Thoughts and Factoids on the Three Wise Men. Part 1
There has been a lot said about the three wise men who came to visit Jesus and bring him gifts soon after his birth. That scenario has been repeated over and over again, and we hear it in Christmas stories, Christmas songs, Christmas plays, and Christmas sermons. And yet there’s only one problem; much of it is myth and unsubstantiated. And so I decided to spend a week unpacking this to get behind the truth of the matter, coupled with some history and sacred imagination, to give a full, robust picture of what was happening and what God was doing through this event.
As it were, we tend to hear all sorts of different accounts of these people. Some say that they were kings and there were three of them. Others have said they are representatives of three families of Shem, Ham and Japeth, and that’s why in the pictures one of them is invariably dark-skinned and pictured as an Ethiopian. Some Christians have have given them the names of Caspar, Belthizar and Melchoir, while the ancient traditions of the Syrian Christians name the Magi Larvandad, Gushnasaph and Hormisdas. Some have claimed to recover their bones, as their three skulls are said to have been found in the twelfth century by the Archbishop of Cologne Rainald of Dassel. Since then, the shrine where the bones are supposedly located is above and behind the high altar of the Cologne Cathedral, and are there to this day.
Realistically though that’s just a lot of speculation, and we really have very limited facts and specifics about these men in addition to what we have here in Matthew, which is very limited in and of itself. What we have is thus; “There came wise men from the East.” That’s it. That’s pretty much the extent of what we know of them in a specific sense. And so to move beyond that we need to expand the picture a bit and look at the arc of history so that certain pieces can begin to fall in place.
For example, we know that they were members of an Eastern priestly group, descendant of a tribe of people originally associated with the Medes. [As stated by Herodotus] As it were, in the history of the world there have been four major world empires. The first was the Babylonian Empire, which was east of Israel in the valley of the Tigris and Euphrates River. This was followed by the Medo-Persian Empire, which was a conglomerate empire made up of the Persians and the Medes. The third great world empire was Greece. [When the Medo-Persian Empire was conquered by Alexander the Great the world became Greek] and the fourth great empire was the Roman Empire. And so while several world empires have come and gone, we see that the Medes and Persians were still around in the Babylonian Empire. The Magi are present in the book of Daniel, among other places, and we see them in the Roman Empire when Christ is born.
To go to the text, “When Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judaea in the days of Herod the king behold there came Magi.” The Magi were basically a pagan, priestly tribe of people, and we see that they were existing in Babylon as very high ranking officials. They had managed to ascend to high places in the Babylonian Empire because of their amazing intuition, wisdom, knowledge, astrology, occultic ability etc. They had risen to a place of prominence and so immediately they came into contact with all these Jewish people that had been brought into captivity during the exile and post-exillic period. They also came into contact with one very specific Jew by the name of Daniel who was elevated in the Babylonian Empire. Consequently, it would be highly unlikely that they wouldn’t have been made familiar with the dispersion of the Jews in Babylon with Jewish prophesy regarding the Messiah. They were made aware of what was really on the Jewish prophetic plan for this one who was to come.
To delve further into this and to set the scene for what happens Matthew 2, we see these influential Magi operating in the Babylonian Empire early on. In Jeremiah 39:3 and verse 13, a man by the name of Nergal-sharezer is mentioned. Nergal-sharezer, as it were, is the chief of the Magi in the court of Nebuchadnezzar. And so these oriental kings such as Nebuchadnezzar had elevated the Magi to the place of being the official advisers to the king, which would make them tremendously powerful people. And even when Babylon fell and the Medo-Persian Empire came in with great rulers like Cyrus and others you still have the high ranking officials of the Medo- Persian government being taken from this group called Magi, which would also make them unmatched in political power.
In Daniel Chapter 2 we’re in the court of Nebuchadnezzar. Daniel is there, the Jews are in captivity in Babylon and it says, “The Chaldeans answered the king and said, “There is not a man on earth who can meet the king’s demand, for no great and powerful king has asked such a thing of any magician [Magi] or enchanter or Chaldean” [caste of Babylonian astrologers] . So here we find the word Magi. It’s not strictly the word magician, as that’s an English corruption, and you see that when you begin to try to translate it. In any case, we see that the Magi had a very prominent place at that time. They were known as those who could interpret dreams. Nebuchadnezzar had this bizarre dream and none of them could handle it, save Daniel. In Chapter 4 verse 7. We again see the Magi. “Then the Magi, the Enchanters, the Chaldeans, and the Astrologers came in, and I told them the dream, but they could not make known to me its interpretation.”
“At last Daniel came in before me—he who was named Belteshazzar after the name of my god, and in whom is the spirit of the holy gods —and I told him the dream, saying, “O Belteshazzar, chief of the magicians, because I know that the spirit of the holy gods is in you and that no mystery is too difficult for you, tell me the visions of my dream that I saw and their interpretation. ” Now here we meet the master of the Magi, of the chief of the magicians, who is Daniel. [Right now I'm rattling off some verses to show that the Magi are prominent and do play a role.]
