Note: This post coincides with the idea of Epiphany, though it wasn’t my focus when I wrote the post. If you’d like to know more about Epiphany, check out this article: What is Epiphany / Three Kings’ Day and should Christians celebrate it?
Who were the wise men?
To understand the significance of the wise men’s role in the Christmas story, let’s go back to the time of Daniel. The Medes and the Persians conquered Babylon in 539BC. The Persians were the dominant power, and the Medes were eventually integrated.
The Magi (wise men) were the hereditary priesthood of the Medes (knows as the Kurds today) and known for profound and extraordinary religious knowledge. They proved to be experts in interpreting dreams, which is why Darius made them the supreme priestly caste over the Persian Empire.
How did the wise men know about the Messiah?
Daniel eventually received the title of Rab-mag, or Chief of the Magi, because of his superior ability to interpret dreams other Magi could not. This led to his stay in the lion’s den (Daniel 1:18-20, Daniel 9:24-27, & Daniel 12).
As a result of this interaction, the Magi knew Daniel’s prophecy about the Messiah. Daniel’s survival in the lion’s den as well as his part in saving the Magi’s lives significantly impacted them too. They probably also knew about the Messiah through Balaam, one of their ancestors (Numbers 24:17).
The Jews and the Persians (including the Magi) eventually fell under Seleucid control. The Seleucids eventually fell to the Parthians. The Magi continued as the dominating ruling party through the Seleucid and Parthian Empire and also through Sasanian rule (224-651BC).
Why was Herod afraid of the wise men?
The Magi traveled 800-900 miles & originated from what is modern-day Iran. They arrived in Jerusalem probably with a large entourage. They were the wealthy, ruling class of the Parthians, after all. As a result, they would have traveled protected and in relative ease.
Their arrival frightened the whole city, not just Herod the Great. The people of Jerusalem likely thought the Parthians came to besiege them again. Herod’s and the people’s fears were justified since there many people (including Herod) were in Jerusalem when the Parthians invaded Roman Judea a few decades before. They basically kicked out the Romans for several years.
Though they took back Judea, the Roman Empire never completely defeated the Parthians. The two groups went back and forth between war and diplomacy from 53AD-217BC. In addition, the Parthians had a sophisticated culture of commerce, significant wealth, and some of their cities stood as the largest in the world.
The Romans and Herod feared the arrival of the Magi for more than just their bringing emphasis to this child called “king of the Jews”
“After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east cam to Jerusalem and asked, ‘Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.’ When King Herod heard this he was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him.” (Matthew 2:1-3)
Why should we care about the wise men?
The Magi grew in knowledge about the Messiah. Their interest began just before the silent years between the testaments and endured from one generation to the next. And they weren’t even Jewish.
We also can’t overlook the fact that the Magi looked for Jesus’ arrival for hundreds of years. They expected it and knew the signs when they saw them.
The Magi set an example of what seeking Christ truly means still for us today.
“When they saw the star, they were overjoyed. On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, they returned to their country by another route.”(Matthew 2:1-12)