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December 19, 2015 by William H. Scarle, Jr. 813-835-0129

At the time of Jesus birth there were two superpowers controlling Europe and Asia.  We are familiar with the Roman Empire but the Parthian Empire is less known.  The Parthian Empire succeeded the Seleucids and spread from the Euphrates River east, covering today’s Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan to the borders of India.  The Parthian Empire controlled 1.1 million square miles of territory.

Rome and Parthia fought several battles for control of the border area between the empires which included Israel.  In 40 BC Parthia launched a major attack on Rome which swept the Romans out of Asia for a short time.  For three years between 40 and 37 BC Israel was within the Parthian Empire with a Jewish vassal king on the throne named Antigonus.

Herod had fled the battle and gone to Rome.  The reign of Antigonus was short, but popular with the Jews.  He was Jewish and of the line of the Hasmoneans.  In Rome Herod was given the title King of the Jews by the Roman Senate, Mark Anthony and Octavian.  The understanding was that he was to return to Israel and take back the buffer territory and rule as vassal king for Rome.  Herod was successful and Antigonus was beheaded.  He began his actual reign in 37 BC.

This background is important in understanding the biblical account in Matthew of the visit of the Magi.  The Magi were Parthians.  They were members of a very old fraternity of scholar priests which began with the Medes, but continued through the Babylonian and Persian periods.  They were the chief advisors to the king.  Daniel had been appointed as Chief of the Magi by both Nebuchadnezzar (Daniel 4:9) and Darius (Daniel 5:11). There was also a large Jewish contingent in Parthia that had not returned from Babylon.  Added to this the Parthians were dissatisfied with their present king, Phraates IV.  He had once been deposed and was now aging.  It is not improbable that the Magi were looking for his replacement.  A Jewish king of the line of David would not be improbable.  Herod was not Jewish.  He was an Arab from Nabataea.

By the time of the Parthian Empire the Magi were one of the two assemblies which elected the Parthian kings.  All Parthian royalty had to be educated by the Magi and the kings were appointed with the approval of the royal family and the Magi.  The Magi were powerful men of a rival empire who arrived one day at the gates of Jerusalem looking for a new born King of the Jews.

Mathew simply says that Herod was troubled by their arrival and all Jerusalem with him.  This was a delegation and there were likely a significant group of Magi in the party.  They would have been accompanied by a multitude of servants who took charge of setting up the camp for overnight stays.  There would certainly have been a military escort.  They were looking for Jewish king, and Herod was not Jewish.

Herod was careful not to initiate an international incident.  He consulted his own scholars and sent the delegation to Bethlehem where they found the home of a simple builder and his wife with their toddler son.  The Magi must have been as confused as Herod, but they “fell down and worshiped him.”  The star could not have been wrong.

(Bill Scarle can be contacted at END-whs