The Bible and Culture

The Bible and Culture

Star-Studded Wise Men: Rethinking the Christmas Story

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Getting to the bottom of the historical well when it comes to Christmas stories in Matthew and Luke proves difficult at times. It is rather like what happened to the Sistine Chapel ceiling when it was finally cleaned and all the lacquer and dirt of the centuries was removed. The end result was startling, much more colorful…. and more beautiful too.  Well, the real Christmas story is also more interesting and compelling than the usual stuff that passes for preaching at Christmas.  Lets take those famous wise men of Matthew 2.1-12   First a little ground clearing exercise.

1) We do not know how many persons were involved.  We are simply told that more than one showed up– Magoi is the plural of the Greek word Magos, from which we get the English word magic/magician.  A Magos was an oriental priest of sorts, learned in various sorts of esoteric arts, including astrology (studying the sky for clues about the present or future), the interpretation of dreams, the reading of animal’s entrails, necromancy, etc.

2) These men were definitely not kings— so enough with the “We Three Kings…” Christmas carol. These are the kinds of persons who were counselors and advisors to kings, which is precisely how Herod in the story treats them. They were consultants.  We could discuss why the Christmas mythology is more appealing than the Christmas history to some folks.

3) It is not clear whether they came to Bethlehem from the east, or from the northwest, namely Anatolia.  Their profession might well favor the former conclusion but the Greek here should probably be rendered ‘we saw his star at its rising’. which presumably means they saw it rise in the east. But that in turn would likely mean they were looking east, not necessarily they were from the Orient. In any case the story focuses on their astrological work.  They are star gazers.

4) The story very clearly tells us that they do not arrive in Bethlehem until after Jesus was born, indeed possibly well after because we are told that Herod was concerned with infants up to two years of age, and we also have the story of the parents taking Jesus to the Temple on the eight day, the proper day for circumcision.  In other words, they seem to have stayed in Bethlehem after the birth of the child for a while.

So enough with the barn scenes with both shepherds and wise men present simultaneously, and this word also just in— there is no mention of any animals being present or very near the Christ child when he was born or thereafter. This whole barn, manger, animals tableau we owe largely to St. Francis of Assisi who came up with the idea. You will remember he loved all creatures great and small.

And one more thing—  there is probably no ‘inn’ in Luke 2.7– the correct translation of the Greek word there is ‘guest room’ not inn.  Its the very word Luke uses elewhere to speak of the room where the last supper transpired. He uses a very different word for Inn, in the parable of the Good Samaritan. So enough with the sermons entitled “No Room in the Inn” all about the world making no room for Jesus.  Jesus was likely born in a relative’s home in the back of the house where they kept the prized beast of burden, hence the manger or corn crib.  And it is likely they continued to stay with their relatives there when the Magi showed up.    

Having cleared away some of the kudzu which has grown up around this Matthean story, lets now consider several more aspects of it.

Firstly, Bethlehem (Hebrew name meaning house of bread), was not even a one stop sign town. It was tiny, and chiefly known for its sheep fields, because here is where the sheep, to be used for sacrifices in Jerusalem, were raised. It probably never had a wayfarers inn in antiquity, as it was not on a major road. So when we are envisioning the slaughter of the innocents, can we please not give the story the Cecil B. Demille treatment.  I would estimate we are talking about single digits when we are trying to count the number of infants through 2 year olds in that little burg in Jesus’ day.

Secondly, we need to talk about the way ancient peoples viewed stars.  In the first place any sort of celestial object might be called a star— planets, meteors, and yes, stars! 

But more importantly than that, many ancients believed that at least some of the stars were actually heavenly beings— the heavenly hosts.  So lets rewind the story in Matthew 2 for a minute. Mt. 2.9 actually says the magi left Jerusalem and “the star they had seen when it rose went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was”.  All we need now is a neon arrow in the sky pointing down to the manger!  

But seriously folks, no star or planet or meteor behaves as described in Mt. 2.9. The journey from Jerusalem to Bethlehem is only a few miles, but if you leave Herod’s Palace you have to go south and a tiny bit west to get there. No stars, planets, or meteors go north to south and then stop— honestly they don’t.  So all of this astronomical amount of astronomical speculation about whether Jesus was born in 6 B.C. or 4 B.C. because there was a conjunction of planets then may all be pointless.  Matthew may well be envisioning the ‘star’ as a heavenly being, an angel, leading the wise men in the right direction. Angels at least, last I checked, can move north to south and stop at a specific location.  

