The Forgotten Ancient Superpower
And Its Role In Biblical History
third of a four-part book series
by Steven M. Collins
This book recounts the intense battles between Rome and Parthia that were among the largest and most pivotal ever fought in the ancient world. The Roman Triumvir, Crassus, met an ignominous death fighting the Parthians and Mark Antony led a large army into Parthia, but was driven out and barely escaped with his life. This exciting story is told with the aid of over 100 maps, charts, and illustrations. Very well researched by historian and writer Steven M. Collins, with over 20 pages of appendices. This is truly a book you will find hard to put down. Order from Bible Blessings Christian Resources.
Although little-known to modern readers, the ancient kingdom of Parthia played a key role in historical and Biblical events. It boasted one of the greatest kingdoms of the ancient world, and was one empire that Rome actually feared. Just decades before the birth of Christ, its armies drove the Romans completely out of Palestine, Syria and Asia MInor, forcing the reigning King Herod to flee for his life. Who were the Parthians? In this book, exciting new research is presented proving a Semitic-Israelite connection and even a link to King David within the Parthian royal family. Some of the events of Jesus Christ's life become more understandable when they are examined in light of the politics that prevailed between ROme and Parthia at that time. One group of Parthian elites that chose Parthia's emperors was called the "Magi" or "Wise Men." A delegation of these high Parthian officials worshipped the young Jesus. This study will give you a new perspective of events in the Mid-east at the time of Christ.
An excerpt from this interesting book: Chapter
3, Pages 123-151
HIS CHILDHOOD YEARS (BIRTH TO AGE 12)
Much has been written about the life of Jesus Christ, the historical person whose name is attached to the many different denominations of Christianity that exist today. In fact, so much has been written that one might wonder whether anything truly new could be written about this one life. As the reader will see, new facts about the life of Jesus Christ can be ascertained by combining the accounts of the Bible with secular historical accounts and traditions about the time in which He lived. This chapter is not intended to be a complete history of the life of Jesus Christ. It will cover those aspects of His life and times which have not been generally known.
The prior chapter dealing with the Parthian Empire discussed historical events shaping the world into which Jesus Christ was born. When some surprising information about His life is added to the history contained in the previous chapter, it can be seen that Jesus Christ actually played a role in the great power politics which occurred between the empires of Parthia and Rome. The Bible hints that He could have played a much larger role in the political affairs of that era if He had chosen to do so.
Did Jesus Really Live?
There is no doubt that the person, Jesus Christ, actually lived in Palestine at the beginning of the first century A. D. While some skeptics doubt this fact, this chapter will begin by offering firm evidence that Jesus Christ was a real, historical person.
Josephus, a Jewish historian of the first century A. D., regarded the life of Jesus Christ as an established fact. In Antiquities of the Jews, Josephus wrote:
“there was about this time, Jesus, a wise man, if it be lawful to call him a man, for He was a doer of wonderful works, — a teacher of such men as receive the truth with pleasure. He drew over to him both many of the Jews, and many of the Gentiles. He was Christ; and when Pilate [Pontius Pilate, Roman Procurator of Judea], at the suggestion of the principle men among us, had condemned him to the cross...He appeared to them alive again the third day, as the divine prophets had foretold these and ten thousand other wonderful things concerning him; and the tribe of Christians, so named from him, are not extinct at this day.”1
In this account, written shortly after Christ died, Josephus not only gave us a powerful witness that Jesus Christ truly lived, but also provided an independent corroboration of many of the biblically-discussed events of His life. Josephus refers to him as “a wise man,” and wonders whether He was more than a mere man because of the “wonderful works” He did. That a non-Christian, Jewish historian of the apostolic era writes of the miracles of Jesus as actual facts offers contemporary support to the Bible’s accounts about them. Josephus agrees with the testamental writings that Jesus was sentenced to be crucified by Pontius Pilate at the behest of the Jewish Sanhedrin, “the principle men among us.” Josephus also acknowledged that Jesus Christ fulfilled many prophecies of the Hebrew prophets about the Messiah, and even refers to His resurrection as an historical fact!
Josephus’ reference to Jesus as “the Christ” acknowledges that Jesus was the Messiah, “the anointed.” Since a non-Christian source so close to the actual time of Christ has confirmed these facts of His life, the musings of modern skeptics questioning Christ’s existence are without merit. Josephus could speak with eyewitnesses of Jesus’ life; modern skeptics are almost two millennia removed from the events, and their writings are merely speculative. Jesus Christ did live, and the writings of Josephus substantiate the Bible’s claims of His performance of supernatural deeds as well as His being raised from the dead.
Roman secular sources agree with Josephus. Celsus, an anti-Christian writer of the Roman Empire in the second century A.D., wrote: “It was by magic that He [Jesus] was able to do the miracles which He appeared to have done.”2 Here a Roman opponent of Christianity grudgingly acknowledges the reality of Christ’s “miracles,” which he labels as “magic.” However, Quadratus, writing in approximately 117-134 A.D., “urged people to believe in Jesus because the effect of His miracles continued up to the present — people had been cured and raised from the dead, and ‘some of them...have survived even to our own day.’”3 Tacitus, the famous Roman historian, writing about the Christians just decades after the death of Christ, stated:
“Nero fabricated scapegoats — and punished...the notoriously depraved Christians (as they were popularly called). Their originator, Christ, had been executed in Tiberius’ reign by the governor of Judea, Pontius Pilate.”4
Tacitus’ comment about Christ appears as a mere aside in an overall account of events in the reign of Nero. It is particularly compelling evidence that Jesus Christ really did live! Tacitus was no fan of Christ or Christianity, and he had no “axe to grind.” His account that “Christ” was a real person crucified by Pontius Pilate is highly credible as Tacitus refers to it as an official act of Pontius Pilate within His overall accounting of Rome’s activities.
