Christmas, Part 3: The Magi and the Star of Bethlehem

Introduction:   Well here we are all on the sixth of January which is the celebration of the Epiphany, and as you may recall from last week, that’s the first day after the 12 days of Christmas.   So I will claim that we can legitimately wrap up our Christmas leftovers this morning.

Review:   Last week we looked at why God used a virgin birth for the birth of Jesus, Rather than other ways that he could have brought Jesus into the world.   We discovered that because of the blood curse of Jeconiah under which he cursed the royal line from time of Jeconiah forward, no leader would come from that line.   So therefore the Messiah could not come from that line.

And yet in Matthew, who gives us the Jewish lineage of Jesus, we find that Jesus was in the Jewish line after Jeconiah.   But of course he was not a blood descendant of Joseph, who is the “parent” in the genealogy of Jesus in Matthew's account, and therefore not a blood descendant of Jeconiah.

Then we looked at the genealogy in Luke, which is Jesus' genealogy as a human being rather than as a Jew., and found that the genealogy in Luke goes around Jeconiah by going through Nathan, a different son of David from the Matthew genealogy.   So therefore Jesus could be a descendant of David, and a member of the tribe of Judah, and still not be in the line of Jeconiah.

We also looked at the fact that God had created an inheritance loophole in the original Jewish inheritance law for the daughters of Zelophehad before they entered into the promised land   Under that loophole, God had said that if there were no sons in a family, the daughters could inherit from their father, but only if they married within the tribe.   And of course we know that when Mary married Joseph, Joseph was of the tribe of Judah, and therefore Mary qualified for the inheritance loophole.   So under the Jewish law, Mary could inherit the promises of God as being in the line of Judah.

Our conclusion was that not only is God good, but he out-tricked the trickster, Satan.   When Satan attempted to thwart the plan of God to bring the Messiah into the world, including the blood curse on the line of Jeconiah, God figured out a way to continue to work within the law he had given, and still deliver on his promise.

Today's Lesson:   Let’s start this morning with a quick overview of the Christmas story.   Here’s what most of us think of when we think of the Christmas story.   Certainly this is what most people think of:

Popular misconceptions: What's wrong with that picture?

  1. Jesus wasn't born on December 25th.   Three weeks ago we talked about this at some length, and came to the conclusion the Jesus could not have been born in the winter, which would have been a dumb time for the Roman rulers to call for a census.   We looked at the evidence that supports the birth of Jesus in the autumn, and by some at least rational reasoning decided that he might have been born around September 29th.   What else?
  2. Jesus wasn't born in the year 00.   We also discussed three weeks ago that first, there was no year 00.   The first year of our current Gregorian calendar is actually the year 01. There is no year zero between 1 B.C. and 1 A.D.

    But he wasn't born in the year 01, either.   We looked at some evidence which supports a birth of Jesus in the year 02 B.C., which is supported by a study of details we know about John the Baptist as well as details we know about the Roman rulers in power at that time.   What else?

  3. There was no star that appeared to the shepherds.   You may recall the picture of the "Shepherds' Field Church" which I showed you from our trip to Israel and which I was so impressed by, because the architect had glass at the top, called a tent shaped structure that allowed light to come into the inside of the structure as if the entire lighting was coming from heaven, almost like a brilliant star.

    Well, there was no star for the shepherds, according to the description of the details concerning the birth of Jesus in Luke Chapter 2, starting with verse 8, which reads:

    So it was an angel that appeared to them and told them about the birth of Jesus.

    No star.

    Someone mentioned to me the other day that one distortion of this story is that Jesus wasn’t born in Bethlehem, but rather in Nazareth, and was brought to Bethlehem as Joseph and Mary came to register.

    However, Luke tells us differently, in 2:11.   The angel says:

    The town of David is Bethlehem

    This confusion comes from the fact that the Old Testament says the Messiah will be from Galilee. Isaiah 9:1 says:

    Nazareth is in Galilee.   This reference is sometimes considered to be a conflict with the Old Testament prophecy that says that the Messiah will be born in Bethlehem: But of course in retrospect, we can see that he was born in Bethlehem just as was prophesied.   And we know them that he was raised in Nazareth, which also fulfills the prophecy that says he came out of Galilee.

    Just to complete the story of the event when the angel appeared to the shepherds in the field, Luke continues, quoting the angel:

    Just to clarify the story, when the angel appeared to Mary to announce that she would have a baby and should name him Jesus, she was in Nazareth.   But she was not in Nazareth when he was born.   Luke gives us the details starting in Luke 2 verse 4:

    So now we have corrected the date of his birth, the year of his birth, and the fact that there was no star that led the shepherds to baby Jesus.   And he was in fact born in Bethlehem.   So what is the next error in the story that we started with?

