Matthew 2:1-2: The Magi

In Matthew 2:1-2, we read the following:

“In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, ‘Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.'”

Why did the wise men (or magi) care about a newborn king in Judea, a subservient nation that lacked political power and prestige? Here are three possible answers:

1. According to wikipedia’s article on the biblical magi, the magi were Zoroastrians who were expecting a Messiah:

John Chrysostom suggested that the gifts were fit to be given not just to a king but to God, and contrasted them with the Jews’ traditional offerings of sheep and calves, and accordingly Chrysostom asserts that the Magi worshiped Jesus as God. This is believed to be unlikely by some, if the theory that they were members of a Zoroastrian priesthood is correct. However this possibility remains, since zoroastianism prophecies of a messiah type figure Saoshyant who would be born of a virgin.”

Unfortunately, the article does not document this point, but, even if it did, I’d have problems with it. The magi came to Jerusalem asking for the king of the Jews, not God incarnate or the Messiah Saoshyant. Indeed, I believe that Jesus was God incarnate and the Messiah, but I also think that we should factor Jesus’ status as king of the Jews into the reasons that the magi came to see him. After all, that is the status that they mentioned when they sought him.

2. John Gill, Matthew Henry, Adam Clark, Albert Barnes, and the 1910 Catholic Encyclopedia appeal to the writings of Tacitus and Suetonius to explain the magi’s visit. Tacitus was a first century C.E. Roman historian. In History 5:13, he states the following:

“[I]n most there was a firm persuasion, that in the ancient records of their priests was contained a prediction of how at this very time the East was to grow powerful, and rulers, coming from Judaea, were to acquire universal empire. These mysterious prophecies had pointed to Vespasian and Titus, but the common people, with the usual blindness of ambition, had interpreted these mighty destinies of themselves, and could not be brought even by disasters to believe the truth” (translation by Alfred Church).

Tacitus respects the Jewish prophecies enough to seek some sort of fulfillment in them, even though he does not agree with most Jews’ interpretations. He says that one of the powerful rulers who’d come from Judea was the Roman emperor Vespasian, who was not born in Judea, yet was prominent there because he subdued the first century C.E. Jewish revolt. Maybe people respected the prophecies of other nations, so the magi took seriously the Jewish tradition that a powerful Messiah would come from the Jews.

Another first century Roman historian, Suetonius, is more explicit about this point. In Vespasian 4:5, he states:

“There had spread over all the Orient an old and established belief, that it was fated at that time for men coming from Judaea to rule the world. This prediction, referring to the emperor of Rome, as afterwards appeared from the event, the people of Judaea took to themselves; accordingly they revolted” (translation by J.C. Rolfe).

According to Suetonius, people in the East expected a Jewish Messiah who would rule the world. In light of this, the magi’s search for the king of the Jews is not surprising. They wanted to gain the favor of the one who would rule the world.

3. Steven Collins is someone from the Armstrongite tradition who has written in support of British Israelism, the belief that the British people are descended from one of Israel’s lost ten tribes. Although the vast majority of historians dispute British Israelism, Collins offers some interesting thoughts about the visit of the magi. For him, the magi were from the eastern empire of Parthia, which was trying to make inroads into Judea. During the first and second centuries C.E., the Parthians and the Romans fought over who would be king of Armenia, since each wanted its own puppet in the country. Maybe the same thing was happening with Judea. And who would be a better candidate for a king than a newborn member of the Davidic dynasty?

Personally, I go with number 2, since the magi were expecting a king of the Jews. If number 3 is correct, then it is true because of number 2: the Parthians wanted to establish a foothold in Judea, and the star proclaiming the birth of the Jewish Messiah would have given them such an opportunity.

About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting. I have degrees in fields of religious studies. I have an M.Phil. in the History of Biblical Interpretation from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio. I also have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University.
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6 Responses to Matthew 2:1-2: The Magi

  1. Ed Hallin says:

    4. From the original text; magoi, were a known entity of the time. They at that time fell into two classes, the followers with faith in Zoroaster’s teaching and the charletens. Some claim the apostle’s lack of understanding about who came and/or fictionalizing an event to bring in more prophesies to support the new faith. At that time Persians were known and liked by the Jewish population. Their very Temple and status as a separate nation existed by the graciousness of Persian/Parthian rule(see wiki “Darius I of Persia”). Parthian dress was different from that of the areas later attributed to the “3 Wisemen”. One thing rarely noted is that the apostles had access to live witness of the birth/visit in Mary. As far as fiction, why associate your faith with something likely to be seen as fakery?

