“Now after Jesus was born.” This phrase should have done away with any thought that the magi belong in any manger scene, or are associated with the night of the birth of Christ in any way. The Magi did not even arrive in Jerusalem, much less Bethlehem, until after Jesus was born. They were not present with Joseph, Mary, and the shepherds the night of Jesus’ birth. The verb “born” is gennaō (#1080 γεννάω) and it is an aorist participle in the Greek text, meaning, “having been born,” which is how Young’s Literal Translation of the Bible translates it. In English we would usually not say, “Jesus, having been born,” but would more likely say, “after Jesus was born” as does the HCSB, ESV, NASB, NET, NIV, NKJ, and NRSV. We learn from history and Herod’s killing the children up to 2 years old that the amount of time “after” Jesus was born was likely close to a year and a half.
“Look!” The Greek word is idou (#2400 ἰδού), and it is used to get our attention. Although the literal meaning of idou relates to visual perception (seeing), it was used idiomatically, and thus should be translated in ways appropriate to the context, such as “look,” “listen,” “pay attention,” “take notice,” “consider,” “remember,” etc. Many translations of the English Bible (cp. NIV, NRSV, HCSB) do not translate idou, but in doing so miss the meaning that it is bringing to the context. See commentary on Matthew 1:20 (“Look!).
“Magi.” The Greek word magoi, correctly translated as “Magi,” (Matt. 2:1, NIV) is a plural proper noun referring to people of a specific religious group that existed in the Ancient Near East, most specifically the area of ancient Media and Persia. By the time of Christ, that area was the country of Parthia, which is north and east of Israel. Much has been written in encyclopedias and Bible dictionaries about their origin, history, and beliefs, so that need not be repeated here, however, it is important to know that at least some Magi were looking for a Messiah who would conquer darkness and restore justice in the world.
The NASB and NIV are two modern versions that say “Magi,” while other modern versions retain the designation “Wise Men” (KJV, ESV, NRSV). Magi, especially their leaders and priests, were considered to be wise and even to have occult powers, so the translation “Wise Men” might at first seem to be a fitting translation, but it is far too broad a term to communicate the meaning of the word “magoi.” After all, there were many wise men in the ancient world, just as there are today, whereas the Magi were a specific group. A good comparison might be if Catholic Cardinals from Rome came to visit Jesus but we only knew them as, “Good Men from the West.” The designation might be true, but it would not give us important and accurate information about them. The title “Wise Men” does not tell us who the Magi were, but their proper title does. Similarly, calling them “kings,” as in the song verse, “We three kings from orient are…,” only confuses the record. They were not kings.
Perhaps the most important reason to refer to these men by the name “Magi” is so we can see their relation to the religious group that was at one time led and instructed by Daniel. In the late 500’s BC (Jerusalem was conquered by Nebuchadnezzar in 586 BC, and Daniel was promoted shortly after that) Daniel was made ruler over the Magi, although this is not as clear as it could be because the Book of Daniel says “Magicians,” and Daniel is referred to as “chief of the Magicians” (Dan. 4:9; 5:11; cp. Dan. 2:48; NIV). Although there is no proof for it outside the Bible, it seems certain that Daniel instructed the leaders of the Magi about the Jewish origin of the true Messiah.
As the centuries passed after the birth of Christ, the true knowledge about the Magi was replaced by superstition and tradition, and this has persisted in spite of the fact that it contradicts what is clearly written in Scripture. For example, the Magi did not follow a star to Bethlehem. No super-bright, westward traveling celestial phenomena appeared in the sky and went from Parthia to Bethlehem. The “star” they saw was not an unusual celestial object, but a unique occurrence of planetary conjunctions and appearances that, viewed by themselves and considered individually, would not have grabbed anyone’s attention—which explains why only the Magi, diligent astronomers and observers of the heavens, showed up in Judea asking where the new king had been born. We have to keep in mind that in a culture in which a substantial part of the population lived in tents or spent a lot of time out of doors, any unusual event in the heavens got a lot of attention. The fact that there was no such attention at the time of Christ is good evidence that to an untrained observer, the heavenly events were normal.
