The Shepherds and The Magoi

wise_men_passing_shepherds [A guest post from Glen Henshaw, a husband, a father, an engineer, a lover and raiser of animals, and a longtime reader of the blog.]

I’m looking at our family nativity scene in our bay window right now. There are Mary and Joseph, some angels, a few shepherds, and three wise men, all surrounding a creche that contains the baby Jesus, who is the focal point of the scene. When we talk about “the meaning of Christmas”, this is what we usually mean: Christmas is a story about the birth of Jesus, the Messiah.

But what is the Christmas story about, really? Is it a story about the birth of a baby who would become the Savior of the world? I don’t think so.

The shepherds of the Christmas story are out in the fields with their flocks at night, when angels appear to them and declare “good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people”. We know this part of the story: even those non-religious among us can often recite this verse by heart.

I am a part-time shepherd; my family runs a small-scale sheep farm. At the time of year of the Christmas story – early spring – lambing is in full swing. I can tell you from personal experience that lambs are never born in the daytime; they always seem to come at 3 AM. Lambing is hard, dirty, tiring work. You get covered in blood and fluids and mud and sheep poop. And although seeing a perfectly formed lamb come into the world and take its first wobbly steps is a tremendously rewarding experience, it’s also one that takes place in perfect loneliness. Nobody else is there to see it. It’s just you and the sheep.

Of all the people in Israel, which included a king, priests, Levites, and shopkeepers, carpenters, and all the other trades, why did the angels appear specifically to the shepherds? One reason, of course, is that Jesus was the Good Shepherd, and so the shepherds were a symbol of him. But I think there’s a better, more fundamental reason: it is because, as a good friend once pointed out to me, of all the people in Israel that night, the shepherds were the ones who were waiting for a birth.

These people had an angelic visitation because they were doing their jobs, and had always done their jobs, regardless of whether their kings and priests were gifted or incompetent, righteous or wicked. The shepherd goes out into the field with his flock no matter what the world is or does. And so, when the savior is born, the shepherd is guaranteed to be in exactly the right place.

The shepherds, seeing the angels, reacted with joy and ran into the city to find the child (presumably leaving at least some shepherds behind to continue caring for the flock, because that’s what shepherds do).

In addition to being a part-time shepherd, I am a full-time scientist, and there are scientists in this story as well. For in contrast to Luke’s shepherds are Matthew’s wise men, who came “from the east”. It may appear that we don’t know much about the wise men, but that’s not actually true. If you look on a map, you will see that to the east of Bethlehem is five hundred miles of desert. Nobody lives there. The first city you reach is Babylon, the jewel of the ancient world. The word “magi” is an Anglicization of the Greek word “magoi“, which is the word that is translated as “wise men” in the King James Version. “Magoi” has a specific meaning: it refers to the Babylonian court astrologers whose job was to study the sky in order to predict the weather and the seasons and to record the portents in the heavens – portents of good or bad, the death of nations and the birth of kings. When the ancient Babylonian ruins began to be investigated in the 1800s, we discovered two thousand years worth of star catalogues; the information is occasionally still used today by astronomers to correlate currently visible nebulae with the supernovae that created them.

Unlike the shepherds, who were among the least formally educated of men, the magoi came from the society that literally invented writing. They had at their disposal the literary and philosophical treasures of the ancient world. They were possibly the most educated men the world had ever seen up to that time. The magoi were so good at their jobs that they actually invented the necessary mathematics to predict eclipses and planetary conjunctions, which is why they had the reputation of being magicians and seers: to the people of the time, it looked like they could predict the future. But, really, they were the world’s first scientists. They had worked out a philosophical approach to observational astronomy that is a forerunner to the modern scientific method.

This is why the magoi noticed the rising of a star in the east. Nobody else saw it; it was apparently very faint, or may have referred to a unique planetary conjunction that no one else would have known about or thought interesting other than astronomers with thousands of years of records at hand. They may have been able to correlate the heavenly signs with the Jewish messiah because the Jews had lived in Babylon after the great exile for hundreds of years, where the rabbis presumably interacted with the magoi, providing them with the Jewish prophecies. In any case, these scientists were sufficiently moved by what they saw that they prepared for the journey of a lifetime, a thousand miles or more across the great Arabian desert and back on camels, to pay homage to the newly born king.

Like the shepherds, the magoi were in their own way fulfilling the measure of their creation. The job they were born to was to try to understand and predict the heavens – to find God the Creator through their minds and their mathematics.

