Ancient History, History

Herod and the Magi

Herod the Great

It is important to understand that Herod was not just “a king.” He had been declared the “King of the Jews” by the Roman Senate, a title which had been confirmed by Octavius Caesar when he became the First Man of Rome. Herod was an Idumean convert to Judaism who had ruled over the client kingdom of Judah since 37 BCE. During that time, he had built his kingdom into a trade powerhouse. It was deeply, deeply integrated into the Roman management of the eastern portion of their empire; and in many ways, he was the voice of Roman power at the time of Jesus’s birth.

A couple of years ago, I wrote a series of articles on Herod the Great, and I’m linking back to them if you want to read some background on Herod’s reign and its significance to Matthew’s narrative of Christ’s birth:

Herod the Great, Introduction

Herod and Rome

Herod’s Architectural Ambitions

Herod and the Jews

Herod – the End of His Life

And the Magi?

The Greek word ὁ μάγος (οἱ μάγοι, plural) was originally the name of one of the Median tribes which was integrated into Persian society. Magi first appears in the Behistun Inscription, which commemorated the coronation of Darius the Great in 522 BCE.

King Darius says: These are the men who were with me when I slew Gaumâta the Magus, who was called Smerdis; then these men helped me as my followers… (Column 5, line 68)

It is also used in the Avesta, the sacred literature of Zoroastrianism, the religion of pre-Islamic Persia.

Come hither to me, O Ye Best Ones, hither O Mazda, in your own person and visible, O Right and Good Thought, that I may be heard beyond the limits of the MAGI. (Yasna 33:7)

By the time of Herodotus, the name was associated with a group of interpreters of dreams and astrologers rather than an ethnic identity.

…The sun left his place in the heaven and was invisible, although the sky was without clouds and very clear, and the day turned into night. When Xerxes saw and took note of that, he was concerned and asked the Magi what the vision might signify. (Herodotus, The Histories, 7.37)

Herodotus uses the term as an ethnic identifier (1.101) as well as a type of religious leader (1.132), so it seems that he understood both meanings. Certainly Xenophon undersood them to be authorities in religious matters and writes about their role in determing means to appease the gods. Describing a royal process of Cyrus, he wrote:

There were led out at the head of the procession four abreast some exceptionally handsome bulls for Zeus and for the other gods as the magi directed; for the Persians think that they out much more scrupulously to be guided by those whose profession is with things divine than they are by those in other professions. (Xenophon, Cyropaedia, 8.3.11)

So, who were the magi? There’s no reason to think that Matthew was not familiar with this term deriving from Persia. As such, he identifies these men as Persians, or more specifically Parthians, as they were known at the time. Specifically, they were divines and seers, who were trained in the vocation of divining the heavenly signs.

The Subversive Message of the Magi

And here is the real rub of the presence of the magi in Jerusalem, as Matthew describes it. Persian divines come looking for “he who is born the King of the Jews.”

Herod was not born the King of the Jews. His reign had been granted to him by Rome. He was a client of the world power. These Persian magi are looking for the one born king; and his birth is connected with the astrological signs.

You can take that for what it is worth, but there can be no mistake of Matthew’s message.

Jesus is the rightful king; and Herod is the usurper.

People want to focus on the gifts of the magi, and they are certainly significant; but that is not Matthew’s focus. He focuses instead on the divine declaration of Jesus’s kingship – in the stars to the Persian magi and in the face of the ruling caste.

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