When I was in elementary school, I was one of the “three kings” in my church’s Christmas musical. I had one line and it had something to do with giving baby Jesus a gift. Growing up, I just assumed that the wise men who visited Bethlehem were simply three men who rode camels from an eastern land. Little did I know that these men were much more than three wandering wise men. When we realize who these men really were and what they represented, it helps make sense of other parts of the Christmas story. As I researched the history of the Magi, I found 10 facts which are fascinating. I understand that using the word “fact” might be a stretch for some of these, but the logical deductions based upon the evidence seem to point towards the validity of these statements.
FACT 1: The Magi traveled from the Parthian Empire. The Parthian Empire was a vast ancient empire, which ruled in Asia at the same time that the Roman Empire ruled over the Mediterranean region. It is believed that when Israel was exiled into this region centuries before, they settled there and eventually rose to power and actually had kings with Israelite blood who ruled over this empire.
FACT 2: The Magi were powerful members of the Parthian two-house body that elected Parthian monarchs and had great influence within the empire. The assembly was composed of a royal family (the Arsacids) and the priests (the “Magi”). The Greek word translated “wise men” is “magian” literally meaning “Persian astronomer or priest” from which we derive the word “Magi”. According to this theory, the Magi were descended from the tribe of Levi. When the Magi visited Jesus, there might have been 10-12 main leaders, all representing the tribes of Israel, instead of the traditional number of three.
FACT 3: The Magi were looking for a new king for Parthia, and Jesus was a descendant of the throne. Since Matthew 1:3-17 tells us that Jesus Christ was a descendant of King David, Jesus was a distant relative of the Parthian ruling dynasty. At the time of the birth of Jesus, the recent Parthian emperor, Phraates IV (reigned 37-2 B.C.), had killed many male relatives, including his own father and almost thirty brothers. Male descendants at the time of Jesus’ birth were in very short supply. The Magi who arrived in Jerusalem knew that Jesus was “royal-born,” and it implies that they knew He was related to Parthia’s kings.
FACT 4: Herod (and all of Jerusalem) was disturbed because he wondered if the Magi came to besiege Jerusalem and start a Roman-Parthian war. The Parthian caravan probably had so many armed escorts that many feared it was an invasion force coming to besiege Jerusalem and start a new Roman-Parthian war. Israel was in a strategic location and whichever nation controlled Israel would control the surrounding area. These two empires had fought over this area in the recent past, and Herod feared with a new born king in his midst, it would give the common people motivation to rebel against the Roman government and join forces with Parthia.
The Magi’s caravan might have had over 10,000 men and 1,000 camels. Since the Magi were high officials of the Parthian government, they would routinely travel with a substantial escort of Parthian soldiers to guarantee their protection. Their escort may have been unusually large, including servants, animals, cooks, etc.
FACT #5: Herod controlled his response to the Magi, proving the power of the Parthians. The Magi came directly to King Herod, quite open about their reasons for being in Roman-occupied Palestine. “He that is born king of the Jews” (Matthew 2:2). Herod could have flown into a rage, and yelled “How dare you ask to see another king of the Jews beside me; I am king of the Jews!” The fact that Herod swallowed his pride, and meekly answered the Magi is noteworthy. Herod may even have suspected that the Magi’s question was designed to provoke an incident, which would lead to an outbreak of hostilities and his removal from the throne. Herod may have been expecting to hear an ultimatum for the surrender of Jerusalem to Parthia when the Magi were ushered into his presence.
The fact that the Magi spoke directly to Herod, who was Rome’s “king of the Jews,” about wanting to find a “new king of the Jews” could be seen by the Romans as very close to a declaration of war, given the region’s history.
FACT #6: The Magi visited Jesus several months after his birth. Matthew 2:11 states that this visit of the Magi took place in a house when Jesus was old enough to be called “a young child.” Matthew 2:8 adds that Herod sent the Magi “to Bethlehem” after conferring with the Jewish hierarchy about the prophesied location of the Messiah’s birth.
FACT #7: The gifts from the Magi might have made Jesus’ family wealthy. It takes financial resources to travel. When God warned Joseph to flee to Egypt quickly, he had the financial resources on hand to afford a rapidly arranged, indefinite stay in a foreign nation. Either Joseph was not a poor carpenter, or these funds came from the gifts of the Magi at Jesus’ birth. Jesus’ financial resources were confirmed by the fact that He and His large band of disciples traveled for years without any visible means of support (John 12:3-6; 13:29). Could it be that these initial gifts given to Jesus at his birth supported Him throughout His entire ministry?
FACT #8: Herod vented his pent-up rage by murdering all boys (under 2) in Bethlehem. After the Magi left, Herod became “furious” (Matthew 2:16) and vented his pent-up rage by murdering all male children in Bethlehem under age two. Official reports surely had to be filed with Augustus Caesar in Rome about this highly unusual event. It appears that Herod was trying to squelch any kind of potential for a new king to arise in his land.
FACT #9: The star the Magi followed was most likely an angel. No comet or celestial phenomenon could pinpoint a single city. The Bible sometimes uses the word “star” to represent angels (Job 38:7; Revelation 1:20). Only an angel, a spirit being, could literally “stand over” the baby Jesus to designate one specific child to the Parthian nobles.
The star seemed to only be visible to the Magi. If a unique celestial object had appeared in the sky, Herod and his astrologers would already have known the exact date and hour on which it had appeared. Also, the star appeared and disappeared. After leading the Magi to Judea, the star disappeared, forcing them to ask Herod for directions. After the Magi left Herod, the star again appeared to them, and led them directly to Bethlehem (Luke 2:9) and finally stood over one specific child. Matthew 2:10 states the Magi rejoiced that the star had again appeared to show them where to go!
It should not seem odd for us to believe that this star was an angel because God used an angel during several events surrounding the birth of Jesus (i.e. Zechariah, Mary, Joseph, shepherds). Since God used angels to direct the movements of people in the events surrounding Christ’s birth, it would have been completely consistent for God to also send an angel to guide the Magi’s movements.
FACT #10: The Magi might have monitored the events of Jesus’ life. It is possible that the Magi discussed the possibility that this child Jesus, born under such unusual circumstances, might one day take the throne of the Parthian Empire. This delegation of Parthian Magi likely would have stayed in contact with Jesus in future years and monitored the events of His life.
Maybe you were like me and believed that the Magi were “3 Kings” who visited Jesus when He was a little baby lying in a manger. Hopefully, this new information impacts your view of the Magi, the Empire of Parthia, and ultimately the grand plan of God that is so much greater than what we can sometimes imagine. It is my hope that this can help you realize that the history of this planet is really “HIS-story.”