The Magi had a rich and powerful involvement in various empires going back centuries before Jesus was born. They continued to influence the affairs of the Middle East at the time of Jesus’ birth as well. The first sources of information about them say they were a tribe of priests in Media in the 7th century B.C. Media was where modern day Iran is now. A man became a Magi by being born one, so it was a priestly caste. As the Persian Empire grew stronger, it absorbed Media and the Magi in the 6th century B.C.
Their role in the government was to advise the leaders by interpreting signs such as, the entrails of animals offered in sacrifices, dreams and the movements of stars and planets. They believed they could read all of these to gain valuable information that would help the king and other leaders make better political and military decisions. Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon, ruled the Persian Empire when it conquered Jerusalem in the 6th century B.C. (586 B.C.). The empire took the Jews into slavery. It is at this time, we begin to see the Magi introduced in the OT scriptures. The OT prophet Jeremiah wrote that after the siege: all the officials of the king of Babylon came and took seats in the Middle Gate: Nergal-Sharezer of Samgar, Nebo-Sarsekim a chief officer, Nergal-Sharezer a high official and all the other officials of the king of Babylon. (Jer. 39:3) Jeremiah notes that Nergal-Sharezer was a “high official.” The Hebrew word that is translated high official is “rabmag,” which literally means “Chief of the Magi.”
Daniel writes about the astrologers, advisers, interpreters of dreams and magicians in King Nebuchadnezzar’s court as well. All of these members of the king’s court would have been Magi. Our English Bibles tell us that after Daniel interpreted King Nebuchadnezzar’s dream Nebuchadnezzar made him “ruler over the entire province of Babylon and placed him in charge of all its wise men.” (Dan. 2:48) These wise men would have been the Magi priests and that is how we have come to call the Magi that visited Jesus the Wise Men.
In Daniel 4:9, King Nebuchadnezzar calls Daniel “chief of the magicians.” The English word magician is not really the best word because of the image we have of an illusionist who entertains. Daniel was not a magician in our sense of the word. Daniel’s ability to interpret the king’s dreams as well as the furnace incident proved that Daniel’s God was the supreme God and the king wanted to be able to tap into God’s power and wisdom through Daniel, so the king promoted Daniel to Chief of the Magi.
In order to avoid any chances of the enslaved Jews of Palestine revolting, the Persian Empire spread them around to all areas of the Persian Empire. They deported many of the educated Jews, including Daniel and his friends to Babylon to serve in the government offices there. These Jewish slaves seem to have served Persia well, for the Empire grew powerful until Alexander the Great conquered it in the 4th century B.C. Alexander and his successors spread Greek ideas and culture throughout the Middle East.
Now, a section of the former Persian Empire was Parthia and it spread over a vast area of the Middle East including today’s Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan. When the Greek Empire gave way to the Roman Empire the Romans could not conquer Parthia, and it became one of the Roman Empire’s greatest enemies. By the first century B.C. the Romans had conquered Palestine, but the Parthians invaded and temporarily seized control of it from the Romans. Herod’s father, Antipater, successfully won it back in battle only to loose it again to the Parthians in another battle. In the meantime, Herod allied himself with Rome, specifically with Caesar Augustus, who gave him the title “King of the Jews.” However, Herod himself had to flee to Alexandria, Egypt to escape the Parthians. The Parthians then restored Jewish rule to Palestine and fortified Jerusalem against further attacks from Rome. Finally, with the help of Roman troops and after a five-month siege, Herod retook Jerusalem in 37 B.C., only a little over 30 years before Jesus was born.
Now Herod, with Israel, was in the middle of two powerful enemies: the Romans and the Parthians. The Jewish people wanted their freedom from the oppressive Roman Empire, and Herod knew that they could invite the Parthians to come in, depose him and set them free. Parthia was waiting for their next opportunity to take Palestine back from the Romans. The situation was tense, to say the least. The Magi were a kind of priesthood that worked for many kings around the Middle East.
