King Herod sends Magi (wise men) to visit baby Jesus in Bethlehem (Matthew 2:1 – 2:12)
After Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem, Magi (wise men) from the East arrived in Jerusalem (five miles north of Bethlehem) asking King Herod where the baby “king of the Jews” was located. The Magi explained that they had seen a star and had come to worship the new king.
The mention of a new “king of the Jews” alarmed King Herod who was the legal ruler of Judea at the time. Herod gathered his priests and experts in the Law of Moses (i.e. scribes) and asked them where the Messiah was to be born. Quoting prophesy that stated a great ruler of Israel would arrive out of Bethlehem, the advisers told Herod that he would have been born in the nearby city of Bethlehem.
Herod asked the Magi at what time the star had appeared in the sky (see note below regarding why he asked this important question). Herod then sent the Magi to Bethlehem with instructions to report back to him when the infant was found so that he could “worship him” too.
The Magi followed the star to the place where the child was found. When they discovered Jesus with his mother Mary, they were overjoyed and bowed to the new king. They presented Jesus with gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Rather than return to Herod to report Jesus’ location, the Magi returned to their own country using a different route. They had been warned against returning to Herod in a dream.
What the story means to us today
Jesus’ birth produces an immediate impact
Matthew provides us with additional detail surrounding the birth of Jesus and notes that within days of his birth, a significant impact was realized as “wise men” travel from afar to see the newborn king while a legal “king” fears the birth of Jesus could endanger his reign. The magnitude of these events should not be underestimated. The moment Jesus was born, the region began to shudder. As we will see next, Herod’s instruction to the Magi was fraught with deceit – while more Old Testament prophesies are fulfilled in the New Testament scripture.
Additional thoughts and considerations
Herod’s perception that Jesus was a threat
Historical records show that Herod’s later years were filled with unusual suspicion and unfounded fear but in this case, the birth of Jesus certainly could have truly posed a threat to Herod’s rule. The connection of any new messiah with the House of David (the Davidic line) would make it natural for the Jews to associate that messiah as their proper king. This of course, would have been a threat to the authority of Herod who was not descended from the line of David (in fact, evidence suggests he was not even from the line of Jacob but rather, descended from Esau and thus was an Edomite).
The significance of when (timing) the Magi witnessed the star
Recognize that Herod asked the Magi *when* they had seen the star. This hints that Herod may have been trying to calculate the age of the newborn king and that his plans to get rid of the supposed threat were already laid out.
Why did the Magi visit Herod?
It is unclear why the Magi visited Herod first. Possibly they felt King Herod would naturally know the whereabouts of the newborn king or maybe they travelled to Herod expecting the new messiah to be born into the royal family. It’s also possible they were merely announcing their presence in the area as a courtesy to the king of Judea.
The gifts brought by the Wise men
The significance of the three gifts brought by the Magi can be inferred from what we know about their use in ancient times. Gold of course, would have been material fit for a king. Frankincense, a sweet-smelling incense, was thought to be traditionally placed on alters of deities. The significance of the gift of myrrh however, is not so easy to infer. Myrrh was commonly used in the burial process as an anointment for the dead. Possibly the Magi foresaw, through prophesy, the inevitable death of the newborn king.
The Science behind the story
The magi or Wise Men
The Magi, traditionally known as “Wise Men”, are mentioned several times in the Old and New Testament. They are noted as a tribe in the Persian Empire who served a priestly function. In Daniel, they are referred to as a class of “wise men”, possibly astrologers or scientists with a somewhat mystical function. In all likelihood, they served a blended function as a sort of religious astrologer.
The origin of the Magi (“the East”) is unknown but could have been Arabia or Babylon. However, their language (e.g. “where is he that is born King of the Jews”) compared to other known Jewish language segments in New Testament scripture, hint that they were not Jews.
The number of Magi mentioned in Matthew is uncertain. Christian tradition (e.g. Psalms) regards them as kings and either three (because of the number of gifts) or twelve in number. The exact number of magi who visited Jesus however, is not directly specified in the scripture.
Scholars disagree on the timing of the Magi arrival in Bethlehem. There is some indication that they may have arrived quite some time after the birth of Jesus. The words used to describe baby Jesus call him a “child” rather than an “infant”. Also, although Joseph and Mary were still in Bethlehem, Matthew 2:11 clearly indicates that they were now in a house and not a stable. This could have been a home attached to the stable where Jesus was born or possibly enough time had passed for dwellings to become available in Bethlehem providing Joseph and Mary the opportunity to secure a new temporary home while Mary recovered from the birth and Jesus became old enough to travel.
Still, most scholars assume that some time passed before the Wise Men arrived to visit Jesus and in fact, some Latin countries celebrate the event twelve days after Christmas day (e.g. on January 6). In those places, the giving of gifts is reserved for this day and the interval is famously represented as the “twelve days of Christmas” in popular poems and songs.
