Map of Greece, Turkey, and Israel

What “East” Were The Wise Men From?

posted in: Inspiration | 23

Map of Greece, Turkey, and IsraelAre the details of the Bible’s account of Christ’s life important?  Was the historical reporting of the Bible accurate in relating the facts about Christ’s birth?  Can we believe the more miraculous and supernatural aspects of the virgin birth and the appearance of angels and fulfillment of prophecy and more if we aren’t even confident in the factual reporting of the more natural aspects of the story?

There are many details in the Gospel accounts of the birth of Jesus which have caused scholars to disagree, question, and find the need to contextualize or interpret the Bible’s history as something other than a literal recounting of the facts.  So, let’s take just one example of a contested issue in the Biblical account of the Christmas story and consider whether or not it is factually true as written.

In the Gospel according to Matthew, it says,

“Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the reign of King Herod. About that time some wise men from eastern lands [ἀπὸ ἀνατολῶν] arrived in Jerusalem, asking, ‘Where is the newborn king of the Jews? We saw his star as it rose [ἐν τῇ ἀνατολῇ], and we have come to worship him.'” – Matthew 2 (NLT)

This translation of the original Greek text certainly reflects the commonly held belief that the wise men or “magi” (literally “μάγοι” in the Greek and believed to be kings, astrologers, scientists, priests, or scholars of the day) came from some land east of Israel in response to seeing a star that arose to announce the coming of a king.  However, as the text continues, we start to see an inconsistency in this translation of the original Greek, because after meeting with the local king it says,

“And the star they had seen in the east [ἐν τῇ ἀνατολῇ] guided them to Bethlehem. It went ahead of them and stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they were filled with joy!” – Matthew 2 (NLT)

The star appearing in the east is actually more likely what the first reference to the star is saying as well, when you look at a more literal translation,

“Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judaea in the days of Herod the king, behold, there came wise men from the east [ἀπὸ ἀνατολῶν] to Jerusalem, saying, ‘Where is he that is born King of the Jews? for we have seen his star in the east [ἐν τῇ ἀνατολῇ], and are come to worship him.'” – Matthew 2 (KJV)

It appears that the Bible may be proposing a paradox. How is it possible that wise men from the east, could see a star in the east, and follow it east to discover a king in Israel, which would be to their west as they set out in this supposed scenario?  Does this mean the Bible is making some spiritual point and not accurately conveying the history about the arrival of the magi bringing gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh?  Are we supposed to look past this inconsistency to believe the broader retelling of the story without pondering what this paradox might be highlighting?  Did the wise men come at all, or is this really more of a mythological reference to the gold, frankincense, and myrrh as testimony to the identity of Jesus as a king, inserted by the writer of the Gospel account as a literary allusion and not intended as a historical detail?

The answer is, the wise men did come from the East and follow a star they saw in the east, just like Matthew’s text says.

To understand how this is possible, first you need to understand that the language of the original text of the New Testament was Koine Greek (the “lingua franca” of the Hellenized world of first century Israel), and then you need to look at a map.

The Gospel writer says that the wise men came from “ἀνατολῶν” following a star in the “ἀνατολῇ” both words coming from the Greek term “ἀνατολή”, meaning “East” or “Rising of the Sun”.  However, it is interesting to note that in reference to the star the writer uses the definite article “τῇ” to identify “the” east, whereas when speaking about the origin of the wise men the writer simply says they were “ἀπὸ ἀνατολῶν” or “from East” which many have assumed includes an implied definite article, but does it?

Now, considering that the Gospel account is written in Koine Greek, originating in Greece.  Take a look at a map of Greece and then look at what is directly to the east of Greece — Turkey.  And what was the Greek term for Turkey in the first century (long before the Turks had arrived on the scene)?  Anatolia, coming from “ἀνατολή” — East, or the Rising of the Sun.  Greece literally named the neighboring land east of Greece, “East”.

When Matthew put pen to paper to write the Gospel account of the arrival of the wise men at the birth of Christ, there was no difference in terminology between the name of what eventually became modern day Turkey (a land to the north and west of Israel) and the word indicating the ordinal direction “east”.  The only clue in the text is the grammar around the implied definite article in “ἀπὸ ἀνατολῶν”, “From East” or “From Anatolia” instead of “From The Anatolia” whereas the star was seen “ἐν τῇ ἀνατολῇ” or “in the east” indicating the ordinal direction.

Understanding this distinction makes it clear how a traveler from Anatolia, which was north and west of Jerusalem and Bethlehem, could see a star in the east (apparently the southeast) and follow it to find the king of the Jews, just as the Gospel writer recounted.

