Questions From Readers
● Around December 25 you hear much about ‘three wise men’ being led by a star to Jesus. But did they visit him in Bethlehem or later in Nazareth?
Luke tells us that Joseph and Mary traveled from Nazareth in Galilee to Bethlehem in Judea, south of Jerusalem. There Jesus was born in a stable and laid in a manger. Through an angel Jehovah God announced the birth to shepherds, who were to find the “infant [Greek, brephos]” in Bethlehem. On the eighth day Joseph and Mary had Jesus circumcised. At the end of the required 40-day purification period, they “brought the young child [Greek, paidion]” to the temple in Jerusalem. There Simeon and the prophetess Anna saw Jesus.—Luke 2:1-38; Lev. 12:2-4.
The very next verse in Luke’s account, Luke 2:39, adds: “So when they had carried out all the things according to the law of Jehovah, they went back into Galilee to their own city Nazareth.” But what about the ‘three wise men’? When did they visit Jesus, and where?
Matthew relates that “after Jesus had been born in Bethlehem” some men came to Jerusalem from the East. Tradition holds that there were three of them (possibly because they had three kinds of gifts—gold, frankincense, myrrh). But the Bible does not say that. Nor does it term them “kings.” Rather, it calls them magoi (related to the English word “magician”). (Matt. 2:1) Rather than this meaning “wise men,” Professor A. T. Robertson explains:
“Here in Matthew the idea seems to be rather that of astrologers. Babylon was the home of astrology.”—Word Pictures in the New Testament, Vol. 1, p. 15.
Matthew tells us that after stopping in Jerusalem and conferring with King Herod, these astrologers went on “to Bethlehem.” Once having presented their gifts, they were to return and let Herod know the child’s whereabouts. But God intervened, causing the astrologers to take another route. Then he told Joseph to flee to Egypt because Herod wanted to destroy Jesus.—Matt. 2:1-15.
In the light of what Matthew and Luke say, one may wonder just when the astrologers visited Jesus. It is not reasonable that it was during the 40-day purification period, for Luke assures us that the family went to Jerusalem at the end of that time. But Matthew says that right after the astrologers’ visit Joseph fled with his family to Egypt. Hence, it seems that after presenting the child at the temple in Jerusalem the family returned to Bethlehem with plans to settle in King David’s city from where the Messiah was to come, and there were visited later by the astrologers.
Matthew 2:11 tells us that when the astrologers “went into the house they saw the young child.” So Joseph, Mary and Jesus were by this time living in a house, not in a stable as is often depicted erroneously. Also, Matthew used the Greek word paidion, which can apply to a newborn infant (John 16:21) or to a more advanced child, such as one able to speak and play games outside. (Luke 7:32) Hence, Jesus could then have been many months in age.
Indicating that he was no longer a newborn is the fact that when the astrologers did not return Herod ordered the killing of “all the boys in Bethlehem and in all its district . . . from two years of age and under, according to the time that he had carefully ascertained from the astrologers.” (Matt. 2:16) The evidence is that Jesus was born about October 1, 2 B.C.E., and that Herod died in 1 B.C.E. or early 1 C.E.* Thus Jesus could have been even a year or more old when the astrologers came. Possibly they came from as far east as the region of Babylon, on a journey that could have taken several months. Calculating from when the “star” appeared to them in the east, Herod may have included ample time so as to be sure that Jesus would be killed.
Why, then, does Luke 2:39 read as if Joseph took the family right from Jerusalem to Nazareth without going back to Bethlehem?
It appears that Luke simply omits the intervening events (the return from Jerusalem to Bethlehem, the astrologers’ visit and the flight to Egypt), even as Matthew says nothing of the shepherds or the trip to Jerusalem where Simeon and Anna saw Jesus. Certainly the astrologers did not visit Jesus in Nazareth, for Matthew says otherwise; and in Nazareth Jesus would not have been endangered by an order to kill children in ‘Bethlehem and its districts.’