The Official Journal of the Ensign Trust, London

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THE ENSIGN MESSAGE

MORE ABOUT THE MAGI

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IN his book The “Lost” Ten Tribes of Israel.. Found!, Steven Collins presents an interesting though unusual view of the Magi and their place in the history of the time of our Lord Jesus Christ. The following excerpts  are  from  this book.

[The Jewish Historian] Josephus acknowledges that Jesus Christ fulfilled the many prophecies of the Hebrew prophets about the Messiah, and even refers to His resurrection as an historical fact. Josephus’  reference to Jesus as “the Christ” acknowledges that Jesus was the Messiah (“the anointed”). Since a non-Christian source so close to the actual time of Christ has confirmed these facts of His life, the musings of modern sceptics questioning Christ’s existence are without merit…

Roman secular sources also agree with Josephus. Celsus, an anti-Christian writer of the Roman Empire in the second century A.D. wrote: “It was by magic that he [Jesus} was able to do the miracles which he appeared to have done.” In this statement, an antagonist of Christianity grudgingly acknowledges the reality of  Christ’s  “miracles.

 However,  Quadratus,  writing  in approximately A.D.117-134 urged people to believe in Jesus because the effect of His miracles continued up to the present. People had been cured and raised from the dead, and some of them… have survived even to our own day.’ Tacitus, the famous Roman historian, writing about the Christians several decades after the death of Christ, stated: “their originator, Christ, had been executed in Tiberius’ reign by the governor of Judea, Pontius Pilate.

Clearly, Roman records confirm that Jesus Christ lived, and that He was executed in Judea during the administration of Pontius Pilate… Whatever one thinks about Jesus Christ, we begin with the fact that He indeed lived and died when the Bible states that He lived and died, that He performed marvellous deeds, and that He made a major impression on the civilization of His day.

Let us now review the historical setting into which Jesus Christ was born. The Roman and Parthian Empires were both powerful, well-established “superpower” rivals at that time. Rome ruled the Mediterranean region, and Parthia ruled Asian lands from modern Syria to India. Palestine was located within the Roman Empire, but was close to the Parthian border – the Euphrates River.

In the decades previous to the birth of Jesus, Rome and Parthia fought several battles with one being fought near Antioch of Syria – very close to Palestine. In about 40 B.C., the Parthians launched a major assault which swept the Romans out of Asia  for a short time. For three years, 40-37 B.C. Palestine was within the Parthian Empire and was ruled by a Jewish vassal king of the Parthians named Antigonus. At that time King Herod (the Roman king of Judea) fled from the Parthians in fear of his life. While the Parthian­ sponsored rule of Antigonus was brief it was, apparently,  popular  with  the Jews.

When the Parthians withdrew across the Euphrates, Antigonus, with Jewish support attempted to maintain himself as king of the Jews, but was defeated by Herod . Mark Anthony ordered that Antigonus be beheaded, and Josephus records that this was done to compel the Jews to re-accept the hated Herod as their king. Mark Antony then led a massive invasion of Parthia in 37-36 B.C., but his army was utterly defeated by the Parthians … Parthian rule over Palestine was vividly remembered by many in Jewish society as being preferable to Roman rule.

Mark Antony’s defeat led to a long period of detente between the two vast empires, with the Euphrates River serving as the border between them. This prolonged period of peaceful relations lasted from 36 B.C. until A.D. 58, including not only all of Jesus Christ’s life, but also the early period of the Apostolic church as well.

Rawlinson records that it was an established Roman policy not to provoke a Parthian war during that period of time, so long as both empires agreed to coexist on separate banks of the Euphrates River. Rawlinson comments on this peaceful interlude as follows: ‘It is a well-known fact that Augustus left it as a principle of policy to his successors that the Roman Empire had reached its proper limits, and could not with advantage be extended further. This principle, followed with the utmost strictness by Tiberius, was accepted as a rule by all the earlier Caesars

 Obviously, as long as the Caesars wanted peace with Parthia, Roman officials along Parthia’s border, such as King Herod and Pontius Pilate , knew they would risk their positions and lives if they entangled Rome in an unwanted war with Parthia. Without this period of Parthian-Roman detente, it  would  have been well-nigh impossible for some of the events of Jesus Christ’s life to have occurred … The first such event was the coming of the Magi, or ” Wise Men” to pay Him homage  (ref. Matthew 2:1-12).

