The Background of the Wise Men
November 12, 2018
by Barry Fike
The concept is as old as the Christmas season itself. The three wise men, alongside the shepherds, visit the child, born in Bethlehem in a manger, and later Herod will have soldiers come into this area to try to annihilate the child of promise as the prophesies foretold. The only problem with this picture is that most of it isn’t true. Let’s go back to the scriptural record and re-investigate exactly what it says occurred.
The record of this story is found in Matthew 2:1-18. First of all, who were the Magi? The Greek word goes back to the LXX (Septuagint – the Greek translation of the Hebrew scriptures) and is found in Daniel 2:2 where it’s translated magicians. It comes from a word which was a name given by the Babylonians, Medes and Persians to wise men, teachers, astrologers, seers, interpreters of dreams, etc. (The Hebrew word is ash-shah-pheem – astrologers). This same word is also found in Acts 13:6-8, in reference to Elymas the sorcerer (magos), and in Acts 8:9, 11 referring to the activity of a Magi (Simon Magus). In Acts 13:6-8 the reference is in relationship to the conflict between two religions, in which Christianity emerges victorious. In Acts 8:9-11 the word refer to the activity of the Magi (Simon Magus). By his word in Samaria, he had begun a deep religious movement. His influence was by his extra-divine powers but not God’s spirit. This story too shows a sharp contrast between Christianity and magic.
We have to go all the way back to the Babylonian captivity of the children of Israel to gain a perspective as to who these men are. In 597 B.C. the city of Jerusalem fell to Nebuchadnezzar the king of Babylon. The city was then under the Jewish king Jehoiachin. This was the first deportation of captives to Babylon. In 586 B.C. the city was destroyed and the second deportation of captives to Babylon occurred. In 581 B.C. the third and final deportation happened. When these captives were taken to Babylon a small community of the leading Jews from the southern Kingdom settled along the canals of Babylon (Ps. 137:1-6). Here they were expected to rebuild and cultivate (Jer. 29:4, 5). Their initial feelings were an intense longing for home as evidenced by Ps. 137. While there, some Jews made good as evidenced by Nehemiah’s service as a cupbearer at the court of King Artaxerxes, and as evidenced by the story of Mordecai and Queen Esther.
When Cyrus took over, the kingdom of Babylon, as predicted by Isaiah, allowed them to come back to Jerusalem and even financed their trip and gave them much spoil to take with them. Though the return began under Cyrus and lasted 145 years, the number of those who remained in Assyria was about six times those who returned to Jerusalem. In the days of Jesus they were known as the dispersed (Jn. 7:35; James 1:1). According to Ezra 2:26-29 only four of the original twenty-four divisions of the priesthood returned and only 42,360 of the people returned (Neh. 7:66). The wealthiest and most influential of the Jews remained behind. According to Josephus, vast numbers, estimated in the millions, inhabited the Trans-Euphrates provinces in the days of Herod (Antiquities of the Jews, book 15, chapter 1). In fact, just between the Euphrates and Tigris were the largest and wealthiest settlements of the Jews designated as “the land of Israel”. Here was Nehardaa the oldest Jewish settlement which had vast contributions collected for the Temple brought by the Eastern Jews and sent to the Temple by an escort of thousands of armed men. Another Jewish treasure city was Nisibis in southern Mesopotamia. That such wealth was held shows the strength of the Jewish population in these areas. A late tradition has it, that so dense was the population in the Persian Empire, that Cyrus forbade any further return of the exiles, least the country should be depopulated. (Edersheim, pp. 7, 8)
This scholarship left behind in Babylon is evidenced in Galatians 1:17 which mentions that after Paul’s conversion, he went to Arabia, the most outlying part of Babylon, and studied for three years. Here he was directed to his life’s mission. “The Jewish community there (Babylon) was more numerous and better circumstanced than their co-religionists in Palestine, and they produced or attracted men ot superior intellectual powers.” (Everyman’s Talmud, p. xxxii) “The teaching in its schools was deeper and more thorough, and this distinction is clearly evident in the complication of the Gemara (commentary) which was made there.” (Everyman’s Talmud, p. 1, xxxii)
Why was teaching more thorough in Babylon than anywhere else in the Jewish world? In the Northern Kingdom, after being taken into captivity, had, for the most part, been absorbed into the cultures into which they had been dispersed. If the same thing happened to Judah the entire nation would be obliterated, and the name of Israel would be blotted out of existence. “This grave thought must have given the leaders of the Jews in Babylon the deepest concern and induced them to concentrate on the problem of survival. How could the fate of extinction be averted? Recognizing that the distinctiveness of the Israelite people had always rested on its religions, which had centered around the Temple, they were forced to ask themselves by what means that distinctiveness could be maintained now that the Sanctuary had fallen and the people, resident in a foreign land, were exposed to powerful alien influences.” (Everyman’s Talmud, p. xv) Thus you have the rise of the synagogue as the place of worship and the effect of these assemblies awake an interest in the study of the Hebrew writings. Another prominent piece of evidence is the scholarship found in the Babylon Talmud which is seven to eight times the size of the Jerusalem Talmud.
So exactly who were the Magi with this background? We’ll look at this next week as we continue in our study of the Jewish background of these scriptures that all Christians hold so near and dear to their hearts. Let’s continue to study to show ourselves approved unto God.