EDITOR’S NOTE: This groundbreaking series is being offered in celebration of a previously top-secret project and now unprecedented new 3-Volume book series (over 10-years in the making) from best-selling scholar Dr. Thomas Horn and acclaimed biblical history and theology majors Donna Howell and Allie Anderson: THE MYSTERY OF JESUS FROM GENESIS TO REVELATION—YESTERDAY, TODAY, AND TOMORROW
The Jews were serious about genealogy. As stated, proving who was related to whom was a big deal when bringing in a new life. Ideally, the new child would make a family proud and account for righteousness in a culture where honor and kinship means everything. Therefore, Matthew, a tax collector and thus a professional of legal documentation in his day, and Luke, the “careful historian,” included in their Gospels the lineage of Christ.[i]
Joseph, a man of good character, cared enough for Mary not to publicly humiliate her, so when he arrived and found her pregnant, he sought to secretly divorce her, but the Holy Spirit informed him the pregnancy was legitimately of God (Matthew 1:19–21). As a result, Joseph stood by his young wife (and they did not lie together until after Jesus was born: 1:24–25). A grand census was taken, forcing everyone to return to their home cities (Luke 1:1–3). Joseph was of the lineage of David, so he returned to the City of David, Bethlehem (1:4–5), where the Messiah hailed from His mother’s womb.
This fulfilled what had been was said by the prophet Micah: “Bethlehem…out of thee shall he come forth unto me that is to be ruler in Israel; whose goings forth have been from of old, from everlasting” (5:2).
And it is about right here that all the nativity plays go cross-eyed…
See, many of us have the idea that Mary and Joseph went door to door and nobody had any room because of the barrage of travelers responding to the census, so they just went and birthed in a barn of one innkeeper who impersonally went about his business in the most uncaring fashion. Actually, Luke 2:7 has been misread for two thousand years. In the KJV, this reads: “And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the inn.” This last word translated “inn,” in Greek, is katalyma, and it is the same Greek word used in Luke 22:11: “And ye shall say unto the goodman of the house, ‘The Master saith unto thee, Where is the guestchamber [katalyma], where I shall eat the passover with my disciples?’” Depending on their financial situation, the Jews’ homes could be small, one-bedroom hovels, but they could also be large enough to house multiple generations so that as sons and daughters grew up and married, they could move to their own chambers. But as was often the case in those times, if a husband moved, the wife went with him. The empty rooms would then be converted into guestrooms to welcome fellow righteous Jews. Because it’s explicitly stated in the original language that Jesus was born in a katalyma (guest room or guest chamber), the most likely scenario was that He was delivered in someone’s personal home, though Bethlehem was a poor area, so it would have been smaller than we imagine those in Jerusalem. The narratives don’t indicate who the home belonged to, nor do they say Joseph and his pregnant wife went into a “barn.” In fact, that word in Greek is apotheke, and it shows up in Luke in several places referring to both “barn” and “grain room” (or “garner”; 3:17; 12:18; 12:24).
Yeah, but it also says Jesus was laid in a “manger”…
That it does. And in those days, the animal-feeding troughs, as well as the animals, were brought into a room of the house in areas where they might otherwise be stolen or killed. Further, the body heat of the animals helped to provide extra heat when the nights got cold.
An incalculable number of scholars recognize this “small house/guestroom” scenario as one of the most probable theories and far more likely than the classic nativity scene in movies and plays. Trent Butler, in his commentary on the book of Luke for Holman’s New Testament series, says it’s not at all unreasonable to conclude that “Joseph found a small one-room house,” and the Baby was laid “in the animal trough attached to the wall that their room shared with the animals’ quarters.”[ii] Leon Morris, in InterVarsity Press’ commentary, notes this prospect, saying, “it is also possible that the birth took place in a very poor home where the animals shared the same roof as the family.”[iii] New Bible Commentary says “the traditional picture of a surly innkeeper refusing admission to the needy couple is somewhat dubious.”[iv] The NET translation notes by Biblical Studies Press likewise acknowledges that “there is no drama in how this is told. There is no search for a variety of places to stay or a heartless innkeeper. (Such items are later, nonbiblical embellishments.)”[v]
Bringing a cow into the living room today may not be how we choose to heat our homes, but it was common practice then. In Luke 13:15, where we read that Jesus asked, “doth not each one of you on the sabbath loose his ox or his ass from the manger, and lead him away to watering?” may have been a reference to an inside manger. Otherwise, why would they untie their ox and lead it to the water they kept one foot away from the food in the barn, as this verse otherwise nonsensically suggests? Surely someone in Israel could have found a longer rope…
In Jesus’ day, many homes were built up in caves and along the sides of mountains, kind of like a berm house today, for stability and warmth. Early interpretations of this story (including the Protoevangelium of James) acknowledge that Mary and Joseph were lodging in a “cave.” Therefore, the most likely location of the birth of Christ was a personal home, in what would have been the entryway or the foyer, since there was “no room in the guest room,” and the “crib” was an animal’s feeding trough.
