The Arabian Desert – Two Passages to Bethlehem?

Matthew’s Nativity account of the wise men, the Magi, establishes that they traveled two different routes during their quest to find the newborn “King of the Jews,” ultimately to and from Bethlehem. Travel from Persia required facing the hardships and challenges posed by the great Arabian Desert.[1]

Magi were well-known by reputation for their origins in Persia east of Judea by hundreds of miles. Marco Polo, famed thirteenth century explorer, wrote in 1298 of his travels to the Province of Persia searching for information about the Magi.[2]

Writing of a city called Saba, Marco Polo wrote that he first visited the burial place of the “magi who came to adore Christ in Bethlehem.” Today the city is known as Saveh located about 50 miles southwest of Tehran, Iran.[3] From Saba, his pursuit to find the location where the Magi had lived took him on a 3-day trek to the castle of “Palasata, which means the castle of fire-worshippers.”[4]

Visiting with the residents of the Palasata castle, they told the story of three renowned Magi whose home towns were given as Dyava, Saba and the castle of Palasata. While Matthew’s account neither discloses the number of Magi nor that they were kings, Marco Polo recounts being told of “three offerings” made by three kings:[5]

“…anciently, three kings of that country went to adore a certain king who was newly born, and carried with them three offerings, namely, gold, frankincense, and myrrh:  gold, that they might know if he were an earthly king; frankincense, that they might know if he were God; and myrrh, that they might know if he were a mortal man.” [6]

Travel from Persia to Judea offered only two realistic choices when confronted with the second largest desert in the world. One option was around the edges of the northern half of the Arabian Desert. The other option, was the longer southern route through the desert by way of Petra south of the Dead Sea.

 

Arabian Desert Parthian Empire’s trade routes 2nd BC – 1st AD

Shorter of the two trade routes to Jerusalem, the first destination of the Magi, was approximately 700 miles.[7] The route coursed from Seleucia near present day Bagdad, north through the populous area east of the Euphrates River, on to Edessa in southeast Turkey, turned west to Damascus, Syria, then turned south following the ancient King’s Highway paralleling the east side of the Jordan River in Jordan.

Trade route spurs off the King’s Highway across the Jordan River were limited to only three. When traveling from the north, the first two were not logical choices for a Jerusalem destination. The last crossing opportunity was to ford the Jordan just above the Dead Sea heading west by Jericho, then onward to Jerusalem.

A longer trek to Jerusalem was by way of the southern half of the Parthian loop some 100 miles longer at around 800 miles. This southern trade route ran southwest from Seleucia in central Persia, west across the Arabian Desert to Petra, then turned north joining the King’s Highway south of the Dead (Salt) Sea, then to the Jordan River crossing near Jericho.

King Herod’s winter palace was located in Jericho where he would soon travel for the futile treatment of his horrible bowel disease.[8] It was this same crossing point near Jericho where the Israelites entered into the Promised Land after their wonderings in the Sinai wilderness.[9]

Erza 7:9 mentions how a similar journey from Babylon to Jerusalem took four months. On the timeline of history, Ezra was written after the Jew’s release from the Babylonian captivity while they were still under Persian rule in the late 300 BC era.[10]

Scrolling forward a century to the last quarter of the 200s BC, trade routes had been established by the Parthian Empire making travel relatively much faster.[11] Commonly referred to as “caravan routes,” these trade routes were busy – the interstate highways of the day dotted with trading posts making them the best practical means for land travel.[12]

First, the Magi traveled to Jerusalem where they sought guidance from ruler of the land, King Herod. Jerusalem was not located on the common caravan routes making their arrival newsworthy in the city were everyone seemed to be aware of their arrival.[13]

Perhaps it was their conspicuous caravan of camels; their foreign grandiose attire; or that they were regarded as kings from Persia.[14] Nevertheless, it is obvious the Magi were recognized on the highest social hierarchy as King Herod who granted the Magi immediate access to his palace.

