There was a ‘feeling in the air’ in the first century Roman Empire – a sense that something greater was about to invade the world. The Jews apprehended it and calculated the approximate timing of the coming of the Anointed Prince from Daniel’s prophecy:
From the time there went out this message:
“Return and rebuild Jerusalem”
to the coming of an Anointed Prince, seven weeks and sixty-two weeks … (Daniel 9:25)
Even the Romans were aware of the coming King. Suetonius (c. AD 69-140) records that the belief in a Judaean King who would rule the world was widespread in the Eastern Empire – the Emperor Vespasian (naturally) applied the prophecy to himself, little realising that the King had already Risen and was rapidly expanding his Kingdom under Vespasian’s very nose.
There had spread over all the Orient an old and established belief, that it was fated for men coming from Judaea to rule the world. This prediction, referring to the emperor of Rome -as afterwards appeared from the event- the people of Judaea took to themselves. (Suetonius, Life of Vespasian 4.5)
That other great historian of the Roman Empire, Tacitus (c. AD 56-120), wrote of this as well:
The majority [of the Jews] were convinced that the ancient scriptures of their priests alluded to the present as the very time when the Orient would triumph and from Judaea would go forth men destined to rule the world. (Tacitus, Histories 5.13)
How typical of God’s action in history, to ensure that all the key elements were in place for the coming of the Messiah: the Pax Romana with its efficient network of roads , a common language – Greek – for the spreading of the Gospel, and a fevered expectation throughout the eastern end of the Empire that a Messiah-King was due.
So when the Magi arrived in Jerusalem, asking, “Where is the infant King of the Jews”, they were taken seriously. So seriously, in fact, that Herod did his utmost to prevent the prophecy being fulfilled and ordered the Massacre of the Innocents. He should have read his Sophocles and realised that the more one attempts to circumvent a prophecy, the more one ends up being caught in its net.
Herod is known as “The Great” because he poured money and resources into ambitious construction projects: the vast expansion of the second Temple and the impressive ten hectare harbour at Caesarea Maritima which was the largest open-sea harbour in all the world.
Great in material achievements Herod might have been, but what is that in the scheme of things? What do we see about his character from today’s Gospel: deviousness, duplicity, envy and murderous intent; the use of his power to squash opposition, no matter how small and defenceless; the recruitment of others to execute his commands, so that, removed from the physical brutality of killing, he could maintain a semblance of dignity.
Josephus tells us that Herod the Great murdered even his own sons, Alexander and Aristobulus, who had gained great popularity with the people, but whom he suspected of plotting against him.
… he ventured, without any certain evidence of their treacherous designs against him, and without any proofs that they had made preparations for such attempt, to kill his own sons, who were of very comely bodies, and the great darlings of other men, and no way deficient in their conduct, whether it were in hunting, or in warlike exercises, or in speaking upon occasional topics of discourse; for in all these they were skillful, and especially Alexander, who was the eldest; for certainly it had been sufficient, even though he had condemned them, to have kept them alive in bonds, or to let them live at a distance from his dominions in banishment, while he was surrounded by the Roman forces, which were a strong security to him, whose help would prevent his suffering any thing by a sudden onset, or by open force; but for him to kill them on the sudden, in order to gratify a passion that governed him, was a demonstration of insufferable impiety. (Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, Book XVI)
So much for Herod. Meanwhile, the Magi – the priestly astronomers of their day and masters of the night sky – are open to the guidance of the Spirit and attentive to the way God communicates through natural events. The sight of the star ‘fills them with delight’ – their childlike enchantment is as much like Heaven as Herod’s malice and egocentrism is like Hell. Nobody was forcing them to make this trip to Judaea – they came in voluntary humility, with the idea of giving homage, paying tribute, showing their allegiance, acknowledging a greatness outside themselves. This journey was not about them, it was about the newborn King. We don’t even hear their names in the Biblical account. There was nothing they gained by the journey – no quid pro quo they were expecting to receive from the newborn in return for their gifts. This was an act of self-giving.
Were these Magi real or fictional? Fr Dwight Longenecker has been on a quest to discover the historical truth of the matter. He says,
What I found was astounding. First I discovered that because of their assumption that the Magi story was a fairy tale very few scholars had taken the time to investigate thoroughly the possible identity of the wise men. My research brought me into contact with new technologies which shed light on the subject. Some fresh archeological findings and new understandings from the Dead Sea Scrolls also contributed to the quest.
As it turns out, it is perfectly probable that there were wise men who had the motive, the means and the method to pay homage to Jesus Christ just as Matthew recorded. The simple truth is that Matthew’s account is factual not fictional.
My findings not only stand the established academic orthodoxy on its head, but they should cause everyone interested in New Testament scholarship, ancient history and the historical veracity of the gospels to think again.
Like the story of King Arthur, the tale of the wise men who visited Bethlehem was embroidered and embellished over many years. The history became legend and the legend became myth. But beneath it all there is a foundation of historical truth which is fascinating and compelling.
Stay tuned for his book, The Mystery of the Magi, which will be released in Advent 2017.