Clearly, Roman accounts confirm that Jesus Christ lived, and that He was executed in Judea during the administration of Pontius Pilate. Even His detractors acknowledged that He performed supernatural deeds. Whatever your views about Jesus Christ, we begin with the fact that He, indeed, lived and died when the Bible states that He lived and died, that He performed marvelous deeds, and that He made a major impression on the civilization of His day.
Let us now review the historical setting into which Jesus Christ was born. The Roman and Parthian Empires were both powerful, well-established “superpower” rivals at the time Jesus was born. Rome ruled the Mediterranean region, and Parthia ruled Asian lands from modern Syria to the Indus River. Palestine was located within the Roman Empire, but was close to the Euphrates River constituting the Parthian border.
Five decades before the birth of Jesus, Rome and Parthia fought several battles with one being fought near Antioch of Syria (very close to Palestine).5 In about 40 B.C., the Parthians launched a major assault which drove the Romans out of Asia! For three years, 40-37 B.C., Palestine was within the Parthian Empire and was ruled by a Jewish vassal king of the Parthians named Antigonus. At that time King Herod, the Roman king of Judea, fled from the Parthians in fear of his life. While the Parthian-sponsored rule of Antigonus was brief, it was apparently popular with the Jews. When the Parthians withdrew across the Euphrates, Antigonus, with Jewish support, attempted to maintain himself as king of the Jews, but was defeated by Herod. Mark Antony, the Roman leader famous for his dalliance with Cleopatra, ordered Antigonus beheaded, and Josephus records that this was done to compel the Jews to accept the hated Herod as their king.6 Mark Antony afterward led a massive invasion of Parthia in 37-36 B.C., but his army was utterly defeated by the Parthians.7
To help modern readers gain a frame of reference for these ancient events, these Roman-Parthian wars were more recent events for the people at the time Jesus was born than World War II and the Korean War are to modern readers. Parthian rule over Palestine was, therefore, vividly remembered by many in Jewish society as being preferable to Roman rule.
Parthia’s victory over Mark Antony led to a long period of peace between Rome and Parthia, with the Euphrates River serving as the border between their two vast empires. This prolonged period of peaceful relations lasted from 36 B.C. until 58 A.D.,8 including not only all of Jesus Christ’s life, but also the early period of the Apostolic Church as well. Rawlinson records that it was an established Roman policy not to provoke a Parthian war during that period of time so long as both empires agreed to coexist on separate banks of the Euphrates River. Rawlinson comments on this peaceful interlude as follows:
“It is a well-known fact that Augustus left it as a principle of policy to his successors that the Roman Empire had reached its proper limits, and could not with advantage be extended further. This principle, followed with the utmost strictness by Tiberius, was accepted as a rule by all the earlier Caesars...”9
As long as the Caesars wanted peace with Parthia, Roman officials along Parthia’s border, such as King Herod and Pontius Pilate, knew they risked their positions and lives if they entangled Rome in an unwanted war with Parthia.
Without this period of Parthian-Roman detente, it would have been impossible for some of the events of Jesus Christ’s life to have occurred, as we shall see. The first such event was the coming of the Magi, or “Wise Men” to pay homage to Jesus. We read of this event in Matthew 2:1-12, which becomes more important when considered in the overall context of Roman-Parthian relations.
Parthia’s Magi Visit Jesus (and Frighten Jerusalem)
As discussed in the previous chapter, the Magi were powerful members of the Parthian bicameral body that elected Parthian monarchs and wielded great influence within the empire. One assembly was composed of members of the royal family (the Arsacids), and the other consisted of the priests (the “Magi”) and influential Parthians of non-royal blood (the “Wise Men”). The Magi and Wise Men were jointly known as the Megistanes.10
Matthew 2:1 states that “wise men from the east” came to worship Jesus. The term “Wise Men,” which appears in Matthew 2:1, is not a generic description of these visitors, but was the proper title of Parthian Megistanes. The Greek word translated “wise men” is “magian,” literally meaning “Persian astronomer or priest,”11 from which we derive the word “Magi.” Parthia governed Persia at the time of Christ, so the “Wise Men” cited in the Bible were Parthian nobles and/or priests. While traditional Christian accounts of this episode celebrate the coming of “the three wise men,” the Bible does not limit the number of visiting Magi-Wise Men to three men. Indeed, biblical events and the realities of that time argue for a much larger contingent of Parthian Magi.
Since we saw in previous chapters that the Parthians were descended from the ten tribes of Israel and that their priests were likely descended from the tribe of Levi, it is likely that this delegation of Magi consisted of leading members of the ten tribes of Israel. Because there were numerous Jews of the tribe of Judah in Parthia’s empire, they may have been represented as well. Consequently, the delegation of Magi could easily have consisted of at least ten or twelve men representing the various tribes of Israel.
Also, the Bible confirms that the Magi did not visit the young Jesus in the manger at Bethlehem as most nativity scenes depict, but rather visited Jesus in a house somewhat after His birth. Matthew 2:11 states that this visit of the Magi took place in a house (not at the manger) when Jesus was old enough to be called “a young child.” Luke’s version of Christ’s birth (Luke 2:8-40) mentions the shepherds’ arrival at the manger, but makes no mention of any Magi visiting Christ while He was “in the manger.”