Thirdly, notice that Mt. 2.11 says that the Magi came to a house not an inn in Bethlehem and they found the baby and Mary (no mention of Joseph at this juncture. Was he out counting sheep?).  The text adds that they ‘;worshipped’ Jesus, or at least that’s the usual English rendering.  But it could just as well mean ‘they did obeisance, bowing down to the ground’, a sign of extreme respect (cf. Mt. 8.29.18;15.25), but a bit short of worship. It was the normal gesture you gave when you came into the presence of royalty. This may be the meaning of the verb on Herod’s lips in 2.8 as well.

Fourthly, now about those Christmas presents!  It is because there are three of them that some have deduced there were three Magi. But a minute’s reflection will show that two or ten people or more can go together to give three gifts fit for a king. 

And lets consider the gifts for a moment— gold, frankincense, and myrrh.  Odd gifts for a child that has nothing and whose parents are so poor they can barely pay for two pigeons to do the sacrifice in the temple (see Lk. 2.24).

Frankincense and myrrh were very expensive gifts, not least because they only came from southern Arabia and what we now call Somalia. Pliny tells us that a pound of incense cost a full weeks wages of a day laborers and the most prized myrrh could cost 50 days wages of a day laborer.  There is probably an echo of Ps. 72.10-15 here in any case. 

These gifts reflect the wealth of the Magi, and the worth of the Christ child in their eyes. Incense was useful for a king for cosmetic, magical, and worship purposes, and even as medicine on occasion.

Myrrh on the other hand was an aromatic often used in burials to retard odor, but also used in small quantities in wine as a drug– (see the story of Jesus refusing the myrrhed wine at the crucifixion). Probably these are meant to be seen as gifts fit for a king, for it is Matthew that stresses Jesus is son of David.    In the end the Magi stiff King Herod, not returning to tell him where Jesus is, having been warned in a dream about his nefarious purposes. Th
is was normal fare for them, since they regularly interpreted dreams and believed they could convey divine messages. So you could say Jesus got the incense and Herod got incensed!

So where does this leave us?  Once we detox the church giddy on the high of a cosmetized and overly sentimentalized version of the story of Jesus’ birth, and realize that this is a story about danger, and a contrast between a paranoid Herod the not so Great (who was in fact partly Idumean, which is to say Edomite), and a real King of the Jews Jesus, we still have much to appreciate and preach.  

As George MacDonald put it “we were all looking for a king to slay our foes and lift us high/ thou cam’st a little baby thing, that made a woman cry.”  Jesus did not come to meet our expectations about superstars, he came to meet our needs.

I like what John Donne said even better “Twas much that we were made like God, long beforre/ But that God should be made like us— much more.”     


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posted December 8, 2009 at 12:36 am

Thanks for this excellent survey, Ben. I’ll add my two bits:
The fact that the Magi were astrologers does suggest the “star” followed some astronomical course *before* they saw Herod, but I agree it absolutely did something supernatural when they saw it for (at least) the second time.
The fact that astrology itself is so widely open to interpretation, I suggest, should tell us that we CANNOT suppose which astronomical/astrological symbology the Magi “would” have been most likely to bring them to Herod. At the very least, the “Star of Bethlehem” cannot be our primary means of dating the Lord’s birth.
Nice to meet you so briefly at SBL, by the way. Thanks again for all that you do.

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Brice C. Jones

posted December 8, 2009 at 1:21 am

I get very irritated with all of the dead wrong readings of this Bible story (among all the other ones). Maybe I should jump up from my seat in the middle of the Christmas program next week and tell them they’re wrong!
By the way, your New Testament Rhetoric book changed my life. I picked it up at SBL in New Orleans and finished it a couple days ago. That I did so amongst final exams in graduate school should tell you that I really did like it a lot (smile)!

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Brice C. Jones

posted December 8, 2009 at 1:23 am

I get very irritated with all of the dead wrong readings of this Bible story (among all the other ones). Maybe I should jump up from my seat in the middle of the Christmas program next week and tell them they’re wrong!
By the way, your New Testament Rhetoric book changed my life. I picked it up at SBL and finished it a couple days ago. That I did so amongst final exams in graduate school should tell you that I really did like it a lot (smile)!

