesus’ birth. By the time the Gospel of Matthew was composed (probably in the final quarter of the first century AD), memories were hazy and several generations had been and gone since the events that Matthew describes.
Of course, the Nativity story in the Gospel of Luke, which tells of the shepherds who were alerted to the birth of Jesus on the night it happened and who went to visit the newborn child, is often conflated with the account of the Epiphany in the Gospel of Matthew, so that the wise men and the shepherds become confused in the popular imagination. Both are often depicted as a trio, so three shepherds in the Nativity scene and three kings or ‘wise men’ present at the Epiphany.
And when did the Epiphany, or the Adoration of the Magi, take place? Certainly not as soon after Jesus’ birth as the Adoration of the Shepherds. And although the Feast of the Epiphany is 6 January, twelve days after the date fixed as the birth of Jesus in the Christian calendar, it is thought that they may have turned up to visit Jesus up to two years after he was born (based on the fact that the Gospel of Matthew tells us Herod ordered the killing of all children up to two years of age, in his efforts to eradicate the Messiah).