If you think about it, the whole story with the magi from the East is a bit strange. How did the wise men come to know about this King in Judah – how did they figure such a thing out from the stars? And who were they? How did they know each other, and where were they actually from?
This story is only in one of the gospels (Matthew), and despite tradition suggesting that there were three wise men (Melchior from Persia, Belthsazar from Arabia, and Casper from India) no such details are given in the text. We actually have no idea how many came – only that three gifts were brought: Myrrh, frankincense and gold, fit for a prophet, priest and king.
But it’s no fairy tale. History and science can help us see that these events were entirely within the realms of possibility.
Historical background – way back in Babylon
Babylon was built on the Euphrates River (in present day Iraq) and was at times the largest city in the world. The Chaldean people of this area, who had been absorbed into the Babylonian Empire, were famous for their fixation with the heavenly hosts, and their “wisdom” affected all the peoples who followed them. The Medes, Persians, and Greeks also adopted some of their systems, and we in the West have also inherited a great deal from this hand-me-down astrology of the ancient empires.
The Chaldean priests developed a theory of connection between what was observed in the heavens and occurrences on earth.
During the 8th and 7th centuries BC, Babylonian astronomers developed a new empirical approach to astronomy. So great was this contribution to astronomy and the philosophy of science that some scholars see it as the first scientific revolution.
The Chaldeans were also influenced by the Astral Theology of the Sumerians, which gave planetary gods an important role in their perception of the stars and planets. They thought that man’s life and happiness were dependent upon the stars and planets in the heavens. The fertility of the soil was dependent on the sun shining and the rain falling from heaven, and the damage done by storms and floods that often hit the Euphrates Valley also came from above. Therefore, they reasoned, the gods had their seats in the heavens, and could inflict prosperity or disaster as they wished. Keeping the volatile heavens happy was considered necessary for prosperity – and even for survival.
Classical Greek and Latin sources frequently use the term Chaldeans for the astronomers of Mesopotamia, who were, in reality, priest-scribes specializing in astrology and other forms of divination.
In short, they were clever, but lost.
Their ideas are still used today
Have you ever wondered why there are 60 minutes in an hour? Or 360 degrees in a circle? It comes from the ancient Chaldeans. They used the sexagesimal (base 60) place-value number system, which simplified the task of recording very large and very small numbers. The practice of dividing a circle into 360 degrees, and an hour into 60 minutes are examples of their methodology that we still use today.
Babylonian astronomy was the basis for much of the astronomical traditions that later developed in Greek and Hellenistic astronomy, in classical Indian astronomy, in Sassanid, Byzantine, and Syrian astronomy, in medieval Islamic astronomy, and in Western European astronomy. For this reason, the names of the week (Sun-day, Moon-day, Thor’s-day etc) have their roots in Chaldean astrology, which attributed gods to each of the planets.
Their influence has gone far and wide, but God also had his hand in their far-reaching story.
God sends someone to explain the truth
As the Jews were taken off to exile in Babylon in the sixth century BC, God was killing two birds with one stone. He was accomplishing his purposes regarding Israel, but also reaching the Babylonians who were living in error and fear, worshiping the sun, moon, and stars.
Daniel was a slave among the Babylonians, but he was also God’s ambassador, chosen to teach them about the one true Lord of all creation. In a set-up initiated by God the king was plagued by a troubling dream that none of the Chaldeans with all their wisdom could solve. None of their magic and divination could help them. Only Daniel was able to solve the mystery. The entire empire started to learn that there was One who was sovereign over all the powers they had ever known before.
Daniel explains to the king (27);
“No wise man, enchanter, magician or diviner can explain to the king the mystery he has asked about, but there is a God in heaven who reveals mysteries….”
Daniel talks about the God of Heaven who makes and controls the skies in order to effectively reach the Babylonian nobility in terms they understand. Daniel and his friends proved several times over that the God of Israel not only knows the future, but is sovereign over it. As a result, King Nebuchadnezzar falls prostrate before Daniel, saying,
“Surely your God is the God of gods and the Lord of kings and a revealer of mysteries.” (2:47)
Daniel and his friends are promoted to the highest ranks in the kingdom, and more than that, in time, Nebuchadnezzar encourages his people to worship the one true God. He leads the Babylonians to look not to the stars, but to their Creator – the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.
The Chaldean people are introduced to God, and to his word.
And Daniel becomes chief of the magi.
Studying the skies with the Bible in hand
So now the Chaldeans had expertise in astronomy (not the same as astrology, please note), and access to the truth about the God of Israel. Daniel and his friends had been educated by the Chaldeans, but they also had the Torah and some of the prophets (Daniel 9:2). Plus, Daniel had a personal visit from an archangel telling him exactly when the Messiah, the King of the Jews would come.
Here’s what Gabriel said:
“Know therefore and understand, that from the going forth of the command to restore and build Jerusalem until Messiah the Prince, there shall be seven weeks and sixty-two weeks; The street shall be built again, and the wall, even in troublesome times. And after the sixty-two weeks Messiah shall be cut off, but not for Himself, and the people of the prince who is to come shall destroy the city and the sanctuary.” (Daniel 9:26-27)
Daniel, one of the ancient magi of the Chaldeans, gets the heads up about the timing of Messiah’s coming, and the fact that would be “cut off” before the destruction of the second temple. Counting from the order to rebuild Jerusalem, it would be 7 weeks + 62 “weeks” – 483 years.
This gives the time frame.
In the year 445 BC the King of Persia, Artaxerxes, gives Nehemiah the required order to rebuild Jerusalem and the temple. (Nehemiah 2:1-8), and the countdown begins.
This is how the ancient Chaldeans would have known what to look out for, and when to look out for it. The wisdom could be passed down from generation to generation of Chaldean magi.
Studying the skies around the time of the birth of Jesus using NASA technology, Rick Larson discovered an extremely rare triple conjunction: The “king” star (Regulus) crossing the “king” planet (Jupiter) within the constellation of the lion (Leo), “king” of the animals, three times.1 King, king, king. More than that, the constellation of the lion (which is called that in every language, as far back as records go) has an association with the kingly tribe of Judah. The lion of Judah. The message was all there.
They had the countdown from Daniel, and they knew what they were looking for in the skies. They had the understanding of the stars, the word of God and prophecy, and they had the faith to believe it all.
And they came. With perfect presents.
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Photo by Ben White on Unsplash