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posted December 8, 2009 at 10:46 am

“It is not clear whether they came to Bethlehem from the east, or from the northwest, namely Anatolia. Their profession might well favor the former conclusion but the Greek here should probably be rendered ‘we saw his star at its rising’. which presumably means they saw it rise in the east.”
It’s true that “seeing the star in the east” or “in its rising” does not mean they came from the east; but doesn’t “magi from the east came to Jerusalem” (Matthew 2:1) make it pretty clear?

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Your Name

posted December 8, 2009 at 12:07 pm

Hello Dr. Witherington,
What about the traditional Orthodox Christian approach that Jesus was born in a cave? Are there any caves in the area to make that possible? Not sure about the geography of Bethlehem.
Kind Regards,

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posted December 8, 2009 at 12:19 pm

Excellent, Ben. Simply excellent!
Sincerely appreciate all that you do for the kingdom!

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posted December 8, 2009 at 2:44 pm

Are you familiar with Dr. Kenneth Bailey’s video, “A Clear View of the Birth of Jesus”? He makes many of these same points. It’s true that a lot of our notions about the birth of Jesus come from Christmas carols and pageants.
I like the point Dr. Bailey makes, using Middle Eastern values of hospitality, correcting the popular notion that Joseph was a “bad” husband and father because he showed up in Bethlehem at the last minute with a pregnant wife and no lodging arrangements. Luke says, “While they were there, the time came for [Mary] to deliver her child.” That suggests they had been there for a while. It makes sense that they would have stayed with family — after all, Bethlehem was Joseph’s hometown.
Anyway, thanks for your blog.

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Mike Hickerson

posted December 8, 2009 at 2:45 pm

Thanks for the great post, though I disagree about getting rid of “We Three Kings.” Let’s not throw away a great song just because it’s not historically accurate! The theology of the full carol is far better than most of the saccharin stuff we get this time of year.

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posted December 8, 2009 at 3:03 pm

Did you know that when Charles Wesley wrote the carol that became “Hark! the Herald Angels Sing,” the first line said, Hark! how all the welkin [the vault of heaven] rings, glory to the King of kings”? When George Whitefield published the hymn, he changed it to “Hark! the herald angels sing.” The story is that Wesley was incensed by Whitefield’s revision. Nowhere in Scripture did it say that the angels “sang” about Christ’s birth. Luke 2:13 says that multitude of the heavenly host was “praising God and SAYING, ‘Glory to God in the highest heaven…'” Reportedly, Wesley never sang Whitefiled’s version. [From Ace Collins’ book, “Stories Behind the Best-Loved Songs of Christmas”]

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posted December 8, 2009 at 3:37 pm

Dr. Witherington,
I have never posted on this blog but enjoy reading your articles from time to time. This question is not directly related to your recent post and is more related to the whole “origins of Christmas” topic.
In my line of ministry, of which your work helps me considerably, I spend a significant amount of time at various mosques holding dialogues with Muslim leaders concerning questions primarily dealing with Jesus.
A recent question was asked about the origins of Christmas (pagan and Christian). I’m familiar with some of the basic theories, about Saturnalia and the winter solstice, some basic history of Saint Nic etc., but was hoping you could provide me with more historically reliable sources that help explain the origins and developments of both pagan and Christian celebrations of Christmas. I have briefly looked at books by Susan K. Roll (Towards the Origin of Christmas) and Joseph F. Kelly (the Origins of Christmas), are these reliable? What books would you recommend for summarizing an overall history of Christmas origins?
I appreciate any help you can give me,
Thanks very much

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Ben Witherington

posted December 8, 2009 at 3:47 pm

Aaron I am familiar with the Orthodox tradition and indeed there is a cave under the church of the Nativity where you go to see the ‘star’ in the floor. There are also little caves nearby where sheep not people stayed. But what the text says is in a guest room. Caves don’t have guest rooms. And the phrase at home also suggests a house.
I am well familiar with the Whitefield modifications of Charles Wesley’s hymn, which he got his knickers in a knot about. As for the Greek of Mt. 2.1– its says Magoi from Anatole….. this could be read to mean from Anatolia, or from the place of the rising sun, i.e. the east.

