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Nearly everyone knows that foreign visitors came to Jerusalem seeking a newborn baby, but if I made that statement giving any more details, it would likely start an argument - even among Christians!

Who were these visitors? Where did them come from? How many were there? What kind of people were they? When did they leave on their journey? When did they arrive? What did they expect to find? What did they find? Where? These and other questions arise and some are not easy to answer. Let’s look at the Bible story and see what we can learn.

Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judaea in the days of Herod the king, behold, there came wise men from the east to Jerusalem, Saying, Where is he that is born King of the Jews? for we have seen his star in the east, and are come to worship him. When Herod the king had heard these things, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him. And when he had gathered all the chief priests and scribes of the people together, he demanded of them where Christ should be born. And they said unto him, In Bethlehem of Judaea: for thus it is written by the prophet, And thou Bethlehem, in the land of Juda, art not the least among the princes of Juda: for out of thee shall come a Governor, that shall rule my people Israel. Then Herod, when he had privily called the wise men, enquired of them diligently what time the star appeared. And he sent them to Bethlehem, and said, Go and search diligently for the young child; and when ye have found him, bring me word again, that I may come and worship him also. When they had heard the king, they departed; and, lo, the star, which they saw in the east, went before them, till it came and stood over where the young child was. When they saw the star, they rejoiced with exceeding great joy. And when they were come into the house, they saw the young child with Mary his mother, and fell down, and worshipped him: and when they had opened their treasures, they presented unto him gifts; gold, and frankincense, and myrrh. And being warned of God in a dream that they should not return to Herod, they departed into their own country another way. And when they were departed, behold, the angel of the Lord appeareth to Joseph in a dream, saying, Arise, and take the young child and his mother, and flee into Egypt, and be thou there until I bring thee word: for Herod will seek the young child to destroy him. When he arose, he took the young child and his mother by night, and departed into Egypt: And was there until the death of Herod: that it might be fulfilled which was spoken of the Lord by the prophet, saying, Out of Egypt have I called my son. Then Herod, when he saw that he was mocked of the wise men, was exceeding wroth, and sent forth, and slew all the children that were in Bethlehem, and in all the coasts thereof, from two years old and under, according to the time which he had diligently enquired of the wise men. Then was fulfilled that which was spoken by Jeremy the prophet, saying, In Rama was there a voice heard, lamentation, and weeping, and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children, and would not be comforted, because they are not. But when Herod was dead, behold, an angel of the Lord appeareth in a dream to Joseph in Egypt. (Matthew 2:1-19)

1) Who were these visitors?

The Bible says “wise men” Greek: magi= magicians, from which we get the academic title, “Magister or Master” They were obviously learned and affluent by standards of the day, so the term “wise men” would be appropriate.

An ancient legend says that they were three kings, Casper of Seba, who brought frankincense; Melchior, king of Arabia who brought gold; and Balthazar, king or Ethiopia, who was black and brought myrrh. In Austria, three children accompanied by an adult go door to door on Three Kings Day (January 6) to collect money for the Roman Catholic Church. They sing a little song to introduce themselves, but one child always has a blackened face so there is no doubt about who represents Balthazar of Ethiopia.

The visitors were most likely astronomers or astrologers. The astronomers studied the stars, constellations and movements, while astrologers attempted to decipher the meanings of their calculations. Some did both while others specialized in one or the other. The astrologers, also called "sorcerers" or “seers” were much like our fortune tellers today, but they were taken seriously and categorized by the accuracy of their predictions similar to the prophets in Israel. Because people generally lived less than 100 years, it was only possible to base judgment on short-term prophecies. If many of these came to pass as predicted, the "seer" was given special honors and he could charge more for his services. Example: Someone has a very sick child and pays the seer to predict its healing or death. If the prediction comes to pass, the astrologer moves up a notch and if not, he loses points, meaning he can’t charge the next customer as much.

2) Where did these visitors come from?

“the East” (Greek: anatolay= the rising sun). When we visited Turkey, we found that a large area is called Anatola. Austria and Australia also got their names from their position on maps. They were eastern to most other countries. (The German name for Austria is “Österreich” and German for “east” is “ost”).

