This is the final installment of a three-part series looking deeper into the birth of Jesus Christ. In part one we looked at lesser-known facts regarding Mary and Joseph and their backgrounds. Part two focused on the travel to Bethlehem, the shepherds, and the Angelic proclamation of the birth of Jesus Christ. Today the Christmas story continues with a look at the Wise men/Magi and Herod the Great.
After a Son is Born
The Mosaic Law
Eight days after the birth of a son, the Mosaic Law required per God, that the son was to be circumcised. The child was also officially given his name at circumcision. Furthermore, all firstborn sons were to be dedicated to God.
“Then the Lord spoke to Moses, saying: Speak to the children of Israel, saying: If a woman has conceived and bears a male child,… On the eighth day, the flesh of his foreskin shall be circumcised.” – Leviticus 12:1-3 (MEV)
“Sanctify unto Me all the firstborn, the firstborn of every womb among the children of Israel, both of man and of beast. It is Mine.” – Exodus 13:2 (MEV) – (see also Numbers 8:17)
Therefore, while Joseph and Mary were in Bethlehem the baby Jesus was circumcised.
“When eight days had passed and the Child was circumcised, He was named JESUS, the name given by the angel before He was conceived in the womb.” – Luke 2:21 (MEV)
Purification After Childbirth
A woman that gave birth to a son had to wait an additional 33 days before she would be considered purified before being able to present the child at the temple. (see Leviticus 12:4)
“When the days of her purification according to the Law of Moses were completed, they brought Him to Jerusalem to present Him to the Lord.” – Luke 2:22 (MEV)
“Present” in Luke 2:22 is translated from the Greek word paristemi which means to:
- place at one’s disposal
- offer a sacrifice to God
- present as a special offering to God
- or to dedicate once and for all
Other than the visiting shepherds at the birth of Christ and His circumcision, the visit of the wise men or Magi did not occur the night Jesus was born as tradition suggests. These events, along with King Herod’s murderous rampage, took place many months after the family left Bethlehem to return to their home in Nazareth.
One of the clues we see is in the original Greek terminology used. In Luke 2:12, the angel of the Lord called Him a “babe,” which is the Greek word brephos, meaning a newborn infant only a few hours old.
However, in Matthew 2:8 Herod told the wise men to “Go and search diligently for the young child.” “Young child” is translated from the Greek word paidion, which refers to a young child in training, a toddler, not an infant. He was a toddler learning how to walk and talk. Thus, when the Magi left Herod to continue their search, they were looking for a young child, not a newborn baby.
The Christmas story continues – The Wise Men
“Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, wise men came from the east to Jerusalem, saying, “Where is He who was born King of the Jews? For we have seen His star in the east and have come to worship Him.” – Matthew 2:1-2 (MEV)
Who Were the Magi?
The wise men or Magi were not three lowly kings or priests traveling through the wilderness on camels by themselves. They were a group of very powerful men from the Median Empire looking for Jesus.
“Wise men” is the translation of the Greek word magos, and the plural form is magi. This was a Median group of priests and astronomers that were strongly influenced by Daniel and the prophecies and scriptures he presented when he served as an assistant to the pagan kings in Babylon. These Magi were a unique blend of a politician, religious priest, and scientist. They were the most powerful men in the East. Particularly in Babylon.
The Priesthood of the Medes
The ancient Magi were a hereditary priesthood of the Medes credited with profound and extraordinary religious knowledge. After some Magi, who had been attached to the Median court, proved to be experts in the interpretation of dreams, Darius the Great established them over the state religion of Persia.
It was in this dual capacity whereby civil and political counsel was invested with religious authority, that the Magi became the supreme priestly caste of the Persian Empire, and continued to be prominent during the subsequent Seleucid, Parthian, and Sasanian periods.
The Role of Daniel
When Daniel was taken to Babylon in about 600 B.C., many scholars believe he became the head of the Magi. One of the titles given to Daniel was Rab-mag, the Chief of the Magi. His unusual career included being a principal administrator in two world empires: the Babylonian and the subsequent Persian Empire. Moreover, his prophecies and writings were not only well-known but also considered sacred by the Magi for hundreds of years.
Even though Babylon was pagan, Daniel possessed such a godly influence that the eastern Magi revered Daniel’s faith, his prophecies, and the Scriptures he treasured. Due to his influence and prophecies, they believed and were waiting for a world leader to be born that Daniel had prophesied about.
History also tells us that the Magi in the east were exceedingly rich and powerful — even more powerful than kings. Moreover, they were considered to be “king-makers.” With a word, they could elevate a man to the position of king or depose a king to the position of a man.