That’s just a fun little tidbit we can smile about this Christmas.
Here’s another happy holiday thought: In Luke 2:8–20, we read about the angels’ worship of the newborn Savior as they hovered and sang in the skies above the shepherds. Verse 12 states the shepherds are given a sign by which they can recognize the Savior: “Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.” (The “swaddling clothes” are similar today as they were then, in both fabric and purpose. A new mother would tightly wrap the baby to protect the infant’s limbs as well as to imitate the snugness the baby had felt and found comforting in the womb.) Not surprisingly, the shepherds were quick in their willingness to drop everything, run to find this Baby in swaddling clothes, and then tell everyone what they had seen; the people who heard the news were amazed (Luke 2:15–18).
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WILL BLOOD OF THE ANTICHRIST “SAVE” PEOPLE FROM THIS!?
One popular Christmas concept is the shepherd was a lazy, despised man (a rumor having much to do with some baseless claims made by Aristotle who wasn’t a Jew and didn’t even live near this part of the world). This was never based in reality. The biblical narrative shows Abraham, Moses, and David were all well-esteemed shepherds, and the “shepherd” has always been a reference in the Jewish world for those who “guard” God’s “flock” (or people; Psalm 23:1; Isaiah 40:11; Jeremiah 23:1–4; Hebrews 13:20; 1 Peter 2:25; 5:2). That’s not to say it wasn’t a hard job with some serious down sides; that part was real. Shepherding was difficult, because it disrupted the cleanliness laws (manure, blood from wounds, afterbirth of new animals, slaughtering and dealing with the bodies for food, insects and rats around the livestock, etc.). As such, the shepherds were frequently kept from joining God’s people in Jerusalem for feasts and worship. So whereas we would never want to perpetuate the misleading idea that shepherds were men of bad reputation, we need to be real about the fact that they were massively overlooked whenever Israel had a gathering, and that likely whenever someone in the Jewish community had a big announcement, the shepherds generally weren’t expected to be involved.
What’s more, the shepherds in the Palestinian area had many goals for their sheep, but one in particular stood above the rest. Historians make no small issue about the Jewish pilgrims who would come from all over the territory to Jerusalem for the Passover. The lambs had to be thoroughly checked for perfection, and the accommodations that holy city had to prepare (including the installation of countless extra ovens for the feast) was an enormous task. Any Jew, no matter what trade he was involved in, spent the majority of the year preparing for this one feast alone. Even the roads to Jerusalem had to be repaired annually after all the foot traffic into and out of the city had ceased. The population of Jerusalem was around twenty thousand any other time of the year, but during the Passover feast, it climbed to a staggering one hundred and seventy thousand![vi] Selective breeding for the “spotless” lambs was a science that required shepherds to engage all of their time in raising and ritualistically cleansing the animals, preparing special food, and maintaining their health. (This careful breeding could only supply so many lambs, though. Later, we discuss some of the shady practices going on during Passover by religious leaders who angered Jesus when He cleansed the Temple.)
All this, and the men who tended these sheep were regularly excluded while their brothers took the livestock they had raised and used them as Passover sacrifices to cover their own sin. Months of feeding, watering, shearing, cleansing, breeding…yet who would atone for their sin? (Few scholars address this question. Those who do suggest they had to participate before or after Passover, when they would have, once again, been segregated from their people.)