When I was in college, I was required to take a literature class, so I chose a class on short stories, on the theory that there would be at least one or two stories I liked. Overall the class was terrible, and I remember very little about it other than repeatedly being told how wrong my literary interpretations were. But one thing stuck with me. The professor had us read several different stories and identify the protagonist in each. This seems absurdly simple, but actually turned out to be tricky. Because, you see, “protagonist” has a specific technical definition, and it isn’t “the main character”. The protagonist of a story is the character or characters who change and (usually) grow, and in some modern literature this is not the main character.

So who is the protagonist in the Christmas story?

It isn’t Jesus. Jesus is a static figure in this story: He is just a baby, and doesn’t change or grow. The protagonists of this story are the shepherds and the magoi. In a literary sense, the Christmas story isn’t about the birth of the Messiah. It’s about the people who find out about the Messiah and how they react to that knowledge.

Notice that each finds out in a different way. For the shepherds, it’s because they are where they should be, doing the jobs appointed to them, as they had done for countless generations. For the magoi, it’s because they grappled with the scriptures of a foreign religion and studied the universe, as they had also done for thousands of years – and because these particular magoi were courageous enough to follow where those subtle signs led them.

But also notice that no matter how they started, they all ended in the same place: kneeling in the manger, announcing to all present that the Savior had been born.

This tells me that the Christmas story is not a story that ended two thousand years ago. It’s your story and my story; it’s the story of everyone who comes to realize that the Savior has been born. It’s the story of the unique way each of us comes by that knowledge and what we decide to do with it. On a day to come, our stories will be read along with those written in Luke and Matthew, and will be no less important.

It also tells me that there is no wrong way to come to Christ. Sometimes in the church we privilege those who have seen the angels. But this is wrongheaded, I think. The important thing is not the way each of us comes to our faith; it is that we come, through whatever route God has provided us, and that we tell each other the story of our respective journeys. We are like the four blind men and the elephant: those of us who see angels or walk daily with the Spirit have a different knowledge than those of us who see the hand of the Creator in the genetics of the sheep, the spiral of the galaxies, and the beauty of the chemistry, physics, and mathematics that underlie them. But the knowledge of angels is not better than the knowledge of galaxies. It is just different.

The story of Christmas is not and cannot be complete without the shepherds’ story of angelic visitations and shouts of praise, nor without the magoi‘s story of diligent observation and study and long silent journeys across the desert. We cannot hope to know Christ and His story without first knowing each other, without seeing aspects of His countenance in each other’s faces and lives.

I am like the magoi. I am a scientist. Faith does not come easily to me. But I tell you that I can see God’s hand in places and ways that you cannot. And you can see Him in times and occurrences that leave me doubting. You may be able to see the trunk of the elephant; I can see the tail. We all need each other to understand the beauty of the whole.

Join me at the manger this week. Teach me of the angels. I’ll tell you about the galaxies.


  1. Wow. What a great post! Gives an entirely different perspective on the Nativity story and Christmas.

  2. anitawells says:

    beautiful post, and particularly the final paragraph. It is allso interesting to note that the shepherd/priests who watched the temple flocks were witnesses to the birth of the firstborn lamb to ensure the correct sacrificial offering. With the frequency of twin lambing, they had a vital role in documenting the arrival of the firstborn lamb, which is such perfect symbolism for witnessing the birth of the Firstborn Lamb of God.

  3. In addition to this interesting take on the magi, I also really like the theory that the wise men were priests after the order of Melchizedek from Babylon (since none had been found in Israel for a long time after the Deuteronomists had suppressed the older Melchizedek order — effectively writing it out of the Hebrew scriptures — in favor of setting up a temple aristocracy revolving around the Levitical, or Aaronic, priests). That doesn’t contradict this post’s focus on the astrological (i.e. “scientific”) endeavors of these wise men. But it offers an alternative to the view that these magi were gentiles well versed in the scriptures of a foreign religion. Instead, if they were Melchizedek priests belonging to an ancient, surviving order far away in Babylon after this order had been completely eliminated in Israel (possibly begun during the reforms of Josiah before the exile and part of the corruption of the religion that Lehi was preaching against), then they were well acquainted with their own Hebrew scriptures (possibly scriptures no longer in our canon after being excised by the Deuteronomist school?) and were anxiously awaiting the astrological signs that had been foretold.

  4. Those notions are interesting to me, anitawells and john f. Where did the ideas come from, that the shepherds were minding temple flocks, or that the Magi were secret Melchizedek Priesthood holders?

