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The Magi of the Nativity

Christmas time arrives and many families set up a nativity scene in a place of prominence.  In it you will find Mary, Joseph, and baby Jesus.  You may see scruffy shepherds who ran to find baby Jesus on the night of his birth.  An angel may be above the stable announcing Jesus’ birth.  The star will be shining directly above the manger scene.  Of course, since it is a stable, you will see a sheep or two and perhaps the donkey that Mary rode into Bethlehem.  But who are those three men who are dressed to the nines and holding boxes?  Were these Magi really a part of the Nativity?

The Magi are first found in Matthew 2:1-2, “Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men from the east came to Jerusalem, saying, “Where is he who has been born king of the Jews? For we saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.”  Notice how the passage says that this occurred after Jesus was born.  The Magi saw the star and began their journey to see the new baby King, but consider how long it may have taken them to arrive in Jerusalem once they saw the star announcing his birth.  These wise men from the east would have traveled many miles and many nights to find this special baby announced by a star in the heavens.

The Magi locate Jesus in Matthew 2:10-11, “When they saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy.  And going into the house they saw the child with Mary his mother, and they fell down and worshiped him. Then, opening their treasures, they offered him gifts, gold and frankincense and myrrh.”  As a part of young baby Jesus’ story, the Magi do make it to Jesus and present him with their costly gifts, their kingly gifts.  However, at this point Mary and Jesus are in a house in Bethlehem.  In fact, the passage calls Jesus a child.  The Greek word used in Matthew 2:11 is paidion, which means small child, infant, or little one.  Contrast this with the word used in Luke 2:16.  The Greek word used in Luke is brephos, which means a new born baby or infant.  While the authors of the gospels often express themselves uniquely, the differing use of words between the two passages shows a difference of age.  Jesus would have been a young child, perhaps a toddler, when the Magi came to Bethlehem, thus the Magi were not a part of the traditional Nativity events surrounding the birth of baby Jesus.

Other facts presented in Matthew support this conclusion.  The King of the region at the time of Jesus’ birth sought to rid his kingdom of the young usurper by killing every male child under the age of two in Bethlehem and the surrounding region (Matthew 2:16).  This King Herod, who was Jesus’ enemy at birth, heard from the wise men about the birth of the new baby king and from the information devised the approximate age of the baby king, who must have been at most two years of age.  Therefore, the Magi were not a part of the nativity as is portrayed by modern artists, but would have reached Bethlehem sometime before Jesus was two.

While the three wise men were not there at Jesus’ birth as portrayed by the nativity scenes, they are still integral to the young Jesus’ early account.  As is the case with the creative arts, the stories can be meshed together in order to relay the general picture of the story of Jesus’ birth and the following events.  The Magi’s role in the account happened later after Jesus’ birth, but they showed the determination, passion, and fortitude to find Jesus when all the odds were against their journey.  These three men travelled many miles, ran into Jesus’ first mortal enemy, and finally, found the young Jesus and presented their treasures to the small King.  Whether they were a part of the actual birth story or not, their role shows the world what it takes to follow after Jesus with their passion and willingness to give the treasures of life to the King of life.