Theology in 3D

Keep the Magi in Christmas

Layton Talbert | December 4, 2017
New Testament

We don’t know their names (though tradition has supplied some), their number (three is an assumption), nor their country of origin (Persia? ish?). Most suggest that they were Gentile priest-sage-astronomers—which is particularly intriguing, since they are the first in the Gospels to identify Jesus as the “King of the Jews.” Many link their Messianic understanding to an awareness of Israel’s ancient reli­gious texts, particu­larly Balaam’s prophecy (Num 24:17).

Their words (Matt 2:2) indicate a confident connection between a celestial sign and the birth of the Jews’ long-awaited Messiah. Their actions (Matt 2:111-12) indicate a remarkable commit­ment not only to the international relevance of this birth (hence their long journey) but also to its spiritual magnitude (hence their costly gifts and their obeisance).

But when did they arrive? Matthew places his account of their arrival immediately after the birth of Christ. That does not necessarily mean they came soon after the birth. The Gospel writers (especially Matthew) are selective about both the details and arrangement of their material, and Matthew never specifies when they arrived beyond the fact that it was after Jesus was born.

The conventional view—that they arrived a considerable time after the birth of Christ—is based on several inferences: (1) Matthew uses the term “young child” (paidion) rather than the normal word for “infant” (brepho­s) when he refers to the child that the wise men saw (Matt 2:891­1, 13, 1­4). (2) The family was in a “house” when the magi arrived, not in a stable or at an inn (Matt 2:11). (3) Herod’s decision to murder male children up to two years old (Matt 2:16), based on his interro­gation of the wise men regarding when the star first appeared (Matt 2:7), suggests to many that the magi may have arrived as much as two years later. Some weighty counterpoints are worth considering.

1. MATTHEW’S WORD FOR “THE CHILD” DOES NOT SIGNIFY A LATE ARRIVAL.

First, Matthew’s term for the child (paidion) had unique Messianic over­tones from the Old Testament which made it especially appropri­ate for his Jewish audi­ence. More importantly, however, the term paidion is chronologically relative and entirely appropriate even for a newborn. Luke uses the term to describe the eight-day-old John the Baptist (Luke 1:59) and the one-month-old Jesus (Luke 2:27). So Matthew’s use of the word paidionrather than brepho­s is irrelevant to proving a late visit of the magi.

2. THE MAGI’S FINDING THE FAMILY IN “THE HOUSE” DOES NOT SIGNIFY A LATE ARRIVAL.

Second, neither Gospel tells us how or when the family came to be in a “house.” Consequently, any explanation rests on a degree of speculation. It seems extremely unlikely that the family remained in the stable for the duration of their stay in Bethle­hem; that was a sudden and temporary necessi­ty for the imminent delivery. But that very night the shepherds received the stunning angelic announcement, “There is born to you this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord!” (Luke 2:11). Leaving immediately to find the child (Luke 2:15-16), they discover the Messiah and King of Israel, . . . in a feeding trough?! And not one of them offered the family immediate shelter in one of their own homes nearby? Unthinkable. The scenario is specula­tive, but it is surely a far more realis­tic explana­tion than the assumption that they spent their entire time in Bethlehem living in a “barn” (or a cave).

3. HEROD’S MURDER OF TWO-YEAR-OLDS DOES NOT SIGNIFY A LATE ARRIVAL.

Third, Herod’s murder of male children up to two years old, based on his questioning of the magi about exactly when the star first appeared, seems on the surface to suggest a late visit. This assumes, however, that the star had to appear in the east for the first time on the day that Christ was born—as if there were some neces­sary connection between the star’s appearance and the day of the birth. Clearly there was a super­natural connection between the star and the birth. In the text, however, the purpose of the star was not to mark the day of Christ’s birth, but to lead the magi to the place of Christ’s birth (Matt 2:9). It makes more sense to assume that the star appeared long enough before Christ’s birth to give the magi time to make the journey. So when did it appear? We’re not told, but Mary’s miraculous concep­tion is a reasonable assumption, given God’s penchant for complex orchestration of multiple events with flawless timing.

