How did the Magi know when to start looking in the sky for signs of the Messiah’s birth? The answer is in the instructions Daniel received from Gabriel over 500 years prior to the Magi’s journey. Daniel had given them a heads-up as to when to expect the King to be born. All we need is the right starting point and some simple math to figure out this little mystery.
Daniel petitions God
In Daniel chapter 9:1–20, the prophet Daniel determined that the end of Jeremiah’s prophecy of Judah’s 70 year Babylonian captivity had been fulfilled.
In the first year of Darius son of Xerxes (a Mede by descent), who was made ruler over the Babylonian kingdom—in the first year of his reign, I, Daniel, understood from the Scriptures, according to the word of the LORD given to Jeremiah the prophet, that the desolation of Jerusalem would last seventy years. Daniel 9:1–2 (NIV)
Yet, the people had not been returned to their land. This moved Daniel to prayer and repentance with fasting, sackcloth, and ashes (9:3). He petitioned for God to once again bless Jerusalem, not because of the people’s righteous acts, but because of God’s abundant compassion.
God dispatches Gabriel with His answer
Starting in Daniel 9:21, we learn that God answered Daniel’s prayer by dispatching the angel Gabriel to give him understanding into the future. Although the 70 years of Jeremiah’s prophecy were at an end, Gabriel implies, there were still 70 more “weeks of years” until the people of God would ultimately be delivered by the Anointed One, the Messiah.
For our purposes, however, we will limit ourselves to Gabriel’s prediction of the Messiah’s death, from this info the Magi would have a good estimate as to the Messiah’s birth. Daniel writes in 9:25–26:
Know and understand this: From the issuing of the decree to restore and rebuild Jerusalem until Messiah the Prince will be seven weeks and 62 weeks. It will be rebuilt with a plaza and a moat, but in difficult times. After those 62 weeks the Messiah will be cut off and will have nothing. (HCSB)
What do 7 weeks and 62 weeks mean?
First, let’s understand what the “seven weeks” and “sixty-two weeks” mean. A reader of the Law of Moses, in Daniel’s day, would have understood these weeks to be “weeks of years.” In her commentary on Daniel, Joyce Baldwin explains, (Daniel An Introduction & Commentary, TOTC, ed. D.J. Wiseman (Downers Grove: Intervarsity Press, 1978), 170.):
In Leviticus 25:8-24 seven sabbaths of years had been specified in order to calculate the year of jubilee, during which every man was to return to his inherited land and liberty was proclaimed to prisoners.
Therefore, 1 week = 7 years. Now let’s do some straight-up multiplication: Seven weeks: 7 x 7 = 49 years; sixty-two weeks: 62 x 7 = 434 years. Now we add: 49 + 434 = 483 years. Lastly, we need to convert their 360-day lunar calendar to our 365.24-day solar calendar, and that comes out to 476 years.
The decree to rebuild Jerusalem
Now let’s focus on the decree to rebuild Jerusalem. According to Gabriel, 476 years after the decree to rebuild Jerusalem, the Messiah, the Anointed One, the Ruler would arrive and be cut off; He would die. When was the decree given?
Many times people include Ezra 1:2–4 and Ezra 7:7–8 as possible decrees, but they were commissions specifically to rebuild the temple, not Jerusalem. This is a critical, probably legal, distinction. Rebuilding a city and its protective walls could encourage a revolt (Nehemiah 6:6-7). Rebuilding a temple, would not.
The only decree to rebuild Jerusalem was made by King Artaxerxes in Nehemiah 2:1–10:
During the month of Nisan in the twentieth year of King Artaxerxes, when wine was set before him, I took the wine and gave it to the king. I had never been sad in his presence, so the king said to me, “Why are you sad, when you aren’t sick? This is nothing but depression.”
I was overwhelmed with fear and replied to the king, “May the king live forever! Why should I not be sad when the city where my ancestors are buried lies in ruins and its gates have been destroyed by fire?” (HCSB)
Then the king asked me, “What is your request?”
So, I prayed to the God of heaven and answered the king, “If it pleases the king, and if your servant has found favor with you, send me to Judah and to the city where my ancestors are buried, so that I may rebuild it.”
The king, with the queen seated beside him, asked me, “How long will your journey take, and when will you return?” So, I gave him a definite time, and it pleased the king to send me.
The date of this commissioning was the Jewish month of Nisan, which starts in our March and ends in our April. It is the month of Passover. Jesus was crucified during Passover.
According to the International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, 1986 edition, p. 514, the year was probably 444 B.C. Artaxerxes became king sometime in 465 B.C. Twenty years later would have been 445/444, depending on the specific month and day of his coronation. This is the decree Gabriel was talking about. It’s the date that perfectly fits.
What happened exactly 476 years later?
On April 3, A.D. 33, exactly 476 years after the commission in Nisan March–April 444 B.C., accounting for there being no year zero, Jesus was crucified. The Messiah was cut off.
What this means for the Magi
Let’s get back to the Magi. The Magi were the astronomers, scientists, and wise men of Babylon. In fact, Daniel was considered one of them (Daniel 4:8). They knew about his prophecy, and Daniel would have informed them that prophets and priests traditionally began their ministry when they turned 30 years of age, so the Magi knew within a few years when to start watching for the signs of His birth. I think it’s reasonable to assume, barring any additional info from Daniel to the Magi of his day, they started looking for significant movements of the stars and planets around 7 B.C.
As my previous blog post Is Christmas a Pagan Holiday? explains, the Magi showed up in Bethlehem to worship the newborn King on December 25th, 2 B.C. In stark contrast to the people of Israel, the Babylonian Magi knew when the Messiah would be born. How did they know? They carefully read the Bible and believed what it said. So, should we.
The Magi are a significant part of the Nativity. They were the first gentiles, to celebrate the birth of the newborn King, the Messiah, Emmanuel. Our Christmas is a continuation of their celebration. If the Magi had stopped counting the years. If they had never shown up, then the first Christmas, the first celebration of Christ’s birth, never would have happened.
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Dr. Rob Oberto is the award-winning author of “Intimacy With God” available from Amazon. ©2017 Rob Oberto, All Rights Reserved.