Who Were the Wise Men?
One of the most important points in understanding what the New Testament states about the Star of Bethlehem is to realize the social and political status of the Wise Men who came to Herod. The word that was used to describe them was “Magi.” This was a title and in the 1st century it signified that they were professional astrologers. This fact is so well known in scholarly circles that many modern translators of the New Testament simply render “Magi” as “astrologers” without explanation. 1 Once this primary point is realized, we are provided with reliable information that can make the account of the Magi’s visit to Herod understandable.
The simple teaching of the Gospel of Matthew states that astrologers came from the eastern part of the world to pay homage to the newborn “King of the Jews” and to present him with the customary gifts that were generally accorded to new kings. The account in the New Testament does not mean that the writer of the Gospel of Matthew was endorsing the principles of astrology because there are biblical verses condemning its religious practice which Matthew no doubt was aware of. 2 But, in mentioning their trek to Jerusalem, Matthew shows that the Magi themselves were motivated by symbolic principles which were taken seriously by people in the world at the time.
The recording of this account in Matthew makes it clear that Matthew did not view these Magi as quacks or charlatans. When the Magi came to Jerusalem with their announcement that the star of the newborn Jewish king had been seen, Herod “was troubled and all Jerusalem with him.” 3 Since the Magi were professional astronomers as well as astrologers, the mention of their visit to Jerusalem was Matthew’s way of securing the testimony of top scientific authorities to authenticate the royal birth of Jesus.
The Importance of the Magi
These Magi came from the east bearing rich gifts for the newborn king. They could not have been reckoned as certain classes of sorcerers and confidence men who roamed the Roman world under the name “Magi.” Herod and all Jerusalem would hardly have been troubled by what they considered impostors. But if the Magi had come from the court of the Parthian kings who employed Magi in the religious affairs of their government, or from the respected Magian colleges of the east, then that would have been a different matter in the view of Herod and the Jewish authorities in Jerusalem.
In order to have an audience with Herod and for him to have members of the Sanhedrin (the Supreme Court of the Jews) to hear the interpretations of these Magi must show that they were held in high esteem by the people of Jerusalem. In their deportment, it was customary for the Magi to dress in magnificent priestly attire to indicate their professional status. In presenting themselves before royalty the historical records show that the Magi did this with pomp and circumstance. 4 In traveling or on official business in areas where their influence was felt, it was normal for the priestly Magi to proceed in a processional mode with various ranks of them appropriately positioned in the caravan. This must have been the manner in which they approached the city of Jerusalem to present their gifts to the newborn king of the Jews. This would account for the respectful attitude of Herod and the Jewish authorities to them. 5
It is important to realize that this type of travel for respected Magian priests is not a fantasy story. They traveled in majestic style. The account recorded by Matthew fits well with other journeys of Magian priests when they were presented to kings or emperors. When Tiridates of the order of the Magi was made king over Armenia by the emperor Nero, the new Magian king went to Rome with the other Magi to present gifts to Nero. A great deal of ceremony was associated with this visit of the Magi. 6 This must also have been the case with the Magi who came to Herod. He would have given them a proper ceremonial protocol. This is why “all Jerusalem” knew of their coming and why members of the Sanhedrin were summoned to hear their interpretations on the “star” which they had seen. The account in Matthew harmonizes perfectly with other historical events involving Magi in the time of the early Roman Empire.
The Professional Role of the Magi
There is a considerable amount of early information about the Magi of the east. We are told by the ancient historian Herodotus that they were originally one of the six tribes of the Medes, 7 a priestly caste similar to the Levites among the Israelites. In their early history their occupation was to provide the kings of the Medes, Persians and Babylonians with what they considered to be divine information about the daily matters involving government affairs. Because of the high religious and political esteem accorded them by the peoples of the east, 8 they were able in the 6th century B.C.E. even to overturn some royal powers. 9 Their role in interpreting divine matters for kings and rulers is mentioned in the Bible. The prophet Daniel in the time of King Nebuchadnezzar became the “master of the magicians [master of the Magi], astrologers, Chaldeans, and soothsayers.” 10 The prophet Jeremiah mentioned that a chief authority among the Magi was called the Rab-Mag. 11
The prophet Daniel must have been assigned to this high office. Perhaps the fraternization of Daniel with the early Magi in Babylon helps to explain why those in the Magian profession expected a Jewish king to arrive near the end of the 1st century. This is the very thing that Daniel prophesied would happen. Recall that Daniel prophesied the rebuilding of Jerusalem after the Babylonians destroyed it in the 6th century B.C.E. He also said that 490 years would pass from a command to rebuild Jerusalem until a world-embracing messianic kingdom would emerge on the earth in the region of Palestine. 12 The prophecy had numerous unknown factors associated with it. For example, Daniel did not clearly explain which command to rebuild Jerusalem was meant. He did not say whether his year-lengths were lunar or solar. Regarding the Messiah, Daniel did not indicate if the 490 years would end with his birth, his bar mitzvah, when he would become twenty years of age and able to go to war, when he would become thirty (the year of spiritual adulthood), or whenever the Messiah would be proclaimed king which could happen at any time during his life.
