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“Magi from the East”

December 24, 2011

Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, saying, “Where is he who has been born king of the Jews? For we have seen his star in the East, and have come to worship him.[1]

It is one of the most enigmatic stories in the New Testament: the gospel of Matthew reports that sometime shortly after the birth of Jesus, “Magi from the east” came to Jerusalem and declared they had seen a star indicating the birth of a king of the Jews. Its enigmatic nature stems from its brevity: Matthew apparently thought the Magi needed no introduction, so his readers at the time must already have known who they were. But who were they?

The story of the Magi begins with the life of the prophet Zoroaster (or Zarathrustra). Unfortunately, we know very little about Zoroaster’s life. We don’t even know what century he was born in, and most of his writings have been lost. What we do know is that he lived in what is now central Asia or eastern Iran, and that his teachings formed the core of a new monotheistic religion now known as Zoroastrianism.

In the meantime, Magi first appear in the historical record in the seventh century BC, not in Persia but in the kingdom of the Medes. Herodotus listed the “Magoi” as one of the six tribes of the Medes. They were described as a priestly class, but their main task appears to have been the interpretation of the king’s dreams. In this respect they were like similar “wise men” kept at the courts of various Near Eastern monarchs.

Persians and Medes on a relief from Persepolis. The Persians were cylindrical hats and the Medes wear rounded hats.

Dream interpretation would be the Median Magi’s downfall. According to Herodotus’ semi-legendary account, the Median king Astyages had a series of dreams which the Magi interpreted as meaning that his grandson from his daughter’s marriage to a Persian would eventually rule all of Asia. He ordered his infant grandson to be murdered. However, the man assigned to kill the child did not do so but gave away the child, who was raised by a cowherd and his wife in the Median hills.

The boy was later summoned before Astyages, who recognized his facial features. Astyages again consulted his Magi, who told him that there was now nothing to fear, because “some of our prophecies come to very little significance” and suggested that because the boy had been playing “king” with other children, this was the fulfillment of the prophecy that he would be king. The Magi reminded Astyages that they had every reason to seek to keep him in power, as their own power and status depended on it.

The boy later gained the name Cyrus, and led a revolt of Persians against Astyages. After Astyages suffered a defeat, he had the Magi who advised him to let Cyrus live impaled in the capital city of Ecbatana. Nonetheless, Astyages’ army was defeated again and Astyages was captured by Cyrus in 550 BC. This ended Media’s independence and inaugurated the era of the Persian Empire. Cyrus would go on to capture Babylon in 539 and rule the largest empire the world had yet seen, stretching from Judea to Anatolia to the Hundu Kush.[2]

The next mention we find of the Magi was their institution by Cyrus as Zoroastrian priests. According to the Greek writer Xenophon, who sought to portray Cyrus as the ideal Persian king, the government under Cyrus was inextricably linked to Zoroastrianism. Cyrus himself sang a hymn every day and made sacrifices as the Magi dictated. Magi accompanied Cyrus from his earliest campaigns onwards. They were present at the capture of Babylon and were given the authority to select first-fruits offerings from the plunder of the city.[3]

The Magi also directed Cyrus to make sacrifices to the local gods after capturing Babylon. Zoroastrians believe that Ahura Mazda (God) created all religions and chose to manifest himself to different peoples in different ways, and therefore all religions are equal, and the righteous from all religions go to heaven. One can see the effect of this belief in the Persian Empire’s policies of religious toleration. Cyrus is famous for issuing the Edict of Restoration allowing Jews to return to their homeland, but everywhere the Persians conquered they allowed the locals to worship in the manner which they thought best.[4]

Two abandoned Dakhma or “towers of silence” in Yazd province, central Iran. The remains of deceased Magi were left in towers like these to be eaten by carrion birds and decay naturally before the bones were buried.

Other nations may have had their gods, but Ahura Mazda was the God of the Persian people and his priests were tasked with ensuring the rulers and the people performed proper worship. “The Persians,” according to Xenophon, “think that they ought to consult professional instructors in affairs relating to the gods more than in others.”[5] The austere religious customs of the Magi seemed strange to surrounding polytheistic peoples. According to Herodotus, “the Magi differ a great deal from the rest of the human race.” Their temples contained sacred fires which were kept constantly burning. Their dead were disposed of on top of a Dakhma or “Tower of Silence,” where they were left to be eaten by vultures and decay until the only the skeletons remained so as to avoid polluting the air, earth or water.[6]