Matthew 2:8 adds that Herod sent the Magi “to Bethlehem” after conferring with the Jewish hierarchy about the prophesied location of the Messiah’s birth. They cited Micah 5:2 that the Messiah would originate in Bethlehem, and they were likely familiar with Daniel 9:25-26 which predicted that the arrival of the Messiah was due at that time. Herod privately met with the Parthian delegation, and enquired when “the star” which they followed had first appeared. He apparently learned that this period of time was almost two years because he killed all male children in Bethlehem under two years of age in an attempt to kill the Messiah, whom he regarded as a competitor for his position as king of the Jews.
Although the Bible tells us that “the star” appeared to the Wise Men almost two years prior to His birth, this offers inexact information in determining how old Jesus was when the Wise Men came to him. The Wise Men were prominent people in Parthia when “the star” appeared, and they had to make a very time-consuming journey to reach Judea. It took time to prepare the costly gifts to present to the Messiah, set their affairs in order for a long absence, organize and equip a caravan, obtain an armed escort for protection and make the slow, lengthy journey to Judea in a caravan of pack animals. Since the “star’s” appearance was not necessarily timed to coincide exactly with the time Jesus was born, He may have been a few months (or up to two years) old at the time of the Magi’s arrival.
Consider also that Matthew 2:1-3 states:
“Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, there came wise men from the east to Jerusalem. 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. When Herod the king heard these things, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him.” (KJV)
The arrival of the Magi’s caravan in Jerusalem was a very public affair because “all Jerusalem” was “troubled” by their arrival. What was it about the Magi’s caravan that scared the Roman leaders and the whole city of Jerusalem? The Magi, a delegation of high Parthian officials, came to Jerusalem in a caravan loaded with costly treasures and escorted by a strong force of armed Parthian soldiers! Since the Magi were high officials of the Parthian government, they would routinely travel with a substantial escort of Parthian soldiers to guarantee their protection. Since they were traveling with many costly treasures to present to the newborn Messiah, their escort may have been unusually large.
The Magi’s caravan would have included large numbers of servants, animal-handlers, cooks, etc. for such a long journey. These people alone would have constituted many hundreds of people! Given the fact that many high Parthian officials and very expensive treasures were in the caravan, there may have been many thousands of Parthian soldiers escorting the caravan! This is not an overstatement.
Josephus records that treasure caravans bringing expensive offerings to Jerusalem from Jews living in Parthian territory did so with “many ten thousand men” as escorts.12 In ancient times, traveling with expensive items was dangerous. There was danger not only from brigands, but also from local satraps who might use their armies to conquer a treasure train passing through their territories. If Jewish commoners from Parthia were allowed to travel to Jerusalem with the equivalent of several infantry divisions as escorts, would an important delegation of Parthia’s ruling class and a treasure train of gifts have been accompanied by any fewer armed escorts? If the Parthian column had included “many ten thousands” of soldiers, it would have justified the widespread fear in Jerusalem caused by their arrival. In the previous chapter, we learned that ancient Chinese historical accounts recorded that the Parthians sent 20,000 cavalry just to escort a Chinese ambassador into Parthian territory.
Plutarch records that Surenas — a Parthian military commander and, no doubt, a member of the Megistanes — traveled on routine business in a caravan of cavalry, servants, and attendants the size of “a baggage train of 1,000 camels...at least ten thousand men.”13 If one Parthian leader traveled with so large a caravan on routine business within Parthia, how large was the caravan of the Magi — a whole delegation of Parthian nobles carrying great treasures to worship a “new-born king?” It was large enough to frighten the whole city of Jerusalem!
The Wise Men coming to Jesus were not bringing just a few samples of gold and other precious things that they carried in their personal saddlebags. They were coming to worship a royal-born child, so they likely had a whole train of pack animals loaded with “gold, frankincense and myrrh!”
Their caravan was so huge that it was a “cause celebre” in Jerusalem. The whole city was in an uproar over their arrival, and that argues for a very visible and impressive Parthian caravan arriving in Jerusalem. The sheer size of the caravan, its treasures and its escorts awed King Herod and the whole city to the point they were all “troubled.” This indicates that the Parthian caravan had so many armed escorts that many feared it was an invasion force coming to besiege Jerusalem and start a new Roman-Parthian war. However, their reason — coming to visit a royal-born Messiah — could have electrified a city of Jews who intensely wanted the Messiah to come and free them from Roman rule! The Jewish hierarchy understood the Parthians were looking for the Messiah as they quickly looked for Messianic prophecies to locate the city of His birth.
After their consultations with Herod and high Jewish officials, the Parthian delegation traveled to Bethlehem to worship Jesus and present their gifts to him. By this time, Matthew 2:11 states Jesus and Mary were living in “a house,” so they were no longer staying at the manger. The Magi’s journey to Bethlehem would have been closely followed by Herod’s spies.
Joseph was then warned by an angel to flee quickly into Egypt (Matthew 2:13) to avoid Herod’s impending slaughter of Bethlehem’s young male children. Since Herod’s edict applied only to Bethlehem, there would have been no need for Joseph, Mary and Jesus to flee unless they were still in Bethlehem. Since Joseph and Mary actually lived in Galilee (Luke 2:4), the fact that they were in a house in Bethlehem indicates that this must have been weeks after Jesus’ birth while Mary was regaining the strength to make an overland trip back to Nazareth. Their flight to Egypt took them completely out of Herod’s area of jurisdiction.
