The gift of the Magi: The Wise Men and their journey of great risk

The Magi, foreigners, not of the Jewish faith, risked their lives on a great and dangerous journey to offer gifts to an unknown and unproven infant “king.”    Photo: Brooklyn Museum - Public Domain - James Tissot

SAN JOSE, December 24, 2013 — Over two thousand years ago, a very special birth occurred, and despite a king’s determination to kill the child, the infant grew into a man who became one of the most influential people in all of human history.

His life made so much of a powerful and positive impact upon people from all over the world that he transformed human history.

But, before the journey of Jesus began, and before he left his birthplace, non-Jewish people from foreign lands journeyed to the place of his birth and offered him unique gifts. It started the tradition of gift-giving that is continued to this day.

The story of the three “Wise Men” inspired millions of people throughout the world and throughout time.

Their story is more than fiction or fable.

According to the Gospel of Matthew in the Aramaic and other translations these Wise Men were actually named as Magi and came “from the East to Jerusalem. And they were saying, ‘Where is the King of the Jews who has been born? For we have seen his star in the East, and we have come to worship him…”

By that time, these men had travelled quite a great distance through enemy territory simply to honor this child of their prophecy who in their minds was one to become king of the Jewish people.

A key point is missed as people who read this passage are not informed of much else other than their visit to King Herod. Yet, much mystery and myth surrounds these foreign visitors from distant lands.

The story of these Magi and how they came to pay their respect to the baby Jesus has been briefly told in bits and pieces, in many lands, over the many centuries. Even Marco Polo wrote of the Persian Magi in 1298 in “The Travels; The Description of the world.” However, to consider that their story may not be fictional, one needs to use history and worthy sources to uncover fact from fable, and come to a more intelligent appraisal of their existence.

Specifically, an examination into Persian history indicates the likelihood that the Magi were from ancient Persia. Amazingly, a little known fact in the Western world is that the Magi were a priestly class of nobles who served as members of the Parthian government during the time Jesus was born.

The Parthian Empire was initiated by Arsaces I, who invaded Parthia in 238 BC, forged a new kingdom, and ultimately established the Arsacid Dynasty. The kingdom and dynasty evolved into an empire in ancient Persia from 247 BC to 224 AD that proved to be a primary rival of the Roman Empire.

Most historians seem to agree that Ctesiphon, situated on the left bank of the Tigris River and twelve or thirteen miles to the south of present-day Baghdad, was the major city of the Empire, and the primary seat of the government. Unfortunately, when digging so deeply into history, scholars are confronted with gaps of understanding due to incomplete or missing records.

Despite limited information, or access to reliable sources, an understanding of the Parthian Court and its customs can be pieced together. Perhaps such an understanding of this time may surprise those in the Western world that the Parthian Empire was not a Muslim government that was dominated by Muslim clerics.

This was long before such time when the official religion of Persia was Zoroastrianism. Although this forgotten religion is ancient, Zoroastrianism only shows up in recorded history in the mid-5th century BC. But, over the centuries, the majority of people in this region had become followers of Zoroaster, the famous Middle Eastern prophet and teacher.

During this time, the Magi emerged as a priestly class who adhered to the basic doctrines of Zoroastrianism, and eventually developed considerable influence at the courts of the Persian kings or emperors. By the 1st century AD, the Magi served in the hereditary priesthood, but more importantly, as members of one of two councils that advised the king, and this political structure could be remotely comparable to the British Parliament with the House of Lords and the House of Commons which limited the reign of the monarch.

Members of the Megistanes, or “Nobles” were also looked upon as “The Great Men” who were the privileged class wielding considerable power in ancient Persia.  

The two councils were essentially comprised of the Megistanes, whose rights and positions of power in the councils were conferred by birth or office, not by the king. One of the councils consisted of the full-grown males of the Royal House. The other council was a type of Senate made up of both the spiritual and the political chiefs of the nation: the “Sophi,” (Wise Men)  and the “Magi,” (Priests). These two assemblies advised, appointed or elected (restricted to members of the dynasty of the Arsacidae), yet checked the monarch. Practically, the right of inheritance may have been the normal practice of appointing the new kings, yet there were difficulties, such as no son as an heir to the royal office.

It was the Magi, the devoutly religious followers of Zoroaster, who were aware of the prophecies of Daniel concerning the coming of the Messiah because Zoroasterians had been students of the biblical prophet Daniel. The same Daniel of the Old Testament had once served as the Rab-mag, the Chief Administrator of the Magi under Darius the Great, who had elevated the Magi above the state religion of Persia after some Magi, who had been attached to his court, proved to be experts in interpreting dreams.

Daniel apparently entrusted his Messianic vision to a secret sect of the Magi for its eventual fulfillment. And, “in the fullness of time” the Magi, in their dual priestly and political office, were poised to follow the guidance of prophesy.

Once the Magi witnessed the astronomical signs that had been foretold by an ancient prophet from Mesopatamia named Balaam, the Magi set off on their journey of faith.

Balaam had once foretold the coming of a star that would precede the arrival of a great leader of the Jewish people. This is known from the book of Numbers in the Old Testament and was obviously of great interest to the Magi. Most notably, this band of noble “king makers,” with significant inspiration and motivation, left their comfortable circumstances in Persia, and set off upon a rugged journey, across enemy territory,  to seek out the one who was to become a great leader of the Jewish people.

Despite the cost or sacrifice, they sought this precious child of prophecy.

wikimedia

What can be easily overlooked in the tale of the Wise Men is that the journey of the Magi would not have occurred without considerable difficulty and great risk. The distance of such a trip could have been around 500 to 1,000 miles depending upon the point of origin which still remains a mystery. Some accounts indicate that the journey could have started in Ur in what would be in the southern part of present-day Iraq. Others speculate it could have started at the ancient Institute of Astrology at Sippar near Babylonia (also in present-day Iraq).

Such a trek through the deserts and rugged terrain of the Middle East could have taken approximately six to eight weeks depending upon prevailing conditions along the way.

Even more importantly, the journey of the Magi not only embodied great religious significance, but it also contained great potential political peril. The Magi may have made their pilgrimage at the risk of their lives. They were foreigners and possibly members of the Parthian government, and would have hd to travel through the territory occupied by the Roman Empire, Parthia’s on- again, off-again major enemy.

Such a journey could have initiated a serious international confrontation if encountered by the Roman military on the way. Even so, the party comprising the Magi (likely more than three individuals on camels) boldly entered Jerusalem and sought out King Herod, specifically seeking knowledge regarding the recently born King of the Jews.

Despite the distance, and regardless of the impending danger, it would have been a formidable journey. Such a journey would have required great courage and conviction of faith. Also, their fundamental means of navigation was limited (no GPS in those days), and from the biblical account, the Magi depended upon the “star” they were faithfully following since they honestly did not fully know their destination. Amazingly enough, foreigners, not of the Jewish faith, were the ones who travelled upon a great and dangerous journey to offer incredibly valued gifts to an unknown and unproven infant “king.”

Such a pilgrimage, by people of such faith contains lessons for people of all faiths, especially in carrying out such a mission at the risk of their lives.    

Happy holidays to all People of Faith


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Dennis Jamison
Dennis Jamison
Dennis Jamison reinvented his life after working for a multi-billion dollar division of Johnson & Johnson for several years. Now semi-retired, he is an adjunct faculty member  at West Valley College in California.  He also currently writes a column on history and one on American freedom for the Communities at the Washington Times.

 

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