The Magi also had a powerful political role. They observed the stars and interpreted dreams, signs and omens for kings. As such, the Magi became known as fortune-tellers in the classical world, and their practices collective referred to as “magic.” The Roman Pliny the Elder later described magic as attempts at divination and necromancy which was “practiced with water, for instance, with balls, by the aid of the air, of the stars, of lamps, basins, hatchets, and numerous other appliances.” Pliny saw two schools of such magic, one which originated with Zoroaster in Persia and the other, much younger strains which “derive their origin from Moses, Jannes, and Lotapea, Jews by birth.” Pliny viewed all magic as “detestable” and an “utter falsity.” How accurately Pliny is describing the practices of the Magi can be questioned. One can detect some of the traditional Roman prejudice against monotheistic religions in his writing. At worst the practices described were no different than Roman priests’ attempts to tell the future with sacred chickens and  sheep livers.[7]

A sacred flame burns inside a modern Zoroastrian Fire Temple, the Ateshgah Fire Temple in Baku, Azerbaijan.

When Cyrus died in 530 BC, the Magi were firmly established as a powerful element in Persian politics. He was succeeded as Shahanshah by his son Cambyses, who had few of his father’s admirable qualities. Cambyses invaded and conquered Egypt in 525 BC, but then according to Herodotus he began to slip into madness. Afflicted with epilepsy from birth, he became prone to fits of violent rage. He caused an uproar in Egypt by killing the sacred Apis Bull and mocking the Egyptians for worshiping gods they represented with statues as well as holding animals to be sacred. He had his brother Bardiya (Smerdis in Greek) executed out of fear that he might be plotting against him, then married two of his sisters and had one of them executed. Bardiya’s execution was kept secret from the Persian people, who did not know that he was dead. Due to his madness his subordinates soon began to ignore his directives. When Croesus the Lydian suggested to Cambyses that his harshness would provoke a revolt, Cambyses ordered him killed. The servants ordered to carry out the sentence instead helped Croesus go into hiding.[8]

It is still debated how much of this reputation Cambyses deserved and how much was the product of people who hated him. According to Herodotus the Magi were part of the latter group. They were appalled at Cambyses’ behavior, and the people were becoming hostile. While Cambyses campaigned in Egypt, the Magi were left in charge of the royal palace and estates. They decided that something had to be done to remove Cambyses from power before the whole empire was doomed.

The plan was to replace Cambyses with a new monarch. Patizeithes, the Magus (singular of Magi) in charge of managing Cambyses’ household in the winter capital of Susa had a brother named Gaumata who was also a Magus. More importantly, Gaumata bore a striking resemblance to Cambyses’ dead brother Bardiya. Patizeithes came up with a plan by which Gaumata would pretend to be Bardiya, seize the throne of Persia and then rally the army to himself. In the era before news footage, photography or even accurate portrait painting, few people knew what famous people looked like unless they saw them in person, so a doppelgänger could potentially get away with such a deception for some time. The only drawback to this plan was that Gaumata had no ears, as Cyrus had ordered his ears cut off as punishment for an unspecified grave offense. But Persian noblemen favored a hairstyle with long curls and beard which hid the ears from view anyways, so this was less of a problem than it would seem.[9]

On March 11, 522 BC Gaumata was dressed in royal robes and proclaimed to be the brother of Cambyses seizing the throne to free Persia from its mad king. Messengers were sent throughout the realm to inform everyone of the new development. One of the messengers found Cambyses and his army at the city of Ecbatana in Syria. Cambyses was initially shocked to learn that his brother was still alive, and sharply questioned Prexaspes, the man he had ordered to carry out the execution. Prexaspes, who had truly killed Bardiya, insisted that Bardiya was really and truly dead and that “I have buried him with my own hands.” At Prexaspes’ suggestion, Cambyses questioned the messenger again. He discovered that the messenger was not given the message by Bardiya in person, but by Patizeithes. Cambyses deduced from this information that the Magi had revolted and seized the kingdom.[10]

Cambyses prepared to march on Susa to re-take the government, but while mounting his horse he accidentally stabbed himself in the thigh with his own sword. Twenty days later, the seriously injured king gave a speech to his troops where he called on the Persians to not allow the Magi to rule the kingdom and “allow sovereignty to pass to the Medes again.” But infection and gangrene soon set in on Cambyses’ wounds, and on July 1, 522 BC he died in Syria. His court did not act on his deathbed statements. They had been subjected to diatribes and rambling conspiracy theories fueled by his paranoia for some time, and were skeptical of the idea that the Magi had taken control of the state. As soon as Cambyses had died, Prexaspes reversed course and claimed he had never killed Bardiya at all, after all, there was no telling who was in charge now and what view they might take of Prexaspes’ actions.[11]

One of the Magi appears in a Persian relief at the Museum of Anatolian Civilizations in Ankara.