Herod made the mistake of assuming the Messiah would be born to a family native to the Bethlehem area. Since Luke 2:39 states that Joseph, Mary and Jesus returned to Galilee not long after Jesus was born, it seems apparent that the stay of Joseph, Mary and Jesus in Egypt was very brief. Historical sources disagree on the year of King Herod’s death, but there is persuasive evidence that Herod died soon after giving his cruel order to murder the boy babies of Bethlehem. Matthew 2:14-19 states that Jesus and His parents returned from Egypt as soon as Herod was dead, and the account implies their stay in Egypt was brief.
This author acknowledges that there are differing scholarly and historical viewpoints concerning the year of Jesus Christ’s birth. While many people assume that Jesus Christ was born in a theoretical “year zero,” scholarly options for the year of Jesus’ birth focus on the time frame of 5 B.C. to 2 B.C.
It is significant that Jesus’ parents were faithful to God’s law requiring circumcision on the eighth day (Leviticus 12:2-3), and to Jewish custom by making an offering to God at the Temple in Jerusalem to consecrate their firstborn male child. (Luke 2:21-24) This is an important observation as it shows Jesus was raised by a Jewish family that devoutly obeyed God’s laws.
When the Parthian column arrived at Jerusalem, the Parthian Magi came directly to King Herod, quite open about their reasons for being in Roman-occupied Palestine. They informed Herod that they had come to worship “He that is born king of the Jews.”
It is a tribute to the power of Caesar’s policy that the Roman-Parthian peace be maintained that war did not result from this statement, for Herod could easily have taken it as an insult. He could have flown into a rage, and yelled “How dare you ask to see another ‘king of the Jews’ besides me; I am king of the Jews!” That Herod swallowed his gargantuan pride, and meekly answered the Parthians is quite noteworthy. This is a tribute not only to Caesar’s policy to maintain the peace, but also to recognition that a sizeable Parthian army had come to Jerusalem as escorts of the Magi. Herod’s meek response to the highly provocative question of the Parthian officials does imply that he was intimidated by the many Parthian soldiers who accompanied the Magi.
Because the whole city was “troubled” by the Parthians’ arrival, the presence of so many Parthian soldiers surely sparked rumors in Jerusalem that a new Parthian-Roman war was imminent. Herod may even have suspected that the Parthians’ question was designed to provoke an incident, which would lead to an outbreak of hostilities and his removal from the throne. Herod and all Jerusalem was surprised, but relieved to learn that the Parthian Magi and soldiers had arrived with peaceful intent. Herod may have been expecting to hear an ultimatum for the surrender of Jerusalem to Parthia when the Magi were ushered into his presence.
Some observations must be made about the “star” which led the Magi to Jesus. Some have proposed that this star was a comet or a celestial phenomenon although the biblical accounts indicate that this was not the case. The biblically-described “star” moved, leading the Magi over a long east-to-west route from Parthia to Judea, and Matthew 2:9 states that it finally “stood over where the young child was.” Simple logic confirms that no comet or celestial phenomenon in the sky could possibly pinpoint a single city, much less “stand over” an individual child on the earth’s surface! Nevertheless, that is what the biblical “star” did.
The Bible periodically uses the word “star” to represent angels (Job 38:7, Revelation 1:20), and there is good reason to believe that the “star” which led the Parthian nobles to a specific child in a specific house in Judea was an angel of God. Nothing else makes sense. Only an angel, a spirit being, could literally “stand over” the baby Jesus to designate one specific child to the Parthian nobles.
Also, nothing in the biblical account indicates that this “star” was visible to anyone other than the Magi-Wise Men! Matthew 2:2 states that the Magi saw “the star,” but the context argues no one else ever saw it. Verse 7 relates that Herod asked the Magi when “the star” appeared to them, indicating no one in Judea was aware of any such “star.” If a striking celestial object had appeared in the sky, Herod and his astrologers would already have known the exact date and hour on which it had appeared.
After leading the Parthians to Judea, the “star” disappeared, forcing the Parthians to ask Herod for directions. After the Magi left Herod, the “star” again appeared to them, led them directly to Bethlehem (Luke 2:9), and finally “stood over” one specific child, Jesus. Verse 10 states the Magi rejoiced that the “star” had again appeared to show them where to go! Obviously, a “star” which appeared, disappeared and reappeared for the Magi (but which was apparently not seen by any other humans) had to be an angel. Supporting this fact is that Luke 2:8-15 records that the birth of Jesus was announced to shepherds by angels speaking to them out of a heavenly light which accompanied their appearance. God also used an angel to warn Joseph to flee to Egypt. Since God used angels to direct the movements of persons in the events surrounding Christ’s birth, it would have been completely consistent for God to also send an angel to guide the Magi’s movements.
Having found Jesus, the Magi worshipped him, offering costly gifts of gold, myrrh and frankincense. They were then warned by God in a dream (Matthew 2:12) not to return to Herod, resulting in the prompt exit of the Magi and their many escorts from Judea. When Herod realized that he had been fooled, he wrathfully killed all the young male children of Bethlehem in a vain effort to kill the Messiah. However, there is no indication that Herod made any attempt to overtake or punish the Magi. As high Parthian nobles, they had “diplomatic immunity,” and Herod dared not anger Caesar by provoking the Parthians. Also, Herod’s garrison troops could have been vastly outnumbered by the size of the Magi’s military escorts.
