“When King Herod heard this he was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him” (Matt 2:3).
What reached Herod’s ears was the inquiry of the magoi (translated by some as “wise men”): “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews?” (2:2). Matthew is clever. The use of the royal basileus twice in succession, i.e. “King Herod” and “king of the Jews,” alerts the reader to a looming crisis. Monarchs are not so good at sharing, especially this one.
Herod the Great ruthlessly pursued rivals, both real and imagined. He ordered the execution of his wife, children, and many others. Reports of the bleeding prompted Augustus to quip “It is better to be Herod's pig than his son!” (See here in Macrobius, Saturnalia, 2.4.11). The wit of the emperor played off a dietary taboo.* People—not porkers—had reason to fear Herod’s butchers.
The tyrant’s paranoia may account for some of the disturbance surrounding the inquiry of the magoi, but the backstory suggests still more. Remember how Jesus was born in the frame of a cold war? (if not, don’t read any further until you have digested our post here). The Wild West (Rome) was deadlocked with the Ancient East (Parthia). Herod was a Western client installed, in part, to maintain the Eastern tripwire. Hence, the news of the arrival of a magoi delegation must have set off every alarm; it was a political balefire. Again, we cannot miss Matthew’s deliberate wording: the magoi come from the East, “the land of the sunrise” (Greek, anatolé).
The political implications are not just disturbing, they are knee-buckling. Herod earned his throne the hard way by pushing back the Parthian tide. Was that tide now returning? Were these magoi rogue riders or did they represent the will of an empire? Did they come to Jerusalem innocently to do homage or did they come to install a client king of their own? What would the Roman Senate do when word of this audacious—or subversive—visit reached their ears? Could this cold war escalate into a hot one? Herod had to move and he had to move quickly!
This frame gives a fresh reading is given to an old story (see the text of Matthew 2:1-12 here). The response of Herod and Jerusalem (and potentially Rome itself) is suddenly seen in a wider geopolitical context. This is all the more significant given the reputation of the magoi as royal puppeteers in texts outside the Bible.
Consider these three examples of the magoi as king-makers and king-breakers.
1. Strabo on the Parthians
This historian from the region of modern Turkey wrote a 17-volume work in Greek titled Geographica. It was likely published during the lifetime of Jesus. In it he summarizes physical and political features of the known world. One chapter is devoted to Parthia, which, to his chagrin, now rivals the power of Rome itself (11.9).
What’s more, at the end of a ramble about barbarians, Strabo suggests that the governing body of the Parthians, the Sunhedrion (a council or congress), is an institution with two parts. The first part consists of the “Fellows” or the “Kinsmen” (Greek: suggenes). The second part consists of wise-men (Greek: sofón) and magoi. The king is appointed from this body. Forbiger suggests that a member from the first group is elected by the members of the second.** If he is right, the magoi are king-makers indeed.
2. Plutarch on Artaxerxes II
Plutarch was a Greek author who wrote at the start of the second century AD, approximately one-hundred years after the birth of Christ. He is best known for his biographies of Greek and Roman figures (and for stretching the truth a little!). However, a biography of a single Persian king has been preserved from his hand, that of Artaxerxes II Memnon (404 - 358 BC).
In Plutarch’s Life of Artaxerxes we meet the magoi again (see 3.1-5 starting here). The occasion is the installation of the king. Artaxerxes went to claim the throne of his dead father and be confirmed by the Persian priests (could this be Strabo’s second house of the Sunhedrion described above?). Part of the ceremony involved donning the ancestral robe, doing secret rites, and eating yummy stuff like figs, soured-milk, turpentine-wood.
The party was charging hard right up to the moment when a distressed magos was hauled forward. He had backed Artaxerxes’s brother (and competitor) as king and had trained his student in the “customary discipline for boys” which included the “wisdom of the magoi.” In the end, the captured magos ratted out the lad who was waiting to kill Artaxerxes at the conclusion of the ceremony. The plot was foiled, but the point is underlined: magoi exercise control of the throne, educate the royals, and at times act as king-breakers.***
3. Herodotus on Smerdis
Our third example is the most famous king-maker/breaker story of them all. It is told by Herodotus of Halicarnassus (among others). His 5th-century Histories is touted the first of its kind to be written. In it he explores the characters and events of the Greco-Persian Wars. He also describes how Darius the Great became king of Persia. The matter remains a unsolved mystery from the ancient world and you can read it yourself if you start snooping about Book 3 (start reading from here).
Key to the mystery is the identity of a character named Smerdis. Is he who he claims or not? We don’t know. Neither does Herodotus. What is known is that Darius overthrows Smerdis in the coup d'état of 522 BC and claims the Persian throne for himself.
If the Smerdis is the rightful heir to the throne, then the whole yarn is probably a cover-up for Darius’s usurping ways. On the other hand, if the real Smerdis was secretly killed (as claimed) and replaced by an imposter (as claimed), then the coup may be justified. But here’s where it gets interesting. If one follows the imposter theory, the “false Smerdis” resembled the “true Smerdis” in every way but one: he had no ears! As you might have guessed, this earless condition proved to be his undoing. The imposter was discovered to be a sinister magus. If not for the quick action of Darius, these royal puppeteers might have ruled the world!
If Herod and the residents of Jerusalem knew these three stories (and others like them) it may explain why everyone in town was disturbed when the magoi dismounted from their camels and slapped the dust from their pantaloons. This class of men had a reputation for meddling in royal affairs; oftentimes someone was left bleeding on the floor.
Isn’t it odd how we bring our perceptions to the reading table? How do you read the magoi of Matthew 2?
This much I know: those who obsess over power operate in a crowded room. It is a place of dilated eyes and curled lips. On the other hand, those who pursue a kingdom not of this world may find something unexpected: a prince of peace.
*For the Mosaic taboo, see Deuteronomy 14:8 here. The emperor’s pun is lost in the Latin of Macrobius as well as our English. However, it comes out playfully in Greek. The terms for pig (hus) and son (huios) have similar sounds.
**See footnote 3 at the end of 11.9 the Loeb publication of Strabo (translation by H. L. Jones).
***See also Plato, Alcibiades 1.121e-122c.
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