The Magi and the Birth of “the Redeemer of the World”
By Frank Manasseri
Growing up in the Bronx in a family of Italian descent we always kept the Christmas tradition of placing the Nativity scene beneath the decorated tree on Christmas Eve. In the stable Mary and Joseph were kneeling surrounded by sheep, cows, and other farm animals. The baby Jesus and the shepherds did not appear in the stable until Christmas morning. It was not until the feast of the Epiphany on January 6th that the Magi made their entrance to worship the young child. I had questions then about the Magi and some of those questions remain many years later.
Remembering those childhood days I still have some unanswered questions about the Magi, or as tradition teach the three Kings or wise men from the East. While reading the section of scripture about the Magi in Matthew 2:1-3, I thought to myself, “why such a fuss about three men on camels showing up at Jerusalem one day?”
Questions arise such as, who were the Magi, and why did they travel such a long distance bringing gifts to a child who was born in an obscure town outside of Jerusalem? How did these men even learn of the birth of this child? Why were those specific gifts chosen, and who chose them?
After further investigation I began to learn just how much information is packed into these verses. Additional study opened up greater meaning and insights concerning this world changing event, the fulfillment of the promise of Genesis 3:15. Scripture along with historic evidence supports the view that there may have been many more who turned up at Herod’s doorstep asking about the birth of the King of the Jews than just three men on camels.
Who were the Magi
The Greek historian Herodotus writing in the fifth century BCE, identified the Magi as a caste of Medes who had a priestly function in the Persian Empire. In the Book of Daniel these Magi are shown as “astrologers” and grouped with magicians, sorcerers, and Chaldeans acting as advisers to the court of Babylon with the responsibility of interpreting dreams. The role of the new star in Matthew 2 suggests a connection with astrology. These astronomers, pursuing their observations of the stars in the heavens, encountered a celestial sign of God in the stars and planets. God broke into their system of astronomy through the prophet Daniel to make this great event known. (Matthew 2:1-21)
The Magi stem from an ancient hereditary priesthood of the Persian Empire and held a powerful influence over many rulers and kingdoms in ancient history. These priests and astronomers were respected by rulers and were highly esteemed for their ability to interpret astronomical signs and dreams. For centuries the Magi travelled to various parts of the East via caravans that were usually accompanied by an entourage of armed guards for protection. This may be the reason why Herod and the entire city of Jerusalem were stirred up when the Magi suddenly arrived outside the walls of their city. If it had only been three men on camels, why would Herod and the citizens of Jerusalem have been so troubled?
About six centuries before the birth of Christ, the prophet Daniel had been called upon by Nebuchadnezzar the King of Babylon to interpret his dream (Daniel 2). The king had previously called upon the wise men of Babylon to both reveal his dream and interpret its meaning or the king would put them to death. These Magi had tried to honor the king’s request, but they had failed and were sentenced by the King to be put to death. Daniel approached Nebuchadnezzar and asked for more time for him to pray to his God for the interpretation. The King agreed, and the execution of the wise men was postponed. God had given Daniel understanding in all visions and dreams so Daniel was able to tell the King what he had dreamed, but also interpreted the dream. This pleased Nebuchadnezzar and he rescinded the execution of Daniel and the Chaldeans.
Daniel the Master of the Magi
Daniel’s unusual career included holding the position of a principal administrator in two world empires, the Babylonian and the subsequent Persian Empire. When King Darius the Median appointed the prophet, a Jew, over the hereditary Median priesthood, the resulting repercussions led to the plots by jealous Medes to throw Daniel into the lion’s den. (Daniel Chapter 6). Once again God rescued Daniel and he was also elevated in the Persian Kingdom of Darius. One of the titles given to Daniel was Rab-mag, the Master of the Magi. (Dan 4:9 & 5:11). Daniel was in a key position to entrust to a secret sect of the Magi the Messianic prophecy whose fulfillment was signaled by an astronomical sign in the constellation of ERUA (Virgo).
In his book, “The Sign of the Messiah – How I Identified the Star of Bethlehem,” Dr. Werner Papke wrote of the connection of the Magi to the Prophet Daniel:
“. . . how, we still may ask, did the heathen Magi, followers of the teachings of Zoroaster, hear about the prophecy Isaiah pronounced to the “house of David” more than seven hundred years before? Well, today we know for sure Zoroaster, the founder of the Persian religion that is called after him, lived in Babylon from about 560 BC., at a time, when the Jews stayed in the Babylonian Captivity. The Jews obviously told Zoroaster about Isaiah’s prophecy of the birth of the Messiah from a Jewish virgin of the house of David. Even the Syrian scholar Abu’l Faragius (1226-1286) states that when Zoroaster was in Babylon he became a pupil of the prophet Daniel, who was deported to Babylon from the land of Judah by Nebuchadnezzar II in 605 BC. And in his History of Dynasties Faragius further writes that Zoroaster had predicted to the Magi a “new star” would appear in the skies and signal the birth of a wonderful boy whom they were to adore. According to the Avesta, the bible of the Zoroastrians, the redeemer of the world would be born of a virgin. When the new star appeared in the womb of the celestial Virgin (ERUA), the Magi knew the Messiah was born from a Jewish virgin, and immediately started on their long journey to Jerusalem in order to adore the new-born “King of the Jews.” (1)
During this period of around 560 BCE, Zoroaster who founded the Zoroastrian religion, was a student of Daniel.
