Friday, July 27, 2012

The Rock of Mages

ACCORDING TO SOME MODERN ZOROASTRIAN ACCOUNTS, the original Magi occupied ancient Bactria. Some experts assert that it was in this country where the first Zarathustra found refuge when he was banished from of his own tribe. It was here where his philosophy blossomed into a greater way of life complete with a caste of brilliant priests—our Magi, similar to the Israelite tribe of Levi who were designated to serve God as His priests and religious attendants. It was a lineage made up of Zarathustra’s best handpicked disciples, and from this he chose some to be itinerant teachers to scour the Near East for the purpose of drawing converts. The invasion of Alexander the Great in 330 B.C. shattered the Magi’s ancient lineage. From then on, the exclusivity of the title Magus was corrupted as non-Zoroastrian priests began donning the label for themselves even as Alexander declared himself the “Great King” in Medo-Persian tradition when he was Greek. Or rather Macedonian, whom the Greeks scorned as semi-barbaric.


The standard understanding, however, has been that it was in Bactria where Zoroastrianism gathered its greatest adherents after the death of Zarathustra. Not much is truly known of Bactria; among those in record is that it became an independent kingdom in the third century B.C., came under the power of the Medes then became a satrapy of Cyrus the Great about 540 B.C. Its wide and bustling highways of commerce and trade provided for the Persian Empire immeasurable wealth in gold revenue and goods from the most exotic regions of its distant borders. It was also through these great Bactrian highways that the Zoroastrian religion was introduced to every part of the Empire and later into the West, as far as Rome. By the time of Cyrus the Great, it was said that Bactria was already the main hub of Zoroastrianism since around the seventh century. And as significantly, it along one of these highways that led the Zoroastrian Magi to Palestine, bearing gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh, seeking the One called King of the Jews.

Photo: Baldur's Gate ©Wizards of the Coast
But what the Jews, and some of us Christians today, never expected and, to this day, have never understood—beyond the sovereign choice of God, is this: God was with the Magi, whether they knew it or not.

The Biblical account is literally clear that the Magi were in search of a “king,” a hero understandably human, who, like the Jews believed, would lift his people out of oppression and into a national state of deliverance and prosperity. It may have not been too remote for the Wise Men to have interpreted such a king in the same way as the Jews did in that aside from having knowledge of the Hebrew Scriptures, their religion, Zoroastrianism, also held the belief in a messiah who would be born into this world and prepare it for the end.

Whatever the Magi or the Jews expected, there's some certainty, they were expecting the heroic type, like this one on the right. And there is some certainty that nobody expected the one below.

© Philippe Lissac/Corbis
The Zoroastrian culture was established by its prophet Zoroaster, or Zarathustra, who was a culture-bearer of sorts, believed to have arrived to his people and offered the innovation of agriculture. Historically, he was said to have initiated the Neolithic revolution that ensured the greater survival of his people. And to bring to life greater ideals of prosperity and life, he was believed to return in nine thousand years and bring a new age to mankind. Then in the sixth or seventh century B.C., another individual bearing the name Zarathustra did appear establishing religious reforms, which to some people were corruptions to the original Zoroastrian doctrine. Nevertheless, these reforms were accepted and a new Zoroastrianism was instituted under the new rule of the Persians when they successfully wrested supremacy from the Medes.

© National Geographic/SuperStock

By the time of Jesus’ birth, the great seventh-century-B.C. power of the Medo-Persians had been massively reduced into the much inferior Parthian Empire whose expansionistic wave was decisively walled out at the borders of Palestine and Syria, which by this time was owned by a new world power—Rome, and everyone who was either under the power of Rome or stood in the way of its imperial quest groaned in the jaws of this monster’s ruthless oppression. How rife was the time for a hero to emerge and save the world from brutal tyranny. The good news was that contained in the Jewish and Persian tradition was the hope of such a champion to come; the better news was that the Persian Magi had learned of the exact date when this champion was to be born.

