The magi and the monstrous king.

How Jesus’s birth got the attention of the powerful… and the infamous.

Matthew 2.1-18.

Both Mešíakh/“Messiah” and Hrístos/“Christ” mean king.

It’s a fact most Christians forget. Either we translate these words literally and assume they only mean anointed, or we mix ’em up with the meaning of “Jesus” and figure they mean savior. We treat Christ like Jesus’s surname, and forget it’s his title.

And we forget you couldn’t just wander around ancient Israel and call yourself Messiah or Christ. There were other people who laid claim to that title. Powerful people. Homicidal people. Like Herod the Great, who was only “great” because of all his building projects; as a human being Herod was a monster. Emperor Augustus used to joke he’d rather be Herod’s pig than his son. Herod did execute two of his sons, and since Edomites didn’t eat pork, Augustus’s comment was quite apt.

How’d baby Jesus get on Herod’s bad side? Well, you might know parts of the story, and if you don’t I’m gonna analyze the story in some degree. It begins with some mágoi/“Zoroastrians.” Or as the KJV calls them, “wise men.” Contrary to the Christmas carols, these weren’t kings.

Matthew 2.1-3 KWL
1 When Jesus was born in Bethlehem, Judea, in the days of King Herod,
look: Zoroastrians came to Jerusalem from the east.
2 The Zoroastrians were saying, “Where’s the newborn king of Judea?—
we saw his star in the east, and came to bow before him.”
3 Hearing this, King Herod was agitated, and all Judea with him.

Mágos is Greek for maguš, the old Persian term for Zoroastrian, a follower of the 11th century BC Avestan prophet Zarathustra (Greek Zoroaster). In English this became magus, plural magi.

Problem is, when people look up magi, they have to navigate through ancient Greek beliefs about Zoroastrians… and the Greeks didn’t know squat. Yeah, they had books about Zarathustra and his followers and what they believed and taught. But all of it was based on rumor and conjecture. Zo- in Greek means “life,” and astír means “star,” so they leapt to the conclusion Zoroastrians worshiped stars, and were Babylonian (not Persian) astrologers and magicians. Even the early Christian Fathers repeated these myths. Hence our own word magic comes from magi.

Like Christians and Jews, Zoroastrians are monotheists. They worship Ahura/“Supreme Being,” and he’s mazda/“wise.” They seek wisdom, so “wise men” isn’t a bad description for ’em. Ahura Mazda created the universe and truth. He’s opposed by the Angra Mainyu/“the destructive principle” which produces the chaos and lies in the universe. (Some folks assume this is another, equally powerful god to Ahura Mazda, but he’s not Ahura’s equal.) Ahura’s Spenta Mainyu/“generous principle,” sort of a holy spirit through whom he interacts with the universe, fights the Angra Mainyu. At the End, Ahura Mazda will send a savior, the Sayoshyant, born of a virgin; the dead will be resurrected, and Angra Mainyu will be destroyed.

Notice a few similarities between Zoroastrianism and Christianity? Some pretty significant differences too—so no, they’re not Christians who are just using Avestan words for everything. Still, the matching beliefs make a lot of scholars wonder just how much Zoroastrianism and Judaism interacted with one another—even influenced one another—when the Jews were exiled to Babylon in the sixth century BC. ’Cause both Nabú-kudúrri-usúr of Babylon (KJV “Nebuchadnezzar”) and Kuruš 2 of Persia (KJV “Cyrus”) had Zoroastrians among their wise men.

The magi and astrology.

Because Christians know bupkis about Zoroastrianism, too often we teach the same old false Greek myths about them: We teach they’re magicians and astrologers. After all, they sought Messiah’s “star,” just as astrologers would. Astrology is all about using divination—reading the stars—to deduce messages from the gods, or find one’s future. It’s religious magic. And hey, doesn’t the word magic come from magi?

But astrology isn’t part of the Zoroastrian religion. Seriously. The stars are only signs of Ahura’s orderly creation—same as they are in our bible. Zoroastrians don’t deduce Ahura’s will through them. Stars are neat in and of themselves, so there’s no reason why Zoroastrians wouldn’t look at the stars, and practice astronomy, an actual science, same as the ancient Hebrews.

