Were the Magi at the Manger?

by Luke Wayne

We do not know exactly when the magi (or "wise men") arrived at Bethlehem to worship Jesus, but it is unlikely that they were there the night of Jesus' birth. In fact, the evidence in Matthew's gospel suggests that Jesus was probably around two years old when they arrived. Matthew explains that:

"Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, magi from the east arrived in Jerusalem, saying, 'Where is He who has been born King of the Jews? For we saw His star in the east and have come to worship Him,'" (Matthew 2:1-2).

The passage does not say that this happened the night of Jesus birth. It only tells us that it happened sometime after Jesus was born in Bethlehem. Was it moments later? Days? Months? The Bible does not plainly say. However, the passage does go on to give us some solid clues. It explains:

"Herod secretly called the magi and determined from them the exact time the star appeared. And he sent them to Bethlehem and said, 'Go and search carefully for the Child; and when you have found Him, report to me, so that I too may come and worship Him,'" (Mathew 2:7-8).

It later recounts:

"Then when Herod saw that he had been tricked by the magi, he became very enraged, and sent and slew all the male children who were in Bethlehem and all its vicinity, from two years old and under, according to the time which he had determined from the magi," (Matthew 2:16)

The "time which he determined from the magi" was apparently about two years. In other words, the star seems to have appeared around two years before the magi arrived. Herod (and probably the magi) assumed that the star appeared right at Jesus' birth. The fact that star is a sign announcing Jesus' birth seems to fit with their assumption, and the text certainly does nothing to contradict it. The word used for Jesus during this passage is not "baby," but rather "child," and was a word generally used for any child before puberty. The use of this word is not enough to prove that Jesus was no longer a newborn baby, but it is certainly consistent with that idea. The most obvious reading of this chapter is that Mary and Joseph lived in Bethlehem for the first two years or so of Jesus' life and that the magi finally arrived at that time. Some early Church Fathers affirm this understanding, such as Origen1 and Taitian,2 though Justin Martyr describes the magi arriving at the manger scene,3 so even back then there was not a universal consensus.

What is most important is that we know that the magi did indeed come, worship Jesus, and join their voices with the stars of heaven in declaring Jesus to be the promised King. Exactly when they came is less urgent, though it seems most likely that it was while Jesus was a young child rather than a newborn in a manger.

  • 1. Origen, Against Celsus, Chapter 63
  • 2. Taitian, Diatessaron, Chapters 2-3
  • 3. Justin Martyr, Dialogue with Trypho, Chapter 78