Now when Daniel came along and all these Magi who were in the high ranking place of advisers to the king couldn’t give any answers, Daniel could, something amazing happened. Daniel 5:11, “There is a man in thy kingdom, in whom is the spirit of the holy gods, and in the days of thy father light and understanding and wisdom like the wisdom of the gods was found in him:” talking about Daniel now, “Whom the king Nebuchadnezzar thy father, the king I say, thy father made master of the Magi.” Now how interesting. Daniel was so adept at telling the dreams of the king that the king made Daniel the master of the Magi.
So Daniel was literally in Babylon and was the chief over this whole priestly group, which puts him in the tremendously unique position of being able to dispense to these Magi all of his information about the Old Testament which is safe to say that this is precisely what Daniel did. We know that Daniel was a man of God. We know that Daniel was a man totally devoted to worship and expression of his faith because he wound up in a lion’s den because of it, didn’t he? And there’s no question in my mind that Daniel and the other godly remnant in the diaspora of the dispersion shared their knowledge of the Old Testament and their copies of the Scripture with these people in Babylon. Additionally, when the final decree of Cyrus came that they could go back to the land the majority of the Jews never went back. The majority of the Jews stayed in Babylon, intermingled, intermarried and throughout the remaining history of Babylon and Medo-Persia there were people in the noble families, people in the high ranking offices, some say even monarchs in that part of the world who had part Jewish blood. And certainly we would have to conclude that Daniel had a profound impact in the dispensing of that information.
When Darius came to the throne he introduced Zoroastrianism, which the Magi absorbed, so now in the mess you have some Magi committed to Zoroastrianism as time went on, some of them committed to ancient magian formulas and some of them maybe believing honestly in their heart that the God of Daniel was the real God. And so this is the key as history moved on from here, the Magi began to depart from a singular commitment to their historic religion and they began to find their way into different things. Some of them may be leaning toward Zoroastrianism, some toward the ancient magianism, and I would posit that it is not unlikely at all that the Magi who showed up at the birth of Christ were really true seekers of the true God. I think that’s within the realm of possibility, considering the history. We have this idea that this Magi were complete pagans, but that very much is unsubstantiated. There is no reason why they would not have been true seekers and believers, and were in fact coming to see the Messiah.
So that’s one side of things. To further set the stage, politically speaking, Rome was scared of the eastern Empire. This Empire at the time was run by the Parthian Empire; which was made up of the Medes and the Persians and the old Babylonian territory. That Parthian Empire was always kind of an anxiety for Rome. Rome had stretched and expanded it’s borders but never really felt very secure about the Parthian Empire. And they had become violent enemies. And they fought. In 55 B.C. they fought and the Roman army lost 30,000 men. In 40 B.C. they fought again and another 24,000 were lost. There were tons of battles and skirmishes between them, and where did they always fight their battles? The great empire in the west, the great empire in the east came together and had it out right along the coast of the Mediterranean, Syria, Jordan, Palestine. In short, Israel. Israel was a little no-man’s land between the powers of the east and the powers of the west.
So Rome was incredibly wary of the Parthian Empire in the East during this time period, having lost many costly battles to them. And if you look at verse 3 of Matthew 2 it says, “When Herod the king had heard these things, he was troubled” Yeah. No kidding. Here come the powerful Magi who were the Parthian king-makers. The historian Strabo tells us that the Magian priests formed one of the two councils of the Parthian Empire and they held sway in choosing who would be the next king in the kingdom. So here come these men to arrive in Jerusalem, and to say that Herod was rattled is an understatement. Keep in mind too that while some of the Magi were honest and they exalted the craft of wisdom and political advice, some of them were corrupt and they prostituted it to anyone who could pay. [Simon Magus, Elymas the Sorcerer]. These were the kind of people that made the citizens of the Roman Empire despise such sorcerers. Philo the Roman historian calls the Magi “vipers” and “scorpions”. Pliny the elder calls their magic a “monstrous craft” And that was a sentiment that seems to have been carried by the general populace.
And so here they come asking about the King of the Jews, and it’s not difficult to see why Herod was troubled. As a note to that. the bible never says that there were three Magi. That is something that is assumed because they came with three gifts of an unnamed amount, and yet there may have been as little as two and as many as a thousand- there is no way to know for sure. Because of the nature of the travel and the distance and the supplies needed to travel from where they came, several thousand miles away, the picture of three elderly men alone on camels doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. When these Persian king makers appeared in Jerusalem no doubt they were traveling in full force with all their oriental pomp and pageantry, as well armed and protected by the Persian cavalry who would have been there to oversee and protect them from bandits and others harms. So when they came charging into the city of Jerusalem and Herod peeked out his little palace window and saw them I’m sure he flipped.
These are powerful men and to make it worse historically at the time we know that his army was out of the country on a mission. And the Bible says Herod was troubled. I guess he was. Because Herod had a title, which was King of the Jews. He got it from Caesar Augustus. Caesar Augustus crowned him king of the Jews and for his troubles he got that little buffer state under his power and here he was in the middle of two huge contending empires. The Romans and the Parthians. And all of a sudden this massive cadre of Persians arrive in the city and he is panicked and they say we’re coming to find the new king. Now at this time Herod was close to death. And Caesar Augustus was really old and hanging by a thread. And since the retirement of Tiberius the Roman army didn’t even have a commander-in-chief. And they knew that this would be an ideal time for the East to bring an Eastern war against the West, and so yeah, again, you bet Herod was troubled and agitated and probably freaked right out. And that’s where things get really interesting.
to be continued.