  4. We have no record that there were three Kings.   Luke does not tell us about any Kings, Matthew does not tell us about any Kings; Matthew does tell us about Magi.

    Luke does not even mention the Magi.   Note that Matthew does not tell us how many Magi there were.   All we know is that some Magi came, and in fact did check-in with Herod.   And after being told that the Messiah was prophesied to be born in Bethlehem, they proceeded to Bethlehem and brought gifts to baby Jesus.

    But let’s look at some confusion even in this story.

    Although the text in several translations says “we saw his star in the East”, a study of original text shows that what they meant was that when they were in the East, they saw his star.   That makes sense, since they followed the star, traveling westward to Jerusalem.

    It would be difficult to travel westward from their location east of Jerusalem if they were following star which was east of them.   The original text does not even create this problem.   So the star was not in the east from them; the star was west of them when they were east of Jerusalem in the east.   "We saw his star from the East".

    The next confusion that we need to clear up is that although Herod’s experts told him that the Messiah was prophesied to be born in Bethlehem, the Magi did not have to depend on those instructions, because the star they had been following led them to Bethlehem, where it stopped over the place where the child was born.

    Since Bethlehem is south from Jerusalem, apparently the star first lead them westward from their home, to Jerusalem, then made a hard left turn to lead them south to Bethlehem.   We’ll come back to this question in a minute.

    So we have now clarified some of issues around the Magi:

  5. The Magi did not show up at the stable at the same time that the shepherds did.   In fact, they probably didn’t even show up at the stable at all.   The word translated "place", or in some translations "house" makes it relatively clear that by the time the Magi showed up, Mary and Joseph were no longer in the stable.   And it is very likely much later, months after shepherds arrived.

    So the Nativity scenes where we have the shepherds, with the Kings bearing gifts, are really not accurate.

    The Magi we will find a little later this morning are wise man, usually advisers to governmental leaders, and would have been traveling from the area called Parthia (now Iran), east of Jerusalem.   It would have taken them several weeks, perhaps even a matter of months to travel by camel along the caravan routes northwest-ward along the rivers and then southward to Jerusalem.

    By this time baby Jesus is no longer a newborn, and Mary and Joseph may have found permanent housing.   You can make a good argument that their arrival was at least several weeks after his birth, And even that their arrival was over a year after his birth.

    Remember that Herod, in an attempt to make sure that he killed the baby Messiah, issued an order that all male babies around Bethlehem two years old and under be killed.   You can assume that Herod used the safety factor to make sure that he got the Messiah by killing the babies slightly older than the Messiah could’ve been.

    When the Magi first arrived and met with Herod, Herod asked them the exact time that the star had appeared to them.   I think we can assume safely that the star appeared to the Magi at the time of the birth of Jesus.   There is no reason to think that the star's appearance would have been delayed from the event itself.   So when the Magi told Herod when the star appeared, Herod then calculated how old the baby should be, and had all the babies that old and slightly older, killed.   This reasoning supports a date for the arrival of the Magi as late as perhaps 18 months after the birth of Jesus.   However if I were Herod, I would want a big safety factor.   And even if the Magi arrived only a few weeks after the birth of Jesus, that might justify deciding to kill all babies up to two years old.

    So the Magi arrived some time after the birth, and pretty clearly not just a matter of a few days.   So when Joseph and Mary and baby Jesus headed off for Egypt in the middle of the night, Baby Jesus was probably several months old.

    The confusion that we all fall into when we think about the Christmas story is probably compounded by integrating the birth of Jesus story told by Matthew with the one told by Luke.

    In Matthew, we don’t hear anything about the angel appearing to Mary.   We are not told why they go from Nazareth to Bethlehem.   We’re simply told that Joseph considered divorcing Mary although they had not yet completed the marriage ceremony, but that an angel told him everything was cool.   But he did not have sex with Mary until after Jesus was born.   Matthew then jumps quickly into the story about the Magi after Jesus was born.   No shepherds, no angels -- just facts.

    Matthew is interested in Herod’s attempt to kill Jesus, and in Joseph’s escape with his family to Egypt.   The next thing Matthew tells us is about their return after the death of Herod.

    Matthew doesn’t give us a very colorful Christmas story.   He’s just giving us with the Jews need to know.   Remember the book of Matthew is from a Jewish perspective.

    But the story in Luke leaves out all about Joseph considering divorce; leaves out all about the Magi and Herod trying to kill the Baby Jesus. Luke tells us why they were in Bethlehem.   He’s the one that tells us that they couldn’t find a place to stay, so Jesus was born in a manger.   Luke is the one that tells us about the angels and the shepherds.