Here, we have a beautiful picture of the angels ministering first to the shepherds of the field. God, in His divine grace, saw fit to include these men in the accounts of Christ’s birth before any others. Perhaps it’s because He saw that their lives were dedicated to the practice of atonement, even if their own animal sacrifices were complicated and may have had to be put off until another day when they could have their own, private Passover-like observance, and He wanted to honor that.
Or, perhaps, it’s because He knew His Son would one day be the Lamb who atoned for all in one work, and the shepherds, for their contribution to the atonement of their people, needed to be recognized…
The shepherds were slaving away in a field of the very lambs this Baby had come to replace, and they were the first to know about it! And now, they were about to meet the Lamb! What a considerate thing for God to do! What a thoughtful and compassionate Lord we serve!
We’re not through debunking some of the images we see each December on Christmas cards. This next example doesn’t have a misinterpreted Greek word or an Aristotle rumor behind it. Frankly, we don’t know where this idea comes from, but it latched on at some point and an army of oxen can’t haul it away from our contemporary culture: Remember how the three kings followed the star of Bethlehem on a long journey over unrelenting hills of desert sand until they arrived at the stable surrounded by donkeys, camels, and hay nestled around the swaddled Christ Child? That was great, wasn’t it? Heartwarming!
Except it didn’t happen.
The very next thing that occurred in the life of Christ following His birth in a small home was an eight-day wait until His circumcision. Then, after “the days of her [Mary’s] purification according to the law of Moses were accomplished”—which Leviticus 12:1–8 clarifies to be forty days from a male baby’s birth (thirty-three days after circumcision)—“they brought him to Jerusalem, to present him to the Lord” in the Temple (Luke 2:22–38). The offering for the common Jew at this visit was a lamb and either a dove or pigeon, but if the parents couldn’t afford it, they were allowed to choose two birds. Mary and Joseph only sacrificed the birds (2:24), showing that they were financially underprivileged. While they were present at the Temple, they met up with Simeon and Anna. The Holy Spirit had revealed to Simeon that he would see the Messiah before he died; it was the Spirit of God who led Simeon to the Temple for that divine appointment. His words about the Baby were precious, as he began with the statement that he could now die in peace (2:29). He went on to speak to Yahweh, showing his belief: “For mine eyes have seen thy salvation, Which thou hast prepared before the face of all people; A light to lighten the Gentiles, and the glory of thy people Israel” (2:30–31). Even the Gentiles would be reached!
Jeremiah, in his Lamentations, repeatedly sought solace for his anguish. At one point, a supernatural reassurance overtook him, and he proclaimed, “Therefore have I hope…great is thy faithfulness!” (3:21b–23). The confidence that overtook him looked forward to the day of Christ’s arrival. In his prophecy to the people, Jeremiah said, as instructed by the Lord, “I will turn their mourning into joy, and will comfort them, and make them rejoice from their sorrow” (Jeremiah 31:13). It was the same faith in this preternatural security that led Isaiah to prophesy, over and over, that all of Israel would find “comfort” in God’s plan (Isaiah 40:1; 49:13; 51:3; 52:9; 54:11; 61:2; 66:13).
On Jesus’ first trip to the Temple when He was forty days old, a man named Simeon was so comforted that he was ready to die in peace.
Mary and Joseph marveled at his quick recognition of the Baby Messiah, but a tough mixture of joy and heartbreak was delivered to Mary in that moment: “Behold, this child is set for the fall and rising again of many in Israel; and for a sign which shall be spoken against; Yea, a sword shall pierce through thy own soul also, that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed” (Luke 2:34–35).
Mary likely couldn’t have known just yet how true Simeon’s prophetic words were. Her soul would be pierced tremendously by her Son’s death.
Anna’s specific response is not recorded, but the Word says she gave thanks to God for the Messiah and, just like the shepherds, she rushed to tell everyone that “redemption” had come to Jerusalem (2:38). For some, “redemption” was great news. For others, such as the sorcerers involved in the lucrative business of wowing the crowds, it was the end of everything.
