Why the Magi got a bad press

Early in the Middle Ages great confusion arose about the supposed three Magi who visited the infant Jesus in Bethlehem. First, it is important to go to the record itself in the New Testament and get the facts.

  • ·         There were not three Magi. The number is not specified. It is only stated that they brought three types of gifts, gold, frankincense and myrrh.
  • ·         The Magi came from the East. No names are mentioned.
  • ·         The event took place more than a year after the birth of Jesus as he is called a ‘toddler’ in Greek. That means he was about a year and a half old.
  • ·         No other children are mentioned which means that James, the brother of Jesus, was probably not yet born.
  • ·         The visit took place in Bethlehem. When Jesus was born, the David’s ancestral home no longer existed. Why? Because Herod the Great had destroyed all trace of the Davidic dynasty and the ‘castle’ of David there. James says in Acts 15, that the ‘Tabernacle of David had fallen down’.  Herod did not hesitate to kill off his own sons and wives if he thought they would usurp him. It is therefore certain that he would wipe out any trace of a Davidic dynasty he could find.

The NT says that at the time of the Magi’s visit Joseph had a house there. How come? Joseph was of direct royal lineage. He had the temerity and obligation to register the lands of David as his own. The registration took place as the first one under Quirinus, governor of Syria. (He made two.) This coincided with the celebration of three decades of Augustus’s reign and the 750th anniversary of the foundation of the city of Rome. (See Dr Ernest L Martin: The Star that astonished the World.). Augustus was proclaimed Pater Patriae, Father of the Fatherland. Prominent citizens were required to register their smaller fatherlands and acclaim allegiance to Caesar. Thus Joseph registered his right under Roman and Israelite laws as patriarch of the tribe of Judah. This was a very dangerous move as his life was at immediate risk by Herod. But Joseph also had protection under Roman law. Herod could not simply kill a Davidic son without Roman acquiescence. As James said, the ruins were prophesied by Amos to be rebuilt.

So why in the Middle Ages did the Magi become a source of controversy? Firstly, the Magi were not Christian or even Jewish as far as the ignorant scholars of the time could say. People asked: why did pagans come and worship the infant Jesus? Why did they come at all? How many were there? Why didn’t Herod kill them?

The answers are clear once we understand the dilemma faced by the Roman State Church founded under Constantine in the 300s CE. Constantine’s amalgam of paganism and Christianity replaced Rome’s ancient pantheon. The Roman Empire had its capital in Constantinople, today’s Istanbul.

The lasting shame of the Roman Empire is that it destroyed the kingdom of Judah, its capital Jerusalem and its Temple. The term ‘Magi’ relates to the rival super power of Rome, the Parthian Empire. It extended from the River Euphrates to India and modern Afghanistan. Parthians traded with the Far East. It was a confederation of kingdoms, not a military dictatorship.

The Head of the Parthian Empire was called Arsaces, ‘King of kings’. A single dynasty had a succession of 30 Arsakoi kings. They ruled from 255 BCE for nearly half a millennium, more than any dynasty there before or since. The kings were selected, elected and sometimes rejected by a Council of Wisemen, priestly scientists. Its name? The Magi! (See Rawlinson’s Parthia or Steven M Collins: Parthia, Forgotten Ancient Super-power.) Rawlinson says that Parthia divided ‘with Rome … the sovereignty of the earth.’

There is good reason why Europeans are so ignorant about Rome’s super-power rival. The Magi again! The paradox became an intense political problem for the Roman Empire of Constantinople. Why? Because, although the ruling Arsakoi tribes of the Parthian Empire had migrated by then, the Roman Empire was still at war with the successor Sassanian Persian Empire.

It was excruciatingly painful for the priests of the Roman ‘Mother Church’ to explain why the Magi of Persia had worshiped the infant Jesus and the Roman Empire had destroyed Jerusalem and the Temple. Parthia worshiped Jesus. Rome pillaged Jerusalem and destroyed the Jews. How could Romans justify a Christian heritage?

The Roman Mother Church therefore blamed the Jews for the death of Jesus although the crucifixion was conducted by Roman soldiers, under Roman imperial authority and with Roman nails.

As for the Magi, they became non-persons. They were reduced to just three foreigners. But in reality the Magi helped govern Parthia. They performed a similar task to the Levitical priesthood for the Israelitish kings.

Were there three Magi or more? We can say with near certainty that there were not three but many thousands! The Parthians were highly mobile and had several capitals. They traveled in massive, opulent, oriental style. The general selected by King Orodes to fight the Roman invader Crassus arrived with two hundred litters for his concubines. A thousand camels carried his personal baggage.  A body of ten thousand horsemen and slaves served his personal needs. The Magi, the resplendently rich Parthian kingmakers, would have come to Jerusalem in their thousands or not at all!

This is how Matthew’s gospel describes the scene:

Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judah in the days of Herod the king,

BEHOLD! There came wise men (Magi) from the East to Jerusalem, saying:

‘Where is he that is born King of the Jews? …  We are come to do homage to him.

When Herod heard this, he was troubled and all Jerusalem with him.

The word ‘troubled’ can better be translated ‘terrified’, ‘set in a tumult’ ‘consternated’.

Parthia had forged a peace treaty with Rome two decades earlier. This came after Roman legions had been grossly humiliated. In 55 BCE the avaricious Consul Crassus sought booty. Crassus, he of the saying 'as rich as Crassus,' was already Rome's powerful oligarch. Parthian king Orodes slaughtered his 40,000 strong legions. Presented with his severed head during a performance of the ‘Bacchae’, Orodes filled its mouth with molten gold, mocking him to drink to his fill. In 40 BCE Parthia invaded Judea and deposed the Roman-selected high priest at the Temple and installed another, Antigonus. In 37 BCE Mark Antony invaded Parthia with a massive 16 legions of 100,000 men. They were decimated. He barely escaped with his life.  In 34 Julius Caesar planned to attack Parthia. He was assassinated in Rome.   

If in the next few days you hear people talking about ‘Three wise men’, you can tell them, ‘It’s time to wise up on the Parthian Magi!’