There is another important aspect of this remarkable episode. While it is not surprising that Jewish leaders during Herod’s reign were sufficiently familiar with the prophetic writings to pinpoint for Herod exactly where the Messiah would be born, it is surprising that God was working so closely with members of the Parthian ruling class! This makes no biblical sense unless: (A) the Parthians were descended from the ten tribes of Israel and (B) the Magi (Parthian priests) included some Levites. During His ministry Jesus Christ asserted that He had not been sent to the gentiles, but only to the “lost sheep of the house of Israel.” Matthew 15:24-28 shows the reluctance of Jesus to assist a gentile.
Throughout the Old Testament God worked almost exclusively with the House of Israel and the House of Judah. It was not until after the death of Christ that gentiles were given equal access to the God of Israel. The fact that God was working intimately with the Parthian nobility — sending them angelic messages, giving them divine messages in dreams — confirms that the Parthians had to be descended from the ten tribes of Israel which had migrated into Asia.
The fact that some of the Parthian ruling classes were apparently worshippers of the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob is most revealing. God obviously considered these Parthians to be “righteous” men under the terms of His laws or He would not have been dealing with them so personally. That educated Parthians were ready to visit and worship the Messiah at the time of Christ’s birth indicates they were also familiar with the prophecies of the Old Testament. Who but transplanted Israelites would have been looking for the Messiah at that time?
Although we are jumping ahead in the narrative, consider the events of Acts 2:9 which states Parthians were among those who made pilgrimages to Jerusalem for the Feast of Weeks, known to Christians as Pentecost Sunday. Verse 9 also mentions “Medes, Elamites, and dwellers in Mesopotamia” as being present at this feast, and all these regions were provinces of the Parthian Empire. We know that portions of the ten tribes had been relocated to “the cities of the Medes,” so the presence of devout visitors from Media most likely designates people from the ten tribes of Israel who still lived in Media. Interestingly, verse 9 also mentions “dwellers...in Asia” were present. The word “Asia” has clouded origins, but the Encyclopaedia Britannica states, “It is probable that it [“Asia”] has an Assyrian or Hebrew root, and was used first...with a specific or restricted local application, a more extended signification having eventually been given it...”14
As briefly mentioned in chapter two, one of the Scythian tribes was called the “Asii” (or “Asiani”).15 Since the “Asiani” were one of the Scythian tribes bearing the name of Isaac, the Sacae or Saka, the Bible’s reference to “Asians” attending the Feast of Weeks could indicate that Scythians were also present in Jerusalem at that time. This further indicates that the Parthians and Scythians were the displaced members of the “lost ten tribes of Israel.” The non-Israelite populations of Asia had no cultural interest in the worship of the God of Israel; only the ten tribes of Israel would retain such a custom.
It was not unusual for large pilgrimages originating in Parthia to travel to Jerusalem to worship the God of Israel. Josephus’ statement that caravans from Parthia arrived in Jerusalem under the protection of “many ten thousand men”16 was noted earlier. These must have been magnificent treasure trains to have warranted the protection of a sizeable army. Such huge protection of a sizeable army. Such huge “offerings” going to Jerusalem from Parthia indicates that significant numbers of people within the Parthian Empire worshipped the God of Israel. This meant that, at the time of Jesus and Herod, there was a great deal of travel and trade between the Parthian Empire and the Roman province of Judea. It also shows that there was a strong sense of community between Judea and many regions of the Parthian Empire. If a caravan of Parthian commoners could be escorted by “many ten thousand men,” how many escorts would accompany a caravan of Parthia’s nobility?
The Parthian nobility did not “travel light.” Plutarch records that Surenas, a high Parthian noble, had an entourage of ten thousand men when he traveled “on his own affairs” on routine business. Just one Parthian noble was accompanied by such a huge and imposing caravan when he traveled on routine business! Think how much larger would have been the caravan of a group of perhaps ten or twelve Parthian nobles, the Magi, travelling, not on routine business within Parthia, but through dangerous terrain with rich treasures and into Roman territory! Parthians believed in large numbers of armed escorts for VIPs. When an ambassador came to Parthia from China, an escort of 20,000 armed Parthian cavalrymen greeted him!18
Now you can understand why the whole city of Jerusalem was frightened when the Parthian Magi arrived to look for the young child of royal birth. They were accompanied by a gigantic caravan from Parthia moving toward Jerusalem. This column was escorted by many thousands of Parthia’s military cavalry. Many in Jerusalem feared the Parthians had come to start a war and besiege the city.
The Royal Lineages of Jesus Christ
In an earlier chapter it was shown that the Magi were loyal to one dynasty, the Arsacids, whose members continuously ruled Parthia. It was shown that many rulers of Parthian and Saka kingdoms had names incorporating the word “Phares” (PH-R-S). This indicates that the Arsacids were descended from the seed of David, who was the first king of the Phares family. (Matthew 1:2-6) The kings of Judah of the Phares dynasty are listed in I Chronicles 3:9-17, but verses 18-24 reveals that the royal lineage continued to flourish after Judah’s captivity. Indeed, David’s dynasty was given high status in the Babylonian Empire. (II Kings 25:27-30) This post-exilic elevation of the Davidic dynasty in Asia likely led to their serving as vassal kings over captive Israelites under Babylonian and Persian masters. Their later elevation to the throne of Parthia fulfilled the prophecy of Jeremiah 33:17 that David’s descendants would always rule over the descendants of the ten tribes of Israel. This may explain the unshakable loyalty of the Parthians to the Arsacids. With the Parthians being Israelites, and the Arsacids being descended from King David, the Arsacids were the only dynasty in Asia that was racially, historically and culturally related to the Parthian people.