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HOW OBAMA, HITLER, AND THE THRONE OF SATAN ARE CONNECTED TO “THE MYSTERY OF JESUS FROM GENESIS TO REVELATION”
Unbelievable Political Implications of the Magi
In the book of Luke, the three wise men or three kings are not mentioned. Mary and Joseph headed straight back to Galilee: “And when they had performed all things according to the law of the Lord, they returned into Galilee, to their own city Nazareth. And the child grew, and waxed strong in spirit, filled with wisdom: and the grace of God was upon him” (2:39–40). So, sometime between their departure from the Temple (Luke 2:39), when Jesus was forty days old, and Jesus speaking with the rabbis at age twelve (Luke 2:42), the “three wise men” visited them in a “house” (Matthew 2:11). We apologize to Hallmark and anyone else whose cheery Christmas greetings are ruined by this, but Jesus was not fresh from the womb during their visit, and He most definitely wasn’t in a stable.
The story goes that these men came from the East to worship the “King of the Jews,” and Herod, feeling a bit intimidated by other royalty, called his men to report where this new King could be found. After he had his answer—wherein the chief teachers of the Law quoted from Micah 5:2 about Bethlehem—he attempted to trick the travelers, saying he wanted them to go find the Newborn and report back to him precisely where He was so Herod could “worship Him also.” The men left at once, following a bright star as a navigation tool. They arrived at Mary and Joseph’s residence sometime later, and they gave gifts and offered up praise to the young King. God warned them in a dream not to report back to Herod (Matthew 2:1–13). Herod, enraged, ordered that all male babies in Bethlehem and the surrounding vicinity be murdered (2:16).
(By the way, if the reader is wondering whether these claims about a bright star during Christ’s birth are true: Note that, although we don’t plan to deal with that topic here, we will say quite a number of astrological phenomena took place at that time. Any of those documented, historical night-sky spectacles could have been what Matthew wrote about. More information on this is found in many books and Bible study tools as well as in online discussions.)
Getting back to the subject at hand: First, we need to address the idea that there were “three” men of any kind. One legend names them Gaspar, Melchior, and Balthasar, which no doubt has added to the idea that there were three. However, those names have not been confirmed in in any historical record and are therefore false. Scholars behind the Faithlife Study Bible note that “given the dangers associated with travel in the first-century Near East, the magi probably traveled as part of a larger entourage.”[vii] The Lexham Bible Dictionary also reports that Eastern traditions from early Christianity place twelve men in this group.[viii] (There are many other sources we could cite, but you get the idea.) Gold, frankincense, and myrrh—the gifts they brought for the Christ Child—are the most heavily cited reason for there being three people, as it is imagined each carried one.
Second, who exactly were those “wise men” or “kings”? Were they just super smart guys? Rich kings from distant kingdoms? Were they magicians, as the alternative “magi” seems to imply? Technically, the word for “wise men” is the Greek magos; before that, it was the Hebrew rb mg. The etymological tracing of this word continues to link to the concept of the sorcerers in Babylon and later Persia. In fact, the only time it is used in the Bible outside the birth-of-Christ narrative is in in the book of Acts, in reference to “a certain sorcerer, a false prophet, a Jew, whose name was Barjesus” (13:6, 8). This kind of troubled past for the term is probably why “wise men” is preferred. This is understandable, since the narrative describing the magi depicts them as having the purest of intentions at the time of Christ. The “kings” idea may have first come from Tertullian, from whom the Eastern tradition attributes, or it may have been well-meaning Christian interpreters who connected it to Psalm 72:11, which states that all kings will bow to the Child. Yet, the men’s access to their three expensive gifts and to the inner court of King Herod does make it possible that they were indeed kings, so we’re not ruling that out. After a lengthy weigh-in from many scholars, however, extrabiblical literature’s treatment of this word in use at the time of the New Testament make “royal court officials” (a king’s councilmen) the most likely possibility.[ix] Their proficient skill in reading the stars almost certainly made them astrologers of that day, which was a common job for royal advisors of ancient kings as well. All of these associations put together, especially as linked to the term “magi,” makes a divining position in the royal court a real possibility. They may have been heralded in their local area as the kind of “wise men” who practiced sorcery, witchcraft, and divination, predicting coming kings and proving to be accurate (by powers not of Yahweh, much like the reproducers of magical miracles in Pharaoh’s court in Moses’ time). This would explain why their trip to visit Herod was taken seriously and resulted in the king’s witch hunt.
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GOD BROKE THE POWER OF “THE CHRISTMAS MAGI”? BUT IS SUCH “MAGI-CALISM” RETURNING NOW FOR THE RISE OF A DIFFERENT “CHRIST CHILD”?
