The Wise Men


The Star of Zoroaster


And the

Historical Record

Patrick S. McKay Sr.

A member of the Restoration Movement, the Reorganized LDS.

    The Holy Scriptures record that "wise men from the east" came to Jerusalem inquiring as to the whereabouts of the child that was born the Messiah of the Jews. When they found him, they worshipped him, opened their treasures and gave him gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.

     Who were the wise men? Where did they come from, and how did they know of Christ's birth?  What about this star they spoke of? These are just a few of the questions one should ask himself during this time of year as we celebrate the birth of the Lord's Christ.

     Tradition – probably arising from the fact that there were three kinds of gifts – says there were three wise men. Henry Van Dyke popularized their legendary names Casper, Melchoir and Bal-tha-zar, in his moving story of the Other Wise Men, and reaffirmed the ancient legend that made them Oriental kings, one of whom was dark skinned. This tradition has been perpetuated in the song, We Three Kings of Orient Are as found in many hymn books today.[1]

     Tradition also suggests that the star appeared over the stable on the night of Jesus birth. How does that understanding square with the scriptures?  The wise men claimed to have seen his star in the east which prompted them to come and seek the Messiah, that they might worship himIt has been assumed that this star shown over the stable on the night of Jesus birth. An examination of the sacred text fails to reveal that as fact.  Following their meeting with King Herod the scriptures inform us that the star which they had seen in the east now "went before them, until it came and stood over where the young child was."[2] These travelers had not seen the star since it first appeared in the east and now it guided them to the house where Mary and the young child were.  Had it directed them constantly, they would never have had to inquire where the Messiah was.    

     From the biblical account it is apparent that the wise men did not arrive on the night of the Messiah's birth.  Immediately following the visit of the wise men Joseph was warned by an angel to take Mary and the young child to Egypt to escape Herod's wrath.  They left in haste by night.[3] Previous to their journey to Egypt, at least three significant events had already transpired.  Jesus had been circumcised and named on the eighth day after his birth.[4] Following Mary's purification, which continued an additional thirty-three days after the circumcision, Jesus was then presented at the temple with sacrifices as the law required,[5] and Joseph, Mary and the babe had returned to Galilee to their own city,  Nazareth.[6]  Their flight into Egypt could not have taken place until many days after the birth of Jesus.   And since it occurred immediately after the wise men arrived, they had to have come long after the night of his birth. [7]   

     The flight into Egypt led to a very memorable event.  Seeing that the wise men had not returned to him, the alarm and jealousy of Herod assumed a still darker and more malignant aspect.  He had no means of identifying the royal infant of the seed of David but apparently learned from the wise men that they had been in search of the Messiah for two years, so Herod issued a mandate to slay all the children of Bethlehem and its neighborhood from two years old and younger, "according to the time which he had diligently inquired of the wise men."[8]        

     After their visit with Herod the wise men now headed off towards Bethlehem with the added insight they received from the prophecy of Micah, that Jesus birth had taken place in Bethlehem. If their journey to Jerusalem had taken approximately two years, Joseph, Mary and Jesus had by this time already returned to their own home in Nazareth.  It might then be assumed that this is why the star reappeared to them to lead them to Nazareth rather than Bethlehem.  However, if that were the case, why would Joseph be warned in a dream to escape by night to Egypt to avoid the barbarous act of Herod's slaying of Rachael's children?[9] In St. Luke's account, we discover that Joseph and Mary went every year to Jerusalem for the observance of the Passover, which coincided each year with the time of Jesus birthday.[10]  Mary and the babe would have no doubt been in Joseph's home in Bethlehem, where Joseph was from.[11] We are further inclined to accept this probability when we realize that Nazareth is approximately 70 miles north of Jerusalem and would have been outside of the decree of Herod and already safe.  Further, why travel south to Bethlehem during this time of butchery in order to escape to Egypt.  If however, due to the Passover they were already in the vicinity, Jesus life would have been in danger, hence the warning to Joseph by the angel to flee to Egypt.  Matthew neither tells us where they went in Egypt nor how long they were exiled there. He refers specifically to the cause of their flight and of their return.  He then quotes from Hosea "Out of Egypt have I called my Son."[12] He transfers the language which Hosea had applied to Israel and her freedom from Pharaoh's bondage to Jesus, as the obvious and excepted type of Jacob's coming deliverer.   

