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 to 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?

Arabian Desert, Persia

Magi were well-known by reputation for their origins in Persia east of Judea hundreds of miles away. Marco Polo, famed thirteenth century explorer, wrote in 1298 of his travels to the Province of Persia searching for information about the Magi.[1] 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.[2] 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.[3]

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:[4]

“…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.” Maro Polo [5]

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

Travel from Persia to Judea had one formidable obstacle the great Arabian Desert. It is one of the largest, if not the largest desert, in the world.[6] The shortest, easiest and safest travel option was an established trade route around the northern edges of the Arabian Desert, the northern Parthian loop.

From Seleucia near present day Baghdad, then to Jerusalem was approximately 700 miles.[7] The journey coursed 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.

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

King Herod’s winter palace was located in Jericho where he would soon travel during his final days.[8] The crossing point of the Jordan near Jericho was the same place where the Hebrews 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 though 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]

Traveling to Jerusalem, the Magi 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]

Attention may have been garnered by their conspicuous caravan of camels; their foreign grandiose attire; or perhaps they were even 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)

 
Herod would assuredly know that the Magi were in the City of Jerusalem if they returned home the way they came. If the Magi went around Jerusalem, they would still have to go by Jericho where undoubtedly area locals would certainly inform the King.

Another return route was possible through the Arabian Desert the southern Parthian loop via Petra that avoided going through Jerusalem or by Jericho. It was a much longer trek presenting a more enduring and costly logistical challenge, some 100 miles longer at around 800 miles.

Bethlehem to Petra trade routes

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.[15]

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]

Other less traveled minor route spurs off the Central Ridge Road had trade-offs. While these routes may have shortened the southward path, they were probably more difficult passage with fewer trading posts and greater risks such as robbers, water supply, etc.

Many secular historical accounts confirm the origins of the Magiwho they were and their reputation. At the time Jesus was born ending the BC era, historically two well-known, established Arabian Desert caravan trade routes existed from Persia to Judea.

Do these historical trade routes corroborate and add credibility to the Gospel account of Matthew and the Nativity of Jesus of Nazareth?

 
 

 

 

Updated January 6, 2023.

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

REFERENCES:

[1] 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
[2] 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>
[3] 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>
[4] Matthew 2:11.
[5] Polo. The Travels of Marco Polo the Venetian.  p 50.
[6] 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>
[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>

The Magi’s Provocation of King Herod

 

Arriving in Jerusalem, the Magi had been traveling on a month’s long quest to find the newborn King of the Jews.[1] They knew to start searching somewhere in Judea and it made perfect sense to start in Jerusalem with the King of Judea – Herod.

Immediately the Magi gained direct access to the King, their reputation as Magi making that possible. The first words spoken by the Magi to Herod in Matthew’s Nativity account set the stage in the palace:

MT 2:2 “Where is He who has been born King of the Jews?” (NASB, NKJV)

No doubt, it was shocking news to the reigning king who knew nothing about this royal birth. After all, this child certainly was not Herod’s son. Qualifying their revelation, the Magi explained how they knew conclusion were true saying:

MT 2:2 “For we have seen His star in the East and have come to worship him.” (NKJV)

Now the second shock wave – they came to worship this newborn King of the Jews! No one worshiped the great Herod, yet these Magi traveled hundreds of miles from a foreign land emphasizing their personal conviction of what they had observed – what child would be worthy of such worship? The Magi left the palace without getting an answer.

All of Jerusalem was “troubled” by the news, translated from Matthew’s Greek text word tarasso meaning “to stir or agitate (roil water).”[2] Stirring the pot tends to cause people to act in peculiar ways.

News from the Magi certainly shook things up undoubtedly getting the attention of everyone in the palace. Servants came from among the general population where they still had family and friends. Maybe, too, it was their unusual arrival by a conspicuous caravan of camels; their foreign grandiose attire; or they were regarded as kings from Persia.[3]

Throughout history palaces of kings and queens notoriously have been unable to hold their secrets. Herod’s family was no exception, scandalously known for their loose lips.

Good gossip is just too hard to keep a secret. A newborn king of the Jews – who was his father if it wasn’t Herod? A child worthy of worship by the reputed king-makers? Could he even be the promised Messiah? Now this was newsworthy!

News about a new king undoubtedly raised hopes, yet at the same time, it was just as troubling – would the new king be worse than Herod or hopefully a good king? Regardless, it would still be years before this new king would begin his reign.

For any king, especially with the personality profile of Herod, this whole affair, whether true or not, would be an embarrassment and no king should ever be embarrassed. As the story unfolds, the King came to quickly view this child’s birth as a real threat that must be dealt with such as Herod had done many times before using whatever means necessary.[4]

Processing in his mind the Magi’s alarming news, after the Magi left the palace, the King immediately assembled “all the chief priests and scribes of the people.”[5] Not just a select few, but all of the Jewish religious experts – the King was leaving no stone unturned.

Making it clear he believed the Magi’s proclamation, he asked the  Jewish religious experts, chief priests and scribes, to determine “where the Christ was to be born.”[6] It was not a question of if … it was a 2-fold conclusion – where he was to be born and Herod used the Greek word, Christos, translated as Christ, the Messiah. Their consensus response: “In Bethlehem of Judea” citing the prophecy of Micah.[7]

Up to this point, the actual appearance of the star witnessed by the Magi astronomers had been only incidental information. Had the star been the most attention-getting news from the Magi, a cynical Herod would have been expected to question it, even scoff at it – he didn’t. It was a detail; however, that did not pass his attention.