Third, the magi left Herod’s presence and found Jesus as a “young child” in a “house” (Matthew 2:11). Herod had ordered the killing of every baby boy under age two, which was an age the king decided would be appropriate based on when the magi had met with him, placing Jesus near that age. Scholars agree that Jesus was a toddler living with Mary and Joseph in a regular Jewish home at this time.
Fourth, a surprising number of people find it comforting to believe these men were Jews, as it would show at least a few more of God’s people recognizing Jesus as the Messiah (as the accounts of His life account find that a rare occurrence). This is doubtful. Had they been Jewish, they would have: 1) already known their own Scripture would send them to Bethlehem because of the prophets; 2) sought Scripture to see what it said of the Messiah’s birthplace; 3) sought the advice of a learned holy man. The fact that they sought secular King Herod as a means to locate the Jewish Messiah proves they were not Jewish.
By straightening these images out to reflect history more accurately, we don’t wish to destroy the picture of the magi. In fact, we’re hoping to achieve the opposite: Underneath all of today’s cultural misinterpretations and miscalculations about these travelers is a sweet, endearing glimpse of the Father!
If scholars and the Greek historian Herodotus are correct in their estimates of who this “entourage” of more than three people was, then the magi were deeply entrenched in Zoroastrianism (though it wasn’t called that at the time).[x] The ancient Arabic Gospel of the Infancy of the Savior states outright that the “magi came from the east to Jerusalem, as Zoroaster had predicted” (7:1). The book of Daniel acknowledges the presence of these followers of Zoroastrianism—astronomers, enchanters, dream interpreters, and visionaries—who were everywhere in the king’s courts in Babylon (see Daniel 1:20; 2:2; 4:4; 5:7). Daniel, in its later Greek form translated during the Hellenistic period, shows this kind of magoi were “flourishing in every corner of the Babylonian kingdom of Nebuchadnezzar.”[xi] According to the historian Tacitus, this form of kingly advisement from Zoroastrian prophets was alive and thriving in the subsequent Roman Empire as well.[xii] Scholars frequently cite that Simon the sorcerer from Acts 8:9–24 was this kind of magi. The list goes on and on showing that the magi, the “wise men” from this narrative of Christ’s birth, were pagan priests “engaged in occult arts”[xiii] and predicting the future for kings who took them seriously because their prophecies frequently played out as predicted. (These “magician-astrologers” are sometimes referred to in scholarly circles as “magiastrologers.”)
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DOES “THE MYSTERY OF JESUS” INCLUDE THE WORLD PREPARING FOR ANTICHRIST?
The ancient, sixth-century BC religion of Zoroastrianism taught that Ahura Mazda, the god of light (according to Zoroaster, the religion’s founder) was the one and only true god—there could be no other. Ahura Mazda was involved in a ceaseless battle against the evil spirit Angra Mainyu, who was equal in power to this god, though opposite in moral nature and character. The theology of Zoroastrianism at the time of Christ was staunchly monotheistic (though it did have a bizarre, seven-entity “Trinity-type” concept), so there is no way disciples of Ahura Mazda would have followed another god (or God) on their own. Yet here, we may actually be witnessing a whole group of them following the star to Mary and Joseph’s house to worship this tiny Boy, offer Him gifts, and then proceed to take heed from the One True God, Yahweh, not to report back to Herod: “And being warned of God in a dream that they should not return to Herod, they departed into their own country another way” (Matthew 2:12).
Do you realize what this means?!
These men were Gentiles! (And even if they were Jews, they were “Babylonian Jews who dabbled in black magic and star worship,”[xiv] so they couldn’t have been pure.) They may possibly even been soothsaying clairvoyants who received oracles from the gods for their king back home. Yet, they fell to the ground and worshipped the Savior while He was still bouncing His little body on and off the furniture, with more adoration and sincerity than almost all the “holy men” Jesus would ever know. Don’t you see it? How adorable! They demonstrated their belief in choosing to carry out the act of worship even when there was no palace, castles, or opulence. A wee Munchkin King became their King in an instant, probably because the same Source that told them to avoid Herod had led them there in the first place, no doubt operating partly through the mouth of whichever king had sent them.
