SAN JOSE, Calif., Dec. 25, 2016 — Over two thousand years ago, a very special birth occurred, and despite a king’s determination to kill the child, the infant grew into a man who became one of the most influential people in all of human history. This man’s life made such a powerful and positive impact upon people from all over the world that he transformed the history of humankind. But, before the journey of Jesus began and before he left his birthplace, non-Jewish people from outside of Judea journeyed to the place of his birth and offered him unique gifts, and that started the tradition of gift-giving that is continued to this day. The story of the “Wise Men” inspired millions of people throughout the world and throughout time. Their story is more than fiction or fable.
According to the Gospel of Matthew in the Aramaic and other translations, these Wise Men were actually called “Magi.” and came “from the East to Jerusalem.” And they were asking the whereabouts of the newborn King of the Jews who had been born within the previous two years. By that time, these men had travelled quite a great distance through enemy territory simply to honor this child of their prophecy who in their minds was to become king of the Jewish people. A key point is missed when people who read this passage learn only of their visit to Jerusalem and to King Herod. Yet, much mystery and myth surrounds these foreign visitors from distant lands.
The story of these Magi and how they came to pay their respect to the baby Jesus has been briefly told in bits and pieces, in many lands, over many centuries. Even Marco Polo, in 1298, wrote of the Persian Magi in “The Travels; The Description of the World.” One needs to utilize worthy sources to distinguish fact from fable and come to a more accurate appraisal of their existence. Specifically, an examination of Persian history indicates the likelihood that the Magi were from ancient Persia. A little-known fact in the Western world is that the Magi were a priestly class of nobles who served as members of the Parthian government (all of modern Iran, Iraq and Armenia, parts of Turkey, Georgia, Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan, Afghanistan and Tajikistan).
The Parthian Empire was formed after the fall of the Achaemenid Empire. Parthia, in northeastern Iran, had been governed by the Seleucid kings, an ancient Macedonian dynasty. In 245 BCE, a satrap named Andragoras launched a revolt against a young Seleucid king, Seleucus II, who had just taken the throne. In this transition of power, a nomad tribe called the Parni from the central Asian steppe overran Parthia. The first king of the Parthians was Arsaces I, who in 238 B.C. forged a new kingdom and established the Arsacid Dynasty. The kingdom and dynasty evolved into an empire in ancient Persia from 247 B.C. to A.D. 224 and was a primary rival of the Roman Empire.
Most historians seem to agree that Ctesiphon, on the left bank of the Tigris River and 12 or 13 miles south of present-day Baghdad, was the major city of the empire and the primary seat of the government. Unfortunately, when digging so deeply into history, scholars are confronted with gaps of understanding due to incomplete or missing records. Despite limited information or access to reliable sources, an understanding of the Parthian Court and its customs can be pieced together. At the time the official religion of Persia was Zoroastrianism.
Although this forgotten religion is ancient, Zoroastrianism shows up in recorded history only in the mid-fifth century B.C. But over the centuries the majority of people in this region had become followers of Zoroaster, the famous Middle Eastern prophet and teacher. The Magi had emerged as a priestly class who adhered to Zoroastrianism and eventually developed considerable influence at the courts of the Persian rulers. By the first century after Christ, the Magi served in the hereditary priesthood and, more important, as members of one of two councils that advised the king. This political structure could be remotely comparable to the British parliament with the House of Lords and the House of Commons, which limit the power of the monarch.
Members of the Megistanes or “nobles” were also looked upon as “the Great Men” who were the privileged class and wielded considerable power in ancient Persia. The two councils were essentially composed of the Megistanes, whose rights and positions of power in the councils were conferred by birth or office, not by the king. One of the councils consisted of the full-grown males of the royal house. The other council was a type of senate made up of both the spiritual and the political chiefs of the nation: the “Sophi” (wise men) and the “Magi” (priests). These two assemblies advised, appointed or elected (restricted to members of the dynasty of the Arsacidae), checked the monarch. Practically, the right of inheritance may have been the normal practice of appointing the new kings, yet there were difficulties, such as when there was no son to inherit the royal office.
It was the Magi, the devoutly religious followers of Zoroaster, who were aware of the prophecies of Daniel concerning the coming of the Messiah. It is not clear when Zoroaster lived, but records indicate that some of his followers may have been students of the Old Testament prophet Daniel. He had once served as the rab-mag, the chief administrator of the Magi under Darius the Great, who had elevated the Magi above the state religion of Persia after some Magi proved to be experts in interpreting dreams. The same Daniel apparently entrusted his messianic vision to a secret sect of the Magi for its eventual fulfillment. And, “in the fullness of time” the Magi, in their dual priestly and political office, were poised to follow the guidance of prophecy.
Once the Magi witnessed the astronomical signs that had been foretold by Balaam, an ancient prophet from Mesopatamia, the Magi set off on their journey of faith. Balaam had foretold the coming of a star that would precede the arrival of a great leader of the Jewish people. This is known from the book of Numbers in the Old Testament and was obviously of great interest to the Magi. Most notably, this band of noble “king makers,” with significant inspiration and motivation, left their comfortable circumstances in Persia and set off upon a rugged journey across enemy territory to seek out the one who was to become a great leader of the Jewish people. Despite the cost, they sought this precious child of prophecy.
What can be easily overlooked in the tale of the Wise Men is that the journey of the Magi would not have occurred without considerable difficulty and great risk. The distance could have been around 500 to 1,000 miles, depending upon the point of origin, which still remains a mystery. Some accounts indicate that the journey could have started in Ur in what would be in the southern part of modern Iraq. Others speculate it could have started at the ancient Institute of Astrology at Sippar near Babylonia (also in modern Iraq). Such a trek through the deserts and rugged terrain of the Middle East could have taken six to eight weeks, depending upon prevailing conditions along the way.
Even more important, the journey of the Magi not only had great religious significance, but it also contained great potential political peril. The Magi may have made their pilgrimage at the risk of their lives. They were foreigners, possibly members of the Parthian government, and would have had to travel through the territory occupied by the Roman Empire, Parthia’s on-again, off-again major enemy. Such a journey could have initiated a serious international confrontation if they encountered the Roman military on the way. Even so, the party of the Magi (likely more than three individuals on camels) boldly entered Jerusalem and sought out King Herod, specifically seeking knowledge regarding the recently born King of the Jews.
It would have been a formidable journey, requiring great courage and faith. Their fundamental means of navigation was limited (no GPS in those days), and from the biblical account, the Magi depended upon the “star” they were faithfully following since they honestly did not fully know their destination. Amazingly enough, foreigners, not of the Jewish faith, were the ones who travelled upon a great and dangerous journey to offer incredibly valued gifts to an unknown and unproven infant “king.” Such a pilgrimage\ by people of such faith contains lessons for people of all faiths, especially in carrying out such a mission at the risk of their lives.
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