When taking on the study of a well-known gospel, there are two dangers we must avoid at all costs. The first danger is to assume that we know more than we do. The early chapters of Matthew are overshadowed and obscured by tradition and presuppositions that are either inaccurate or just plain false. Nothing is to be taken for granted and everything must be submitted to the facts of history and the plain reading of the text. A second danger is to lose the focus of Matthew’s argument by focusing on various details that may or may not advance his thought. This is what is known as losing the forest for the trees. It is interesting that Matthew chapter 2 is normally associated with Christmas as people complete their nativity scenes with the wisemen bearing gifts and “We Three Kings” is hummed in the kitchen while cookies are being baked. Ironically, associating this portion of Scripture with Christmas commits both blunders simultaneously.
Context, as we say, is always king. It is first necessary to remind ourselves of Matthew’s argument and how he is developing it. We are not mining the text for memorable anecdotes but seek to understand the author’s intention. Next, we must repent of assuming that we know what this text is about. The obvious questions must be asked and answered if we are to understand and submit to this text. Before diving into the text of Matthew 2:1-23, we will first remind ourselves of the larger context. Next, we must determine the flow of thought in the near context. Finally, we must make a few observations of the text in order to determine where the gaps in our knowledge exist so that we can form the questions we are required to answer.
The Context of Matthew Chapter 2
Let us remind ourselves that Matthew has not yet begun his presentation of Jesus the Christ but is still introducing the expectation of the promised One. In 1:1-25 Jesus is presented as the true seed of the woman, seed of Abraham, and seed of David. Without a doubt, Jesus is the rightful king of Israel as well as the anointed son of God who will undo and reverse the curse upon the world. The King’s advent is presented as literally and historically fulfilled in the birth of Jesus. If this is true, then what happened next? How was the King of kings received upon His birth? That question is answered in chapter 2 of Matthew’s gospel.
The near context of Matthew 2:1-23 is to recount the reception of the king. In vv. 1-12 Matthew tells us how the king was received among foreigners. In vv. 13-23 we read how the king was received by his people. In short, Jesus was paid homage from afar while receiving hostility at home. This is a significant point in Matthew’s gospel account. As he urges his readers to steel their convictions as they separate from the established Jewish synagogue, his introduction makes clear that the religious establishment knew where to find Messiah and yet could not be bothered to look for Him. Yet the nation’s indifference is not the low point of this text. It is not only that the religious elite is indifferent to Messiah, but the nation’s leadership is dedicated to fighting against Messiah. The man who occupies David’s throne is an anti-Messiah, or an antichrist.
Examining the text on a closer level, it appears as if vv. 1-12 are arranged chiastically. Both vv. 1&12 mention the magi and Herod together. The magi seek to worship this king in v. 2 and find Him in v. 11. There is a verb of physical perception (“hearing” and “seeing”) followed by a strong emotional response in v. 3 and in vv. 9-10. In v. 4, Herod gathers mean to research his questions while in vv. 7-8 he gathers men to search out and locate the answers. In the middle of this chiasm, we read vv. 5-6 which look back to the Old Testament to provide the answer of Israel’s shepherd.
Sometimes the most obvious observations prove the most valuable. We cannot help but notice that this chiasm begins and ends with focus upon two groups of characters: Herod and the Magi. This is where we must not allow our preconceived notions and presuppositions to come into play. We probably think we know a lot about these two characters. But who is Herod and what are the magi?
Answering Obvious Questions
It’s at this point that the humble will admit that what little they know about the magi come from westernized Christmas carols, claymation TV specials, and nativity scenes of various shapes and sizes. Yet, if asked to explain who the magi mentioned in Matthew 2:1-12 are, most would be able to offer nothing but a vacant stare in response. If the question were changed to Herod, few would fare better. We know that Herod is a king in Israel, yet he is not mentioned in Matthew’s genealogy and is therefore not a Davidic king. He is clearly a wicked man and is portrayed in a very negative light. Yet, the Bible has little to say regarding this man outside of the present context. Matthew 2:1-23 and Luke 1:5 are the only places where this person is mentioned. Matthew again makes assumptions of his audience who know exactly who these magi are and who this Herod is. To them, Matthew only has to mention them and his meaning is clear. Not so with us. We shall have to roll up our sleeves and dig for answers.