Thing is, these particular Zoroastrians saw something in the sky. God unexpectedly communicated to them through it, and pointed ’em to his Messiah.

So wait: Does this this mean astrology works? A lot of Christians figure it totally does, and use it as their excuse for consulting horoscopes: If God led the magi to Jesus, it means searching the stars for signs ain’t nothing. Hence we find Christians who dabble in astrology throughout human history. Many great astronomers did so because they also believed God might reveal the future through the stars. Tycho Brahe, Galileo Galilei, Johannes Kepler—all were court astrologers. They’re astronomy’s, and Christianity’s, dirty little secret.

But these horoscopes are often nothing more than vague statements which could be true of anyone—combined with dumb luck whenever one of those statements gets really accurate. Astrologers might honestly think they’re on to something, but they’re fooling themselves. To be fair, these magi might’ve been Zoroastrian heretics, dabbling in astrology despite their religion, trying to read nature instead of talking to God in their prayers. Lots of ignorant Christians do this too. And shouldn’t. It’s a waste of time.

So how’d the magi find out when Jesus was born? Well, when we earnestly seek God, even when we’re totally looking the wrong way, sometimes God meets us where we’re at. These magi sought truth through the stars, as scientists and nature-lovers do. So this one time, the Source of all truth actually waved hi. Why not?

Your average Christian has no trouble with angels appearing to sheepherders, because even though preachers tend to (incorrectly) describe the herders as awful Jews, they were still Jews. We’re mostly okay with the idea God can appear to ordinary people. But deep down, we still kinda have a problem with the idea: God speaks to pagans? Nuh-uh. Devout pagans maybe, like Cornelius the Roman, Ac 10.1-3 but not ordinary pagans. Particularly not pagans who are actively practicing magic. Sinners.

Yet it’s in the bible. For that matter we don’t know what lifestyle Abraham or Moses or Gideon or Saul had when God first spoke to them. We do know Balám was an unrepentant pagan prophet-for-hire. Nu 22.5-14 We also Abimelech of Gerar was a wife-swiping pagan king. Ge 20.1-7 But God talked to these people regardless. He’s awfully gracious like that.

It’s understandable that we’re anxious about the idea. We don’t want to give people the idea that salvation comes through any other route than through Jesus. ’Cause it can’t. Ac 4.12 However, Catholic theologian Karl Rahner came up with an interesting idea, which I largely agree with: Like Abraham, there are certain pagans who, because they believe in God as best as their limited pagan understanding can, he’s credited them with righteousness the same way he did Abraham. Ro 4.3 “Anonymous Christians,” Rahner calls ’em. They’re saved by Jesus the same as any Christian; they just haven’t heard—yet—about Jesus. He saved them anonymously.

There’s a very good biblical basis for Rahner’s idea. But let’s be careful not to make the mistake of assuming every good pagan might be one of these “anonymous Christians.” We still have to do our job and share Jesus with ’em. If they do have a saving relationship with God, it’ll be no trouble at all for them to say, “Yes; your explanation fills in all the blanks!” and become Christian. And if they don’t, they won’t.

But let’s not take the opposite extreme and claim God never talks to pagans. Obviously he does. After all, how’d we come to Jesus when we were pagans? How’re we gonna ever accept the good news unless the Holy Spirit has been working on us? In fact God talks to everybody. Pagans too. He’s not just our God; he’s everyone’s. He encourages pagans to follow him, same as Christians. “Prevenient grace,” the theologians call it. Granted to Zoroastrians too.

Using the scriptures for evil.

On to Herod. To introduce him I gotta briefly explain the Israelite monarchy.

