How The Magi Don’t Belong in the Nativity Scene

There’s an apparent contradiction in the Bible regarding the first Christmas about who visited Jesus when he was born:

In Luke, the baby Jesus is visited in a manger by shepherds who were guided by angels (2:7–12).

In Matthew, the child Jesus is visited in a house by Magi who were guided by a star (2:10–11)

In fact, there’s no contradiction at all. The baby grew up (obviously) to become a child, and the visits were at different times in different places by different people (first shepherds, then the Magi).

The chronology of the first Christmas (based on the two gospels) thus goes something like this:

  1. The angel Gabriel appears to Mary and proclaims she will be with a very special child named Emmanuel or Jesus who would ‘save people from their sins’, see Luke 1:26–38
  2. Mary and Joseph travel from Nazareth to Bethlehem to register for the census decreed by Caesar Augustus (the trip is about 80 miles), see Luke 2:1–4
  3. Mary and Joseph─as everybody knows─can’t find a room in the inn (due to the fact that many were going for the census registration and also the possibility there was a Jewish feast/festival at the time) so they end up in the manger, where the baby Jesus was born amidst animals and shepherds
  4. Forty days after the birth, Mary and Joseph took their newborn baby back to Jerusalem to be ‘consecrated unto God’ i.e. baby Jesus had to be presented at the Jerusalem temple together with a sacrificial offering of two turtle doves (hence, the lyrics for the second day in 12 Days of Christmas), see Luke 2:22–24
  5. Some time after the Temple ritual, Mary, Joseph and their baby went again to Bethlehem, most likely because they felt it was a good idea to raise their Messiah-King son in the same place where King David─the greatest human king in Jewish history─grew up); and no this second time they didn’t stay in a manger anymore but a house (Matthew 2:11). How do we know the family went back to Bethlehem from Jerusalem? Because there MUST have been a trip to Jerusalem after 40 days of ‘confinement’ for Mary (Luke 2:22) and it’s not likely the angel warned Joseph during the 40 days because this would mean that the family went back to Jerusalem despite being warned of Herod’s plot to kill the baby. Finally, the Matthew 2’s use of ‘child’ and ‘house’ (instead of ‘baby’ and ‘manger’ respectively) suggests that some time has lapsed after the birth.
  6. A few months to two years later (Matthew 2:16), after the family has settled down in theirBethlehem house, the Magi came into the picture. Their journey probably started from the Parthian empire (in modern-day Iran) following a great star (in the sky, not on the stage) towards Jerusalem, then onwards to Bethelehem (after consulting with King Herod and after deciding to play him out) where they (finally!) met baby Jesus and Mary. The Bible doesn’t record how many magi there were, but tradition assumes it’s three of them since there were three gifts (gold, myrrh and frankincense (which aids the argument that they came from the Arabian peninsular, given that frankincense and myrrh originated from there).
  7. Events after the Magi’s visit then take a grim turn. King Herod, paranoid as most psychotic leaders are, slaughtered all Jewish male kids two years or younger in the hope that the ‘new king’ (who may have just learnt to talk and walk) will be killed too. As a result, Joseph, Mary and their baby turned fugitive-refugee and ran to Egypt. They stayed there for 6–7 years until Herod died (see note 1), after which they returned to live in Nazareth.

So, there you have it. The Magi were not in the manger with Jesus, Mary, Joseph and the shepherds; they came only later and visited Jesus in his Bethlehem house.

Note 1: Herod died in 4 BC, which means that Jesus was born between 6 BC and 4 BC, not AD 1.

Edu-trainer, Žižek studies, amateur theologian, columnist.

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