Gaumata ruled for seven months in Susa. To win popular support, he issued an order exempting the entire population of the empire from military service and taxes for three years. Gaumata was really a puppet of the main body of Magi, he was placed on the throne only due to his physical likeness to allow the Magi to rule from behind the scenes. Gaumata spent most of his time cloistered in the palace and refused to even admit visitors, fearful that someone who knew Bardiya would recognize him as an imposter. Members of the royal court who had known Bardiya were shunted elsewhere. Bardiya and Cambyses’ sister Atossa, whom Cambyses had taken as a wife, was sent away into seclusion along with her ladies in waiting. She was lucky, others who had known Bardiya were executed to prevent them from talking. Prexaspes, who alone knew the truth about the death of Bardiya, was given lavish sums of money in return for his silence. Cambyses had killed Prexaspes’ young son, so buying his silence about the coup was not difficult.[12]

After several months, the lack of public appearances or even visitations by the new king began to cause suspicions amongst some of the noblemen. One in particular was Otanes son of Pharnaspes, a wealthy man from a prominent Persian family. He noticed that the king never made an public appearances or admitted visitors, and began to suspect that Bardiya was not actually ruling Persia. His daughter Phaidymie had married Cambyses and lived inside the palace. Gautama was now living with all of Cambyses’ wives, except for Atossa who he had sent away.

Otanes sent a message to his daughter asking her to identify the man she was sleeping with, was it truly Bardiya, or not? She replied that she did not know, for she did not know what Bardiya looked like. Otanes sent another message asking her to ask Atossa if the man was really Bardiya, but Atossa was being kept in seclusion from the other members of the harem and Phaidymie could not contact her.

The reality of the situation was now becoming clear to Otanes, but he needed confirmation. Beginning to suspect Gaumata as the puppet ruler, he sent a third letter to with instructions to Phaidymie. The next time she was called to go to bed with Gaumata, she was to wait until he was fast asleep and then feel his head to see if he had ears. Phaidymie replied that this was a risky plan and she feared what the king would do to her if he awoke and found her feeling for his ears, but that she thought she would carry out the plan anyways.

Phaidymie about to feel for Gaumata’s ears, in a 1904 woodcut.

She first had to wait until her turn came in the harem rotation, but when it came time for her to sleep with the king again she carried out the plan. After the king was fast asleep, she felt his head and discovered that he had no ears at all. The next morning, she sent a message to her father to inform him of what she had found.[13]

Otanes began to form a conspiracy with two other Persian noblemen, Ardumanis and Gobryas. Ardumanis and Gobryas had begun to form their own suspicions about the king’s identity and readily believed Otanes’ story. The three of them decided to each invite a man whom they trusted into the plot, which added the noblemen Intaphrenes, Hydarnes and Megabyzus. A fateful last minute addition was made to the conspiracy when Darius arrived in Susa and was invited to join the conspiracy. Darius was himself of no special social standing, but his father Hystaspes was a satrap and therefore an important official. The seven men were bonded by a conviction that their country needed to be saved from a Median usurper whose very presence on the throne was an insult to national pride. As Gobryas put it, “although we are Persians, we are now ruled by a Mede, a Magus no less, and one with no ears!”

The conspiracy of seven held a meeting to plot their next course of action. Darius advocated immediate action before others could become aware of the plot. Otanes advocated waiting until they could recruit more members to the conspiracy, but Darius countered that this would leave them open to being infiltrated and betrayed. Becoming impatient, Darius threatened to denounce the entire group to Gaumata if they did not act quickly. Backing down, Otanes asked Darius what his plan was. Darius then sketched out a plan where the seven of them would enter the palace grounds on the pretense that Darius had just arrived carrying important news from the provinces and needed an audience with the king.[14]

While the would-be assassins were laying out their plans, events began to overtake them. Rumors appeared to be sweeping the city that the king’s identity was in question. To quiet the rumors, the Magi requested that Prexaspes address an assembly of the people from the wall of the palace and announce publicly that he had not killed Bardiya and that Bardiya was currently ruling the kingdom. On September 29, 522 BC the crowds were gathered for Prexaspes’ announcement. But instead of sticking to the script, Prexaspes began to explain how he had killed Bardiya on the orders of Cambyses, and how the current ruler was merely a puppet of the Magi. He called for the Persian people to rise up and overthrow the government, and then jumped off the tower to his death.

Darius’ own royal inscription records that the coup took place in the royal residence of Sikayauvatiš, in Nisaia in northwestern Iran, while Herodotus says it took place in Susa. The seven conspirators had already decided to act that day and were halfway to the palace when they heard the commotion from the crowds and learned what had happened. Otanes argued in favor of scrubbing the plan, but Darius urged them to press on. Darius’ urging carried the day, and group pressed on. All of the men were of high standing, so the guards outside the palace waved them through without searching them or even questioning why they were there.

Relief depicting Darius.