Parthia was a part of the former Persian and Greek empires which Rome largely never got to touch. In the early days of its rise to power, the Imperial Eagle sent its legions into the region to either push back its enemies advancing from the orient or to pressure rival forces to capitulate. Noted of these campaigns were the ones by the Trajan where he was able to inflict several severe defeats upon the Parthians and capture from them several provinces. But that was during his reign between 98 and 117 A.D., by the second century, which by that time the Parthian Empire was on the decline. In the first century A.D., however, Parthia was Rome’s major pain in the neck on the eastern front as it maintained and expressed its defiant sovereignty by ruthlessly decimating any Latin force plunging into their sandy territory. An example of their fury is told when they poured molten gold down the throat of the notorious Roman financier and politician Marcus Licinius Crassus after the attacking Roman force he was with fell int middle of the desperation of the times, echoes of a Promised Deliverer come reverberating from land nearby and the Persians realize that they are not alone in their hope. The Hebrews, a people Cyrus inherited out of his conquest over the Babylonians, were likewise awaiting for One foretold by prophets of old who would overthrow Roman oppression and establish His everlasting kingdom where there will be peace, where—

© Brooklyn Museum/Corbis
“The wolf will live with the lamb, the leopard will lie down with the goat, the calf and the lion and the yearling together; and a little child will lead them” (Isaiah 11:6); where “the cow will feed with the bear, their young will lied down together, and the lion will eat straw like the ox” (verse 7); where “the infant will play near the hole of the cobra, and the young child put his hand into the viper’s nest” (verse 8); where all beings “will neither harm nor destroy on all [His] holy mountain, for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea” (verse 9).

© Paul Almassy/CORBIS
The Persians understood this for their Magian religion taught of a clear belief in a future life. They believed that in the end, the forces of good would be rallied behind a messiah to overcome evil and iron out a world free of Ahriman, the god of darkness. The last great day would come when the souls of the dead would be judged according to their deeds and Paradise be made available for those whose lives be found justified.

© Ken Scicluna/JAI/Corbis
Seven hundred years after the last Zarathustra had made his visit and brought the Persian culture to the summit of world dominance, another one like him from out of the remnants of the Old Persian Empire was about to arise, whose star the Zoroastrian Magi had charted from the time they stormed and took over the temples of Babylon. Both Jew and Persian braved the oppression of the times, strengthened by the hope of a hero to come. With the advantage of the Hebrew Scriptures, the Zoroastrian priestly writings called the Zendavesta, and the Magian knowledge of astrology, the Magi’s expectation became enhanced with a precise calculation as to when the Messiah would come. And when the date fell, “they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him” (Matthew 2:11).

This worship, this act of allegiance, some historians believe, was a decision to show that the priests of Zarathustra had recognized Him, accepted Him, as the hero whom they awaited [Stewart C. Easton, The Heritage of the Past (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1961); p.105].

After the account of the birth of Jesus the Magi disappear from the pages of the Bible. Not, however, without representation from two New Testament figures who virtually depicted the dualism of light and darkness espoused by the Magian religion.

© Dr. John C. Trever, Ph.D/Corbis
In the time of Jesus, Judaism was already bordered within by sects, dominant among which were the Pharisaic, or Rabbinic, and the Sadducaic. Yet there was also another one more reclusive, more fundamental, and surprisingly, more Magian. They situated themselves in the desert wilderness of the Judean region, away from mainstream urban and rustic settlements where the major Jewish denominations have established their bastions. In Greek, they were called hosios for their discipline and dedication to holiness; yet in a name still shrouded in mystery to this day, this sect was known as the Essenes, famous to our generation for authoring the so-called Dead Sea Scrolls discovered in 1947.

Their strict observance to Law made the Essenes principally similar in character to the Pharisees, except for the part where the latter was cited for their long “flowing robes” in which they love to walk around in the marketplaces and be greeted by the inconvenienced crowd (Luke 20:46). While the stoles of the Pharisees were winning them “important seats in the synagogues and the places of honor in the banquets” (verse 47), simple white garments identified the Essenes in their unsophisticated lifestyle of habitually eating the plainest food, self-support by manual labor, and sharing communal wealth and property in a world where there was neither rich nor poor but where everyone rejoiced in having everything they basically needed.

