Mystery of the Magi: Who Were They?
by Kelly McDonald, Jr.
The Upcoming Fall Holy Day Season is the time for us to remember the incarnation. This is when the Word of God became flesh and dwelt among us. In John 1:14, we read, “And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us, (and we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father,) full of grace and truth” (KJV). The Greek word translated as dwelt is skenoo. Its root word is skene; it can refer to the booths from Leviticus chapter 23. In other words, Christ came down and tabernacled with us. One reason we celebrate the Feast of Tabernacles is to remember the perfect life of Christ, who is the Word.
Among the mysteries surrounding Christ tabernacling among men is that of the Magi. We read about this event in Matthew chapter 2.
“1 Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judaea in the days of Herod the king, behold, there came wise men [Greek: Magoi – literally translated as Magi] from the east to Jerusalem, 2 Saying, Where is he that is born King of the Jews? for we have seen his star in the east, and are come to worship him. 3 When Herod the king had heard these things, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him” (Matthew 2:1-3).
In Western culture, we often think that there were three Magi. However, the Bible does not say how many Magi there were; they brought three gifts (Matthew 2:11). But there are important questions regarding their appearance. How did they know that the King of the Jews was being born? We know the star guided them, but how did they know such specifics about him? Why would they look to worship a Jewish king? Why was Herod and the city of Jerusalem troubled at their appearance? The only other individuals who knew about his royalty were the angels, Mary and Joseph (Luke 1:31-33).
When the Magi came to worship Christ, He was in a house (not a manger – Matthew 2:11). This means the Magi did not arrive at the time of Christ’s birth. These individuals must have been very important because they were warned in a dream not to go back to Herod. Due to their visit, Herod wanted all the children two and under to be put to death.
To understand the identity of the Magi, we must go back far in time. In the period leading up to King David’s reign, the tribes of Israel were divided between two groups. In the north dwelt Israel; Judah dwelt in the south. During Saul’s life, a distinction is made between them. “He numbered them in Bezek; and the children of Israel were three hundred thousand, and the men of Judah thirty thousand” (I Samuel 11:8, KLV). David is recorded as ruling over both. “In Hebron he reigned over Judah seven years and six months; and in Jerusalem he reigned thirty-three years over all Israel and Judah” (2 Samuel 5:5).
This united Kingdom continued into the reign of Solomon, David’s son. In I Kings 11, we are informed that Solomon turned away from God and fell into idolatry. As a result, the northern tribes of Israel were separated from Judah during the reign of Rehoboam, Solomon’s son. The two groups – Judah and Israel – became known as two separate nations.
“20 When all Israel heard that Jeroboam had returned, they sent and called him to the congregation, and made him king over all Israel. There was no one who followed David’s house, except for the tribe of Judah only. 21 When Rehoboam had come to Jerusalem, he assembled all the house of Judah and the tribe of Benjamin, a hundred and eighty thousand chosen men, who were warriors, to fight against the house of Israel, to bring the kingdom again to Rehoboam the son of Solomon” (I Kings 12:20-21).
The house of Judah was ruled from its capital of Jerusalem. Eventually, Israel developed its own capital named Samaria. It was founded by Omri.
“23 In the thirty-first year of Asa king of Judah, Omri began to reign over Israel for twelve years. He reigned six years in Tirzah. 24 He bought the hill Samaria of Shemer for two talents[a] of silver; and he built on the hill, and called the name of the city which he built Samaria, after the name of Shemer, the owner of the hill” (I Kings 16:23-24).
Omri’s son was named Ahab. He is one of the more well recognized people in the Bible because of his wickedness. “In the thirty-eighth year of Asa king of Judah, Ahab the son of Omri began to reign over Israel. Ahab the son of Omri reigned over Israel in Samaria twenty-two years. 30 Ahab the son of Omri did that which was evil in the LORD’s sight above all that were before him” (1 Kings 16:29-30).
Historical records from two different people groups confirm that other nations identified the northern tribes by the name Israel: the Moabites and Assyrians. The Moabite stone, which dates to around 830-840 BC, reads: “Now Om(r)i, King of Israel, he oppressed Moab many days, for Chemosh was angry with his l(a)nd. His son succeeded him, and he also said, I will oppress Moab. In my days he said, (Let us go)” (Records of the Past, vol. 11, p 165).
The Assyrians also discussed the Kingdom of Israel. The ruler Shalmaneser listed several nations he defeated and the number of troops from each peoples. Among the kings mentioned is Ahab, the Israelite; his name in Hebrew is Achav.
