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The Magi: Misconceptions and Mythicism

Today is the Feast of the Epiphany when Western Christians celebrate the visit of the Magi to the infant Jesus. The account of the visit of the Magi can be found in Matthew 2:1-18. According to Scripture, “wise men from the East” followed a star to Jesus’ location and then “fell down and worshipped him” (Matt. 2:11).

What do we know about the Magi?

The traditional belief that there were three wise men is a development based on the gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh recorded in Matthew 2:11. The identification of the wise men as kings may have developed from a reading of Psalm 72 that says, “May all kings fall down before him, all nations serve him” (Psalm 72:11).

Most Nativity scenes include the Magi, but we know from Scripture that they did not arrive until later. Some Bible scholars suggest that this may not have occurred until up to a year and a half later, based on King Herod’s command in Matthew 2:16:

Then Herod, when he saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, was in a furious rage, and he sent and killed all the male children in Bethlehem and in all that region who were two years old or under, according to the time which he had ascertained from the wise men.

The fact that Herod had all the male children up to two years old killed suggests that some time had passed before he ascertained the age of the Christ child from the Magi. In any case, Matthew does not tell us exactly how much time had elapsed between the birth of Jesus and their arrival.

The Magi and Mythicism

According to the website religoustolerance.org, “The Egyptian God Horus was born of the virgin Isis; as an infant, he was visited by three kings.” Of Hercules, Osiris, Bacchus, Mithras, Hermes, Prometheus, Perseus, and Horus, the site claims all of them had been “visited by ‘wise men’ during infancy.” In classic popular mythicist fashion, there are of course no primary source citations to back up these claims.

As I have already pointed out, Matthew’s Gospel is silent on the number and political status of the Magi. These are later developments in Christian tradition and not a matter of Gospel record. Because we know these traditions arose from biblical inferences, we can say with confidence that they have nothing to do with pagan mythology.

Furthermore, of the pagan deities mentioned above, none of them were visited by three wise men or kings. The burden of proof is with the mythicists, and they will be hard-pressed to deliver anything credible.

A Star in the East

Some mythicists will also claim that, like Jesus’ birth, the births of certain pagan gods were heralded by a star in the east. Mythicist author and blogger D. M. Murdock writes, “Rather than representing a ‘historical’ event surrounding the birth of a Jewish messiah, the star at the coming of the savior can be found in the myths of Egypt.”

Of the Magi, Pope Benedict XVI explains that it is possible these men could have been part of a Persian priesthood, or they could have been something else (cf. Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives, p. 94). Whoever they were, they were probably not Jewish. This point is significant, because even if there were a parallel here with some pagan god and the birth of Jesus, it makes sense that the Magi would recognize a sign familiar to them and respond to it. But there are no pagan parallels.

Some mythicists attempt to connect Sothis—a star that the ancient Egyptians believed to be significant—to the birth of Horus; however, this can be achieved only through a series of rigorous mental gymnastics.

The Egyptians most often connected the rising of Sothis (a.k.a. Sirius) to the rising level of the Nile River, which was very important to them. The flooding of the Nile brought with it fertile soil necessary for farming (cf. Oxford Guide to Egyptian Mythology, p. 256). In the astral realm, the goddess Isis was sometimes identified with Sothis, and her husband, Osiris, identified with the constellation Orion. Their sexual union was said to have produced Horus (ibid., p. 171). Even if Jesus were an astrological deity as some mythicists claim, there is still no parallel here.

The other “star in the east” parallel claims are met with the same obstacle: little to no evidence. There are other accounts from antiquity that appeal to astrological events as a sign of some spiritual significance, but none of them play out like the story of Jesus’ birth and the visit of the Magi.

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