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Visit of the Three Wise Men

Three wise men are usually pictured in Christmas imagery along with the shepherds visiting at the manger. Clearly, the shepherds found the new-born Jesus there shortly after His birth:

"And it came to pass, as the angels were gone away from them into heaven, the shepherds said one to another, Let us now go even unto Bethlehem, and see this thing which is come to pass, which the Lord hath made known unto us. And they came with haste, and found Mary, and Joseph, and the babe lying in a manger." (Luke 2:15-16)
Nativity Scene

But are we correct in thinking that the three wise men also visited so soon? There are a number of scriptural clues pointing to it being considerably, possibly months, later.

The main clue that it was later has to do with the timing of Mary fulfilling the days of her purification. The specifications for this were given to Moses:

"And the LORD spake unto Moses, saying, Speak unto the children of Israel, saying, If a woman have conceived seed, and born a man child: then she shall be unclean seven days; according to the days of the separation for her infirmity shall she be unclean. And in the eighth day the flesh of his foreskin shall be circumcised. And she shall then continue in the blood of her purifying three and thirty days; she shall touch no hallowed thing, nor come into the sanctuary, until the days of her purifying be fulfilled. ... And when the days of her purifying are fulfilled, for a son, or for a daughter, she shall bring a lamb of the first year for a burnt offering, and a young pigeon, or a turtledove, for a sin offering, unto the door of the tabernacle of the congregation, unto the priest:" (Lev 12:1-4, 6)

So after the 40 days, the period of purification, Mary was to bring the specified offering. This would, of course require a trip to Jerusalem. It does not seem that the visit of the three wise men could have happened in Bethlehem and before Joseph and Mary and Jesus went to the temple (at 40 days) for Mary's purification and Jesus' presentation.

"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; (As it is written in the law of the Lord, Every male that openeth the womb shall be called holy to the Lord;)" (Luke 2:22-23)

After the account of what happened at the temple on that visit, it says:

"And when they had performed all things according to the law of the Lord, they returned into Galilee, to their own city Nazareth." (Luke 2:39)

So they did all that the law required and after their visit to the temple they went back to their home in Nazareth, not to Bethlehem to which they had travelled only to register for the census.

For the visit of the three wise men to have occurred before Joseph and Mary visited the temple (when Jesus was 40 days old) and returned to Nazareth all of the following events must have happened:

  1. the wise men saw the star that appeared at His birth, studied the prophecies, decided on and prepared for a long trip
  2. they made the long journey possibly travelling only at night to keep the star in view. This may have required even a few weeks.
  3. they spent a day or so in Jerusalem to make inquiry. The star did not initially direct them to Bethlehem but to Jerusalem from where they were then sent by the information given to Bethlehem.
  4. they travelled to Bethlehem and visited.
  5. Joseph and Mary travelled to Egypt (some estimates say that trip, 1-way, could take as long as a fortnight)
  6. Joseph and Mary stayed a time in Egypt
  7. Joseph and Mary returned to Nazareth (rather than Bethlehem or Jerusalem; Matt 3:22)

Had the three wise men visited in Bethlehem just after Jesus' birth as is usually depicted that would have meant Joseph and Mary were in Egypt when Jesus was 40 days of age. Other factors pointing to a later visit by the wise men include:

1. If Joseph feared to settle in Judea after returning from Egypt he would certainly not have dared to visit the temple in Jerusalem.

"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: 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." (Matt 2:22-23)

2. Mary offered the offering of the poor as indicated in Luke 2:24. Had she previously received the gifts of the wise men, particularly the gold, we may suppose that she would have used it to provide a better offering.

"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; (As it is written in the law of the Lord, Every male that openeth the womb shall be called holy to the Lord;) And to offer a sacrifice according to that which is said in the law of the Lord, A pair of turtledoves, or two young pigeons." (Luke 2:22-24)

In Luke's description, he mentions not the lamb for an offering but the pair of birds. Mary and Joseph were humble people without much means and were, at that time, far from their home in Nazareth. Scripture gives this option for those who could not afford the cost of a lamb.

"And if she be not able to bring a lamb, then she shall bring two turtles, or two young pigeons; the one for the burnt offering, and the other for a sin offering: and the priest shall make an atonement for her, and she shall be clean." (Lev 12:8)

3. In the account of the shepherd's visit, Jesus was called a babe:

"And they came with haste, and found Mary, and Joseph, and the babe lying in a manger." (Luke 2:16)

In the account of the visit of the three wise men, Jesus was called a child:

"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." (Matt 2:11)

Also, the visit is said to have occurred in a house rather than something like a stable with a manger for feeding animals.

With all the evidence pointing to a later visit by the three wise men, it is not accurate to picture the wise men and the shepherds together worshipping the baby Jesus lying in a manger.

So the trip to Egypt would have happened after the visit to Jerusalem at 40 days. Their gifts, including the gold would have provided the means to travel to and stay in Egypt before their return home to Nazareth.

This brings up the problem that the wise men would then seem to have to be visiting the child in Nazareth rather than Bethlehem. However, scripture never says they visited in Bethlehem.

"And he [Herod] 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. 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." (Matt 2:8-9)

Scripture says Herod sent them to Bethlehem but then the star guided them to the correct location, it would seem in Nazareth.

Nativity Star

The wise men would have had to go out of their way to return via Jerusalem as that was possibly 100 miles from Nazareth. If they had been in Bethlehem it would have been very difficult to not go through Jerusalem considering the major routes available.

Note that there is no indication in scripture that there were three wise men. The fact that three gifts were mentioned may suggest this but that is no proof. There is also no mention that they were kings but, rather, wise men.

If details about Jesus' birth are of interest to you, you might like to download my e-book The Date of Jesus' Birth from this page. It certainly was not December 25th.  

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