Since Matthew 1:3-17 tells us that Jesus Christ was a descendant of Phares and King David, Jesus was a distant relative of the Parthian ruling dynasty, which also descended from Phares and David. The bloodline relationship of Jesus to the Parthian Arsacids serves as a further explanation for the homage paid to Jesus by the Parthian nobility. It was customary for the Parthian Magi and Wise Men to keep track of male Arsacids in foreign nations. In some cases they sent to foreign nations, Scythia and Rome, to summon male relatives of the Arsacids to come to Parthia to serve as king. As mentioned in the previous chapter, some Parthian rulers killed every male relative they could find in an effort to eliminate potential rivals to their throne. This compelled the Magi to look for distant individuals who had the same bloodline as the Arsacids, the lineage of Phares and King David. At the time of the birth of Jesus, the recent Parthian emperor, Phraates IV, who reigned 37-2 B.C., had killed many male relatives, including his own father and almost thirty brothers.19 Male Arsacids at the time of Jesus’ birth were in very short supply.
When the Magi were led by God to pay homage to the young Jesus, they doubtless learned that Joseph, Mary and Jesus were all related to the Parthian dynasty! Indeed, they may already have known that Jesus was an Arsacid, related to Parthia’s kings. When the Magi came to Herod, they said:
“Where is He that is born king of the Jews?” (Matthew 2:2, KJV)
This statement confirms that the Magi arriving in Jerusalem already knew that Jesus was “royal-born,” and it implies that they knew He was related to Parthia’s kings. If they did not know that fact prior to their arrival, they learned it during their visit with Joseph, Mary and the young Jesus. Indeed, because Phraates IV, the emperor of Parthia, had killed so many of his male relatives, the Magi were surely to find surviving males of the Davidic bloodline.
Consider some important information. When the Babylonians conquered Judah, they brought King Jehoiachin of Judah and many of his royal family to Babylon. (II Kings 24:15) After languishing in prison for years, King Jehoiachin was exalted into the position of a favored vassal king in the Babylonian empire. I Chronicles 3:17 reveals that Jeconiah had many sons and grandsons, who very likely also became vassal kings in Asia after Jehoichin died. One of Jeconiah’s sons was “Salathiel” (I Chronicles 3:17), who lived in Asia, not Judea. Salathiel, later spelled “Shealtiel,”20 was the father of Zerubbabel. (Ezra 3:2) Matthew 1:12 and Luke 3:27 confirm this as well.
Zerubbabel’s name includes the root word “babel,” indicating he was born in Babylon. Zerubbabel was one of the leaders of the group of Jews who left Asia and returned to Jerusalem during the time of Ezra and Nehemiah under the auspices of Persian kings. Zerubbabel had a prominent role in the rebuilding of a Jewish presence in Jerusalem and Judea, and he is mentioned frequently in the books of Ezra and Haggai and once in the book of Nehemiah. Joseph, the human “father” of Jesus Christ was a descendant of Zerubbabel. (Matthew 1:12-16) So Jesus Christ was born into a very prominent and famous family in Judea, one known to be descended from the Kings of Judah. Since His royal progenitors formerly lived in Asia and had included vassal kings of the Babylonians, the Parthian Magi may have been very well aware that they were coming to visit a family of Arsacids! Babylon was then ruled by Parthia, so its records were available to the Magi. Because Phraates IV had killed so many males of the royal Parthian dynasty at that time, the Magi were compelled to look outside Parthia’s borders for male Arsacids who were eligible for the throne of Parthia.
Now consider this: Because Jesus was eligible for the throne of Parthia, so was His human father “Joseph.” Christian mythology tends to personify Joseph as an obscure, poor “carpenter” struggling “to make ends meet.” But the possibility exists that he was, in fact, well-to-do. The account in Mark 6:3, for instance, indicates that Jesus himself was a “carpenter,” but in that day someone in the building trades business was often more of a “building contractor,” involving all aspects of construction. This could possibly have been a very responsible position.
The concept of Joseph and Mary being “poor” partly comes from the “manger scene” of them staying in a lowly manger when Jesus was born. However, they did not stay there for lack of financial resources. When they arrived in Jerusalem, they tried to stay in a lodging house, but everything was “booked solid” in the city. (Luke 2:7) As soon as the crowds thinned out, they promptly relocated to a rented “house” in Jerusalem. (Matthew 2:11) Also, it takes financial resources to travel. When God warned Joseph to flee to Egypt quickly, he obviously had the financial resources on hand to afford a hastily arranged, indefinite stay in a foreign nation. (Matthew 2:13-15) Either Joseph was not a “poor carpenter,” or these funds came from the gifts of the Magi at Jesus’ birth.