“From the city of Argana I departed. To the city of Karkara I approached. The city of Karkara, the city of (His) Majesty, I threw down, dug up (and) burned with fire. 1200 chariots, 1200 magazines, (and) 20,000 men of Rimmon’-hidri of Damascus, 700 chariots, 700 magazines, (and) 10,000 men of Irkhuleni of Hamath, 2000 chariots, (and) 10,000 men of Ahab (Akhabbu) of the country of the Israelites (Sir’ila-a-a)…” (ibid, vol. 3, p 99).
Omri and Ahab both are identified as Israelites (the Assyrian word for Israel in this text is Sir’ila-a-a). Not long after this, the appellation changed. In the 840s BC, Shalmanesser III erected an Obelisk, or erect stone monument. In it is engraved pictures from different peoples he conquered with inscriptions. The Obelisk is currently on display at the British Museum, so it can be viewed online. Among the kings depicted on this monument is Jehu (Hebrew name: YAHUA). On it, he is bowing down before the Assyrian king and paying tribute.
“The tribute of Iaua (Jehu) son of Khumri (Omri): silver, gold, bowls of gold, vessels of gold, goblets of gold, pitchers of gold, lead, sceptres for the King’s hand, (and) staves: I received” (ibid, vol 5, p 41).
During the reign of Jehu, there was a sudden change in how the same Assyrian King addressed the Israelites. Instead of using the term Sir’ila-a-a, he called them the Khumri. Scholars agree that this Assyrian word is a reference to Omri. He was the King that founded Samaria. From the reign of Jehu forward, the Assyrians labeled the northern tribes by this name or the Samarians (after the name of their capital).
There was a legitimate reason for this transition. The weekly and annual Sabbaths were revealed to remind us that God is our Creator and that He makes us holy (Exodus 31:12-17). There was even a special national application to this understanding. Starting with Jereboam, the northern tribes abandoned God and the Sabbaths (I Kings 12:26-33). During the reign of Ahab and his wife Jezebel, God sent Elijah and Elisha to perform miracles so that the nation would turn back to God. Jehu, who reigned after them, had a chance to change the nation’s destiny. Unfortunately, they remained in disobedience (see 2 Kings 10:28-33); they eventually lost their identity. Jesus called them lost in His day (Matthew 10:1-6).
In the 730s BC, the Assyrian King Tiglath Pileser III, fought wars with both Judah and Israel. One of his inscriptions mentioned both groups. The inscription is a little damaged, but we can still gain valuable insight from it.
“2 ….. (in the) course of my expedition the tribute which 3 …. (AZARI)AH of the land of Judah like …. 4 …. Azariah of the land of Judah in …. 29 (I imposed upon them). The tribute of Kustaspi of the city of Kummuhai, of Razinu of the land of Damascus, of Minihimmi of the city Samirinai…” (ibid, vol 5, pp 45, 48)
This inscription references both Azariah and Menahem from the Bible. “In the thirty ninth year of Azariah king of Judah, Menahem the son of Gadi began to reign over Israel for ten years in Samaria” (2 Kings 15:17). Notice that even the Assyrians designated them as ruling over separate peoples. Fragments of the same ruler go on to describe the house of Israel again.
“…The land of Beth-Omri (Khumri)…. the population …. the goods of its people (and the furniture to) the land of Assyria I sent PAKAHA (Pekah) their King they had slain . . . HUSIH (Hoshea) to the kingdom over them I appointed . 10 talents of gold, 1000 of silver…I received from them as their (tri)bute…” (ibid, p 52).
This inscription indicates that the first deportation of Israelites happened in the 730s BC. Tiglath also mentions Pekah and Hoshea, the last two kings of Israel. The Biblical records the same details. “In the days of Pekah king of Israel, Tiglath Pileser king of Assyria came and took Ijon, Abel Beth Maacah, Janoah, Kedesh, Hazor, Gilead, and Galilee, all the land of Naphtali; and he carried them captive to Assyria” (2 Kings 15:29). Hoshea killed Pekah (2 Kings 15:30).
The Bible discusses the captivity of the northern tribes further. They were sent to various places, with the final captivity taking place between 721 and 718 BC. “In the ninth year of Hoshea the king of Assyria took Samaria, and carried Israel away to Assyria, and placed them in Halah, and on the Habor, the river of Gozan, and in the cities of the Medes” (2 Kings 17:6).
