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Q: #602. How long did it take the Wise Men to arrive in Bethlehem after the birth of Jesus?

     A: The story of the Wise Men is found in Chapter 2 of the Book of Matthew in the New Testament. For this study, verses 1-2 are important:

(Mt 2:1-2)(NKJV) “Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, (2) saying, “Where is He who has been born King of the Jews? For we have seen His star in the East and have come to worship Him.””

     In Bible versions like the NASB and NIV, the word “Magi” is used instead of “Wise Men.” The Greek word used for “Wise Men” is “magoi” (the plural of “magos“). Strong’s gives us this definition: “a wizard, sorcerer, a pretender to magic powers, a professor of the arts of witchcraft.”

     In (Acts 13:6), a man named “Bar-Jesus” is called a “magos” (“sorcerer”). (Acts 13:8) continues, saying, “But Elymas the sorcerer (for so his name is translated) withstood them…” The word “Elymas” is derived from an Arabic word “alim,” meaning “wise.” Strong’s tells us that this name was “originally applied to Persian priests.” (Note: In Acts 8:9-24, a man named Simon is also said to have “practiced sorcery [“mageuo”] ).

      Let me also share this from “Wikipedia,” “The word magi is the plural of Latin magus, borrowed from Greek “magos,” as used in the original Greek text of the Gospel of Matthew (in the plural: “magoi“). The Greek magos itself is derived from Old Persian magus, which in turn originated from the Avestan magauno, referring to the Iranian priestly caste of Zoroastrianism. Within this tradition, priests paid particular attention to the stars and gained an international reputation for astrology, which was at that time highly regarded as a science. Their religious practices and astrological abilities caused derivatives of the term Magi to be applied to the occult in general and led to the English term magic.”

     It should be noted that “wise men” (“of Babylon”) are also mentioned in chapters 2, 4, and 5 of the Book of Daniel in the Old Testament. In (Dan Ch. 2), after Daniel successfully interpreted King Nebuchadnezzar’s dream, it says in (Dan 2:48)(NKJV) “Then the king promoted Daniel and gave him many great gifts; and he made him ruler over the whole province of Babylon, and chief administrator over all the wise men of Babylon (“Baghdad” in Iraq today).”

     The reason I mention all of the above is simply to establish where the “Wise Men from the East” came from. Since we are not told “exactly” where in Scripture, there is some debate over this. However, based on the above, nearly all scholars agree that it was either from Iran (“Persia”) or Iraq (“Baghdad”).

***Note: There is a LOT more on the “Wise Men” than what I mentioned above, but to stay on topic, I am not going to go into it here. As of this writing, there is a sermon (from: 2-5-78) by John MacArthur entitled “Who were the Wise Men?” that is very interesting.

     Ok, so having established where the Wise Men (likely) came from, we next need to determine the route they took to get to Jerusalem (and Bethlehem). In Bible times, there were not a lot of roads to travel on. It seems likely that the whole journey was carried out by traveling on two different roads: one called “the Royal Road,” and the other “the Kings Highway.” The “Royal Road” (just north of Baghdad) extended from Suza to Sardis. When traveling west, before reaching Sardis, the “Royal Road” (around Resafa) connected with the “Kings Highway,” which would then be taken south to get to Jerusalem. (***Note: I may be a bit off on where these two highways connected.)

     Taking these two roads, the distance the Wise Men traveled appears to be “about” 1000 miles.

     Next, we need to determine the mode of transportation the Wise Men used to travel to Jerusalem. When you do an online search for “Wise Men,” it is guaranteed that you will quickly see an image of three Wise Men riding on three camels. (***Note: There is nothing in the Bible that says there were “three” Wise Men. This “tradition” is based solely upon the three gifts that were given to Jesus: gold, frankincense, and myrrh [Mt 2:11].) We are not told that the Wise Men rode on “camels,” however, it is entirely possible that they did. Camels are well suited to desert travel, being able to go days without stopping for water (app. 80 gallons of water can be stored in a camel’s hump). In addition, they can carry a significant amount of weight (more than 300 lbs.).

     So, how far can a camel travel in a day when carrying men and cargo? I researched this (yes, I did!), and I found that estimates range from about 25 to 40 miles a day. I am going to go with the lower number of 25 miles.

***Note: Some scholars believe that the Wise Men rode on horses rather than camels. Two reasons are generally given: #1. “Royalty” would not stoop to riding on a “camel,” #2. Many in the area that the Wise Men came from were considered to be expert horsemen. (If they did indeed travel on “horses,” the time to get to Jerusalem would likely have been less.)

     OK! Putting all of this together, if the distance the Wise Men traveled was 1000 miles, and they were riding upon camels, which could travel 25 miles in a day, then the journey between Baghdad (or that area) and Jerusalem would have taken 40 days. I am going to give them a few days off each week for rest, so lets say it took them 8 weeks (or about 2 months).

     It is worth noting that in (Ezra 7:9), we are told that Ezra traveled from Babylon to Jerusalem, and he took 4 months to do it (“from the first day of the first month… to the first day of the fifth month”). However, since Ezra was traveling with a large caravan (that likely included women and children), this could account for why the journey took longer.


     In closing, let me quickly address another widespread “myth” that has been perpetuated for centuries, and that myth shows the (“three”) Wise Men presenting their gifts to the “newborn” Jesus. While the “shepherds” appeared to Jesus immediately after His birth (Lk 2:8-20), the “Wise Men” did not appear until “months” later.

     As mentioned in the verses above (Mt 2:1-2), the “star” that the Wise Men followed to Jerusalem did not appear in the sky until after Jesus was born. After it appeared, there was certainly a period of time before the Wise Men left to follow it. Among the things they likely did: determine what the “star” was, make a decision to travel to it, prepare supplies for the trip, gather their “gifts” together, and get permission to take the trip.

     Assuming the preparation took perhaps two months, and the ensuing journey took two months, the earliest they could have arrived to see Jesus was when He was around 4 months old. (We know it had to be after 40 days, because when Mary presented the sacrificial offering for her cleansing (Lk 2:21-24) 40 days after the birth of Jesus, she gave the offering of poor people, which would been unnecessary if they had received the Wise Men’s gifts.) By this time, Mary, Joseph, and Jesus were no longer at the “cave” (likely not a “stable”) where Jesus had been born (with Jesus “lying in a manger” – Lk 2:7,12), but rather they were in a “house” when they Wise Men arrived (Mt 2:11). (***Note: What city was this “house” in? I discuss this here.)

     Two other things also show that Jesus was not a “newborn” baby when the Wise Men arrived.

     (#1.) After Jesus was born, and the “shepherds’ appeared to Him, Jesus is called a “Babe” (Lk 2:12,16) (Gr word: “brephos“). By the time the Wise Men arrive, Jesus is no longer called a “Babe,” but instead a “young child” (Mt 2:9,11,13-14) (Gr word: “paideuo“).

     (#2.) After the Wise Men leave to return home, and Herod seeks to murder the child (Jesus) who might take his throne (“the King of the Jews” – Mt 2:2), he orders the “death (of) all male children who were in Bethlehem and in all its districts from two years old and under.” The fact that Herod sets upper range of “male children” to be murdered at “two years old” indicates that some time had passed since Jesus had been born.

     Related: Did Mary and Joseph spend more time in Bethlehem, or Nazareth in (Matthew Chapters 1 & 2) and (Luke Chapters 1 & 2)? A timeline of Mary and Joseph’s travels.

Copyright: © Steve Shirley

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