When they reached the inner courtyard, several of the king’s eunuchs shouted at them and asked what they were doing inside of the courtyard, and shouted threats at the guards for allowing them to pass. The eunuchs tried to restrain the conspirators from advancing any further, when one of the conspirators gave a shout, and all seven drew daggers and stabbed the eunuchs.

The men rushed into the men’s quarters in the palace, where they found Patizeithes and Gaumata discussing the situation in the streets. As the conspirators rushed in, the two Magi jumped up and grabbed weapons. One grabbed a spear, and as the attackers rushed forwards he stabbed Intaphrenes in the eye and Ardumanis in the thigh before being overwhelmed. The other grabbed a bow, but before he could draw it Darius and Gobryas were almost on top of him. He threw down the bow and fled into an interior bedroom, but before he could shut the door Gobryas tackled him onto the floor. In the dark room, Darius stood over them with a dagger as they grappled, but hesitated for fear of stabbing Gobryas. Gobryas shouted for him to strike anyways, and he did, but managed to stab only the Magus.

The conspirators cut off the heads of both Magi, and leaving the injured Intaphrenes and Ardumanis in the palace, the remaining five ran into the streets shouting what had happened. What followed was a general pogrom against Magi found in the city. Many Magi were hacked to death in the streets until nightfall ended the slaughter. The event was remembered long afterwards as “the Slaughter of the Magi.” Regardless of whether or not the assassination took place in Sikayauvatiš or Susa, word traveled fast throughout the Persian Empire.[15]

Five days after the killings, Herodotus tells us that the conspirators debated whether Persia should adopt democracy, oligarchy or monarchy. The men eventually voted for monarchy. The young Darius politically outmaneuvered the other six and became king, but ensured that the other six conspirators were honored for the rest of their lives. He restored property confiscated by the Magi, but also rescinded his decrees. Many of Persia’s subjects cared not if Persian honor was offended at being ruled by an earless Median priest impersonating a dead prince. They much preferred looking forward to having no taxes or military service for the next three years. As a result, Darius had to spend the next year putting down revolts all across the empire. Elam, Babylon, Media, Parthia, Armenia and some Persians all revolted. In one year, he fought nineteen battles and subdued all of the regions.[16]

The important details of Herodotus’ story match Darius’ own account which he had carved into the side of a mountain in three different languages at Behistun and also translated into Aramaic, written on papyrus, and distributed throughout the empire.

The catch is that Darius’ account not only describes defeating a false Bardiya, but also five other pretenders who claimed false identities. Ninditu-Bel the Babylonian allegedly masqueraded as Nebuchadnezzar the son of Nabonidus, the last king of independent Babylon. A Persian named Martiya impersonated Ummanish of Elam, Phraortes the Mede claimed to be Khshathrita, a descendant of the great Median king Cyaxares, another Persian named Vahyazdâta again impersonated Bardiya, and an Armenian named Arakha also claimed to be Nebuchadnezzar.

It doesn’t take a psychologist to be a bit suspicious of a man without noble birth who by his own admission ascended the throne through sticking a knife in the back of the previous ruler then claiming that everyone else is lying about their royal lineage. This isn’t helped by the genealogy which Darius provided in the inscription, which lists five men he claimed to be kings and only one of whom is known to have been an actual king, and if accurate would make Darius only the second cousin once removed of Cyrus the Great.

The longstanding suspicion, therefore, is that Bardiya was alive, and the false Bardiya Darius claimed to have killed was the real Bardiya.[17] Nevertheless, by identifying his opponent as a Magian, Darius seems to be indicating that the Magi supported his opponent.

The Behistun Relief, in which Darius described his lineage, the plot to overthrow the Magi, and the revolts he faced after assuming power. Darius can be seen on his throne to the left, reviewing captured enemies.

It is not known how long the break in relations between the king, the Magi, and the people lasted in the Persian Empire. By the time of Xerxes’ invasion of Greece in 480 BC, Magi were traveling with the army and providing counsel. Magi poured libations to the heroes at Troy, calmed storms by offering sacrifices and interpreted an eclipse as a good omen. When Alexander the Great conquered the Persian Empire, he found Magi guarding the tomb of Cyrus the Great. The tomb had been desecrated, and he had the Magi tortured to find out who did it, but they did not know and he had them released. Later, he was led in ritual by Magi acting alongside Greek seers. This was too little, too late as the Macedonian conquests had been a disaster for both the Magi and for Zoroastrianism. When Persepolis was burned, most of the founding texts of Zoroastrianism were lost. The ones that survived were mostly destroyed in the Islamic conquests a thousand years later, which means that only a handful of ancient Zoroastrian sacred scriptures have survived to the present day.[18]

Tomb of Cyrus the Great in Pasargadae, Iran. His tomb had a regular guard of Magi until the time of Alexander the Great.

