Every school child in the USA knows how the Magi brought gold, frankincense and myrrh to the newborn Christ. How did the Magi come to understand that the messiah had been born and how did they know that these would be the perfect gifts to symbolize the career of the messiah? Did the prophet Daniel provide the gold, frankincense and myrrh for the Magi or did he at least influence their choice of gifts?
To better understand this question we need to examine who the Magi were. Ancient historians like Herodotus, Josephus and Philo all mention and speak highly of the Magi as ancient astronomers and advisers to the kings of Persia. Philo especially complimented the “eastern school” of Magi. The Bible references the Magi of the Christmas story as being “from the east” so it is likely they came from this “eastern school.” It is also obvious that they were highly regarded even in Jerusalem as Herod gave them a private audience. (Matt. 2: 1 – 11).
The Magi and Daniel
One must also ponder why the Magi risked their lives on a journey of over 800 miles to visit the messiah when those in Jerusalem seemed clueless that he had been born. This is where the prophet Daniel enters the story. The Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Old Testament) mentions the Magi eight times using the same Greek word as the New Testament. Most of these references occur in the book of Daniel. In Daniel 2 Nebuchadnezzar is about to execute all the Magi for their inability to interpret his dream. Daniel saved them all (and himself) by giving the King God’s interpretation of the dream of the statue of metals. Later in Daniel we learn Nebuchadnezzar appointed Daniel Chief of the Magi (Dan. 5:11). For both of these reasons Daniel was highly regarded.
It is both possible and likely that as Chief of the Magi, Daniel instructed the other Magi in the worship of the one true God, YHWH. It is also likely that this group possessed the Old Testament including the Book of Daniel. Jewish tradition holds that Daniel founded a sect of Magi who were anticipating and looking for the coming of the messiah!
Why would they be focused on messiah? Because the book of Daniel Chapter 9 clearly foretells the exact day that Jesus would enter Jerusalem! This is found in the prophecy of the Seventy Sevens. This precise prophecy said 483 years of 360 days each would transpire from the decree to rebuild Jerusalem until the coming of the “anointed” or messiah. Knowing that Messiah would likely enter his ministry at thirty years of age as per Jewish custom, the Magi would have been able to fairly accurately establish the birth of our Savior within a period of a few years.
The Magi also had another Jewish scripture to rely on, Numbers 24:17 (NIV) “I see him, but not now; I behold him, but not near. A star will come out of Jacob; a scepter will rise out of Israel.” Mystery has involved this “star of wonder” for millennia. But if a miraculous series of astronomical events occurred around the “appointed time” of Daniel’s prophecy, might it have been enough to encourage the Magi to “ride?” Let us consider this series of events for a moment.
By the time of Daniel it was already known that the Messiah would come out of the tribe of Judah and we know from Jacob’s prophecy in Genesis that Judah was to be a “lion” and that the lawgiver would not depart from between his feet.
Judah is a lion’s whelp: from the prey, my son, thou art gone up: he stooped down, he couched as a lion, and as an old lion; who shall rouse him up? The sceptre shall not depart from Judah, nor a lawgiver from between his feet, until Shiloh come; and unto him shall the gathering of the people be. Binding his foal unto the vine, and his ass’s colt unto the choice vine; he washed his garments in wine, and his clothes in the blood of grapes. (Gen. 49: 9-11 KJV)
This passage is full of messianic images. Jesus is the Lion of the tribe of Judah. He rules the nations with an iron sceptre. His angels gather together the elect at the rapture. His garments are washed with blood upon his second coming.
The Magi were astronomers and would be searching the sky for a “star.” In astronomical terms the Lion is the constellation of Leo. The main star in Leo is Regulus (the “King Star”) which is found between the feet of Leo the Lion. The prophecy of Jacob then pictures the “lawgiver” (Messiah) between the feet of the Lion. Jews came to regard Regulus as the star of messiah.
In 2 and 3 BC, 7 incredible conjunction events occurred in the sky.
|12 Aug 3 B.C.||5:20||Venus-Jupiter||0.07’ = 4.3’|
|31 Aug 3 B.C.||21:03||Mercury-Venus||0.36’ = 22’|
|14 Sep. 3 B.C.||5:05||Jupiter-Regulus||0.33’ = 20’|
|17 Feb. 2 B.C.||15:15||Jupiter-Regulus||0.85’ = 51’|
|8 May 2 B.C.||16:10||Jupiter-Regulus||0.72’ = 43’|
|17 June 2 B.C.||17:53||Jupiter-Venus||0.01’ = 0.5’|
|26 Aug 2 B.C.||15:15||Mars-Jupiter||0.10’ = 7’|
The first of these happened on August 12, 3 BC. A conjunction of Jupiter (the King Planet) and Venus (the Mother Planet occurred.) This was a once in 500 year conjunction that made the stars look like they almost touched. Amazingly this occurred in Leo! (A star shall come out of Jacob.) This certainly caught their attention.