The Magi were powerful members of one of the two assemblies which elected Parthian monarchs and wielded great influence within the empire. One assembly was composed of members of the royal family (the Arsacids ), and the other consisted of the priests (the Magi) and influential Parthians of non-royal blood (the Wise Men). The Magi and Wise Men were jointly known as the Megistanes.The Greek word translated wise menis magian,literally meaning Persian astronomer or priest.” Parthia had long governed all Persian territory at the time of Christ, and the Wise Men cited in the Bible were clearly members of the Megistanes – very high Parthian officials.

While traditional Christian accounts of this episode celebrate the coming of the three wise men, the Bible does not limit the number of visiting Magi/Wise Men to three. Indeed, Biblical events and the realities of that time argue for a much larger contingent of Parthian Magi.

Since we saw in previous chapters that the Parthians  were  descended   from  the  Ten  Tribes  of Israel and that their priests were likely descended from the tribe of Levi this delegation of Magi consisted of leading members of the [lost] Ten Tribes of Israel. Since there were numerous members of the tribe of Judah in Parthia ‘s empire, they may have been represented as well. Consequently, the delegation of Magi could easily have consisted of at least ten or twelve  men representing  the various  tribes of Israel.

The Bible shows that the Magi did not visit the young Jesus in the manger at Bethlehem, as most nativity scenes depict, but visited Jesus in a house somewhat after His birth. Matthew  2:11 states that this visit of the Magi took place in a house when Jesus was old enough to be called ‘a young child’ – no longer an infant in swaddling clothes. Luke 2:8-40 mentions the shepherds’ arrival at the manger, but makes no mention of any Magi visiting Christ at that time.

Matthew 2 :8 adds that Herod sent the Magi to Bethlehem after conferring with the Jewish hierarchy about the prophesied location of the Messiah’s birth … Herod then privately met with the Parthian delegation, and enquired when the star” which they followed had first appeared. He apparently learned that this period of time was almost two years because he killed all the male children in Bethlehem under two years of age in an attempt to kill the Messiah, whom he regarded as a competitor for his position as king of the Jews.

Since the Wise Men were prominent people in Parthia at the time of the arrival of the star “, they had to make a time-consuming journey It took time to prepare the costly gifts to present to the Messiah, set their affairs in order for a long absence, organise a caravan and likely obtain an armed escort for protection, then make the lengthy journey  to Judea, a journey which moved at the speed of the slowest pack animal in the caravan. Since the star may have appeared to the Wise Men prior to Jesus’ birth He may have been a few months or even two years old at the time of the Magi’s arrival in Judea. Consider also that Matthew 2:1 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 had heard these things, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem  with him.  

This account does not indicate that three wise men from the east quietly visited Herod, then Jesus, and then just as quietly left Judea to return to Parthia. Their arrival in Jerusalem was a very public affair because all Jerusalem was troubled by their arrival.

This suggests that the Magi came to Jerusalem in a caravan with costly treasures and escorted by a strong force of armed Parthian soldiers!… These high officials would have travelled with a large entourage of servants, animal-handlers, cooks, etc., on such a long journey… There may have been thousands of Parthian soldiers escorting the caravan. This is not an overstatement. Josephus records that treasure caravans bringing expensive offerings to Jerusalem from Jews living in Parthian territory did so with “as many as ten thousand men” as escorts. In ancient times, travelling with expensive items was dangerous. There was danger not only from brigands, but also from local satraps who might use their armies to conquer a treasure train passing through their territories …

The Wise Men were not bringing just a few samples of gold and other precious things that they carried in their personal saddle bags. They were coming to worship a King.The caravan was so big that their arrival quickly became a cause celebrein Jerusalem. The whole city was in an uproar over their arrival, and that argues for a very visible and impressive Parthian caravan arriving in Jerusalem not long after Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem. The sheer size of the caravan and its escorts  awed King Herod and the whole city to the point they were all troubled... It is clear that the Jewish hierarchy understood that the Parthians were looking for the Messiah as they quickly looked for Messianic prophecies to locate the city of His birth.