The wise men most likely came from the region of Mesopotamia (Chaldea, Babylon) between and around the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers. The region was largely arid desert. It got really hot during the days but cooled off at night. If you have to choose between studying sand by the heat of day or studying stars in the cool night, the choice should be easy to make!

3) How many were there?

No one knows, but it was definitely more than three (see below).

4) When did they leave on their journey?

According to the Bible, they saw an unusual star during the reign of Herod the Great when Jesus was born in Bethlehem. Our calendars are not accurate, so Jesus was born around 6 B.C.! They would have needed time to search and discover the meaning of the star’s appearing and to prepare for the long trip.

5) Why did they make this journey?

The wise men saw an unusual star in the sky that they had never seen before. We could rightfully wonder why they came to the conclusion that the star signified the birth of a “scepter” (ruler) in Jerusalem. If a strange or unusual star appeared in the sky today, astronomers would certainly make a special study, but it is doubtful that they would conclude that a prince had been born somewhere in the world! The wise men were so certain that a prince was born in Jerusalem that they took expensive gifts and provisions for a 600-mile, three month journey to King Herod’s palace in Jerusalem. There were no airplanes or trains or cars in those days!

Archeologists uncovered more than 100,000 clay tablets in the huge library of Nineveh, at least 30,000 of which can be seen in a British museum. Many of the tablets have to do with observations of stars and predictions of sorcerers or seers based on the stars. I believe the wise men were very familiar with this library and came regularly to study the clay tablets. In Numbers 22:6, a Seer named Baalam, who lived in 1400 BC, had a 100% accuracy rating. To date, all of his “curses and blessings” (predictions) had come to pass as prophesied. But there was one prediction of Baalam which had not yet been fulfilled. Baalam had said that in the distant future, the appearance of an unusual star would signal the birth of a great Jewish ruler (“scepter”). That was a very good clue, but there was another reason why they were so certain about the meaning of the star.

There was one other Chaldean "seer" or prophet who had the same reputation as Baalam. His name was Beltshazzar (we know him by his Hebrew name, Daniel). The great King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon had elevated him to the number one place of power and honor in his world-wide kingdom because of the "excellent spirit" which was in him (Daniel 6:3). Daniel's predictions also got a 100% rating for accuracy, but several of his predictions were also for a distant time and had not yet been fulfilled. I can imagine that these unfulfilled prophecies of two famous prophets were kept in a position of honor in the Library of Nineveh. Daniel lived and prophesied 800 years after Baalam and 600 years before the wise men saw that star. Daniel gave a timeline for the birth of the special Prince of Israel (Messiah or anointed one) which was yet to come. Imagine the excitement of the wise men when they discovered that these two unfulfilled prophecies of their two most famous prophets coincided exactly!

6) When did they arrive?

The wise men would have traveled in a caravan and had armed soldiers to protect them from robbers. This was no small undertaking!

Just before returning to the US in 2002, we spent 2 weeks in Turkey visiting places mentioned in the Bible. We learned much about Bible times and places. On one of our tour stops, we visited a large “caravaneri” (caravan hotel) where camel caravans that traversed Asia and Europe would pause to rest, restock food supplies and let the camels drink. Some of these large caravaneri provided shelter and food for up to 2000 camels and their drivers! They also had workshops for making repairs, stores where one could buy shoes and supplies, and they usually provided “entertainment.” A camel caravan could consist of as few as 10-20 camels but caravans of 150 camels were not uncommon. Under good conditions, a camel could cover 30 - 40 miles per day, but loaded camels traveled only 20-25 miles per day. As a rule, caravans stayed at least two or three days in the “caravaneri”. The wise men (there were definitely many more in the party than three just for safety reasons) probably needed 2-3 months to reach Jerusalem and the same to get home again.

7) Excitement in Jerusalem

The wise men were not the only ones who were familiar with prophecy. Jewish leaders and residents of Jerusalem, including the aged Simeon and Anna, expected the imminent arrival of the promised Messiah (Matthew 2:3; Luke 2:25-40). Joseph of Arimathaea was expecting the Messiah (Mark 15:43) and Luke 3:15 declares that the people of Israel were in general expectation of the Christ. Jewish leaders wondered if John the Baptist could be the promised Messiah and sent Levites and priests to Bethany near the Jordan River to investigate this possibility (compare Malechai 4:5; Matthew 11:14; 17:11- 13; John 1:19-21).