One might argue that we are in danger of committing the second error at this point, that is, to miss the forest for the trees. Why not just move on with the text and ignore the massive amounts of background? The answer to this is simple: the text does not allow us the pleasure of ignorance. If Matthew begins and ends this pericope with the magi and Herod, then it is necessary for us to understand who these characters are if we are to understand Matthew’s point and purpose. To state the same thing a little differently: those who do not have a working understanding of who the magi were and who king Herod was cannot claim to have anything more than a surfacy, disjointed, and fragmented understanding of Matthew 2:1-12.
The Magi: It’s at this point that we must disregard literally everything that we think we know. There are at least five fallacies regarding the magi that are certainly not true. First, this scene is in no way connected to the “Christmas” story as recorded in Luke chapter 2. Jesus is said to be a child (παιδίον) rather than an infant (βρέφος). Also, the scene takes place in a house (οἰκία) not in a manger (φάτνη). In addition, only Mary is with the child when the magi enter yet Joseph was clearly present during the birth and when the shepherds investigated the scene. All these things together indicate that some time has passed between the events recorded by Luke and this account presented by Matthew. Second, the idea that there were three magi is pure speculation based on the three gifts presented to the born king of the Jews (2:11), but there were certainly more than three individuals present on that day. Third, these magi were not kings but were members of an ancient priestly caste. The term “wise men” is not at all incorrect and is certainly closer than “kings”, yet we can be more specific in our understanding. Fourth, these magi did not come from the orient. The orient refers to nations east of India (China, Mongolia, Japan, Korea, etc.). The men in question originate a little closer to Jerusalem, likely in the neighborhood of the Mesopotamia between the modern nations of Iraq and Iran. Finally, we have no notion as to their names. Tradition states that the three (again, there were more than three) magi were named Balthasar, Melchior, and Gaspar. This information is completely fictitious with no foundation at all. But for those who readily believe in myth, they can see the “relics” of these three persons in Cologne, Germany. In other words, the Christmas carol “We Three Kings” does not contain a single factual statement regarding the men in question. Deconstructing our assumptions is one thing, but now we must reconstruct our understanding of the magi based on reality instead of tradition.
The magi first appear on the scene in the 7th century BC as a tribe of priests within the emerging Median nation. The magi began as a religious caste whose focus was not on any specific idolatrous deity, but on the four basic elements of the created order; namely, fire, water, earth, and air. Their religion assumes an all-good uncreated god, but the emphasis of their religion assumes this deity more than worships it. Rather than please or appeasing some god or gods, the Zoroastrian religion of the magi sought to understand the apparent chaos of the world through close analysis of these basic elements. The order of the heavens, for example, were studied so as to unlock the mystery of the chaos common in dreams. This Magian religion became the state religion of the Medes by the late 7th century and was imported to the courts of Babylon by the early 6th century. Nebuchadnezzar employed members of the magi in his court, a chief of which was present during the siege of Jerusalem in 586 BC (Jer. 39:3, 13). The “magi” are again associated with Nebuchadnezzar’s court in Dan. 2:1-49 (LXX = μάγος as in Matt. 2:1). This confirms an interesting development in the magi as more than a religious caste of priests. By the early 6th century BC, they are being used in the courts of kings as political and social advisors and counselors. It is necessary to note that Nebuchadnezzar elevated Daniel as a chief or head over all magi in the realm (Dan. 2:48). Godly Daniel now has influence over this shadowy caste of counselors. It is likely that Daniel’s writing greatly interested these priests.