     Nearly all of Christendom incorporates the birth of our Savior, the shepherds, the wise men and the star altogether, as is so often depicted in most nativity scenes.  In the Book of Mormon, there are clues which help reveal what the biblical account leaves unanswered concerning these sojourners who went to worship the Christ child.

     The Nephites were guided to the Promised Land and continued to be blessed with the spirit of prophecy and revelation.  Nephi recorded his father's prediction of Jesus birth as coming "six hundred years from the time that my father left Jerusalem, a prophet would the Lord God raise up among the Jews, even a Messiah; or in other words, a Savior of the world,"[13] while the prophet Alma announced the place of his birth to be, "at Jerusalem, the land of our forefathers."[14]

     As the six hundred years drew to a close, Samuel the Lamanite prophet came among the Nephites to preach and prophesy to them. Samuel predicted that the coming of the Messiah was only five years away.[15] He declared that when the Messiah was born that their would be great lights in the heavens and there would be a day and a night and a day as if there were no night and a new star would arise, "such a one as ye have never beheld; and this shall also be a sign unto you."[16]

   Three years following Samuel's prophecy we discover that "angels did appear unto men, wise men and did declare unto them tidings of great joy."[17] In this year the scriptures began to be fulfilled.  How so?  They were fulfilled in relation to the birth of our Savior. The glad tidings of great joy must have heralded the coming birth of Jesus, although the event was still two years away.[18]

     Who then, were these wise men? And to whom do angels appear?  Moroni taught that "angels...are subject unto him [Christ], to minister according to the word of his command, shewing themselves unto them of a strong faith and a firm mind, in every form of godliness."[19] In latter-day revelation we are told, "The power and authority of the Melchisedec Priesthood is to...have the heavens opened unto them and commune with the general assembly and the church of the first-born."[20] The Hebrew letter instructs us that this general assembly and church of the first-born are the angels, or the spirits of just men made perfect through Jesus the mediator of the new covenant.[21]

     Nephi and Lehi, the sons of Heleman, spoke with such power and authority that they converted eight thousand Lamanites, stood in the midst of fire and were not consumed, and when they spoke, the earth quaked and trembled.[22] It is also recorded of these two brothers that "they do converse with the angels of God."[23]

     Nephi, due to his diligence in keeping the commandments and because of his willingness to declare the word of God with such faithfulness, was told that he could ask for whatsoever he would and it would be granted unto him.[24] His brother Lehi, according to the scriptures was "not one whit behind Nephi in things pertaining to righteousness."[25] A contemporary of Nephi and Lehi was Samuel the Lamanite prophet.  The story informs us that as many of the Nephites who believed on his testimony sought for Nephi, desiring to be baptized by him. The more part of the Nephites, however, did not accept the words of Samuel: "And as they went forth to lay their hands on him behold, he did cast himself down from the wall, and did flee out of their lands... and behold, he was never heard of more among the Nephites."[26]          

     According to the Book of Mormon, the faithful who lived in Joseph's land knew of the very day on which the Messiah, for whom all Israel had waited for centuries, would be born.[27] About two years prior to the appointed date in the ninetieth year of the Reign of Judges, angels appeared to "wise men", bringing them "tidings of great joy" which they shared no doubt with the believers.  In the ninety-second year of the Reign of Judges or the six-hundredth year from the time that Lehi fled from Jerusalem, Nephi, the leader of the Church, gave his son charge of all those sacred things and records which had been kept since their exodus from Jerusalem and departed from the land for some purpose not revealed in the scriptures.[28] Lehi, although not specifically referred to as missing or departing out of the land, as were Nephi, and Samuel the Lamanite prophet is never referred to again either. 