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Benji Overcash

posted December 8, 2009 at 6:20 pm

Hi Dr. Witherington,
Hope all is well in snowy Kentucky. It’s certainly beautiful in Oz this time of year!
I’ve recently been wondering (though I admittedly haven’t had the time to do much research) if Roman Imperial coinage might have something to tell us about the meaning of star of Bethlehem. The striking resemblance of Matthew’s story about the star of Bethlehem to the comet that appeared during the reign of Augustus–thought to be the deified Caesar–has of course been noted. But Pliny also mentions that Augustus associated the comet with his own birth (HN 2.94).
Augustus’ coin issues bearing the comet are more telling. This one (, for instance, shows the bust of Augustus and the legend “Caesar Augustus” on the obverse and the comet and the inscription “Divine Julius” on the reverse. This one ( is particularly revealing, with the head of Augustus and the comet on the obverse and a legend reading DIVI F (short-hand for Divi Filius, “Son of the Divine”). Augustus identified the comet as his deified (adopted) father, Caesar, and then with his own birth as the son of the deified Caesar, i.e. the “Son of God.”
While Herod minted coinage that didn’t bear human images in Judea and Tyrian silver was used in Jerusalem to pay the Temple tax, the Imperial coinage still circulated there and was used to pay taxes (cf. e.g. Mk 12:15-17). So everyone in Judea–even if they hadn’t heard the story–would have seen the coins and associated the star with Augustus, the “Son of God.” This is precisely Matthew’s point: the baby over whom the star appears is the new Divine King and the true Son of God. Perhaps, then, this is the image Matthew intends to conjure in the minds of his first-century readers.
What do you think?

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Ben Witherington

posted December 8, 2009 at 7:06 pm

Hi Benji:
This is of course not a novel suggestion, but the coins being used to pay the Temple tax in A.D. 30 or so were of Tiberius not Augustus. There may have been a few of Augustus coins around, but it is striking to me that in the recent digs in Galilee they don’t really much show up. What we have is the Tyrian coins and also a surprising number of Jewish coins, not only the recent ones of Antipas, but older Macabeean ones as well.
Glad you are enjoying Sydney. I’ll see you there next August.

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Benji Overcash

posted December 8, 2009 at 10:21 pm

Thanks a lot for the reply, Dr. Witherington! Perhaps I’m missing something, but I’m a bit confused as to the significance of AD 30 and Tiberius. (By the way, Tiberius also issued coinage with the comet type and a “Divi Filius” legend.) Also, as I understand it, the Temple dues were paid in Tyrian silver rather than Imperial or Herodian coinage, hence the need for money changers at the Temple.
The problem, as you point out, is that the Augustan coinage was in circulation decades before Matthew’s gospel was written down. So, would its original audience have understood a reference to coinage no longer in circulation–at least not abundantly? I admit, that’s problematic. But I do know that Tiberius minted similar issues, so it may be that whatever Emperor was in power when Matthew’s gospel was written also minted such coinage, though this is admittedly pure conjecture since I haven’t had the time to look into this. Nonetheless, Pliny still knew the story about the comet and Augustus associating it with his birth–so it’s certainly possible that even if Matthew’s first audience hadn’t seen the coinage, they knew the story.
At any rate, this is something that has only recently come to mind so I appreciate the opportunity to hear your thoughts. See you in August!

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posted December 8, 2009 at 11:29 pm

Dr. Witherington,
Can we really mash Matthew’s birth story with Luke’s? They are two different stories with different points of view and different points to make. Matthew’s story is strongly political in nature and is from Joseph’s point of view. Luke stresses the religious nature of Jesus’ birth and is from Mary’s point of view.
In Luke’s story, Mary and Joseph are in Nazareth to begin with, travel to Bethlehem for the census, and after Jesus’ dedication and circumcision they return to Nazareth. Woven through the beginning of the story is the beautiful story of Elizabeth, Zechariah, and the birth of John. At the end, we have the witnesses of Simeon and Anna who somehow always seem to be left out of the story.
In Matthew’s story, they are in Bethlehem to begin with, maybe even living in a house that the magi arrive at. With the impending political threat, they flee to Egypt for several years. Perhaps they even survived their time there with the gifts they received. When they venture to return home (Bethlehem) they are warned of the danger and sent north to Nazareth.
The only similarities in the two stories are the characters, Mary, Joseph, and Jesus, and the fact that Jesus is from Nazareth when he begins his ministry.
Two great stories with two great messages. They don’t have to be mashed together so let’s try to keep them separate.