About the gifts that were presented to Jesus
Much is known about the three gifts presented to Jesus by the Magi. Frankincense refers to an aromatic resin derived from certain trees. It was used in ancient times as a sweet-smelling incense. Myrrh is similar but is derived from the aromatic resin of certain shrubs. It is believed Myrrh was often used in the burial process or burial services.
Herod the Great
Herod the Great served as the king of the Jews from about 40 BC to 4 BC (the year he is believed to have died). He was likely an Edomite descendant of Esau. His father, Antipather (or Antipas) had been appointed a position of influence by Julius Caesar after the Roman conquest of Judaea. Early in his career, after the Parthians invaded Syria and Palestine, Herod battled for three years to retain his title as king. Once Judaea was secured however, he reigned for 33 years as a friend and ally of Rome.
Source of historical information about Herod
Much of what we know about King Herod (note that there are also other men named Herod mentioned in biblical books – see below) came from the New Testament and the writings of Jewish historian Flavius Josephus. Minor details concerning Herod’s life are also found in the writings of ancient Roman historians including Cassius Dio, Plutarch, and Strabo.
Herod’s religious beliefs are questioned
It is relevant to note that Herod’s religious beliefs were questioned by the Jews since he was a convert to Judaism and because his decadent lifestyle undermined the proclaimed religious beliefs he claimed to follow.
Herod’s infamous construction projects
Herod was known for his lavish construction projects. He built an extravagant palace for himself along the West Wall in Jerusalem. Herod also build the city of Caesarea, a major port and the Roman administrative center for Palestine that is located midway between Tel Aviv and Haifa in Israel. Casearea featured several engineering marvels including a unique breakwater system in the harbor and city sewers designed to flush into the sea. One of Herod’s greatest achievements was the construction of Temple Mount and the reconstruction of the Jerusalem Temple (aka the Second Temple or Herod’s Temple that Jesus and the disciples knew) which he began in 19 BC.
Herod’s suspicious nature
Herod was highly suspicious by nature. He had his wife, Mariamne and own son executed just days before his own death. Several attempts were made to overthrow and/or kill him during his reign. It is recorded that he had over 2,000 personal bodyguards.
Herod’s rule divided to sons upon his death
Upon Herod’s death, the Romans divided his kingdom among three of his sons – Archelaus became tetrarch of the tetrarchy of Judea (one part of the “Herodian Tetrarchy”), Herod Antipas become tetrarch of Galilee and Peraea, and Philip became tetrarch of the territories east of Jordan.
Herod’s final legacy
In the end, history remembers Herod more for his murderous outbreaks (“he died in Jericho amid great agonies both of body and mind”) than for this administrative and engineering achievements.
Archaeological evidence of Herod’s grave
On May 7, 2007, an Israeli team of archaeologists of the Hebrew University, lead by Herodian architecture expert Ehud Netzer, announced that they had discovered the tomb of Herod. Located seven miles south of Jerusalem on a cone-shaped hill known as Herodium, it was found in the exact location documented by Jewish historian Josephus.
Other men named “Herod” mentioned in the Bible
Herod the Great should not be confused with other men named “Herod” mentioned in the biblical texts. Others with the same name include (1) Herod Archelaus, the son and successor of Herod the Great, (2) Herod Antipas, who executed John the Baptist and returned Jesus for sentencing by Pilate, and (3) Herod Philip, ruler in Galilee when Jesus began his ministry.
What was the star (the “Star of Bethlehem) that the Wise men followed?
What was the “Star of Bethlehem” that led the Magi to Jesus? Balaam’s prophesy in Numbers 24:17 says,
“A star will come out of Jacob, a scepter (a staff carried by rulers) will rise out of Israel.”
Some believe that the star mentioned in this prophesy represents Jesus himself and not a physical manifestation in the sky.
Others however, believe the Star of Bethlehem to have been a physical manifestation in the sky – either a supernatural or astronomical event. Arguments for this interpretation include text that refers to a star which they (the Wise Men) “saw” and the fact that the Magi were believed to be astronomers by trade. Astronomers today can place several events around the time of the birth of Jesus including extraordinary comets (both Josephus and Cassius Dio mention unusual comets around 6-12 BC) and an unusual alignment of the planets that occurred in 2-5 BC. If the star was an astronomical event, it must have been a highly unusual one to draw the undivided attention of the Magi.
Finally, there are convincing arguments that the star witness by the Magi was a supernatural occurrence or some other object that the Magi could only describe as a “star”. The star they had seen in the East led them to a specific location, and likely even a specific house in Bethlehem. This would indicate the star would have had to move through the skies from north to south. This is not a natural astronomical occurrence as stars travel from east to west across the heavens. The only explanation would be an artificial light in the sky.