The deportation locations mentioned in 2 Kings 17:6 are somewhat debated. Some of these locations are closer to the capital of Nineveh (Halah and Gozan), while others such as the cities of the Medes, are farther away. Generally speaking, the locations of exile stretch from southeastern Turkey out towards eastern Iran. This captivity is discussed further by Inscriptions from Sargon II.
“…I plundered the district of Samaria and the entire house of Omri (Khoumri)… “My mighty hand reached from the town of Hasmar until the town of Simaspatti in Media the far one, which is situated at the rising sun, the lands of Namri and Ellip, Bet-Hamban, Parsua, Van, Armenia, Kaska (Colchis), Tabal, until the Moschians, I instituted my Lieutenants as Governors over them and I imposed to them the prostration of the tributes like to the Assyrians…besieged, I occupied the town of Samaria and I brought into captivity 27,280 persons; I took before all parts over them 50 chariots, the part of my kingdom. I took them to Assyria…” (ibid, vol 7, pp 26, 28).
The bull inscription of Khorsabad (722-721), also constructed by Sargon II, discussed more about this event. “…he conquered the countries of an Karalla, Andia, Zikirtu, Kjsasi, Kharkhar, and placed Media and Ellip under the dominion of Assur….He swept away Samaria, and the whole house of Omri (bit-Khumri) and Kaska. He subdued the country of Tubal, and the whole of Bet-Burutas, he overcame Egypt near the city of Raphia, and placed Hanun, King of Gaza, in slavery…” (ibid, vol 11, p 18).
Sennacherib, a later Assyrian King, took a great number from the southern tribes into captivity during the reign of Hezekiah. This is a detail that is often overlooked in the research of this subject. Thus, a significant number of the tribe of Judah went into captivity – no mention of Israel is found.
“And Hezekiah King of Judah, who had not bowed down at my feet Forty six of his strong cities, his castles, and the smaller towns…in their neighbourhood beyond number…with warlike engines…I attacked and captured. 200,150 people small and great, male and female, horses, mares, asses, camels, oxen and sheep beyond number, from the midst of them I carried off and distributed them as a spoil. He himself, like a bird in a cage, inside Jerusalem his royal city I shut him up…” (ibid, vol 1, p 38).
While the northern tribes were first taken captive decades before this event, they were eventually joined by a significant number of their brothers from the southern tribes.
There is one linguistic detail that is necessary for the study of this subject. Edward Lipinski, in his work “Semitic Languages: Outline of a Comparative Grammar”, notes the following: “In Neo-Assyrian [g] and [k] seem to be positional variants of the same phoneme. The voiced pronunciation is attested in intervocalic position by Aramaic and Hebrew transcriptions, e.g. mngsr for Mannu-ki-sarri…” (page 145).
The well-known Assyrianologist Archibald Henry Sayce said, “In Babylonian g commonly takes the place of kh (as also in later Assyrian)…” (Sayce, p 48).
Thus, the kh sound in Assyrian is sometimes interchanged with g in Assyrian or when one transliterates from Assyrian to Babylonian. The sound kh in Khoumri is interchangeable with the g sound.
The Assyrian kings wrote letters during their respective reigns. These letters reference a people group called the Gimiri or Gimiraa. This would correspond to the Israelites or Khoumri. For one example, I have included an excerpt from Letter 1237.
“Belushezib to King Esarhaddon:…Let the cavalry and the Dakku invade the Cimmerians (Gimiraa), who have spoken saying, “The Mannai pertain to you, we have not interfered.” Certainly this is a lie. They are the offspring of outcasts, they recognize neither the oath of a god nor a (human) agreement. Let the chariots and baggage wagons take up a position on either side of the pass; (then) with the horses and the Dakku, let them enter and take the plunder of the plain of Mannai; and let them return at the pass let them bivouac once or twice they shall enter and…plundered and the Cimmerians (Gimiraa)…” (Waterman, pp 358-359).
Notice that the translators reckon Gimiraa as the Cimmerians. They are mentioned alongside a group called the Mannai, who dwelt in modern-day southeastern Turkey/northeastern Iran. This is in the same area that the northern tribes of Israel were sent! There are other records that shed light on the Gimiraa; one of them is the Behistun Inscription.
In the early 500s BC, Darius the Persian had a massive inscription carved in rock. It is called the Behistun Inscription, and it is located in modern-day Iran. It is the Rosetta Stone of ancient languages. On it, he proclaimed his victory over conquered peoples in three languages: Babylonian, Susan (or Elamite), and Persian.
Each section begins with Darius proclaiming himself king of kings and listing provinces he controlled. We have an excerpt from section VI in each of the three languages.
