History of the Magi
In order to understand the timing of the birth of Christ, we need some political understanding of the empires as well as the geopolitical landscape of that time. The world’s first dictator, Nimrod, built the city of Babylon. The Babylonian Empire rose to power about 606 B.C. The city of Babylon became an empire under the leadership of Nabopolassar’s son, a very bright general in his own right, Nebuchadnezzar. Nebuchadnezzar established the Babylonian empire which was eventually absorbed by the Persian Empire when Cyrus the Persian conquered it in 539 B.C. When Cyrus conquered the Babylonians, he was so impressed by the letter Daniel showed him that he encouraged the Jews to return to their land and rebuild their Temple. This return to the land is recorded in the Book of Ezra. The Persian Empire lasted from 539 B.C. to 332 B.C.
Within the Persian Empire there was a group called the Magi.
The word Magi is a Latinized form of Magoi, an ancient Greek transliteration of the original Persian word. Much of our information about the Magi comes from Herodotus, often called The Father of History. As one studies the Magi in Herodotus, their key skill was not astrology, it was dream interpretation (oneiromancy).
Note how similar the Magi were, originally, to the Jewish forms
— Monotheistic concept of one beneficent creator
— Creator is all-good
— Creator is opposed by all that is evil (malevolent evil spirit)
— Hereditary priesthood:
Jews had Levites;
Persians had Magi (therefore, Rab-mag)
— One mediator between God and man
— Made atonement by blood sacrifice
— Same essential concept of clean and unclean
— Depended on divination (wisdom) from the priesthood:
Levites had Urim and Thummim;
Magi had Barsoms (small bundles of divining rods.)
In the Medo-Persian world, Darius the Great (522 B.C. – 486 B.C.) recognized that the Magi were very, very skilled at dream interpretation. As such, they were attached to the court and they eventually became the king-makers. They are given an interesting title in Jeremiah 39:3,13—Rab-mag (the untranslated title of Nergalsharezer, who was the chief of the Magi in Nebuchadnezzar’s court).
The Magi were a hereditary priesthood among the Medes. Darius, the King of the Medes, put Daniel (a former Jewish captive) in charge of this hereditary priesthood and bestowed on him the title of Governor (one of three appointed in Daniel 6:2) because Daniel had gained favor with him. One can only imagine how that was received by the “hereditary priesthood.” This event, as well as Daniel’s refusal to stop praying to his God is probably what led to the plot against Daniel that resulted in the lion’s den incident in Daniel 6: 7-28.
As one continues through the history of Persia, one discovers there is a real synergism between Persia and Israel. In fact, in the great Archaemenid days (the first Persian Empire), some of the Persian kings were apparently of Jewish blood.
So, since the days of Daniel, the fortunes of Persia and the Jewish nation are intertwined. They both had their turn falling under the Seleucid Empire in the wake of Alexander’s conquests. The Seleucid Empire was a remnant of the Greek Empire. Also, they both were able to get free: the Jews under the Maccabean leadership, and the Persians as the dominating group within the Parthian Empire.
The major rival of Rome to the east was the Parthian Empire. The Parthians had a Council of the Magistanes (which could be the origin of the term magistrate). The upper house of that council was composed of men who also held the top governmental offices in the empire. This dual capacity of priest and counselor (magistrate) is where the civil, political, and religious roles became connected in the Persian environment. They became the supreme priestly caste of the Persian Empire—the Magi. Their duties included absolute choice of the king of the realm, and that will impact Herod’s reaction when they arrive, seeking “he that is born, King of the Jews”
The Rosetta Stone (a stone block small enough for one to handle) had a vital role in unraveling the Egyptian hieroglyphics. There is another inscription that has essentially the same role: the inscription on Behistun. This is a huge wall, like a billboard, and it was commissioned by Darius the Great. Everything inscribed on it is in three languages: Elamite, Addadian/Babylonian, and the Old Persian or Aramaic. Due to the discovery of that huge wall, we can learn about those languages, and it is the link by which we can translate other languages. The Behistun also speaks of a particular event that has to do with a speedy and final triumph by Darius over a revolt of Magi in 522 B.C.