Once Alexander’s Greek successor states had been swept aside by the Parthian Empire, the Magi regained positions of prominence and political power. Poseidonius reported that the Council of the Parthians was made up of two groups, one of kinsmen of the monarch and the other of the Magi, and that both groups had a say in appointing the next king. Strabo wrote that the Magi “follow with zeal a kind of august life” and offer sacrifices to “fire and earth and winds and water.” The Magus making the offering, he wrote, wears a crown. When a sacrifice was made, the people ate the entire animal as food, as the gods did not require any meat but only the soul of the animal. The Parthians also did not bury dead Magi, but “leave their bodies to be eaten by birds.”[19] Strabo went on to describe Magi’s sacrifices and their fire temples:

But it is especially to fire and water that they offer sacrifice. To fire they offer sacrifice by adding dry wood without the bark and by placing fat on top of it; and then they pour oil upon it and light it below, not blowing with their breath, but fanning it; and those who blow the fire with their breath or put anything dead or filthy upon it are put to death. And to water they offer sacrifice by going to a lake or river or spring, where, having dug a trench leading thereto, they slaughter a victim, being on their guard lest any of the water near by should be made bloody, believing that the blood would pollute the water; and then, placing pieces of meat on myrtle or laurel branches, the Magi touch them with slender wands and make incantations, pouring oil mixed with both milk and honey, though not into fire or water, but upon the ground; and they carry on their incantations for a long time, holding in their hands a bundle of slender myrtle wands.

In Cappadocia (for there the sect of the Magi, who are also called Pyraethi, is large, and in that country are also many temples of the Persian gods), the people do not sacrifice victims with a sword either, but with a kind of tree-trunk, beating them to death as with a cudgel. They also have Pyraetheia, noteworthy enclosures; and in the midst of these there is an altar, on which there is a large quantity of ashes and where the Magi keep the fire ever burning. And there, entering daily, they make incantations for about an hour, holding before the fire their bundles of rods and wearing round their heads high turbans of felt, which reach down over their cheeks far enough to cover their lips. The same customs are observed in the temples of Anaïtis and Omanus; and these temples also have sacred enclosures; and the people carry in procession a wooden statue of Omanus. Now I have seen this myself; but those other things, as also what follows, are recorded in the histories.[20]

Strabo wrote in the first century BC, which brings us to the time of the birth of Jesus. At sometime around 4 BC, the gospel of Matthew states that some of the Magi observed some sort of celestial phenomena that predicted a birth of a king. What the star was is not clear, although many theories have been proposed. A comet is an oft-cited hypothesis, as the appearance of comets was often thought to signal the birth of kings. However, no records of comets appearing at that time exist in any of the extant Roman, Babylonian or Chinese astronomical records. Halley’s Comet appeared in 12 BC, but this is generally thought to be outside the time frame for Jesus’ birth. Jupiter and Saturn made an unusual conjunction in 7 BC which may have had astrological significance to ancient astronomers. Chinese astronomers observed a supernova in 5 BC. Others have attempted to re-date Jesus’ birth to match Halley’s Comet.[21]

What were the Magi looking for? One possibility lies in Zoroastrian theology. The Gathas, the sacred hymns attributed to Zoroaster, speak of a future figure called the Saoshyant or “future benefactor” which will be  sent by Ahura Mazda to lead righteousness to triumph over wickedness. Later, in the Sassanid period after 300 AD, this developed into a tradition of three expected prophets who would arrive in predictable cycles (the time of the cycles varied, from 1,000 to 6,000 years). Later, some Zoroastrian writers even identified one of these prophets with Jesus, who they estimated was born a thousand years after Zoroaster. During the Parthian period much of this had not yet developed, but were the Parthian era Magi expecting the coming of Saoshyant and diligently watching the skies for a sign of his appearance? Such a possibility is tantalizing, but cannot be proven.[22]

How they linked the star to Judea is not clear. A comet’s tail could have been interpreted as pointing towards a specific country.[23] Alternately, the Magi likely have had access to the Hebrew Bible and the prophecies it contained, as there were thriving communities of Jews in Persia and Mesopotamia at this time. After seeing the star, they could have made inquiries to various religious books in search of prophecies about the birth of kings, found the prophecies in the Hebrew Bible, and decided Judea was the most likely place to find the king.

“Adoration of the Magi” painted by Giotto di Bondone (1266-1337). Medieval art commonly depicted the Star of Bethlehem as a comet.