Jesus was descended from the kings of Judah through both His father and mother! While Matthew 1 gives Joseph’s descent from Judah’s dynastic line, Luke 3:23-33 gives Mary’s descent from king David. Both Joseph and Mary were direct descendants of King David, the kings of Judah, related to the Davidic kings in Asia and had Salathiel and Zerubbabel as common ancestors. However, Joseph and Mary’s immediate ancestors were descended from two different sons of Zerubbabel. (Matthew 1:13-16, Luke 3:23-27) Some confusion exists on this point, as it is easy to not grasp that Luke 3’s account gives Mary’s lineage. Henry Halley explains this point as follows:
“The commonly accepted view is that Matthew gives Joseph’s line, showing Jesus to be the Legal Heir to the Promises given Abraham and David; and that Luke gives Mary’s line, showing Jesus’ blood descent, ‘Son of David according to the flesh’ (Romans 1:3). Mary’s genealogy, in accord with Jewish usage, was in her husband’s name. Joseph was the ‘son of Heli’ (Luke 3:23), that is, ‘son-in-law’ of Heli. Jacob was Joseph’s father (Matthew 1:16).”21
Jesus was a “blue-blooded” son of parents descended from royalty. This remarkable relationship meant both Joseph and Jesus were distant relatives of Parthia’s kings. Because Parthia could offer the kingship to any relative of the Parthian king line, not just the oldest son or closest relative of the previous king, both Joseph and Jesus Christ were potential claimants to the throne of the Parthian Empire! While the Bible does record Jesus’ royal lineage of the seed of David, it does not specifically mention His relationship to Parthia’s dynasty. However, as we shall see later in this chapter, the Bible implies that this relationship existed.
Since the Magi who worshipped Jesus were members of the body which selected the kings of Parthia and kept track of male Arsacids, they must been ecstatic to find living descendants of King David. The Magi no doubt discussed the possibility that this child Jesus, born under such unusual circumstances, might one day take the throne of Parthia. While the Bible is silent on their future contacts, this delegation of Parthian Magi likely would have stayed in contact with Jesus in future years and monitored the events of His life. If the Parthians had a Messianic understanding, Jesus would have been seen as an acceptable ruler because He was a son of David.
Did the Magi Almost Cause a Roman-Parthian War?
Let us consider that the visit of the Magi to Jesus may have been a factor in a political crisis that almost led to a new Roman-Parthian war. Recall that from 40-37 B.C., Parthia had ruled Palestine and Syria before the Romans drove them back across the Euphrates River. That war ushered in a long period of Parthian-Roman détente which included the entire lifetime of Jesus Christ. However, a great Parthian-Roman war was barely averted in 1 A.D. when a “summit conference” was held between the Parthian emperor, Phraataces, and Caius Caesar, the grandson of Augustus Caesar on an island in the Euphrates River (i.e. neutral territory). Roman sources recorded that:
“The armies of the two chiefs were drawn up on the opposite banks of the river [the Euphrates], facing one another; and the chiefs themselves, accompanied by an equal number of attendants, proceeded to deliberate in the sight of both hosts.”22
This “summit conference” averted war, but how could the Magi’s visit have had a role in this crisis?
The Bible’s account of the Magi visiting Jesus ceases when the Magi left Judea and returned to Parthia, leaving the impression that the issue was concluded. However, if we consider the geopolitical realities of that time, there is no way that the Magi’s exit from Judea ended the matter.
Matthew 2:3 records that Herod and “all Jerusalem” were troubled by the arrival of the Magi. Jerusalem was a commercial city at the nexus of major trade routes, and it commonly received caravans of thousands of people. Three tired Magi arriving from the east would not have made a ripple in the city’s calm. For that matter, caravans from Parthian territory could arrive in Jerusalem with many thousands of armed escorts, and such events did not trouble the city. However, the arrival of Parthian Magi — Parthia’s nobles and priests — in Jerusalem escorted by a large army of Parthian soldiers was unprecedented and unrepeated in the history of the city of Jerusalem. This occurred at a time when Parthia and Rome had a peace treaty, and no major Roman or Parthian military forces had crossed the Euphrates River in over three decades. The arrival of a large Parthian military force in Jerusalem escorting high Parthian officials was militarily provocative and could justifiably be seen by King Herod and the Romans as a treaty violation.
When Parthia had occupied Palestine, it had crowned its own vassal king, Antigonus, as ruler of Judea. When the Magi, Parthia’s official king-makers, came to Jerusalem looking for “a new king of the Jews,” it must have sounded to Herod and the Romans that the Parthians were trying to reassert their claim to Judea and dethrone Herod. Their speaking directly to Herod, who was Rome’s “king of the Jews,” about wanting to find a “new king of the Jews” could be seen by the Romans as very close to a declaration of war, given the region’s history. The fact that King Herod “bit his tongue” and made no rash statement to the Magi and treated them with deference argues that the Parthians must have had an intimidating number of troops at Jerusalem to compel Herod to be so uncharacteristically meek. Since a major Roman-Parthian treaty had been in effect for over three decades, Rome felt unthreatened in the region, and would, consequently, have had only a small garrison in Jerusalem.
Caesar’s decree that no Parthian war be provoked also put Herod in an awkward position. While the Magi and Parthians were in Judea with no harmful intent, there is no way the Romans could be sure this “visit” was benign in nature. After the Parthians left, Herod “blew his stack” (Matthew 2:16) and vented his pent-up rage by murdering all male children in Bethlehem under age two. Official reports surely had to be filed with Augustus Caesar in Rome about this highly unusual event.