Herod directed the Magi to go to Bethlehem after consulting with Jewish religious experts in exchange for revealing the location of the child after they found him. Bethlehem was only 5 miles to the south of Jerusalem accessible directly by a north-south road. Matthew’s account then provides a key detail:

MT 2:12 “And having been warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, they returned to their country by another route.” (NIV)

Avoiding King Herod presented a logistical challenge. Herod would assuredly know if the Magi were back in the City of Jerusalem; undoubtedly he would know if they were passing by the much smaller Jericho where area local contacts to the King’s winter palace were certain.

A return route back to Persia that avoided Jerusalem and Jericho left only one option across the Arabian Desert the southern Parthian loop. The catch was how to reach it from Bethlehem.[15]

Palestine Trade Routes

Copied with permission: Biblewalks.com.

Access to the southern Parthian trade route out was literally at their doorstep. The Central Ridge Road ran south out of Bethlehem to the Spice Road, then passed under the Dead Sea and rejoined the southern Parthian route at Petra.[16] The other less traveled minor route spurs off the Central Ridge Road may have shortened the southward path, but the trade-off was a more difficult passage, few trading posts, and greater risks.

Many secular historical accounts confirm the information about the Magi – who they were, their reputation, from where they came as well as two well-known geographically established caravan trade routes from Persia to Judea. Marco Polo’s account affirms the Magi arrived safely back to their home country. Do these historical accounts corroborate and add credibility to Matthew’s about the Magi and the Nativity of Jesus of Nazareth?

 

Creative Commons License

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

REFERENCES:

[1] Matthew 2:1, 12. “Arabian Desert.” New World Encyclopedia. n.d. <https://www.newworldencyclopedia.org/entry/Arabian_Desert>  “Arabian Desert.” Encyclopædia Britannica. 2020. <https://www.britannica.com/place/Arabian-Desert>
[2] Polo, Marco.  The Travels of Marco Polo the Venetian.  1818.  Ed. Ernest Rhys. 1908 Edition.  Chapter XI. p 50. <http://archive.org/stream/marcopolo00polouoft#page/50/mode/2up> “Marco Polo.” Bibliography.com. 2020 <https://www.biography.com/explorer/marco-polo>  
“Marco Polo and his travels.” Silk-Road.com. n.d. <http://www.silk-road.com/artl/marcopolo.shtml
[3] Saveh, Iran (untitled). Bing.com/maps. Map. 2020. <https://www.bing.com/maps?osid=caeb94c6-d007-42ed-a5c8-19628ce0cebc&cp=35.411126~50.908664&lvl=9&v=2&sV=2&form=S00027> Hartinger, J. A. “Saba and Sabeans.” Catholic Encyclopedia. Volume 13. 1912.  NewAdvent.org. 2009. <http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/13285c.htm>
[4] Strabo. Geography. Chapter III. n.d. <http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus:text:1999.01.0239:book=15:chapter=3&highlight=magi>Stillwell, Richard, et. al. The Princeton Encyclopedia of Classical Sites. “Hatra Iraq.” n.d. <http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus:text:1999.04.0006:entry=hatra&highlight=caravan>
[5] Matthew 2:11.
[6] Polo. The Travels of Marco Polo the Venetian.  p 50.
[7] II Kings 25:1-17; Jeremiah 52:3-30. Middle East. Bing.com. Map. 2020. <https://www.bing.com/maps?osid=a2a3d404-6095-4abc-9ac8-b6d695d42293&cp=34.13455~41.097873&lvl=7&v=2&sV=2&form=S00027>  “Spice Ways.”  Israel Antiquities Authority.  Map.  n.d.  2014.  <http://www.mnemotrix.com/avdat/spiceroute2.gif>  “Trade Routes of Palestine.” Bible Odyssey. Map. 2019. <https://www.bibleodyssey.org/en/tools/map-gallery/v/map-trade_routes-g-01>
[8] Josephus, Flavius. Antiquities of the Jews.  Trans. and commentary.  William Whitson.  The Complete Works of Josephus. 1850. Book XVII. Chapter VI. <http://books.google.com/books?id=e0dAAAAAMAAJ&printsec=frontcover&source=gbs_ge_summary_r&cad=0#v=onepage&q&f=false>   Geva, Hillel. “Archaeology in Israel: Jericho – The Winter Palace of King Herod.” Jewish Virtual Library. 2020. <https://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jericho-the-winter-palace-of-king-herod> “Herodian Jericho.” Oxford Bible Studies Online. 2020. <http://www.oxfordbiblicalstudies.com/article/opr/t393/e57>
[9] Numbers 20:19, 22:1; Deuteronomy 32:48, 34:1-4; Joshua 3:14-17. “Roads in Israel.” Bible History Online. Map.  n.d.  <http://www.bible-history.com/maps/ancient-roads-in-israel.html>
[10] “Ezra and Nehemiah, Books of.” Jewish Virtual Library. 2020. <https://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/ezra-and-nehemiah-books-of> “Ezra.” Encyclopædia Britannica. 2020. <https://www.britannica.com/biography/Ezra-Hebrew-religious-leader>
[11] “Trade between the Romans and the Empires of Asia.” MetMuseum.org. 2020. <https://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/silk/hd_silk.htm> “Map of Roman & Parthian Trade Routes.” Ancient History Encyclopedia. 2020. <https://www.ancient.eu/image/11763/map-of-roman–parthian-trade-routes>  Hopkins, Edward C. D. “History of Parthia.”  Parthia.com. 2008. <http://www.parthia.com/parthia_history.htm>  “Parthian Empire.” Iran Chamber Society. 2020. <http://www.iranchamber.com/history/parthians/parthians.php>
[12] Stillwell, Richard, et. al. “Bernice or Pernicide Portum (Madinet el-Haras) Egypt.” The Princeton Encyclopedia of Classical Sites. n.d. <http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus:text:1999.04.0006:entry=berenice-1&highlight=caravan>  Stillwell, Richard, et. al. “Beroea (Aleppo) Syria.” The Princeton Encyclopedia of Classical Sites. n.d. <http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus:text:1999.04.0006:entry=beroea&highlight=caravan> Stillwell, Richard, et. al. “Dura Europos Syria.”  The Princeton Encyclopedia of Classical Sites. n.d. <http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus:text:1999.04.0006:entry=dura-europos&highlight=caravan> Stillwell, Richard, et. al. “Palmyra (Tadmor) Syria.” The Princeton Encyclopedia of Classical Sites. n.d. <http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus:text:1999.04.0006:entry=palmyra&highlight=caravan> “Trade Routes/” National Museum of American History. n.d. <https://web.archive.org/web/20160618154742/http://americanhistory.si.edu/numismatics/parthia/frames/pamaec.htm>  “Chapter 4. Iran Historical Maps Arsacid Parthian Empire, Armenian Kingdom.” “Iran Historical Maps Arsacid Parthian Empire, Armenian Kingdom.” Iran Politics Club. n.d. <http://iranpoliticsclub.net/maps/maps04/index.htm>  “Roads in Israel – 1st Century AD.” Bible-History.com. Map. n.d. <https://www.bible-history.com/maps/first-century-roads-israel2.jpg>
[13] Matthew 2:3.
[14] Strabo. Geography. Chapters II-III. n.d. <http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus:text:1999.01.0239:book=1:chapter=2&highlight=magi> <http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus:text:1999.01.0239:book=15:chapter=3&highlight=magi>  Diogenes Laertius. Lives of Eminent Philosophers. n.d. <http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus:text:1999.01.0258:book=1:chapter=prologue&highlight=magi>  Stillwell, Richard et. al. “Gaza Israel.” The Princeton Encyclopedia of Classical Sites. n.d. <http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus:text:1999.04.0006:entry=gaza&highlight=caravan>
[15] Josephus, Flavius. Wars of the Jews. Trans. and commentary. William Whitson. The Complete Works of Josephus. 1850. 4.451. <http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus:text:1999.01.0148:book=4:section=451&highlight=petra>
[16] “Major Trade Routes.” Bibarch.com. Map. n.d. <http://www.bibarch.com/images/Map-Regions.jpg> Ancient Israel trade routes (untitled).  BibleWalks.com. Map. 2011. <https://web.archive.org/web/20190414151021/https://biblewalks.com/Photos72/IncenseRoute.JPG> “Ancient Palestine.” The History of Israel. Map. n.d. <http://www.israel-a-history-of.com/images/AncientRoadsandCities2.jpg>  “Old Testament Map & History.” The History of Israel.  “Palestine.” Map. n.d.  <http://www.israel-a-history-of.com/old-testament-map.html>  “The Geographical, Historical, & Spiritual Significance of Shechem.” Bible.org. 2020. <https://bible.org/article/geographical-historical-spiritual-significance-shechem> “Spice Ways.” Israel Antiquities Authority. Map. n.d. Mnemotrix Systems, Inc. 2014.  <http://www.mnemotrix.com/avdat/spiceroute2.gif>  “The Urantia Papers’ First Century Palestine.” The Urantia Book Fellowship. Map. n.d. 2013. <http://web.archive.org/web/20070820230158/http://www.urantiabook.org/graphics/gifmap1.htm>  Stillwell, Richard, et. al. “Petra (Selah) Jordan.” The Princeton Encyclopedia of Classical Sites. n.d. <http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus:text:1999.04.0006:entry=petra-2&highlight=caravan> Stillwell, Richard, et. al. “Elusa (El-Khalasa) Israel.” The Princeton Encyclopedia of Classical Sites.. n.d. <http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus:text:1999.04.0006:entry=elusa-2&highlight=caravan>

