Magi and Joseph: Seers of Two Empires

My wife collects Nativity scenes. Each one contains images of the 3 wise men next to Baby Jesus in the stable, and the popular conception of the Christmas story is that the wise men appeared the night of Jesus birth, in a stable.

The truth is much more dramatic, and includes spiritual revelation coming dramatically in dreams, classifying these characters as seers, at least briefly… although likely, the magi at least moved regularly in the seer gift within their own pagan religion.

But let me back up and set the stage.

Two Superpowers Collide

Parthian Empire at its Height

The Pre-Parthian Empire at its Height

Two superpowers have collided and state of antagonism lay between them. The Roman Republic governed regions from Spain to Palestine, a land that included the nation of Judea (modern Israel).  The Parthian Empire (modern Iraq), stretched from Palestine to India. The frontier of the two empires was Palestine, a strategic and important land route.

Sixty years before Jesus’ birth, the Roman Empire invaded and conquered the land of Judea (modern Israel and Palestine), including Bethlehem, Jerusalem, and Nazareth, killing tens of thousands of Jews, including many of the priestly class.  The Romans set up their own puppet to rule, King Herod.

A Bridge Too Far

ts-parth2A few years later, in 53 B.C., the great Roman Senator Crassus decided to continue Rome’s expansion and invaded the Parthian Empire with his army of 40,000.

The Parthians obliterated his army and killed the Senator, shocking Rome, which quickly descended into a bloody and costly civil war. As the Roman Republic was reorganized, Rome installed a new King of the Jews as its puppet, King Herod. But the Empire was weakened by the civil war.

Just seven years later, the Parthians took advantage of Rome’s weakness and invaded Syria and Judea, conquering Jerusalem and all the region, pushing the Romans into headlong retreat. King Herod fled to Egypt.

The Parthians installed a new King of the Jews.

The Empire Strikes Back

Rome recovered from its civil wars and sent new and brilliant commanders back to the frontier to push back the overextended Parthians. The Romans captured the Parthian King’s son, and the Parthian forces withdrew from Syria.  Rome quickly retook Judea, and Herod returned as the King of the Jews in 37 B.C.

Parthia negotiated the release of their king’s son, and the Romans threw in a slave girl to sweeten the deal.  She must have been really something, because the iuParthian king married her and made her Queen. She bore him several sons, and sent all but one back to Rome. The nobility of the Parthians were aghast at the King’s choice for a Queen and that his heir could be a Roman.

Tensions along the border seethed and the threat of a general war loomed over the border provinces from Judea to Armenia. Rome militarized the borders in anticipation of a costly war everyone saw coming, but which Rome, still recovering from its own ghastly civil wars, wanted to avoid.

In this environment, a Jewish laborer learned his fiancé was pregnant, although they had not had sexual relations. And he received a message from an angel in a dream that was so convincing, he chose to marry her, all the while knowing his community would assume he had gotten her pregnant out of wedlock, thus dooming them both to becoming pariahs.

It must have been some dream!  The angel revealed a lot about their unborn son, including his name, which meant “Yahweh is Our Salvation” and “God with Us.”

Time for a New Parthian King

In the Parthian government, two bodies of nobles determined the next king, should the line of succession not be apparent. One of the bodies were the Magi, an ancient order which six centuries earlier saw the Jewish seer Daniel at its head.

When looking for the next king, the Magi conferred the stars and sent traveling parties throughout the lands.  These parties were accompanied by troops.

The Parthian succession seemed secure, until about 3 BC, when the Queen, that former slave girl sent from Rome, murdered her husband the King and elevated her son to the throne, and then married him.

Such a state unnerved both Parthian nobles and the traditional sensibilities of the Romans.

“What hath we wrought?” the Roman Senate asked itself (not for the first or last time) and sent even more troops to the border. Herod and the other border kings were under strict orders to not provoke a war. What went unsaid was, “even if it meant enacting atrocities on your own people.”

A nearby border war, but not with Parthia, caused Herod to send his legions north, away from Jerusalem.

Meanwhile Magi conferred the stars. There had to be a better solution for Parthia. They sent parties out to find the new King of Parthia.

Coincidentally, as it’s called, a certain star had appeared in the sky over Judea. Some of the magi read the signs and began assembling their caravan.

We Come Bearing Gifts

It was not unusual for Jews in the Parthian Empire to visit their relatives in Judea bearing gifts, which sometimes took the form of vast wealth. Such treasure-laden parties would be tempting targets to local leaders and their armies or bands of pirates. Thus, the caravans were typically guarded by contingents of mercenaries or official Parthian troops, sometimes as many as 10,000 strong.

Such an army showed up one day in Jerusalem, guarding Magi bearing gifts and looking for the new King… of the Jews. 

That was unexpected. Magi appearing to find the new King of Parthia was to be expected, but a new King of the Jews? Just who did these Parthian Magi think they were? And here Herod was, with his own legions away and Jerusalem largely undefended.

Herod must have wondered: were the magi and troops a vanguard to a general invasion to replace him again, as had happened just a few decades before? A prelude to a war that would lay the whole region waste, a war everyone wanted to avoid?