As the Magi continued to watch the sky, Jupiter continued its path of conjunctions. On September 14, 3 BC, Yom Teruah (Rosh Hashanah), it moved into conjunction with Regulus. The King planet in conjunction with the Messiah star. Interestingly this occurred on the very night that the constellation Virgo the virgin (Mary) was clothed in the sun (the sun is in Virgo in September) and the moon was at her feet. In Revelation, John describes the scene that very night:
A great sign appeared in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, and the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars; and she was with child; and she cried out, being in labor and in pain to give birth. (Rev. 12: 1 -2 NASB)
Then incredibly two more conjunctions of Regulus and Jupiter occurred, the first in February and the second in May. In both of these the moon entered the dance on just those nights “hiding” the star Regulus. In eastern astronomy, the moon is known as the mother and in some circles today is still called “mother Mary.” To the Magi these 3 conjunctions of the King planet and Messiah star said “king, king, king” or maybe “king of kings.”
Then on June 17, 2 BC, a second once in 500 year conjunction of Jupiter and Venus occurred. Amazingly this also appeared in the constellation of Leo! This was the closest approximation of these planets in thousands of years. It was the brightest “star” to appear in the skies from that day till the present.
Finally in August 2 BC a conjunction of 4 planets occurred in Leo again (Jupiter, Mars, Venus and Mercury).
Some believe Jesus was born or conceived on September 14, 3 BC. Interestingly it appears the Magi and King Herod didn’t know if that date was conception or birth either. When Herod asked the Magi when the star had first appeared he used it to approximate Jesus’ age. He chose kill babies with an upper range of two years of age just in case the September 3 BC was the date of his birth and a lower range of “under” two years of age in case it was his conception.
But either way there can be no doubt that the Magi, who were astronomers, had never seen anything like the conjunction display of this time period. They mounted their camels and rode to Israel.
Christians have long understood that the gifts the Magi brought to Jesus were “perfect” reflections of his ministry: King (gold), High Priest (frankincense) and sacrifice (myrrh used to embalm a body.) The question is how did the Magi understand this ministry when those in Israel did not. Again the answer is probably Daniel. The most mysterious of the gifts was myrrh used in embalming. A very strange gift to give a baby. But Daniel’s prophecy of the seventy weeks clearly shows that the Messiah will be “cut off” (die) but not for himself. (He died for us all!)
And after the sixty-two weeks Messiah shall be cut off, but not for Himself. (Dan. 9: 26 NKJV)
The question at hand now is did Daniel’s writings give the Magi a proper understanding of the messiah and cause them to choose these gifts or did Daniel himself set these gifts aside. Did he place them in treasure trove in wait for six hundred years for the day he foresaw in his vision?
These were the gifts of a wealthy man. Was Daniel wealthy enough to leave these gifts as an inheritance? We have learned already that Nebuchadnezzar made Daniel Chief of the Magi. Later he was made chief administrator of two kingdoms, both Babylon and Persia under four different kings (Nebuchadnezzar, Belshazzar, Darius and Cyrus). He was an imminently wealthy man and yet he didn’t have an heir. He was most likely a eunuch. Nebuchadnezzar entrusted all the young Hebrew captives to the “Master of the Eunuchs” in Daniel 1:3. Being wealth and having no heir would make it completely likely that Daniel might leave his fortune as an inheritance to give to the messiah.
This is a tradition that known throughout the Middle East. That Daniel did leave his vast fortune to provide for the study of astronomy among the Magi and for gifts for them to carry to the messiah upon his birth. The Bible doesn’t collaborate this tradition. We will never truly know if it’s true until we ask Daniel ourselves in the millennial kingdom. Personally I hope it is true. I think it adds to the character of one of God’s greatest saints that even in his death he provided all he had for his Messiah.
As you may know, this blog primarily focuses on events leading up to Jesus’ second coming and his millennial kingdom. This story has a few implications for those times. The first is that Jesus will receive gifts during his millennial reign of both gold and frankincense. Myrrh will be excluded because his death was once for all! (Isa. 60: 1-6).
In my next post we’ll look at the Christmas story in Revelation 12 and it’s further implications for the end times.