The Mysterious Magi: Who Were They?

Roman mosaic in Ravenna, showing Magi in Parthian dress
6th century Roman mosaic in Ravenna, showing Magi in Parthian dress

Today’s post is a lot of historical background, much of it research for my book So To Honor Him, put together to explain a story you’ve probably heard. If you’re into history and mystery-solving, come along with me. (Stay close; we’re going to go through a lot of material.)

We’re going to talk about the Magi, or the Wise Men, spoken of in the Biblical book of Matthew.

First off, despite your annual inundation of Christmas cards and nativity scenes, let’s admit that most of what the common man on the street will remember in reference to the Magi is sketchy at best and is not found anywhere in the Bible.

  • there’s no record they were three in number
  • there’s no record they were named Gaspar, Melchior, and Baltasar
  • there’s no record they were kings
  • there’s no record they all came from different countries or ethnic groups
  • there’s no record they rode camels

And so on. As much as I love the classic Claymation Christmas Special‘s take on the traditional carol “We Three Kings,” it’s probably not an accurate picture.

But it is one of my favorite renditions, so let’s watch it anyway.

Okay, now that we’ve taken care of that, let’s review what we do know:

Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, magi from the east arrived in Jerusalem, saying, “Where is He who has been born King of the Jews? For we saw His star in the east and have come to worship Him.” When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him…. Then Herod secretly called the magi and determined from them the exact time the star appeared. And he sent them to Bethlehem and said, “Go and search carefully for the Child; and when you have found Him, report to me, so that I too may come and worship Him.” After hearing the king, they went their way; and the star, which they had seen in the east, went on before them until it came and stood over the place where the Child was. 10 When they saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy. 11 After coming into the house they saw the Child with Mary His mother; and they fell to the ground and worshiped Him. Then, opening their treasures, they presented to Him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. 12 And having been warned by God in a dream not to return to Herod, the magi left for their own country by another way. (Matthew 2:1-12)

That’s it. That’s all of it. Nine whole verses. Not a lot to build a whole mythos on. Their names, number, and origins developed centuries later and vary regionally (Gaspar, Melchior, and Baltesar are one Western tradition, but there are many other traditional names, which I used for my own more-than-three magi.)

And yet the subject of those nine verses were one of the most popular subjects of early Christian art. That art lends us some historical clues as to who the Magi might really have been. While the number of depicted visitors varies, they are nearly universally portrayed in Parthian clothing.

So what was going on in the Parthian empire at the time? Quite a lot, actually.

The Megistanes & Parthia

bas relief, three figures carrying varied gifts and leading camels present to a madonna and child. The first figure points to a star over the child.
From a 4th century sarcophagus, again showing Parthian dress. I like the pointing at the star.

The Megistanes were a hereditary priesthood which, among their other priestly duties, elected the Parthian king. (If the idea of electing a monarch sounds odd to you, understand that they chose between eligible members of a dynasty or even a new dynasty, and if they didn’t want you to be king, it wasn’t going to happen, end of discussion.) They specialized in oneiromancy (the interpretation of dreams) and astronomy/astrology (which weren’t so separated at this period in history). They were pretty clever, understanding that the earth was round and revolved about the sun. They had a long and glorious history of serving their empire — and the ones before it. They’d actually lasted through four empires by this time, having gotten started with the Medes in Babylon. Suffice it to say, when the Megistanes talked, people listened.

They had a connection to the Jewish nation as well. Back in 597 BCE the Chaldean king Nebuchadnezzar captured Judea and trashed Jerusalem, destroyed Solomon’s Temple, and deported an enormous percentage of the Jewish population. Because one of the best ways to control a conquered population is assimilation, and because it’s dumb to waste good talent, the best of Jewish male youth were taken into the royal court and service. (Well, they didn’t waste male talent, anyway.) One of these was given the Babylonian name Belteshazzar, but you’ve probably heard of him by his Jewish name, Daniel — or, as Sunday School kids know him, “Daniel-in-the-lions’-den.”

Daniel was good at his job and rode out the conquering of Babylon by the Persians, and eventually he became Rab-Mag (leader of the Megistanes) under King Darius. Due to jealousy, and quite probably some old-fashioned racism, he inspired dislike among others of the order, and that led to the famous lions’ den incident. Most relevant to our theme, he recorded a lot of prophecies about the Jewish people and their coming Messiah. We have the Jewish records of his prophecies in the book of Daniel; we don’t know what he might have left with the Megistanes themselves.

enormous bull head (missing ears and horns) from Persepolis, with Laura, photographed at the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago
enormous bull head (missing ears and horns) from Persepolis, with Laura, photographed at the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago

Five and a half centuries later, give or take, the Megistanes were still around. And here’s what I think: I think the Megistanes, studying the night sky for astrologic interpretation, found something they recognized as important, handed down from one of their own. I think early Christian art depicts the wise men as Parthians because they were.

And the language supports it. The Greek “magos” is translated “wise man” in Matthew and “magician” in Acts, in a bit of translation sanitization, so these clearly weren’t just academics and scholars but people engaged in a non-Jewish divination system, by which the Megistanes would qualify. They would have come “from the east” as described. More, it’s recorded they were “warned in a dream” not to return to Herod, and the Megistanes relied upon dreams for divine messages. We can’t be certain (and it’s not critical to know), but I’m personally fairly comfortable with this identification.

But wait, because history can lend us a little more insight to this Scripture passage.

Parthia vs Rome — Fight!

At any rate, we know the Megistanes were keeping on an eye on things in Judea, because the Parthian and Roman empires were…not on friendly terms.