Babylonian: “6. Ba-ah-tar (matu) Su-ug-du (matu) Pa-ar-u-pa-ra-e-sa-an-na (matu) Gi-mi-ri (matu) Sa-at-ta-gu-u…”
English translation: “VI. Bactria, Sogdiana, Paruparaesanna, the land of the Cimmerians, Sattagydia…” (Behistun Inscription, 161-162)
Susan: 13. Paksisaiak (m)Suktas-pe aiak [(m)Parruparae]sana aiak 14. (m)Sakka-pe aiak…”
English translation: “Bactria, and Sogdiana, and Parruparaesana, and Scythia…” (ibid, page 96)
Persian: “Bakhtris Sugjuda Ga(n)dara Saka…”
English translation: “VI. Bactria, Sogdiana, Gandara, Scythia…” (ibid, page 4)
It is fascinating that the term Gimiri (translated as Cimmerians) was considered synonymous with the Sakka or Scythian peoples in other languages. Keep in mind that the translators from the Behistun Inscription are different than those from the Assyrian Royal Correspondence we quoted earlier. The Gimiraa are described as the offspring of outcasts, which is a description we would expect of the northern tribes of Israel.
The Cimmerians are not mentioned in historical documents until 714 BC; they are mentioned in as dwelling in modern-day Southeastern Turkey (Aruz, Farkas, and Fino, p 148). The Scythians are not mentioned as a separate group until the 670s, when they were allied with the Medes (ibid, p 25). The first two mentions of these people groups are not long after the captivity of the northern tribes. Even the place the tribes were taken to (land of the Medes) is mentioned. Scythian burial mounds, also called kurgans, date to the same time period (Kuz’mina, pp 390-393; Bliss, pp 52-52-55).
From these primary sources, we are able to link the terms Khoumri and Gimiri in Assyrian and Babylonian with the ancient peoples of the Cimmerians, Sakka, and Scythians in the Susan and Persian languages. They are synonymous with each other.
According to Herodotus, the first Scythian Empire controlled all of Asia for a period of about 28 years (book 1, sections 104-106). They are mentioned with the Medes. Once again, we have a reference to the Medes and the Scythians within a reasonable time period of the captivity.
While Scythian dominance was temporary, they would have another opportunity at greatness in the ancient world. The Roman geographer and historian Strabo (lived 63 BC to 24 AD) wrote about a revival of Scythian dominance. Recalling the time period about 240 BC, he wrote:
“Afterwards Arsaces [Arsakes], a Scythian, (with the Parni, called nomads, a tribe of the Dahae, who live on the banks of the Ochus) invaded Parthia, and made himself master of it. At first both Arsaces and his successors were weakened by maintaining wars with those who had been deprived of their territory. Afterwards they became so powerful, in consequence of their successful warfare, continually depriving their neighbours of portions of their territory, that at last they possession of all the country within the Euphrates…They now have an empire comprehending so large an extent of country, and so many nations, that it almost rivals that of the Romans in magnitude. This is to be attributed to their mode of life and manners which have indeed much of the barbarous and Scythian character…” (Strabo, 11.9.2).
In about 240 BC, Arsakes and his Scythian peoples conquered the area known as Parthia (eastern Iran). The Parthian Empire is reckoned from Arsakes’ reign forward. It was composed of Scythians and had their cultural influence. Arsakes is depicted on the coinage of Parthian kings from the 200s BC to the early centuries AD (see figure one as a demonstration of this). He was so important that all future Parthian kings retained his name as part of theirs. Strabo also records this.
“Such also is the custom among the Parthians; for all have the name Arsacae, although each has his peculiar name of Orodes, Phraates, or some other appellation” (15.1.36). Elsewhere Strabo tells us about other tribal names of the Scythians: Daae, Massagetae and Sacae (11.8.2). This Scythian-Parthian Kingdom had a special class of individuals who chose their kings. They were called the Magi.
“…We have enlarged on the subject of the Parthian customs in the sixth book of historical commentaries, and in the second of those, which are a sequel to Polybius we shall omit what we said, in order to avoid repetition; adding this only, that Psedidonius affirms that the council of the Parthians is composed of two classes, one of relatives, (of the royal family) and another of wise men and magi, by both of which kings are chosen” (Strabo, 11.9.3).
The Parthian ruling class was composed of two groups. One were relatives of the royal family and the other were wise men and Magi. The Kings of Parthia were chosen by these individuals. The implications are that the Magi and wise men chose from the royal family of the Parthians.
