“Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men [Magi] 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.” Matt. 2:1-2
In these few but essential words, the Magi declare without fear to a paranoid, power-crazed king that the baby born is the king of the Jews. Who were these seekers of Jesus, and why did they come?
The story presents these wise men, often called the Magi, who came from the East when they observed a miraculous star. Their coming demonstrates specific knowledge concerning the expectant Messiah. Their words declared the birth of a Jewish king even as Gentiles. Their appearance presented tension for the city of Jerusalem since their desire to worship Jesus countered Herod’s paranoid mentality of control. Their words informed King Herod that this baby was and is the king, not inferring that this king would become a king. Their testimony displays a bold statement in the middle of Jerusalem’s fear.
The Star guides the Magi to Jerusalem, where the story includes a last-minute gathering of the Jewish priests in front of King Herod. The Magi confronted the political king who reigned from 37 B.C. to 4 B.C. with their words. His reign gives the scope of the period and makes us aware that the Gregorian calendar did not know the exact date of the birth of Jesus. Herod’s title, “King of the Jews,” which the Roman Senate declared near 40 B.C., granted him a right to rule this area, considering his heritage from his Idumean father and Arab mother. However, his background alone could never truly make him the king of the Jews.
Who were the Magi?
Notice by inspiration Matthew calls them the Magi (Magos). This Persian word refers to a class of wise men, often referring to a privy council of men to political rulers (Dan. 2:48). Historically, these men classify as Zoroastrian priests who looked at religious signs and divination to determine a course of action. They worked with the Persian kings to help guide them. Outside of Persia, the sense of this word leans toward magicians or astrologers dominating the meaning (i.e., Simon the Magos, Acts 8:9-24).
Despite not labeling them Gentiles, the gospel record intrigues the reader to notice them as the first non-Jewish seekers of the Lord Jesus without prejudice. The book of Matthew often offers a more compassionate contextual reference for Gentiles like the Centurion (Matt. 8:8) and the Canaanite woman (Matt. 15:22) rather than labeling them only a Gentile.
The Magi were literate, especially in Zoroastrian ideas and astrology. The Persians then called their Zoroastrian religion priests Magi, but later the title Mobed. This religion is a polytheistic, semi-monotheistic religious group influenced by Judaism, especially since they standardized their dogma much later than Judaism (some say 6 B.C. and others between the 3rd – 7th century A. D.). Either way, their oral means of transpiring their truth could not influence a literal and defined system like Judaism which depended on a much older textual foundation and tradition.
In English, we see the Latin plural of Magi. Think of Alumnus and Alumni or Cactus or Cacti where the plural sense has the “i” at the end. In church history, they were not just three but a dozen or more individuals who came to worship. Since they traveled with meaningful gifts and were wise men of some importance, they had an entourage of people traveling with them. So, the threeness of the wise men refers to their gifts rather than the number in the group.
This passage displays elements of a good story:
- The Setting: The scene starts when the Magi caravan enters Jerusalem since maybe a cloud covering hid the star, or they assumed a king should be born in the Jewish capital. Then they head to Bethlehem, the place of the real king and where genuine seekers bow to Jesus. Later with their inquiry, they head 6 miles south to Bethlehem and avoid returning to Jerusalem by God’s intervention.
- The Plot: Who will worship Jesus? Will the “chosen people” worship the Lord? Will the political leader label “King of the Jews” attempt to respect and honor the birth of the king of the Jews? These tensions draw the reader into the internal struggle of the time.
- The Conflict: Herod pretends to be interested in the Magi, while the Jewish priests affirm knowledge about the coming birth without seeking to apply the Scriptures. The Magi seek to find Jesus, while others ignore and eventually oppose him. Then in response to the potential opposition, the Magi avoid Herod and Jerusalem.
- The Resolution: The Magi worship the baby Jesus honoring him and giving gifts. Then God guides them away by a dream, which would be a typical authoritative sign for guidance for these wise men.
Who was Herod?
The New Testament references six individuals called Herod, but Herod the Great is the father or grandfather of all the others. His oppressive rule was known for eliminating potential relatives to his power, gathering high taxes, and placing many into forced labor.
His paranoid abuse of power eliminated brothers, sons, and wives from their positions of influence. Indeed, with the appearance of the Magi and their declaration, he felt threatened. He centered his survival on holding his position of power more than saving his soul.
The Parthian Empire
The coming of the Magi may have awakened the difficulties Herod faced when he initially came to power. The background of this period presents two great empires: the Roman empire, which most of us are familiar with, and the Parthian empire.
