Visit of the Magi
Herod's palace in Jerusalem; Mary and Joseph's residence in Bethlehem, 5/4 BC


"Magi from the east came to Jerusalem and asked, 'Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star in the east and have come to worship him.' When King Herod heard this he was disturbed" (Matthew 2:2b-3a).

After meeting the requirements of the Law at the Temple in Jerusalem, Luke states that Joseph and Mary "returned to Galilee to their own town of Nazareth" (Luke 2:39). According to Matthew's Gospel, however, the Holy Family did not return to Nazareth immediately, but remained for some time in Bethlehem. We do not know whether they lived in a house built by Joseph himself, one belonging to a relative, or even the same one where Jesus was born. While there, in a story found only in Matthew, the family was visited by "Magi from the east":

After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem and asked, "Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star in the east and have come to worship him." When King Herod heard this he was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him. When he had called together all the people's chief priests and teachers of the law, he asked them where the Christ was to be born. "In Bethlehem in Judea," they replied, "for this is what the prophet has written: 'But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for out of you will come a ruler who will be the shepherd of my people Israel.' Then Herod called the Magi secretly and found out from them the exact time the star had appeared. He sent them to Bethlehem and said, "Go and make a careful search for the child. As soon as you find him, report to me, so that I too may go and worship him."

After they had heard the king, they went on their way, and the star they had seen in the east went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they were overjoyed. On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold and of incense and of myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, they returned to their country by another route.

When Herod realized that he had been outwitted by the Magi, he was furious, and he gave orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under, in accordance with the time he had learned from the Magi (Matthew 2: 1-12, 16).


In the footsteps of Jesus...

Bethlehem has only one monument honoring the innocent children killed by Herod "the Great" in his paranoia to eliminate a potential rival to his throne. To the north of, and connected to the Church of the Nativity, is the Church of St. Catherine of Alexandria, (below left, cloister and entrance) built by the Franciscans in 1881. It is said to be built on the site of Christ's appearance to St. Catherine of Alexandria and his prediction of her martyrdom (c.310 AD).

Inside, near the entrance, a flight of steps in the south aisle leads down to the northern part of the cave system below the Church of the Nativity. But this area seems more authentic than the Greek Orthodox controlled grotto with its drapery, marble and gaudy hanging lamps.  Here rock cuttings and ancient tombs with various modern additions commemorate various people and traditions:

Chapel of St. Joseph - dedicated to the husband of Mary (below left); tombs of the St. Paula and her daughter Eustochium, who made a pilgrimage with Jerome c.485 and later settled in Bethlehem; tomb of St. Jerome (below right) a church father from Italy.


Study of St. Jerome (below left) where he is said to have written and worked on his translation of the Bible into Latin (the Vulgate); tomb of Eusebius, Jerome's successor as head of the monastery; and Chapel of the Innocents (below right) which commemorates Herod's massacre of an unknown number of Bethlehem's children (Matthew 2:16)

Standing in the cool quietness, it is easy to reflect on the terrible night (or so we assume) of killing ordered by the sixty-nine year old, gravely ill, Herod so obsessed with the security of his throne that he would stop at almost nothing to secure his position. At various times the king executed a beloved wife, the Hasmonean princess Mariamne, her mother, his brother-in-law and three sons on suspicion of treason; he also ordered the slaughter of Jewish leaders at the hippodrome (chariot racing track) in Jericho upon his death to guarantee there would be mourning in the land after he passed away, an order that was never carried out. It is little wonder that he did not receive the news of the birth of a new Jewish "king" with great enthusiasm. Even though we have no record outside Matthew's account of this atrocity, he could very well have had a dozen or so baby boys executed in Bethlehem. It was certainly in keeping with his paranoid and impulsive nature, especially during the later years of his reign. Even the flight to Egypt becomes more plausible when you consider the fact that Herod had earlier gone there when fleeing the Parthians before he was named client-king by Rome.

  Additional background


Who were the "Magi?" Where did they come from, when did they arrive, were there really three, what were their names, and were they kings????

Symbolically speaking, the homage paid by Matthew's Magi is a counterpoint to the announcement to the shepherds in Luke. In a move that would have reminded Matthew's Jewish readers of the Pharaoh's order at the time of the birth of Moses, Herod ordered the slaughter of all the male infants under two years old in Bethlehem. He issued this horrifying command after an unspecified number of "Magi" stop by Jerusalem to ask where the "newborn king of the Jews" is to be found. They had heard a prophecy of it and had seen an astrological sign a star telling of it. Matthew's wise men never cross paths with Luke's shepherds; they simply disappear from the biblical accounts.