Originally Israel had no king, ’cause the LORD was meant to be their king. Jg 8.22-23 Of course, the lack of any governance regularly descended into chaos. Finally the Israelites demanded a king, so God authorized his prophet Samuel ben Elkanah to anoint Saul ben Kish. Saul didn’t work out, so Samuel anointed David ben Jesse. (This anointing is where we get mešíakh/“anointed” as a synonym for king.) David’s descendants ruled Jerusalem for four centuries as kings, and Jesus is one of David’s descendants. Mt 1.1

Under Solomon ben David, Jerusalem ruled all the Israelite tribes. Under Rehoboam ben Solomon, just the southern-Israel tribes of Judah, Benjamin, and Simeon. Collectively they’re called Judah, or by Roman times, Judea. When Babylon conquered Jerusalem in 587BC, Israel was thereafter ruled by Judean governors appointed by Assyria, Babylon, Persia, Greece, Egypt, and Syria. Under Syrian rule, the Judeans revolted in 167BC, fought for their independence, won, and the LORD’s head priest became Jerusalem’s ruler—and fairly quickly, king.

In 63BC Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus of Rome conquered Judea, and made it a client state: Judea’s kings ruled with Rome’s permission. In 41BC King Hyrcanus 2 was overthrown by his nephew Antigonus. When the Galilee’s governor Herod bar Antipater went to Rome to ask their help, the Roman senate appointed Herod as Judea’s king. Herod was an Edomite (whose nation had been assimilated into Judea by now), but he quickly secured his position: He brought in a Roman army to conquer Jerusalem, executed Antigonus, joined the royal family by divorcing his wife and marrying Hyrcanus’s granddaughter, and developed a secret police force to crack down on anyone who threatened his reign. After all, the Law forbade non-Israeli kings, Dt 17.15 and even though Herod claimed to be Jewish by religion, Pharisees never recognized him as such.

Instead Pharisees predicted the real Messiah would someday be born and overthrow the nations of the world. Anti-Messiahs like Herod included. Herod had to have heard of these ideas. So when the magi showed up declaring they deduced a new king of Judea, Herod’s paranoia flared up as usual. Frightening the rest of Jerusalem, who realized once again heads would roll.

Matthew 2.4-9 KWL
4 Gathering all the people’s head priests and scribes, Herod was asking them, “Where’s Messiah born?”
5 They told him, “In Bethlehem, Judea. This was written by the prophet:
6 ‘You, Bethlehem, land of Judah, are in no way the least of Judah’s rulers:
A leader will come from you who will shepherd my people, Israel.’ ” Mi 5.2
7 Then Herod, secretly summoning the Zoroastrians, grilled them on the time the star appeared.
8 Sending them to Bethlehem, he said, “Go search carefully for the child.
Once you find him, send news to me so I might also go bow before him.”
9 On hearing the king, they left.

Considering the sort of murderous king Herod was, why on earth did the scribes give up Messiah’s location so easily? Two reasons.

  • The head priests were Sadducees, and Sadducees didn’t believe as the Pharisees did. Asking where Messiah would be born is kinda like asking me about Xenu. Scientologists are trying to shush people who talk about him, lest non-Scientologists make fun of them. I don’t believe in Xenu (and figure the cat’s out of the bag anyway), so spilling their secrets doesn’t worry me any. And that’s how Sadducees thought of Messiah.
  • Most Pharisees were determinists: They believed if God decreed it would happen, ain’t nothing was gonna stop it from happening. Try as he might to fight God’s plan, Herod was predestined to fail. So it likewise didn’t matter if the Pharisees told Herod where Messiah would be born: God decreed it, so it was a done deal.

Since the scriptures generally point to Jesus, Herod took advantage of this knowledge to try to kill the newborn Messiah. ’Cause evil people can totally misuse the scriptures for their own evil gain. Cult leaders misquote it all the time to defend their control-freak behavior. Heretics misquote it to defend their misguided ideas. Even earnest Christians get it wrong because we prefer our feel-good ideas to the Holy Spirit’s true intent. The idea that the scriptures will produce nothing but good: They do produce good in the right hands. They produce evil in the wrong ones.

Finding Messiah.

Astír/“star” is the Greek term for pretty much anything in the night sky. Usually means stars. But it can also mean planets, comets, nebulas, galaxies—any of the white dots, fixed or moving. And this “star” the Zoroastrians followed sounds like it was moving. So it likely wasn’t what we mean by “star.” Which means we really don’t know what it was. A comet? A conjunction of planets? A supernova?—except novas don’t move around. Space aliens with a shiny flying saucer?—nah, let’s not go there. Whatever this was, the Zoroastrians followed till it indicated the right destination.

