THE TIMING OF THE WISE MEN’S VISIT TO JESUS

 

This discussion of the timing of the Wise Mens’ visit to Jesus includes a reconciliation between the alleged inconsistency between the Gospels of Matthew and Luke in their accounts of Jesus’ birth.

At first glance, the story of Jesus’ birth in the Gospel of Matthew appears to conflict with the account given in the Gospel of Luke. The event, in Matthew’s account, is accompanied by violence against the young males in Bethlehem, danger for Jesus, and the flight of Jesus’ family into Egypt to escape the wrath of Herod. Luke, on the other hand, presents a peaceful scenario surrounding the birth of Jesus.

According to Matthew 2:1-16:

Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, there came wise men from the east to Jerusalem,

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. When Herod the king had heard these things, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him. And when he had gathered all the chief priests and scribes of the people together, he demanded of them where Christ should be born. And when they said to him, In Bethlehem of Judea: for thus it is written by the prophet [Micah in Micah 5:2], And you Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are not the least among the princes of Judah: for out of you shall come a Governor, that shall rule my people Israel.

Then Herod, when he had privately called the wise men, enquired of them diligently about what time the star appeared. And he sent them to Bethlehem, and said, Go and search diligently for the young child; and when you have found him, bring me word again, that I may come and worship him also.

When they had heard the king, they left him; and, lo, the star, which they saw in the east, went before them, till it came and stood over where the young child was.

When they saw the star, they rejoiced with exceeding great joy. And when they were come into the house, they saw the young child with Mary his mother, and fell down, and worshiped him: and when they had opened their treasures, they presented to him gifts; gold, and frankincense, and myrrh.

Keep in mind two items from the above account: first, to enquire diligently is to ask for details. The details were such that Herod must have suspected that Jesus was up to two years old at the time of the Wise Men’s visit.

Second, the wise men came into Jesus’ house, not the manger. Both of these facts point to the visit of the Wise Men having taken place at some time after His birth.

The corresponding account of the event of Jesus’ birth from Luke’s perspective is presented in Chapter 2 of his gospel:

And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the inn. And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night.

And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them; and they were sore afraid. And the angel said to them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. And this shall be a sign to you: You shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.

And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying, Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.

And it came to pass, as the angels were gone away from them into heaven, the shepherds said one to another, Let us now go even to Bethlehem, and see this thing which is come to pass, which the Lord has made known unto us. And they came with haste, and found Mary, and Joseph, and the babe lying in a manger. And when they had seen it, they made known abroad the saying which was told them concerning this child. And all they that heard it wondered at those things which were told them by the shepherds. But Mary kept all these things, and pondered them in her heart. And the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things that they had heard and seen, as it was told to them.

And when eight days were accomplished for the circumcising of the child, his name was called JESUS, which was so named of the angel before he was conceived in the womb.

And when the days of her purification according to the law of Moses were accomplished, they brought him to Jerusalem, to present him to the Lord; (As it is written in the law of the Lord, Every male that openeth the womb shall be called holy to the Lord;) and to offer a sacrifice according to that which is said in the law of the Lord, A pair of turtledoves, or two young pigeons.”

Luke’s account, unlike that of Matthew’s, paints a peaceful scenario, one in which the family of Jesus makes an uneventful return from Bethlehem, one that includes the presentation of Jesus to the Lord at Jerusalem. But Mary also had to wait until her purification was completed before Jesus was presented at the temple. The Mosaic law that specifies the post-birth purification is given in Leviticus 12:

And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, Speak to the children of Israel, saying, If a woman has conceived seed, and born a man child: then she shall be unclean seven days; according to the days of the separation for her infirmity shall she be unclean. And in the eighth day the flesh of his foreskin shall be circumcised. And she shall then continue in the blood of her purifying thirty three days; she shall touch no hallowed thing, nor come into the sanctuary, until the days of her purifying are fulfilled.”

According to this purification rite, Mary had to wait at least forty one days, and possibly longer, depending on her health, before presenting Jesus to the temple. During this time, there is no suggestion in Luke’s account of any violence or effort of Herod’s attempt on Jesus’ life. Rather, in harmony with the details of Matthew’s account, this peaceful interlude points to the likelihood that the visit of the Wise Men didn’t occur until after Mary’s purification period, and possibly years after.

The distance that the Wise Men had to travel after seeing the star in their homeland also suggests a lengthy time duration between their first sight of the star and their arrival at Bethlehem, which would place their arrival well after Jesus’ birth. But why would the Wise Men associate that star with the birth of Jesus? Bible scholar Hal Lindsey has suggested that the Wise Men were members of a cadre of Persian mystics whose Chaldean forbears had access to the teachings of Daniel during his captivity in Babylon. The information imparted to them by Daniel may well have included the prophecy of seventy weeks in Daniel 9:24-27, which would have given the Wise Men an understanding with virtually pinpoint accuracy of when Jesus would appear. When the star appeared to them, its timing must have identified it with Jesus as well as pointing to the direction of Jesus’ birth from their location.

The Wise Mens’ wisdom consisted in their faith in Daniel’s prophecy and their diligence in observing the sky for confirmation and direction.

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