This will be the first of two blogs on the mysterious Magi found in the Matthew 2. This one will focus on who the magi were, tracing them back to ties with Daniel when he served the courts of Babylon and Persia. The next will look at how the Magi were viewed in early church history.
Many legends and a great deal of folklore has grown up around the strange visitors from the east who came to worship the newborn king of the Jews. They have been called kings, magicians and sorcerers. Even today we aren’t entirely certain of just who they were and where they came from, but evidence seems to lead to their being members of the Parthian/Persian court. Much like the Sanhedrin in Jerusalem, the Magi appear to have been the religious experts in their land. They were advisers to the Kings of Parthia and Persia. They were also astronomers/astrologers. Beyond the role of the Sanhedrin, the Magi also played an important role in the selection of kings in their homeland.
We can trace the Magi back at least to the time of Daniel. Among other roles, Daniel was an interpreter of dreams. Following his interpretation of King Nebuchadnezzar’s dream (Daniel 2:1-49), Daniel was placed in a very high position in the Babylonian court. Including his other duties, Daniel was placed in charge of all of Babylon’s wise men, later know as Magi. (Daniel 2:48) So, we have a Biblical history of these men going back over 600 years before the birth of Jesus.
Over time, this group of men gained great prominence in the Babylonian and later in the Parthian and Persian courts. They were more than just advisers, they actually played a strong role in developing policy and even the selection of kings. The root word for Magi in Greek is the same as the root for magician and for magistrate!
At the time of Jesus’ birth, the Persian king had been assassinated and there was a great deal of conflict about who his successor should be. The court Magi were at the center of this controversy. Also at this time, Rome and Parthia/Persia were engaged in a long-standing war, with neither able to gain much ground on the other.
As recorded in Matthew 2, Herod the Great was king of Palestine at this time. Herod was loyal to Rome. We also know that he was a tyrant and was extremely paranoid. So it is no wonder that he was more than just concerned when these “king makers” from the east came looking for the new “king of the Jews.”
The Magi in the House of Herod by J. J. Tissot
We generally think of three Magi coming to Judea, but we really don’t know for sure. There could just as easily been a dozen or more. We generally assign three, even having come up with names for them, because of the three gifts brought to the newborn baby.
There is often the misconception that the Magi visited near the time of Jesus’ birth. It could easily have been as much as two years later when they came. The evidence of this is that Herod had all the baby boys in or near Jerusalem age two and under murdered when the Magi did not return to him with the location of Jesus.
The Magi would have been very familiar with Jewish writings. Many Jews had remained in the east after the exile. Also, their trail back to Daniel would have had in influence on their knowledge. The words of the prophets about the coming messiah would have been more familiar to them than to many Jews and certainly than the Romans who ruled Palestine.
The visit of the Magi and it’s impact on Herod is better understood if we look into the history of the region at the time of Jesus birth. As mentioned above, Rome and Parthia/Persia were engaged in a long-standing war. Palestine was under control of Rome which depended largely on Herod to keep the Pax Romana or Roman Peace in the region.
As rich and important people, the Magi almost certainly traveled in a large caravan, not just three lonely kings on camels. Included would have been many servants and soldiers for protection. To Herod, this may well have looked like an invading force or a group of spies intended on replacing him as “King of the Jews.” As an Edomite, in the line of Esau, Herod knew that his claim to the Jewish throne was not viewed as legitimate. The Romans who had appointed him simply didn’t care about his lineage or local customs. Having killed a father-in-law (a former high priest), two wives and three sons, he had a rather brutal way of protecting his crown. That same brutality was applied to the people in general. So, his killing of a fairly small number of baby boys in Bethlehem would probably have not drawn any notice to the recorders of history outside of the Bible.
The visit of the Magi, although the date is uncertain, is today celebrated as the Season of Epiphany. Epiphany begins on January 6 and runs to the beginning of Lent on Ash Wednesday. It is from the Magi that we have the Christmas tradition of exchanging gifts.
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