Take a minute and consider what is contained within the book of Daniel. Daniel wrote down the succession of empires by name from Babylon to Persia, to Greece with a yet unnamed empire to arise after Greece. Daniel also provided a specific timeline when Israel’s savior was supposed to be “cut off” (Dan. 9:24-27). Daniel thus leaves a brilliant neon sign among the Gentiles as to when to expect Israel’s Messiah. All this information was provided in the context of various dreams, a particular specialty of the magi. Forecasting the rise and fall of empires and counting down the days of THE king to come are the kinds of things the magi would be expected to understand.
The magi have a unique talent of surviving successive administrations and empires. The Persians made as much use of the magi as did the Babylonians before them. This is remarkable considering that the magi were behind a plot to take the Persian throne by deception to bring the empire under Median control. The plot failed and those responsible were punished and yet the magi survived and thrived.
From the Persian courts to the Greeks, the magi continue to advise their lords in matters both political and social while maintaining the face of religious persons. The massive empire conquered by Alexander (356-323 BC) began to crumble in the west under pressure from Rome and in the east from the emerging Parthian empire. By 63 BC, all that was once Greek is now under either Roman or Parthian control. The magi, now advising Parthian kings, have lasted over six hundred years, and have given counsel for the kings of four successive empires. Yet their role in Parthian politics takes on a new twist. The ruler of the Parthian empire is referred to as the King of kings, yet the realm is controlled by a combination of small vassal kings and/or satraps. These lesser kings received their realm by appointment from the Parthian council. This council was made up of two houses, one consisting of Parthian nobility, and the other consisting of the caste of the magi. The magi in the Parthian empire (247 BC – 224 AD) are more than simple star gazers, but king makers.
The men who arrive in Jerusalem in or around 5 BC are a contingent representing the Parthian empire whose job consists of advising Parthian policy and appointing Parthian rulers. To show up in Judaea, a kingdom loyal and beholding to Rome not Parthia, and ask to see the rightfully born king of the Jews would certainly cause a stir. Even more so given who Herod was and where he came from.
Herod the Great: It is curious how a man of Idumean descent could aspire to the throne of Israel in the last millennium BC. His story begins with his father Antipater during the last days of the Hasmonean kingdom. Dispute arose between Hyrcanus (the eldest and rightful heir) and his brother Aristobulus. Hyrcanus had little aspiration for the throne and was more than willing to let his brother rule, but Antipater convinced him that the throne was his right and that he must claim it. Antipater would use Hyrcanus as a vehicle to advance his own ambition. This dispute would be settled by an outsider when in 63 BC Roman general Pompey sided with Hyrcanus (the least likely of the brothers to rebel once the dust settled) and laid siege to Jerusalem in order to provide Hyrcanus with a kingdom and dispose of his rebellious brother. Israel’s fate is now bound to Rome.
During Rome’s civil war between the forces of Julius Caesar and Pompey (48-47 BC), Antipater would prove loyal to Caesar by coming to his aid in Egypt with great risk to himself. Caesar would reward Antipater with Roman citizenship and the office of procurator over Judaea while Hyrcanus was appointed as high priest and given the title of ethnarch of the Jewish people. As ethnarch, Hyrcanus is recognized as the ethnic ruler of the Jewish people. Yet as proconsul, it is Antipater’s job to collect taxes and in all other ways represent Rome in the region of Judaea. There is now a serious question as to who is subject to whom between Antipater and Hyrcanus. Almost immediately after receiving his honors from Caesar, Antipater made his son Phasael governor of Jerusalem and his other son Herod governor over the Galilee. Antipater never rebelled against Hyrcanus, yet there was no question who held the power of the kingdom.
The history of Israel is again intertwined with Rome when Julius Caesar was assassinated in 44 BC launching the empire into another civil war between the forces of the empire headed by Octavian (Augustus) and Mark Antony and the forces of the republic commanded by Cassius and Brutus. Because of his loyalty and efficiency in gathering taxes, Octavian promised Antipater that he would receive the governorship of all Judaea (effectively limiting Hyrcanus to a symbolic figurehead) once the war was settled. Antipater never received this honor because he was murdered less than a year later (43 BC).