No one could become king in the eastern world without the endorsement of the Magi. Thus, kings were very respectful — and even terrified — of the Magi. Essentially, they were financially rich political and spiritual leaders devoted to interpreting dreams and studying the constellations. We have no one in the world today to compare to the Magi.
Since the days of Daniel, the fortunes of both the Persian and the Jewish nations had been closely intertwined. Both nations had, in their turn, fallen under Seleucid domination in the wake of Alexander’s conquests. Subsequently, both had regained their independence: the Jews under Maccabean leadership, and the Persians as the dominating ruling group within the Parthian Empire.
It was at this time that the Magi, in their dual priestly and governmental office, composed the upper house of the Council of the Megistanes (“magistrates”) whose duties included the absolute choice and election of the king of the realm. It was, therefore, a group of Persian-Parthian “kingmakers” who entered Jerusalem in the latter days of the reign of Herod.
Herod’s reaction was understandably one of fear when one considers the background of the Roman-Parthian rivalry that prevailed during his lifetime.
What’s the Big Deal?
“When Herod the king heard these things, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him.” – Matthew 2:3 (MEV)
History tells of a different group of Magi that came to visit Nero in Rome many years later, and when they did, he was terrified. When these Magi showed up to meet him, scholars tell us he trembled with fear because he knew how powerful they were. With a single word, they could install, instate or depose an emperor. Consequently, Nero rolled out the red carpet and treated the Magi like the nobility they were.
The Entourage to Jerusalem
In Jerusalem, the sudden appearance of the Magi, traveling in force with every imaginable oriental pomp and accompanied by adequate cavalry escort to insure their safe penetration of Roman territory, certainly alarmed Herod and the populace of Jerusalem.
Interestingly, the same way Nero responded to the Magi showing up in Rome is the way Herod reacted when the Magi showed up in Jerusalem seeking the One born King of the Jews. In his mind, their presence posed a serious threat to him and his kingdom, and it upset him terribly.
It would seem as if these Magi were attempting to perpetrate a border incident, which could bring swift reprisal from Parthian armies. Their request of Herod regarding the one “who has been born King of the Jews” was a calculated insult to him, a non-Jew who had contrived and bribed his way into that office.
The Christmas story continues – Who Was Herod?
Herod was born in 72 B.C, nearly seven decades before Christ.
Herod was a Great Builder
Herod’s rule was characterized by a period of unprecedented growth and construction, thanks in large part to Herod’s amicable relationship with Rome and his obsession with massive and elaborate construction projects.
Herod had Rome’s complete support in administering a very important territory which included several major trade routes. Herod used the huge profits from trade and money acquired through the crushing taxes he placed upon his subjects to undertake a series of mammoth building projects ― some of the most magnificent in the world.
- the legendary palace and city of Herodium
- the city of Masada
- massive palaces and military fortresses
- what is known today as the Second Jewish Temple
- (Solomon built the first)
- the Temple Mount walls and a major expansion of the Temple Mount itself
Herod was a Paranoid Tyrant
It is a well-documented fact that Herod the Great was a paranoid tyrant who lived his life driven by the constant fear that someone someday would steal his throne from him.
Through strategic political maneuvering and brutal acts of murder, Herod maintained his position as king in Judea for more than 30 years. When he became king, one of his first acts was to slaughter the entire Sanhedrin in the city of Jerusalem. He then removed the high priest and chose his own high priest and Sanhedrin.
This tells us that from the time of Herod the Great to the time of Jesus, the Sanhedrin and the high priest were not legitimate leaders. Instead, they were mere puppets and pawns in Herod’s hands.
Herod’s persecutions were infamous, and they even extended to his own family. Herod, knowing that his Jewish credentials were suspect, had married Miriam a Hasmonean princess, largely to gain legitimacy among the Jewish people.
But Miriam hated him largely because of what he had done to her brother, Aristobulus.
Herod had made Aristobulus High Priest at the age of 17. Aristobulus was a Hasmonean with a legitimate right to be High Priest. Moreover, Aristobulus was a genuine Jew and a genuine Cohen. The young High Priest became hugely popular. This threatened Herod too much and he had him drowned. Additionally, he even had his own wife murdered in a fit of jealousy.
Similarly, when Herod heard a rumor that his sons were conspiring together to take his throne, he had them executed. His wrath was so volatile that the Roman Emperor Augustus said it would be better to be one of Herod’s pigs than one of his sons.
