What’s the connection between Daniel and the three wise men of the nativity story? Well, we’ll get to that; but first let’s begin by reviewing the traditional nativity story:
Is the story told like this anywhere in the Bible?
In the story that is usually told by children’s plays at Christmas time, Mary and Joseph travel to Bethlehem on a little donkey. When they get there, all the inns are full, so they have to stay in a stable. It is in this stable, that Jesus is born. Soon after Jesus’ birth some shepherds turn up, having been sent there by an angel and whilst the shepherds are still there, three wise men (or sometimes kings) show up. The three wise men / kings have been following a star and bring gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. Obviously there’s a bit more to the story, but that’s pretty much the gist of it. But is the story told like this anywhere in the Bible? Is the traditional nativity play story, an accurate account of what actually happened?
You have to put the two accounts together to get the whole picture of what happened.
The answer to both these questions is…….no. The story is mostly true, but it is a combination of events, that in reality, were probably spread over a period of about 2 years. Nativity plays usually combine these events into one night, using what you could call ‘artistic license’. Another question is, how exactly did the wise men know that the star signified a ‘King of the Jews’ being born? But let’s put that to one side for now and look first at how the nativity story lines up with the Bible, and how it differs. Jesus’ birth is only recorded in the gospels written by Matthew & Luke and you have to put the two accounts together to get the whole picture of what happened. We will start with the account written by Matthew, which records an angel telling Mary she would have a Son and that she should call Him Jesus. It then skips to the account of the wise men. But that is missing out half the story, so to see what happened with the shepherds, we need to turn to Luke’s account. Like Matthew, Luke also records how an angel appeared to Mary, but Luke also adds the detail of the angel’s name – Gabriel. In addition, Luke goes into some detail about Mary’s cousin Elizabeth and her baby, born just before Jesus, who would later become known as John the Baptist.
The reason for Jesus being born in a stable was not that Mary & Joseph were poor.
Luke then details the reason that Jesus came to be born in Bethlehem – because of a decree sent out by Caesar Augustus, that required everyone to go to the town of their birth for taxation purposes. Mary riding to Bethlehem on a ‘little donkey’ is not mentioned, but she may well have used this method of transport, so we’ll just go along with that part of the nativity plays. Well, so far the nativity play account has got it pretty much correct. Next we get to the highlight of the story: Jesus is born and laid in a manger, “because there was no room for them in the inn” (Luke 2:7). Now, before we continue, let’s deal with a major misconception that many people have about Jesus’ birth: The reason for Jesus being born in a stable was not that Mary & Joseph were poor – they weren’t! He was born in a stable because all the inns were full. But what about the shepherds? That was, after all, the reason that we turned to Luke’s gospel! Well, Luke first mentions the shepherds in chapter 2, verse 8, “And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night“. As per the nativity story, an angel appears and tells the shepherds that Christ (or the Messiah) has been born and gives them instructions on where to find Him, “And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger“.
Contrary to popular opinion, Jesus did not come to bring peace & good will among men.
Before the shepherds can head off to visit Jesus, a multitude of angels appears, praising God and saying. (Notice that it doesn’t say they were singing, but if you want to stick to them singing its not an important issue.) Look carefully at what the angels say though, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men“. Contrary to popular opinion, Jesus did not come to bring peace & good will among men. If that was why He came, then let’s be honest – it didn’t work! Jesus Himself said in Matthew 10:34, “Think not that I am come to send peace on earth: I came not to send peace, but a sword“. No, He came to bring peace & good will towards men (from God). The sin of Adam had separated Man from God. But now, with Jesus firmly in place on the Earth, ready to carry out His mission, as far as God was concerned that separation was as good as removed, and peace was restored.
The wise men most certainly did not come from China or any other oriental country.