In 42 BC the forces of Antony defeated Cassius at the battle of Philippi (yes, that Philippi visited by the apostle Paul 90 odd years later). As he began to settle the empire’s affairs, Antony named Phasael and Herod as tetrarchs over all Judaea. This honor was not long enjoyed, for as soon as Antony left the region the Parthians invaded.
The Parthian empire had been rubbing up against the eastern fringe of Rome for some time. A decade before this an entire Roman army out of Syria was defeated by the Parthians leaving the whole Levant open to attack. The Euphrates River was supposed to serve as the border between these two empires, but what is a border but a line on a map? Lines are to be crossed. In 40 BC, a Parthian army came with the intention of taking the Levant from Roman control. The ethnarch Hyrcanus as well as Antipater’s son Phasael were captured by the Parthians while Herod escaped to the ancient fortress of Masada. From Masada he fled to Petra, on to Egypt, and then to Rome in order to plead his case.
Octavian (Augustus Caesar now) personally supported Herod and the Roman Senate pronounced him as the rightful “King of the Jews”, authorizing him to take back Jerusalem and Judaea. With the help of Roman legions, Herod did just that and by 37 BC sat as king in Jerusalem. It must be admitted that Herod was a gifted politician and a skilled military commander, but he was not royalty. He did not come from a line of kings nor even a people of kings. He descended from the line of Esau, not Jacob. This “king of the Jews” may reign over the Jewish people, but he was not one of them. He sits on the throne of David yet has no claim to David’s line as David’s seed.
Herod reigned for thirty-three years (37-4 BC) in what can only be described as monstrous and magnificent reign. It was a monstrous reign in that he ruled through blood and terror. At least two wives, three sons, and several other relatives were murdered in order to secure Herod’s realm. Upon his deathbed, Herod ordered that all the heads of Israel’s nobility be rounded up and executed when he died so that the nation would know a day of mourning rather than rejoicing. This order was never carried out, but it is not difficult to see how this monster could have ordered the execution of Bethlehem’s children (Matt. 2:16-18). His reign was also magnificent in the many building projects that he ordered to be carried out. The remodeling of the temple produced a structure larger and grander than even Solomon’s original. The construction of the city of Caesarea produced an ivory example of the Hellenistic world in the Levant. Herod’s thinking seems to have been to appease the people he so regularly offends with massive public works that are beautiful yet accomplish very little. Such is politics.
Making the Correct Connections
At this point the reader must take all of this information and reread Matthew 2:1. Three characters are mentioned: (1) Jesus, the promised king of David’s line, blessing from Abraham’s loins, and curse reverser from the woman; (2) Herod, and Idumean pretender to David’s throne who enjoys Rome’s complete backing as the “king of the Jews”; and (3) the magi, who come from the courts of Parthia, a nation who invaded this very city 35 years earlier, as men who advise and appoint Parthian kings. This is a very tense situation, and everyone involved is aware of it. Matthew chapter two has very little (nothing at all, actually) to do with Christmas and everything to do with Matthew’s presentation of Israel’s Messiah. The overarching purpose of this text is to demonstrate how the world received the King of kings and Lord of lords. Let us not get so caught up in the details of tradition that we completely miss the point the author of this text is making.
Soli Deo Gloria!
 D. Jayne, “Magi,” in The Zondervan Pictorial Encyclopedia of the Bible (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1975), p. 31-34.  Harold Hoehner, “Herod,” in The Zondervan Pictorial Encyclopedia of the Bible (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1975), p. 126-46.  The Hasmonean kings were the line of kings established after the Maccabean revolt (167-63 BC). This family line provided both the political king and the religious high priest. None of this was in accord with biblical revelation but became tradition and expectation over the course of the last century.  Josephus, Josephus: The Complete Works, trans. William Whiston (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 1998), Antiq. 14.8 §p. 449-451.  If a province is divided into shares to be governed by multiple men, they are called “tetrarchs”.