    John Chrysostom’s suggestion above can be looked at as overreaching. With Zoroaster’s “prophet” and the Judean “messiah” in their teachings, the true Magi would be expecting someone created by God, but not specifically equal to God. Thus they would serch for God’s king on earth, or what would be called a King of Kings. A ruler beyond a Darius or Ceasars, one who would bring the people to the light. Light in their sense was God. The idea that they gave the gifts to gain the favor of an infant ascribes political mechanisms at work.

    Political motivations as held by Steven Collins above should not be considered noteworthy. Zoroastrians were out of favor and would remain so for another two centuries(wiki Magi). The high echelons of Persia/Parthia of the time knew full well who Herod was. For Persia/Parthia to send Magi to Herod looking for an infant king would have been considered suicidal(Stewart Preowne “The Life and Times of Herod The Great”. And knowing Herod they would have taken the babe with them for such puppet task.

    What if the Magi were simply motivated by faith. A faith whose teachings from Zoroaster strike resonance with the teachings of Christ. A faith that also followed the stars. A faith thus awakened to God’s truths and seeking the very sign of the Scriptures. Something that had fallen outside the realm of the “proper Jew’s” righteous learnings. A faith by itself that could bring them across deserts of thieves and brigands to pay homage; without leaving their names to legacy, without prior knowledge of whom they would face, without prior knowledge of the danger their trip would create, without trusting their own capabilities over those of God – in protection of the babe.


  2. James Pate says:

    Thanks for the reply, Ed. One thing that Collins touches on is that Rome and Parthia had an agreement, which was why Herod could not really touch the magi, even though he was afraid of them. But then one could ask why God didn’t want them to return to Herod, and the reason may have been that he just didn’t want them to have anything to do with him–they were to avoid him because he was not a part of their mission.


  3. Ed Hallin says:

    No problem. I had been looking for an appropriate posting to begin sharing with and yours struck my heart.

    Collins point, although an interesting supposition does not fit with Herod’s life and status. Herod’s reign was a string of simple and orchestrated elimination of anyone seeking the kingship or proclaiming himself the messiah. There is no mention of Herod being afraid of the Magi. He was troubled by them, this was an entirely new type of messiah proclamation. This was not an adult proclaiming themselves to be the messiah and gathering followers to revolt with. These were outside people proclaiming an infant. Someone no one knew who or where it was. Note Herod distinctly knew of the prophecy, but had to ask of the birthplace. Herod was renowned for his grasp of situations. This was handled off the books. The chroniclers would not be advised, the Sanhedrin would not be further involved. He simply wanted to kill this kid and leave no witnesses. Had the Magi returned certainly that would have happened. No more Magi, no more child. Left with the knowledge that the child had been born awhile ago, Herod acted and killed any likely prospect. At this point I will separate from common concept. It is mostly likely that Jesus was months old at the time. Not 2 years or 12 days. Herod liked certainty, two and under he could trust the Roman troops with getting the right child. Despots do not act with conscious care to minimize the casualties they achieve the objective, wiping out whole villages if needed.

    As to Herod’s position between Rome and Persia/Parthia, Herod’s position was firmly braced with Rome. Earlier in his life he deftly moved between his Arab kin and Roman representatives. Persia/Parthia was not an entity in Herod’s favored book. They had given protection and aid to the exiled Jewish royal. They were also cause to Herod’s ouster and flight toward Anthony.

    This is the point where Herod’s position with Rome was cast. Anthony had been Herod’s sole proponent in the Roman multi-ruler era. Now Anthony was a dead traitor to Rome. Herod crossed the Med in the dead of winter, a time the sailors stayed out of the water. Herod not only crossed the sea then, earning points for bravery, he presented himself to Augustus. Normally his allegiance and loss of territory would have conferred on Herod an execution and a mere footnote in history. Augustus saw his bravery, took note of the military prowess he had shown, and recognized him as a man who was simply loyal, but not political to ambitions beyond Judea. At this point Herod was made King of the Jews. As the years past he proved his value to Rome in rule and order as well as military achievements. Herod was rewarded with unique status in the Roman provinces. Herod was exempted from much taxation, allowed Roman troops without the normal bureaucracy to interfere with it’s use, and was granted expanded territory to govern. By the time of the birth Herod was firmly a Roman.