  5. Margaret Barker’s theory about the wise men being priests after the order of Melchizedek from Babylon or Arabia also has implications for the gifts the wise men bring, particularly the myrrh oil:

    “The myrrh oil, kept in the holy of holies for anointing kings and high priests, had been hidden away in the time of Josiah, during the great changes in the temple. This too had to be restored for there to be an anointed one, a Messiah. No high priest of the second temple was anointed; the description of Joshua being made high priest in the second temple mentions only his vestments, but not his anointing (Zech. 3.1-5). Jesus, however, said he was fulfilling the words of Isaiah 61: ‘The Spirit of the LORD God is upon me, because he has anointed me . . .’ (Luke 4.21, quoting Isa. 61.1), and at his birth he was declared to be ‘Christ the LORD’, ‘the Anointed One’ (Luke 2:11).” (Margaret Barker, Christmas: The Original Story, SPCK London: 2008, p. 27.)

    I mentioned Barker’s musings about the wise men being Melchizedek priests in a post celebrating Epiphany earlier this year. The information bears repeating because of its topical relevance in the run-up to Christmas, when we typically celebrate the wise men in our condensed, secularized Christmas holiday:

    “Jesus was the new Adam, the new creation, opening the way back to Eden and restoring the true temple. All these themes are in the New Testament, and so proclaiming the birth of the new Adam and the great high priest could well be the original meaning of the magi. A Hebrew version of Matthew would have had wordplay here, since ‘magi from the east’ is written in the same way as ‘magi from ancient times.’ The word miqqedem can mean ‘from ancient times’ or ‘from the east.’ The Garden of Eden was planted miqqedem, the LORD, the Holy One was miqqedem (Hab. 1.12), and the Lady would give birth to the great shepherd of Israel miqqedem (Mic. 5.3-4). The magi also came miqqedem, and so were a sign for Hebrew Christians that the ancient ways were being restored.

    “Of special interest is the myrrh, because the myrrh anointing oil had ‘disappeared’ from the holy of holies in the seventh century BCE. The perfumed oil representing Wisdom (Ben Sira 24.15), whence the figurative language in the Enochic Apocalypse of Weeks, that Wisdom was abandoned in the time of Josiah (when the oil was hidden away), and the priesthood lost their vision (1 En. 93.8). The oil — known as ‘the dew of resurrection’ — had anointed the royal high priests after the order of Melchizedek and transformed them into sons of God. The temple link was known in the early Church and appears in an Epiphany Sermon of Pope Leo the Great. Interpreting the three gifts of the magi, he wrote: ‘He offers myrrh, who believes that God’s only begotten son united to himself man’s true nature.’ The uniting of divine and human had been the mystery of the myrrh oil in the holy of holies, the ‘birth’ of Immanuel, and it was Pope Leo whose letter on the one person and two natures of Christ was adopted at the Council of Chalcedon in 451 CE.

    “Justin, a native of Palestine writing in the mid-second century, said the magi came from Arabia, but his voice has been largely unheard, and the magi are invariably linked to Persia. . . . Exactly what Justin meant by ‘Arabia’, however, is not known. Herod was an Arabian but he came from Edom, and Josephus said that Petra was the capital of Arabia. It was not today’s Arabia. After his conversion, Paul went to Arabia (Gal. 1.17), and his visit may help to identify the magi. He came back better informed about his new faith and able to explain that Christianity was rooted in something older than the law of Moses. Who instructed him? Paul went on to teach that Christianity antedated the Sinai covenant, and was based on righteousness through faith. Abraham was the great example, and his true heirs were righteous through faith. The righteous have proved to be a significant group in the nativity story (Luke 1.17, 75; Matt. 1.19), and Abraham and his heirs were important for Zechariah and his son John (Luke 1.73; Matt. 3.9).

    “Jewish tradition, recorded in the fourth century CE, but presumably not invented at that time, knew that many priests of the first temple had settled in ‘Arabia’ after Josiah’s temple purges in the late seventh century BCE. The enigmatic oracle in Isaiah 21.13-15 was about these priests who had lived in the Forest of Lebanon, that is, Solomon’s temple complex (1 Kings 7.2) and then fled to ‘the thickets of Arabia.’ This implies that descendants of the older priesthood were still in ‘Arabia’ in when Paul went there, people who held the Enochic view that the second temple was impure. There were Jews from ‘Arabia’ in the crowd at Pentecost (Acts 2.11); perhaps there had been Jews from Arabia in 7 BCE for the feast of Tabernacles, when the star was seen. Perhaps they included some of the descendants of the older priesthood, the priests miqqedem, especially as the traditional way to depict the magi in nativity icons is as three high priests [indicated by a curious top-knot head-dress].

