Updated: Dec 15, 2022
"The Adoration of the Magi," 1304-1306, Fresco painted by Giotto in the Scrovegni Chapel, Padua, Italy.
“After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem and asked, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.” When King Herod heard this he was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him.”
Our nativity set has three wise men. How about yours? But if you look at the Scripture that identifies them above, there is no mention of their number. Only later in subsequent centuries of church history are these men actually given names and even elevated to the status of kings. The biblical text leaves their number and their origin shrouded with mystery. Later, the word “Magi” will be associated with court magicians, but, more than likely, at the time of Jesus’ birth, these men would have combined the study of astrology and dream interpretation with diplomacy and political wisdom. They were probably court advisors to the royalty from wherever they came.
It is also quite clear, from the timeline that Matthew presents here in this account, that these men did not arrive at the time of Jesus’ birth. Herod would have had no reason to kill Jewish boys “two years old and under” (Matthew 2:16) unless the Magi had arrived anywhere between a year to two years after the arrival of the baby Jesus. What fascinates me about what Matthew writes above is that both King Herod and all of Jerusalem were frightened or disturbed by the appearance of the Magi. We will get to Herod in a bit, but why were the residents of the city of David shaking in their boots at the sight of this entourage? Partly because it was an entourage; anyone traveling with gold, frankincense and myrrh, very precious items, would no doubt have been escorted by a heavily armed guard. Depending on who they were, the Jews in Jerusalem might have had good reason to be concerned.
What place did these men call home? I have read two different scenarios offered by equally reputable sets of scholars. One explanation is based on the gifts that these men brought to offer to the “king of the Jews.” In the first century world, Nubia was the source of most of the gold being mined in the ancient near East and northern Africa. Frankincense and myrrh were resins extracted from desert shrubs only growing in Southern Arabia. These regions were far south of where Jesus was born. So, how does one explain that Matthew records these travelers came “from the east?” At that time, and still to this day, those living west of the Jordan River, in places like Jerusalem, say that people travel from the east when they cross over the Jordan River heading west. Isaiah 60:1-6 prophesied that Gentiles would be drawn by a great light (the Messiah) carrying gifts of gold and incense for Him. These Magi would fit that bill.
On the other hand, other scholars argue that these men actually came from the east, a land known at the time as Parthia (Modern day Iran and Iraq), and had picked up the gifts along the way. The Parthians were fierce enemies of the Romans, the empire which ruled much of the western world at this time. Conflict between these two powers often arose in the land of Jesus’ birth. And that brings us back to why Herod would have been disturbed by the appearance of the Magi. In his late twenties, Herod was named provincial governor of Galilee, collecting taxes and representing the Roman government there. Herod himself was not Jewish; his father was an Edomite and his mother was Nabatean. The family had only reluctantly adopted a shallow form of Judaism. A few years after Herod became governor in Galilee, back in Rome, the rivals of Julius Caesar assassinated him on the Ides of March in 44 BCE. The Parthians saw this Roman political instability as an opportunity to stir up trouble in Palestine. They supported a Jewish revolt against Rome and against the rule of Herod there. Herod was forced to flee for his life to Rome where the Roman Senate, in response to this Parthian interference, crowned Herod the “king of the Jews.” When Herod returned to Jerusalem, he conducted a homicidal campaign against all of his political rivals for the next four years. But, as Shakespeare would later write, “uneasy lies the head that wears a crown.” Most of the Jews didn’t want Herod to be their king and made their sentiments very well known.
Imagine, then, the angst Herod felt when Parthian emissaries (if you believe alternative number two for the origins of the Magi) walked into Jerusalem looking for “the one who has been born king of the Jews.” You know, the actual “king of the Jews”—the guy who was really Jewish and who had been born king, not appointed king by the hated imperial conquerors. At this point in time, Herod was near the end of his life. The Jewish historian Josephus wrote that he was sick and paranoid, as borne out by the fact that he murdered 3 of his own sons (potential rivals to the thrown whom he feared wanted to kill him) and had his wife strangled. It is no wonder that Herod would subsequently order the “Killing of the Innocents,” a genocidal massacre that Jesus managed to escape through a dream shared by God with his step-father, Joseph. (Matthew 2:13) The actions of Herod illustrate the typical, though extreme, ethics of political power that we see employed to this very day. The events surrounding the Magi beg the question, which “king of the Jews” do we want to serve? A king who pursues a worldly strategy of political power—no matter how justified his cause or policies might be in our own eyes? Or the One who said His kingdom was not of this world at all?
In studying this passage, I learned one other fascinating aspect of the story. Of course, the Magi were traveling west, at some point, to Jerusalem, from wherever they came. Think about all of the great stories of the Bible that involve disobedience: Adam and Eve being sent eastward out of the Garden of Eden after the Fall, Cain punished for the murder of his brother Abel by exile in the land of Nod to the east, rebellious builders moving east to construct the Tower of Babel, the choice Lot made to move east toward Sodom and Gomorrah, and ultimately the idolatrous Jews being carried eastward into exile in Babylon after Jerusalem was destroyed in 586 BCE. Now the Magi are approaching Jesus in a new direction—not the eastern drift of sin and failure, but the western move toward communion with the King of kings. As one scholar has stated, “in this baby, God’s great reversal was underway.”
Why would these Gentile, eastern astrologers have been watching the stars for a Jewish king in the first place? There were still Jews living in Parthia, left there from the Babylonian exile, who might have been telling everyone they met about their belief that, some day, “a star will come out of Jacob” and “a scepter (a king) will rise out of Israel” (Numbers 24:17) Maybe the fact that they were aware of this prophecy was why the Magi identified the unusual star they saw in the night sky as “his star” in Matthew 2:2. Perhaps even Daniel, five centuries before, had taught the ancestors of these eastern astrologers about this promised Heavenly King. No matter where we find ourselves, we must always be telling others about the Lord, His Word and His plan to rescue us. You never know who might be listening!
Heavenly Father, Jews and Gentiles, wealthy wise men and poor shepherds fell before the incarnate God and worshiped. We want to do the same. Praise You that You sent Your Son to die for all men and women, regardless of ethnicity or social status, because You love us more than we can possibly imagine. Wise people still seek You—and we always want to be in that caravan. Keep us from ever placing our trust in kings, politicians, or worldly government. We want to serve the One who died for us rather than the ones who oppress others for their own power. In Jesus’ Name, Amen.