The Arabian Desert – Two Routes to Bethlehem?

Matthew’s Nativity account of the wise men, the Magi, reveals their quest to find the newborn King of the Jews took them first to Jerusalem, then on the Bethlehem. After being warned not to return home the way they came, the Magi took a different route back to their homeland was there a second route?

Magi were well-known by reputation for their origins in Persia east of Judea hundreds of miles away. Facing them were the hardships and challenges posed by the great Arabian Desert.[1]

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, 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, Marco Polo’s 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,” a same name for Magi found in the Talmud.[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 route choices when confronted with the second largest desert in the world. One option was a route around the northern edges of the Arabian Desert. The other option was the longer southern route through the desert by way of Petra south of the Dead Sea.

Shorter of the two trade routes to Jerusalem, the initial destination of the Magi, was approximately 700 miles.[7] The route coursed from Seleucia near present day Baghdad, 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.

 

Parthian Empire’s trade routes and the Arabian Desert, 2 BC – 1st AD

Trade route spurs West 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.

King Herod’s winter palace was located in Jericho where he would soon travel in his final days for the futile treatment of his horrible bowel disease.[8] The crossing point of the Jordan near Jericho was the same place where the Israelites entered into land of Abraham 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 Hebrew’s release from Babylonian captivity thought still under the rule of the Persian Empire 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 it a newsworthy event where everyone seemed to be aware of their arrival in the city .[13]

Aside from their unusual arrival, perhaps attention was also garnered by  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.

After consulting with Jewish religious experts, Herod directed the Magi to go to Bethlehem in exchange for revealing the exact 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)

Consensus agreement by the Magi to avoid King Herod suggests that they all received the message…and it presented a costly logistical challenge requiring full agreement. 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 other option across the Arabian Desert the southern Parthian loop. It was a much longer trek, some 100 miles longer at around 800 miles.

South of the Dead (Salt) Sea, the King’s Highway routed to Petra, then East on the southern Parthian route across the Arabian Desert to Central Persia. The catch was how to reach it from Bethlehem.[15]

 

https://i0.wp.com/i.pinimg.com/originals/cb/8e/5c/cb8e5cdfa8e96c2fdc1eb3c884cc5f75.jpg?resize=657%2C392&ssl=1

 

Access to the southern Parthian trade route was literally at the doorstep of the Magi. The Central Ridge route ran south out of Bethlehem to Hebron; connected to the Spice Route which passed under the Dead Sea; and then joined the King’s Highway south to Petra.[16] The other less traveled minor route spurs off the Central Ridge Road may have shortened the southward path, the tradeoff being a more difficult passage, fewer trading posts, and greater risks.

 

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Copied with permission: Biblewalks.com.

Many secular historical accounts confirm the origins of the Magi – who they were, their reputation, from where they came. Two well-known geographically established caravan trade routes involving the Arabian Desert existed from Persia to Judea. Do these historical accounts corroborate and add credibility to Gospel account of Matthew and the Nativity of Jesus of Nazareth?

 

Updated December 19, 2021.

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> Soncino Babylonian Talmud. Ed. Isidore Epstein. The Soncino Press. 1935-1948. Sanhedrin 98a.  <https://israelect.com/Come-and-Hear/sanhedrin/sanhedrin_98.html#98a_22> Sanhedrin 74b. <https://israelect.com/Come-and-Hear/sanhedrin/sanhedrin_74.html>  “Babylonia.” Jewish Encyclopedia. 2011. <http://www.jewishencyclopedia.com/articles/10263-magi>
[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>  “Atlas of Iran Maps.” IranPoliticsClub.net. Chapter 4. March, 2000. <http://www.iranpoliticsclub.net/maps/maps04/index.htm>  “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.  “Ancient 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>  “Eastern Desert.” Pinterest.com. Map. n.d. <https://i.pinimg.com/originals/cb/8e/5c/cb8e5cdfa8e96c2fdc1eb3c884cc5f75.jpg> Last accessed 19 Dec. 2021.  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 the historical timeline, geographic locations and the key figures. In the very opening paragraph of Luke, 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)

Interestingly, Luke first begins with the birth of John the Baptist , circumstances not described in any other Gospel. Zechariah, a Levite Jewish priest, and his wife, Elizabeth were considered “advanced in years.” It is a relative term considering that girls married and began having children as soon as nature allowed, about 13 years of age.[1] Elizabeth considered her “barren” state to be a “disgrace.”[2]