In 53 BCE, the Roman general Marcus Licinius Crassus led seven legions plus additional infantry and cavalry into Parthia. In the academic terminology of the most serious military historians, he got his butt royally kicked up to somewhere in the region of his spleen. The Battle of Carrhae is considered one of the most crushing defeats in all of Roman military history.

Parthia returned the regional interest a few years later, invading the Roman province of Judea by the invitation of Antigonus II Mattathias, who was dissatisfied with his uncle’s and others’ roles as local governors for Rome. Antigonus’ uncle was Hyrcanus II, high priest in Jerusalem and patriarch of the influential Hasmonean family. Antigonus slung some cash (and 500 female slaves) to Orodes II and thus got Parthian aid to conquer Jerusalem. The Megistanes declared Antigonus king and plopped him on the throne. The Parthians cut off Hyrcanus’ ears (disqualifying him from the priesthood by disfigurement) and took him back to Parthia. Jerusalem was overrun, and the governing tetrarchs Phaesel and Herod fled. Phaesel didn’t make it; his younger brother Herod did, barely, and scurried to Rome for his very life.

Remember that guy, he’s going to be important.

etching of Herod the Great
Herod the Great

Herod the Great

While in Rome, Herod (who was a veritable master of political scheming, seriously) got himself named King of Judea by the Roman Senate and was sent back with an army to retake the province. It took three years and a five-month siege, but finally Herod returned to his Jerusalem, this time as its king. In order to settle the fractious Jews, who weren’t sure they wanted an Idumean ruler, he banished his wife and child and instead married Miriamne, granddaughter of Hyrcanus and a Hasmonean princess. (He loved her deeply — too deeply.) He also negotiated for the return of Hyrcanus to Jerusalem.

This last bit wasn’t as kind as it sounded. Yes, he brought Hyrcanus home to Jerusalem, but he also took the Hasmonean patriarch from the foreign kingmakers, reducing the likelihood that Hyrcanus would be used to replace him in another invasion. And in case you had any doubts, he executed Hyrcanus a few years later when Mark Antony died and politics sprayed all over the fan for a while.

Herod groveled and wheedled and convinced Octavian (becoming Octavian Augustus, first Emperor of Rome) that while he was very loyal, very very loyal, to his friends, and he had been loyal to Mark Antony, he also hadn’t really been friends with Mark Antony and he was really loyal to Octavian, and Octavian bought it. Things settled down, and Herod got busy with what he was really good at — taxing people, eliminating political rivals, and building amazing structures for himself and his people. He’s also called Herod the Builder, and his works are truly impressive; you’ve probably heard of at least both the Jewish Temple and the infamous Masada.

Herod developed a healthy paranoia, probably from believing everyone was as politically sneaky as he was, and it showed in his political execution rate. Completely aside from state executions like Hyrcanus, a collection of religious teachers and students who tore down a Roman idol from the Jewish Temple, and a host of others, he plowed through his own family mercilessly. He killed the beautiful Miriamne he adored, he killed his teen brother-in-law, he killed three of his own sons. It is reported that Emperor Augustus quipped, “It is better to be Herod’s pig than son,” as Herod did not eat pork and thus a pig had a longer life expectancy than a human relation.

When facing his death, Herod had important men from the community collected and held to be executed upon his passing, so that there would be mourning in Jerusalem — if not because of his death, at least at his death. (Fortunately, these orders were not carried out.)

The Magi in the House of Herod, by James Tissot
The Magi in the House of Herod, by James Tissot

Herod & the Magi

So let’s review:

  • Herod had to run for his life and lost his elder brother the last time the Parthians came to Jerusalem
  • they established a new king of the Jews while he was gone
  • it took three years of fighting to get the city back
  • …not to mention ditching a wife and child, to take a new wife as part of negotiations
  • and now a bunch of Parthian priests, who have “kingmaker” printed right on their business cards, ride into town
  • and they walk through Herod’s door and declare they’re looking for the new King of the Jews

Herod has a bit of a freak-out. And he knows that back then he was a young man with the support of Rome, and now he is old, surrounded by rivals waiting for a chance to bloodily depose him, and without a lot of backup. He’s scared.

He’s not the only one:

…magi from the east arrived in Jerusalem, saying, “Where is He who has been born King of the Jews? For we saw His star in the east and have come to worship Him.” When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him.

The Massacre of the Innocents by Daniele da Volterra
The Massacre of the Innocents by Daniele da Volterra

Without historical context, this verse really makes no sense. Why would the whole city be worried because some rich academics rode in looking for a baby? But if Dad or Grandma remembers years of war and bloodshed the last time the Parthian kingmakers came to town, things look a lot more worrisome.

So Herod panics. And while ordering the wholesale slaughter of toddlers and infants in the hope of getting the right one is still definitely the wrong response, you can see now where it comes from.

So that’s one plausible theory of who the mysterious Magi were and why Herod did an ungraceful swan dive into the the deep end of the freak-out pool.

History. It makes everything better. Stay in school, kids.

So To Honor Him book cover, three riders on camels against a dramatic sky, with a brilliant star, and a super-imposed drum

I hope you found this little trip through history to be fun and educational. If you want to see where this research went in fiction, check out my book So To Honor Him, about a boy with a drum who travels with the Magi.

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  1. Wow. I’m reading a book of history pertinent to the NT right now, and I so wish you had written it.

  2. I liked the video, but it bothered me that these camels had so many teeth…. just for the record, camels (like other ruminants) do not have upper incisors!

  3. Thank you for this article. I know it was written some time ago, but do you recall what source material you used please? Or any good books on this subject?

    Thank you again

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