The Visit of the Magi and Other Post-Birth Events


Naming of Jesus

Per instructions in Leviticus 12, Jesus would have been given a name, and circumcised eight days after birth.  If born on the morning of December 23 as I have proposed, he would have been circumcised on December 31st.  If birth was later, it would have been January or later.

Presentation at the Temple

After circumcision, Mary would have been confined another 33 days per Leviticus 12, and then presentation of the child at the temple would have occurred.  If born on December 23, BC 5, presentation at the temple would have been February 1st, BC 4.

Visit of the Magi

1 Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judæa 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 Bethlehem of Judæa: for thus it is written by the prophet,

6 And thou Bethlehem, 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 Bethlehem, 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.  (Matthew 2:1-8)

Who Were the Magi and Where Did They Come From

BYU’s Comparative Civilizations Review, Article 5 “A Broader Comparative Civilizations Approach to the Bible’s Nativity Story” by Milo Kearney, The University of Texas at Brownsville and Sean Kearney argues persuasively that the Three Kings or Magi were priests in the Zoroastrian religion, likely centered in Iran.

The first of the prophesied elements we will examine are the wise men….Who were these magoi, as they are called in the Greek New Testament? The Greek term magoi refers particularly to the Iranian and Mesopotamian Zoroastrian priests. Matthew 2:1 says that “there came wise men from the east to Jerusalem.” Matthew 2:9 refers to “the star, which they saw in the east.” …Due to the barrier placed on civilization by deserts as one moves east from the Mediterranean coast of the Levant, only Iran and Irak fit the bill. India was too remote at that period, and had no magi tradition. Clement of Alexandria and other Church fathers believed the magi were Persian, and the Church of the Nativity built in Bethlehem by Constantine contained a mosaic showing them in Persian dress.

Daniel, the only prophet who dates the coming of the Messiah (in Daniel 9:25-28), was considered a wise man (magi) by the Babylonians and Persians. He was the chief wise man of the Babylonian Empire and also later the chief wise man and prime minister of the Persian Empire. The magi of the Persian Empire descended from the tradition of Daniel and would have been familiar with his writings. Zarathustra, the founder of the Iranian Zoroastrian tradition underlying the rise of Shah Kuravaush (Cyrus), predicted the coming of the Messiah, according to a patristic belief.” A biblical stamp of approval is given to the Zoroastrian Shah in Ezra 1:2, where Cyrus proclaims that Yahweh gave him his empire and ordered him to rebuild the Temple in Jerusalem.

Many Zoroastrian teachings, including elements found in the Zend Avesta or Book of Love, were consonant with those of Judaism. The Zarathustrian Mithraites looked forward to the coming of the creator god Ormuz/Ahura Mazda, who would be born on earth as Mithra — a savior god of light, a champion of truth, loyalty and virtue….Mithra was referred to as a member of a Trinity, the three gods shown standing as one sun-god grouping with lighted torches, bringing the light of the world to humankind. Mithra was also called the Avestan or the “Loving One.” This view of Mithra conforms to the prophecies of the Tanach that Ha-Messhiah would be God Himself in one aspect come to earth as a man….

According to Iranian teaching, Mithra grown to manhood would not marry, but devote himself to the salvation of humankind. He would go into the desert, and on his return preach a message of brotherly love. He would baptize people, washing away their sins. The Mithraites held an anticipatory baptism by water to represent this expectation. Mithra was to hold an important last supper with his disciples, which would symbolize that Mithra would slay the bull (of sin). The snake and scorpion (symbols of Ahriman, the Iranian Satan) were shown biting at the sexual organs of the bull, pulling it down. Mithra himself is often personified in the bull and thus was sacrificing himself, to resurrect in order to give his followers eternal life. In anticipation of this event, the central Mithraite ritual was the sacrifice of a bull on an altar. The bull’s meat and blood were consumed by the worshippers.

From this description, it not difficult to see how the Zoroastian’s might have had a deep connection to the anticipated birth of the Savior.

How Did They Know When Christ was Born?

The article goes on to outline in great detail “The Zoroastrian magi would have been familiar with Daniel’s dating of the Messiah’s death and hence the generation of his birth.”

Nephi, a Book of Mormon prophet from Jerusalem but living in the Americas a couple of hundred years before Daniel, records after quoting Isaiah extensively:

For according to the words of the prophets, the Messiah cometh in six hundred years from the time that my father left Jerusalem; and according to the words of the prophets, and also the word of the angel of God, his name shall be Jesus Christ, the Son of God. (2 Nephi 25:19)

Note that the prophets–rather than an angel or Nephi’s own impressions through the spirit–predicted the Savior’s birth–rather than Daniel’s prediction of his death–600 years after his father left Jerusalem.  The Zoroastrian priests may have been familiar with the prophecies Nephi was quoting as well.