    The next thing Luke has to say is that when Jesus was eight days old, they took into the synagogue to have him circumcised.   Remember that this is when Simeon recognized the Baby Jesus as the promised Messiah.   It was at that time that the prophetess Anna also recognized Jesus as the Messiah.

    Then Luke has Mary and Joseph and Jesus going to Nazareth.   He totally skips the period when they escaped to Egypt.

Since these two stories are told from two very different perspectives, when you combine them as one story, there’s a lot of confusion that leads to all the error in our Christmas story.

The Star of Bethlehem:

This whole discussion leaves us with a couple of other issues that are worth looking into.   One is the issue of “who are the Magi”?   The other is “what was his star that appeared” to the Magi?

First let’s start with the question of the “star in the East”.   Earlier we made the point that the star would not have been in the eastern sky, but in fact was in the western or northwestern sky when the Magi were in a country east of Israel.   There has been much written trying to tie known celestial events such as the convergence of several planets or stars to create an exceptionally bright heavenly light which might have been the sign that the Magi saw in the sky, and which triggered their trip to Jerusalem and on to Bethlehem.   Kepler suggested that the star was a conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn in the constellation of Pisces.   However, that convergence was in 7 B.C.   That is way too early.   No one places the birth of Jesus that early.   This idea first came from some errors of inference from writings of Josephus.

The work done on this matter is interesting, but I, at least, have come to the conclusion that it is a lot of work by people who are trying to make the Bible and the events of God fit our idea of the world, and trying to make known events explain the events of the Bible.

After looking at a number of these arguments, I am unable to find conclusive evidence to support the finding that the star of Bethlehem was a celestial event resulting from the naturally occurring heavenly formations.   Here are my a reasons for refusing those ideas:

  1. The star of Bethlehem evidently was used by the Magi to travel from a country east of Jerusalem, northwesterly along the camel caravan routes, generally a route along the Euphrates river to a point generally north of Jerusalem, and then southward along the caravan routes down to Jerusalem.   Since a naturally occurring convergence of stars and planets cannot remain northwestward of the Magi for an extended period of time and then suddenly veer south for the Magi for an extended period of time to lead them to Jerusalem, I don’t buy this one.
  2. Also remember that after they met with Herod, the star lead them to Bethlehem, and the Bible says the star stopped over the place where Jesus was.   I know of no way that a celestial gathering of stars can make all of these changes, or come to a stop over the place where Jesus was.
  3. On the other hand, my God, that is, the concept that I have a God, is a God that would use a supernatural event to announce the arrival of the Messiah, the birth of his Son, so that it would not be confused with a naturally occurring event.
Only such a supernatural event could lead the Magi northwest, then lead them south to Jerusalem, and then after they met with Herod, lead them to Bethlehem and stop over the place where Jesus was.

When God wants to do something special, it seems to me that he takes great pains to make sure that it cannot be confused with natural events.   When the Israelites needed to cross the Red Sea, he did it with a supernatural event.   And I don’t buy the idea of a strong wind that blew the water back, then dried up the bottom of the Sea, and then suddenly stopped to drown the Egyptian army.

I don’t think the burning bush was a tumbleweed hit by lightning.

I don’t think that the Shekinah glory of God was the Aurora Borealis.

I could go on and on.

When God wants to get the attention of man, I think he does it with supernatural events which cannot be confused nor should be confused with naturally occurring events.

I would rather have faith in a God that is in miracle business, than one that just takes advantage of natural events.

The Magi:

That brings us to the question of the Magi.   We have already dealt with the issue that contrary to the songwriter, we have no evidence that the Magi were kings, nor in fact that there were three of them.   In fact we have linguistic evidence that they were not Kings, but that they were the advisers to Kings.

The word translated as Magi in the New Testament is of course from a Greek word.   This Greek word has a common root with the word in Hebrew which in the book of Daniel is translated "magician".   In Daniel, you may recall that Daniel is included in a list of Nebuchadnezzar’s advisers which included magicians, soothsayers, fortunetellers, aAstrologers and other learned men who were assumed to have special powers to prophesy and interpret dreams.   These were the King’s brain trust; his expert advisors.

The word Magi comes from a Latin word which came from an ancient Greek transliteration of the Persian word, meaning “magic”.   But these men did not do tricks.   They were soothsayers, fortune tellers, astrologers.   In Babylonia, the Magi were a Persian Cult.   Persian Magi were credited with profound and extraordinary religious knowledge.   Darius the Great established the Magi as the state religion of Persia.    It was in this dual capacity, civil and political counsel as well as religious authority, that made the Magi the supreme priestly caste of the empire.   They were the priestly caste during the Seleucid, Parthian, and Sasanian periods.   Since the days of Daniel, the fortunes of both the Persian and the Jewish nation had been closely intertwined.   Both nations had fallen under Seleucid domination in the wake of Alexander’s conquests.   Subsequently both had regained their independence: the Jews under Maccabean leadership, and the Persians as the dominating ruling group within the Parthian empire.

