Who Were the Wise Men?
Who were these unnamed, unnumbered Middle Eastern travelers known as the wise men? To answer that question, you have to journey back into the centuries before Jesus’ birth. History tells us that four great world empires successively ruled the ancient world. These were, in order: the Babylonian Empire; the Medo-Persian Empire; the Greek Empire ruled by Alexander the Great; and, at the time of Jesus’ birth, the Roman Empire under the emperor Octavian (Caesar Augustus).
Though the Medes became part of the second great world empire, they lived at the time of the Babylonian Empire. They can be traced to the city of Ur of the Chaldeans, the city where Abraham lived (Genesis 11:27–12:5). The term Chaldeans is synonymous with Magi, the name for an ancestral priesthood clan who were natural philosophers and expert astronomers. This clan was part of the Medean society.
Politicians of Enormous Power
The Magi, priests who were chosen to conduct the Medes’ religious observances, obtained enormous political power. Gaining a reputation for their wisdom, they became consultants to the kings and rulers of the East. In Jeremiah 39:3, you can read of a wise man named Nergal-Sharezer who was the head of the Magi in the court of the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar. This king elevated the Magi to exalted positions within his court. The biblical prophet Daniel was given the designation of a principal Magi for his ability to interpret dreams. Belteshazzar was named as the lord of the magicians in Nebuchadnezzar's court (Daniel 4:9; Daniel 5:11). Notice the similarity between the words Magi and magicians.
The King Makers
In time, the Magi became the kingmakers. Their authority was so entrenched in the Medo-Persian culture that no one became king without being personally instructed in the academic disciplines by the Magi. These wise men both sanctioned and crowned the new king. With this kind of power, the Magi controlled the known Middle Eastern world.
Darius was crowned king of the Medo-Persian Empire in the sixth century B.C. At this time, there were three orders of Magi. One was dedicated to the belief of Zoroastrianism, another to the belief system of the Medo-Persian Empire. The third gave allegiance to Judaism and to the God of Daniel. The descendants of this third order are the ones that traveled to Bethlehem.
The Medo-Persian Empire eventually fell to the military might of Alexander the Great. In time, this legendary conqueror's empire was systematically crushed by the juggernaut of the ancient world, the Roman war machine. The old Medo-Persian Empire evolved into the Parthian Empire. The Magi, now known as the Megistanes, still wielded immense power.
In modern nativity scenes, it's common to see the wise men ambling along on their camels. But from Parthian history it's clear that whenever the Megistanes made a journey, they were accompanied by 1,000 mounted cavalry. These Megistanes galloped thunderously into Jerusalem, and the entire city, along with their king, quaked in fear.
At the beginning of the first century A.D., the Parthians forced their king from his throne. In their search for a different kind of king, the Megistanes and their thousand-man mounted cavalry galloped into Jerusalem. When Herod learned that the Megistanes had arrived, he was “disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him” (Matthew 2:3). The Greek word translated “disturbed” is etarachtha and means “to shake violently.” The kingmakers were on his doorstep and they were not looking for him.
Look in the Book
It seems that the Star of Bethlehem that guided the Megistanes (Matthew 2:2) was a supernatural phenomenon, and not a star like the sun, because it appears and disappears. Only the Megistanes see it. Neither Herod nor his court had seen the star; he had to ask the Megistanes when it appeared. After the Megistanes left Herod, “the star they had seen in the east went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was” (Matthew 2:9). The star moved and then it stopped.
When the Megistanes found Jesus in a house in Bethlehem, they worshiped him (Matthew 2:11). They were guided by their knowledge of Scriptures, which came from Daniel's long-ago influence. The Megistanes knew the words of Micah, which predicted that the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem (Micah 5:2). They were looking for a powerful political king, but found a humble servant-king instead.