Herod was justifiably fearful of Parthian intentions in the area. Hadn’t they come to anoint a replacement for him as “king of the Jews?” Hadn’t they also deceived him by leaving the area without his knowledge? Herod’s murderous act in Bethlehem would also have inflamed Jewish residents, and rumors of revolt against the hated Romans would have intensified. Faced with a possible Parthian invasion and/or a Jewish revolt, Herod needed more Roman soldiers in the region. In his reports to Caesar, Herod surely cast himself in a favorable light, warning Caesar that the Parthians had crossed the Euphrates, made a military reconnaissance to Jerusalem to spy out the city’s weakness and were openly talking about crowning a “new king of the Jews.” Because the Parthians’ arrival in Jerusalem had scared the whole city, news of this extraordinary event would have spread quickly along the trade routes. Roman honor had been slighted, and Rome usually responded to such an insult.
However, the Romans could not respond immediately. Rome had been sapped by the costly civil wars between Brutus and Octavian and also Octavian against Mark Antony and Cleopatra. These wars were fought in the eastern half of the Roman Empire, so Rome’s military forces in the east had been depleted and disorganized. Augustus Caesar could not be entirely sure whom to trust with an army, lest another civil war break out in the east. Herod the Great was a firm ally of Augustus, but Herod was soon to die, leaving Augustus with no close ally in the East to whom he could entrust an army. Also, Rome and Parthia were facing a possible conflict in Armenia over succession to the throne of Armenia. In both Armenia and Judea, the issue was whether Rome or Parthia would choose the kings of those nations. Also, Rome had to finance, train and equip an army to fight the Parthians. Rome’s armies under Crassus and Mark Antony had been “clobbered” by the Parthians, so Rome would need extra time to assemble an army to challenge Parthia. Rome’s leadership crisis is described by George Rawlinson as follows:
“Augustus [formerly “Octavian”], from the time that he heard of the Armenian troubles, and of the support given them by Parthia, seems never to have wavered in his determination to vindicate the claims of Rome...[but] hesitated as to the person whose services he should employ...He would have been glad to employ Tiberius; but that morose prince had deserted him and...was living in self-chosen retirement. Caius, the eldest of his grandsons, was, in B.C. 2, only 18 years of age...the extreme youth of the prince caused him to hesitate...and the consequence was that Caius did not start for the East until late in B.C. 1.”23
In other words, Rome’s political situation compelled a delay in responding to Parthia’s real provocation in Judea and apparent provocation in Armenia. The situation was further muddled by the death of Phraates IV, Parthia’s emperor when the Magi visited Jerusalem.24 Since Phraates IV and Herod the Great had died by the time Rome’s army was ready, all the major principals had a fresh viewpoint by the time Rome and Parthia had their “summit conference” at the Euphrates River in 1 A.D.
Although historical accounts mention only the Armenian dispute, it is significant that the Parthian and Roman armies did not confront each other in Armenia. Their confrontation was along the Euphrates River, which had been crossed by the Parthian armed column led by the Magi. Everyone in the region breathed a huge sigh of relief when war was averted. As we shall soon see, if a war had been fought ending the Parthian-Roman detente, much of Jesus Christ’s ministry in Judea could not have occurred.
If the armed Parthian column led by the Magi provoked the Roman-Parthian confrontation in 1 A.D. during which war was averted, a date of 2 B.C. for Christ’s birth is more logical. If He had been born in 4 B.C., there would be too great a gap between that year and the Roman response in 1 A.D. However, a gap from 2 B.C. to 1 A.D. would be understandable given the political realities of that time.
The Bible says little else concerning the early years of Jesus Christ. Luke 2:40 states that Jesus “waxed strong,” and was filled with wisdom and favored by God. Luke 2:41-50 tells us that Jesus, at age twelve, amazed the teachers in the Temple with His wisdom. This passage confirms that Jesus was being raised by His parents according to the Laws of God, as His family annually attended the Passover in Jerusalem, the location of the Temple. Jesus would have been seen by others as a devout, brilliant son of a prominent Jewish family.
1. Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, XVIII, III, 3
2.Wilken, The Christians as the Romans Saw Them, p. 98
3.Ibid, pp. 99-100 (citing Eusebius, The History of the Church, 4.3.2)
4.Tacitus, The Annals of Imperial Rome, Part II, “The Burning of Rome,” circa XV.42-47
5.Rawlinson, The Sixth Great Oriental Monarchy, pp. 178-181
6.Josephus, Antiquities, XV, I, 2
7.Rawlinson, The Sixth Great Oriental Monarchy, pp. 199-205
8. Ibid, The Sixth Great Oriental Monarchy, p. 216
9. Ibid, p. 210
10.Ibid, p. 85
11.Young’s Analytical Concordance to the Bible, see word “Wise,” subhead 8, p. 1060
12.Josephus, Antiquities, XVIII, IX, 1
13.Plutarch, Crassus, p.21
14.Encyclopaedia Britannica, Heading entitled “Asia,” Vol. 2, p. 512
15.Rawlinson, The Sixth Great Oriental Monarchy, p. 118
16.Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, XVIII, IX, 1
17.Plutarch, Crassus, 21
18.website: www.parthia.com, see links: “Geography,” “Parthian Stations,” and “Parallel Passages from the Chinese Annals” (citing Friedrich Hirth’s China and the Roman Orient)
19.Rawlinson, George, The Sixth Great Oriental Monarchy, pp. 195-198, 215
20.Young’s Analytical Concordance to the Bible, see “Salathiel, Shealtiel,” p. 831
21.Halley, Henry, Halley’s Bible Handbook, see “Matthew,” p. 415
22.Rawlinson, The Sixth Great Oriental Monarchy, pp. 218-219
23.Rawlinson, The Sixth Great Oriental Monarchy, pp. 213-214
24.Ibid, pp. 213-215
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