Because Daniel did not detail these points, the prophecy was vague to Jews and others at the time. It was subject to a variety of interpretations. Most Jews, however, were certain enough about the prophecy to believe that it would occur sometime near the 1st century. Josephus, the Jewish historian who lived in the last part of the 1st century, mentioned a conviction among the Jews that this prophecy of Daniel would have its fulfillment within the 1st century. Josephus said that it was shown in the “sacred writings that about that time one from their country [Judaea] should become governor of the habitable earth.” 13
There can be no doubt that the Magi in Mesopotamia would have been aware of these prophetic indications among the Jews. In fact, scholars today are able to see that there was a great deal of mingling of beliefs between the Jews and the Magi at this period of time. This was because of their connections with one another since the 6th century B.C.E. 14
Even the Romans were aware of the prophecies of Daniel. Suetonius in the early 2nd century said, “A firm belief had long prevailed through the east that it was destined for the empire of the world at that time to be given to someone who should go forth from Judaea.” 15 The Roman historian Tacitus also said,
“The majority of the Jewish people were very impressed with the belief that it was contained in ancient writings of the priests that it would come to pass that at that very time, the east would renew its strength and they that should go forth from Judaea should be rulers of the world.” 16
Even the Roman Emperor Nero was advised by one or two of his court astrologers that it was prudent for him to move his seat of empire to Jerusalem because that city was then destined to become the capital of the world. 17
All of these widespread beliefs were based on the prophecies of Daniel. Since Jewish people lived in all areas of the Roman and Parthian worlds, 18 their national aspirations would have been well known. Even among the Magi themselves there were the traditional teachings of Zoroaster (who influenced Magian doctrine in the time of Herod). Zoroaster, an early religious leader and teacher in the region where the Magi had their origin, taught that at sometime in the future there would arise a king who would raise the dead and transform the world into a kingdom of peace and security. Interestingly, Zoroastrian traditions associated with the prophesied king said this king would come forth from the stock of Abraham. 19
These beliefs among the peoples of nearer Asia and in the Roman Empire are a simple fact of history. Whether people wish to believe them is another matter. The job of the historian is not to give judgments on the validity or non-validity of these early prophetic or traditional teachings of the Jews, Romans or Magi. Historians should simply state what the ancient people believed and that is what I am trying to do in this book. But one thing for certain, it is not possible to comprehend the history of the 1st century unless people today are aware of these beliefs that motivated the social, religious and political actions of those early peoples. All nations were then affected in a most profound way by astrological/prophetic teachings. This is simple historical fact and most scholars today accept this without argument.
These early prophetic convictions of the Jews, Romans and Magi were important to those who lived in the 1st century. And the use of astrological interpretations in evaluating the historical events of the time was at an all time high. So, when the Magi who were professional astrologers saw what they considered to be the “star” of a Jewish king, it was a certain sign to them to go to Jerusalem with gifts to present to that newborn king.