The Parthians controlled northwest of Jerusalem (ancient Assyrian) and the East (ancient Medo-Persian empire). Before Herod came to power, about 40 B.C., the Parthians conquered Judea, specifically Jerusalem, in the political struggle of the time. The Parthians appointed Antigonus II, the ruler and high priest of Jerusalem, with the backing of the Pharisees of the city.
When they conquered the city, Herod was only the area’s military governor, so he fled to Masada. He eventually escaped from the Parthians to Rome for fear of his life. He petitioned the help of Mark Anthony, who influenced the Roman Senate to declare this Herod the “King of the Jews.”
The Fear of the High Priests
With the help of Rome and Mark Anthony, Herod overtook Judea and Jerusalem (36 B.C.). In charge of Jerusalem, he beheaded the high priest Antigonus II and appointed numerous high priests during his time. During his reign, King Herod rebuilt the temple to gain approval from the religious establishment, which he managed to manipulate for his own favor.
By the time of Jesus’ birth, most likely, the 5th and 6th appointed high priests stood before him. So, when the Magi entered his court to find the one born as the king of the Jews, all of Jerusalem was worried and fearful. Why were they scared? First, the Magi from the Parthian empire represented the foes he confronted when he first started to rule Jerusalem over 35 years before. Then the Parthian empire aligned with the political former high priest power called the Hasmonaean dynasty. According to Josephus, the deported Hasmonaean high priest at the time (Hyrcanus) desired the people to welcome his return. Yet, the political struggle prevented this.Flavius Josephus and William Whiston, The Works of Josephus: Complete and Unabridged (Peabody: Hendrickson, 1987), 387. Now, the former power play potentially offered a renewed tension.
With the Magi’s arrival, the city feared a return to political maneuvering, especially by their question, “Where is he born king of the Jews?” At the time, sitting in a nearby prison was the son of Herod, who, despite his inheritance as a rightful heir, only faced his father’s accusation of disloyalty. Then out of nowhere, a group of foreigners comes to see where the future king of the Jews was born. The whole issue of control and power centered on who rightfully was the king in Jerusalem. Hence, the Magi’s question instilled great fear and tension in the religious establishment and the people.
This political background made the Jewish priests passive to the miraculous news of the birth of their Messiah. Also, according to history, near this time, Herod the Great divorced another wife, Marianne II, the High Priest’s daughter (Simon Boethus). Herod accused her of betraying him, thereby eliminating her father’s position as High Priest. For centuries, the Greek and Roman leaders appointed the role of High Priests. Herod’s rule produced a string of appointments and deposing within the priesthood because he doubted their loyalty. So which priest will stand up to answer the Magi’s question? None dare risk a loss of position, imprisonment, or even death by answering to offend Herod the Great.
Matt. 2:4 states that he gathered the High Priests. Notice the plural since he recently deposed one High Priest and appointed a new one. According to the text in Matthew 2, the group had more than one High Priest gathered to answer the king’s question concerning the location of the birth of the Messiah. Thus, the passage states that he was “assembling all the chief priests and scribes.” (Matt. 2:4), describing a group of high priests.
Interpreting Micah 5:2
The priests’ and scribes’ answer demonstrates some interesting points concerning their situation. The interpretation of Micah 5:2, even before Jesus came, was Messianic. Even before the birth of Jesus, Bethlehem had the Jewish tag for the location of the Messiah’s birth. Matthew quotes the colloquial rendition of the passage since this question became common among Jewish disciples. However, the lack of mention of the eternality of the Messiah at the end stands out, “But you, O Bethlehem Ephrathah, who are too little to be among the clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to be ruler in Israel, whose coming forth is from of old, from ancient days.” (Micah 5:2, ESV). Was this downplayed by the Jewish rabbis, or did they not want to heighten the tension by quoting the superior position of the coming Messiah over a political ruler like Herod the Great? Yet their response does refer to how a ruler needs to shepherd his people, something lacking during his reign.
Beyond the political maneuvering, the Magi worshiped Jesus, yet Herod the Great did not. The Magi recognized the significance of this birth, and the Jewish priests and interpreters did not attempt any form of recognition of this most significant event.
Next, we will look at their worship and the situation’s irony.
|↑1||Flavius Josephus and William Whiston, The Works of Josephus: Complete and Unabridged (Peabody: Hendrickson, 1987), 387.|