Samuel the Lamanite also in the Book of Mormon gives a distinct sign of a day and a night and a day that would be as one day, and the appearance of a new star.  He does this just five years prior to the Savior’s birth (See Helaman 14:2-6) It is clear others far away from Jerusalem were aware of the timing of the Savior’s birth.  Samuel might have been aware of the timing Nephi was aware of, and also quoting prophesies about a star at his birth.  The Zoroastrian priests might likewise have been aware of these prophecies.

Based upon Samuel’s predictions, it seems likely the new star arose because of the event that caused the day and a night and a day to be as one day.  A prophesy from more than 400 years before would be difficult to pinpoint the specific day; it would have given the year, perhaps within a year or two range.

Thus I believe that while Magi might have known the approximate year, they would not have likely known the day.  But they either knew of the prophesy of a star, or where students of astronomy enough to have taken it for a sign when it appeared.  Thus they would have started traveling with the arrival of a new star on the day of the Savior’s birth.

How Could the Star be in the East?

2 …we have seen his star in the east, and are come to worship him….

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.  (Matthew 2:2, 9-10)

I believe the reading of these verses does not mean that the star was in the east, but rather that they had seen it while they were in the east.

When did they rejoice at seeing the Star? It wasn’t when they left Jerusalem; it was when they were in the East.  They had been anticipating its appearance, perhaps for years.

The star, which they had seen when they were in the east, may well have been more in the southern sky; as they departed Jerusalem to travel to Bethlehem, they took the fact that it was now going before them as confirmation of what they had been told in Jerusalem.  Bethlehem was the correct city.

When Did They Arrive in Jerusalem?

Then how long would the travel have taken them?  Persepolis is an ancient Persian City which had a connection to Cyrus the Great and Darius I, thus connected to Daniel and the Zoroastrian traditions.  If the Magi came from the area that is now modern Iran, it is possible they came from this city, even though they also may have come from any number of places.  Using this city though as a possible place to give some sense of distance, let’s estimate how long the travel time might have been.

Persepolis is approximately 1400 miles from Jerusalem. We know that the Magi went to Jerusalem, as Matthew 2:1 says “…there came wise men from the east to Jerusalem,”  One website notes that “Walkers on the month-long Camino de Santiago trek typically walk 12 to 20 miles per day on terrain that includes many hills.”  Others note that 20 miles a day is not an unreasonable distance for ancient travelers.  At 20 miles a day, the trip would have required 70 days. Not traveling on the sabbath if they had that tradition too would have added 10 days. The Magi would have had at least one day after seeing the star to prepare for such a journey. Seventy days from December 25th, 5 BC is March 5th, 4 BC.

They may well have traveled on camels, which likely increased the pace. At 25 miles a day, they would have arrived 56 days later, on February 19th.  At 30 miles a day, just 40 days pass, arriving on February 3rd.  They may well have come from a city closer that Persepolis, either in today’s northern Iran or Iraq.

Chadwick notes in his article on the birth of the Savior:

Josephus noted that an eclipse of the moon occurred in the days directly preceding the death of Herod the Great. It is the only lunar eclipse mentioned by Josephus in all of his works. Following that eclipse, Herod, who was extremely ill, was taken for a short time to mineral baths at Calirrhoe, across the Jordan River, and then finally to his palace at Jericho, where he expired. The combination of events reported by Josephus places Herod’s death about ten days to two weeks after the eclipse and about ten days to two weeks before Passover. Astronomical research has indicated that the only lunar eclipse to occur during the final years of Herod’s life that was visible in Jerusalem and that occurred near the season of Passover took place on the night of March 13 of the year 4 BC. This eclipse is recognized by an overwhelming majority of researchers as the event referred to by Josephus. From the account provided by Josephus, it appears that Herod the Great died at the end of March or beginning of April in 4 BC.  (“Dating the Death of Jesus Christ,” Jeffrey R. Chadwick, BYU Studies 54:4, pages 11-12)

Is it possible they arrived on the day of the lunar eclipse, March 13th.  If so, it would have certainly fomented a stir in Jerusalem.

Imagine the state of things in Jerusalem then anyway. It is clear Herod, who is very ill, is about to die. So a great deal of activity about political succession must already be under way. Passover is approaching one month away, the largest festival of the country, when throngs descend upon Jerusalem. Preparing for it would likely demanded much of the security forces. Then there is a lunar eclipse, and then these priests from the East bringing news of a new king, which aligns in great detail with ancient Jewish prophecies.