These Magi were astronomers, and it seems quite certain that the “star” they saw was a series of celestial events, including stars, planets, and conjunctions, especially involving the “king planet” Jupiter (cp. The Star that Astonished the World by Ernest Martin, and Jesus Christ Our Promised Seed by Victor Wierwille). Before telescopes were invented, planets, stars, novas, and comets were all called “stars,” and before the invention of modern devices for measuring their movement, ancient astronomers tracked the timing and position of the stars by when they were first visible over the horizon. We know the Magi used this technique because it was a usual procedure, and also by what they said when they reached Jerusalem: “For we saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him” (Matt. 2:2 ESV). The ESV does a superb job of translating the phrase “when it rose.” The Magi were watching the stars and noting their relation to points on the horizon, to each other, and to the constellations in which they appeared. Eventually they saw patterns that convinced them the Messiah had been born (see, “in its rising” below).
It is almost certain that the Magi traveled to Jerusalem by joining a trading caravan that was heading in that direction. It was unsafe to travel in small groups, especially carrying valuables across the international border between the enemy countries of Rome and Parthia. We do not know how long the journey took, but it would have taken at least a month and maybe several (Parthia itself is hundreds of miles across, and we do not know exactly where they started their journey).
Also, the Bible does not say how many Magi came to see Jesus. Tradition says three, but that idea comes from the three kinds of gifts: gold, frankincense, and myrrh. These gifts were all fitting for a king, and each could easily be sold or bartered, so they would greatly help Joseph and his new family. It is not likely that each Magi individually brought “a gift,” like we would bring “a gift” to a birthday party. The three gifts would have been presented as a collective offering from the Magi who made the journey and from the people they represented back in Parthia, who put together the gift. There were almost certainly many more than three Magi who made the trip. For one thing, the purpose of the trip was to pay homage to the long-awaited Messiah, and many devout people would have wanted to be part of that event. Furthermore, the trip was long and dangerous, and it was standard procedure in those days to travel with a large number of people for protection.
Another good reason to believe there were more than three Magi is that when they arrived in Jerusalem, King Herod and “all Jerusalem” were disturbed at their coming (Matt. 2:3). To fully appreciate this, we need to remember that Herod and Jerusalem were not disturbed when, about a year and a half earlier, shepherds announced that they had seen angels and that the Messiah had been born (the chronology of the year and a half is explained in the books by Martin and Wierwille mentioned earlier, and is why Herod killed all the babies two years old and under). When, however, a group of Magi arrived from Parthia and wanted to know where the Messiah was born, that got the attention of Herod and Jerusalem, and upset them greatly.
When the Magi arrived in Jerusalem, neither they nor King Herod knew where to find the young Messiah. Herod had to call the priests and experts in the Law to find out where the Old Testament said the Messiah would be born (Matt. 2:4). They told him that the book of Micah (Micah 5:2) foretold that the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem, so that is where King Herod sent the Magi (Matt. 2:4-8). Bethlehem is seven miles (11.2 km) south of Jerusalem, and the Magi did not travel there the day they got an audience with King Herod. Even at two miles per hour, the journey would have only taken three and a half hours, and we can conclude from the biblical record that they returned to where they were staying and prepared to make the journey the next day. It was usual for caravans to get started very early in the morning, while it is still dark, and that is what they did.
When the Magi headed out for Bethlehem, the “star” they had observed back in Parthia “went before them” (Matt. 2:9; KJV, ESV). It is important to remember that these Magi did not follow the star to Bethlehem, they were already going there. Thus the “star” did not lead them to Bethlehem. They rejoiced at seeing it because it seemed a confirmation of the godly purpose of their journey, to meet and pay homage to the new king. The evidence is that the star that seemed to go in front of them was the planet Jupiter, which at that time was in the southern sky (The Star that Astonished the World). As it rose in the sky, it became more and more directly south, the very direction they were heading, and thus appeared to be “going before them.” Finally, as it reached its zenith (high point) in the sky south of them, it “stood” directly over Bethlehem, which was also south of them (by the way, astronomers still use the same language today, saying stars “rise,” “stand” and “set”).
Seeing Jupiter going before them caused great joy among the group. Although they certainly would have known Jupiter was visible in the sky, they did not know where the Messiah was to be born, or where Bethlehem was, and thus would not have known the star would also seem to go before them. To the untrained eye, there was nothing in the sky that morning that would have been a cause for rejoicing, which accounts for the fact that there were not large crowds of people traveling south along with the Magi.
