The story of the birth of Jesus and the visit by the Wisemen is deeply entrenched in our understanding of this critical event in history-the birth of the Messiah. I will briefly attempt here to point out what we know from Scripture and scrape away some common misconceptions that have been added to the text.
Who were the Wise Men and why did they arrive in Bethlehem about two months after the birth of Jesus?
The Wise Men were members of a Persian Tribe called the ‘Magi’ from which we get word ‘magic.’ Much like the Tribe of Levi for the nation of Israel, the Magi functioned as the spiritual leadership tribe in Persia and were very powerful politically. The Magi were monotheistic, believed in blood sacrifice, practiced sorcery, and were masters of astronomy. While they were not kings themselves, they were the most important king-makers in the ancient Persian world. If you wanted to be a king in Persia you had to become a master of the wisdom, knowledge and disciplines of the Magi. Their main religion was and is called Zoroastrianism.
Some of the Magi in the time of Jesus were descendants of the Magi who were trained by the Prophet Daniel while in exile in Babylon (Est. 545 BC-474 BC). These Magi practiced Zoroastrian rituals but believed in the God of Israel as the one true God being heavily influenced by Daniel’s teachings. Daniel was put in charge of the Magi, called Chaldeans, by Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar after his dream was accurately interpreted as described in Daniel Chapter 2 (Est. 543 BC).
Daniel was again put in charge of the Magi by Persian King Darius the Mede who put Daniel in the lion’s den (Chapter 6). King Darius believed in the God of Daniel and was very relieved when he found Daniel alive the next morning and feeds Daniel’s accusers to the lions. Darius issues a decree to the nation of Persia to worship the God of Daniel (Est. 487 BC).
In about 474 BC, 19 years before the end of the Babylonian exile in September of 455 BC, Daniel has his famous vision called the ’70 Weeks Prophecy’ described in Daniel Chapter 9. Each ‘Week’ represents seven years of time and is broken down into three parts. The First Seven weeks (49 years-7/455 BC-7/406 BC) is centered around the rebuilding of Jerusalem (Dan. 9:25) that starts with the rebuilding of the Jerusalem Wall from mid July-September:( Elul 25-Neh. 6:15) in 455 BC. The second 62 weeks, 434 years, goes from 7/406 BC to 7/29 AD. At the end of this sixty-two week period, Daniel 9:26 states “Messiah shall be cut-off” – i.e. killed. Jesus is crucified the following Spring on Passover of 30 AD. Daniel’s prophecy is very precise.
What was the Star of Bethlehem?
The point of all these dates, taken from my research, is that the Wise Men knew when to start searching for a sign in the sky for the coming Messiah. In October of 5 BC, during the time of the first Roman Census, Magi saw a star from their sky view in Persia, possibly near Babylon in modern day Iraq, and began preparing for a trip to Jerusalem of about 700 miles. At that same time there was a great expectation based on Daniel’s teaching of a king to be born in Israel who would be the long awaited Messiah.
The Star of Bethlehem was only seen by the Magi at the time of the birth of Jesus and after they arrive in Jerusalem about two months later in December. The Magi see the Star again after meeting with Herod and the leaders in the Temple who directed the Magi to Bethlehem where Micah 5:2 says the Messiah would be born.
Only the Magi saw the star.
It was not a comet or star formation that can be charted by astronomy. The star is called ‘Astair’ which can mean a blazing, shining or Shekina manifestation of the ‘Glory of God.’ I can speculate the what the Wise Men first saw in the East happened at the same time the shepherd’s saw and heard the angels announce: “For there is born to you this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord” in Luke 2:11.