And, in case this linguistic analysis isn’t enough evidence that this particular detail of the story is accurate as written, consider one more statement by the Gospel writer regarding the wise men,

“When it was time to leave, they returned to their own country by another route, for God had warned them in a dream not to return to Herod.” – Matthew 2 (NLT)

Once again looking at the map you will see that Jerusalem is basically due north of Bethlehem.  So, if the wise men had come from east of Jerusalem and Bethlehem — from Babylon or Persia for instance — there wouldn’t have been any need for them to pass Jerusalem coming in or on their return trip.  However, coming from Anatolia, they would have been traveling basically due south by the time they hit Jerusalem which also explains why they arrived in Jerusalem before making it to Bethlehem even though they were following Christ’s star for directions.  It’s not that they wandered off their path or somehow lost track of the star, it was that because they were coming from the north the star had to lead them directly through Jerusalem in order to get to Bethlehem to the south.  And so, when looking to return to Anatolia from Bethlehem and avoid the local king, Herod, in Jerusalem, they were forced to plot a less direct route home and cut out around Jerusalem somehow, rather than taking the most direct course home to Anatolia, due north right back through Jerusalem.

As is often the case in the Bible, the answers are there for discovering if you are willing to persist until you find them.  Just as the account of the wise men arriving is factually accurate as written, if you approach the entire Bible as both a spiritual text and a factual history, you will discover that many of the elements of scripture that have been misunderstood or used to discount the Bible over the years are not inaccurate in the writing of the text, but became inaccurate in the understanding of its meaning after the fact.  The story of the wise men from “East” traveling “east” to celebrate the birth of Jesus should be a great reminder that God’s Word tells a story that is true on every level from historical and factual to allegorical and metaphorical to spiritual and divine as the Bible recounts the holy and absolute truth of God’s passionate purpose, mission, and desire to reach and to save each one of us.

So, with this as just one small example, it is my prayer that your confidence can rest assured that even those areas of the Bible that have not yet been fully corroborated, explained, or confirmed by external sources are true as written and contain within them the accurate account of God’s promises, God’s will, and God’s grace for you, because that is why God provided it in the first place.

“And the star they had seen in the east guided them to Bethlehem. It went ahead of them and stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they were filled with joy! They entered the house and saw the child with his mother, Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasure chests and gave him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. When it was time to leave, they returned to their own country by another route, for God had warned them in a dream not to return to Herod.” – Matthew 2 (NLT)

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23 Responses

  1. Ruben

    Please write some more in details……..I had difficulty to read the words written in (Hebrew or greek)…..

  2. Kathy Cunningham

    I loved this explanation. It makes so much sense and helps me begin to realize just how awesome God is. I’m looking forward to unlocking other hidden treasures in the Bible as time goes on.

    This is the first time I’ve been on your site. I’m going to be checking it out some more.

  3. fulfillingtorahministries

    Perhaps they were from Parthia, which was the empire in direct competition with Rome in the region, on the far [east] side of the Euphrates River, in what had been Assyria, Babylon and Persia.

    Perhaps the Magi were disciples of disciples of disciples [going back about 500 years] of Daniel in Persia. There were Parthians in Jerusalem for the biblical feast of Shavuoth [Pentecost] in Acts 2.9

    7 And they were all amazed and marvelled, saying one to another, Behold, are not all these which speak Galilaeans? 8 And how hear we every man in our own tongue, wherein we were born? 9 Parthians, and Medes, and Elamites, and the dwellers in Mesopotamia, and in Judaea, and Cappadocia, in Pontus, and Asia, 10 Phrygia, and Pamphylia, in Egypt, and in the parts of Libya about Cyrene, and strangers of Rome, Jews and proselytes, 11 Cretes and Arabians, we do hear them speak in our tongues the wonderful works of God.

    • Edgar Anciano

      Thats a nice brief explanation of who might the magi was ? !! Surely it’s was not a king. But it the time of Jesus you should look for a nation from the east well establish in history have equipment technology for centuries that can monitor the skies & stars & a revelation of God like Abraham that was from the east!!
      There’s a lot of research your going to do, but that to YouTube this will help you with time. I’m sure after your research you can say” I’m out of the box. “.
      Try to search on the china’s imperial astronomy record on the birth of & death of Jesus. There you can see what kind of star that points a direction towards where was the manger.

  4. amber lee

    Thank you! It is so hard to find people with whom I can even kinda-sorta agree, these days. I don’t know much Greek, but I saw the word in an interlinear and read the word as almost certainly coming from the same word that gave us Anatolia. I guess I do need to learn Greek after all, just so that I can prove what my gut instincts are telling me.

    Now… about the magi… Zoroastrian, correct?

    • Steve Simons

      The Bible doesn’t say. However there were Zoroastrians studying the sky and living in Anatolia at the time of the birth of Christ so it is certainly possible.

  5. Carmelo Junior

    The spiritual message is that these astrologers who believed in stars returned to their country using other road(the true God). Like Queen Sheba who went to visit Solomon these astrologers went to worship(not just visit) the true God. It is the call to the Gentiles to God. NOTE: They entered the House and saw just HIS MOTHER and HIM(not Joseph or other children!). This is VERY IMPORTANT. Jesus has a MOTHER and no Father or other siblings!

