How did they know? Who ARE the Magi?
Another issue relates to spreading the news of Jesus' birth. In an era without mass communication, what is the best way to announce the event? For obvious reasons, neither Joseph nor Mary would be considered credible witnesses. So the news is first brought to shepherds tending their flocks.
But these are not ordinary shepherds. According to Alfred Edersheim, these men tended a special flock of sheep at -"Migdal Eder, the watch tower of the flock. For here was the station where shepherds watched the flocks destined for sacrifices in the Temple...It seems of deepest significance, almost like the fulfillment of type, that those shepherds who first heard tidings of the Savior's birth, who listened to angels' praises, were watching flocks destined to be offered as sacrifice in the Temple...
"We can understand the wonderful impression made on those in the courts of the Temple, as, while they selected their sacrifices, the shepherds told the devout of the speedy fulfillment of all these types in what they had themselves seen...Thus the shepherds would be the most effectual heralds of the Messiah in the Temple, and both Simeon and Anna be prepared for the time when the infant Savior would be presented in the sanctuary" (Sketches of Jewish Social Life, pgs. 80-81).
Along with the shepherds, another group of men bring the news of Jesus' birth, but in this instance to the courts of Judea. These men, known as the Magi, are high-level dignitaries from another land.
The term Magi is found only in Matthew in the New Testament, yet the first biblical mention of Magi is in Jeremiah 39:3:"And all the princes of the king of Babylon came in and sat in the middle gate, Nergal-sharezer […other names of princes are listed here] Rab-Mag, with all the residue.."
Rab-Mag actually refers to chief Magi, with the word Mag meaning priest in the old Persian language.
By the time of Jesus, there were many kinds of Magi, including pagan priests, physicians, learned men, and sorcerers. But there were obviously some God-fearing Magi as well. Daniel 2:48:"Then the king made Daniel a great man, and gave him many gifts, and made him ruler of the whole province of Babylon, and chief of the governors over all the wise men [ Hebrew/Aramaic = Magi] of Babylon. "
Who were the Magi in Matthew? Where were they from? Matthew 2:1 tells us they came "from the east." Arabia? No, the Bible usually refers to this area as Arabia or the South. India? Sir William Jones in Asiatic Researches, Vol.10, pages 27-28, recounts that the"king of India, uneasy at the prophecy of a world ruler, and hearing a report about the Magi to the west, sent emissaries in 1 AD to find out whether the predicted royal child had actually appeared."
If the Magi were Indian, they would have already reported back to him.
Babylon? Possibly. Daniel lived in Babylon and was a Magi there. Furthermore, there were still a great many Jews in that city.
Parthia? Probably. We can't say for sure, but the Magi may have come from the Parthian empire, which was second only to Rome in power and ruled parts of Persia and Babylon. It was the only empire Rome couldn't conquer and referring to things Parthian became a byword. A Parthian shot, even today, means the ultimate put down. The Parthian light cavalry shot from moving horses and devastated Roman foot soldiers in battle.
During the time of Herod, the king of Parthia invaded Judah, set free the captive high priest of Judaism and gave him a habitation in Babylon. In Acts 2, we find that devout worshippers from throughout the Parthian empire were in attendance for the day of Pentecost. These included Medes, Persians, Elamites, Phrygians, Mesopotamians, and Cappadocians.
The king's council in Parthia consisted of two groups: his relatives and the Magi. The Parthian senate was called the Megisthanes, which includes the word Magi. In 66 A.D., secular historians record that the king of Armenia arrived in Rome with the sons of three Parthian rulers to pay homage to Nero. The Roman historian Pliny referred to them as Magi.
In early Christian art, the Magi are depicted in Parthian dress (belted tunics, full sleeves, Phrygian cap, and trousers). Eastern traditions say that twelve Magi went to Judea to worship the Messiah. One of them was said to be Gaspar or Gathaspar, a name which can be traced to Gundophar, a prince ascending the Parthian throne around 19 A.D. An interesting story is told of the Basilica of Bethlehem, originally built by Constantine. When the Persian armies swept through the Holy Land, they spared this church because it had a mosaic representing the magi as Persians. An excellent discussion about the Magi can be found in The Birth of The Messiah, by Raymond Brown.
Were the the Magi following the star prophesied in Numbers 24:17 by none other than Balaam, a prophet of Midian?" I shall see him, but not now: I shall behold him, but not nigh: there shall come a Star out of Jacob, and a Sceptre shall rise out of Israel, and shall smite the corners of Moab, and destroy all the children of Sheth. "
Could it be that the people of Midian preserved this prophecy from the time of Joshua until the coming of Jesus? We know that Moses' father-in-law Jethro was a priest of Midian, which later was absorbed into the Medo-Persian empire. Lamentably, there are no direct historical links, but it is an interesting speculation.
The Magi go to Herod first. Apparently they believe that as ruler of Judea he might have known where the Messiah is located. But like the king of India, Herod is troubled by the news and consults with the chief priests and scribes, some of whom were probably members of the Sanhedrin.
Matthew 2:4-5:"And when he had gathered all the chief priests and scribes of the people together, he demanded of them where Christ should be born. And they said unto him, In Bethlehem of Judea, for thus it is written by the prophet. "
This group publicly and officially proclaims that the child would be born in Bethlehem; by inference they recognize "Jesus is the king of Israel."
Herod knew the Messiah was there or he would not have ordered the slaughter of all male children two years and under. The last thing he wanted was another legitimate descendant of David—and there were thousands at the time - laying claim to his throne.
Yet 30 years later, the ruling class of Judea acted as if they had never heard anything about a Messiah being born in Bethlehem. Perhaps they thought the holy Child had been massacred. Just like Herod, they did everything in their power to try to stop Jesus and to keep their own position.
It's a pity that people do not understand the great drama involved in Jesus' birth. It was not the accidental birth of a child from a noble Roman family that ushered in world peace. It was the foreordained birth of a man from another noble family -- that of David -- but belonging to a despised and downtrodden race.
The professing Christian world has conditioned our minds to think of His birth as being connected to snow and ice and sleigh bells. It has trivialized Jesus' appearance as a human being, portraying him as a helpless baby, with only animals and humble people in attendance to Him. It has accepted an erroneous date completely foreign to Jesus' Jewish roots.
Let's keep our minds on our Savior during these upcoming weeks of token respect to Him. His birth was not a time for celebration as we understand it today. It was a momentous political event that electrified the people of Judea and rulers of other nations because it signified the BEGINNING of the END of man's dominion over this earth. Let us never forget that Jesus was born to be King of Kings and Lord of Lords, and that one day every knee will bow to Him. This is the real story of the nativity.