The Nativity of Jesus Christ & The Wise Men: When & Where?

The Purpose of Celebrating Christmas

Today is the 25th of December 2016 and it is an ice-cold winter day with full many an idyllic scenery in the Northern Hemisphere. On this day, most of the  people in the Christian World symbolically celebrate the Nativity of Jesus Christ i.e. Christmas. The Nativity of Jesus Christ is celebrated by both Christians and non-Christians in many regions of the word. While Christmas is commemorated by Christians as a religious affair, it is commemorated by many non-Christians as a cultural affair.  

When did the Nativity of Jesus Christ take place? 

The exact date on which the birth of Jesus Christ took place is not known. There has not been any mentioning about the exact time of the Nativity in the Bible or other related literature. The scholastic assumptions suggest that it should have happened between the 6th century BC and the 4th century BC.  

Saturnalia (Painting by Antoine-François Callet)

It is customary to consider that the birth of Jesus Christ took place on the 25th day of December. Perhaps, semiotic reasons such as the symbolisation of Jesus Christ as the Sun, the light of the world might have played a role when choosing the 25th of December as Christmas. The 25th of December corresponds (according to the belief of ancient Romans who used the Roman/Julian calendar) to the winter solstice of the Northern Hemisphere, which is the day of the year with the shortest period of daylight and the longest period of night. After the winter solstice, the period of daylight starts  to lengthen gradually as if the world has been lightened up ever since the birth of Jesus Christ. December was considered a month of festivals in the Ancient Rome where the festival of Saturnalia dedicated to the Roman god Saturn was held between the 17th and 23rd of December. Dies Natalis Solis Invicti, which was a festival that celebrates the birth of the “Unconquered Sun” was on the 25th of December. Perhaps, the celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ would have been aligned to that festive season of the Ancient Rome.

The Church of England Celebrates Christmas on the 25th of December

When the new Gregorian calendar was introduced in 1582, the Western Christian Churches accepted it as the replacement for the old Roman/Julian calendar and continued to celebrate the nativity of Jesus Christ i.e. Christmas on the 25th of December according to the new system. Thus, the change of calendars did not affect the day of the year on which the Christmas would be commemorated. However, the Eastern Orthodox Churches did not accept the new Gregorian calendar. Therefore, they continued to commemorate Christmas on the 25th of December according to the old Roman/Julian calendar. At present, the difference between the Gregorian and the Roman/Julian calendars is 13 days (i.e. the new Gregorian calendar is 13 days shorter than the old Roman/Julian calendar). Thus, the Eastern Orthodox Churches commemorate Christmas on the 7th of January. 

Where did the Nativity of Jesus Christ take place? 

Adoration of the Shepherds (Painting by Gerard van Honthorst)

Despite the uncertainty of the date of the Nativity of Jesus Christ, the place of the Nativity is mentioned with certainty as Bethlehem in the Bible. Although Joseph and Mary were settled in Nazareth, the circumstances made them to be in Bethlehem by the time of the Nativity of Jesus Christ

The chapter 2 of the book of Luke in the King James Bible (standard version) describes the incidents that brought Joseph and Mary to Bethlehem from Nazareth as follows:

1 And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus, that all the world should be taxed.

2 (And this taxing was first made when Cyrenius was governor of Syria.)

3 And all went to be taxed, every one into his own city.

4 And Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judaea, unto the city of David, which is called Bethlehem; (because he was of the house and lineage of David:) 

5 To be taxed with Mary his espoused wife, being great with child.

6 And so it was, that, while they were there, the days were accomplished that she should be delivered.

7 And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the inn.

Later on, Joseph, Mary and Jesus Christ returned to Nazareth after spending sometime in Egypt and Jesus Christ spent most of his short life in Nazareth as Jesus of Nazareth. The chapter 2 of the book of Matthew in the King James Bible (standard version) describes those incidents so poetically as follows:

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, 

2 Saying, Where is he that is born King of the Jews? for we have seen his star in the east, and are come to worship him.

3 When Herod the king had heard these things, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him. 

4 And when he had gathered all the chief priests and scribes of the people together, he demanded of them where Christ should be born.

