The Myth of the Nativity Wise Men

Correcting a common misunderstanding of the Christmas season

Three wise men, virgin Mary, St Joseph and baby Jesus on white background

Juanmonino/Getty Images

We all have our pet peeves, right? We all have those little things that seem to bother us more than they should. Well, I hope you'll forgive me if this seems petty, but one of my pet peeves involves the "Wise Men" (or "3 Kings" or "Magi") who are almost always included in nativity scenes and plays that show up each Christmas as depictions of Jesus' birth. 

Why do Wise Men bother me? It's not a personal thing. I have nothing against the Magi as individuals, I'm sure. It's just that they weren't actually present on the night when Jesus was born. In fact, they didn't hit the scene until a long time later.

Let's go to the text to see what I mean.

The First Christmas

The story of the first Christmas is one of those cultural touchstones with which everyone seems familiar. Mary and Joseph had to travel to Bethlehem—the "City of David" and Joseph's ancestral home—because Caesar Augustus declared a census (Luke 2:1). Mary was advanced in her pregnancy, but the young couple had to go anyway.

They made it to Bethlehem just in time for the birth of Mary's child. Unfortunately, there were no rooms available at any of the inns throughout the village. As a result, baby Jesus was ultimately born in a stable or animal shelter.

That's important when it comes to placing the timeline of the wise men:

So Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem the town of David, because he belonged to the house and line of David. He went there to register with Mary, who was pledged to be married to him and was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born, and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no guest room available for them.
Luke 2:4-7

Now, you're probably wondering if I've forgotten about another group of individuals commonly present in modern nativity scenes: the shepherds. I haven't forgotten about them. In fact, I approve of their presence in nativity scenes because they did indeed see Jesus on the night of His birth.

They were there:

When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let’s go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about.”
So they hurried off and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby, who was lying in the manger. 17 When they had seen him, they spread the word concerning what had been told them about this child, 18 and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds said to them.
Luke 2:15-18

As a newborn, Jesus was placed in a manger because there was no room in a proper shelter. And He was in that manger when the shepherds visited.

Not so with the Wise Men, however.

A Long Time Later

We're introduced to the Wise Men (or Magi) in the Gospel of Matthew:

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 when it rose and have come to worship him.”
Matthew 2:1-2

Now, that word "after" at the beginning of verse 1 is kind of ambiguous. How long after? A day? A week? A few years?

Fortunately, we can infer from two pieces of evidence in the text that the Wise Men visited Jesus at least a year after His birth, and probably closer to two years. First, notice the details of Jesus' location when the Wise Men did show up bearing their gifts:

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.
Matthew 2:9-12 (emphasis added)

See that? "On coming to the house." Jesus was no longer "lying in a manger." Instead, Mary and Joseph had been residents of Bethlehem long enough to rent or purchase a proper house. They had settled into the community after their long journey—probably unwilling to make a long trek back that would be dangerous for their young (and miraculous) son.

But how long had they been in that house when the Magi arrived? Strangely enough, that question is answered by the evil plot of mad King Herod.

If you remember the story, the Magi paid Herod a visit 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" (Matthew 2:2). Herod was a paranoid and ruthless king; therefore, he had no interest in a potential rival. He told the Wise Men to find Jesus and then report back to him—supposedly so that he could "worship" the new king as well.

However, Herod's true motivations were revealed when the Wise Men slipped through his fingers and returned to their country by another route. Look what happened next:

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 2:16

The reason Herod set his target on boys who were "two years old and under" was that the Magi had given him the date when they saw Jesus star (v. 2) and began their journey toward Jerusalem. His decision was "in accordance with the time he had learned from the Magi."

When the Wise Men finally met with Jesus, He would no longer have been a newborn lying in a manger. Instead, He was a miraculous toddler between 1 and 2 years old.

One final sidenote: people often talk about there being three Wise Men who met with Jesus, but the Bible never actually gives a number. The Wise Men brought three gifts before Jesus— gold, frankincense, and myrrh—but that doesn't necessarily mean there were only three men. There may have been an entire caravan of Magi who came to worship the King.

Moving Forward

In all seriousness, I think the Magi are a fascinating addition to the Christmas story. Their presence indicates that Jesus wasn't born as Savior only for the Jews. Rather, He had come as the Savior of the entire world. He was an international King, and He drew an international following within 2 years of His life on earth.

Still, I do prefer to be biblically accurate whenever possible. And for that reason, you'll never see a nativity scene in my home that includes Wise Men—three or otherwise.

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Your Citation
O'Neal, Sam. "The Myth of the Nativity Wise Men." Learn Religions, Aug. 28, 2020, O'Neal, Sam. (2020, August 28). The Myth of the Nativity Wise Men. Retrieved from O'Neal, Sam. "The Myth of the Nativity Wise Men." Learn Religions. (accessed May 29, 2023).