We’ve covered “WHO Were the Wise Men?” and “HOW Did They Know?” Now we’ll cover “WHEN Did the Wise Men Arrive?”
There’s a popular Christmas song that many sing during the holidays, but few know the meaning behind the song. “The Twelve Days of Christmas” tells of 12 cumulative days of gifts. With each day, new gifts are added to the first day’s gift….“a partridge in a pear tree.” The number of gifts added is based upon the number of the day. Most notable is the resounding chorus of “five golden rings,” given on the fifth day.
“The Twelve Days of Christmas” is a fun song to sing, but most people have never given much thought to the significance of the 12 days. The church has traditionally suggested that the 12 days start on Christmas day (or in some traditions, the day after Christmas). The 12 days culminate with the feast of Epiphany, which is observed on January 6th.
The Feast of Epiphany
This feast day is meant to commemorate the day in which the wise man arrived to see the baby Jesus. Therefore, the liturgical calendar of some churches call the day, “The Three Kings’ Day.” Some traditions also hold that Epiphany marks the day when John the Baptist baptized Jesus.
But are these things really so? According to the gospel of Matthew, these Wise Men came from the Persian Empire (read: Who were the Three Wise Men?). They traveled first to Jerusalem seeking the Christ child. Then, led by a star, they eventually found the child where the star came to rest. Tradition tells that the Wise Men arrived 12 days after the birth of Jesus. However, Scripture suggests that is not so.
Arrival After The Dedication of Jesus?
In accordance with the Law, Mary and Joseph took their child to the temple to be dedicated to the Lord.
Luke 2:22 And when the days of her purification according to the law of Moses were accomplished, they brought him to Jerusalem, to present him to the Lord;
The time when this dedication was to be done was clearly prescribed in Levitical law (Lev 12:2-4). The days of Mary’s purification were at least 40 days after the birth of Jesus. For 7 days, the mother was deemed to be unclean. On the eighth day, a man child was to be circumcised, Then, 33 days were to pass for a woman’s purification to be fulfilled. After that, the young couple was to take their baby for dedication in the Temple, along with an animal sacrifice to offer to the Lord:
Lev 12:6 And when the days of her purifying are fulfilled, for a son, or for a daughter, she shall bring a lamb of the first year for a burnt offering, and a young pigeon, or a turtledove, for a sin offering, unto the door of the tabernacle of the congregation, unto the priest:
This offering was to be made before the Lord to make atonement for the woman and to cleanse her from the issue of blood. How fitting that it was to be “a lamb of the first year” and a bird (a young pigeon or a turtledove). Symbolically, this seems to represent Jesus, the Lamb of God, and the Holy Spirit who appeared as a dove. A provision was also made for those who could not afford to offer a lamb. In such a case, the woman was able to bring two turtledoves or two young pigeons.
Since we are told in Luke 2:24 that Mary made an offering of birds (plural). This is an indication that Mary and Joseph did not have the necessary funds to purchase a lamb for their burnt offering. Had the Wise Men arrived in 12 days, as is suggested by tradition, Mary and Joseph would have received the precious gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Had that been the case, Mary would have been able to provide a blood offering in the form of a lamb for her purification.
This biblical reasoning suggests that the dedication of Jesus would have been at least 40 days after his birth.
Arrival When Jesus was Two Years Old?
Some suggest that the Wise Men did not arrive to see Jesus until he was two years of age, living in a house in Nazareth. This is based on Matthew 2:111 where we are told that they (the Wise Men) “came into the house and saw the young child.” Many also consider Herod’s decree that all children two years old and under should be put to death as reasoning that Jesus would have been about two years old. Could this be true?
While Bible readers construe that Jesus was two years old, there is no evidence to support it. Questionable is the translation of “young child.” The Greek word used by Matthew is paidion, and it means a childling (of either sex), i.e. (prop.) an infant, or a half-grown boy or girl. Also problematic, is assuming the age of Jesus based on Herod’s decree. Herod very likely could have been “covering his bases,” and going well beyond the age of Jesus at the time.
The Wise Men “Came Into the House”
We know that Jesus was born in a place where animals were kept. Perhaps it was a stable or cave, but it’s possible it was the lower level of a house where animals were kept in cold weather. It is, therefore, possible that Mary and Joseph returned to the Bethlehem house after they visited the Temple in Jerusalem for her purification. While Jesus was born among the animals because there was no room in the house (due to the influx of people because of the census), Mary, Joseph, and Jesus might have been welcomed into the upper room of the house 40 days later.
It is also possible that the Wise Men were led by the star to Nazareth. We are told in Luke that following the dedication of Jesus in the Temple (40 days or more after His birth), Mary and Joseph returned to their home in Nazareth.
Luke 2:39 So when they had performed all things according to the law of the Lord, they returned to Galilee, to their own city, Nazareth.
It’s clear that the Wise Men arriving 12 days after Jesus’ birth is incorrect. The timing does not fit because had the Wise Men arrived prior to the dedication at the Temple, Mary would have offered a lamb, not the alternative offering of a bird (the offering of one who could not afford a lamb). Mary and Joseph were devout Jews and had they been given the precious gifts of great value from the Wise Men, they would have been able to sell the gold, frankincense, or myrrh and had the money to purchase a lamb to offer to God.
It does, however, make sense that it was from these precious gifts that Mary and Joseph had the means to flee into Egypt with Jesus. The Bible clearly supports that their flight into Egypt was after the Wise Men came.