The Parthians and Romans had a rocky history. Among the worst military disasters in Roman history was the battle of Carrhae (southern Turkey). In 53 BC, the Parthians defeated over 40,000 Roman troops; most of them were either killed or taken captive.
In 40 BC, the Parthians conquered Judea and set Antigonus Matthatias over the King of the Jewish people. It is interesting that the Parthians set Antigonus, a Jewish man and Hasmonean descendant, to be the king and high priest of Judea. They could have established whomever they wanted to be their puppet ruler. Instead, they chose a native born.
During this same time, a man named Herod, an Edomite by birth, sought to rule Judea and Jerusalem. He gained the support of the Romans; they recognized him as the legitimate king. After 3 years of fighting and a siege of Jerusalem, Herod prevailed. He had Antigonus put to death by the Romans. This was the first time the Romans put a king to death. Antigonus was the last of the Hasmonean rulers.
Another clash between the two Empires occurred in 36 BC. Marcus Antony tried to invade Parthian territory and suffered a humiliating campaign. Tens of thousands of Roman troops died in this debacle.
We return to one of our original questions: Why were Herod and Jerusalem alarmed at the coming of the Magi? Herod was installed by Rome, who was a bitter enemy of the Parthians. Herod overthrew Antigonus, the Parthian-chosen king of Judea. The Magi came from Parthia to honor a king – and Herod was likely concerned that this king would replace him in Jerusalem.
The residents certainly did not want war or bloodshed. Recall that the Roman-supported coup of Herod involved a siege against Jerusalem. Herod tried to kill all the babies under 2 years old.
The Parthian King in this time, Phraates IV, was getting older. He died approximately 2 BC (some sources say as early as 4 BC). The Magi were entrusted with the task of finding candidates for the throne of their Kingdom. I have a coin of Phraates IV (pictured in figure two). Perhaps not coincidentally, face is looking towards a star. It was a star that led the Magi to Jesus (Matthew 2:2).
The Parthians were descended from Israel through the Scythian/Khoumri lineage. There were also Jews who lived among them, as Assyrian kings took Judeans captive in the reign of Sennacerib. The appearance of the Magi can only mean that Jesus was considered a relative of the kingly line of these Scythians/Parthians. Phraates IV died before or near the time that the Magi arrived. They were looking for the King of the Jews because these were the peoples that ruled over them.
They prostrated themselves before Him, which was an act of submission to a ruler. They brought Him gifts fitting royalty. What gifts will you bring when you worship your King this Fall Holy Day Season?
Aruz, Farkas, and Fino, eds. The Golden Deer of Eurasia. The Metropolitan Museum of Art Symposia. New York, 2006. pp 25, 148.
Behistun Inscription. Department of Egyptian and Assyrian Antiquities. The Sculptures and Inscriptions of Darius the Great on the Rock of Behistun in Persia. British Museum, London: 1907.
Bliss, Frank. Social and Economic Change in the Pamirs. Nicola Pacult and Sonia Guss, trans. New York: Routledge, 2006. pp 52-55.
Catholic Encyclopedia 1911: Captivities of the Israelites
Encyclopedia Britannica 11th edition: Phraates (IV).
Herodotus. The History. Greene, David, trans. The University of Chicago Press, 1987. pp 82-83.
Jewish Encyclopedia 1905: Antigonus Mattathias; Ashkenaz
Kuz’mina, Elena E. The Origin of the Indo-Iranians. Boston: Brill, 2007. pp 390-393.
Lipinski, Edward. “Semitic Languages: Outline of a Comparative Grammar”. Sterling, 2001. p 145.
Sayce, Archibald Henry. Lectures upon the Assyrian Language and Syllabary. Oxford, 1877. p 48).
Strabo. H.C. Hamilton and W. Falconer, trans. The Geography. 1856: Vol 2, pp 250-251. 1857: Vol 3 p 97.
The Society of Biblical Archeology. Records of the Past. Vols 1, 3, 5, 7, 11. London: Samuel Bagster and Sons, Late 1800s. (pages referenced above).
Waterman, Leroy. Royal Correspondence of the Assyrian Empire. University of Michigan Press, 1930. pp 358-359.
A further resource for recommended reading: Parthian Coins and History by Fred Shore.
Bible verses from: King James Version. Public Domain; Kingdom Life Version: Old and New Testaments with Text Notes and Words of Jesus in Red Letters, 1st Edition, Public Domain.
All language references come from Strong’s Concordance or The New Greek English Interlinear New Testament.