In past articles, I have expounded the proposition that the lost tribes of Israel were lost spiritually, not geographically. There is a much better authority than me; I refer to the historian Josephus. He had this to say, “There are but two tribes in Asia and Europe subject to the Romans, while the ten tribes are beyond Euphrates till now, and are an immense multitude, and not to be estimated by numbers.” So, Josephus defined the Euphrates River as their western border. This nation/empire was known as Parthia. The history of Parthia has been ignored by historians until the nineteenth century when George Rawlinson, a British historian put a focus on this great power, in fact, a counter balance to the Roman power. Although Parthia had its beginnings much earlier, it was considered to be a super power from 64 B.C, to 225 A.D. (Perhaps, this omission from the history books was a part of God’s blindness in part, inflicted on the children of Israel.)
I do not intend to give an accounting of Parthian history, but it should be established that the Israelites living in Parthia were taken there under the Assyrians, whose territory was conquered by Alexander the Great. The Scythians who had combined resources with the Babylonians defeated the Assyrians only to be conquered later by Alexander, whose death led to the formation of the Seleucid empire. In subsequent battles, the Parthians achieved independence from the Greeks and ruled the old Persian empire. It is noteworthy that while Rome was gradually defeating Carthage, an Israelite settlement on the Mediterranean, Parthia was rising to the status of a superpower. The Parthians defeated the invading Crasus, a member of the triumvirate ruling Rome, and then retaliated by attacking Roman territory in 40 B.C. As a result, the Parthians ruled Syria, Palestine and Asia minor until 37 B.C., when the Romans regained control, establishing the Euphrates River as the boundary between the Parthian and Roman empires.
Having set our scene for the Magi, we consider whom they were. The Magi were a powerful body of Levites representing the priesthood of Israel. They had their own cities and fields for produce just as they had in the homeland, the holy land. Furthermore, they governed their own cities according to the law of Moses. Because of this circumstance, they were acquainted with the law of Moses and no doubt the prophecies concerning the birth of the Messiah, the King of Israel. In the book of 2nd Esdras 13: 41 & 42, while speaking of the escape of the ten tribes, really twelve, he states, “But they took this counsel among themselves, that they would leave the multitude of the heathen, and go forth into a further country, where never mankind dwelt, that they might there keep their statutes, which they never kept in their own land.” So, we can conclude that the Magi were Levites or priests who knew the law and the prophets and were ready to meet the Messiah. (I say, “really twelve,” because the two tribes under the Romans were the remnant that returned from Babylonian captivity but the Judahites and Benjaminites that were deported by Sennacerib to Assyria did not return to the holy land.)
Now in this context, we know that the Magi were of the nobility of Parthia, probably Levites of high standing and perhaps princes of the tribes. They were also traveling a long distance with treasure. It is obvious that they would have travelled with a large contingent of support staff, servants, and a military escort for protection. Matthew 2: 1 – 3 states, “Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the King, behold, there came wise men from the east to Jerusalem. Saying, where is he that is born King of the Jews? for we have seen his star in the east and are come to worship him. When Herod the king heard these things, he was troubled and all Jerusalem with him.” Perhaps the large visiting contingent concerned him because the Parthian invasion in 37 B.C. caused him to flee until he was reinstated by Rome in 40 B.C when the Romans regained control. Perhaps they were concerned that it might be a forerunner of another invasion.
The child in the manger was presented to the temple on the eighth day for circumcision and consecration, to God. We know Mary and Joseph were aware of the law and practiced it; after all, Mary was told by the angel Gabriel that she was favoured by God. From the temple, they returned to a house in Bethlehem where the Magi were led after consulting with Herod and his priests, who were asked about the place of birth of the Messiah. It is reasonable to conclude that Jesus was about two years of age when the Parthians made their visit. When they did not return to Jerusalem, Herod ordered all the male children of Bethlehem of two years and under to be murdered to remove any threat to his throne. It is also interesting that he asked the Parthians when they saw the star. It would seem that their answer, not given in the Bible, caused him to decide his murderous policy of two years and under.
If it were really a star, one would think all the astronomers would have seen it and studied such an unusual event. It is suggested that the star was really an angel who disappeared while the Magi were visiting Herod, but reappeared when they resumed their pilgrimage. Matthew 2: 8-10, “And he (Herod) sent them to Bethlehem, and said, Go and search diligently for the young child; and when ye have found him, bring me word again, that I may come and worship him also. When they had heard the king, they departed; and lo, the star which they saw in the east, went before them until it came and stood over where the young child was. When they saw the star, they rejoiced with exceeding great joy.” It is noteworthy that Herod did not pursue the returning Parthians; Rome was operating under an edict from Caesar NOT to engage the Parthians. (Mark Anthony was another Roman general defeated by the Parthian army.)
The gifts brought by the Magi were fit for a king. “Where is he born King of the Jews; we have come to worship him.” We are told that the gifts were gold, frankincense and myrrh. We have been taught by the church that Jesus was raised by a lowly carpenter and his wife, definitely a member of the lower class. But he had been given a treasure fit for a king. We are told that, at the age of twelve, he was challenging the priests in the temple and they were astounded at his knowledge. Where did he acquire this knowledge? It would seem that his gold paid for the best education available at that time. When he returned from his travels abroad, He had little or no money (having consumed or donated it) when He was baptized and began His ministry. On His education and treasure, we can only speculate but these are my thoughts.
So why is the story of the Magi important? Well, again it puts us in touch with “lost” Israel and because they were Israel, we can understand why they looked for the Messiah. Understanding the politics of the day provides more understanding of the concerns of, “Herod and all Jerusalem with him.” But it is an important witness that Christ is the King and Messiah, the Redeemer of Israel. Like the Magi, let us all adore and worship Him.