The King Makers: A Look at the Magi

By Robin Schumacher

Why are there four gospels of Jesus' life instead of just one? In the same way that a multi-accomplished individual who has excelled in areas of business, education, sports, benevolence, etc., might have multiple biographies written about him or her today, each highlighting a particular area of that person's life over the others, the same is true of Jesus.

There is a little debate on what Matthew chose to focus on where Jesus is concerned. Matthew's gospel [1] contains more references to the Old Testament than any other biography of Jesus, and for good reason. He is laser-focused on one key theme: Jesus is King.

This is why you will find a very short but incredibly important set of references to a group that aren't mentioned in any other gospel: the Magi. It's normal for them to be represented as three men (their number isn't actually mentioned in Scripture) who quietly appear on the night of Jesus' birth and disappear with no real significance being tied to their visit other than to provide Jesus with a few birthday gifts.

Not even close.

The Origin and Position of the Magi

According to the ancient historian Herodotus, the Magi were a tribe of people within the larger people called the Medes. They were a hereditary priesthood tribe, somewhat like the Levites in Israel, who were the single tribe from the twelve that carried out the religious ceremonies of Israel. Similarly, of all of the tribes within the Medes, the Magi had been selected to function as priests in their pagan rituals.

Whether they originated all the way back in Ur of the Chaldees as a part of a nomadic people that were wandering about in that part of the world, or whether they first appeared in the Babylonian time, no one knows. But we do know that from the Babylonian to the Roman empires, they maintained a place of tremendous prominence and significance in the Orient.

The Magi were the key people in the eastern governments. They rose to a place of enormous political power by virtue of their very unique priestly function, occultist powers of divination, and knowledge of astrology and astronomy. During the four world empires, they served in a powerfully influential capacity as advisors to the royalty in the East, consequently earning the reputation of being "wise men".

In the 6th century B.C., the Medo- Persian Darius the Great selected Zoroastrianism, with its emphasis upon astrology, as the national religion. This may account for the Magi's focus in that field. Thus, on top of their own culture's religion, Judaism was superimposed and, after that, Zoroastrianism.

The law of the Medes and the Persians (Esther 1:19; Daniel 6:8) was the code of scientific and religious discipline of the Magi, and it was required instruction for anyone wishing to be a monarch in Persia. Besides controlling the kingly office, historians tell us that the Magi oversaw the judicial office as well. Esther 1:13 implies that the royal bench of judges was chosen from the Magi. By this kind of leverage, the Magi of the massive Medo-Persian Empire were able to control essentially the entire known world of the Orient.

The Magi were so powerful that historians tell us that no Persian was ever able to become king except under two conditions:
  1. He had to master the scientific and religious discipline of the Magi, and
  2. he had to be approved of and crowned by the Magi.
In short, the Magi were the king-makers.

The Magi Meet the One True God

In the Bible, the Magi appear a number of times. In Esther, we see them called "wise men" (Esther 1:12-14); in Jeremiah we meet one called the "Rab-mag" (Jeremiah 39:3); in Acts we see "Simon" Magus the magician (Acts 8:9-11), and later in Acts we find Bar-Jesus or Elymas (which means "wise man") the magician (Acts 13:6-11).

The most prominent and lengthy mention of the Magi in the Old Testament occurs in Daniel. We see the Magi face extermination by Nebuchadnezzar for not being able to interpret a dream the king had but then they are rescued by Daniel who is given the interpretation by God (Daniel 2). Afterward, Daniel is made "ruler over the whole province of Babylon and chief prefect over all the wise men of Babylon" (Daniel 2:48).

Daniel's position and influence over the Magi no doubt ingrained upon them the knowledge of the one true God and precipitated their search many years later for a unique King.

The Magi's Kingly Mission

Politically speaking, Rome was scared of the eastern empire because of the distance across the Mediterranean and the desert, which served to isolate the eastern Parthian Empire, as the Medo-Persian Empire became known, from Rome's direct control. Rome had stretched its tentacles out, as it were, to rule the world, but they never really felt secure about the Parthian Empire. Having become violent enemies, the two empires fought in 63, 55, and 40 B.C., in Israel, the land between the powers of the west and those of the east.

At the time of Christ in the eastern empire, there was a ruling body called the Megistanes, who would be similar in function to the United States Senate. It was totally composed of Magi who had the right of absolute choice for the selection of a king.

