How Old was Jesus When the Wise Men Came?
It seems every Christmas someone, a pastor, a friend, or a teacher, pulls out the Wise Men/Young Jesus view and insists that the Nativity scenes and the common Christmas story are all wrong because Jesus had to have been a young child by the time the wise men arrived in Bethlehem. Is this Biblical? I would like to answer this question once and for all, "How old was Jesus when the Wise Men came?"
There are two views on this question. The traditional view is that Jesus was a baby. I call this view the Wise Men/Baby Jesus view. The other view says that Jesus was one or two years old. I call this view the Wise Men/Young Jesus view.
The Wise Men/Young Jesus View
The Wise Men/Young Jesus view seems to have it roots in the actions of King Herod at the time of Jesus' birth. When the wise men came to him looking for the Messiah, he asked them when the star had appeared (Matthew 2:7). The wise men went to visit Jesus and then returned home. When Herod saw that they did not return to him as he had asked them to, he "was exceeding wroth, and sent forth, and slew all the children that were in Bethlehem, and in all the coasts thereof, from two years old and under, according to the time which he had diligently enquired of the wise men." (Matthew 2:16) Evidently, Herod figured that Jesus had to have been born any time from when the star appeared on.
We know from history that King Herod was very paranoid. He killed his wife and two sons because he thought they wanted to take his kingship.
Despite who Herod was, he did not know when Jesus was born. Just because he ordered that children two years old should be killed does not mean that Jesus was two years old at that time. Herod evidently also thought that Jesus could be a baby because he also ordered newborn babies to be killed.
Two points are made by the Wise Men/Young Jesus crowd in support of their view.
The first point is that Jesus is called a young child (KJV) in the wise men account (Matthew 2:8,9,11,13,14,20,21). They claim that a young child is older than a baby, that the term, young child, is never used of a baby, and that the shepherd account (Luke) calls him a babe at his birth, not a young child.
The Greek words behind these two words are paidion (young child) and brephos (babe). Actually the proper translation of paidion is child. It can refer to a baby as well as a teenager. Paidion is used of John the Baptist when he was eight days old (Luke 1:59,66,76,80). It is used of Jesus when he was born (Luke 2:17), when he was eight days old (Luke 2:21), and when he was 40 days old (Luke 2:27,40). In fact, despite what the Wise Men/Young Jesus people say, paidion (child) is used in the shepherd account (Luke 2:17) just one verse after brephos (babe). So just because Jesus is called a young child (paidion) in the wise men account (Matthew) does not mean that he is older than a baby.
The second point that is made is that the wise men account (Matthew) says that the wise men found Jesus in a house (Matthew 2:11). The Wise Men/Young Jesus view points out that Jesus was born in a stable not a house. The parents had come to Bethlehem and there was no room in the inn so they were forced to stay in a stable. The fact that they are in a house shows that they had settled in that area and had lived there for a while. That is why it says house and not inn or stable.
Actually in the Bible times it was common to stay in someone's house as a non-paying guest because hotels were very rare. It is highly unlikely that there was an inn in Bethlehem. The term, inn, in the Bible can also refer to a guest room in a house (the Greek word for inn is translated guest chamber in Mark 14:14 and Luke 22:11). The law commanded the Jews to treat strangers as themselves and not take advantage of them (Leviticus 19:33). It was wrong for them to charge money for travelers to spend the night.
Many people built guest rooms in their homes so that they could have a place for visitors to sleep. During Israel's three national holidays, Jews traveled from all over the country and lived in houses as non-paying guests in and around Jerusalem. Two of the holidays were a weeklong and so it required that the people with houses in Jerusalem and the surrounding cities be hospitable. What is referred to as an inn in Bethlehem most likely was a guest room in someone's house. The guest room was full and so Mary and Joseph slept in the barn.
Bethlehem is in a tropic climate and so it was warm or hot all year round. When the people in the guest room saw that Mary had given birth to Jesus, it is likely that someone offered to sleep in the barn so Mary and Jesus could sleep in the house. So the wise men could have come the day Jesus was born and found him in a house. The mention of a house does not require or hint that Jesus was not a baby.
The Wise Men/Baby Jesus View
The star that guided the wise men to Jesus could have appeared a year or two before Jesus was born. God is the one that made it appear. God knew when Jesus would be born and how long it would take the wise men to get to Bethlehem. Why would God have arranged for the wise men to show up a year or two after Jesus was born? Would He most likely have wanted them to show up on the day of Jesus’ birth or shortly thereafter? God was planning this not the wise men.
The biggest proof as to the age of Jesus when the wise men showed up is an event that happened later: when Mary, Joseph, and Jesus traveled back to Nazareth. This only happened once and both the wise men account (Matthew) and the shepherd account (Luke) record this event. In the shepherd account (Luke) it is very clear that they returned to Nazareth very close to 40 days after Jesus was born (Luke 2:39). The wise men account (Matthew) tells us that they returned to Nazareth after their return from Egypt (Matthew 2:22,23). So the whole wise men thing and Mary and Joseph's trip into Egypt had to have happened within 40 days of Jesus' birth.
Another proof for the Wise Men/Baby Jesus view is 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." This verse states that the wise men came into Jerusalem "when Jesus was born". They did not come a year later. They came when he was born. In Jerusalem they were only half a day’s journey from Bethlehem.
The Christmas Timeline
Mary and Joseph traveled to Bethlehem to be taxed. When they arrived, they went to Joseph’s relative's house. They had a guest room but the guest room was full, so they stayed in the barn.
Jesus was born at night in the barn. Angels appeared to shepherds telling them of Jesus' birth. They found Jesus lying in the feed trough of the barn.
That night or the next morning Joseph's relative brought Mary and the baby into the house and kicked out some other distant relatives.
About this time the wise men entered Jerusalem asking where the Messiah was. Herod consulted the people whose job it is to copy the Old Testament by hand and they answered, Bethlehem. Herod asked the wise men to find the Messiah and then come back and tell him where the Messiah was.
The wise men left on the several hour trip to Bethlehem traveling in the cool of the night. The star reappeared and guided them to the house where Jesus was. They went into the house and gave him gifts.
As they slept that night, God warned them in a dream not to return to Herod but to go home a different way. They left.
The next night an angel appeared to Joseph in a dream and told him to escape to Egypt. He, Mary, and Jesus set off for Egypt. After a few days journey Mary and Joseph arrived in Egypt.
Herod saw that the wise men had not returned. He got mad and killed all of the boys in the Bethlehem area that were two years old and younger.
Joseph, Mary, and Jesus stayed in Egypt for about a month. Herod died. An angel appeared in Joseph's dream again telling him it is alright to return to Israel.
They traveled to Jerusalem and went to the temple to offer the sacrifices required by the law. Simeon and Anna recognized the baby Jesus as the Messiah.
The proper thing for them to do next would have been to go back to Bethlehem, tell the relatives and friends there that they were alright and to thank them for their hospitality but talking with other worshippers at the temple, Joseph finds out that Herod's son, Archelaus, has replaced Herod and he is afraid to go to Bethlehem. Nervous about the attention his son is getting in Jerusalem, they head west out of Israel and then north to Nazareth.
How old was Jesus when the wise men came? The Bible does not say exactly how old he was, but from what it says we can make a safe guess that he was from 0 days old to several days old. He was not a year old or older.