It is most likely that they arrived in Jerusalem sometime in February, 4 BC.

Why Did They Enter A House, and Not a Manger?

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. (Matthew 2:11)

The manger was obviously a temporary expediency for the birth of the Savior.  If the foregoing is correct, given that the Magi visited between two and three months after his birth, they would have found housing to live in soon after the birth, if not the next day.

Kearney’s article has many suggestions about how the Magi might have located the Savior, supposing they had arrived on the night of his birth, including perhaps knowledge from their traditions that his birth would be in a cave, which is likely what the manger was. My outline here makes that question harder to answer.

It may be possible that because numerous shepherds had been eye witnesses to the events of that night, that as the Magi approached Bethlehem they may have been able to locate a guide who would have known who Mary and Joseph were from seeing them that night.

17 And when they had seen it, they made known abroad the saying which was told them concerning this child.

18 And all they that heard it wondered at those things which were told them by the shepherds.  (Luke 2:17-18)

Shepherding would have been a very local employment, and not very prominent socially; their knowledge would likely not have reached Jerusalem six miles away. But given that “they made known abroad” albeit probably locally, what they had seen, the Magi may have easily found those who could lead them to the new living quarters for the family.

And being warned of God in a dream that they should not return to Herod, they departed into their own country another way.  (Matthew 2:12)

Why Did Herod Slaughter Infants Up to Two?

Then Herod, when he saw that he was mocked of the wise men, was exceeding wroth, and sent forth, and slew all the children that were in Bethlehem, and in all the coasts thereof, from two years old and under, according to the time which he had diligently inquired of the wise men. (Matthew 2:16)

Chadwick notes that Herod was taken away from Jerusalem prior to his death, which was at “the end of March or beginning of April in 4 BC,” going “for a short time to mineral baths at Calirrhoe, across the Jordan River, and then finally to his palace at Jericho, where he expired.”  If the Magi’s journey to Jerusalem had been as hurried as I have outlined here, and if they had explained it to Herod during his deep questioning of them and the short distance to Bethlehem, one can imagine Herod sensing they were not returning to him only a few days after they had left Bethlehem.

If all this was happening within three months of the Savior’s birth, why did Herod command that all children two and under be killed? Andrew McGowan’s article  “How December 25 Became Christmas” notes that Jewish tradition possibly pointed to a knowledge of the conception of the Savior’s birth, perhaps on April 6th, 5 BC.

The notion that creation and redemption should occur at the same time of year is also reflected in ancient Jewish tradition, recorded in the Talmud. The Babylonian Talmud preserves a dispute between two early-second-century C.E. rabbis who share this view, but disagree on the date: Rabbi Eliezer states: “In Nisan the world was created; in Nisan the Patriarchs were born; on Passover Isaac was born … and in Nisan they [our ancestors] will be redeemed in time to come.” (The other rabbi, Joshua, dates these same events to the following month, Tishri.)

The Magi might have been aware of this tradition, and they or the Jewish priests might have explained it to Herod “according to the time which he had diligently inquired of the wise men.”  Thus Herod might have heard something about April one year before during the interview.  If so, one can imagine Herod, likely concerned about the political transition that is about to take place to his sons, being very concerned about this new king, to remove the possibility of any problem, ordering all children younger than two to be killed.

His command could have been issued any time up to his death a couple of weeks to more than a month after the Magi visit, even if he was no longer in Jerusalem.

It is possible that although Herod gave the command in March 4 BC, it was not carried out immediately. Passover was on April 10th, 4 BC.  As noted, because it was the largest festival of the province, I believe security forces would be focused on it, particularly with the imminent passing of the political leader.  It seems quite plausible to me that the order to slaughter the children would not have been carried out before the festival increasing the chances of civil unrest and more widely communicating the act because of the gathering at Jerusalem.  If it was delayed, it might have increased the age for the affected children

Zacharias Is A Victim

Joseph Smith noted the following:

When Herod’s edict went forth to destroy the young children, John was about six months older than Jesus, and came under this hellish edict, and Zacharias caused his mother to take him into the mountains, where he was raised on locusts and wild honey. When his father refused to disclose his hiding place, and being the officiating high priest at the Temple that year, was slain by Herod’s order, between the porch and the altar, as Jesus said. (Teaching of the Prophet Joseph Smith, Section Five 1842-43, p.261)

Is it possible that Zacharias was again officiating in the temple in his regular course in June, BC 4, and during that week is when he would not reveal the location of his wife and son, and was thus slaughtered? I will use this date in my analysis.

