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  • Christopher Crossan

How the Magi Found their King

Updated: Jan 5, 2020

Who were the Magi?

The Greek historian Herodotus lived in the fifth century BCE, and said that at that time there were six tribes among the Medes, with the Magians being the Zoroastrian priestly tribe.[1] The Medes, in turn, were known to have descended from Madai, the grandson of Noah.[2] The cities of Amida (Diyarbakir), Turkey, and Amedi, Iraq, are likely named after their forefather Madai. Today’s Kurds and Yazidis living in Northern Syria, Southeast Turkey and Northern Iraq are the presumed descendants of the Medes of that time. They speak a dialect of Kurdish called Kurmanji, which can be translated as the sons of the Magi.

The walls of Amida (today's Diyarbakir, Turkey) are still standing after 1,700 years.

What was their worldview?

The Magian priests were followers of Zoroaster, who had lived in Persia around 1300 BCE and who had written the Gathas, a collection of prayers to Ahura Mazda, the Great Wise God. In these prayers Zoroaster expressed three longings - to know how God’s holy fire could purge the wicked and yet protect the righteous, to know which man would become the judge of all mankind, and to know how we could gain immortality.

Zoroaster (holding the sphere of stars), in Raphael's The School of Athens, 1511

For hundreds of years the Magians had no definitive answer to these questions until they met the Jewish prophet Daniel in October, 539 BCE, after the Persian king Cyrus’ army conquered Babylon. Of the 12 chapters Daniel had written down of his prophecies, six chapters were in Aramaic, a language which the Magians would have understood. Those six chapters comprise a collection of six events which revealed God to the Gentile world.

Gustave Dore's The Fiery Furnace

The story of Daniel’s three friends (The Book of Daniel, chapter 3) who were thrown into a furnace of fire because they would not bow down to Nebuchadnezzar’s statue provided the answer to Zoroaster’s question concerning God’s sacred fire. They were protected because one like the son of God was standing in the fire with them.

Rembrandt van Rijn's Belshazzar's Feast, 1638

The story of Belshazzar’s feast answered Zoroaster’s question about the judge of all mankind. While Belshazzar was drinking from the sacred vessels of Jehovah, the God of Israel (in chapter 5), and ridiculing him while praising his own gods of gold and silver, wood and stone, a man’s hand appeared out of nowhere, writing a cryptic message on the wall. Daniel interpreted the message for the king, indicating that the judge of all mankind had weighed him in the balance, and found him wanting. That night Belshazzar was killed, and Darius the Mede took over the kingdom.

The third story that answered Zoroaster’s question about immortality was a vision that Daniel described in Daniel chapter 7. He saw “the Ancient of Days” (the Most High God) sitting on his throne, and a man was escorted into his presence and given all the kingdoms of the world. This man’s kingdom was to last forever, and whoever submitted himself to that man as one of his ‘holy ones’ was given the opportunity to reign with this king forever in a state of immortality.

How did they hear about the coming king of kings?

Besides the satisfaction of having their Zoroastrian faith enlightened by learning about the central character of all human history who could deliver from the power of fire, judge all mankind, and reign as king forever, they were probably most intrigued by the first story that Daniel recorded in Aramaic, namely the dream of Nebuchadnezzar (Daniel chapter 2). In this dream, Nebuchadnezzar saw a huge statue of a man which represented four consecutive kingdoms on earth, beginning with his own, the Babylonian empire. It was clear to the Magians that history unfolded exactly as Daniel had predicted. The Babylonia empire gave way to the Medo-Persian in 539 BCE, then Alexander the Great conquered the Medo-Persians in 331 BCE, and by 44 BCE, Julius Caesar had conquered all the nations around the Mediterranean.

At this point in the dream, Daniel said that a supernatural rock would fall from heaven and smash the great human statue, causing it to become powder and finally be taken away by the wind. In its place, the rock would grow into a mountain. The Magians were told that this rock represented the final king, whose kingdom would never end.

During the five hundred years following Cyrus’ invasion of Babylon, these Magi priests were able to check off history as it unfolded, until they came to the Roman empire. When Julius Caesar died they began looking for some sign that the final king was born.

What was the star like that they saw in the East?

The fact that the star appeared to them in the East (near the foothills of the Zagros mountians), and appeared again as they approached Bethlehem, indicates that the star was perhaps a comet. The Cambridge scholar Colin Nicholl writes the following:

“Could there be a clearer example of God’s mastery over the cosmos than the celestial events that marked the birth of Jesus? The comet’s size, shape, and chemical composition were all tailor made for this occasion. And it should be remembered that all of this was orchestrated to put on a dramatic celestial show tailored particularly for one small group of people [the Magian tribe], even when they were on the move. It accompanied and encouraged them as they traveled." [3]

Comet Lovejoy in 2011, courtesy of NASA

If it was a comet, the Magi would have recognized its similarity to the rock that fell from heaven.

Why did they travel so far and bring gifts to the child?

In the Middle East, whenever a king was about to conquer a city or country, the people in that vicinity had one of two choices: to immediately submit themselves to the king by bowing down, kissing his feet, and bringing him a costly tribute, or to defy him of his prize and risk the subsequent torture and death.

James Tissot's Journey of the Magi, 1894

As the Magi observed over five centuries that the political events took place just as Daniel described, they approached the fifth and final kingdom with fear and trembling. This king - unlike Nebuchadnezzar, Cyrus, Alexander or Caesar – would take over the world and reign forever. There was no choice but to gather their finest possessions of gold, incense, and myrrh and make their way to Jerusalem, where they could ask where they might find the child.

When they finally saw Jesus as a baby or toddler, the historian Matthew says that they bowed down before him and kissed his feet, offering their expensive gifts so that years later, Mary would tell her son that the Magian tribe of the Medes came as the first Gentile nation to align themselves with the king of kings.

How were they rewarded for their faith?

About 33 years later, when the newly formed church gathered on the Day of Pentecost in Jerusalem, the historian Luke tells us that “Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia” were there to hear Peter’s message and join in the early church community. Jesus apparently wanted the Magian tribe to have representatives in Jerusalem at that time, so that they could carry the message of his death and resurrection back to their home country. They let the people know how they could receive God’s free offer of forgiveness, and embrace his promise that they would reign with him forever.

[1] They were called the “Busai, Paretakenians, Struchates, Arizantians, Budians and the Magians”. Herodotus, and G. C. Macaulay. The History of Herodotus. McLean, VA:, 2002. Print. Book 1, Ch. 101.

[2] Now this is the history of the generations of the sons of Noah and of Shem, Ham, and Japheth. Sons were born to them after the flood. The sons of Japheth were: Gomer, Magog, Madai, Javan, Tubal, Meshech, and Tiras. (Genesis 10:1-2)

[3] Colin R. Nicholl. The Great Christ Comet: Revealing the True Star of Bethlehem. Crossway, 2015, p 292.

The first painting is Max Karl Tilke's Kurdish and Yazidi Men, 1920, National Museum of Georgia

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