Some interpretations note that the star was *not* visible during some interval of time while the magi sought the new king. Matthew 2:9 says “the star they had seen” (or “which they saw”) which suggests the star was not visible all of the time and either was only seen at night or while the magi were making their way. This could hint at either an astronomical event (i.e. the star was only visible during nighttime hours) or a supernatural event (i.e. it only appeared in the sky when it was needed to guide the Magi to their destination).
2 After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem 2 and asked, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.”
3 When King Herod heard this he was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him. 4 When he had called together all the people’s chief priests and teachers of the law, he asked them where the Messiah was to be born. 5 “In Bethlehem in Judea,” they replied, “for this is what the prophet has written:
6 “ ‘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 shepherd my people Israel.’”
7 Then Herod called the Magi secretly and found out from them the exact time the star had appeared. 8 He sent them to Bethlehem and said, “Go and search carefully for the child. As soon as you find him, report to me, so that I too may go and worship him.”
9 After they had heard the king, they went on their way, and the star they had seen when it rose went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was. 10 When they saw the star, they were overjoyed. 11 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, frankincense and myrrh. 12 And having been warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, they returned to their country by another route.
The New International Version. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2011. Print.
After Jesus was born in Bethlehem village, Judah territory—this was during Herod’s kingship—a band of scholars arrived in Jerusalem from the East. 2 They asked around, “Where can we find and pay homage to the newborn King of the Jews? We observed a star in the eastern sky that signaled his birth. We’re on pilgrimage to worship him.”
3 When word of their inquiry got to Herod, he was terrified—and not Herod alone, but most of Jerusalem as well. 4 Herod lost no time. He gathered all the high priests and religion scholars in the city together and asked, “Where is the Messiah supposed to be born?”
5 They told him, “Bethlehem, Judah territory. The prophet Micah wrote it plainly:
6 It’s you, Bethlehem, in Judah’s land,
no longer bringing up the rear.
From you will come the leader
who will shepherd-rule my people, my Israel.”
7 Herod then arranged a secret meeting with the scholars from the East. Pretending to be as devout as they were, he got them to tell him exactly when the birth-announcement star appeared. 8 Then he told them the prophecy about Bethlehem, and said, “Go find this child. Leave no stone unturned. As soon as you find him, send word and I’ll join you at once in your worship.”
9 Instructed by the king, they set off. Then the star appeared again, the same star they had seen in the eastern skies. It led them on until it hovered over the place of the child. 10 They could hardly contain themselves: They were in the right place! They had arrived at the right time!
11 They entered the house and saw the child in the arms of Mary, his mother. Overcome, they kneeled and worshiped him. Then they opened their luggage and presented gifts: gold, frankincense, myrrh.
12 In a dream, they were warned not to report back to Herod. So they worked out another route, left the territory without being seen, and returned to their own country.
Peterson, Eugene H. The Message: The Bible in Contemporary Language. Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress, 2005. Print.
The NET Bible
2:1 After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, in the time of King Herod, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem 2:2 saying, “Where is the one who is born king of the Jews? For we saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.” 2:3 When King Herod heard this he was alarmed, and all Jerusalem with him. 2:4 After assembling all the chief priests and experts in the law, he asked them where the Christ was to be born. 2:5 “In Bethlehem of Judea,” they said, “for it is written this way by the prophet:
2:6 ‘And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
are in no way least among the rulers of Judah,
for out of you will come a ruler who will shepherd my people Israel.’ ”
2:7 Then Herod privately summoned the wise men and determined from them when the star had appeared. 2:8 He sent them to Bethlehem and said, “Go and look carefully for the child. When you find him, inform me so that I can go and worship him as well.” 2:9 After listening to the king they left, and once again the star they saw when it rose led them until it stopped above the place where the child was. 2:10 When they saw the star they shouted joyfully. 2:11 As they came into the house and saw the child with Mary his mother, they bowed down and worshiped him. They opened their treasure boxes and gave him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. 2:12 After being warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they went back by another route to their own country.
Biblical Studies Press. The NET Bible First Edition; Bible. English. NET Bible.; The NET Bible. Biblical Studies Press, 2006. Print.
King James Version
2 Now when Jesus was born in Beth-lehem of Judaea in the days of Herod the king, behold, there came wise men from the east to Jerusalem, 2 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. 3 When Herod the king had heard these things, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him. 4 And when he had gathered all the chief priests and scribes of the people together, he demanded of them where Christ should be born. 5 And they said unto him, In Beth-lehem of Judaea: for thus it is written by the prophet, 6 And thou Beth-lehem, 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. 7 Then Herod, when he had privily called the wise men, inquired of them diligently what time the star appeared. 8 And he sent them to Beth-lehem, 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. 9 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. 10 When they saw the star, they rejoiced with exceeding great joy. 11 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. 12 And being warned of God in a dream that they should not return to Herod, they departed into their own country another way.
The Holy Bible: King James Version. Electronic Edition of the 1900 Authorized Version. Bellingham, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 2009. Print.