     Remember, these two sons of Heleman had from their youth been taught of Christ their Redeemer, their Rock and their Salvation.[29] They were nearing the end of their days in the ninety-second year of the Reign of Judges.  Nephi received the judgment seat from his father Heleman in the fifty-third year of the Reign of Judges[30] and filled that office for thirty-nine years prior to Christ's coming.  Surely these men were of a strong faith and a firm mind in every form of godliness and therefore would qualify as being wise men according to the scriptural definition. Perhaps they, like Simeon of old, also desired to see the consolation of Israel, even God's Christ. Remember, whatsoever Nephi would ask for he would receive.[31]

     "Another tradition calls them 'Magi'.  O. Henry's delightful story, 'Gift of the Magi', has endeared this tradition to many who may not have known that 'Magi' pertains to a class of Zoroastrian priests of ancient Media and Persia reputed to possess supernatural powers. The American Heritage Dictionary defines Magi as 'sorcerers'."[32]

     This traditional view implies that they were Persians because that nation flourished in the east and advanced astronomy. However, Persians worshipped idols and their astronomers studied the sky to explain and promote idolatry. Since idolatry opposed true religion, one might wonder why pagans came to worship Jesus.

     "When the Lord commissioned Jeremiah, He told him, 'I have this day set thee over the nations and over the kingdoms, to root out, and pull down and destroy, and to throw down, to build and to plant (Jer.1:10). The Bible describes in detail how Jeremiah rooted out, pulled down threw down and destroyed the kingdom of Judah, but does not record how he built and planted nations or kingdoms. All it does imply [is] that he protected the daughters of king Zedekiah when Babylon conquered Judea, leading many to conclude he took them to Ireland and planted a colony of Hebrews there,"[33]which may answer other prophetic declarations such as that referred to in the Allegory of Zenos in the book of Jacob where various plantings of Israelites are referred to.

     "The Talmud, on the other hand, which is the official record of Jewish tradition, sheds additional information on Jeremiah's commission to build and plant nations. It says that Josiah, King of Judah from 639 to 608 BC, sent Jeremiah to the exiled tribes of Israel living by the Caspian Sea.  His purpose was to invite them to return to their previous lands. The Talmud also says that Jeremiah taught his message to an Israelite named Zoroaster. Zoroaster means 'fire-born', or 'seed of fire.' A Chaldean word...his efforts transformed the Persian religion. He led them from superstition and ignorance and founded them on light and truth. His Persian name is Zar-a-thush-tra, which is translated 'the delivering seed' or 'the emancipator.' Zoroaster came from Bactria, the Scythian territory previously settled predominantly by the tribe of Ephraim."[34]

     Zoroaster taught the supreme existence of one God, renouncing the pagan worship of the Magi, and predicted the coming of the kingdom of God.  He authored several sacred books and said the religion he taught was founded on two tables of stone. He also wrote concerning the resurrection and everlasting life.[35] The teachings of Zoroaster were clearly Hebraic and support the idea advanced in the Talmud that the prophet Jeremiah delivered God's message to an Israelite in Scythia.  Later, much of what Zoroaster taught became pejorative and through successive generations was yielded to paganism.

     In the ancient apocryphal writing called The Infancy of the Saviour there is a curious account of the wise men who came to visit the Christ child according to the prophecy of Zoroaster, which runs parallel to the account recorded in the Testimony of St. Matthew.  Following their visit and the offering of the gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh it says, "And in the same hour there appeared to them an angel in the form of that star which had before guided them on their journey."[36] Remember, all that the wise men said to King Herod was that they had seen the star in the east and had come to worship the child who had been born. It was only after visiting with Herod that they again saw the star, and "they rejoiced with exceeding great joy,"[37] and they followed it until it led them to the house.