© American Colony Photographers/National Geographic Society/Corbis

Manifest likenesses to the Pharisaic and the Christian sects have been drawn of the Essenes since the modern world caught notice of these peculiar people who shook the foundations of contemporary Christianity as well as Judaism. And it has been as far suggested by some writers that Christianity was an outgrowth of Essenism even though the strict foundational legalism of the Essenes diametrically contrasts Christianity’s emphasis on salvation by grace. Never, however, has there been any implication—or has it ever been a popular food for thought—that standing evidences also assert shreds of Magian Zoroastrian influence might have somehow secured an important part of the Essene doctrine.

© Richard T. Nowitz/CORBIS
Though historical records at best trace the Essenes’ origin from the second century B.C., its members claim their beginnings back to Adam’s seventh son Enoch (Genesis 4:17–18), the first of two celebrated personalities in the Bible who was taken into heaven without traversing death. As accounts have it, it was from the powerful Jewish political party called the Hasideans where the nucleus of the first Essene membership emerged [Max I. Dimont, Jews, God and History (New York: Mentor, 1994); p.92]. Losing their taste for politics, they withdrew into an isolated existence of religious observance, but that was after they have realized what had become of their group which at the beginning simply sought to keep alive the fire of faithfulness to the Mosaic Law and the restoration of the Davidic kings. Never had they envisioned the massive Jewish following in their midst awaiting leadership that would stand against the Hellenization of Israel. They were a spark that launched the Jewish national anti-Hellenization movement leading to the Maccabean revolt in 167 B.C. The flame which they ignited however was carried out by the separatist Pharisees, another Hasidean faction that would not agree with the isolationist sentiments of the Essenes. In the period following the failure of the Maccabean revolt, some historians assert that John Hyrcanus (135–105 B.C.), son of the last surviving brother of the great Judas Maccabeus, issued oppressive measures against the Essenes, particularly to persecute the latter’s very respected Teacher of Righteousness for the mere reason of a rebuke which the Teacher gave to Hyrcanus for switching party affiliation to the Sadducees, the sect that supported Israel’s Hellenization. The harassment which Hyrcanus initiated against the Teacher of Righteousness continued in the reign of his successor Alexander Jannaeus (103–76 B.C.), forcing the Teacher to flee to region of Damascus where the Syrians were engaged in an offensive against Jannaeus (Genesis of Eden Here we see the striking, almost supernatural, resemblance of events between the Essene master fleeing to Syria and Zarathustra retreating to Bactria. But while the flight of Zarathustra account is largely debatable to this day, the story of about the Essene Teacher of Righteousness surprisingly turns out historically factual as discovered in the 1947 unearthing of the Dead Sea Scrolls.

Among the manuscripts dug up by the Qumran scientific team was one entitled The War of the Sons of Light with the Sons of Darkness, the document that made experts decide that it was the Essenes who had established Christianity around two hundred years before Jesus lived. This is the account where the Teacher of Righteousness makes his appearance, a man whose life not only reflects Zarathustra but Jesus as well. According to the ancient writings, the Teacher was considered as a divinely sent Messiah who violently died in the hands of the Sons of Darkness. The Essenes, being disciples of this Teacher, called themselves the Elect of God and their doctrine the New Covenant. This set of facts alone was all Sorbonne Professor A. Dupont-Sommer needed to attribute the foundation of Christianity to the Essene tradition, as he stated in his study entitled, The Dead Sea Scrolls: A Preliminary Survey. Then a more in-depth examination of this religion further showed that the Essenes called their chief priest the “Anointed One,” same as St. Paul and his Christian disciples called Jesus; and ordinary priests whose role may have been similar to that of the Old Testament Levites were referred to as the “sons of Aaron.” This piece of information, however, did not nullify the existence of a particular Teacher of Righteousness who, like Jesus, preached humility, love for one’s neighbor, and obedience to the Law of Moses before dying a violent death between 65 to 53 B.C. Like Jesus, the Essene Teacher was the subject of religious hate particularly from the party of the Sadducees, which as we have seen in brief composed the political force which John Hyrcanus switched to after being sharply rebuked by the Teacher.