The Jews and the Magi
Most Jews admired the Magi of the east. This was not only because of their former association with the prophet Daniel, but also because they were not idolaters. Though the Magi believed that the power of the deity was manifested in the natural elements of fire, water, air and earth, these Gentile priests did not set up material images in recognition of him. They were, in one way of looking at it, Gentiles who were leaning toward monotheistic belief. 20
Jews in the 1st century respected the Magi. The Jewish philosopher by the name of Philo, who lived in Alexandria, Egypt during the time of Jesus, spoke of the Magi with warm praise. Philo said they were men who gave themselves to the study of the laws of nature and that they contemplated on the divine perfections. To Philo they were worthy of being counselors of kings. 21
The main occupation of the Magi was their interpretation of things they considered divine. They principally dealt with the evaluation of dreams, visions and astronomical signs. Astrological interpretation was of special importance to them. The temple of Belus in what remained of the city of Babylon was in their care. 22 In particular, they were advisors to kings and princes and they were especially consulted regarding the destinies of kings. 23 The Parthian kings of the east had them as their advisors and they were the ones who performed the ceremonies at their coronations. 24 The Roman authors Cicero and Plutarch inform us that the Magi were the ones who instructed kings and princes in the east. Except in rare circumstances, only royalty were allowed to be initiated into their secret teachings and understandings. 25
This is one reason why the Magi must have felt it proper to tell Herod the details of their interpretation concerning the “star” that they had been following. Though Herod would have had his own court astrologers, he must have paid particular attention to what the respected Magian professionals from the east had to say about a newborn Jewish king. Their interpretations were especially sought out by prominent people because of the Magian influence in the royal courts of the east. In fact, the Magi were in such high regard in Parthia that some even became kings. 26 Even the Magi who came to Jesus were also considered as being “princes” or “kings” in some early accounts. 27 But when the Magi came to Jerusalem, they arrived to do homage to the new Jewish king and to give gifts to him. In the next century, Tiridates of the order of the Magi did the same thing when he visited the emperor Nero. It is no wonder that the arrival of such Magi caused great interest to Herod and those at Jerusalem.
The Gifts of the Magi
It is interesting that the treasures brought by the Magi (gold, frankincense and myrrh) were the major gifts mentioned in the Greek translation of Isaiah 60:6 that foreign kings would one day bring to Israel’s messianic ruler. The tradition that there were only three Magi stems from the assumption that each gave one gift to Jesus. No one knows how many Magi there were who went to Jerusalem, but some traditions mention as many as twelve. 28 We have no way of knowing their exact number or how many people were in their entourage.
At any rate, these respected Magi came to Jerusalem bearing gold, frankincense and myrrh, which were the customary gifts of subject nations to their superiors. 29 The Magi, in this case, came to do obeisance to a new Jewish king. They must have realized that something more than an ordinary royal birth was awaiting them. They no doubt had in mind the prophetic beliefs among the Jews, Romans and others that a world ruler was then destined to come from the race of Abraham in the area of Palestine.
We are told in the New Testament that the main factor that brought the Magi to Jerusalem was “his star.” What star or heavenly body could this have been? Though there was an interesting conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn in 7 B.C. with Mars forming a triangular aspect with those planets in early 6 B.C.E., the planets at that time were at least two diameters of the Moon away from one another and they could not in any way be considered as a single “star.” As for the years of 5 and 4 B.C.E., there was nothing of astronomical importance that would have impressed anyone to journey to Jerusalem. But in 3 and 2 B.C.E., the whole heavens burst forth with astronomical signs and wondrous displays. It may well be, that the celestial occurrences in this latter period of time were the very ones that prompted the Magi to go to Jerusalem. Since they were astrologers, we should look in the contemporary historical records of this period for astronomical events that could be interpreted and understood within an astrological context. Let us notice what the New Testament relates on this matter.
The Magi and King Herod
In explaining to King Herod why they came to do homage to the new Jewish king, the Magi said, “We saw his star at its rising [or when it rose].” The King James Version of the New Testament suggests the Magi simply saw his star “in the east.” But this rendering does not represent what the Greek signifies. It was not merely “in the east” that the Magi observed the star. The Gospel of Matthew says they saw it “at its rising.” The New English Bible gives the proper translation, “We observed the rising of his star.”
Scholars realize that the Greek words employed by Matthew to record this event were the ordinary ones then used in Greek literature to describe the regular rising of the stars or planets. 30 The plain meaning of the words suggest that the Magi had witnessed a “star” rise above the eastern horizon when they made their normal pre-dawn observations of the heavens. Later, when the Magi got to Jerusalem, they told King Herod about the rising of that “star.” Herod and all Jerusalem were inquisitive and asked (as Vincent renders the account), “How long does the star make itself visible since its rising in the east?” 31 The language of Matthew shows it was an ordinary type of star that rose in the east like all normal stars.