     From the July, 1887 issue of Saints' Herald, we read, "The Magi were perfectly familiar with the effects of diurnal motion, and even though the Star might happen to stand over Bethlehem at the time of their arrival, they would know as well as we that it was purely accidental and that a little earlier or later it would occupy a different position in the heavens.  Here, then, seems to be an instance where we cannot eliminate the miraculous from the [biblical] account, but must conclude that the Star..., like the Herald Angel was a messenger directly from the realm of the supernatural."[38] Our closest star is our own sun, 93,000,000 miles away.  Does it go before people today and lead them to a specific house in a certain town or village?  Some have suggested that this "star" was a conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn. Still others suggest it was a nova, i.e., a star which explodes and burns brightly for a while.  But how does that fit our story? The star these wise men saw was no doubt a distinct phenomenon, a supernatural light, which, by a direct act of God, went before them. Not unlike the pillar of fire that guided the Israelites by night, a supernatural announcement for a supernatural birth.

       From the simple record in the Testimony of St. Matthew's account, it is clear that a divinely luminous body, a star, went before these wise men until it came and stood[39] over where the young child was. Note the fact that in its guiding mission it both came and stood, to indicate, as a heavenly sign, the fact and the person of him, that was born King of the Jews, a work which no star of the planetary heavens could do. The testimony indicates that it was a supernatural and divine miracle attesting to the Messianic character and mission of Jesus as the Savior; to say otherwise is to pervert the Holy Scriptures and rob them of a marvelous, sustaining and confirming testimony of the divinity of Christ and his blessed gospel of salvation. 

     The historical record offers the distinct possibility that the wise men came from the Americas, [Joseph's land] the pilgrimage taking approximately two years. These wise men may very well have sailed across the Pacific to China and through Persia on their way to Jerusalem in order to verify the prophecy of Zoroaster. Incidentally, the ancient mariners traveled by benefit of the stars.

     In her excellent work, People, Places and Prophecies Verneil Simmons writes, "The term Magi is now known to be an old Accadian word, used to designate one of the learned priestly class who was also a keeper of sacred things.  Under the later Persian Empire the Magi were considered diviners and astrologers. The ancient Semitic [Hebrew] term could have been correctly used, implying that these men were priests of God. Legend later turned them into to Oriental kings. Interestingly enough, legend also maintains that one of them was dark-skinned."[40]

     Gian-Carlo Menotti's musical Christmas Classic, Amahl And The Night Visitors tells the wonderful story of the three wise men on their way to Bethlehem, who stopped at the home of  Amahl, a crippled little shepherd boy, and his mother, an impoverished widow. When the mother discovers the wise men have expensive gifts to present to a newborn babe, she becomes envious and cannot understand why her child, who is so poor and sickly, should not have some of these gifts. Under cover of darkness she steals some of the gold and is caught.  She then tries to explain her motives so she can feed her own starving child. With great tenderness, the wise men forgive her and explain to her who this new born child is and how much he needs the love of every human being to build his kingdom.  She is touched by their story and laments the fact she has nothing to offer this new born child.  Amahl then comes to her rescue and impulsively offers the wise men his most precious possession, his wooden crutch, and in so doing, he is miraculously cured of his lameness.[41]     

     Is Menotti's fable of the Magi from the east entirely fabulous? "Tradition[s] surrounding the mysterious strangers from afar have moved authors and composers to produce prodigious amounts of beautiful literature and inspiring music."[42] Have they been able to "take the words soiled with human intercourse and under some magical, mystical spell, make them the truth?"[43] Most of our modern scholars as revisionists have reduced these "wise men" to diviners, astrologers and occultists. Their research fails to remember the admonition to seek learning even by study, and also by faith.[44] We are fortunate indeed to have the fullness of the gospel as recorded in the Book of Mormon coupled with latter-day revelation and the ancient history which help to identify these wise men as true servants of the God of Israel. I believe the Restoration holds not only the key to the Christmas story of the birth of our Lord Jesus with the new star, angelic visits and the true identify of the wise men, but also the key to unlock the riddle of the ages. This angel message should inspire our minds and enliven our souls, especially in the Christmas season, thus enabling us to testify to the world of this latter-day evangel.