Evidence of Future King of the World
There is further confirmation of the promise of a worldwide redeemer and king.
“Jews dwelling in Persian provinces among the Parthians, Medes, and Elamites ( Acts 2:9 ) may have so prepared the minds of the magi as to set them looking for the star of Bethlehem. But in addition to the knowledge carried by captive Israelites, the men of the East had other light. The great Chinese sage, Confucius (B. C. 551-479), foretold a coming Teacher in the West, and Zoroaster, the founder of the Persian religion. . . predicted the coming of a great, supernaturally begotten Prophet. To these Balaam had added his prophecy (Numbers 24:17). Moreover, the Septuagint translation made at Alexandria about 280 B. C. had rendered the Old Testament Scriptures into Greek, the language of commerce, and had carried the knowledge of Hebrew prophecy into all lands, and had wakened a slight but world-wide expectation of a Messiah. The Roman writers, Suetonius (70-123, A. D.) and Tacitus (75-125, A. D.) bear witness to this expectation that a great world-ruling king would come out of Judæa.”(3)
Daniel provides the Gifts
Because Daniel was a wealthy man, he may have even provided the gifts to be presented to the coming king. Six centuries and generations had passed before the sign the Magi were instructed to look for appeared in the constellation of ERUA (VIRGO). This discovery prompted their long journey to fulfill Daniels instructions.
Tradition has it that there were three Kings that arrived at Jerusalem in search of the new born king of the Jews. However, upon closer investigation these Magi were never referred to in the scriptures as Kings. The number of these men that arrived outside the walls of Jerusalem is not mentioned in scripture either, but probably came from tradition because of the numbers of gifts. Why would the appearance only three men on camels cause such a fuss among the people of the city? Most likely this traditional view is not an accurate picture of what really transpired.
Herod whose title was King of the Jews was troubled at the appearance of these Magi who asked for the location of the new born King of the Jews. Could it be he perceived their inquisition as a calculated threat against his kingship? Herod called in his wise counselors to see if they knew anything about this event. His scribes discovered from the prophecies in the Tanach (the Old Testament) that the Promised One, the Messiah, would be born in Bethlehem. (Micah 5:2) which is about five miles from Jerusalem. However, none of these learned Jews were motivated to go to see if this prophecy had been fulfilled. This is an interesting point to indicate Israel’s rejection of the Messiah.
Herod was not a Jew but an Edomite, who were traditional enemies of Israel. He had purchased the title of “King of the Jews” from the Emperor of Rome which was a custom of that period of time. During this era tensions were high between Rome and the Parthian’s, and the arrival of the Magi with their escorts may have been perceived by Herod as if these Magi were attempting to perpetrate a border incident which could bring swift reprisal from Parthian armies. Herod after learning about the prophecy of the birth of the ruler of Israel from his scribes requested the Magi keep him informed so that he could also go and worship this newborn king.
The Long Journey
The Magi had sojourned a long distance with their precious cargo of gold, frankincense and myrrh through difficult and hostile territory in order to find this king of the Jews, whom Daniel had revealed to their ancestors. Their long and perilous journey along the established trade route commenced from Babylon which is now modern Iraq to the city of Jerusalem, about 900 miles. It is a historic fact these Magi travelled caravan style with a small army to protect them from thieves or other dangers. Thus when this large group arrived outside the gates of Jerusalem inquiring about the birth of a new king, they may have been first perceived as an invading army. When the Magi and their entourage entered into Jerusalem with the pomp and ceremony customary for it is easy to see why all the citizens were concerned.
After leaving Jerusalem the Magi arrived at Bethlehem where they found the young male child whom they worshipped as the King of the Jews. These gentiles presented their gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. These very gifts may have been provided by the prophet Daniel centuries earlier from his acquired wealth as a powerful man in the Persian Empire under both Nebuchadnezzar and Darius. The gifts are possibly prophetic, speaking of our Lord’s offices of king, priest, and savior. Gold speaks of His kingship, frankincense was a spice used in priestly duties, and myrrh was an embalming ointment used in burial anticipating His sacrificial death on the cross.
Warnings by Angels and Dreams
After finding the young child and presenting their gifts, the Magi “being warned in a dream” departed to their own country. They ignored the request of Herod for them to return to tell him where this child could be found so he could worship him also. Joseph the husband of Mary, who bore the new king, was also warned by an angel to escape into Egypt. Joseph may have used some of the gold given by the Magi in order to escape to safety with Mary and the young child Jesus. Then after the Magi failed to return to Herod, he then ordered all male children two years old and under to be killed in the region surrounding Bethlehem. (Matthew 2:16-18)
The Signature of God
The signature of God is evident throughout ancient history. The scripture shows a progression of events that led the Magi to come and worship Him who is born the King of the Jews. Beginning with the constellation of ERUA (Virgo) signifying the promised seed of Genesis 3:15, to the instructions given by Daniel to the Magi, this Babylonian priesthood faithfully passed along the instructions from Daniel for hundreds of years until the promised birth of the redeemer of the world.
(1) Herodotus (1. 101, 132)
(2) Dr. Werner Papke “The Sign of the Messiah – How I Identified the Star of Bethlehem”
(3) www. Biblestudytools.com