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Who Were the Wise Men, and Why Did They Go to Bethlehem?

Matthew 2:1-12 tells the familiar story of the “wise men” coming to worship the baby Jesus. The story forms part of Christmas celebrations every year all over the world. In fact, in traditional church calendars, the wise men have their own special day, Epiphany on January 6. But do we ever think about the significance of the story? Who were these men, and why did they come? The Christmas carol calls them “kings” and focuses on the expensive presents they brought. But the Bible does not call them kings. It calls them “wise men” or “magi,” from which we derive our word “magician.” They were probably astrologers, people who thought they could interpret and predict world events by studying the movements of the stars. And they came from “the east” to Palestine to worship Jesus.

So, we know who these men were, but why would they come to worship the one who was “born king of the Jews” (Matthew 2:2, NIV)? Judah was not even an independent nation then. One might undertake a journey of several months to see the future Roman emperor perhaps, but why the king of an obscure people like the Jews? And why bring expensive presents? These men weren’t Jewish, so why would a Jewish king matter to them? They obviously had some knowledge that convinced them that the birth of Jesus was important to them. What could it be? They didn’t know the Old Testament prophecy of Micah (5:2-4, quoted in Matthew 2:6) that had foretold that Jesus would be born in Bethlehem or they wouldn’t have had to stop in Jerusalem to ask for directions (Matthew 2:2).

The answer to that question may lie in the Old Testament book of Daniel.

In 605 BC, Daniel and a number of other young Jews were sent into exile in the Babylonian Empire. There they were taught “the language and literature of the Babylonians” (Daniel 1:4), trained to serve in the Babylonian civil service. Fundamental to Babylonian knowledge were the secret arts of “the magicians, enchanters, sorcerers and astrologers” (Daniel 2:2), the rituals and tricks which these practitioners could use to manipulate and coerce the gods into doing what human beings wanted.

Daniel 2 tells the story of a dream that the Babylonian king, Nebuchadnezzar, had. He called in his magicians, enchanters, sorcerers, and astrologers to interpret the dream. When they could not do so (claiming that that this was impossible because such a task could only be performed by gods “and they do not live among humans”), Nebuchadnezzar decided to execute all of “the wise men” (Daniel 2:11-12). That is, he decided to execute essentially the entire civil service, including Daniel and his fellow Jews. Daniel, however, was able to save all of the wise men because “the God of heaven” (that is, the true God who had revealed Himself to the Jews) gave him the proper interpretation of the dream.

The dream was significant because it was a vision of a great statue in the shape of a man that would be destroyed and replaced by a rock that was cut out “but not by human hands.” Daniel explained that the statue, made of gold, silver, bronze, and iron/clay, represented four great human empires (Babylon, Persia, Greece, and Rome) that would follow in succession and then be replaced by a non-human kingdom, one not made by human hands, that is, the Kingdom of God. Since Daniel’s interpretation had saved the lives of “the wise men,” it would have made a great impression on them. It also made an impression on Nebuchadnezzar, who told Daniel, “Surely your God is the God of gods” (Daniel 2:47).

In Daniel 3, however, Nebuchadnezzar had a giant gold statue made in his image and demanded that all of his officials bow down and worship him in a massive public ceremony. Daniel was apparently not present on this occasion, but three of his Jewish friends were. The men we know as Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego refused to bow down, and some “astrologers” denounced them to the king. Nebuchadnezzar had them thrown into a fiery furnace, probably the blast furnace used for smelting the gold. The three were unharmed by the flames and were joined by one who looked “like a son of the gods,” probably a pre-incarnate appearance of Jesus. The astrologers must have been astounded at the result, and Nebuchadnezzar issued a royal decree praising “the God of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego” (Daniel 3:28).

In Daniel 4, Nebuchadnezzar had another dream. Again he summoned his “wise men,” that is, “the magicians, enchanters, astrologers and diviners” (Daniel 4:6-7) to interpret his dream, and again they could not. So he sent for Daniel, whom he called “chief of the magicians” (Daniel 4:9), and Daniel’s God again proved able to interpret the dream. In fact, the dream was a message of God to Nebuchadnezzar, warning him that if he did not “acknowledge that the Most High is sovereign” and renounce his sins “by doing what is right and…by being kind to the oppressed” (Daniel 4:25,27), he would be deposed as king. Nebuchadnezzar did not repent, went mad, lost his kingdom, and wandered alone in the wilderness. When he finally acknowledged the sovereignty of the true God, his “advisers and nobles” restored him to the throne (Daniel 4:36). Nebuchadnezzar then issued a decree to his entire empire and to people beyond it, describing his experience and praising “the King of heaven” (Daniel 4:37). He had apparently become a follower of the true God.

The direct witnesses to all of these events were the Babylonian “magicians, enchanters, astrologers and diviners.” It is certainly possible that some of them also became followers of “the King of heaven.” In any case, the story of the remarkable events that had occurred would have become part of the literature of Babylon and would have been passed down to future generations.

Furthermore, the book of Daniel is unique in the Old Testament. Except for a few verses, the rest of the Old Testament was written in Hebrew, the language of the Jews. But the central part of the book of Daniel was written in Aramaic, the diplomatic language of the Babylonian Empire. At the time of Jesus’ birth, the book of Daniel, as well as Nebuchadnezzar’s royal proclamations, were probably still present in the Babylonian libraries and archives, in a language the Babylonians could read and understand. 

The obvious conclusion, then, is that the “wise men” of Matthew 2 were some of the successors of the “magicians, enchanters, astrologers and diviners” of Daniel’s time.

But that still does not explain why the wise men were convinced that the birth of Jesus, “the king of the Jews,” mattered to them. Yet the answer is obvious. Daniel 2 contains the prophecy of the four empires that were to be replaced by the Kingdom of God. Six hundred years later, the descendants of the wise men of Babylon would have been able to see that the prophecy had been absolutely correct in predicting the fate of the Babylonian, Persian, Greek, and Roman Empires. They did not make the long journey to Bethlehem to acknowledge the new king of the Jews. They came to celebrate the arrival of the one who was “like a son of the gods” and who would establish the Kingdom of God that would supersede all other kingdoms. And they were not surprised to find the baby in humble circumstances, because their ancestors had seen the true God use four refugee boys to overawe the might of the Babylonian Empire.

Three decades later, when the church of Jesus Christ was inaugurated at Pentecost, there were present people from “every nation under heaven,” including “Parthians, Medes and Elamites” (Acts 2:5,9), people who lived near the center of the old Babylonian Empire, people from the “the east,” where “the wise men” had come from. Although it is not widely known now, the early Christian church expanded quite quickly into the area that had once been the center of the Babylonian Empire. Was the way prepared by the wise men, influenced by the remarkable events and accurate prophecies recorded in the book of Daniel?

This article is adapted from the book Living for God in a Pagan Society: What Daniel Can Teach Us by James R. Coggins (Mill Lake Books, 2019).

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