© Dr. John C. Trever, Ph. D./Corbis
Other manuscripts discovered along with The War of the Sons of Light with the Sons of Darkness are the monumental scrolls of the Prophet Isaiah which may be the originals of his entire book which has been canonized in the Bible. It was the foundation of their conviction from their early anti-Hellenistic days that attracted an entire nation into a sentiment expressed by a great prophet who envisioned the final hours of the very Lamb of God. The impact of the message found in Isaiah 53 never seemed to have gotten into the minds of the people until God supernaturally allowed it to be practically lived out by the Teacher of Righteousness as a sample of what the Jews could expect once His true Messiah would finally be enfleshed. Now imagine the shock of this devout Jewish sect when they came to discover how a Persian prophet by the name of Zoroaster likewise lived through the same exact ordeal of persecution and rejection from his very own people centuries before the time of the Teacher of Righteousness. There was a trend occurring which may have been divinely strung as the times marched closer to the Messiah’s arrival.

© Hanan Isachar/CORBIS
To the Israelites, heaven meant Canaan, the Land of God’s Promise. Although they understood that there was an actual heaven, it was, to them, God’s throne (Isaiah 66:1); Israel was the heaven He had given to His people. Israel in its heavenly context would be the capital of earth’s prosperity and contentment, living up to its description as the “land flowing with milk and honey” (Exodus 3:8,17; 13:5; 33:3; Leviticus 20:24; Numbers 13:27, 14:8, 16:13–14; Deuteronomy 6:3, 11:9, 26:9, 15; 27:3; 31:20; Joshua 5:6; etc.). If there was any hell, it was the condition of being cast away from the Land or the hopelessness of not having to return to the Land forever. The Northern Kingdom of Israel was said to have descended into the grave, or hell, from the time it was devastated, its people deported into Assyria, and swept into extinction when its conqueror fell into defeat. The Southern Kingdom of Judah, however, was, as sung by King David, saved from the cords of death (Psalm 116:3–4) when they found hope in the land of Babylon. Ultimately consummating God’s deliverance was one He had already chosen before the time Judah was sent into exile—Cyrus the Great:

“who says of Cyrus, ‘He is my shepherd and will accomplish all that I please; he will say of Jerusalem, “Let it be rebuilt,” and of the temple, “Let its foundations be laid”’” (Isaiah 44:28).

Cyrus the Great, in his act of sending the Jews back home, became a picture of the One True Messiah—Jesus Christ—in His purpose to bring deliverance to those He loves and those who love Him. It can be said that Cyrus the Great was the symbolic messiah to remind the new generation of Israelites, now called Jews, that there was going to be a Messiah to come, greater than the Persian monarch who would not begin to measure up to carry the thongs of His sandals. Yet what could be a coincidence or a prophetic marker in Cyrus’ culture was Zarathustra, the messianic aspect of the Persian religion identical to that of the Jews’. This, along with the Jews’ respect for Cyrus the Great, may have been a converging point that may explain the Zoroastrian complexion of the Essene ethos.

The choice of white garments worn by the Essenes may trace its origin from the Magian tradition that identifies the pure color to the righteousness of Ahura-Mazda, the god of light. The Essenes believed in a world equally polarized by the opposing forces of good and evil, as very well stated in the title of their document, The War of the Sons of Light with the Sons of Darkness, reflective of the distinctive Magian theology of Dualism. Another document written under the scope of dualism as applied to the political trend of its time was the Habakkuk Commentary. It was said to have been authored around 41 B.C. explaining how the rising tide of Rome represented the oppressive power of Darkness.

