Matthew 2:1-3, ‘Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, Magi from the east arrived in Jerusalem, saying, “Where is He who has been born King of the Jews? For we saw His star in the east and have come to worship Him.” When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled and all Jerusalem with him. Gathering together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. They said to him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for this is what has been written by the prophet: ‘And you, Bethlehem, land of Judah, are by no means least among the leaders of Judah; for out of you shall come forth a ruler who will shepherd My people Israel.’”’
This is a very well-known passage of Scripture that describes a specific group of men who came to visit Jesus when He was born. Who were they? We have to go back to the prophet Daniel for historical context.
The Southern Kingdom of Judah had been subjugated by the Babylonians, the brightest young Jewish men were taken captive to Babylon and put into the service of king Nebuchadnezzar, among whom were Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael and Azariah. They were actually given Babylonian names and Daniel was called Belteshazzar, Hananiah was called Shadrach, Mishael was called Meshach and Azariah was called Abednego.
They were to be given the best of everything from food, clothing and resources so they would be able to assist the king in anything he needed. They opted for a simple kosher diet, but they were excellent students and they excelled in every branch of wisdom, which included such things as skill in war, wisdom in administration, shrewdness, prudence in religious affairs and ethics, the understanding of knowledge and discernment. They had to become fluent in both the language of the Chaldeans and all Chaldean historical literature. The Bible says that God actually gave them knowledge and intelligence and that Daniel in particular was given special insight regarding visions and dreams. This is detailed throughout the book of Daniel because the things God revealed to Daniel became the ‘Book of Daniel.’
These young Jews did so well in their training, that they were ten times better than the Chaldean ‘magicians and conjurers’ that were native to Babylon. This distinction tells us what the focus was of Daniel and his Jewish compatriots and the ‘Magi’ of Babylon…the Jewish boys were trained in things that were actually important and necessary for assisting the king in his governance, while the original Magi were basically magicians and tricksters.
It’s this setting that causes Nebuchadnezzar to test his ‘wise men’ by demanding that they not only interpret a troubling dream he’d had, but that they tell him what his dream was about. They didn’t have the goods and it almost cost them all their lives because he realised they were all fakes. However, Daniel, who never claimed to have supernatural powers informed his trainer that God did have the power to reveal dreams, and when Daniel was able to tell the king that God had revealed to Daniel not only the king’s dream but it’s interpretation, the wise men were all spared a very painful death. This event catapulted Daniel into the most senior leadership position of the wise men, he became the chief prefect over the whole province of Babylon, and he remained among their number right through to the rule of Cyrus of Persia. When Daniel took that position, he promptly appointed Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego to Babylon’s administration. (Dan 1&2)
Persian influence over the Magi included elements of Zoroastrianism as well, it had to because Babylon was conquered by the Medes and the Persians, and the Magi would have had to include Persian and Median history, culture and system of law into its structure and knowledge base.
Over time, the other ‘wise men’ under Daniel became increasingly jealous of him and tried to have Daniel killed, even his friends Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego once by Nebuchadnezzar and the fiery furnace debacle. By the time of the rule of Darius, they targeted Daniel again and he ended up being tossed into a pit of hungry lions when they’d succeeded in tricking the king into signing a ridiculous law that they knew Daniel would be forced to disobey. The end result of these efforts was the extermination of all the wise men who were not friendly toward Daniel. So if all the old guard of wise men were gone, who replaced them? The Bible doesn’t tell us, but since Daniel was the leader of the Magi and he’d already appointed his fellow Jews to leadership roles in the empire, it’s a logical ‘assumption’ that he went on to appoint other Jews to positions within the wise men, the Magi. The Bible doesn’t say this, so it’s just an assumption.
The Magi already had a reputation for having supernatural abilities, hence their reputation as being magicians and conjurers. That wasn’t what Daniel and the others were trained in. They were trained in literature, history, administration which required a thorough understanding of national laws which had to include commerce and trade. They were trained in discernment, rules concerning war and a thorough understanding of the religious beliefs and traditions of the people. Daniel never compromised his own faith, but he had to understand the religious beliefs and culture of the people he was responsible for governing.
It was this knowledge and information that Daniel had to impart to those within the Magi. If…IF…they were his fellow Jews, Daniel would have also taught them the Jewish faith along with the absolute truth about the coming of their Messiah, about which Daniel had received many detailed prophecies. Daniel received a prophecy that stated that from the issuing of a decree to rebuild Jerusalem that a certain passage of time would pass and then the Messiah would be cut off, or killed. (Dan 9:24-26) This meant that when that decree was made – whenever it might be – they would in fact be able to count a particular length of time and that would let them know that the Messiah would arrive and then be killed. So the time frame was specific and would have a set and identifiable start date. They just had to wait for the decree.
Daniel – if the scenario is correct – would have trained his wise men about these prophecies along with all the other necessary disciplines for wise men, the Magi, to assist their king. Each successive generation of Jews within the Magi educated the next generation so they would be watching for the arrival of their Messiah. If they weren’t Jews, then why would the Magi have any interest in a supposedly royal, Jewish infant?
Church tradition – which had worked incredibly hard to sever any Jewish connection to the Christian faith – built a façade around the Magi; who they were and where they came from. By the third century the church claimed them to be kings and by the sixth century they named them Bithisarea, Melichior and Gathaspa. Some tried to attach them to Shem, Ham and Japheth, the sons of Noah and therefore claiming they came from Asia, Africa and Europe. By the fourteenth century, the Armenian’s taught that they were Balthasar, a king from Saudi Arabia, Melchior, a king from Persia and Gaspar, a king from India.
Regardless of what their names might have been, what would possibly cause three kings from either Asia, Africa, Europe, Saudi Arabia, Persia and India, to get together and travel to the land of Judah – a war torn region under the rule of the brutal Romans – to worship a tiny Jewish baby they had no connection or history with, just to drop expensive gifts next to His cradle and then sneak back home and never have any interaction or connection with Him again? It doesn’t make any sense. How and why would they connect to each other…they didn’t have internet!
However, if the Magi were in fact Jewish, men who’d been trained generation to generation, dating all the way back to their own prophet Daniel, with information about when the Messiah was to arrive, then it makes a whole lot more sense.
My first hypothetical question is…is it possible that the Magi were Jews, trained originally by Daniel the prophet, who were waiting for the arrival of their Messiah?
Next time, we’ll look at the astronomical element of the story of Christmas.
Some information is taken from https://www.khouse.org/articles/2003/497/