Herod Begins the Investigation
“And when he had gathered all the chief priests and scribes of the people together, he inquired of them where Christ should be born. They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea, for this is what the prophet wrote: ‘And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are no longer least among the princes of Judah; for out of you shall come a Governor, who will shepherd My people Israel.’”
“Then Herod, when he had privately called the wise men, carefully inquired of them what time the star appeared. And he sent them to Bethlehem and said, “Go and search diligently for the young Child, and when you have found Him, bring me word again, so that I may come and worship Him also.” – Matthew – 2:4-8 (MEV)
When King Herod gathered the chief priests and scribes, he vigorously grilled them with questions. Through intense investigation, he sought to ascertain and pinpoint the location of Jesus’ birth.
Herod wanted to know the timeline of events, including when the star appeared. He knew that the appearance of the star announced the birth of Christ, and if he could determine when it was first seen, he could better estimate the Child’s age. Herod discovered from the prophecies in the Tanach (the Old Testament) that the Promised One, the Messiah, would be born in Bethlehem.
Hiding his concern and expressing sincere interest, Herod requested the Magi to keep him informed. Moreover, Herod did not want to worship Him, he desired to destroy Him! Just as he had destroyed every rival, competitor or potential competitor before Him.
A House in
“When they heard the king, they departed. And the star which they saw in the east went before them until it came and stood over where the young Child was. When they saw the star, they rejoiced with great excitement. And when they came into the house, they saw the young Child with Mary, His mother, and fell down and worshipped Him. And when they had opened their treasures, they presented gifts to Him: gold, frankincense, and myrrh.” – Matthew 2:9-11 (MEV)
The Many Gifts
The Bible says they presented “gifts,” which is plural, indicating many gifts. It also says “treasures,” which is the Greek word thesauros, meaning a storehouse of treasures or cargo filled with treasure. Again, the word “treasures” is plural, indicating there were many, many gifts. The use of the words prosphero and thesauros — translated here as “presented” and “treasures”. confirms that these were not three little gifts, but rather large and numerous extravagant treasures.
Great Kings Were Given Great Gifts and Treasures
Researchers have documented the kinds of gifts that would have been given to a king in this situation. There are many records that have survived from the ancient Middle East to have a reliable estimation of what the Magi gave Jesus. Traditionally, the size of diplomatic gifts given to a king was in proportion to the status of that king. Thus, if he was a low-level king, Magi would bring lesser gifts. If he was a high-level king, they would bring greater gifts of higher value.
Jesus was the greatest, most preeminent world leader ever to be born. His coming had been prophesied for centuries. Therefore, when He finally arrived, the Magi would have brought enormous gifts that were fit for the highest status of nobility. Anything less would have been viewed as a diplomatic snub.
From the record of diplomatic gifts given in the ancient world, we know exactly what kinds of gifts and treasures the Magi would have physically carried into the house and given to Jesus. The catalog of gifts Jesus received would have been enormous, and their value would have been a literal fortune. Remember, these were Magi, and Magi were rich. They were coming to the birth of the greatest leader ever born in human history. They would have brought gifts commensurate with Jesus’ status. These would have included but not limited to:
- all kinds of clothing
- items fashioned from gold, silver, and other rare and expensive materials
The Gifts of Gold, Frankincense, and Myrrh
And when they had opened their treasures, they presented gifts to Him: gold, frankincense, and myrrh.” – Matthew 2:11 (MEV)
The word “gold” is the Greek word chrusos, which describes profound wealth. It is plural in Greek, signifying many gifts of gold. This particular word for “gold” describes the purest form of gold. Although there were lesser forms that were mixed with other metals, chrusos was the highest quality of gold available.
Moreover, it was reserved for the wealthy, for nobility, and for those who were politically powerful. This was the same “gold” that dignitaries and kings used to make their cups, bowls, plates, saucers, platters, and many other items.
The word “Frankincense” is from the Greek word libanos, which is the word for the frankincense tree and the gum derived from it. Frankincense was a very hard item to obtain because it didn’t grow in Israel; it grew in Arabia and Sheba and had to be imported quite a long distance. This made it very expensive, and because it was so expensive, it was primarily used in the temple worship in Jerusalem. Scholars estimate about 700 pounds of it were used annually. It produced a powerful fragrance when it was burned. It was also the favorite fragrance of kings. You would only give frankincense to a real king.
The word “myrrh” is the Greek word smurna, and it describes a bitter gum and costly perfume that exudes from a certain tree or shrub in Arabia and Ethiopia. It was primarily used as an antiseptic and as an ointment.