Luke’s Nativity – An Investigative Breakdown

Luke and Matthew provide significantly different perspectives about the Nativity circumstances of Jesus of Nazareth, yet they have the common threads of historical timeline, locations and the key figures. Interestingly, Luke first begins with the birth of John the Baptist.

Exclusive aspects of John’s birth are not described in any other Gospel meaning they could not be the source for Luke. In the very opening paragraph, the author states that his letter is based on the eyewitness accounts “from the beginning”:

LK 1:2-4 Inasmuch as many have undertaken to compile an account of the things accomplished among us, just as they were handed down to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and servants of the word, it seemed fitting for me as well, having investigated everything carefully from the beginning, to write it out for you in consecutive order, most excellent Theophilus; so that you may know the exact truth about the things you have been taught. (NASB)

While other accounts have already been written, the author writes, it is his intention to provide a thoroughly investigated account in consecutive order. Parallel passages in Matthew and  Mark leave no doubt that, along with Luke, the three share common source references. Many expert authorities believe that Luke was the last of the three Synoptic Gospels to be written, then followed lastly by John.[1]

Very limited is the list of possible eyewitnesses:  Mary, the mother of Jesus, and the parents of John the Baptist, Elizabeth and Zachariah.[2] Mary was present when her son, Jesus, was crucified and the whereabouts of Zachariah and Elizabeth are not recorded in the Gospels. John the Baptist was beheaded early during the ministry of Jesus. Mary’s husband, Joseph, is presumed to have died before the onset of Jesus’s ministry.[3]

First in Luke is the account of Zechariah, a Levite Jewish priest, and his wife, Elizabeth. The couple were considered “advanced in years” for not yet having any children; a relative term considering that girls married and began having children as soon as nature allowed, about 13 years of age.[4] Elizabeth considered her “barren” state to be a “disgrace.”[5]

Elizabeth’s pregnancy in her advanced years is not described in Luke as miraculous. Neither of the words expected to describe a miracle do not appear in the Greek text. These words are used, however, elsewhere in Luke – dunamis translated to English using such words as “miracles,” “deeds of power,” “power of the Spirit,” or “mighty works;” or semelon translated with such words as “miracle,” “miraculous sign,” “sign from heaven.”[6]

Zechariah was chosen by his priestly division to offer the timely sacrifices to God.[7] While inside the Temple, the angel Gabriel appeared to him delivering God’s message that his wife would become pregnant with a son who was to be named John.[8] Doubting Gabriel’s message, Zechariah was struck dumb.[9]

Only two witnesses to the angelic encounter were possible, Gabriel and Zechariah, both of whom were quoted rather than paraphrased.[10] Twice used in Zechariah’s quote is the personal pronoun “I” rather than being described in the third person. Zechariah can be the only source of the quotation.