Matthew 2.9-12 KWL
9 Look: The star which the Zoroastrians saw in the east was leading them,
till it came to a spot over which the child was at.
10 Seeing the star, they rejoiced with great joy.
11 Coming into the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary.
Falling down, they bowed before him. Opening their treasures, they offered him gifts: Gold, incense, and lotion.
12 Warned by a dream to not return to Herod, they returned to their land by another road.

The Zoroastrians didn’t go to the cave where Jesus was born. Joseph and Mary had left that space years ago. This visit happened in a house. Most Christians speculate Joseph had decided to raise Jesus in Bethlehem, not Nazareth, so he and Mary never returned to the Galilee. Of course that puts a bit of discrepancy in the gospels: Luke says after they did their temple duties for the newborn Jesus, they went right back to Nazareth, and that’s where Jesus grew up. Lk 2.39-40

I think it’s possible to harmonize the gospels without any stretch. Perhaps they were living in Nazareth. But there are three temple festivals a year which every adult male was required to attend. Dt 16.16 Since Joseph and Mary had relatives in Bethlehem—which is only an hour’s walk from Jerusalem—it made sense they’d stay in Bethlehem thrice a year.

Either way, Bethlehem is where the Zoroastrians found Jesus and Mary. (Where was Joseph that night? No idea.) They bowed before Jesus and gave him gifts. Christians like to read ideas into these gifts, and often teach the gifts are prophetic in nature. This I doubt, because these guys weren’t prophets. And the gifts each had practical value.

  • GOLD, ’cause gold is money. Anyone could use gold. (It’d particularly come in handy in the near-future, thanks to some unexpected travel expenses.) Christians like to point out it’s a gift you give kings—but it’s a gift you could give anyone.
  • INCENSE, specifically olibanum (which westerners call frankincense) because easterners believed if you burn the stuff in your house, it’d keep you healthy. Christians like to point out olibanum is one of the ingredients of temple incense, Ex 30.34-36 and implies the magi thought Jesus worthy of divine worship. Well, no they didn’t: They’re monotheists, remember? Zoroastrians don’t worship multiple gods, and had no idea Jesus is the One God. A great king at best; an honorable human, but no more.
  • LOTION, specifically myrrh, ’cause it was also medicinal. Babies get rashes and cuts, same as anyone. Christians like to point out myrrh was used to anoint the dead, so this was a prophecy of Jesus’s death. And okay, everybody dies, so who wouldn’t need myrrh when that day comes? But it’s more likely myrrh would be used for first aid, not last rites.

The Zoroastrians left, and I believe it likely that within the space of that night, two things happened: They dreamed they’d better not return to Herod in the morning, and Joseph dreamed they’d better get out of Judea.

Joseph’s escape.

As I said previously, Christians too often treat Joseph as an afterthought in God’s plan, a clueless schmuck who had no idea he was raising God incarnate. In fact some of our myths have Jesus frustrating the bejeezus out of his adoptive father by being smarter than his teachers, or by creating sparrows on Sabbath, or being inexplicably omniscient, or otherwise being a holy pest. And Joseph couldn’t turn to Mary for help, because in the myths she was the very same way: All immaculate and super-holy and wise and speaking over his head. Joseph became the comic relief in these myths, whereas Jesus and Mary were the unruffled, faith-filled, magical beings who always knew their way around.

The gospels have it the other way round. Joseph had a lot of commonsense. And a lot of faith: God kept sending him directions in his dreams, and Joseph reliably obeyed him. He’s exactly the sort of guy you want raising the Messiah: An obedient prophet. Not some fool who hasn’t a clue what’s going on. Not for nothing was Joseph hand-picked to be Jesus’s father.

