The next big holiday on the church calendar is Epiphany, which is celebrated on January 6, twelve days after Christmas. At Epiphany, the church recalls the visit of the magi, commonly referred to as “wise men,” to the child Jesus. The word epiphany is Greek for “appearance,” and refers to the appearance of Christ to non-Jewish people.
The surprising story of the magi is found only in the Gospel of Matthew and skeptics have questioned its reliability. The idea that a star would appear over Bethlehem and serve as a guide to astrologers from a distant land seems like a folktale, but there is historical evidence that supports it.
The magi are mentioned in ancient literature outside the Bible. The fifth century B.C.E. historian Herodotus claims they were members of a Persian tribe with priestly duties similar to that of the Levites in Israel. He describes the Persian King Cyrus’s conquest of the magi and writes that his grandson Darius crushed a rebellion instigated by them a generation later.
The first century Roman historian Suetonius claims the Armenian King Tiridates brought magi with him to pay respects to Nero in Rome. The statesman and philosopher Seneca relates the arrival of the magi in Athens to present sacrifices in Plato’s memory. From what history tells us of the magi, presenting gifts to Israel’s newborn king is just the kind of thing we would expect.
The Old Testament also mentions the magi. The Book of Jeremiah seems to refer to the chief of their tribe in the context of the Babylonian conquest. The Book of Daniel repeatedly refers to the magicians – a derivation of “magi” – and astrologers. These were probably Zoroastrian priests who specialized in studying the stars. Very detailed astronomical charts were kept in Babylon from at least the 8th century B.C.E.
The prophet Daniel was a Jewish expatriate living in Babylon, who rose through the ranks to become a high-level administrator in the kingdom. He supervised the work of the wise men. The Scripture says that “King Nebuchadnezzar … appointed [Daniel] chief of the magicians, enchanters, astrologers and diviners.”
This raises the question: Did Daniel, the intelligent and pious Jew, instruct the magi in the ancient prophecies of his people? For example, might he have taught them the ancient prophecy that “A star will come out of Jacob; a scepter will rise out of Israel”? Did he tell them that “From the issuing of the decree to restore and rebuild Jerusalem until the Anointed One, the ruler, comes, there will be seven ‘sevens,’ and sixty-two ‘sevens’” – that is, almost 500 years?
If he did, which is certainly possible, the magi in the Gospel of Matthew may have found Bethlehem’s star because they were looking for it, and they were looking because a former head of their order told them that in 500 years “a star will come out of Jacob” – that is, Israel.
By the time the first century rolled around, the magi weren’t the only ones expecting a world leader to come from Israel. Suetonius wrote: “There had spread over all the Orient and old and established belief, that it was fated at that time for men coming from Judea to rule the world.” Another ancient historian, Tacitus, wrote that “there was a firm persuasion … that at this very time the East would grow powerful, and rulers from Judea would acquire universal power.” The seed of that “firm persuasion” and “established belief” may have been planted by Daniel centuries earlier among Babylon’s professional stargazers.
The biblical scholar Colin Nicholl believes that the “star” was a comet, which appeared around the time of Jesus’s birth in the constellation Virgo (the Virgin), convincing the star-gazing magi that Daniel’s promised king had been born. Nicholl plugged his calculations into a star chart and found that the comet would have moved from east to south in a way consistent with Matthew’s description.
It is possible to lose the point of the story in the details: God loves the whole world and wants everyone to know him. He even sent the message of his Son to foreigners who worshiped other gods, believed in astrology, and practiced a strange religion.
That is unexpected, but surprisingly good, news.
First published in The Coldwater Daily Reporter, 12/29/2018