Somewhere in the ancient world, Gentiles in need of saving were seeking redemption that could never come from Ahura Mazda or any other “little-g god.” Yet it’s obvious by the narrative they were honestly seeking and were open-minded to redirection. Yahweh, in His limitless wisdom and love, well before Jesus would accomplish His work on the cross, prompted them not only to seek and find, but to worship this little King of the Jews. Yahweh remained in contact with them supernaturally, leading them on a completely different route home so they could not be intercepted and questioned by Herod or his men. God cared for a group who, as far as the evidence shows, didn’t have even the foggiest clue who the real Power in the universe was, and He cared well enough to personally intervene on behalf of their very souls. Before the Gentile world knew anything about this Man who died for their sin, a lot more than “three” men were likely immersed in a world of astrology, sorcery, divination, and who knows what else, and God led them to the Savior.
Sorry, but that image is far more beautiful than the warm fuzzies holiday greeting cards offer…and it goes well beyond just this group of magi. Nativity plays skim over what was really happening with the visit of these men. Ever wonder why Roman powers (like Herod) would even care about some prophecy about the Jews and a random baby born to them in a small town called Nowheresville-Bethlehem? (Yes, Bethlehem was the “City of David” to the Jews, but its social and economic standing in Christ’s day was somewhat pathetic in comparison to, say, Jerusalem or one of the other cities that had Jewish influence on the surrounding, pagan world.) They weren’t Jews, they didn’t follow God, and they didn’t have much reason on an earthly political level to care what Jewish prophecies claimed, so what gives?
The Jews had a long history of Yahweh’s miracles they continued to teach as fact (and rightfully so), so when the magi—whom scholars believe to have been collectively the supreme source of prophetic wisdom in the pagan history of Babylon, Media, and Persia—took their warnings seriously, so did the pagan/secular world. This wasn’t an ordinary Baby. This wasn’t a regular son of Israel whose parents were making claims about deity. Nor was He old enough yet to have personally made claims that would challenge the government like so many false messiahs before Him had done in recent history (Acts 5:38–39). This “following” had not developed by the persuasion of a man who had the faculties of a full-grown manipulator who could draw attention to himself in his own power, his own speech, his own logos or challenge-and-riposte showdowns in the marketplaces. The wealthiest kings of the world were sending their men on long journeys from faraway kingdoms with incredibly costly gifts to pay homage to, and worship, this Boy that was prophesied to be the King of all kings!
And that act of faith just may have broken something in the unseen realm…
In case there’s still any doubt that the real identity of the magi are far from what’s portrayed on Christmas cards, here’s one more theory from the archives of history. We find it in a letter from Church father Ignatius to readers in Ephesus almost exactly a hundred years after the magi paid homage to the Christ Child. Ignatius wrote: “How then was [Christ] manifested to the world? A star shone in heaven beyond all the stars… By this all magic was dissolved.”
Whoa… What? All magic was what?!
Yep. Watch this:
Ignatius immediately went on to explain that “all things”—that is, practices that used to work in the invisible dominion of magic, sorcery, and the occult—“were disturbed.”[xv] To put it plainly, the arrival of the star God sent as a sign of Christ’s birth of Christ and the faithful response of the magi who followed it “broke” the capability of the dark arts to operate against the laws of the natural world any longer!
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BEHOLD HIDDEN MYSTERIES CONNECTING THE OLD TESTAMENT “OPENING MIND” WITH THE SCROLL “SEALED WITH SEVEN SEALS”
Want more evidence? You got it…
Just a few books later, we see in Acts chapter 8 the account of Simon the magician. It begins with the statement: “But there was a certain man, called Simon, which beforetime in the same city used sorcery” (Acts 8:9). “Beforetime” clearly refers to something that had happened in the past—that is, before Simon’s day. Subsequent verses document that Simon converted to Christianity, but when he saw the power of God producing supernatural wonders and signs, he offered to pay the disciples to show him how they were accomplishing it (8:18–19). If this story is reinterpreted in the light of Ignatius’ theory, we can see how Simon’s sorcery used to work through the powers of darkness before the star and the magi obliterated this power from the land. Then, Simon converted, the motive behind which is anyone’s guess (but it reads like a “may as well” decision, since his skill in the occult was no longer a paying gig and “salvation” would sound sweet to anyone in his suddenly threatened position). But the second he saw the power of God through the disciples, he mistook it for a newer form of sorcery—one he had no knowledge of, and, being a magician at heart, he offered to buy into it. Despite all the other valuable lessons this narrative teaches (not the least of which is that God’s power cannot be purchased), we see what might be historical evidence that Simon: 1) had magical ability at one time in the past; 2) lost it for some reason unknown to him; 3) and then jumped at the chance to regain his lucrative skill when he saw that “the magic had returned.” It hadn’t, of course, but we can see why he would think such a thing.