Corroborating Gabriel’s message, Elizabeth did indeed unexpectedly become pregnant. Praising the Lord, Elizabeth is then quoted with personal pronouns rather than a paraphrased rendition.[11] For reasons that can only be surmised, Elizabeth stayed secluded at home for the first five months of her pregnancy.[12]

Meanwhile in Nazareth 80 miles away, Mary, who had been betrothed to Joseph, was going about her daily business.[13] Gabriel greeted her saying, “”Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.”[14] The angel’s message continues to be quoted:

LK 1:31-32 “And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall name Him Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High; and the Lord God will give Him the throne of His father David…” (NASB)

Mary is then quoted using the personal pronoun “I” asking Gabriel how she could have a baby when she was a virgin. Gabriel explained the Holy Spirit would impregnate her:

LK 1:35 “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God. (NRSV)

Gabriel also informed Mary before he departed that her cousin, Elizabeth, was six months pregnant. Like Zechariah, Mary can be the only human source to this angelic encounter.

Elizabeth re-enters Luke’s account when Mary came to visit shortly after Gabriel delivered God’s message to her. Upon hearing Mary’s greeting, Elizabeth’s babe leapt within her. Elizabeth loudly exclaimed:

“Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb! But why is this granted to me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? Blessed is she who believed, for there will be a fulfillment of those things which were told her from the Lord. For indeed, as soon as the voice of your greeting sounded in my ears, the babe leaped in my womb for joy. Blessed is she who believed, for there will be a fulfillment of those things which were told her from the Lord.”[15]

Noteworthy, Elizabeth knew about Mary’s immaculate conception before Mary told her. Elizabeth’s quoted praise contains four personal pronouns of “me” and “my” making it highly likely she is the source for this quote. Additionally Mary is praised for her complete belief in Gabriel’s message without any question.

Less obvious, Elizabeth confirmed to Mary she was already pregnant only a few days after Gabriel told her she would conceive the Son of God. A woman’s pregnancy is not naturally known to the mother, barring modern medicine, until 2-4 weeks or later after conception.[16]

Upon hearing Elizabeth’s blessing, Mary was filled with emotion. Her passionate praise is quoted with the personal pronouns “my” and “me” appearing five times.[17] The source of Mary’s praise strongly appears to be Mary herself.

Matthew articulates Joseph’s reaction to discovering Mary’s pregnancy whereas Luke documented Mary’s perspective. According to Matthew, Joseph considered a divorce until a visitation by Gabriel informed him Mary had not cheated, rather the Holy Spirit impregnated her as a fulfillment of prophecy.

Three key points are common to Luke and Matthew, locations and the Judean governing authority. Both state Jesus was born in Bethlehem; Nazareth is the hometown of Jesus and Herod is King.[18]

Unique to Luke’s Nativity are two names of rulers serving as historical date markers – Caesar Augustus and the governorship of Quirinius.[19]

Timing is perhaps the biggest differences between Matthew’s and Luke’s Nativity stories. Solely found in Luke is the reason why Mary traveled in her late stage of pregnancy to Bethlehem – a decree by Caesar Augustus.

Chronicling the night of the birth of Jesus, Mary went into labor in Bethlehem and was forced to give birth in a stable because all the inns were full. Mary then used a manger as a crib for Jesus.  Luke quotes angels appearing to shepherds outside of Bethlehem:

LK 2:10-14 “…behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy which will be to all people. For there is born to you this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord…And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying: “Glory to God in the highest, And on earth peace, goodwill toward men!”(NKJV)

Immediately, the shepherds quickly went into Bethlehem and found Mary and Joseph with Jesus lying in the manger confirming the angel’s birth announcement. What the shepherds witnessed, they widely told to people who marveled.