Regardless, the Magi traveled to Jerusalem, likely traveling town trading routes through the Syrian desert to Aleppo or Palmyra, and then south to Judea. They sought an audience with King Herod, asking “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.”[24]

In the previous fifty years, Judea had been a pawn in a long-running proxy war between Rome and Parthia for control of the Near East. When Pompey entered Judea and took sides in Judea’s civil war in 63 BC, he left with Hyrcanus II established in power as a Roman client state. While Rome was otherwise preoccupied by civil war, in 40 BC the Parthians overthrew Hyrcanus and replaced him with the anti-Roman Antigonus. Antigonus only ruled for a short time before Herod the Great received sponsorship from Mark Antony to seize control of Judea. With Antony’s support, Herod took over the country and Judea again became a Roman client. Rome and Parthia had made a peace treaty delineating spheres of influence in 20 BC, temporarily ending the conflict, but the tension persisted.

By the time the Magi arrived, Herod was 70 years old, in poor health and well known to possess extreme paranoia and psychotic tendencies. In his later years, convinced that everyone was plotting against him, he had several members of his close family executed. The effect on the aging and paranoid Herod of the arrival of Magi (who were members of the Parthian ruling class) proclaiming that a prophecy foretold the birth of a new king in Judea, can only be imagined.

Likely suspecting a Parthian plot to overthrow him and place some pretender on the throne, Herod asked the Jewish religious leaders to search the books of the prophets to find where the Messiah was to be born.[25] They found a passage in the book of Micah which read:

But you, O Bethlehem Eph′rathah,
    who are little to be among the clans of Judah,
from you shall come forth for me
    one who is to be ruler in Israel,
whose origin is from of old,
    from ancient days.[26]

Herod then requested a second interview with the Magi to find out when the star had first appeared. He told them that a prophecy said that a king would be born in Bethlehem, and that they should go there in search of the child. When they found him, they were to report back to him that he could go and worship the child as well. All accept that Herod’s plan was not to worship the child but to eliminate another perceived rival.

The Magi proceeded to Bethlehem. Here the most problematic part of the passage occurs, as Matthew says “the star they had seen when it rose went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they were overjoyed.” Marking a specific place on earth is a difficult task for any celestial object to accomplish, and this remains unexplained.

One of the earliest representations of the Magi at the birth of Jesus, from a 3rd century AD sarcophagus in Rome. Note that only two Magi are shown, Matthew never mentions how many Magi were there and the number three did not enter into tradition until later.

Although Jesus had been born in a stable, he was in a house by the time the Magi arrived. They delivered expensive gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. Much symbolism has been read into these gifts by later authors, but none is explicitly stated in Matthew. All of these gifts were extremely expensive, in fact, the gold was probably the least valuable of the three. Both frankincense and myrrh came from Arabia and the far east, and were only available in extremely limited quantities in the Mediterranean world.

The Magi were, according to Matthew, warned by a dream not to go back to Herod. Dream interpretation was a duty of the Magi, and this presumably applied to interpreting the mental misgivings which were manifested in their own dreams as well. They chose to return to Parthia by a route that avoided Herod and Jerusalem. When Herod heard of this, he ordered all the boys of Bethlehem two years old and under to be massacred. Unable to kill only the child the Magi identified, he hoped that by killing every child in Bethlehem he would succeed in eliminating the threat.[27]

The massacre of the infants is not mentioned by Josephus or by any of the other gospel writers. Bethlehem was a small village, so the number of infants killed cannot have been very large, with some rough estimates giving between six and fourteen. Proponents of the historicity of the massacre argue that it was so small as to not even register in the grand scale of Herod’s atrocities. Such an action was certainly not out of character for Herod. That same year (4 BC), Herod had his son Antipater executed. Afraid that the population of Judea would be happy when he died, he also gave orders that one member of every family in Judea was to be executed in case of his own death, so that the populace would be sad. (After he died, this order was not carried out.) The poet Macrobius, writing in the early 5th century AD, recorded that when the emperor Augustus heard of the massacre of the Bethlehem infants as well as Herod’s execution of his own son, he quipped that “it is better to be Herod’s pig than Herod’s son.”[28]

Joseph and Mary escape to Egypt, shown in this engraving.

Joseph, Mary and the young Jesus escaped the massacre and fled to Egypt, which was under direct rule from Rome and outside of Herod’s control. They remained in Egypt for some months until Herod died, and it was safe to return home. Still wary of Herod’s son Archelaus, Joseph elected to move to Nazareth in Galilee, which was also outside of Herod’s territory. Here, Jesus grew up and came to be known as a Nazarene.[29]

