(Work in progress, feel free to ask any questions on this set of verses, while I’m working through them.)
Matthew 2:1-12 (NIVUK): “After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem and asked, ‘Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.’
When King Herod heard this he was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him. When he had called together all the people’s chief priests and teachers of the law, he asked them where the Messiah was to be born.
‘In Bethlehem in Judea,’ they replied, ‘for this is what the prophet has written: ‘“But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for out of you will come a ruler who will shepherd my people Israel.”’
Then Herod called the Magi secretly and found out from them the exact time the star had appeared. He sent them to Bethlehem and said, ‘Go and search carefully for the child. As soon as you find him, report to me, so that I too may go and worship him.’
After they had heard the king, they went on their way, and the star they had seen when it rose went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they were overjoyed.
On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshipped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, they returned to their country by another route.”
In verse one, Matthew introduces the Magi, all we are told is that there were a number of them (Magi, is the plural form of Magus), and they were from the east. Now, it’s difficult to say exactly; who they were, how many were in the group, or which eastern nation they had came from – tradition has blurred the facts.
For example, tradition has it that there were three wise men, based on the fact that Jesus was presented with three gifts, however, Matthew does not say how many there were, and he does not call them kings. Next, we know this group was interested in astronomy, and knew the night sky such that they could say: “We saw his star when it rose.”
You can read a lot of material on the Internet as to who the Magi may have been, however, much of it is speculation. Around four hundred years before the birth of Jesus, there are details recorded by the historian Herodotus, in which he describes the Magi as a priestly tribe, who were associated with the Medes. The Medes were around at the time of the Babylonian empire (626BC – 538BC), and then formed part of the Medo-Persian empire (539BC – 330BC).
In Daniel 4:4-9, NIVUK, we read: “I, Nebuchadnezzar, was at home in my palace, contented and prosperous. I had a dream that made me afraid. As I was lying in bed, the images and visions that passed through my mind terrified me.
So I commanded that all the wise men [Magi] of Babylon be brought before me to interpret the dream for me. When the magicians, enchanters, astrologers and diviners came, I told them the dream, but they could not interpret it for me. Finally, Daniel came into my presence and I told him the dream. (He is called Belteshazzar, after the name of my god, and the spirit of the holy gods is in him.)
I said, ‘Belteshazzar (Daniel), chief of the magicians [Magi], I know that the spirit of the holy gods is in you, and no mystery is too difficult for you. Here is my dream; interpret it for me.'”
Consequently, we know that the Magi were once an influential priestly group (tribe), who were advisers to rulers of powerful nations, located in lands east of Israel; who were interested in the art of astrology, as well as the science of astronomy. and who were also seen as expert interpreters of dreams. Obviously, after these lands were ravaged by Alexander the Great, their role may have diminished, we just don’t know the details.
At the time of Jesus’ birth, the Roman empire was in control of nations in the west. Herod as “Friend of the (Roman) Senate’, held a special status in the eyes of the Romans; and it was in his best interests to ensure that there was stable government in his kingdom.
Just prior to this era (63BC, 55BC and 40BC), the Romans had fought a number of violent wars with the major power in the east, the Parthian Empire. It is thought, by some scholars, that there was a remnant of the Magi tribe, still involved in advising the Parthian rulers and perhaps even endorsing the selection of new kings.
There could have been other remnants of this group in other eastern countries, we just don’t know. It’s just does not appear to be a very wise move for a caravan of ‘wise’ men and their support staff, to travel all the way to Israel, from Parthia without drawing a lot of attention from the Roman garrisons based along the way.
In addition, Herod would have certainly sent some of his men to accompany then to Bethlehem (it’s not far from Jerusalem), just to monitor their movements, if there was a remote risk they were on some type of Parthian mission.
We are told by Matthew that Herod was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him, when they heard that the wise men were looking for the ‘King of the Jews’; not because of some political manoeuvrings of nations like the Parthians – but because of his own self-interests – keeping in mind that he had already killed a number of his relatives, who were perceived threats to his throne.
Well, I’ve covered some historical detail to provide a sketch of the political background, but the main point is not who these wise men were, or where they may have came from; it is to demonstrate that people (Gentiles) of other nations recognised Jesus as King. And, that would have really disturbed the Jews!