Is anything beyond scripture known about the Christmas traditions of the wise men and star?
October 1981

“Is anything beyond scripture known about the Christmas traditions of the wise men and star?” Ensign, Oct. 1981, 25–26

Is anything beyond scripture known about the Christmas traditions of the wise men and star?

John A. Tvedtnes, specialist in ancient Near Eastern studies and instructor at the Brigham Young University–Salt Lake Center. Many are the myths surrounding the first Christmas. Most of them are designed to explain details lacking in the biblical account, but many are certainly incorrect or unsubstantiated.

We know, for example, that the wise men didn’t go to a stable but to a house (see Matt. 2:11), but we are not so sure when they arrived. It probably was close to two years after the birth of Christ. Based on their information, Herod ordered the destruction of all children two years old and under in Bethlehem, the implication being that the child he was seeking was near two years old. On the other hand, Herod could have sought a margin of security and added a year or so in his death request. (See Matt. 2:7, 16.)

We don’t know if the wise men rode camels. We don’t even know for sure how many there were. While some traditions indicate there were twelve of them, three is the most popular number because of the three expensive gifts—gold, frankincense, and myrrh. (See Matt. 2:11.)

We are also uncertain about what they were and where they were from. It is possible that they were Jewish, for at that time there still lived in Babylonia and Persia a very large Jewish community—perhaps more numerous than the Jews under Herod’s rule. Some traditions use Old Testament passages to support the idea that they were kings. (See Isa. 49:7; Isa. 60:3–7.) Others cite Psalm 72:10, 15, [Ps. 72:10, 15] as evidence that the alleged three kings were from Tarshish, Sheba, and Seba, identified in medieval times with Spain, Ethopia, and Arabia.

Other scholars believe the wise men were from Persia because the Greek word behind the King James Version translation of wise men (in Matt. 2:1, 7, 16) is Magoi, a Persian word sometimes rendered in English texts as Magi. This word, the origin of our English word magic, refers to priests in the Zoroastrian religion of ancient Persia. Early Christian tradition associates the coming of the Magi with a prophecy attributed to Zoroaster, whom ancient Persians accepted as a prophet. (See I Infancy Gospel 3:1, in The Lost Books of the Bible, New York: The World Publishing Co., 1926, p. 40.)

Marco Polo’s account supports the Persia theory. He reported that three Magi had set out from Saba in Persia, where their tombs were still shown in his day. Local tradition named three kings: Gaspar, Melchior, and Balthasar. (See The Travels of Marco Polo, New York: Grosset and Dunlap, n.d., p. 33.) The same names are used in Christian tradition today for non-Persian wise men. The Armenian Gospel of the Infancy, chapter eleven, names the Magi as Melkon, King of Persia; Gaspar of India; and Balthazar of Arabia. (See The Apocryphal New Testament, trans. Montague Rhodes James, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1924, p. 83.) The names appear to be Akkadian, however, common at Babylon from whence they spread through other parts of the Persian Empire from the fifth century B.C.

Marco Polo also reported that the three Persians who went away to worship the newborn prophet took gold, frankincense, and myrrh. (Marco Polo, p. 34.) Christian tradition refers to these gifts as symbolic, respectively, of Jesus’ kingship, divinity, and passion (myrrh being used for perfuming the dead before burial, as seen in John 19:39–40).

The star is perhaps the most puzzling aspect of the story, because the wise men are generally depicted as following the moving celestial body from their homeland (or a central meeting point) to Jerusalem, and then to Bethlehem. Our modern knowledge of astronomy makes it difficult to accept such a view. And since the new star was also seen by inhabitants of the American continent (see Hel. 14:5; 3 Ne. 1:21), it obviously couldn’t have hovered over the wise men. Their report to Herod that they had “seen his star in the east” (Matt. 2:2) may have meant that they themselves were in the east at the time, not that the star was in the east and moved westward. An alternate translation sometimes given to the Greek text is not “in the east” but “at its rising.”

If the wise men weren’t following the star from their homeland, how were they able to pinpoint the country where the new king would be born? We must attribute their knowledge to some tradition or prophecy in their homeland. They knew enough to come to Judea, but did not go directly to Bethlehem. Instead, they went to the palace in Jerusalem—a place where one would expect the birth of a king. When they appeared in Herod’s court, they asked, “Where is he that is born King of the Jews?” (Matt. 2:2.) Quite obviously, they knew they were looking for a Jew.

While there is no hint in the Matthew account that the star “led” the wise men to the west from their homeland, there was some sort of directional indication when they went from Jerusalem to Bethlehem. (See Matt. 2:9–10.) Since Herod’s people had instructed them that the Messiah was to be born in Bethlehem (see Matt. 2:4–6), there was no need for the star to show the way there. But it would have been helpful in pinpointing the spot where they could find Jesus. (See Matt. 2:9.) We do not know exactly how it did this. It may have been a phenomenon other than the star seen two years previous, since the Nephite record makes no mention of a second appearance of the star. Interestingly, one source indicates that it was an angel in the guise of a star. (See 1 Infancy Gospel 3:3.)

The Book of Mormon indicates that the new star was accompanied by a tremendous brightness in the heavens which made the night appear as day. (See Hel. 14:2–6; 3 Ne. 1:15–21.) This phenomenon is not mentioned in the New Testament account. However, it is confirmed in early Christian tradition. In a letter from Ignatius to the Ephesians, written about A.D. 100, we read:

“How then was our Saviour manifested to the world? A star shone in heaven beyond all the other stars, and its light was inexpressible, and its novelty struck terror into men’s minds. All the rest of the stars, together with the sun and moon, were the chorus to this star; but that sent out its light exceedingly above them all.

“And men began to be troubled to think whence this new star came so unlike to all the others.” (Ignatius to the Ephesians 4:11–12, The Lost Books of the Bible.)

But why did God send the wise men to Bethlehem? It is true that Herod began his search for the young Messiah as a result of their visit. But news from the tale of the shepherds was bound to find its way to the court ultimately anyway. (See Luke 2:17–18.) Sooner or later, he would come searching for the child to destroy him. Joseph and Mary were poor and would not have had the means to travel out of Herod’s reach. Their poverty may, in fact, have been the reason they remained in Bethlehem rather than returning to Nazareth. But with the precious gifts brought by the wise men, they could escape into Egypt. Thus, it is likely that the arrival of the wise men was part of God’s plan for fulfilling prophecy and for preserving the family from danger.

Another purpose may have been served by the wise men. We cannot know with whom they shared their experiences, but it is possible that they spread the knowledge of the Messiah’s birth to the Jewish community throughout Babylonia and Persia.