|Giotto - Adoration of the Magi|
Chapter 2 of St. Matthew’s Gospel begins with these words:
After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem and asked, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.”
First, a few considerations about this text:
- Magi is a term with different meanings. Strictly speaking, it was applied to the priests of Mazdayasna, the religion of Zoroaster. Zoroastrian magi were frequently devoted to astrology (the name then given to the science we now call astronomy). So, in a broad sense, the word magi could be applied to anyone who worked in that science. The New Testament does not say that they were kings. That is a later tradition.
- It will be noted that the text does not say that they were three. They must be at least two, since the term is plural, but later thinkers have discussed whether they were two, three, or even six. The three magi is also a later tradition.
- It is explicitly stated that King Herod was alive. When did Herod die? Since Emil Schürer (1896) it has been assumed that he died in the year 750 ab Urbe condita (a.U.c., since the founding of Rome), which corresponds to year 4 b.C.e. (before the Christian era). From this, many historians deduced that Jesus Christ must have been born before that date. Therefore Dionysius Exiguus, author of the idea of numbering the years since the birth of Christ, would have made a mistake in assigning the year 754 a.U.c. to his birth. But some modern historians think that Herod could have died in the year 753 a.U.c. (year 1 b.C.e.), and that his sons pushed back the beginning of their own reign, thus causing the discrepancy and leading Emil Schürer to a wrong conclusion. Consequently, the most probable date for the birth of Christ would be between the year 7 b.C.e. and the year 2 b.C.e.