They had some real problems with their present king whom had been deposed. Wanting to fight Rome with a new ruler, the Magi began looking for a new king for the eastern empire.

Also at this time, because both Herod and Caesar Augustus were close to death, and because the retirement of Tiberius left the Roman army without a commander-in-chief, the Parthians were aware that this would be the ideal time to bring about an eastern war against the west.

So they came to Jerusalem, seeking their new king—the one about whom they had evidently been taught by Daniel.

The Battle of Two Kings

Chapter two of Matthew's gospel starts by stating: "Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, magi from the east arrived in Jerusalem, saying, 'Where is He who has been born King of the Jews? For we saw His star in the east and have come to worship Him'" (Matthew 2:1-2).

The typical representation of the magi arriving on three camels is a far cry from what the scene likely was. The magi were no doubt traveling in full force with all their oriental pomp, wearing conical hats and riding Persian steeds, rather than camels. Accompanying them, historians estimate there could have been upwards of a thousand mounted Persian cavalrymen acting as bodyguards.

This is why Matthew's gospel quickly follows up their arrival in Jerusalem by saying, "When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him" (Matthew 2:3).

After witnessing the impressive entrance of the Persian king-makers and hearing their primary question, Herod probably panicked. He knew full well who these men were and the power they wielded. Moreover, they asked for the "King of the Jews", which is the exact title given to Herod years earlier by Anthony and Octavian!

Further, the Magi's declaration involved a divine spectacle of a star that announced this new King, which challenged Herod's political rule even more. To make matters worse for Herod, history tells us that his army was out of the country.

To placate the Magi, Herod pretended to go along with them. Matthew tells us: "Then Herod secretly called the magi and determined from them the exact time the star appeared. And he sent them to Bethlehem and said, 'Go and search carefully for the Child; and when you have found Him, report to me, so that I too may come and worship Him'" (Matthew 2:7-8).

This, of course, was a lie. When Herod learned he had later been tricked by the Magi, he murdered all the male children 2 years old and younger in the Bethlehem region in an attempt to kill this future king. These children were the first Christian martyrs—the "protomartyrs".

Of that event recorded in Matthew, the Roman philosopher Macrobius, writing some four centuries later, said: "When [Emperor Augustus] heard that among the boys in Syria under two years old whom Herod, king of the Jews, had ordered to kill, his own son was also killed, he said: it is better to be Herod's pig, than his son."[2]

The Discovery of the King

Having ascertained the general location of Jesus from both the Old Testament prophecies given them by the Jewish leaders, and the star that they originally followed, the Magi found their King, but not in a manger. They found him in the house in which Mary and Joseph evidently lived. Matthew says, "After coming into the house they saw the Child with Mary His mother; and they fell to the ground and worshiped Him. Then, opening their treasures, they presented to Him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh" (Matthew 2:11).

What happened next? Scripture doesn't say and doesn't record the Magi coming back. But it does say they worshipped Him, so their aim must not have been purely political.

It is somewhat ironic and amazing that some of the first people in the world to recognize the arrival of the King of kings were Gentiles—not Jews. History reflects that irony of rejection in John 1:11 where it says of Jesus, "He came unto His own, and His own received Him not." While Israel and Rome may have not recognized Christ as King, God declared His Son's royal presence by bringing the mighty king-makers from Persia to acknowledge it.

Matthew's Christmas story and description of the Magi is a powerful reminder that not only is Jesus Savior, but He is King over all as well—something well stated in a stanza contained in John Henry Hopkins' famous Christmas carol:
Born a King on Bethlehem's plane
Gold I bring to crown Him again
King forever, ceasing never
Over us all to reign

[1] While skeptics continually assert that the authors of the New Testament gospels are unknown, such is not the case. There are numerous testimonies to their authorship. As just one example, Origen (ca. 185-254); quoted in Eusebius' Ecclesiastical History 6.25.3-6, says: "The first written was that according to the one-time tax collector, but later apostle of Jesus Christ, Matthew, who published it for the believers from Judaism... And second, that according to Mark, composed as Peter guided... And third, that according to Luke, the gospel praised by Paul, composed for those from the Gentiles. After them all, that according to John." Irenaeus (A.D. 180) gives the same testimony in Against Heresies, 3.1.1 and 3.11.8-9.

Image Credit: Jason train; "crown"; Creative Commons

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Published 12-27-12