After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem and asked, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.” (Matthew 2:1-2)
Who were these magi? They were educated scholars, wealthy, and influential. They were philosophers and counselors attached to the royal courts of Babylonia and Persia and even those of more distant lands such as Arabia and India, knowledgeable in all the wisdom of the ancient East.
Common legend names them Melchior, Balthasar, and Gaspar. The number three comes from the three gifts named in the Biblical account: gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Quite likely, there were more than three wise men, possibly as many as a dozen. And they didn’t come alone. Wealthy, influential men as they were would have traveled with a large entourage, complete with a military escort and servants. They would have traveled, not on camels, but on horses.
|Journey of the Magi, by James Jacques Joseph Tissot (1836-1902)|
Such a foreign group would have “troubled” Herod and all Jerusalem. The eastern nations were not part of the Roman Empire, but of the Parthian Empire that had defeated attempts by Rome to conquer them.
Moreover, they came asking for the king of the Jews. Herod, an Edomite, had been appointed “King of the Jews” by Rome. He had no wish for competition and he didn’t know the Jewish prophecies. The Jewish leaders did, but they weren’t interested in giving up their power to any coming king.
How did the wise men know to follow a star and look for the newborn king? Apparently they were familiar with the Jewish scriptures. Balaam prophesied, “A Star shall come out of Jacob; a Scepter shall rise out of Israel.” (Numbers 24:17) Daniel, a prominent wise man in Persia, gave a prophecy which included a timeline for the birth of the Christ. They believed, and sought Jesus.