Matthew, on the other hand, outlines a different Nativity timeline when the Magi followed signs in the sky on a long journey to Jerusalem. After consultation with Jewish religious experts, King Herod revealed to the Magi where they might locate Jesus. When the Magi found baby Jesus, the family was now in a house.[20]

Luke adds two other details. Eight days later during the circumcision event, Joseph and Mary officially named their baby Jesus as each were instructed by Gabriel. At the 30-day mark according to the Law, the parents presented Jesus to the Lord in the Temple in Jerusalem and offered a sacrifice which required a priest.

Much of Luke’s Nativity account is unique yet is in sync with Matthew. It includes quotes by Zechariah, Elizabeth, Mary and the angel Gabriel as well as secular historical date markers. Does Luke’s Gospel Nativity meet the standards of credibility?

 

Creative Commons License

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

REFERENCES:

[1] Mellowes, Marilyn. “An Introduction to the Gospels.” PBS.org. 1998. <https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/religion/story/mmfour.html>  McLatchie, Jonathan. “When Were The Gospels Written?” CrossExamined.org. 2011. https://crossexamined.org/when-were-the-gospels-written>
[2] Luke 1:40-42.
[3] “St. Joseph.” New Advent. 2020. <https://www.newadvent.org/cathen/08504a.htm> “St. Joseph.”  Encyclopædia Britannica. 2020.<https://www.britannica.com/biography/Saint-Joseph>
[4] Luke 1:7, 18. NASB, NKJV. West, Jim. “Ancient Israelite Marriage Customs.” Quartz Hill School of Theology. n.d. http://www.theology.edu/marriage.htm>  Rich, Tracey R. “Marriages.” Judaism101. 2011. <http://www.jewfaq.org/marriage.htm>
[5] Luke 1:25.
[6] Luke 4:14; 10:13; 19:37; 23:8. NetBible.org. Greek text. dunamis <1411>, semelon <4592>
[7] Luke 1:8. NetBible.org. Footnote 28. <http://classic.net.bible.org/bible.php?book=Luk&chapter=1#n32>
[8] Luke 1:11, 19.
[9] Luke 1:20, 24.
[10] Luke 1:13-17, 19-20.
[11] Luke 1:25.
[12] Luke 1:24.
[13] Luke 1:39.  Slatzman, Russell. “Biblical travel: How far to where, and what about the donkey?” Aleteia. 2017. https://aleteia.org/2017/01/24/biblical-travel-how-far-to-where-and-what-about-the-donkey> Kosloski, Philip. “Mary traveled a highly dangerous path to visit Elizabeth. Aleteia. 2019. <https://aleteia.org/2019/05/31/mary-traveled-a-highly-dangerous-path-to-visit-elizabeth
[14] Luke 1:28. NET, NASB.
[15] Luke 1:42-45. NKJV.
[16] Luke 1:18-20. “Month by Month.” Planned Parenthood. 2020. <https://www.plannedparenthood.org/learn/pregnancy/pregnancy-month-by-month> “Home pregnancy tests: Can you trust the results?” Mayo Clinic. 2019. <http://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-living/getting-pregnant/in-depth/home-pregnancy-tests/art-20047940> “How long does it take to know I’m pregnant?” nct.org. n.d. <https://www.nct.org.uk/pregnancy/am-i-pregnant/how-long-does-it-take-know-im-pregnant>  Marple, Kate. Ed. “Early signs of pregnancy: When will I feel symptoms?” babycenter.com. 2019. <https://www.babycenter.com/getting-pregnant/how-to-get-pregnant/early-signs-of-pregnancy-when-will-i-feel-symptoms_10372077>
[17] Luke 1:46-55.
[18] Matthew 2:1,4; Luke 1:5, 27, 2:4, 23.
[19] Matthew 2:22; Luke 1:5; 2:1-2.
[20] Matthew 2:11.

Magi – Why Are They in a Jewish Nativity Story?

Magi were scorned by Judaism for their mystical reputation.[1] Why then do the mystic Magi appear in Matthew’s account about a Jewish Messiah ? Matthew’s Greek text uses the word magos., the Latin word equivalent to magus, its plural form is magi.[2] The word is sometimes translated into English as “wise men” – both translations are correct.