When Did Joseph Take Mary and Jesus to Egypt?

13 And when they were departed, behold, the angel of the Lord appeareth to Joseph in a dream, saying, Arise, and take the young child and his mother, and flee into Egypt, and be thou there until I bring thee word: for Herod will seek the young child to destroy him.

14 When he arose, he took the young child and his mother by night, and departed into Egypt:  (Matthew 2:13-14)

As noted, Passover was on April 10th, 4 BC.  It was a requirement of the Law of Moses that all males thirteen and older present themselves at the temple during Passover. Also, Luke 2:41 notes that the Savior’s “parents went to Jerusalem every year at the feast of the passover” (emphasis added). I believe Joseph would have clearly obeyed the Law strictly. I believe it is likely that he would have wanted to attend to this duty.

If this is right, since the dream referenced Herod specifically as still living, then it may be possible that Herod did not die until after Passover.

Why Did Joseph Depart “By Night?”

It is possible that Joseph’s dream occurred the night of the visit of the Magi, and he arose immediately and the family departed out of a very strong sense of urgency.  But it is also possible that the departure by night was not completely out of urgency; it is possible that he realized that he and Mary were known locally because of the shepherd’s announcements.  His departure by night may have been to avoid detection by others in the community

Did They First Return to Nazareth?

Luke is quite specific that after the temple, Mary and Joseph returned to directly to Nazareth.  He does not mention anything about Egypt or the slaughter of the children.

And when they had performed all things according to the law of the Lord [in the temple], they returned into Galilee, to their own city Nazareth. (Luke 2:39)

McConkie notes the following:

We know that Joseph’s family stayed in Bethlehem until Jesus, then more than forty days old, was presented in the temple, where Simeon and Anna acclaimed his divine Sonship. Luke, who makes no mention of the coming of the wise men from the East nor of the flight into Egypt, tells us that immediately after the temple appearance the Holy Family went to Nazareth. According to the chronology we are following—and it is the same followed by President J. Reuben Clark, Jr., in Our Lord of the Gospels—Jesus was born in December of 5 B.C., he was circumcised in January of 4 B.C., he was presented in the temple in February, 4 B.C., and the family probably returned to Nazareth that same month. The visit of the Magi, the flight into Egypt, and the slaughter of the Innocents, also, are all presumed to have been in February of 4 B.C. The events incident to them, of course, took place in Bethlehem.

No reason is given why Joseph took his family the 180 miles or so—on foot, by donkey, or however—from Bethlehem to Nazareth and back. Perhaps they had decided to live in the land of their ancestors, near the sacred events that already had become so much a part of their very being. Their brief return visit in Nazareth may have been to close the carpentry shop and to take leave of friends and loved ones. We have already noted the view that Zacharias was slain by Herod’s order when he refused to reveal the hiding place of the child John. Since we have no reason to believe that Herod’s assassins were slaying children as far away as Hebron, this gives rise to the thought that Zacharias and Elisabeth may also have chosen Bethlehem for their home. Perhaps Mary and Elisabeth desired to be near each other. (McConkie, Bruce R.. The Messiah Series . Deseret Book Company. Kindle Edition. Volume 1)

Either there was a quick trip to Nazareth, or Luke was mistaken about the timing of the return there. I find it hard to believe Joseph would have undertaken such a journey, and even if he did, that it warranted mention in the scriptures.  I therefore believe the timing of the return was after going to Egypt.

How Long Were They In Egypt?

15 And was there until the death of Herod: that it might be fulfilled which was spoken of the Lord by the prophet, saying, Out of Egypt have I called my son.  (Matthew

19 But when Herod was dead, behold, an angel of the Lord appeareth in a dream to Joseph in Egypt,

20 Saying, Arise, and take the young child and his mother, and go into the land of Israel: for they are dead which sought the young child’s life.

21 And he arose, and took the young child and his mother, and came into the land of Israel.  (Matthew 2:15, 19-21)

If the timing I have outlined above is correct, then the family may have been in Egypt for a relatively short period of time; weeks to perhaps months.  If Joseph was strict about his observance of the Law of Moses, he would have presented himself at the temple again the following year.  One can imagine the stay in Egypt to have been less than a year.

Visit to the Temple at Twelve Years Old

If Christ was born in BC 5, Passover would have been on March 28, AD 9, and Jesus would have been Twelve years old, to attend with his family the feast in Jerusalem (note the calendar does not have a year zero, the digit not having been used yet by those who created it in the West).

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