5 And they said unto him, In Bethlehem of Judaea: for thus it is written by the prophet,

6 And thou Bethlehem, in the land of Juda, art not the least among the princes of Juda: for out of thee shall come a Governor, that shall rule my people Israel.

7 Then Herod, when he had privily called the wise men, enquired of them diligently what time the star appeared.

8 And he sent them to Bethlehem, and said, Go and search diligently for the young child; and when ye have found him, bring me word again, that I may come and worship him also.

9 When they had heard the king, they departed; and, lo, the star, which they saw in the east, went before them, till it came and stood over where the young child was.

10 When they saw the star, they rejoiced with exceeding great joy.

11 And when they were come into the house, they saw the young child with Mary his mother, and fell down, and worshipped him: and when they had opened their treasures, they presented unto him gifts; gold, and frankincense, and myrrh.

12 And being warned of God in a dream that they should not return to Herod, they departed into their own country another way.

13 And when they 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, and be thou there until I bring thee word: for Herod will seek the young child to destroy him.

14 When he arose, he took the young child and his mother by night, and departed into Egypt:

15 And was there until the death of Herod: that it might be fulfilled which was spoken of the Lord by the prophet, saying, Out of Egypt have I called my son.

16 Then Herod, when he saw that he was mocked of the wise men, 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.

17 Then was fulfilled that which was spoken by Jeremy the prophet, saying,

18 In Rama was there a voice heard, lamentation, and weeping, and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children, and would not be comforted, because they are not.

19 But when Herod was dead, behold, an angel of the Lord appeareth in a dream to Joseph in Egypt,

20 Saying, Arise, and take the young child and his mother, and go into the land of Israel: for they are dead which sought the young child’s life. 

21 And he arose, and took the young child and his mother, and came into the land of Israel. 

22 But when he heard that Archelaus did reign in Judaea in the room of his father Herod, he was afraid to go thither: notwithstanding, being warned of God in a dream, he turned aside into the parts of Galilee:

23 And he came and dwelt in a city called Nazareth: that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the prophets, He shall be called a Nazarene.

When did the wise men (The Magi) visit Jesus Christ?

Adoration of the Magi (Painting by Leonardo da Vinci)

The Nativity of Jesus Christ is one of the most depicted themes in the classical arts of the Christian World. The dramatic representation of the incidents related to the birth of Jesus Christ has been performed through out the world during Christmas. The wise men (The Biblical Magi) who visited Jesus Christ have been an obvious segment in almost all the representations of the Nativity Scene. Usually, the arrival of three wise men who were foreign visitors from the East is depicted as if it took place on the same day of the birth of Jesus Christ. But, did it really happen on the same day of the Nativity? Were there three wise men visiting Jesus Christ in the night of his birth?

The Journey of the Magi (Painting by James Tissot)

Let us discuss the second question first. The Bible does not narrate any information about the names or number of the wise men. The book of Matthew says only “there came wise men from the east to Jerusalem,(Matthew 2:1) andthey departed into their own country another way.”(Matthew 2:12). The popular claim that there were three wise men, might have arisen from the Biblical mentioning of three gifts that Jesus Christ was presented by the wise men as mentioned in the book of Matthew: “and when they had opened their treasures, they presented unto him gifts; gold, and frankincense, and myrrh.” (Matthew 2:11). The names of the three wise men from the East as Melchior of Persia, Caspar of India and Balthazar of Babylonia have not been mentioned in the Bible but in other related literature of the Christian tradition. 

Let us now take on the first question. The description of the Nativity of Jesus Christ detailed in the book of Matthew does not specifically say that the arrival of the wise men from the East took place in the same night of the birth of Jesus Christ. It is possible to make several inductions about the time of the wise men’s arrival. 