Bethlehem was a small village, and houses in such villages of the Ancient Near East were all crowded together, so nothing in the sky could point out an individual house. This is more evidence that the star did not lead the Magi to the Messiah. Nevertheless, the Messiah would be easy to locate in Bethlehem, thanks to the shepherds, who had not only told the whole town about him, but all the surrounding area as well. All the Magi had to do was ask, and everyone would remember the baby who the shepherds had announced so joyfully was the promised Messiah and whose parents were both of the line of David.
Upon finding the “child” (Jesus was not a “baby” anymore; Matt. 2:11), the Magi paid homage to him and presented their gifts. The Magi were not stupid, and Herod had a reputation for killing potential rivals, so they asked God for guidance as to what to do after they found the Messiah. This fact is not clearly stated in most English Bibles, but the Greek word translated “warned” in most of them was usually used of a divine instruction or warning that came to people who asked for guidance from an oracle. The Magi asked God what to do, and He warned them not to go back to Herod, so they went home by another route (Matt. 2:12).
Likely right after the Magi left, Joseph was also warned by God to flee the area, which he did, going down to Egypt (Matt. 2:13, 14). This is another piece of evidence that shows the Magi were not present at the birth of Jesus, but long after. Herod and the powers in Jerusalem had ignored the shepherds, and so after the birth of Jesus, Joseph and Mary stayed in Bethlehem. They completed the forty days of cleaning and the sacrifice required by the Law of Moses (Luke 2:22-24; Lev. 12:1-8).
However, after the Magi left Judea, Herod was furious and would have moved very quickly to do away with this new potential rival for his throne. There is no way that Joseph and Mary could have then stayed around for forty days without Herod finding and killing both them and Jesus. This accounts for the urgency in the angel’s message to Joseph: “Get up…take the child and…escape to Egypt.” “Take” and “escape” are in the imperative mood; they are firm commands, and Joseph acted on them immediately (Matt. 2:13; NIV).
Another way we know the Magi came to see Jesus long after his birth is that when Mary offered a sacrifice for her cleansing after giving birth, she offered two doves or pigeons (Luke 2:24), but this was only allowable if a person could not afford a lamb (Lev. 12:8). If the Magi had come and given the family gold, they could have afforded a lamb. Thus it is clear that the Magi did not arrive until at least 40 days after Jesus was born, and it was very likely closer to 18 months based on the time the Magi gave to king Herod.
The truth about the Magi teaches us a lot. We see the great patience and faithfulness they had, passing down the information about the Messiah generation after generation, waiting over 500 years for him. That should remind us to pass on our knowledge of God’s Word to the next generation. We see the great risk the Magi were willing to take, carrying valuables hundreds of miles across an international border to pay homage to the Messiah, and the value of the gifts they brought indicates how thankful they were for him. They remind us that living a godly life often involves risk, and also that prayer, Bible study, worship, and financial support of the Church may not be easy or convenient, but the same Lord who was worthy of the sacrifice the Magi made is worthy of our sacrifice of time, money, and energy. [For more on the actual story of the birth of Jesus, see the commentary on Luke 2:7 about there being no space in the guestroom, and Luke 2:8-18 about the shepherds who came to see Jesus].
“east.” The Greek is anatolōn (ἀνατολῶν), the plural of anatolē (#395 ἀνατολή), which is translated “in its rising” in the next verse, verse 3. Anatolē is one of the words that usually changes its meaning from singular to plural. In the singular, as in verse 3, it usually refers to the “rising,” but when plural it usually refers to the direction, “east.” [For more information, see commentary on “in its rising,” Matthew 2:3].
“arrived.” Using this particular word and employing it in the aorist tense emphasizes the arrival of the Magi. If the text were going to emphasize the travel it would have used the word for “came” in the imperfect tense. But here we have the word paraginomai (#3854 παραγίνομαι) in the aorist, the word for an arrival or making a public appearance (BDAG). Holman captures the sense of the emphasis and translates it “arrived unexpectedly,” which makes the point, but perhaps too strongly. We felt the translation “arrived” was the best choice. The trip from Persia to Jerusalem took Ezra exactly four months (Ezra 7:9), and the magi would have taken about as much time.
“of Judea.” The ancient tribal territories of the twelve tribes had given way to the kingdom of Herod, and other kingdoms before that. Nevertheless, Bethlehem was in the tribal territory of Judea, and thus the prophecy that Christ would be from the tribe of Judah was important to emphasize.