The Symbolism of Gold, Frankincense, and Myrrh
When you take each of these gifts into account, they have great significance. Gold was a gift for a king. Frankincense was connected with a priest and his priestly functions. And myrrh was a component in perfume used for embalming the bodies of those who had died. Thus, it symbolically prophesied His death. He was born to be the Messiah — the Lamb of God that would take away the sins of the world. These three gifts of the Magi prophetically foretold that Jesus would eventually serve in the role of King, High Priest, and Savior of mankind through His death and resurrection.
Being Warned in a Dream…
After finding the child and presenting their gifts, the Magi “being warned in a dream” (a form of communication most acceptable to them) departed to their own country, ignoring Herod’s request. (see Matthew 2:12)
The Escape to Egypt
“Now when they departed, the angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream, saying, “Arise, take the young Child and His mother, and escape to Egypt, and stay there until I bring you word. For Herod will seek the young Child to kill Him.” When he rose, he took the young Child and His mother by night, and departed into Egypt, and remained there until the death of Herod, to fulfill what the Lord had spoken through the prophet, “Out of Egypt I have called My Son.” – Matthew 2:13-15 (MEV)
Egypt was very different from Israel. To leave and go to Egypt was a drastic, life-changing move. It meant leaving all the comforts and security of what he and Mary had known and starting over from scratch. As difficult as this move seemed to be, Joseph didn’t argue with God. Instead, He promptly obeyed.
The Flight To and Through Egypt
There was a world of difference between Nazareth and Egypt. Nevertheless, it was a logical place for Joseph, Mary, and Jesus to find refuge because it was outside Herod’s domain and hey could hide more easily there. Egypt and Judea were both parts of the Roman Empire, and they were linked by two major roads.
One road was a coastal road known as the Via Maris, which means “the way of the sea.” This travel route was popular and one that would have made it easy for them to quickly travel into Egypt. The other road was less used and took its travelers through the wilderness. Although it was a longer, more difficult path, it was more secretive and probably safer for them to avoid detection.
In either case, the trip was several hundred miles and would have taken ten to 14 days. They would not feel safe until they reached the Egyptian frontier.
Tradition says that once the family made it into Egypt, they took up residence in Jewish communities along the Nile. They first settled near Cairo in the Delta Basin, which was where they stayed the longest. However, once Herod sent spies into Egypt to look for them, they began moving from place to place.
Records were kept by the Coptic Church in Egypt. 26 locations are documented where it is believed the “Holy Family” lived and/or passed during their three to four years in Egypt. Thus, it wasn’t just a flight into Egypt — it was also a flight throughout Egypt.
A Horrible Tragedy
“Then Herod, when he saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, was utterly furious and sent forth and killed all the male children who were in Bethlehem and the surrounding region, from two years old and under, based on the time which he had diligently inquired of the wise men.” – Matthew 2:16 (MEV)
The wise men went home another way and didn’t return to Herod. Therefore, he felt tricked and was infuriated.
There are differing statistics regarding the number of babies massacred in Bethlehem. One record says Herod killed 14,000 boys, and another says he killed 64,000 boys. However, Bethlehem was a village of about 1,500 people. Therefore, it was not possible for Herod to have murdered 14,000 or 64,000 baby boys.
Moreover, based on the actual population for Bethlehem, modern scholars’ estimates say the number was fewer than 20. The point is that it was a much smaller number than most imagine. Nevertheless, whether it was a few children or many, the murder of any child was a horrible tragedy.
Ding Dong the
witch Herod is Dead…
“But when Herod was dead, an angel of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt, saying, “Arise, take the young Child and His mother, and go into the land of Israel, for those who sought the young Child’s life are dead.” And he rose, took the young Child and His mother, and came into the land of Israel… And he went and lived in a city called Nazareth, that what was spoken by the prophets might be fulfilled, “He shall be called a Nazarene.” – Matthew 2:19-23 (MEV)
Now as Paul Harvey would say: You know the rest of the story. Except the story continues and you and I are part of the wonderful story of Jesus Christ.
Jesus was willing to do whatever was required to redeem us from Satan, even dying on a Cross! Moreover, He now sits as King of kings and Lord of lords at the right hand of His Father waiting for the word to return and set up His kingdom here on earth. He is returning as the conquering King very soon. Are you ready to rule and reign with Him?
Maranatha! Our Lord Reigns!
Scriptures used are from biblegateway.com and unless otherwise noted, I’m using the New Living Translation (NLT)Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.