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Ben Witherington

posted December 9, 2009 at 7:54 am

Hi Gary:
While I agree that each story has its own point of view, if you care about history then you can’t just say let’s keep them separate. That doesn’t work. Sounds like you’ve been reading too much Dom Crossan. And you have over read the differences in the story. Matthew certainly does not suggest the Holy Family is living in Bethlehem for any length of time before Jesus is born. Indeed, he also calls Jesus Jesus of Nazareth just as Luke does. So, it is right to take into account the differing emphases and points of view of these stories as you say, since what matters most is their historical as well as theological substance, its not enough to appreciate them as nice literary compositions that have their own thrusts. There is a difference between false harmonizing and coming to grips with the singular history that generated both birth narratives.

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posted December 10, 2009 at 9:48 am

The whole star thing has never bothered me either way. I have figured that if God could become Incarnate, He could cause a star to move out of regular pattern. I do realize that we should not regard all things as miracles, but, wasn’t his birth a miracle? Why would the circumstances surrounding it not be miraculous. Is there a reason we should not believe this? Just curious. :)
Also…do you see genuine harm in continuing to portray the “traditional” Christmas story in the matter it is currently portrayed? Is it wrong to have children dressed up as sheep as they gather around the manger in a million different Christmas pageants? Is it wrong to sing the traditional Christmas hymns, even if they might be “theologically fringy?” :) I see the need for pastors to be more accurate in their study and presentation – but alot of our traditions are just that…traditions. Wondering….genuinely….is it IMPORTANT to be absolutely correct and accurate in every attempted representation? I would like to know…

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Augustus caesar

posted December 20, 2009 at 6:25 pm

In 14 BC halleys comet The earliest known mention of the comet in Europe occurs at the death of Augusutus Caesar which is where you get the Son of God acending upon the throne of the Gods or the firey chariot of jove,why because his age is the same return as the comet 76 years born 63 work it out, then perverted by the cruz worshipers , “The star called comet hung for several days over the city and was finally dissolved in flashes resembling torches.” In 1682 he predicted the comet would return again in 1758, and sure enough, the comet arrived in March 1759. Halley’s Comet made a particularly bright appearance in 1910.Augustus Caesar’s birth as in spurious son of god 63, comet calculation taking his age at AD or Augustus Death age 76 away from 63, year he was born13,89,165,241,317,393,469,545,621,697,773,849,925,1001,1077,1153,1229,1305,1381,1457,1533,1609,1685,1761,1837,1913,1989 so as you can clearly see not much change or discrepancy in the dates of Edmund with the birth of the true son of god i.e. Augustus .It takes a wise man to lead the blind and the wicked to lead them away from the true guiding light.MUST INFORM YOU ALL I AM A LOYAL SERVANT OF CAESARIANISIM AND I HATE THE CHRISTIN CROSS WHICH IS A EVIL the cross or Voodoo doll is a mystical and wicked
Practice committed by Christians upon the divine son of god and saviour of peace a sacrilege a profanation the father Julius Caesar the son Augustus Caesar.
Practice carried out by Christian worship. The Voodoo doll is used to represent the spirit of a specific person. You can address the doll as if you are talking to that person, requesting a change in attitude, influencing the person to act in accordance with your evil wishes, evil desires.
Once in possession of an authentic Voodoo doll OR CROSS, you can request the doll to call upon unholy forces known as Loa.This timeless ceremony is carried out to persuade the evil spirits to exert their influence in this world
It’s a system of beliefs originating in Africa. It is estimated that Voodoo has over fifty million followers worldwide most are inpious infidelis such as christian. Voodoo flourishes in Rome, Brazil, Trinidad, Jamaica, Cuba, Haiti, New Orleans and in private homes in every country in the world in the form of a CROSS! Voodoo believers accept the existence of one god.

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posted January 9, 2011 at 10:49 pm

Unbelievable post about Star-Studded Wise Men: Rethinking the Christmas Story
– Ben Witherington on the Bible and Culture!

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