The Magi Saw an Actual Star
There is no doubt that the New Testament is using normal astronomical terms to describe these events. The narrative clearly shows that the Magi observed an ordinary star (or planet) ascending above the eastern horizon which they interpreted as the sign that a Jewish king was now within his nativity period. It was one “star” that intrigued them, though it must have been in some unusual relationship or aspect with other celestial bodies. The Magi were so impressed that they made their long, difficult journey to Jerusalem with costly gifts to present to the new king. After hearing their account, King Herod and all Jerusalem were equally persuaded that the “star” was significant.
Remember, this period of time was one when astrological interpretations made by first-class professionals were looked on as valid scientific indications of impending events. So confident was the Roman government about such matters, that some sixty years before, the Roman Senate ordered that all boy babies must not be allowed to live in 63 B.C.E. when astrological and prodigious forecasts had determined a “King of the Romans” was to be born. This earlier event would have been well known to Herod and to people throughout the Roman Empire. To secure its supposed validity in the opinion of people at the time, Augustus Caesar was indeed born in that very year. Herod must have felt a great deal of uneasiness when similar prognostications were being made by the Magi about a king of the Jews who had just been born.
The World of that Time Believed Astrological Signs
Herod would have been aware of the outstanding celestial displays that had occurred from May 3 B.C.E. to August 2 B.C.E. His own court astrologers would certainly have given him their interpretations of these remarkable signs. But Herod wanted more information. Since the various nations and racial groups had different standards for astrological interpretations, Herod would have wanted to know the Magian version of what the signs were indicating. Some astrologers were reckoned as being better than others. Among the best in the world, as viewed by people in the 1st century, were the professional Chaldeans and the Magi of the east. Herod wanted to know what their interpretations were regarding the remarkable heavenly drama that had occurred in 3 and 2 B.C.E. The Magi left him in no doubt about their interpretations. They were so certain of their evaluations that they made a long journey to Jerusalem to give rich gifts to the newborn king. So important was this child to them that they even came as well to give him homage. This meant that they recognized the newborn as a personage of special significance. This is what Matthew in the New Testament related.
And indeed, like the Romans sixty years before, Herod was so convinced of the interpretations of the Magi that he killed the boy babies in and around Bethlehem to prevent this newborn “king” from being reared to adulthood. Herod was astonished by the appearance of this “star” and he was persuaded that the “Star of the Magi” was significant and important.
What was this “star” that was causing the Magi, Herod and the world to be astounded? The answer to this query can now be known, and we will understand it clearly as we continue in this book.
1 E.g. The New English Bible.
2 Isaiah 47:13; Daniel 1:20; 2:27.
3 Matthew 2:3.
4 Pliny, Natural History, XXX.6.
5 Matthew 2:3.
6 As it was with Tiridates when he and the Magi visited Nero at Rome.
7 Herodotus, I.101; Pliny, Natural History, V.29.
8 Diogenes Laertius, IX.7.2.
9 Herodotus, III.61sq.
10 Daniel 5:11.
11 Jeremiah 39:3, 13 see Hebrew.
12 Daniel 9:24–27.
13 Josephus, War VI.313.
14 Many scholars hold that the theological beliefs of the Persians and Jews were similar.
15 Suetonius, Vespasian, 4.
16 Tacitus, History, V. 13.
17 Suetonius, Nero, 40.
18 Josephus, Antiquities XI.133; War II.398; VII.43.
19 The Encyclopaedia of Religion and Ethics, art. Zoroastrianism, XII.862–868.
21 Philo, Quo. Probus Liber, 74.
22 Diodorus Siculus, II.31; Ephraem, Syrus, II.488.
23 Diogenes Laertius IX.7.2.
24 Zondervan Pictorial Encyclopedia of the Bible, IV.34.
25 Strabo, XVI.762; Cicero, De.Divin., I.41.
26 Strabo, XI.9.3.
27 Tertullian, C. Marc. 5.
28 Some have thought this number was invented to equate them with the 12 tribes of Israel.
29 Genesis 43:11; Psalm 72:15; 1 Kings 10:2, 10; 2 Chronicles 9:24; Song of Songs 3:6; 4:16.
30 Kittel, Theological Dictionary, I.352.
31 Vincent, Word Studies, I.21.
Click here to order the print version of: The Star that Astonished the World
© 1976-2017 Associates for Scriptural Knowledge - ASK is supported by freewill contributions