Matthew does not say Herod was unaware of the star event – it can only be said that he did not know when it had occurred. Events in the sky would likely have been a relatively petty matter to the King prior the Magi’s visit, especially considering his bigger political problems in the kingdom, with Rome, and his scheming family affairs.

Upon hearing of Micah’s prophecy, his focus changed. No star was mentioned in Micah’s prophecy nor recorded by Matthew in the response from the chief priests and scribes. As religious experts, they were likely fully aware of Balaam’s prophecy of a star coming forth from Jacob signifying a ruler of Israel.[8] Maybe they mentioned this to Herod, maybe not.

One thing is for certain, Herod had a new fixation:  when did this star appear? This one detail was now important – this information would establish a timeline.

Summoning the Magi back to the palace, Herod wanted this second meeting to be in secret. Since word was all over Jerusalem about the Magi’s initial visit to the palace, the secrecy of the second meeting strongly suggests the King had something to hide.

Herod now possessed two details of interest to the Magi – Micah’s prophecy corroborating the birth of a Jewish ruler and the general location of Bethlehem where he could be found. He could use this information as leverage to learn when the star had appeared. During this second meeting, Herod got the information he wanted and the Magi got the information they were seeking.

One other thing Herod wanted… the Magi were asked to report back to him with the exact location of the child under the pretense that he, too, of course could worship the new king. It was a well-known fact, Herod worshiped no one or thing.

In Bethlehem, the Magi found Jesus and worshiped him offering expensive gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. The Magi may have intended to inform Herod of the child’s whereabouts until they were warned in a dream not to go back to Herod.

Returning home by another route the Magi avoided Jerusalem. Herod soon realized he had been duped and became enraged, then ordered all the children 2 years and younger to be killed in the district of Bethlehem based on the timing of the star’s first appearance ascertained from the Magi.

King Herod was more than capable of such cruelty. Among many murders, he had killed a chief priest, his second wife, her grandfather, her two sons and would soon execute his firstborn son by his first wife.[9] His cruelty extended even to his death bed when he summoned all the principal men of Judea to Jericho, locked them in the hippodrome, and gave orders to have them killed just to deny them the opportunity to gloat over his death.[10]

Does Herod’s reactions ring true to the Magi’s declaration that the Messiah, King of the Jews, had been born in Bethlehem?

 

Updated December 12, 2022.

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

REFERENCES:

[1] “Trade between the Romans and the Empires of Asia.” 2000. Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. <http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/silk/hd_silk.htm>  “Trade Routes.” Smithsonian|The National Museum of American History. n.d. <http://web.archive.org /web/20160618154742/http://americanhistory.si.edu/numismatics/parthia/frames/pamaec.htm>  “46178 -wisemen-magi-jesusbirth.” KFAX AM 1100. photo. n.d. <https://media.swncdn.com/cms/CW/46178-wisemen-magi-jesusbirth.1200w.tn.jpg>
[2] Net.bible.org. Matthew 2:2 Greek text. <http://classic.net.bible.org/verse.php?book=Mat&chapter=2&verse=2> Strong, James, LL.D., S.T.D.  The New Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible. “tarasso <5015>”  Thomas Nelson, Inc. 1990.
[3] Flavius. Antiquities of the Jews. Book XV, Ch.VII-VIII; Book XVI, Ch. VIII, XI, IX, XIII, XVI. Book XVII, Ch. I, V. Josephus. Wars. Book I, Ch. XVIII, XXII, XXIV, XXXI, XXXIII. The Complete Works of Josephus. 1850. <http://books.google.com/books?id=e0dAAAAAMAAJ&printsec=frontcover&source=gbs_ge_summary_r&cad=0#v=onepage&q&f=false> 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>
[4] Josephus. Antiquities. Book V, Ch. 1; Book XV, Ch. 1, 3, 6, 7; Book XVI, Ch.VII, VIII, X; Book XVII, Ch. IV, VI.  Josephus. Wars. Book I, Ch. XXVI, XXII, XXIV, XXVI, XXX, XXXI. “Herod the Great.” 2017. Livius.org. <http://www.livius.org/articles/person/herod-the-great
[5] Matthew 2:4. NRSV, NKJV, NASB.
[6] NET, NIV, NASB, NRSV, NKJV.
[7] Matthew 2:5. NET, NIV, NASB, NRSV, NKJV.
[8] Maimonides, Moses. Mishneh Torah. “The Law Concerning Moshiach.”  Kesser.org. n.d. <http://www.kesser.org/moshiach/rambam.html#SIE>   Rich, Tracey R. “Mashiach: The Messiah.” Judaism101. 2011. <http://www.jewfaq.org/mashiach.htm
[9] Josephus. Antiquities. Book XV, Ch. III-VII, IX, XIII, XVI; Book XVI, Ch. XI; Book XVII, Ch. IX.
Josephus. Wars. Book I, Chapter XXII, XXVII, XXXIII.
[10] Josephus. Antiquities. Book XVII, Ch. VI.  Josephus. Wars. Book I, Ch. XXXIII.