If sorcery and magic were such a common element in the pagan cultures of the Bible, why don’t we see that dark influence today? (This is a different question than why we don’t see miracles of God as much in today’s world—a question we answer in the subsequent “Miracles of Jesus” section.) In contemporary society, we have stage or street magicians and illusionists (David Copperfield, Criss Angel, David Blaine, etc.), but we don’t have “real” magic like there appeared to be in various accounts throughout the Word. Why not? Where did that power go? Ignatius’ theory, if true, proves the narrative concerning the magi goes far beyond what we could have imagined from any church’s theatrical production. The magi very well may have been the men whose faithful act of following God to the Babe dismantled the dark arts so Jesus’ birth would carry one more layer of authority over the world!
Whatcha think of those cards now, eh? If you’re a playwright, you’ve gotta write this!
Without a doubt, the true back story of the magi glorifies God in potentially unimaginable ways. The star over Bethlehem—and the magi’s faithful response to the voice of Yahweh in following it and avoiding Herod on their way back—may have truly “broken” something for all sorcerers. Every earthly king in surrounding territories (and perhaps globally) could have possibly awakened one day to discover that the King prophesied through the mouths of ancient Jewish messengers had indeed arrived. If the Jews were correct in their interpretations of what this King would do, then He was “coming to take the throne from kings” and establish His own glorious Kingdom on earth. This Child who was now only a toddler would someday grow into an adult, establish an army, take down Rome, and exact vengeance upon those in the Roman Empire who contributed to the persecution of the holy race, the Jews believed.
Signs were everywhere!
The magi’s arrival fulfilled the prophecy of Isaiah 60:6, which said important men would arrive on camels and “bring gold and incense; and they shall shew forth the praises of the Lord” (60:6). It was happening then, in Herod’s time, and if the Jewish chiefs of the Law in his court were as knowledgeable about the messianic prophecies as they appeared to be when they immediately offered the answer about Bethlehem being the birth location of the Child, then Herod was in trouble. Isaiah had also said: “For unto us a child is born…and the government shall be upon his shoulder… Of the increase of his government…there shall be no end, upon the throne of David, and upon his kingdom, to order it, and to establish it with judgment and with justice from henceforth even for ever” (Isaiah 9:6–7).
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Herod the Great (the father of Herod Antipas, who reigned at the time of Christ’s birth) had been declared “the king of the Jews” (yes, that exact moniker) in 40 BC. Prior to that, the term was used by the priest-kings of the Maccabean revolt who went against the Roman powers and won (if only temporarily; review the section titled “Intertestamental Period”). Thus, the very term “king of the Jews” was an inflammatory, provocative, political nickname being tossed around by nationalistic Jewish rebels for years before Herod Antipas was approached by the magi. Matthew 2:2 says when the magi went to Herod Antipas, they asked, “Where is he that is born King of the Jews?” Though the magi likely had no idea how mutinous their words to Herod were, this question flew like sharp slap to the face of the entire Herodian line. Had someone from Herod’s own kingdom said it, the magi probably would have been tried for treason—it was that serious. But far from taking it as an insult and demanding why the magi would have been so preposterous as to assign that name to another, Herod attempted to gain their help in locating this threat. When they didn’t return, Herod flipped out and had all the baby boys killed. Nobody was going to take his throne!