Which brings us to the next part of the story, the three wise men (or kings). So let’s deal with the kings part first. These men were not kings , the Bible refers to them as wise men. Also, they did not come from the Orient as per the carol, ‘We Three Kings Of Orient Are‘. Yes, they did come from the east (from Israel’s point of view), but they most certainly did not come from China or any other oriental country. The widely accepted view, is that they came from Babylon, in modern day Iraq. Which of course, is to the east of Israel. The wise men came from Babylon and followed the star to Israel. Now the Bible doesn’t say that there were three men, but there could have been. The number comes from the three types of gift that were mentioned: gold, frankincense & myrrh.
The word I want you to look at in this verse is ‘Rabmag‘.
We mentioned earlier a prophecy that talked about a star signalling the birth of a significant King of the Jews. But are there any prophecies concerning this in the Bible? Yes! Numbers 24:17 says, “I shall see him, but not now: I shall behold him, but not nigh: there shall come a Star out of Jacob, and a Sceptre shall rise out of Israel“. This was a scripture that the educated Jews would have been familiar with, but how did the wise men from Babylon come to know about it? To answer that, take a look at Jeremiah 39:3, “And all the princes of the king of Babylon came in, and sat in the middle gate, even Nergalsharezer, Samgarnebo, Sarsechim, Rabsaris, Nergalsharezer, Rabmag, with all the residue of the princes of the king of Babylon“. At this point, you may ask, “Er, Matthew, did you copy and paste the correct verse?!?” Yes, I did – bear with me! The word I want you to look at in this verse is ‘Rabmag‘, which is not a name, but a title. It means: ‘head of the Magi’ – otherwise known as the wise men.
[The] head of the wise men of Babylon was known other than…….
But that still doesn’t explain how the wise men knew about the prophecy. So, turn to the book of Daniel and we’ll see the connection. Because in Daniel’s day, the Rab-mag / head of the Magi / head of the wise men of Babylon was known other than……….Daniel himself! Check out Daniel 2:48, “Then the king made Daniel a great man, and gave him many great gifts, and made him ruler over the whole province of Babylon, and chief of the governors over all the wise men of Babylon“. And that is how, the three (or more) wise men that came to visit Jesus knew of the prophecy. Daniel instructed the wise men of his day and that knowledge was passed on to the wise men of Jesus’ day. But did the wise men really turn up just after the shepherds, ready for a nice group photo as per our nativity scenes? Well, probably not! There isn’t much evidence of it happening like that in the Bible. The first reference to the wise men is in Matthew 2:1, “Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judaea in the days of Herod the king, behold, there came wise men from the east to Jerusalem“. The problem is, that it doesn’t say exactly how long after Jesus’ birth the wise men arrived, so the assumption is, that they arrived while everyone was still at the stable. However the evidence in the Bible does not support this. Firstly, every reference to Jesus in Matthew chapter 2 refers to Him as a ‘young child’ and not as a baby (verses 8, 9, 10, 13, 14, 20, 21). Secondly, when Herod found out the wise men had tricked him (they received instructions in a dream), he ordered that all the boys from two years old and under in Bethlehem be killed. So it seems that Herod thought that Jesus could have been about two by then.
There are no references to a stable or a manger or to any farmyard animals being present when the wise men arrived.
The final piece of evidence, is that there are no references to a stable or a manger or to any farmyard animals being present when the wise men arrived. Matthew 2:9-11 says, “They departed; and, lo, the star, which they saw in the east, went before them, till it came and stood over where the young child was. When they saw the star, they rejoiced with exceeding great joy. And when they were come into the house, they saw the young child with Mary his mother, and fell down, and worshipped him“. These verses very clearly refer to Mary and Jesus being in ‘the house’, not ‘the stable’. So we can say with certainty that there was no photo opportunity with everyone all together at the stable. So my message is this: enjoy nativity scenes, enjoy nativity plays, they’re part of Christmas and they’ve got all the right characters there (albeit, not exactly how it happened). It’s just good to have an accurate understanding of Jesus’ birth and infancy, based on the Bible, rather than any other source (no matter how cute!).
Finally, if you have the time, this is an excellent version of the nativity story:
Merry Christmas!!!!!! (Unless you’re not reading this at Christmas!)
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