[1]B. Mildred Smith, unpublished manuscript in author's possession.  See also Smith Bible Dictionary, Teachers Edition pp. 374-375

[2] Matthew 3:9

[3] Matthew 3:13-14

[4] Luke 2:21

[5] Luke 2:22-24 and Leviticus 12:2-8

[6] Luke 2:39.

[7] B. Mildred Smith has illuminated our understanding by skillfully recounting these sequence of events outlined in the New Testament account.

[8]Matthew 3:16. See also Frederic W. Farrar, D.D., F.R.S.S., The Life of Christ, Fountain Publication, 1980, p. 59.

[9] Matthew 3:18

[10]The Nephites began to "reckon their time" from the time the sign was given on the night of Jesus Birth (3Nephi 1:45) and the death of Jesus took place during the week of Passover (St. Luke 22:15) which took place according to the Book of Mormon in that same week (3Nephi 4:6). 

[11]Frederic W. Farrar, D.D.,F.R.S.S., The Life of Christ, Fountain Publication, 1980, p.66.

[12]Hosea 11:1

[13]1Nephi 3:4

[14]Alma 5:19  If the wise men came from the Americas they would have been unaware of Micah's prophecy which was written long after Lehi's departure for Jerusalem, but having a knowledge of Alma's prediction would naturally come to Jerusalem.  Some critics of the Book of Mormon have used this very passage to try and discredit its authenticity because it speaks of Jesus birth having taken place in Jerusalem and not Bethlehem. Webster suggests that the word at is a function word to indicate presence or occurrence, on, or near

[15]Heleman 5:55                                                                                                                                    

[16]Heleman 5:56-59

[17]Heleman 5:126

[18]For the explanation of the two years see Heleman 5:125-126. Samuel's prophecy began to be fulfilled in the 90th year of the Reign of Judges.  The 92nd year of the Reign of Judges was also the 600th year since Lehi left Jerusalem, the before predicted year of the birth of the Messiah (see 1Nephi 3:4).

[19]Moroni 7:31

[20]Book of Covenants 104:9a-b

[21]Hebrews 12:22-23

[22]Heleman 2:80-81, 86, 90

[23]Heleman 2:101-105 (emphasis added)

[24] Heleman 3:117

[25]Heleman 4:23

[26]Heleman 5:119-120

[27] 3Nephi 1:12

[28]3Nephi1:23, & 46

[29] Heleman 2:74-75

[30]Heleman 2:33

[31] Heleman 3:117

[32]B. Mildred Smith

[33]Bob Moore, Pilgrims Promise Vol. 1 No. 9 The Wise Men.


[35]Will Durant; Our Oriental Heritage, The Story of Civilization, Vol. 1; Simon and Shuster, NY; 1954; p.371.

[36]New Testament Apocryphal Book, I Infancy 3:3

[37] Matthew 3:10

[38]The Saints'  Herald Vol.34: No.27 p. 426, 2 July, 1887 (emphasis added)

[39] Matthew 3:9

[40]Verniel Simmons, Peoples, Places, and Prophecies: Who Were The Wise Men? p 191; Zarahemla Research Foundation, 1981.

[41]Gian–Carlo Menotti composed the musical Christmas Classic, Amahl and the Night Visitors for NBC-Television in 1951.  It's now preformed each year by the New England Marionette Opera.  

[42] B. Mildred Smith

[43] Arthur Oakman, The Meaning of the Crucifixion

[44] Doctrine and Covenants 85:36a

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