4. HEROD’S SURPRISE IMPLIES AN EARLY ARRIVAL.

Finally, however, in addition to these counter-arguments is at least one positive argument that further supports an early visit of the magi. Remember the shepherds? Luke reports that after seeing the newborn infant they immediately began spreading the news that Israel’s long-awaited Messiah had finally arrived (Luke 2:17; see also Luke 2:38). And yet the arrival of these foreigners asking the whereabouts of Israel’s newborn king caught Herod and his court completely by surprise (Matt 2:3-4). This was clearly the first they’d heard of such news. Given Herod’s epic political paranoia, it is simply impossible to imagine that news of Messiah’s birth had been sweeping the country­side for a year or a month (or a week?), and yet no one in Herod’s court had caught wind of this. That implies that the magi must have arrived very shortly after Christ’s birth–before the news and rumors had reached the monarch’s ears, and probably before those rumors were confirmed by those who witnessed the temple presenta­tion and the prophet­ic proclamations of Simeon and Anna barely one week after Jesus was born.

What difference does it make? None, doctrinally speaking. But any student of the Bible worth his Strong’s Concordance should be curious to discover as much as he can about the events recorded for us in the Bible. The story is included in Matthew’s account of what has become a part of the tradi­tional conception of the first Christmas, and there is perfectly good warrant for keeping it there. So if you’re one of those perfectionists who’s always insisted on putting the wise men on the other side of the room from the of the manger scene (like I used to do), bring them back. There’s a reason they are part of the Christmas narrative.

In this most Jewish of the Gospels, these utterly unexpected worshippers (Matt 2:211)–like a bolt out of the Gentile blue bursting briefly on a Jewish world blinded by unbelief–are the firstfruits of God’s promise through Abraham to bless all the families of the earth (Gen 12:3).


8 responses to “Keep the Magi in Christmas”

  1. Joshua Jensen says:

    Thank you Dr. Talbert. Your points are well taken, but don’t we need at least a 40-day gap to give Mary and Joseph time to present their purification offering at the temple? Otherwise we have an unlikely scenario of Herod’s waiting over a month to take action. Possible, but surely unlikely.
    Whatever the case, the Wise Men are part of Matthew’s story of the incarnation, so we’ll keep singing about them – and keep the camels outside the stable.

    • Good observation, Joshua. How long did the magi stay? And how long did Herod wait to hear back from them before he realized they’d avoided him and slipped away quietly? (For that matter, why didn’t Herod–paranoid as he was–send spies to follow the magi and report back to him directly? The only answer to that monumental oversight, it seems to me, is Providence.) How long after that did it take for the idea to occur to him to slaughter all potential infants in the area? And when exactly was that threat supernaturally revealed to Joseph? Before the purification? Even before Herod himself had decided? Those are all questions to which we have no definitive answers. It’s impossible to reconstruct the interplay of all those events with any chronological precision. We know that what Scripture says (in both Matthew and Luke) is exactly what happened, and that it can be feasibly harmonized. And I think that harmonization can include the apparent implication–or at least the allowance–of the text: that the magi arrived very shortly after the birth and were very much a part of those initial incarnational events.

  2. Ken Casillas says:

    Interesting. Your point about “the house” could be further strengthened. In Luke 2:7 the Greek term translated “inn” (kataluma) is not the standard for word for “inn” that appears in the Good Samaritan parable (pandocheion, Luke 10:34). Kataluma is translated “guest room” in Luke 22:11 and refers to an “upper room” in a house (22:12). So in the birth narrative, the “inn” was evidently a guest room, likely in a house belonging to relatives of Joseph. The feeding trough would have been in an area of the property reserved for animals, whether on the first floor of the house or an adjacent or separate structure or perhaps a nearby cave. So shortly after the birth of Jesus, he and his parents could have moved to the house proper–even the next day.

  3. […] Years ago I heard about Layton Talbert’s argument that the magi did, indeed, visit Jesus very soon after his birth. He explains his argument here:Source: Keep the Magi in Christmas | Theology in 3D. […]

  4. Ben Hicks says:

    I would like to think there have been few times I have been needlessly perfectionistic about minute details of Scripture with others, but I am afraid moving the wise men to the other room has been one of them. What’s next? Joy to the World is a Christmas song? Thanks for the humbling reminder that I still have a lot to learn!

  5. I’m one of those who always put the wise men across the room (if at all), so this was really helpful to consider. It was interesting to learn about the different words for child, and your points make a lot of sense – especially that fourth one about our favorite paranoid ruler. There’s other issues with our common depictions of the magi, but I guess it makes sense to start placing with the rest of the nativity!

  6. […] Last Christmas I posted about the timing of the visit of the magi. In short, there is no biblical evidence that requires us to conclude that the magi arrived years or months or even weeks after the birth of Christ. It’s entirely feasible that they arrived within a day or so of the nativity. (See Keep the Magi in Christmas.) […]

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