Where did the Magi come from?

Some early texts state that "wise men came from Arabia to visit him", describing the visit of the Magi. Arabia would have been the region to the south of Palestine, encompassing more or less what is now Saudi Arabia. If this were so, the traditional image of the Magi crossing the desert on camels would be hopelessly wrong, as they would almost certainly have travelled by ship around the Red Sea coast, only riding the last part of the journey along the so-called King’s Highway from the coast to Jerusalem.

Most people however, believe that Babylon was a more probable point of origin. There are two main reasons for this:

  • Babylon had a large Jewish community due to the slaves and prisoners taken back to Babylon after the sack of Jerusalem in 586 BC.
  • Babylon had a tradition of astronomy and astrology and had the most advanced science in the region.

In other words, the Babylonians had the means to study the Star and a reason for linking it to the Jews. No similar motive can be applied to the Arabians.

However, there are some intriguing pointers that suggest that the Magi came from further afield. Some of the earliest images of the Magi in churches, which date back to the 6th Century, show them in Persian dress. The belief in the early church in the first few centuries AD was that the Magi were Persian. There is even an Apocryphal Arabic Gospel of the Infancy which appears to state that the Magi were Persian. Similarly, when Marco Polo travelled through Persia, the inhabitants of the village of Saveh told him that the Magi had set out from there (it is also true that other villages in the region have a similar tradition). There was also a Persian sect of priests called the Medes who have been linked with the Magi.

We also know of a link between the Persians and the Jews. In 539 BC the Persians conquered Babylon and would also have taken slaves and prisoners with them. Amongst them would have been Jews who knew of the prophesy of the Messiah. If Babylon is a plausible candidate as the point of origin for the Magi because of its Jewish community, Persia must be too.

My own belief is that the Magi were probably Persian in origin, having been convinced by the strong circumstantial evidence that points to them. Unfortunately, there is no evidence at all for Persian astronomy, nor really for Persian science – unlike the Babylonians, if the Persians were astronomers, they have left no surviving observations.

The conclusion is then that the visiting Magi were probably Jewish astrologers who were the descendants of the original slaves captured by the Persians in the sack of Babylon and who were thus interested in the fulfilment of the Messianic prophesies made as early as the 8th Century BC.



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