The Mysterious Magi

By Dwight Longenecker Published on December 16, 2023

Some years ago, I was commissioned to write an article about the wise men who traveled to Bethlehem to pay homage to the Christ child.

The first pass at researching the origins of these mysterious visitors from the East suggested that they were from Persia. This would make sense because St. Matthew calls them “magi” and the word refers to an ancient caste of priestly shamans and stargazers from Mesopotamia — present day Iran/Iraq and known in antiquity as Persia, Parthia, Babylon or Assyria.

With a bit more research, one discovers that the ancient caste of shamans evolved into important religious-political leaders. By the time of the prophet Daniel in Babylon (600 years before Christ) the magi were influential in the court of the King. In fact, the Bible tells us that the dream reader Daniel was considered to be ranked highest among the magi. (Daniel 2:48)

Zoroaster 

From ancient Iran a new religious leader named Zoroaster arose. Scholars disagree about the date of Zoroaster’s life and the theories vary enormously. However, while it is impossible to date Zoroaster’s life, it is possible to trace the rise of Zoroastrianism. The religion of Zoroaster enters recorded history around the same time as Daniel in Babylon — the 6th century BC.

Zoroastrianism is noted among the religions of the ancient world as being monotheistic. The Zoroastrians also looked forward to the coming of a messiah figure. It seems logical, therefore, when looking for the magi, to home in on the Zoroastrian priests of Persia as the mysterious visitors to Bethlehem. However, as in most mystery stories, the first and seemingly obvious solution is rarely the correct one.

Biblical Prophecies About the Messiah

My search for the magi began with the Biblical prophecies. In Isaiah 60 the prophet says the Messiah will be worshipped by people from “Midian, Ephah, Sheba and Kedar.” I wondered where these locations were in the time of Jesus’ birth centuries later. I discovered that they were all in the region of Western Arabia. During the time of Christ’s birth, this region was dominated by the powerful and wealthy Nabatean kingdom with its capital in the famous city of Petra.

Where Were the Magi From?

St. Matthew says the wise men came from “The East.” As I continued my research, I discovered that in the Old Testament the people of “the East” were almost always the tribes of Western Arabia — due east of Judea. The peoples of Mesopotamia were referred to as from “The North” as one had to travel first north, then east to get there from Jerusalem.

Furthermore, one of the earliest Christian writers — Justin Martyr — asserted repeatedly that the magi came from Arabia. Not only was Justin Martyr writing just 100 years after Jesus’ birth, but he was also writing from Samaria in the Holy Land — close to the action.

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But what about the intriguing and convincing clue involving the Zoroastrians from Persia? Further research showed that as the centuries rolled on, the Babylonian magi declined in their influence. They were persecuted and dispersed as the Greeks conquered their land in the fourth century BC. As they fled, they took their wisdom and their Zoroastrian religion with them. By the time of Christ’s birth, the term “magi” which Matthew used was a general term for any kind of wise man who was a courtier.

We know that one of the places the refugees from Babylon settled was in the cities of Arabia. They were therefore perfectly placed to assume influential positions in the rise of the Nabatean kingdom. The religion of the Nabateans was a blend of the traditional faith of the nomadic Abrahamic tribes of Western Arabia, the religion of the Hebrews who had fled from the destruction of Jerusalem in the 6th century BC, and the culture and religion of the Babylonian refugees from the Greek conquest of their lands 200 years later. During these years the Nabatean culture emerged from the melting pot of Babylonian, Hebrew and Arabian influences.

The Nabatean Religion

What was the Nabatean religion like? The monotheism and expectation of a messiah figure that marked Zoroastrianism made for an easy blend with the religion of the Jewish refugees from Jerusalem. They too believed in one God and looked for a Messiah. An important part of the religion of the Western Arabian tribes was astrology. As the Zoroastrian priests found refuge in Western Arabia their own astrological knowledge would have been welcome.

An important archeological discovery was made in Jordan in the 1930s. At the site of a Nabatean temple American archeologist Nelson Glueck uncovered a stone carved zodiac from the time just after Jesus’ birth. Furthermore, archeo-astronomers have discovered that the Nabatean temples were built in alignment with important astral markers and events. The Nabatean magi were astrologers. Living in the kingdom due East of Jerusalem, they were the likely candidates in our search for the wise men of Bethlehem.

Political and Religous

I think the Magi were sophisticated diplomats from the court of King Aretas IV of Nabatea to the court of his neighbor — Herod the Great. Were the magi on a specifically religious quest to “worship the newborn King of the Jews”? If so, why did they go first to the court of Herod in Jerusalem? The word St. Matthew uses for “worship” is best translated as “giving homage.” Remembering that in the ancient world the kings were considered to be divine, their homage was both political and religious.

So what’s the answer? Were the wise men Zoroastrians from Persia or Nabatean diplomats? They were both. I believe they were Zoroastrian-influenced magi on a mission from the Nabatean king both to pay homage to a child they thought was an heir to King Herod, but also on a quest for the King of the Jews who was the messiah their Zoroastrian based religion taught them to expect.

 

Fr. Dwight Longenecker is the author of The Mystery of the Magi.  Available at Amazon and at dwightlongenecker.com

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