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December 24, 2016 by William H. Scarle, Jr.  813-835-0129

Who Were Those Guys?

The text of Matthew tells us they were “Wise men from the east.”  The Greek text literally states they were “Magoi from the sunrise (Gr. anatola).”  This identifies them as members of the Parthian scholar-priests cast.  Parthia was the empire that succeeded Babylon and Persia in the orient.  They were members of one of the two counsels that elected the empire’s kings.  In other words they were the king makers of the Parthian empire.  By the time the Magoi had left Parthia for Jerusalem Phraataces (little Phraates) had murdered his father and married his mother.  He only ruled the empire for six years.  The government of Parthia was in a shambles and the king makers were looking for a possible new dynasty.

There is a history of the Magoi in the Old Testament.  Jeremiah prophecies before the fall of Jerusalem that God will make the Magoi of Babylon ineffective (Jer. 51:57).  Daniel is carried into captivity in Babylon by Nebuchadnezzar in 605 BC. Chapter two of the Book of Daniel tells how Daniel saved the Magoi of Babylon from execution and was appointed by King Nebuchadnezzar as chief over the Magoi of Babylon.  Daniel maintained this high rank under the Persians who conquered Babylon in 539 BC.  It got him into trouble with the other royal officials who maneuvered him into the lion’s den.

In the Book of Esther which takes place under the rule of Ahasuerus, or Xerxes I, of Persia (485 – 464 BC) the king calls on his Magoi to give him advice on his queens disobedience (1:13).

By the time of Jesus’ birth the Magoi were powerful leaders in the Parthian Empire.  They had adopted much of the teaching of Zoroaster who was a sixth century religious leader, originally from Media.  Zoroaster was a monotheist who believed in a single god named Ahura Mazda.  Darius the Great had unified Media and Persia and established Zoroastrianism as the state religion of Persia.

The delegation which reached Jerusalem toward the end of 2 BC would have been of considerable size.  The text of Matthew tells us that Herod and all Jerusalem were troubled by their appearance.  The journey itself was between 1000 and 1200 miles and would have taken at least three months, and likely much more, by camel.  Syrian sources tell us there were at least twelve Magoi in the group.  They would have been attended by animal handlers, camp crews, cooks, and certainly a Parthian cavalry escort.

Rome and Parthia had been fighting for territory up until the time Herod took command of Israel in 34 BC.  Jewish collaboration with the Parthians had kept Israel in Parthian hands until Mark Anthony reestablished Roman sovereignty in 37 and gave the title “King of the Jews” to Herod.  It took Herod three years to solidify his rule.  The arrival of a Parthian delegation of king makers at the gates of Jerusalem in 2 BC would have certainly gotten Herod out of bed.

Matthew tells us Herod was “furious” when he learned the Magoi had departed from Bethlehem avoiding Jerusalem.  He did not pursue them however.  This was a “royal” delegation and they had diplomatic immunity from Rome.  The relation between the empires was tense.  Besides, the armed guard could have been in the hundreds.

The history is much more exciting than the silhouette of three lone “Wise Men” riding across the desert on camels.  The men who fell down and worshipped the now almost two year old Jesus were VIPs.

(Bill Scarle can be contacted at END-whs