The visit of the Magi is recorded in Matthew 2:1-12. There is a whole lot of confusion about the Magi and just when they visited the Newborn King.
If you look at many nativity scenes or painting, it appears that the Magi visited while Jesus was still in the manger. The attached painting by Bottecelli would indicate this. We see a mixture of Magi and shepherds admiring the newborn baby.
When did the Magi Visit?
We know from Matthew that the Magi were not there on the night of Jesus birth. He was someplace between 8 days an 2 years old when they came to honor Him.
How do we know?
We know that Jesus had been circumcised in the Temple on the 8th day per Jewish custom. We also know that Joseph took his family “that night” to Egypt, that night being the day the Magi left. So there would have been no opportunity to go to the Temple had Jesus not been at least 8 days old.
Matthew reports that the Magi visited Jesus “in a house.” This was not the stable where Jesus was born and the shepherds came to praise Him.
King Herod ordered the killing of all boys 2 years old and younger based on what he was told by the Magi. This was based on when they reported first seeing the star. The star could have appeared to the Magi well before Jesus’ birth, giving them time to prepare for and make their journey. Since the Magi did not return to Herod as ordered, he may have used the 2 years to just be sure he’d covered all possibilities.
So, Jesus would have been between 8 days and 2 years old when the Magi visited. They would not have been there at the same time as the shepherds recorded in Luke.
Why did the Magi visit?
The Magi are believed to have been Persian astrologers. During this period, astrology was a mixture of what we now call astrology and astronomy. They played an important role in the Persian court, including the selection of Kings. From the time of the exile, there had been a large Jewish presence in the courts of Persia. So, the Magi would likely have know about the Old Testament prophesies about the birth of a king. For more information, see:
How many Magi were there and what were their names?
Matthew doesn’t tell us! We don’t know for sure. Tradition reports that there were someplace between 2 and 12. we often assign the number of 3 because of the 3 gifts, gold, frankincense and myrrh. As to the names, there is nothing at all as to what they were.
Gifts: Gold, Frankincense and Myrrh
Matthew reports that the Magi “fell down” when they entered the house. This was a symbol of honor, often given to a king. It is often seen as the basis for kneeling during prayer today.
The three gifts were of enough value that they would be given to a person of high status, i.e.: a king. Each of them can be interpreted for its material value and also for its symbolism:
Gold: The value of gold in a material sense is easy… it’s gold! It is also interpreted as symbolizing virtue… the purity of Jesus’ life.
Frankincense: Frankincense (or incense) was used in perfumes. It is referred to in the Old Testament as giving an aroma pleasing to God. It is also symbolic of an offering to the (Great) High Priest.
Myrrh: Also used in perfumes, myrrh was used in anointing oils for kings. It was also used in embalming fluids, symbolizing the death and resurrection of Christ Jesus.
It’s easy to get the Magi and the shepherds all mixed up during the Christmas season. When you see the Magi at the manger… well, let’s see if we can get the stories straight.
May you have a blessed New Year!
Alive in The Word