The Diplomatic Setting of the Magi’s Journey

Today (January 6) is Epiphany, the day on which the church remembers the wise men from the East who brought gold, frankincense and myrrh to the infant Jesus in Bethlehem. Who were these wise men – or magi – and why did they first go to Jerusalem? Most particularly, how does the evangelist understand the answer to these questions as he tells us the story In Matthew 2:1-12?

1) The visitors are magi, traditionally translated as “wise men” and more recently as “astrologers” or “magicians”. In the ancient world, the word magos was most commonly associated with priests of what has come to be known as Zoroastrianism, a religion of the Persian Empire. This corresponds with Matthew’s description of them as being from the “east”. Their interest in the stars corresponds with the practice of what we would call astrology – the wide-spread belief, common in the ancient world, that the stars controlled or revealed the fates of men and nations. The magi practiced astrology, magic and other esoteric arts, but we might also call them priests or scholars of their nation’s particular religion. The magi were, to a greater or lesser degree, representatives of the state religion of Persia.

2) If Matthew wants us to think about Persian religion when we hear the word “magi”, he would also want us to think about the great distance between Bethlehem and the “east” where the magi plied their trade. The journey of Abraham’s family along the same route two thousand years earlier was about 1100 miles. To put together a caravan for such a journey in a relatively short time requires substantial resourcing, the kind that a state treasury might provide.

3) They are magoi – plural. There are more than one, but not necessarily the three portrayed in traditional artwork. Matthew reports that there are three gifts, not that there are three magi. Still, there are more than one of them. Matthew, then, is not telling us about a lone mystic on a pilgrimage. He is describing a group making a long, resource-intensive journey together.

4) The magi have come to kneel or prostrate themselves (proskuneō) before the newborn king of Jews. Prostration can have either a civil (“pay homage to the ruler”) or a religious (“worship the deity”) purpose. While the religious meaning of proskuneō might be lurking in the back of Matthew’s mind, he clearly states that the magi came to Judea to offer tribute to the royal son at his birth.The purpose of the magi‘s journey from Persia was to offer civil obeisance to the king of Judea.

5) The magi brought treasures of gold, frankincense and myrrh to present to the child. I imagine that when Prince George was born to Kate and William, the future king of England received some pretty nice gifts from world leaders. The exchange of expensive gifts between heads of state has always been a part of international diplomacy. How much more so in the age of kings! Gift-giving was a political maneuver. Superiors gave gifts to subordinates to secure a debt of loyalty. Subordinates paid tribute to their superiors to acknowledge their subordination. As the commercial says, “If you are a first century eastern despot, you practice diplomacy through gift-giving. That’s what you do.”

6) The magi are granted an audience with Herod the Great. Who gets an audience with the king? I doubt that every wild-eyed foreigner who showed up at the palace had the opportunity to speak with Herod. He wasn’t exactly the warm and welcoming type. Kings are about the affairs of state. They receive ambassadors and the envoys of foreign powers. At the very least, we can say that tyrannical kings like Herod didn’t waste their time on nobodies.The magi were important enough to be received at court.

Taken together, these details suggest that Matthew envisions the magi as something like a priestly delegation from the Persian Empire. Their journey had a diplomatic purpose and, presumably, some sort of official support. The magi didn’t come to Jerusalem because they didn’t know where else to go. They weren’t simply looking for directions. They came to Jerusalem because their first stop was to call on the king. Foreign diplomats don’t go poking around in someone else’s territory without first making the proper diplomatic courtesies (and getting permission). Perhaps they even assumed that the new king of the Jews would be born into Herod’s own household. If so, that was a big diplomatic “whoops” on their part.

The magi eventually came to Bethlehem where they found the child Jesus with his mother. The magi knelt before the child and offered him their gifts just as they planned, but Matthew offers one more detail. “They rejoiced with exceeding great joy” (Matthew 2:10), an event that Matthew obviously views with religious significance. What the magi may have originally intended as a common act of political diplomacy, Matthew sees as something more.

If this reading is correct, then Matthew’s understanding of the prophetic fulfillment in Isaiah 60:1-6 goes far beyond mere mention of gold and frankincense. In Isaiah 60, the gifts of gold and frankincense are simply representative of “the wealth of the nations” that will flow to Israel when God restores it to its proper place in the world. Lowly Israel will be exalted above the nations. Jerusalem and its environs will be the one bright spot in a very dark world. Showing great common sense, the kingdoms of the world will come and pay tribute to God’s chosen nation. They will offer sacrifices to Israel’s God and they will be blessed because of it. The kingdoms of the world will want a share in what God is doing for Judah, and so they will voluntarily submit themselves as Judah’s vassals.

In the irony of ironies, the first nation to fulfill the prophecy of Isaiah 60:6 is the “east,” the land from which Judah’s earlier oppressors had come. Furthermore, the magi and their state sponsors were not beholden to Rome for their authority, as was the Judean king Herod. The magi came from outside the Roman sphere of influence in which Matthew and his audience lived – and in which Christians often suffered for their faith at the hands of their neighbors and rulers.

At least in a symbolic sense, the magi represent their country, and their gifts anticipate the day when all the kings of this world will kneel before the Lord Jesus. These Persian astrologer-diplomats did what all nations – and all people – should do. They knelt before the king of Israel, the one light in a dark world, the one in whom all the nations of the world will find their true blessing.