Mat 2:13 And when they [the Wise Men] 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…
The Wise Men/Toddler Jesus View
The Wise Men/Toddler Jesus view seems to have it roots in the actions of King Herod at the time of Jesus’ birth. When the wise men came to him looking for the Messiah, he asked them when the star had appeared (Matthew 2:7).
The wise men went to visit Jesus and then returned home.
When Herod saw that they did not return to him as he had asked them to, he “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 enquired of the wise men.” (Matthew 2:16 KJV) Evidently, Herod figured that Jesus had to have been born at some time around when the star appeared or later.
The Wise Men/Toddler Jesus crowd agree with Herod’s conclusion. They make three points in support of their view: 1) Jesus was born when the star appeared; 2) Jesus is called a young child (KJV) in the wise men account (Matthew 2:8,9,11,13,14,20,21) and not a baby; and 3) the wise men found Jesus in a house (Matthew 2:11), not a stable or an inn.
These points may sound plausible, but upon closer examination of the Bible and its underlying Greek text, some major problems emerge.
The Start of the Star
The Bible does not say that Jesus was born when the star first appeared. Those who say He was are only guessing.
Despite who Herod was, he did not know when Jesus was born. Just because he ordered that children two years old should be killed does not mean that Jesus was two years old at that time. Herod evidently also thought that Jesus could have been a newborn baby only days old because he also ordered newborn babies to be killed.
A Baby is Called a Young Child Too
The Greek word behind the term, young child, is paidion. It does not refer only to a toddler. It may also be a newborn baby. Paidion is used of John the Baptist when he was eight days old (Luke 1:59,66,76,80). It is used of Jesus when he was born (Luke 2:17), when he was eight days old (Luke 2:21), and when he was 40 days old (Luke 2:27,40). In fact, paidion is used of Jesus when the shepherds were there on the night of Jesus’ birth (Luke 2:17), just one verse after babe (brephos) is used. So just because Jesus is called a young child (paidion) in the wise men account (Matthew) does not mean that he was older than a baby.
An Inn was a Room in a House
In the Bible times when people traveled, they stayed in homes as non-paying guests because hotels were very rare. There were no Holiday Inns or Motel 6s. The law commanded the Jews to treat strangers as themselves and not take advantage of them (Leviticus 19:33). It was wrong for them to charge money for travelers to spend the night. Because of this, it is highly unlikely that there was an inn in Bethlehem.
The term, inn, in the Bible can also refer to the guest room in a house. The Greek word for inn (kataluma) is only translated as inn in Luke 2:7. The other two times it appears (Mark 14:14 and Luke 22:11), it is translated as guest chamber (chamber is an old word for room) in the KJV. In those verses, it is obvious that it is a room in a house, not an inn.
Many people built guest rooms in their homes (usually as a second floor over their existing house with an external door and stairway) so that they could have a place for visitors to sleep, especially around Jerusalem. During Israel’s three national holidays, Jews traveled from all over the country and lived in houses as non-paying guests in and around Jerusalem. Two of the holidays were a week long and so it required that the people with houses in Jerusalem and the surrounding cities be hospitable.
What is referred to as an inn in Bethlehem most likely was a guest room in someone’s house. The guest room was full and so Mary and Joseph slept in the barn.
When the people in the guest room saw that Mary had given birth to Jesus, it is likely that someone offered to sleep in the barn so Mary and Jesus could sleep in the house. So the wise men could have come the day Jesus was born and found him in a house. The mention of a house does not require or hint that Jesus was not a baby.
But for argument’s sake, let’s say that everything in this section is wrong. There was an inn in Bethlehem and there was no room in the inn for Jesus. What form would this inn be in? A thirty story building able to sleep thousands with a big lighted sign on top that says, “Bethlehem Inn”? No. It was not in New York City in the twenty-first century. It was in Israel at the end of the BC era. They did not have skyscrapers. They had houses. If there had been an inn in Bethlehem, it would have been in a house, a house that the wise men came to. Again, the mention of a house does not require or hint that Jesus was not a baby.
The Wise Men Arrived in Jerusalem When Jesus Was Born
Another proof for the Wise Men/Baby Jesus view is Matthew 2:1. “Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judaea in the days of Herod the king, behold, there came wise men from the east to Jerusalem.” (KJV) This verse states that the wise men came into Jerusalem “when Jesus was born”. They did not come a year later. They came when he was born.
“When Jesus was born” is an aorist participle in Greek. It can be translated as “when Jesus was born”, “after Jesus was born”, or “Jesus was born and.” Aorist participles are frequent in the New Testament. With an aorist participle, the action of the participle (Jesus was born) is closely followed by the action of the main verb (wise men came to Jerusalem). There was not a year or two or even a week or two between the time Jesus was born and when the wise men came into Jerusalem.
Bethlehem was only half a day’s walk from Jerusalem. It did not take the wise men long to get to Bethlehem after they arrived in Jerusalem when Jesus was born.
We Know When they Returned to Nazareth
Another proof for the Wise Men/Baby Jesus view is Joseph, Mary, and Jesus’ return back to Nazareth. It only happened once and both the wise men account (Matthew) and the shepherd account (Luke) record it. In the shepherd account (Luke) it is very clear that they returned to Nazareth (Luke 2:39) very close to 40 days after Jesus was born, “when the days of her purification according to the law of Moses were accomplished” (Luke 2:22). The wise men account (Matthew) tells us that they returned to Nazareth after their return from Egypt (Matthew 2:22,23). So the wise men’s visit, Joseph and Mary’s trip to Egypt, and their trip back, all of it had to have happened within 40 days of Jesus’ birth.