Ask a Priest

Timeline of the visit of the Magi

Dec 10, 2014

Did the Magi come immediately after Jesus was born, or was there some time in between? It seems a bit unclear in Scripture.

And how do we know there were three Magi – or is this just something that developed culturally?

Asked at 10:59 pm on December 10th 2014

Dear Leanne:

We don’t have an exact chronology of the date of the visit by the Magi but from the description in Matthew it would seem it is shortly after the birth of Jesus.

As to their number there have been different views about this, with some even postulating that there were twelve of them. The number of three gradually came to be the accepted version, probably because it corresponds to the number of the gifts they brought.

You might like to read this article that comments on some of the different views about who the Magi were.

Replied at 03:54 am on December 11th 2014

I was wondering whether the Magi came much later (as much as a year later) because Herod wanted infants up to 2 years old killed and he had used the time of the star’s rising he got from the Magi to figure out the age of Jesus. It’s pretty hard to mix up a newborn with a toddler so perhaps Jesus was already a toddler. In Matthew Chapter 2 we read that:

Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea. This happened while Herod was king of Judea. After Jesus’ birth, Wise Men from the east came to Jerusalem. They asked, “Where is the child who has been born to be king of the Jews? We saw his star when it rose. Now we have come to worship him.”

After theWise Men had listened to the king, they went on their way. The star they had seen when it rose went ahead of them. It finally stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they were filled with joy. The Wise Men went to the house.

So maybe the star rose in the east when Jesus was born and it took the Magi a year to plan, co-ordinate and then make the trip. They may have gone to Bethlehem first to see Herod then on to Nazareth following the star which “went ahead of them”. This could explain why “the Wise Men went to the house where the child was”. It makes more sense of the age of the Holy Innocents too.

Replied at 06:46 am on December 22nd 2014

Dear Marie:

Your interpretation could be correct, the fact is that the Gospels are not intended to be a precise historical chronology, and in that sense they are alike to the writings of the time that were not so precise in terms of dates and times as we are in the modern age. It is hard for us to appreciate how much things changed with the coming of the modern era and the possibility of being able to tell times and dates with precision.

In the time of Jesus, and for many centuries after, there were, for the ordinary person, no watches, clocks, or reliable ways of determining dates and events.

The Gospels are intended to convey to us the “Good News”, the message of salvation, and this they do very well. If there are some contradictions or doubts in the details of when and where everything happened this is very normal and while our curiousity leaves us wondering about some of the facts what we do know is that a Saviour was born and that this changed the whole course of history.

Replied at 03:52 am on December 23rd 2014