    • Leo

      Comparatively Mary’s faith level was superior. Instead of revering the call of God as Mary, Joseph should have gone through stress and the Word honors Mary. Amidst choices one can either revere and believe a specific call of God or keep with in thousand questions of logic, go through stress, depression and worry. Time goes by without achieving greater things.

  6. Pat O' Sullivan

    The wise men saw the star rising west of them. Being astrologists, this caught their attention (stars rise in the east!) Being biblically and geographically well informed they inferred that this star was heralding the birth of Messiah. They were to the east of this rising star, hence, they were east of the star when they saw it. They were in the east, not the star. They didn’t follow the star all the way to Jerusalem. They automatically headed for Jerusalem. (Where else would Messiah be born?) The final leg of their journey to Bethlehem was guided by the Word of God and the very specific location of the house was pinpointed by the star which they had not seen since the first night in the east, (causing them to rejoice!) Furthermore, what they saw could not have been a star according to our modern taxonomy. Check it out, no star (as we know them) can single out a single location such as a house. The ‘star’ must have been a heavenly body such as an angel.

  7. Debilal Mutham

    Could be wise men be from India ?which is East of Bethlehem and astrology is being practiced in ancient times, also gifting of gold, frankincense, myrrh is seen here when a baby borns of a royal family or reputed family.

  8. patemo lobau

    would you refer to Genesis and find out from there who were the inhabitants of the East

  9. R

    I just re-read your article and saw your comments about Turkey. I was going to ask “Is it possible that the translation is wrong, or at least interpreted wrong as in “we saw his star in the east” meaning that the visitors (hate to say Magi or kings) were in the west and saw the star “in the east” literally like the sun rising in the east (so they were somewhere in the Mediterranean area)?” Also, we don’t actually know how many there were. It is assumed 3 because of the 3 gifts. Plus, I have also heard that they did not actually arrive while Jesus was a baby but at least 3 years later as it states in Matthew 2:16-18 ““Then Herod, when he saw that he was deceived by the wise men, was exceedingly angry; and he sent forth and put to death all the male children who were in Bethlehem and in all its districts, from two years old and under, according to the time which he had determined from the wise men. ” So, according to Matthew Jesus was anywhere from 0 months to 2 years.

  10. Jodie Pessolano

    To answer your question: How is it possible that wise men from the east, could see a star in the east, and follow it east to discover a king in Israel, which would be to their west as they set out in this supposed scenario? The wise men from the east of Jerusalem saw his star in the east, where they’re from. Like all stars, the star (nightly) proceeds from east to west. They followed it to Jerusalem. Matthew records a conversation between these Magi and Herod’s Court. Is it clear to these men that east meant the land of Anatolia (Greek Asia Minor) or land to the east? I would say no. As for avoiding Jerusalem on the return, one would have to go through Jerusalem to go east, as it is the only major road leading that way, unless one took a rougher or more circuitous route.

  11. Jodie Pessolano

    To add to my comment above, it should be noted that the lack of a definite article before “Anatole” does not necessarily mean the the speaker means “Anatolia”, the land east of Greece. Note Matthew 24:27, where the definite article is omitted, yet the text clearly speaks of an ordinal direction, not the land of “Anatolia”.

  12. karenlaster6327

    Thank you for the logical answers regarding the Maji. Quick question: were frankincense, myrrh and gold available in Turkey at the time Jesus was born?

  13. vincent lumago

    Thes guys were astrologers who practiced the art of foretelling fortunes using stars but also steal /transfer blessings meant for Gods childen and so on the fatefull day probably they had a same plan on to find that the King’s star was protected by the almighty himself hence the haste to know who this star represented.

    • Stanley

      Hopefully someone can assist with an answer to this question. Did the wise men come before or after the first coming of Christ!

  14. Melina

    let me explain some simple things about history: in 2000 years ago all countries of middle east and Turkish, India ,… was one country The Empire Of Persia!!!!! that named it today: IRAN. the religion of this empire was Zoroastrian, the oldest monotheistic religion in the world. this 3 men were Zoroastrian Clergymen. so they were Iranian and came from PERSIAN EMPIRE!!! I just cant understand why the west try to Disappear the Iranian history and culture???!!!!!!!!!!!!!????????????????????!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!????????????????

  15. asem zeini

    Well, of course the stars always rise from the east! But they move west (not literally).

  16. Ambrose

    Please someone told me that the wise men were from India. So I should check from the world map…
    How true is that also??

  17. George

    Most of societies’ arguments are kept alive by failure to acknowledge. It’s interesting how you generated this whole argument from a statement that literally means, ‘the star they had seen while in the East’. Therefore, the statement, ‘ the star they saw in the East’ means the star they had seen while in the East not that it appeared in the East. Perhaps, it appeared in the East and guided them to the place where Jesus was.

  18. Heather Thiessen

    What Melina said. Probably the Parthian Empire. @Melina: because our minds have been taken prisoner by “Western Civ,” which thinks the Persians come onstage to fight the Greeks or the Romans, and then just … melt away, like Brigadoon or something.

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