The Magi – Who Were They ?

When Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod, Magi  from the east came to Jerusalem saying

Where is he that is BORN King of the Jews? Matt. 2:1-2

Our setting for the Magi is the birth of Jesus in the Days of Herod the King . Herod was the epitome of Darkness. Jesus was the Light of the World. The contrast between the 2 couldn’t be greater –

Herod was PROCLAIMED king by the Roman senate

Jesus was BORN to be King

The Magi were looking for such a person, probably because of passages like –

The Lord himself will give you a sign: The virgin  will conceive and give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel (God with us)Isaiah 7:14

A star will come out of Jacob; a sceptre will rise out of Israel. Num. 24:17


The Magi came from the East in search of the King of the Jews. The huge power East of Israel at that time was Parthia.

The Parni tribe  had gained control of Parthia (South East of Caspian Sea) and by 139 BC they had control of the entire Iranian plateau. By the time of Christ they were a superpower with control of Babylon and Susa – they came into conflict with Rome where their borders met around the Euphrates – notably the battle of Carrhae in 53 BC. The Parthians decisively defeated a Roman invasion force.  According to Wiki, It is commonly seen as one of the earliest and most important battles between the Roman and Parthian Empires, and one of the most crushing defeats in Roman history.


‘Magi’ first appear about the 7th century B.C. in the Median empire (Herodotus I, ci)

We read of Magi in the book of Daniel during the Babylonian Empire

The king summoned the enchanters, magi, administers of potions and astrologers to tell him what he had dreamed….  the king was so angry and furious that he ordered the execution of all the wise men of Babylon. Dan 2:2, 12 (Septuagint)

‘Magi’ remained throughout the Persian Empire – some of the administrators were retained by the incoming conquerors. Daniel remained in office under the Babylonians and the Persians – “By his extraordinary spirit, Daniel distinguished himself among the administrators and satraps.” Daniel 6:3

By the time of Jesus, Persian rule had gone but the Magi continued under the Parthians and were involved in choosing kings –

Poseidonius affirms that the council of the Parthians is composed of two classes, one of relatives, (of the royal family,) and another of wise men and magi, by both of which kings are chosen. (Strabo, XI, ix, 3)

From 137 BC the Parthian parliament was made of two parts:

1.Wise men and Magi (from across the country)

2.Relatives of the royal family

The Magi, in their dual priestly and governmental office, made up the upper house of the Council of the Megistanes (from which we get the term ‘magistrates’), whose duties included the election of the king of the realm – Thus the Magi at this time were “Parthian King Makers

Josephus  confirms the role of the Parthian Kingmakers and tells us that Orodes III was raised to the throne of the Parthian Empire around AD 4 by the magnates (magistanes/magi) after the death of Phraates V –  “they sent ambassadors, and called Orodes to take the crown.” He was killed after a short reign “on account of his extreme cruelty”  – Antiquities of the Jews, Book XV111, ch. 2:4


When Herod heard that the Magi had arrived in town asking for the one BORN king of the Jews, he was greatly alarmed –

Magi from the east came to Jerusalem and asked, “Where is the one who has been BORN King of the Jews? We saw his star in the East and have come to worship him. ”When King Herod heard this he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him.  Matt. 2:2-3


No wonder Herod was alarmed. This wasn’t the first time he had crossed paths with Parthian King Makers. The last time they came they murdered his brother, and Herod himself narrowly escaped with his  life. It’s necessary to understand the background to see why Herod was so alarmed.

63 BC – Pompey ended Jewish Hasmonaean rule & captured Jerusalem –           Herod was 10

47 BC   Julius Caesar  besieged in Alexandria – (Cleopatra his mistress). Antipater (father of Herod) rescued him and was made Procurator of Judea

44 BC Julius Caesar assasinated

41 BC Herod and his brother Phasael named as Roman tetrarchs by  Mark Antony- Phasael governor of Jerusalem – Herod of Galilee.

40 BC – 2 Kings – one kingdom

40 B.C Parthian invasion swept Romans out of Palestine.  Herod’s brother Phasael murdered, Herod fled to  Egypt then Rome, and with Marc Antony’s support got himself proclaimed King of the Jews – A King without a Kingdom

40 BC – In Jerusalem – Parthian Megistanes (Magi) declared Antigonus (Jew) king and put him on the throne. Thus the Parthians empowered the Jews and appointed the King of the Jews. This was vividly embedded in Herod’s memory when the Parthian Magi came knocking on his door when Jesus was born.

Added to this was the fact that in 37 BC Herod murdered Antigonus who the Parthians had appointed as King –

 37 BC Siege of Jerusalem

Herod backed by Roman troops provided by Marc Antony (funded by Cleopatra) captured Judea, ending with a 40 day Siege of Jerusalem in 37 BC. The Romans went on a rampage, causing much damage to the city and death of many.

Herod the Idumean murdered the Jewish “King of the Jews”- the one appointed by the Parthian Magi and took control.

31 BC Death of Antony & Cleopatra

27BC Augustus made Emperor

2 or 1 BC Parthians back in town looking for the ‘King of the Jews’ (based on Herod dying in 1BC not 4BC).

This period is summarised in Daniel 11 – See: Daniel 11 – Context of the Abomination of Desolation

No wonder Herod and all Jerusalem were troubled when the Parthian Magi were back in town.  Approx. 36 years earlier Herod had killed Antigonus – the King of Jerusalem appointed by the Magi of Parthia. Herod might have felt they wanted revenge. The Parthians were a superpower who rivalled Rome and they were back to honour the rightful King of the Jews.


One of the earliest known depictions of the Magi is on this sarcophagus – mid 3rd century. They are dressed as Parthians

Public Domain, third century –


It would seem very likely that the Magi in search of the King of the Jews had access to Daniel’s prophecies from which the time of Jesus’ birth could be estimated –

See Daniel 9 – 70 week prophecy

Also see: Star of Bethlehem for the rest of the Magi story





About alsowritten

Another voice in the wilderness
This entry was posted in Magi - Who Were They? and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to The Magi – Who Were They ?

  1. Pingback: Star of Bethlehem | alsowritten – Robin's Blog

  2. Peter witton says:

    Very interesting read thankyou


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s