    “After his time in Arabia, Paul returned to Damascus, which was the code name for Qumran — or so it would seem. The foundation document of the community described them as the men of the new covenant in the land of Damascus who had access to the fountain of living waters. They are usually identified as Essenes. They were a priestly community who had rejected the impurity of the second temple, the righteous who were hoping to return to Eden and be restored again to ‘all the glory of Adam.’ The Old Greek translation of Amos, made in Alexandria towards the end of the second century BCE, has some interesting differences from the Hebrew that reflect the sectarian polemic of the time. Amos’s prophecy of destruction, the shepherd taking away two legs or an ear from the mouth of a lion, was explained as the LORD taking away those who dwell in Samaria and ‘those priests in Damascus’ (Amos 3.12b). Now there were in Alexandria at that time a large number of Samaritans, and at a later date, people very like the Qumran community, presumably ‘those priests in Damascus.’ We know about the latter — the Therapeuts — because Philo wrote about them, and about Qumran because the scrolls have been found. But were there other such communities elsewhere? Josephus said that the Essenes lived ‘in large numbers in every town,’ and had a network to support members when they travelled. Were there similar settlements in ‘Arabia,’ the home of the magi and the spiritual heirs of the ancient priesthood? Did Paul receive instruction from them about his new faith? These questions cannot be answered, but the evidence suggests they should be asked.

    “Philo, who died in 50 CE, gave two interesting descriptions of magi, showing how an educated Jew of his time understood the word. ‘Among the Persians there is the order of the magi, who silently make research into the facts of nature to gain knowledge of the truth and through visions clearer than speech, give and receive the revelations of divine excellency.’ ‘Now the true magic, the scientific vision by which the facts of nature are presented in a clearer light, is felt to be a fit object of reverence and ambition, and is carefully studied not only by ordinary persons, but by kings and the greatest kings, so much so that it is said that no one [in Persia] is promoted to the throne unless he has first been admitted into the caste of the magi.’ Jews could also be called magi; there was a Jewish false prophet and magus on Cyprus (Acts 13.6). The question is: could other Jews who put their knowledge to better use be called magi?

    “The first group to consider would be the Essenes. They were a conservative priestly group opposed to the current temple regime in Jerusalem, they studied prophecy and were themselves prophets, they were astronomers, and they were looking for the Messiah [or Messiahs]. They were respected by Herod and would have had easy access to him without fear of his wrath. But if they were Essenes, why did they need to ask him where the king of the Jews had been born? Herod was an Edomite and so did not know the Hebrew prophecies, but the Essenes were noted for their study of prophecy. One answer might be that they knew a different version of the Bethlehem prophecy in Micah 5.2. Instead of ‘from you shall come forth for me one who is to be the ruler in Israel’ the Hebrew text found at Qumran has ‘from you one shall not come forth to be the ruler in Israel,’ l’ instead of ly.

    “Herod told the magi to find the child and then return to say where he was. They were warned in a dream not to return to Herod and so ‘they departed to their own country by another way.’ Between the monastery of Mar Saba and Bethlehem there is the monastery of Dosi [St Theodosius], built on the site of an older foundation marking the cave where the magi stayed on their way home from Bethlehem. This suggests that they were going to Arabia, rather than to Persia.” (Barker, 119-123.)

  6. Thank you for sharing this wonderful post. I have a son who is starting to wonder if God and science can be reconciled and the magoi are perfect as an example of the scientist believer. I’ll share this with him soon.

  7. I loved this post. For our FHE this week, we had just talked about the symbolism of the shepherds and wise men, including the idea of how there are many ways to come to Christ. I really appreciated having these ideas developed so fully. I also liked how the post pointed out that the protagonists in the story are not the Christ Child. Thank you.

  8. Tremendous. I’m going to read this to my family. Thank you.

  9. Latterdaynerd, that’s really unfortunate about your son. In my experience, although people say the church is the same everywhere, in fact the intellectual and spiritual tools we give people to help them on their own journeys varies tremendously from ward to ward. I’ve had wards who loved and appreciated what I brought to church. I’ve also had wards where denouncing scientists as a tool of Satan was an almost weekly occurrence.

    Tell him, please, for what it’s worth, that there are many faithful LDD scientists.