The Magi guests who came only brought trouble to Jerusalem, which later encouraged the Jewish priests to ignore the most important news in history.
“Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men from the east came to Jerusalem, 2 saying, ‘Where is he who has been born king of the Jews? For we saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.’ 3 When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him;4 and assembling all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Christ was to be born.” Matt. 2:1-4
Why was Jerusalem troubled? Why did the Jewish priests not go to find the birth of their Messiah? When the Magi (Persian wise men) appeared, the city of Jerusalem became distraught. Let’s explore a bit of the historical background to understand better why such a visit promoted trouble.
Parthian History with Jerusalem
The events near 40 B.C. triggered fear in Matthew 2 because the Parthian empire controlled all of Israel, Jordon, the majority of Syria for about three years. Josephus, the well-known ancient Jewish historian, mentioned that the Parthian (Persian) empire allied with the priestly family of the Hasmoneans. The Parthians and Antigonus, the High Priest, took over Jerusalem and chased away a potential ruler, who later was known as Herod the Great, to flee to Rome. Then in response, Antony encouraged the Roman senate to declare Herod “The King of the Jews” to gain an advantage in this struggle with Parthia. Flavius Josephus and William Whiston, The Works of Josephus: Complete and Unabridged (Peabody: Hendrickson, 1987), 564-565.
Eventually, Ptolemy, a Roman general, chased the Parthian empire out of the Judea and then Herod came to power. Herod struggled for three years after Rome declared him “King of the Jews” before re-entering Jerusalem. When Herod captured Jerusalem through Sossius, they chained Antigonus and brought him to Antony in Antioch. James C. VanderKam. From Joshua to Caiaphas, Augsburg Fortress, Kindle, 2004 location 6541
Herod, titled the “King of the Jews” by a secular senate, now faced a challenge by this foreign entourage who declared their desire to worship the baby born as the “King of the Jews.” The caravan of Persian wise men entered the city, renewing an atmosphere of timidity in interacting with the Parthian Empire.
The Magi, as Persian priests, come asking the paranoid, power-crazed King of the Jews, where is the baby born King of the Jews. Herod calls in the Jewish religious establishment, which for the past 35 years closely aligned themselves with him to maintain their influence. Their question promotes further turmoil for the city, especially for the religious establishment.
Near 37 B.C. Rome helps Herod come to power in Judea, and then he marries into the High Priest’s family to consolidate power. He married Mariamma I, Antigonus’ niece, whom he was betrothed five years earlier.Josephus, J. W. 1.17, 8  When we peruse the different high priests over the reign of Herod, we see how they aligned their fate together—giving us insights into why the chief priests became passive to the birth of Christ.
High Priest during the reign of Herod the Great (39 B.C. to 4 B.C) Josephus, Flavius, and William Whiston. The Works of Josephus: Complete and Unabridged. Peabody: Hendrickson, 1987. James C. VanderKam. From Joshua to Caiaphas, Augsburg Fortress, Kindle, 2004
Antigonus ( 40 – 37 B.C.) Proclaimed King and High Priests by the Parthian rulers, then later executed by Herod. A concern of Herod during this period was that if Antigonus had a chance to appeal to the Roman senate concerning his Jewish lineage, then this event could expose Herod’s lack of heritage, so Herod, with the help of Mark Anthony, eliminated him.
Ananel (37-35 B.C. then later reappointed 35-30?) – Herod brought him from Babylon (Parthian empire) to avoid appointing a known Hasmonean-connected family priest. Josephus labels this priest as “undistinguished,” so he had no influence or connection in Judea. Ananel was appointed and removed by Herod.
Aristobulus III (35 B.C.) This High Priest was the last of the Hasmonean priests. Appointed by Herod at the urging of Herod’s wife (Mariamme I), the high priest’s sister, then according to Josephus, Herod instructed the Gauls to kill him when he traveled to Jericho.
Jesus son of Phabes [Phiabi] (30? To near 23 B.C.) Appointed and removed by Herod.
Simon son of Boethus (near 23 B.C. to 5 B.C. ) His appointment took place when Herod married Simon’s daughter, Mariamme II. Near to 5 B.C. Along with Herod’s wife, Simon was privy to an assassination plot, so Herod removed him and divorced Mariamme II.
Matthias Son of Theophilus (5-4 B.C.) Appointed by Herod but accused of encouraging his disciples to tear down an eagle that Herod erected as a votive offering. His time as High Priest was relatively short.
Joazar Son of Boethus (4 B.C. to 6 A.D.) – Appointed by Herod before the king’s death.
Yet the gospel of Matthew records events that take place near 5-4 B.C. Simon, the High Priest, was most likely just removed along with his daughter, Herod’s wife. Then Herod appointed Matthias only to release him quickly. So, in light of this, when Herod called in the chief priests and scribes, these recent powerplays and upheaval created quite a sense of discouragement for the Jewish religious groups. Those near to these events would be hesitant to defy Herod or even move to discover the birth event in Bethlehem. Their concern for their positions persuaded them to ignore the most significant birth in Jewish history.
The Parthian threat and the religious turmoil were not the only concerns for the city, but political chaos also fumed. Herod’s eldest son, Antipater II, the rightful heir to his rule, participated in a political plot of disloyalty near to this time. Just two years before (7 B.C.) Herod put his sons Alexander and Aristobulus to death for treason. However, Antipater II as the heir apparent had more clout. Hence, his case needed a thorough Roman investigation, so Herod’s son sat in prison in the vicinity of Jerusalem awaiting the verdict.
The question of rightful king dominated the political scene, and Herod imprisoned the expected heir out of paranoia. When the Magi show up asking where the “King of the Jews” was born, a heightened natural fear arose.
Here, the political King of the Jews who just placed his son into prison is confronted by the Magi with another potential fully Jewish rival. For these reasons, the city of Jerusalem anxiously fears further paranoid actions of Herod the Great.
Warren Wiersbe said, “The Magi were seeking the King; Herod was opposing the King; and the Jewish priests were ignoring the King.”  Warren W. Wiersbe, The Bible Exposition Commentary, vol. 1 (Wheaton, IL: Victor Books, 1996), 14. Along with the Jewish priests, the whole city had ominous reasons for concern.
|↑1||Flavius Josephus and William Whiston, The Works of Josephus: Complete and Unabridged (Peabody: Hendrickson, 1987), 564-565.|
|↑2||James C. VanderKam. From Joshua to Caiaphas, Augsburg Fortress, Kindle, 2004 location 6541|
|↑3||Josephus, J. W. 1.17, 8 |
|↑4||Josephus, Flavius, and William Whiston. The Works of Josephus: Complete and Unabridged. Peabody: Hendrickson, 1987.|
|↑5||James C. VanderKam. From Joshua to Caiaphas, Augsburg Fortress, Kindle, 2004|
|↑6||Warren W. Wiersbe, The Bible Exposition Commentary, vol. 1 (Wheaton, IL: Victor Books, 1996), 14.|