Wise Men Finally Arrive–Only 2 Years After the Shepherds!

Master of Vyšší Brod, a Bohemian master, c. 1350. The influence of Italian Byzantine painting was strong in the court of Charles IV.

According to the New Testament, the wise men arrived in Bethlehem when Jesus was already two years old! By then, the manger had been put away and the shepherds had all gone home. But the wise men (“magi”) had seen the conjunction (“star”) in the sky and had travelled from Babylon to Palestine to bring their gifts to the newborn King.

“We have seen his star in the East,” the magi told King Herod. “We have come to worship him.”

This news was a surprise to King Herod. He had no idea that a new King of the Jews had been born and had clearly NOT seen the star the magi had. What was the “star” which the magi claimed they had seen and which had told them to come find the newborn King in Judea? Since no one in Jerusalem seems to have seen it, the star could not have been a bright light in the sky or they would have noticed it. Since the Gospel text says that Herod later had all the boys aged two years or younger killed in his attempt to kill the Christ Child, the “star” must have been an astronomical event of some sort rather than a bright light or all the other parents whose children were butchered by Herod’s soldiers would have pointed out the house and said, “No! Not our children — the boy you want is in that house! There!” Also, the magi evidently had seen the star at least 2 years before and it had taken them that long to travel to Jerusalem.

When the wise men did finally arrive in Bethlehem, they are shown presenting their gifts to the Christ Child in the lap of his Virgin Mother. The oldest of the wise men is always in such a hurry to bow down before Christ that he trips and steps on his crown, as in the altarpiece below. (Click here to see a stunning collection of Nativity scenes, some with the shepherds and some with the wise men.)

I remember reading reports in December 1975 (my senior year of high school!) that the “star” was in fact a conjunction of Saturn and Jupiter in the constellation Pisces — and that this conjunction occurs once every 800 years! The magi, being astrologers, would have understood this to mean that a great king (Jupiter) who would usher in the End of Days (Saturn) was being born in Judea (Pisces). This conjunction occurred in December 1975, according to these reports, but I was unable to see it as I was not sure exactly where to look in the sky or on which date(s) to look.

Gentile da Fabriano, Adoration of the Magi, 1423 (Florence, Galleria degli Uffizi)