As so often happens to the Great Powers, events sometimes have a mind of their own, and wars they want to avoid occur anyway.

Herod knew this and was determined to not trigger an event to lay waste to the whole border, an event that would likely see his head separated from his body by either the Romans or the Parthians.

Thus he greeted the visiting dignitaries with kind and warm words.

Family Drama

A suburb of Jerusalem, one that still considered itself the city of David, had family issues of its own. In response to the Empire’s summons, a betrothed couple, which traced its line to King David himself, had returned home and given birth to a son.

Mysterious circumstances surrounded the birth and rumors started by local shepherds had faded, but everyone knew the son that she had birthed was not the husband’s… or if it was, he had been with his wife before they married, which was forbidden by good Jews, which they claimed to be. The community knew better and rejected them.

The young family had decided to stay in town for a time and moved into a house. With war tensions so high, new construction, aside from government spending, must have stopped (no sense in investing in new buildings that will get destroyed in a war), making money to support a family hard to come by when the husband was in the construction business. Added to financial stress came the distress of the town gossip about the bastard son and his loose mother… who would help them financially?

Word spread like wildfire: a small army guarding some Magi with gifts had appeared in Jerusalem. Roman troops went on alert, but King Herod had warned everyone to not provoke the Parthians, since such visitations weren’t uncommon. His scouts indicated no host of invading Parthians threatened the region. But the tidings of the Magi were confusing. The tidings out of Parthia in general were alarming. Herod sent word to Rome, requesting more forces.

And then the Star reappeared. Joseph, Mary, and everyone in town saw it. Including the magi and their small army in Jerusalem, just a few miles away.

So then the unthinkable happened. One day, a parade of the Magi and their troops through town led to a knock at the door of Joseph’s house. The foreign dignitaries saw the young boy, not yet 2 years old, and they bowed, whilst his flummoxed parents and neighbors… and Herod’s spies shadowing the Magi and their troops… watched on.

And the Magi presented gifts: vast wealth and expensive medicinal oils. And the gift of worship. They stayed a while to learn more about this new King, until one night these nobles, these foreign diplomats who specialized in the things of the spirit realm, had an angelic visitation in their dreams. The angel offered prophetic revelation and instruction, which they acted upon. Their own guards were on high alert as they slipped out of the country, avoiding the trap the Romans were preparing for them in Jerusalem.

Joseph’s Thoughts

Imagine going from poverty to exceeding wealth in an instant. Imagine going from pariah to celebrity.  And imagine what those that rejected Joseph, Mary, and baby Jesus must have felt: anger, bitterness, and jealousy.

Imagine also the items Joseph thought to shower on his wife and son. Maybe some new clothes. Definitely a trip out of there to someplace safer: maybe an apartment in Jerusalem!

And then, imagine the trepidation of Joseph, knowing the eye of both Rome and Parthia must now be on him and his family.

Think about that.  Think of how the weight of the world, the fulcrum between two empires, lay in his arms that night.

He would look at his adopted son in love, and wonder… and consider what must he do with his newfound wealth to protect his family.

And so he prayed. “God. What should I do?”

God answered sooner than he expected, releasing an angel from heaven, which appeared to Joseph a second time in his dreams with prophetic revelation: “Run to Egypt. You can afford it now. You’re correct: God’s Son is in danger. Don’t wait another minute. Go now!”

For sudden wrath and war was coming to Bethlehem.

The Meaning of Christmas

We live in a world of clashing empires, political strife, and bewildering events outside our control. Against this backdrop, the drama of our lives unfolds.

And in the midst of that, look to the Son. Marvel at who he is, what he means, what he is worth. And then pray, and ask God, “What must we do?” And be prepared for the answer.

God may release an angel to speak to you in your dreams as well.

For to look and to ask and to obey… this is the meaning of Christmas.



  1. This is fascinating, Doug! I’ve never come across this information before about the Geo-political context for the star and the Magi. Can you share some sources for this?

    • Thanks! When I was reviewing and editing it again this year, I couldn’t believe I didn’t source my material. Some of the dates I use for the narrative are in dispute, but I think the overall narrative captures the dynamic tension of what Joseph must have been thinking when the Magi showed up.

      I think I first started thinking about this when listening to Dan Carlin’s “Hardcore History” series on the Fall of the Roman Republic, when he discusses the invasion of the Persian Empire, the decimation of this army, (which lets face it… it’s hard of us to comprehend… it’d be like the USA sending a couple of Infantry and Armored Divisions to, say, Venezuela to maybe fight the drug lords or something, with the American army getting obliterated, along with American Senators who went to observe… it’s almost beyond our comprehension.)

      And then Herod leaving, a new king of the Jews, and Herod returning, and so on. I remembered thinking, “Joseph and Mary’s families would have lived through events!” and then I started researching it and thinking about things differently than, you know, just the traditional nativity story. Anyway, as I come across the source materials again, I’ll add them to here. In the meantime, check out Dan Carlin’s “Hardcore History.” It used to be free, but now he charges a fee. Well worth it.

  2. There is material here for at least a short-story or essay, or maybe even a script for a movie, Doug. With references it will be even better.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.