1. The star first appeared over Bethlehem when Jesus Christ was born and by that time the wise men were most probably in the East (perhaps in Persia). Wherever the exact location of the wise men in the East could be by the time when the star first appeared, it should have obviously taken several days for them to arrive at Jerusalem. Thus, it is unlikely that the wise men attended the nativity of Jesus Christ.

2. The wise men on their arrival at Jerusalem met Herod the King and said “Where is he that is born King of the Jews? for we have seen his star in the east, and are come to worship him.” (Matthew 2:2). Thus, Jesus Christ should have been already born by the time of the wise men’s arrival.

Massacre of Children in Bethlehem

3. Herod the King enquired the wise men about the time when the star appeared: “Then Herod, when he had privily called the wise men, enquired of them diligently what time the star appeared.” (Matthew 2:7). After such diligent enquiry Herod the King decided to order massacre of all the children aged two years and under: “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). It is reasonable to assume that Herod the King tried to get rid of Jesus Christ by massacring all (male) children in and under the age of two years because Jesus Christ should have been nearly two years old when the wise men arrived. 

Adoration of the Magi (Painting by Sir Peter Paul Rubens)

4. Jesus Christ was born outside a house which could be a stable, outside of an inn, cave etc.: “And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the inn.” (Luke 2:7). However, it is clearly mentioned that the wise men saw Jesus Christ inside a house: “And when they were come into the house, they saw the young child with Mary his mother, and fell down, and worshipped him: and when they had opened their treasures, they presented unto him gifts; gold, and frankincense, and myrrh.” (Luke 2:11). Thus, it is unlikely that the wise men attended the Nativity of Jesus Christ

The Holy Family Resting on the Way to Egypt (Painting by Michelangelo)

5. Joseph and Mary with Jesus Christ departed into Egypt when the wise men left Jesus Christ: “And when they 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, and be thou there until I bring thee word: for Herod will seek the young child to destroy him.” (Matthew 2:13); “When he arose, he took the young child and his mother by night, and departed into Egypt:” (Matthew 2:14). Joseph and Mary with Jesus Christ remained in Egypt until the death of Herod the King: “And was there until the death of Herod:” (Matthew 2:15).

Presentation in the Temple of Jerusalem (Painting by Gerbrand van den Eeckhout)

However, it is also mentioned in the Bible that Jesus Christ was taken to the Temple of Jerusalem as it was obligated by the law: “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;” (Luke 2:22). According to the chapter 12 of the book of Leviticus that visit should only be taken place at least 40 days after giving birth to a male child: “If a woman have conceived seed, and born a man child: then she shall be unclean seven days;(Leviticus 12:2) &And she shall then continue in the blood of her purifying three and thirty days;” (Leviticus 12:4).

Since both Biblical information (one in the book of Matthew and the other in the book of Luke) should be correct, the most likely possibility is that the wise men visited Jesus Christ at least 40 days after the nativity. 

Thus, we could reasonably assume that the wise men (Magi) from the East visited Jesus Christ sometime after his birth (not in the night of the Nativity), although the dramatic and artistic representations of the Nativity Scene depict as if the wise men were present at the birth of Jesus Christ.  

Importance of Celebrating Christmas 

Despite all those interesting and subtle differences between the Biblical descriptions and their later depictions in various genre of art, the divine as well as the human importance of commemorating the Nativity of Jesus Christ is undisputed. As Robert Luis Stevenson had worded in his ever famous Christmas Prayer:

Loving Father, Help us remember the birth of Jesus, that we may share in the song of angels, the gladness of the shepherds, and the worship of the wise men. Close the door of hate and open the door of love all over the world. Let kindness come with every gift and good desires with every greeting.

Deliver us from evil by the blessing which Christ brings, and teach us to be merry with clean hearts. May the Christmas morning make us happy to be Thy children, and the Christmas evening bring us to our beds with grateful thoughts, forgiving and forgiven, for Jesus’ sake, Amen!” 

Very Happy Christmas to everybody!

Bandula Kudalagama,

Southampton. 

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