It was at this time that the Magi, in their dual priestly and governmental office, composed the upper house of the council of the Megistanes (“magistrates”?) whose duties included the absolute choice and election of the king of the realm.    It was therefore a group of Persian-Parthian “king makers” who entered Jerusalem in the latter days of the reign of Herod.   Herod’s reaction was understandably one of fear when one considers the background of Roman-Parthian rivalry that prevailed during his lifetime.

History:

Let me give you a little history here about what was happening in the years just before Herod came to power.   In the years leading up to the birth of Jesus, around 63 B.C., Pompey, the first Roman conquerer of Jerusalem, attacked Parthia.   In 55 B.C. Crassus led Roman legions in sacking Jerusalem and in a subsequent attack on Parthia proper.   The Romans were decisively defeated at the battle of Carrhae with the loss of 30,000 troops, including their commander.   The Parthians counterattacked with a token invasion of Armenia, Syria, and Palestine.   Nominal Roman rule was re-established under Antipater, the father of Herod, who retreated before another Parthian invasion in 40 B.C.

Mark Anthony re-established Roman sovereignty in 37 B.C. and, like Crassus before him, also embarked on a similarly ill-fated Parthian expedition.   His disastrous retreat was followed by another wave of invading Parthians which swept all Roman opposition completely out of Palestine, including Herod himself, who fled to Alexandria and then to Rome.

With Parthian collaboration, Jewish sovereignty was restored, and Jerusalem was fortified with a Jewish garrison.

Herod, by this time, secured from Augustus Caesar the title of “King of the Jews.”   However, it was not for three years, including a five-month siege by Roman troops, that Herod was able to occupy his own capital city.   Herod had thus gained the throne of a rebellious buffer state which was situated between two mighty contending empires.   At any time, his own subjects might conspire to bring the Parthians to their aid.

At the time of Christ ’s birth, Herod may have been close to his final illness.   The time was ripe for another Parthian invasion of the buffer state of Palestine.   It was conceivable that the Magi might have taken advantage of the king’s lack of popularity to further their own interests with the establishment of a new dynasty which could have been implemented if a sufficiently strong contender could be found.

During this time it was entirely likely that the Messianic prophecies of the Old Testament, culminating in the writings of Daniel, one of their own Magicians, was of profound motivating significance.   The promise of divinely imposed world dominion at the hands of a Jewish monarch was more than acceptable to them. (Their own Persian and Medo-Persian history was studded with Jewish nobles, ministers, and counselors; and in the great Archaemenid days, some of the kings themselves were apparently of Jewish blood.)

In Jerusalem the sudden appearance of the Magi, probably traveling in force with imaginable oriental pomp and accompanied by adequate cavalry escort to insure their safe penetration of Roman territory, certainly alarmed Herod and the populace of Jerusalem.   It would seem as if these Magi were attempting to perpetrate a border incident which could bring swift reprisal from Parthian armies.   Their request of Herod, regarding the one “who has been born king of the Jews,” was a calculated insult to him who had contrived and bribed his way into that office.

In the providence of God, the Messianic prophecy of the kingdom having been then fulfilled; the Magi, “being warned in a dream” (a form of communication most acceptable to them), departed to their own country with empty hands.

Within two years, the Magi installed a new ruler of Parthia.   Later, Philo of Alexandria, Cicero, and others record that Magi were attached to senior Roman courts with acknowledged gifts and standing.

The Magi were religious/political power brokers, probably following Old Testament prophesies looking for a new king, something that scared the heck out of Herod.

So where did the three Kings come from?   How did we get that idea, anyway?

Over the years, the churches developed fanciful traditions about who the Magi might have been.   In the Greek Orthodox Church, the Eastern tradition, there were twelve Magi.   In the Western, or Roman Catholic tradition, there are only three Magi.

It was about the third century A.D. that tradition started calling the Magi kings and dropped the word Magi, probably because of the negative connotation of "magician".   In certain sixth century A.D. chronicles, a writer even gave names to the three teams:

Then in the seventh century, writers decided that the three kings represented the lines of the sons of Noah: Shem, Ham, and Japheth, and and represented the three continents of Asia, Africa, & Europe.

In the 14th century Eastern tradition, they decided that:

All of this is little more that fanciful myth.   There are even relics attributed to them, discovered in the fourth century, transferred from Constantinople to Milan in the fifth Century; and then on to Cologne in 1162 where they remain enshrined.

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Next week: I want to look at the question of How we got the Bible we use today, and to look at how some of the differences came about in our various translations, to give us a better understanding of the texts we use.