The Magi were likely from Persia (modern Iran) or southern Arabia both east of Judea. The original Greek calls them magos (mag'-os), the source of the words magi and magician. The magos or magi were originally a clan of the Medes who formed the priestly class in Persia. They were extremely well-educated and specialized in medicine, religion, astronomy, astrology, divination and magic. There is no hint of them being royalty and Just because they presented three gifts to the baby Jesus, there is no reason there were a trio. The fact that Herod orders the death of children under two even suggests that they arrived well after Jesus' birth. Although some translations refer to Jesus as an infant at the time of the magi's visit, Jesus is called a "child" in others. Despite the later folk tales spun around them, the magi are anonymous. Their legendary names Balthasar, Melchior and Caspar emerged much later, in the 6th century AD. So did the myth that one of them was black which is simply the product of medieval imagination. Medieval Christians reasoned that the "three Magi" came from the three known continents. Thus, one of them must have been black. This is the stuff of legends.

As to the three gifts of gold, incense (frankincense) and myrrh:

Gold is symbolic of Jesus' kingship.

Frankincense is an aromatic gum resin from the scraggly boswellia tree (below left, the flowers and branches of the boswellia sacra from which most myrrh is derived) which grows in Somalia and in the southern Arabian peninsula. It is obtained by making a deep cut in the trunk of the tree, which exudes a milky juice that on exposure to air hardens into semi-opaque whitish lumps. This substance was ground into powder and burned as an incense in Temple ritual, giving off an odor like balsam. It thus denotes Jesus' future priesthood. From ancient times through the Middle Ages, frankincense was a principal Arabian trading commodity. In the ancient world it was used for religious and medicinal purposes; today, it is an ingredient in incense and perfumes.

Myrrh (above right) is a reddish-brown resinous material, the dried sap of a number of trees, but primarily from Commiphora myrrha, which is native to Yemen, Somalia and the eastern parts of Ethiopia, and Commiphora gileadensis, which is native to Jordan. The sap of a number of other species is also known as myrrh, including labdanum, an aromatic gum exuded from the leaves of the cistus rose or rock rose. Myrrh was used as an embalming ointment and as an incense at funerals and cremations. Its oil was used in beauty treatments and was sometimes added to wine and drunk to relieve pain. As a constituent of perfumes and incense, was highly valued in ancient times, and was often worth more than its weight in gold. In Ancient Rome myrrh was priced at five times as much as frankincense.

Star, comet or planetary alignment?

The star followed by the Magi has puzzled scholars for centuries and has caused many a person to search astronomical records. Unlike comets, meteors or most astronomical events, this was an unusual "star." It moved through the sky until reaching Bethlehem, where it stood still in the sky. An appearance of Halley's comet, often associated with Jesus' birth, occurred in 12 BC, too early to coincide with the Nativity, unless the chronology really gets stretched. The Hale-Bopp comet which attracted so much attention in 1997, was nowhere in sight. In 3 BC, the planet Jupiter rose in conjunction with Venus, the "morning star" and this might have created a celestial event.

Babylonian records, verified by modern calculations, indicate there was a conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn in Pisces in December of 7 BC. This configuration was joined by Mars in February of 6 BC a spectacular massing of planets that would not have gone unnoticed. Chinese astronomical records, kept very carefully for centuries, also indicate a supernova in 5 BC. That year a comet appeared for some seventy days in March-April near the constellation Capricorn, and would have been visible in both the Far and Near East. Either is a possibility, since Jesus was born prior to Herod's death in 4 BC. Throughout the night it would seemed to have moved from west to east across the southern sky. Could this have been the star that directed the wise men to Bethlehem?

The following is an astronomical reconstruction from the book "First Christmas" by Paul Maier:

The remarkable conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn in 7-6 BC alerted the Magi to important developments in Palestine, for the astrological significance closely paralleled what they had learned from Hebrew lore about a star heralding the expected Messiah. The comet of 5 BC dramatically underscored this interpretation and sent them on their way, while it was the nova (or comet) of 4 BC which appeared after they had reached Jerusalem and were seeking further information from Herod.

That the star "went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was" need not imply any sudden visible movements on the part of the phenomenon. Because of the rotation of the earth, anything in the night sky appears to move generally westward through the night, except Polaris and the relatively few stars north of it. So, as the Magi traveled, the star seemed to move ahead of them, and when they reached Bethlehem, the star would indeed have seemed to stop.

Jesus' Life Home n Flight to Egypt - Part 1