    Also by the time of the birth, Herod was afflicted. Physically by a nasty disease I let folks read about on their own. Emotionally from being conned into killing the greatest love of his life. At this point Herod was no longer given to restraint. Augustus knew of Herod’s actions. The only action he took was in response to fabricated charges against Herod. When they were determined to be false, Herod’s power was restored. It was Augustus who uttered “It is better to be Herod’s pig than his son”. Herod’s dispensation of false messiahs was a cornerstone to the power Augustus had given him, and he was at that point in his life when he cared little except for his own position. He would have felt OBLIGATED to eliminate the child and anyone associated therein. Persia/Parthia could be dealt with politically as trying to subvert the truce. If the Magi had been officially of Persia/Parthia then Herod would have had to report to Augustus to support military response/readiness. Rome made no moves to prepare any response. That Persia/Parthia made no annotation or action based on actually finding the child – which they did; it speaks volumes to the position that it was not official.

    That Persia/Parthia did nothing with a useful positive result to such a bold plan; speaks loudly that Collins supposition falls far short of a position of humble Magi moved by faith to lead a small group to homage the Christ.

    I hope you find interest in these thoughts,


  4. James Pate says:

    Hi Ed.

    By and large, Herod’s murders were of other Judeans. Have you read of any incidents in which he killed foreigners? I’m just curious. You said that he could have because he had Roman support, which makes sense, but I wonder if he did something like that before.


  5. Ed Hallin says:

    Hi James,

    First a correction to a timeline I set forth above.
    This is the point where Herod’s position with Rome was cast. Herod crossed the Med in the dead of winter, a time the sailors stayed out of the water. Herod not only crossed the sea then, earning points for bravery, he presented himself to Augustus and Anthony. At this point Herod was made King of the Jews. As the years past he proved his value to Rome in rule and order as well as military achievements. Later he would present himself to Augustus again. Anthony had been Herod’s sole proponent in the Roman multi-ruler era. Now Anthony was a dead traitor to Rome. Normally his allegiance would have conferred on Herod an execution and a mere footnote in history. Augustus saw his bravery, took note of the military prowess he had shown, and recognized him as a man who was simply loyal, but not political to ambitions beyond Judea. Herod was rewarded with unique status in…

    You ask a wonderful question. For the most part I will exclude military campaigns.
    The Gadarenes delegation deprived him of that distinction by committing suicide. Zenodoras, a leader of brigands in the Gadarenes’ lands hemorrhaged himself to death awaiting Herod’s punishment.
    There is an incident in Trachonitis(inhabited in N.T. times by turbulent tribes; conquered by Herod the Great and included in the Tetrarchy of Philip) where Herod slaughtered the families of the brigands he was trying to catch.
    He later followed them into Jordan and killed them and only them except for a Nabatean commander Naqib and a few of his troops. They tried to rescue the robbers. Naqib was the cousin of the vizier to the Arabian king ‘Aboud. He also provided funding/evidence for prosecution of said vizier Syllaeus for the goal of execution.
    He also beheaded Pallus, the general for the Persian/Parthian puppet Antigonus. It doesn’t state his ancestry, but he was in that position through Persian/Parthian campaigns. Of note, he followed this with execution of most of the Sanhedrin. So in his younger years we have him killing priests, families, and neighbors and gaining approval for such ex-post facto. Any official visit from Persian/Parthian relative to a King of the Jews would have been a direct affront to Herod’s position and to Rome – as is seen in the Easter story. For Herod to quietly make the Magi disappear was inconsequential to Herod as the Persian/Parthian rulers could say nothing without disclosing their guilt. And God deftly saved his chosen birth recorders from that fate. Side note, I find difficulty in the idea that Persian/Parthian rulers would consider setting up the Jewish Messiah as a puppet. The Messiah could only be true if he was larger than the Persian/Parthian rulers. Not the position they would envision.
    Thanks again for reading, I believe I am relatively out of further points 🙂


  6. James Pate says:

    Thanks for taking the time to give me this information, Ed. One post of mine you may like is one I entitled “The Refugee.” What you said about the wise men’s faith somewhat reminded me of that post.


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