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Advent: The celebration of the birth of the Messiah, Part 1: The wise men from the east

  • By The Newnan Times-Herald
  • |
  • Dec. 01, 2022 - 3:31 PM

Advent: The celebration of the birth of the Messiah, Part 1: The wise men from the east

Watson E. Mills

This is a side view of the entrance to the Cave of Magi.


Within the grounds of a monastery located in the eastern suburbs of Bethlehem is a small, domed chapel. Stairs inside this tiny structure lead down into the mouth of a cave. Tourists queue patiently for the opportunity to enter this small building, not only to marvel at its ornate interior, but also to continue a few steps down into an area cut into the rocky terrain. They’re following a fifth-century tradition about some famous guests who once found shelter for the night in this very space. These “guests” were the “wise men” or Magi mentioned in Matthew’s account of the birth of Jesus. (Matthew 2:1-2) They had followed a star from their home in the east to deliver gifts to the newly born Christ child. According to this tradition, they rested here for the night before beginning their journey home.

The Monastery of Saint Theodosius

The Monastery of Saint Theodosius was founded in the fifth century. It is located about five miles east of Bethlehem in the West Bank of Palestine. This monastery's fascinating history includes periods of administration by Catholics, Muslims and Greek Orthodox. The buildings within its walls have been destroyed and rebuilt several times since the fifth century. At the beginning of the 19th century, Bedouins sold the land and ruins of the monastery to the patriarch of Jerusalem. Since then the monastery has been overseen by Greek Orthodox monks. The rebuilding of the present monastery followed in the 20th century with the completion of several structures by the 1950s. During all of its iterations throughout the centuries, one feature of this monastery that has endured is “the Cave of the Magi” (sometimes called the “Holy Shrine of the Cave”). These visitors who came from the East bearing expensive gifts for the Christ child are the subject of today’s edition of the celebration of the birth of the Messiah.

Two accounts of Jesus’ birth

The details surrounding Jesus’ birth are recounted in only two books of the New Testament: the Gospel of Matthew and the Gospel of Luke. Each of these authors agrees on the basic facts surrounding Jesus’ birth: (1) the prophecies about his birth found in the Old Testament; (2) the location (Bethlehem) of his birth; (3) the identity of his parents. Beyond these basic facts, however, each author recounts the story of Jesus’ birth from his own unique perspective. Luke records his narrative from the vantage point of Jesus’ mother, Mary, while Matthew presents his account through the eyes of Jesus’ father, Joseph. Beyond these two perspectives, each author presents a different cast of characters when telling the story. While Luke mentions shepherds in the field who rejoice at the birth of Jesus, Matthew moves to the other end of the socioeconomic spectrum when he presents the Magi who journey from the East.

Who were the Magi?

Even though the Magi have been referred to as "kings" since the third century, there is no explicit or implicit suggestion in the biblical account to support this notion (nor even that they were “rulers” of some other type). This descriptive title most likely first emerged because of certain Old Testament prophecies that state that the Messiah will be worshiped by kings. The book of Isaiah, for example, reflects this idea: “Nations will come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn.” (Isaiah 60:3, NIV) Also, Psalm 72 includes these words: “… may all kings bow down to him and all nations serve him.” (Psalm 72:11, NIV).

The text of Matthew does not identify the number of individuals who make up this party beyond his use of the plural form of the noun. The most that we can infer from the text of Matthew is that they were at least two in number. In Western Christian communities, the number has historically been three due to the reference to the three gifts. In the Eastern Christian communities, the number of Magi is said to be 12.

By about the eighth century, names for the three began to appear in Christian literature. They have become known most commonly as Balthasar, Melchior and Gaspar. After about the 10th century, within the Western Christian communities, these names were even attached to the specific region from which each of the Magi came. Balthasar is often represented as a king of Arabia or Ethiopia, Melchior as a king of Persia and Gaspar as a king of India.

The star they followed

The notion that important events were heralded by signs in the heavens was a common belief in the world at the time of Jesus’ birth. Astrological events were often seen at the birth of great heroes or rulers whose lives exert great influence over the arc of human history. Such celestial events were routinely associated with stories about the birth and lives of the Hebrew patriarchs as well as both Greek and Roman heroes.

The star that guided the Magi is traditionally linked to an Old Testament prophecy. The book of Numbers proclaims: “I see him, but not now; I behold him, but not near; A Star shall come out of Jacob …” (Numbers 24:17a, NIV)

Although the Greek word for “magi” is frequently translated as "wise men," in Matthew’s account of Jesus’ birth the term most likely refers to “astronomers” or “astrologers.” This interpretation, however, has been problematic for Christians from the beginning because the practice of astrology has been condemned as demonic by the church.

The study of the stars first emerged in ancient times as a respected scientific endeavor. But when it went further to conclude that these celestial movements directly impact human history, many concluded it was no longer a science but more of a superstition. In some instances in the modern world, a small group among the practitioners of astrology continues to claim that there is a direct correlation between astronomical phenomena and everyday life experiences, e.g., some newspapers include an astrological “reading” based on a person’s Zodiac sign.

Biblical scholars have long pointed out that it is only possible to follow a star and to “stop underneath it” in the context of the first-century view of the universe. The cosmology of that day envisioned a flat earth with a domed ceiling above to which the heavenly bodies were attached. For most biblical scholars, therefore, the meaning of the Star of Bethlehem must be found elsewhere. Some interpreters understand it as one of the central symbols related to Jesus’ birth. In a most dramatic way, it points to the light of hope that is breaking through into the utter darkness that shrouds human history.

It is important to note that the star did not appear to the “professional” religionists such as the scribes and Pharisees of Jerusalem but to the Magi. These scholars were gentiles from a distant place in the pagan world. Such persons as these would have been scorned by devout Jews. So the star is a reminder that the gospel is not just for those who are “religious,” but also for everyone ranging from the poor, lowly shepherds to the educated and wealthy astrologers from the “East” who were gentiles and not Jews.

King Herod

Woven into the story of the Magi’s journey to Bethlehem is the further tradition concerning King Herod’s interaction with these visitors from the east. His own priests and scribes had been talking about ancient prophecies that mention a future “king of the Jews.” Their discussions had troubled King Herod and caused him to become fearful that the birth of the promised king might somehow threaten his throne. These fears were greatly intensified when he learned that noble visitors “from the east” had followed a miraculous guiding star to pay homage to the infant Jesus as “king of the Jews.” After the Magi arrived in Jerusalem and began to inquire about the place where the birth of this promised king had taken place, Herod’s fears about this potential rival to his throne reached a boiling point. Herod sent for these noble visitors so that he could find out what they know about the one who is destined to be a king. He also wanted to learn from them more about this bright star that they have been following and what it might mean.

With his patent, evil motives, Herod surreptitiously instructed the Magi, “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.” (Matthew 2:8, NIV) Herod, of course, had no intention of “worshiping the child.” His plans were much more sinister. Herod’s real reason for wanting to know where the Christ child had been born will be the focus of next week’s article.

Watson E. Mills retired from Mercer University in 2002 where he had served as vice president for research and publication and as professor of New Testament language and literature. More recently, he retired as senior minister of Sharpsburg Baptist Church.