Other magiastrologers in Rome’s history had likewise seen the bright stars rising in the sky (or other astrological phenomena) as marking the birth of conquering rulers. For instance, in 356 BC, one of the great temples of Artemis/Diana burned down. As the flames touched the heavens, the Persian magi ran around in a panic saying it was a sign in the sky that great peril was coming to Asia.[xvi] According to the Greek historian, Plutarch, that was the same evening Alexander the Great was born, whose conquests dominated the whole of Western Asia and Northeastern Africa (so their predictions were correct!). The king of Pontus in northern Anatolia between 120 to 63 BC, Mithradates the Great (Mithradates VI Eupator), was one of the most profound enemies of Rome, having waged the Mithridatic Wars in an attempt to de-Hellenize Asia and drive out Roman forces. Though his efforts were not successful, they had proved such a threat that he would go down in history as the greatest king who ever ruled Pontus. His birth was accompanied by a new star in the night sky, the magi said (and they were correct again).[xvii] Herod Antipas no doubt grew up hearing these stories. His Roman political contemporaries would have certainly had centuries to steep in these facts or legends as well, paving the way for mass superstition about which bright and shining supernova in the sky might be hailing which conqueror to usurp the throne.
The states of the Roman Empire, itself—the most powerful government on the face of the earth—were starting to feel threatened by the very existence of this holy birth, and Herod’s panicked reaction to have all the males under two in the area killed proves that.
The last thing anyone needed in secular government then was for the Toddler to mature into a Man who would speak of ruling kingdoms…and then, from their perspective, that’s just what He did.
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[i] But a word of caution is needed here, as some assume that Matthew “whoopsed” a few names from his list, as his genealogy omits a couple of names from the family line listed in the Chronicles. Luke’s genealogy is different from Matthew’s. Actually, the short explanation for this is that the common Jew’s purpose was not in showing every single person ever involved, but in showing the relationships that are righteous and honorable. If someone turned away from God and his or her life was an abandonment of all God required—such as the wicked King Ahab—their line would be cut off. In 2 Kings 8:18, we see that Jorab married Ahab’s daughter. Ahab’s line was, in fact, cut off for four generations. Instead, Jehu’s sons would serve as king (2 Kings 10:30; cf. 2 Kings 10:35; 13:1, 10; 14:23; 15:8). Thus, Matthew was being obedient to Scripture, and his culture, by choosing not to mention names that had, by the time of the New Testament, become known only as wicked. However, this does not in any way change the authenticity of Christ’s lineage from King David, which is proven biblically and historically. We found at least three or four hundred explanations at the mere click of a button regarding this “discrepancy,” so we have chosen not to go into more detail on this issue in this work as we are already pressed for space.
[ii] Butler, T. C., Luke: Volume 3 (Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman Publishers; 2000), 29.
[iii] Morris, L., Luke: An Introduction and Commentary: Volume 3 (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press; 1988), 100.
[iv] Marshall, I. H., “Luke,” as quoted in: D. A. Carson, R. T. France, J. A. Motyer, & G. J. Wenham (Eds.), New Bible commentary: 21st century edition (4th ed., Leicester, England; Downers Grove, IL: Inter-Varsity Press; 1994), 984.
[v] Biblical Studies Press, The NET Bible First Edition Notes (Biblical Studies Press; 2006), “Luke 2:7.”
[vi] Jeremias, Joachim, Jerusalem in the Time of Jesus (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1969), p. 84.
[vii] Seal, D., & Whitehead, M. M., as quoted in: Faithlife Study Bible (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press; 2012, 2016), “The Magi.”
[viii] Krause, M., as quoted in: The Lexham Bible Dictionary, “Wise Men, Magi.”
[xi] Brown, R. E., The Birth of the Messiah: A Commentary on the Infancy Narratives in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke (New Updated Edition., New York; London: Yale University Press; 1993), 167.
[xiii] Ibid., 167.
[xv] Clement I, P., Ignatius, S., Bishop of Antioch, Polycarp, S., Bishop of Smyrna, & Lake, K., The Apostolic Fathers: Volume 1 (K. Lake, Ed., Cambridge MA; London: Harvard University Press; 1912–1913), 193. Also note that we are not the only ones to interpret Ignatius’ theory in this way. See: Brown, R. E., The Birth of the Messiah, 166–167.
[xvi] Cicero, M. T., With An English Translation. (W. A. Falconer, Ed., Medford, MA: Harvard University Press; Cambridge, Mass., London, England; 1923), 275–277.
[xvii] Brown, R. E., The Birth of the Messiah, 170–171.