Elizabeth’s pregnancy in her advanced years is not described in Luke as miraculous. Neither of the Greek words expected to describe a miracle do not appear in the text; however, two Greek words referencing a miracle are used elsewhere in Luke. The word dunamis is translated to English using such words as “miracles,” “deeds of power,” “power of the Spirit,” or “mighty works” and semelon is translated with such words as “miracle,” “miraculous sign,” “sign from heaven.”[3]

Zechariah was chosen by his priestly division to offer the timely sacrifices to God.[4] While inside the Temple, the angel Gabriel appeared to him delivering God’s message that his wife would become pregnant with a son to be named John.[5] Doubting Gabriel’s message, Zechariah was struck dumb during his wife’s pregnancy.[6]

Only two witnesses to the angelic encounter are possible, the archangel Gabriel and Zechariah, both of whom were quoted rather than paraphrased.[7] Twice used in Zechariah’s quote is the personal pronoun “I” rather than being described in the third person – Zechariah is the primary source of these quotations.

Corroborating Gabriel’s message, Elizabeth did indeed unexpectedly become pregnant.[8] For reasons that can only be surmised, Elizabeth stayed secluded at home for the first five months of her pregnancy.[9]

Meanwhile in Nazareth 80-90 miles away, Mary, who had been betrothed to Joseph, was going about her daily business.[10] Gabriel greeted her saying, “”Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.”[11] 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 quoted using the personal pronoun “I” asking Gabriel how she could have a baby when she was a virgin – Mary is the primary source of the quotes. 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. Elizabeth re-enters Luke’s account when Mary came to visit her shortly after Gabriel delivered God’s message to Mary. Upon hearing Mary’s arrival greeting, Elizabeth’s babe leapt within her exclaiming:

“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.”[12]

Elizabeth’s quoted praise contains four personal pronouns of “me” and “my” making it highly likely she is the primary source for this quote. Noteworthy, Elizabeth knew about Mary’s immaculate conception before Mary told her. Additionally she praises Mary for her complete belief in the message from God.

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.[13]

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.[14] The primary source of Mary’s praise strongly appears to be Mary herself.

Matthew articulates Joseph’s reaction to discovering Mary’s pregnancy months later 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.

Four key points are common to Luke and Matthew. Both Gospels state Jesus was born in Bethlehem; Nazareth is the hometown of Jesus; and Herod is King with governing authority of Judea.[15] Unique to Luke’s Nativity are two names of rulers serving as historical date markers – Caesar Augustus and Quirinius governing in Syria.[16]

Two details stand out in Luke’s Nativity account not found in Matthew. Solely found in Luke is a decree by Caesar Augustus which, in turn, became the compelling factor for Mary to travel to Bethlehem in her late stage of pregnancy.

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 an angel appearing to shepherds outside of Bethlehem announcing his birth and a larger number of angels in the sky praising God:

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 at their report.

Matthew, on the other hand, outlines a different Nativity aspect telling how the Magi observed signs in the sky prompting their long journey to find the newborn “King of the Jews.” After consultation with Jewish religious experts, King Herod revealed to the Magi where they might locate Jesus. When the Magi found Jesus, the family was now in a house.[17]

Luke adds two other details. Eight days later during the Jewish circumcision event, Joseph and Mary officially named their baby Jesus as each were separately 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 including several secular historical date markers. Does Luke’s Gospel Nativity meet the standards of credibility?

 

Updated December 18, 2021.

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

REFERENCES:

[1] 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>
[2] Luke 1:25.
[3] Luke 4:14; 10:13; 19:37; 23:8. NetBible.org. Greek text. dunamis <1411>, semelon <4592>
[4] Luke 1:8. NetBible.org. Footnote 28. <http://classic.net.bible.org/bible.php?book=Luk&chapter=1#n32>
[5] Luke 1:11, 19.
[6] Luke 1:20, 24.
[7] Luke 1:13-17, 19-20.
[8] Luke 1:25.
[9] Luke 1:24.
[10] 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
[11] Luke 1:28. NET, NASB.
[12] Luke 1:42-45. NKJV.
[13] 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>
[14] Luke 1:46-55.
[15] Matthew 2:1,4; Luke 1:5, 27, 2:4, 23.
[16] Matthew 2:22; Luke 1:5; 2:1-2.
[17] 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?

 

Updated October 8, 2021.

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