Daniel Harrell is the editor-in-chief of Christianity Today. Today is his first day on the job. The views expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.
For liturgical calendar–watchers and church history enthusiasts, Epiphany ranks as the third most important event of the church year, right after Easter and Pentecost. It was one thing for Israel’s King to be born among Jewish shepherds and angels. Quite another to have him revealed as the King of the Gentiles too. Epiphany means revelation, and with the revelation of Jesus to the Magi, God’s plan to save his chosen people turns out to be a plan to save the whole world.
By the time we get to Matthew 2, Jesus is a toddler and sleeping in a bed. His family thankfully upgraded to a house, which may have been connected to all those glorious angels. Anybody witnessing that spectacle surely scrambled to make more room available. The family still resides in Bethlehem, where they’re famously visited by a collection of exotic magicians from the east, described by tradition as three kings or wise men, easily the strangest guys to show up in the gospels thus far. Scholars conclude they were likely astrologers, who, having checked their skies, determine an important king has been born who is worth checking out. With the kind of fervor currently reserved for any royal birth, these astrologers trace a star toward Jerusalem, Israel’s capital city. They drive straight to the palace, since that’s where you’d expect a king of the Jews to be born.
For the ancients, astrology was the best that science had to offer as far as the cosmos was concerned. It was a world where the earth sat at the center of the universe and stars and planets were thought to be alive. What did the Magi see up in the sky that night? An astral anomaly? A blazing comet? A bright supernova? An alignment of planets? Speculation runs rampant. But whatever they saw, I like how the Magi used the science of their day to pursue truth and how it brought them to Jesus. Searching for truth does that.
Scholars conclude that “from the east” probably meant the Magi hailed from Persia, Babylon, or Arabia, known to us as Iran, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia: nations whose significance to peace on earth is as important then as now.
What were Arabs doing looking for a Jewish Messiah? Plenty of scholars remain suspicious about whether this epiphany even happened. Who can believe a bunch of Arabian astrologers chase a moving star to go looking for a Jewish kid they think to be divine? Then again, it’s not the sort of story you concoct as a gospel writer trying to get a new religion off the ground. For serious Old Testament readers, this was not a surprise encounter. Isaiah the prophet saw it coming in chapter 60 of his book: “Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you…. Nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn” (60:1, 3, ESV, emphasis added). This is where we get the idea that the Magi were kings. Isaiah goes on to foresee how “the wealth of nations shall come to you; a multitude of camels shall cover you…” (vv. 5–6).This is how camels get into Nativity scenes. And finally, “They shall bring gold and frankincense, and shall bring good news, the praises of the Lord,” which is how Isaiah 60 gets linked to the Magi.
Maybe the Magi knew something of Isaiah, which would have given them corroborating reason to follow the light to Jerusalem. They get to the palace but don’t find a new king. There’s just the crazy old King Herod—a maniacal monarch paranoid about his power to the point of murdering his own wife and sons out of fear that they threatened his throne. The Roman Emperor Augustus reportedly remarked how it was safer to be Herod’s pig than his kid. We all know the atrocity he commits against innocent children. News of a newborn King terrified Herod. He checked with his Jewish religious advisors and found that the Magi’s calculations were six miles off. The prophet Micah had later foreseen Israel’s savior to be born in Bethlehem instead of Jerusalem. Putting on some fake piety, Herod sends the Magi to Bethlehem on a diabolical hunt: “Go and search diligently for the child, and when you have found him, bring me word, that I too may come and worship him.”
The irony is unavoidable: Pagan astrologers travel the long distance to adore Israel’s Savior, but Israel’s ruler just wants him dead. And not only that, but Israel’s religious leaders, who know the prophecies inside and out and actually believe, fail to join the journey even though for them it was only a six-mile trip. Why bother?