After their consultations with Herod and Jewish officials, the Parthian delegation travelled to worship Jesus and present their gifts to Him. [After this both the Magi and Joseph were warned by God in dreams to leave Judea secretly and quickly, to avoid Herod’s jealous reaction]…

History records that Roman-Parthian relations were peaceful at the time that Jesus was born, and the Bible confirms this as the Parthian Magi did not sneak into Roman territory to look for the Messiah, but rather came directly to King Herod, quite open about their reasons for being in Roman-occupied Palestine. They informed Herod they had come to worship Him that is born king of the Jews “... There is no record that Herod made any attempt to overtake or punish the Magi when they left. As Parthian nobles, they had diplomatic immunity” andHerod dared not anger Caesar by provoking the Parthians [and thus create an incident] …

The fact that some of the Parthian ruling classes were worshippers of the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob is most revealing . That God Himself sent a “starto lead them to Jesus, and gave instructions to the Magi via dreams, is further revealing. God obviously considered these Parthians to be “righteous” men under the terms of His laws or He would not have been dealing with them so personally. That educated Parthians were ready to visit and worship the Messiah at the time of Christ’s birth indicates they were also familiar with the prophecies of the Old Testament. Who but transplanted Israelites would have been looking for the Messiah at that time? …

In an earlier chapter it was shown that the Magi were loyal to one dynasty-Arsacids-whose members continuously ruled Parthia. It was shown that many rulers of Parthian (Saka) kingdoms had names incorporating  the  word  “Phares”  or  the  consonants of the Hebrew root word for that name (PH-R-S). This suggests that the Arsacids were descended from the seed of David, who was the first king of the Phares [Judah) family (Matthew 1:2-6). 1 Chronicles 3:17-24 reveals that the royal lineage continued to  flourish after Judah’s captivity. Indeed this dynasty was given high status in the Babylonian Empire (2 Kings 25:27-30 ). This post-exilic elevation of the Davidic dynasty in Asia likely led to their serving as vassal kings over captive Israelites under Babylonian and Persian masters …

With the Parthians being Israelites, and the Arsacids being descended from King David , the Arsacids were the only dynasty in Asia that was racially, historically and culturally related to the Parthian people. Since Matthew 1:3-17 tells us that Jesus Christ was also a descendant of Phares and King David, Jesus was a blood relative of the Parthian ruling dynasty which serves as a further explanation for the homage paid to Him by the Parthian Magi …

We will now examine the possibility that the visit of influential Parthians to the young Jesus Christ almost led to a Parthian-Roman war. Recall that from 40-37 BC, Parthia had ruled Palestine and Syria before the  Romans  drove  them  back  across  the Euphrates River. That war ushered in a long period of Parthian-Roman detente which included the entire lifetime of Jesus Christ. However, a great Parthian-Roman war was barely averted in A.D. 1 , when a “summit conference was held between the Parthian emperor, Phraataces , and Caius Caesar, the grandson of Augustus Caesar on an island in the Euphrates River (i.e. neutral territory). Roman sources record that:

“The armies of the two chiefs were drawn up on the opposite banks of the river, facing one another; and the chiefs themselves, accompanied by an equal number of attendants, proceeded to deliberate in the sight of both hosts.”

 This “summit conference averted war, but how could the Magi’s visit have had a role in this crisis? … Herod was justifiably fearful of Parthian intentions in the area. Hadn’t they come to anoint a replacement for him as king of the Jews “? Hadn’t they also deceived him by leaving the area without his knowledge or permission? Herod ‘s murderous act in Bethlehem would also have inflamed Jewish opinion, and rumours of revolt against the hated Romans would have intensified .. .

In 2 B.C. Rome and Parthia were facing a possible conflict in Armenia over succession to the throne of Armenia. In both Armenia and Judea, the issue was whether Rome or Parthia would choose the kings of those nations. While Parthia had not forced the crisis in Armenia , Parthia’s actions in Judea – the visit of the Magi – were provocative. Rome’s response was to send a large army to the east to prepare for a possible Parthian-Roman war.

Rawlinson records that  the  Roman  army arrived in 1 B.C., delayed by the retirement of Augustus Caesar’s preferred commander, and that the situation was further muddled by the death of Phraates IV, Parthia ‘s emperor during the visit of the Magi to Jerusalem. Herod the Great had also died by the time Roman reinforcements arrived , so all  the  major principals had a fresh viewpoint by the time Rome and Parthia had their summit conference in the Euphrates River …

Although the historical accounts mention only the Armenian dispute, it is worth noting that the Parthian and Roman armies did not  confront  each other  in the mountains of Armenia but along the Euphrates River – the invasion route to Syria and Palestine. Since the Roman army arrived in 1 B.C., and the Roman­ Parthian peace conference did not defuse the situation until A.D.1, there was a two-year period of war fever in the Middle East. Everyone in the region breathed a huge sigh of relief when war was averted…

If a war had been fought much of Jesus Christ’s ministry in Judea [and the early spread of the Gospel] could not have occurred.

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