Matthew 2.13-15 KWL
13 As they returned, look: The Lord’s angel appeared to Joseph in a dream, saying, “Get up. Take the child and his mother.
Go to Egypt. Be there as long as I tell you. Herod’s about to look for the child, to destroy him.”
14 Getting up, Joseph took the child and his mother that night and went to Egypt,
15 and was there till Herod’s death. Thus might the Lord’s word through his prophet be fulfilled,
saying, “I called my son out of Egypt.” Ho 11.1

Joseph had to know he was hearing from God, because the directions God gave him in his latest vision… could actually be interpreted to violate the scriptures. No I’m not kidding. Feast your eyes:

Deuteronomy 17.15-16 KWL
15 “Put, put a king over you whom your LORD God chooses from you,
from among your brothers, to put as king over you.
You’re not to put a foreign man over you as king, one who’s not your brother.
16 He’s not to collect many horses; he’s not to return to Egypt’s people to acquire many horses.
The LORD tells you: Don’t return that way ever again.”

Don’t go to Egypt. Not even to visit, so you can do a little horse-shopping. God went to all the trouble of getting ’em out of Egypt. He didn’t want ’em going back and undoing his mighty work.

There’s this whole controversy in Jeremiah: When Babylon invaded, the locals wanted to flee to Egypt, and wanted Jeremiah to get the LORD’s blessing. Of course God told them no; he already said no in his Law, and would destroy them if they did it anyway. Wouldn’t you know; they did it anyway. Jr 43-44 No surprise, Nebuchadnezzar soon after destroyed them.

Yet here Joseph was, getting instructions to go to Egypt. Not to stay, obviously; they were only gonna be refugees while Herod was still alive and murdery. This was only temporary. Messiah had to grow up in Israel, of course. Perhaps that’s the important difference in God’s instructions to Joseph: This was a dire situation.

A legalistic sort would immediately respond, “No Lord; you told us never to return to Egypt.” Any other guy than Joseph would’ve sat on his skeptical heiney in Bethlehem, whining, “I don’t know whether this was really God or not”… right up till the time Herod’s assassins burst through the door. But Joseph knew this was God, and knew God well enough to know this wasn’t a test. It shows all kinds of spiritual maturity in Joseph. Shouldn’t we all aspire to Joseph’s level of faith?

Herod slaughters the Bethlehem children.

Should’ve only taken a day, maybe two, for the Zoroastrians to go to Bethlehem, find Messiah, then report back to Herod. But when Herod got nothing—when in fact the Zoroastrians were gone—all his paranoid fears turned into rage, and just as the people of Jerusalem expected, heads rolled.

Matthew 2.16-18 KWL
16 Then Herod, seeing he was made a fool of by the Zoroastrians, was enraged.
Sending agents, he destroyed all the children in Bethlehem and the whole area around it,
from two years old and under, according to the time he exacted from the Zoroastrians.
17 Thus was the word of the prophet Jeremiah fulfilled, saying,
18 “A sound was heard in Ramah: Weeping and great lament.
‘Rachel’ weeps for her children and doesn’t want comfort: They’re gone.” Jr 31.15

Jeremiah’s prophecy is obviously not about Jesus. Ramah is a city near Gibeah, located within the tribe of Benjamin. It’s not Bethlehem; it’s not next to Bethlehem; it’s not even in the same tribe. The “Rachel” in Jeremiah’s prophecy refers to Benjamin ben Israel]s mother, weeping for “her children,” the Benjamites, who had just been slaughtered by Nabú-kudúrri-usúr’s troops in his invasion. That’s the proper historical context.

But fulfillment means when history repeats itself. Not when the foretold future happens. Rachel was buried near Bethlehem, Ge 35.19 so Matthew figured the Bethlehemites were in a sense Rachel’s “children” too. So Herod’s slaughter of the children kinda repeats this history as well.

Herod retroactively aborting all the toddlers in Bethlehem doesn’t show up in any historical record other than Matthew. But y’know, in the United States, mass shootings happen so often, some newspapers don’t even bother to cover them all. And in ancient Israel, Herod committed just so many atrocities, mass infanticide was just one more. Historians had much worse to report.

Anyway. If you were Jesus, and you grew up knowing this horrible little story about how your birth—a cause for great celebration!—had been turned into a horrifying disaster by some petty tyrant who wouldn’t even live to be overthrown by you… well, that certainly takes some of the joy out of it.

But it was definitely a reminder to Jesus: Be careful, EXTREMELY careful, about whom you tell you’re Messiah.