MT 2:1 “After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem…” (NIV)

MT 2:1 “In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem…” (NRSV)

Clearly not worried his reference to the Magi would be called into question by his contemporaries, Matthew covered the Magi story with 12 verses, at least 10 providing specific details.[3] He assumed his audience would recognize the reputation of the Magi and the significance of their visit to Jerusalem.[4]

Matthew’s introduction of the Magi into the Nativity story has a full historical context behind its setting. Not just anyone appearing on the door step of the King’s palace would expect to gain entry. Yet, when the Magi arrived unannounced, they had no problem gaining direct access to King Herod who gave them his immediate and full attention.

Babylonians, Medes and Persians viewed magos as an eclectic group of priests, physicians, teachers, soothsayers, interpreters of dreams, astrologers, and sorcerers. It is easy to see how magi could be referred to as “wise men” – or just as easily, “mystics.” Not surprisingly, magi is the root word of “magic.”

Roman era Jewish society had a dual-perspective of magi. One was of the famed Hebrew,  Daniel, a captured Israelite of royal descent by Nebuchadnezzar. Daniel was placed into the elite Babylonian school of the Chaldeans which included an education in astronomy and astrology.[5]

God gave “Daniel understanding in all visions and dreams,” a gift that landed him in Nebuchadnezzar’s royal council of wise men, the chakkiym.[6] Later, Nebuchadnezzar made Daniel chief of all the magi, a position known as Rab-mag.[7]

After the Medes and Persians overthrew the Babylonian Empire, Daniel’s “extraordinary spirit” again elevated him to a high level of the government.[8] The main religion under King Cyrus was Zoroastrianism. Its founder, Zoroaster, was himself known as the original magi.[9]

Setting the stage for the other Jewish perspective of magi began when Alexander the Great marched through Judea. The Greek Empire’s open-minded Hellenistic culture allowed the Jews religious freedom, but it also introduced Zoroastrianism intermingled with influences of the Babylonian chakkiym; its priests called magi.[10]

Over the coming decades, the effects of Hellenism on Jewish culture was unavoidable much to the frustration of the Jewish Rabbis. Liberal philosophies of Hellenism permeated Jewish culture meanwhile Greek became the common language.[11] Next came the Roman Empire which was content to leave the prevailing culture in Judea alone.[12]

As expert astronomers, the Magi used the legendary Babylonian astronomical science and charts to study of the motion of stars past, present and future. Their ability to plot upcoming cosmic events were scientifically predictive, not “mystical.”[13]

Toward the very end of the BC era, a series of rare celestial conjunctions occurred, ones hard to ignore by astronomers – then or today. Witnessing just one such rare conjunction can be an once-in-a-lifetime experience. Imagine the scenario where, in a space of just 5 years from 7-2 BC, there were 13 rare conjunctions including two triple conjunctions! [14]

Zoroastrianism beliefs held that celestial events served as signs with earthly significance. Signs of a newborn king observed by the Magi were so awe-inspiring, they set out on a month’s long quest to find and worship him.[15] Matthew does not say there were only three Magi…it is a Christmas legend that may or may not be accurate.

Herod did not question the credibility of the Magi when they gave him the alarming news about the birth of a King of the Jews. Neither did Herod’s Jewish religious council who, instead, pointed the King to Micah’s prophecy saying a Jewish ruler was to be born in Bethlehem.

Believing the prophecy to be true, Herod invited the Magi back for another meeting to investigate the timing of the star, directed them to Bethlehem, and slyly asked for their help in finding this newborn king. Angered when they didn’t return, Herod’s reaction by killing all the children 2 years old and under in the Bethlehem district testifies to his belief in the truth of the Magi’s message about a newborn King of the Jews.

King Herod and his royal Jewish religious council believed the credibility and message of the Magi. How likely is it that the Jewish author of Matthew would unnecessarily introduce the Magi…unless he also believed it to be true?

 

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