Matthew does not tell us that these Magi were from Parthia, but it makes the most sense. At this time, the Parthian king was growing old and unpopular. The powerful Magi not only advised the king, but they made kings. They could set up a king and replace him with another king when they needed to in order to preserve or enhance their own power. Whom should they set up as a new king to replace this old and unpopular king? In order to grow more powerful to take back lands lost to the Roman Empire they needed a king that would be strong and popular, or rather, that they could make strong and popular. They were actively looking for their next king. Coincidentally, the Jewish prophecies spoke of a Jewish ruler that would one day rule the world.
Apparently, enough people were aware of the Jewish prophecies that Seutonius, who was a Roman historian, wrote of this time: “Throughout the whole of the East there had spread an old and persistent belief: destiny had decreed that at that time men coming forth from Judea would seize power [and rule the world].” Jews like Daniel had brought these prophecies to the Persians centuries before. The Babylonian Persians invented the science of astrology and the Magi constantly studied the movements of the stars and planets for clues about the plans of the gods and the movement of history. They tried to use this knowledge to their and their kingdom’s advantage. One of the prophecies about the Jewish Messiah was Numbers 24:17: A star will come out of Jacob; a scepter will rise out of Israel. This means that a great ruler will arise like a star out of Israel. Apparently, God designed this prophecy to have a double meaning. The star not only represents the Messiah in a metaphorical away, but it also refers to a literal star. Perhaps the Magi of Parthia saw that star, and they knew they had their candidate for their next king. If there was going to be a powerful ruler arising in the land of the Jews they wanted in on that power.
Astronomers since Johannes Kepler in the 16th century have proposed several theories about how a literal astronomical phenomenon could have occurred and been interpreted this way by the Magi. Some have proposed a comet whose tail pointed downward to the house Joseph, Mary and Jesus were staying in Bethlehem. The most widely accepted theory was a conjunction of the planets Jupiter and Saturn and possibly Venus. This means that these planets came close enough together to be a special sign or even to appear to be one bright star. The movie The Nativity Story assumes this theory. There are other theories as well.
The problem with most of the theories is that the phenomenon might seem relevant to us but it might not have been significant to an ancient astrologer who attached different meanings to the movements of the stars in various locations in the sky. A recent theory put forth by astronomer Michael Molnar might do the best job of explaining what the Magi saw. This theory takes into account not only what they might have seen but also how they could have interpreted what they saw as a fulfillment of the prophesy in Numbers 24:17. However, in this space I cannot do Molnar’s theory justice so I invite you to read his own description at http://www.eclipse.net/~molnar/index.html.
Any worthwhile theory must fit the known movements of the planets, knowledge of history and the Magi’s own theories of astronomy with the biblical text. In Matthew 2:2, the Magi tell Herod they saw the Messiah’s star rising in the east. The Greek word for star can mean either a star or a planet. From ancient records we know that the Magi associated the planet Jupiter with a king and the constellation Aries with the area of Judea. Therefore, when Jupiter rose from the horizon up into Aries they probably interpreted that as a new king of the Jews.
In verse 9, Matthew tells us that the Magi “went on their way, and the star they had seen (rising) in the east went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was.” Some argue that this describes a supernatural phenomenon—a bright star like light that God used to lead them to Jesus. This would have allusions to God leading the Israelites through the wilderness with a pillar of fire. This is very possible. God can do anything He wants to do and do it in a miraculous way. Michael Molnar argues that these movements could describe some of the natural movements of Jupiter back and forth across the sky as viewed from our planet’s perspective.
Regardless of how it all happened, the point that Matthew wants to make is that God was behind it all. Even if we can explain the visual effects by the natural motion of Jupiter without any miraculous phenomenon we still have to admit that the Magi interpreted it as a sign from the God of the Jews. The sign told them that the king of the Jews was born. In addition, they believed this king of the Jews would be a star they wanted to hitch their wagons to.
If these Magi were from Parthia, they came to Jerusalem looking for this king that they could help make great for themselves. They and the Jews had risen in power together before, perhaps they could rise again to world domination with the aid of the Jewish Messiah.
A Commentary on Matthew 2:1-12 by Gary C. Burger, Mdiv. New Media Ministries.org