The visit of the wise men (also called magi) to Jesus is one of the most iconic moments in the early chapters of the Gospel of Matthew. Though they weren’t huddled in the manger with the holy family, the shepherds, and some barn animals as depicted in many Christmas stories, their visit to Jesus had great significance. Many people are curious to know how old Jesus was when they visited.
Scholars estimate that Jesus was between 13 and 24 months old when the wise men visited him. This approximation is based on Herod’s vengeful decree to kill all male children that were two-year-old and younger. Herod’s timeframe is based on what the magi told him about when they saw the star appear.
What does Matthew say about when the visit occurred? How did Herod learn about the time of Jesus’ birth? What information forms the basis for the 13-to-24-month estimate? Keep reading to learn the answers to these questions and others.
Estimating when the wise men visited Jesus
The reason why scholars can’t be more precise in dating the magi’s visit to Jesus is that Matthew doesn’t specify the date. (Note: “wise men” and “magi” will be used interchangeably in this article.) To begin the story he writes, “Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men from the east came to Jerusalem” (2:1).
Historians know that King Herod died in 4 B.C., so this story has to occur before that. Yet, knowing when Herod died doesn’t help establish a date for Jesus’ precise age when the wise men visited.
|Jesus is born||5-6 B.C.||Matt. 1:24-25|
|The wise men visit Jesus||3-4 B.C.||Matt. 2:1-12|
|Adolescent Jesus teaches in the temple||7-8 A.D.||Luke 2:46-47|
The magi were from Persia and had to travel west to visit Jesus. When they arrived in Jerusalem, they asked, “Where is he who has been born king of the Jews? For we saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him” (2:2).
Depending on exactly where their journey originated in Persia, some scholars estimate that it may have taken them four months to arrive. It’s also not clear if they left immediately after the star arose and if the star marked Mary’s conception or Jesus’ birth.
Without these details, it’s difficult to know Jesus’ precise age when the wise men visited him. Some scholars opt for a wide window of 6 to 20 months (e.g. D.A. Carson). Others opt for 13 months or older because a child that is 13 months old may have been considered to be in their second year (e.g. Robert Gundry).
Given that Herod learned when Jesus was born and calls for the death of all 2 years olds and under, an approximation of Jesus’ age is between 13 and 24 months.
Herod learns from the wise men when the star first appeared
Herod called a secret meeting with the magi to learn what time the star first appeared in the sky. He wanted to learn the precise time that Jesus was born. However, whatever the magi told him isn’t recorded in the biblical text.
The Greek word (ekribosen) that describes Herod’s inquiry into what the magi knew literally means “to know accurately.” Because of the exactness of the word, some translations read that Herod learned “the exact time” that the star appeared in the sky.
|ESV||“Then Herod summoned the wise men secretly and ascertained from them what time the star had appeared.”|
|KJV||“Then Herod, when he had privily called the wise men, inquired of them diligently what time the star appeared.”|
|NASB||“Then Herod secretly called the magi and determined from them the exact time the star appeared.”|
|NIV||“Then Herod called the Magi secretly and found out from them the exact time the star had appeared.”|
|NLT||“Then Herod called for a private meeting with the wise men, and he learned from them the time when the star first appeared.”|
Herod’s instruction to kill all male children two years old and under wasn’t arbitrary. Matthew reveals that the age of the boys that he targeted was “according to the time that he had ascertained [ekribosen] from the wise men” (2:16). Herod may have known that Jesus wasn’t two years old yet, but settled on that age for his decree in order to leave some room for error.
New Testament scholar R.T. France writes, “Matthew’s narrative does not necessarily mean that a full two years (or nearly three if the star was thought to make the time of conception) had elapsed since the original sightings of the star by the magi. Herod’s specification of age need be no more than a rough rule of thumb to make sure his soldiers did not miss any potential rival.” 
Didn’t Herod care about all the children who would die?
History reveals that Herod would go to any length to secure his power and establish his legacy. He killed members of his immediate family when he suspected them of turning on him.
He also decreed the deaths of 2,000 Jewish leaders when he died to ensure that his subjects would be in a state of mourning when he died. (This never actually occurred.)
How many children died in Herod’s massacre?
There is no record of the total number of deaths. Most scholars refute estimates of up to 3,000 deaths that can be found in Christian history. Modern historians hold that the total population of Bethlehem in the first century was probably less than one thousand. 
How did Joseph and Mary react to Herod’s decree?
An angel from God warned Joseph in a dream that Herod sought to kill Jesus (2:13). So the holy family “departed to Egypt and remained there until the death of Herod” (2:14b-15).
Later in the passage, Matthew completes the story: “But when Herod died, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt, saying, Rise, take the child and his mother and go to the land of Israel, for those who sought the child’s life are dead. And he rose and took the child and his mother and went to the land of Israel” (2:19-21).
 The Gospel of Matthew by R.T. France. p. 85.
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