The story of the Magi is found only in Matthew. For textual critics, this makes it a prominent item in Source M, a collection of sources exclusive to Matthew and not found in any of the other gospels. How did Matthew learn of this? Some scholars propose that the story was inserted into the gospel to show the hypocrisy of the Jewish leaders, after all, even Zoroastrians were able to see that Jesus was a fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy while the Pharisees would not admit this. This may or may not be the reason Matthew chose to include the story, but this has no bearing on whether it actually happened or not. Piecing together reports from Clement of Alexandria, Irenaeus and Eusebius, it seems Matthew preached to Jews for fifteen years before moving further afield. Some sources state that he preached in Parthia. Did he learn of the story of the Magi there? It is plausible, but Eusebius also reports that he wrote the gospel that bears his name before heading abroad. Of course, there is also dispute about whether Matthew even wrote in whole or even in part the modern gospel that bears his name. All things considered, however, the Magi seems like a story that would be unlikely to have been invented out of whole cloth by an author. A story linking Jesus to foreign powers could have the potential to be extremely damaging to the early Christian community inside the Roman Empire, so there seems little motive to invent it. At the same time, this would also be a motive for not including it in the story.[30]

A large amount of Magi lore sprung up over the next several centuries. Although Matthew never says how many Magi there were, convention later settled on three because they brought three gifts. The magi were later given names and ethnicities. When Marco Polo visited Persia in 1270, he reported seeing the tombs of the three Magi complete with their mummies lying in state. Like many of the intriguing lesser known figures of the Bible, the Magi were the subject of early attempts at historical fiction. A Syriac document called “The Revelation of the Magi” purports to be an account written by the Magi of their journey, describing how they kept books of prophecy which predicted the appearance of a star, and then the twelve Magi followed a supernatural apparition to Bethlehem. Later in life, according to the document, they were baptized by the Apostle Thomas. The document is highly unlikely to be a historical account, but interesting in tracing the development of additions to the story.[31]

Modern Zoroastrian priests conduct a ceremony with fire.

In the meantime, the real Magi continued to exist. The rise of the Sassanid Empire and the corresponding restoration of Zoroastrianism to a place of prominence signaled a return of the Magi to power. Religious reforms were carried out by the Sassanids, and hierarchical Magi reinstated. With the Islamic conquest of Iran, many Persians converted to Islam and while Zoroastrianism continued to hold an important place in Iranian cultural identity, practice of the religion  declined and many Zoroastrians fled to India. Today, Zoroastrianism still exists and they still have priests, but only about 200,000 remain in the world. The largest community is in India, further religious persecution in Iran since 1979 has led many Zoroastrians to flee to western countries.[32]

For the western world, the single greatest legacy attributed to the Magi is the practice of giving gifts on Christmas, which was later linked to the gifts given by the Magi to Jesus and one that provides a massive jolt to the bottom like of retailers every year. In all of history, there are probably few lineages more bizarre than the one which links Median priests 2,600 years ago who interpreted dreams of kings, maintained eternal flames and disposed of their dead on towers, to the birth of Jesus, to a woman pepper-spraying a crowd of people on Black Friday in 2011 in order to get her hands on a half-priced Xbox 360.


[1] Matthew 2:1 (Revised Standard Version).

[2] Herodotus, The Histories, trans. by Andrea L. Purvis (New York: Anchor Books, 2007), 1.107, 120-128.

[3] Xenophon, The Cyropaedia, trans. by J.S. Watson and Henry Dale (London: Henry G. Bohn, 1855), 4.5.13, 7.5.35, 8.1.23.

[4] Xenophon, Cyropaedia, 7.5.57; “Traditional Zoroastrianism: Tenets of the Religion” ( (accessed December 23, 2011).

[5] Xenophon, Cyropaedia, 8.3.11.

[6] Herodotus, The Histories, 1.140.

[7] Pliny the Elder, Natural History, Perseus, trans. by John Bostock. 1855, (accessed December 23, 2011), 30.1-2, 5-6.

[8] Herodotus, The Histories, 3.28-38.

The story about killing the Apis bull has been doubted. Excavations at Saqqara found a mummy of the Apis bull along with a stele with an inscription recording that it died in Cambyses’ sixth year and that the Persian monarch donated a sarcophagus for it to have a proper burial. But there was a gap of a year and a half between the death of the Apis bull and the installation of the next Apis bull, much longer than the customary 70 days. Did Cambyses kill a young Apis bull and then cover it up? We have no way of knowing for sure, but it is at least plausible. See Marc Van De Mieroop, A History of Ancient Egypt (London: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010), 313-314; Leo Depuydt, “Murder in Memphis: The Story of Cambyses’s Mortal Wounding of the Apis Bull (Ca. 523 B. C. E.)” Journal of Near Eastern Studies 54, No. 2 (April 1995): 119-126.

[9] Herodotus, The Histories, 3.61; Behistun Inscription, trans. by L.W. King and R.C. Thompson ( (accessed December 23, 2011), lines 10-11.

[10] Herodotus, The Histories, 3.62-63.

[11] Herodotus, The Histories, 3.64-67; Behistun Inscription, line 11.

