WASHINGTON: At the time of the Christmas holiday, Christians all over the world will celebrate the birth of Jesus, the savior. In the biblical story of that birth is the story of the Magi or “Wise Men.”
The story of the Magi is often about the gifts given to the infant Jesus. However, that is just one part of the story. What about this birth drove these men to do travel some 1,000 miles? To leave the comfort of home to undertake a journey of high risk.
A journey that would demand a tremendous amount of faith.
The prophecies of the Wise Men
Over two thousand years ago religious people studied the prophecies of their ancient times. For the Magi, prophecies would increase their faith in a celestial event. An event that would launch a journey of great distance, over steep terrain, and at the risk of their lives. The point of their journey to bring precious gifts, and to offer them to honor this child. A child born in a foreign land, whose birth was foretold in those prophecies.
So, before the journey of Jesus begins, there were non-Jewish people from outside of Judea who began a journey to the place of a baby’s birth. When they find the child they will offer him valuable gifts. The tradition of gift-giving that is continued to this day.
The story of the “Wise Men” inspires millions of people throughout the world.
Their story is more than fiction or an ancient fable. The biblical account in Matthew, however, is not only a story of what was; it is also a story of what can be.
Their story holds significant meaning for people of this day.
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.” As they traveled, they were asking the whereabouts of the newborn King of the Jews.
By that time, these men had traveled a great distance through enemy territory to honor the child of their prophecy. A child destined to become the king of the Jewish people.
Much mystery and myth surround these foreign visitors from distant lands.
Who are the Magi?
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 reliable 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. Today this includes all of modern Iran, Iraq, and Armenia, parts of Turkey, Georgia, Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan, Afghanistan, and Tajikistan.
The Parthian Empire emergence was 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 became a primary rival of the Roman Empire.
History and historians
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 principal city of the empire and the primary seat of the government. Unfortunately, scholars are confronted with gaps due to incomplete or missing records.
Despite limited information or access to reliable sources, a knowledge of the Parthian Court and its customs can be pieced together. At the time, the official religion of Persia was Zoroastrianism, the other monotheistic religion.
Although this forgotten religion is ancient, Zoroastrianism shows up in recorded history only in the mid-fifth century B.C. However, 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.
Megistanes Great Men
Members of the Megistanes or “nobles” were seen 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 mature 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 new kings, yet there were difficulties, such as having no son to inherit the royal office.
The Prophecies of Daniel and the Messiah
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.
Moreover, “in the fullness of time” the Magi, in their dual priestly and political office, were poised to follow the guidance of prophecy.
Starting a journey of great faith
Once the Magi witnessed the astronomical signs that had been foretold by Balaam, an ancient prophet from Mesopotamia, 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 also 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 “kingmakers,” with significant inspiration and motivation, left their comfortable circumstances in Persia and set off upon a rugged journey into the enemy territory of the Romans to seek out the one who was to become a great leader of the Jewish people.
Despite the risk and the cost, the Magi
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 of their journey could have been around 500 to 1,000 miles, depending upon the point of origin, which 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 may have taken six to eight weeks, depending upon prevailing conditions along the way.
Even though the journey of the Magi had great religious significance, 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. Their journey was through territory occupied by the Roman Empire, Parthia’s on-again, off-again enemy.
The 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 courage and faith.
Their fundamental means of navigation was limited. From the biblical account, the Magi reliance upon the “star” was a testimate to their faith. They honestly did not fully know their destination.
Amazingly enough, foreigners, not of the Jewish faith, were the ones who traveled upon a great and dangerous journey to offer incredibly valued gifts to an unknown and unproven infant “king.”
A pilgrimage of this nature 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.
To people of faith today, one can ask how far one would go. At what personal risk, or to what great financial cost would one commit to following their faith?
Happy holidays to all people of faith!