When the wise men told King Herod that they had seen “his” star (i.e. of the newborn prince) in the East, he took this news very seriously (“Even the devils believe and tremble!” - James 2:19). Matthew says that “Herod was troubled and all Jerusalem with him.” Herod called the leading theologians into his palace for consultation. One of these men was probably the Apostle Paul’s teacher, Gamaliel. In the Mishna, Pesahim 88, he is called an “advisor to the king.” Gamaliel was also the grandson of Israel’s most prestigious Rabbi of the time, Hillel. To this day, only Gamaliel is said to have surpassed the glory of Rabbi Hillel.

These Jewish leaders told Herod that the Messiah was to be born in Bethlehem (Micah 5:1). King Herod asked the wise men to report back to him after they found the baby. When they didn’t, he ordered all male children two years and younger in the environs of Bethlehem to be killed. He was probably allowing a margin for error, but he “diligently” enquired of the wise men what time the star had appeared. Incidentally, that word “diligently” is used three times to describe Herod’s determination to get the information he wanted.

8) Jesus' Birthday was a Family Reunion!

King Herod the Great was the political pawn of the Roman Emperor, Caesar Augustus, whose kingdom stretched around the world. Augustus commanded that the “whole world should be taxed” (census). He didn’t want to pay men to visit every town to take this census, so he dreamed up a unique plan, not realizing that God was behind it. He commanded everyone in Israel (children and aged were probably given exceptions) to go to the town or city of their forefather's birth to register. All the descendants of King David came to Bethlehem for the birth of the Messiah, but they were not aware of it! Imagine that! All of Joseph and Mary’s relatives, near and distant went to Bethlehem! Rabbi Gamaliel was a descendant of David, so he must have gone to Bethlehem too. I like to think that he slept in that stuffy old Inn while his donkey shared a stable with the King of Kings and Lord of Lords!

9) Detour Signs

Incidentally, the star did not lead the wise men to Jerusalem or Bethlehem. The Bible says that the star appeared while they were still in the East and that it didn’t re-appear until they departed Jerusalem. Joseph and Mary would not have stayed in Bethlehem any longer than necessary under such strenuous circumstances. After 40 days of Mary’s purification, Jesus was dedicated in the temple where Simeon and Anna saw and blessed him. Matthew writes that they “returned to Nazareth” which would indicate that they had also come from Nazareth. The wise men departed Jerusalem for Bethlehem because that is where Herod sent them, but the Bible tells us that they didn’t obey the king. When the star they had seen in the east reappeared, they rejoiced in the appearance of God’s “detour sign” and followed it to the house where Jesus lived with Joseph and Mary! The family was obviously living in Nazareth. After the wise men left Nazareth, an angel commanded the wise men to disobey Herod again and return by a different route.

I like to think that the wise men arrived in Nazareth the day Jesus turned one year old.* After all, they did bring some nice birthday gifts for Jesus. Joseph and Mary might have been wondering what they could get their son for his birthday and Christmas (which fall on the same day) with the little bit of money they had. We know from the sacrifice they brought when Jesus was dedicated in the temple that they were poor.

After the wise men left, they might have wondered what a one-year-old could do with all that gold, frankincense and myrrh! But they didn’t have to wonder very long because God sent an angel to tell them to take Jesus and flee to Egypt. They would not return until King Herod died. We know that Jesus provides for us when we have needs. Wouldn’t he do the same for Joseph and Mary? Those gifts would have sufficed to pay for their journey and stay in Egypt.

10) The Rest of the Story

I am certain that there is much more to the story than what I have covered here, but when I get to heaven, I will get the entire story directly from the wise men. They will definitely be there because they diligently sought Jesus and found him. And they obeyed God. Wise men – and wise women and children – still seek Jesus. How about joining me, and the wise men, and millions of others at God’s great family reunion in heaven!

* Notice that I didn’t say it was his first birthday. People ridicule me because I count the day I was born as a birthday. If people ask how old I will be on March 8, 2018, I will reply, “80.” If they ask which birthday I am celebrating, I reply, “My 81st.”

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!

Ralph V Harvey, Christmas 2017