[12] Herodotus, The Histories, 3.61, 68, 74; Behistun Inscription, line 13.

[13] Herodotus, The Histories, 3.68-69.

[14] Herodotus, The Histories, 3.70-73; Behistun Inscription, line 68.

[15] Herodotus, The Histories, 3.74-79; Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, trans. by William Whiston, 1737 from (accessed December 24, 2011), 11.3.1; Behistun Inscription, lines 12-14; Jona Lendering, “Nisaia,” (accessed December 24, 2011).

[16] Herodotus, The Histories, 3.67, 80-89; Behistun Inscription, lines 12-14, 52, 68-69.

[17] Maria Brosius, The Persians (London: Routledge, 2006), 16-18; Behistun Inscription, lines 1-4.

[18] Herodotus, The Histories, 7.37, 43, 191; Arrian, Anabasis, trans. by J.R. Hamilton (New York: Penguin, 1976), 6.29-30, 7.12.

[19] Strabo, Geography, trans. by H.L. Jones, 1924 ( (accessed December 24, 2011), 11.9.3; Strabo, Geography, trans. by H.L. Jones, 1924 (*.html) (accessed December 24, 2011), 15.3.3, 15.3.13, 15.3.20.

[20] Strabo, Geography, trans. by H.L. Jones, 1924 (*.html) (accessed December 24, 2011), 15.3.14-15.

[21] Matthew 2:1-2; Peter James and Nick Thorpe, Ancient Mysteries (New York: Ballantine Books, 1999), 153-165.

[22] Mary Boyce, A History of Zoroastrianism, Vol.1: The Early Period (Leiden, Netherlands: Brill, 1996), 234, 284-286; Maneckji Nusservanji Dhalla, History of Zoroastrianism (New York: Oxford, 1938), 108-109.

[23] James and Thorpe, Ancient Mysteries, 164-165.

[24] Matthew 2:1-2; “Magi,” The Catholic Encyclopedia (; Chuck Missler, “Who were the Magi?” (, November 21, 1999 (accessed December 24, 2011).

[25] Matthew 2:3-6.

[26] Matthew 2:5-6; Micah 5:2 [Revised Standard Version].

[27] Matthew 2:7-12, 16-17.

[28] “Holy Innocents,” Catholic Encyclopedia, (; Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, 17.6.6, 17.8.1; Macrobius, Saturnalia, trans, by Robert A. Kaster (Harvard Loeb Classical Library, 2011), 2.4.11.

[29] Matthew 2:13-15, 19-23.

[30] Bart Ehrman, The New Testament: A Historical Introduction (Oxford University Press, 2008), 107; “St. Matthew,” The Catholic Encyclopedia, (; Eusebius, The History of the Church, trans. by G.A. Williamson (London: Penguin,1965), 3.24.

[31] “Bible Scholar Brent Landau Asks ‘Who Were the Magi’?,” Biblical Archaeology Review Online, ( (accessed December 24, 2011);  Brent Landau, Revelation of the Magi: The Lost Tale of the Wise Men’s Journey to Bethlehem (New York: HarperCollins, 2010); “Magi,” The Catholic Encyclopedia (

[32] Richard N. Frye, “The Sassanians,” in Cambridge Ancient History, 3rd Ed., Vol. 13 (London: Cambridge University Press, 2005), 483; K.E. Eduljee, “Zoroastrian Priests,” ( (accessed December 24, 2011).

Image Sources: (Banner); (Body);;;; Jacob Abbot, Makers of History: Darius the Great (;;;;;;

Article © Christopher Jones 2011-2014.

9 Comments leave one →
  1. Ted Wilson permalink
    January 6, 2012 11:34 AM

    Exellent article. Very fascinating. Great info in preparing an Epiphany sermon. Thanks.

  2. Joe Sauerzapf permalink
    December 22, 2012 2:24 PM

    Very insightful. Made some gray areas more distinguishable.

  3. Walter Durling C. permalink
    October 17, 2013 1:43 AM

    Very good! Enjoyed learning so much from a well-researched article.

  4. June 16, 2014 7:42 AM

    Great article, indeed! So much to learn from it!

  5. August 19, 2015 4:55 PM

    Thank-you for writing this compelling and informative article. It was a pleasure to read.

  6. May 18, 2016 8:48 AM

    Very good. A minor item “…city of Ecbatana in Syria…” – I thought Ecbatan is in westerm Iran.

  7. Alireza N. permalink
    May 25, 2016 4:55 AM

    A great article! These priests are pronounced ‘Mogh’ in Farsi (Persian) language, and it has nothing to do with the word or practice of magic. The ‘gh’ sound in Mogh doesn’t exist in any western language. It is so disappointing that every name relating to ancient Iran has either Greek or Roman pronunciation.


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