Magian theology has been able to contribute considerably to Essene thought like the belief in Hell and with it a modification of the original Jewish doctrine of Heaven; a future resurrection of the dead to face judgment; a shaping of an Essene version of Ahriman the Persian god of darkness in the form of Belial. Because of Dualism, the impression that evil was co-equal in power and strength to the force of good pervaded in religious consciousness. But let it also be understood: the Magian influence did not only affect the Essenes in that even the Pharisees and the Sadducees chose to rethink select aspects of their doctrines and accommodate some Magian judgments that came as sound and principally enhancing. Perhaps one of the attractions which drew the Jewish attention to the Zoroastrian philosophy was a number similarities possessed by the latter to the first one. An example was the seven-branched golden lampstand which God ordered lit “before the Lord from evening till morning” (Exodus 27:21). In Zoroastrian interpretation, this fire which continually burned in the Temple of the Lord was a symbol of the light of all goodness and purity that their god Ahura-Mazda stood for. Later down the centuries to the time of Jesus, the emblem of fire would grow in popularity as a Zoroastrian sect called Mithraism draws the faith of those from both near and distant lands of the Roman world. The problem with the harmonization of alien additions into the Jewish faith was that it did more to clutter and cloud the main understanding of what the Laws of God simply intended to convey. Jesus later referred to these supplements as the “yeast of the Pharisees and the Sadducees” (Matthew 16:6,11–12; Mark 8:15; Luke 12:1).

© Chris Hellier/CORBIS
Jesus was troubled by the corruption of the basics of Jewish faith that in His debates with the experts of the Law in His land, readers will frequently note how He brought the issue back to its foundation as if He was re-educating them on the heart of matter, cutting through the confusion of the “yeast” which spiritual Israel had welcomed from its time in Babylon and then with its friendship with the Persians. During Jesus’ time, religious teachers were too immersed in doing good by obeying the letter of the Law without having, however, a firm idea why God really wanted His people’s obedience. In His teaching regarding hating and forgiving one’s neighbor, Jesus cites a regulation imposed by the Sanhedrin:

“…anyone who says to his brother, ‘Raca,’ is answerable to the Sanhedrin” (Matthew 5:22).

Raca is a word used to utterly vilify an individual, calling him “worthless.” Notice that in the next verse the word is no different from “you fool,” the slur which Jesus cited would bring anyone in danger of the fires of hell (verse 23). What Jesus was saying was that any one word an individual uses to curse his brother will immediately reserve him a seat in that dreaded place of eternal darkness, worms, and boiling excrement, no matter what the Sanhedrin and its fancy alien-inspired laws stipulate.

© Ken Welsh/*/Design Pics/Corbis
In His exposition on adultery, Jesus makes it very elementary. The interpretation of the law, “Do not commit adultery” (Matthew 5:27, Exodus 20:13) had been shredded into a multitude of commentaries that the basic attitude of God for the matter has been forgotten. Jesus, however, makes it very simple:

“…anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (Matthew 5:28).

“Define ‘lustfully.’” That’s the condescending attitude one would get from an expert of the Law in the time of Jesus who had learned to “analyze” and “philosophize” and “sift through the possibilities where exceptions may or may not be applied.” The general mindset one educated in the scrolls of Babylonia and Persia was enveloped in the single word, “Objectivity.” Well, Jesus expressed just the opposite. God was not “Objective” about anything when He carved out the Ten Commandments twice on Moses’ stone tablets. When He stipulated, “Do not commit adultery,” it was because He hated adultery—and divorce, by the way (Malachi 2:16); when He expressed, “You shall have no other gods before me” (Exodus 20:3) and “You shall not make for yourself an idol in the form of anything…[nor] bow down to them or worship them” (verses 4–5), it was because He was “a jealous God” (Ibid.). Now where’s the Objectivity there? God established laws because He is One “punishing the children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing love to thousands who love me and keep my commandments” (verse 5–6).

© Brooklyn Museum/Corbis
And it was the years of cross-referencing the Holy Scriptures with neighboring doctrines of belief from the years after 586 B.C. to 26 B.C. that had contaminated “expert” interpretation and subsequent obedience to the Law of God. It was then up to Jesus to bring the Law and the Prophets into completion:

“Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them, but to fulfill them” (Matthew 5:17).

© Blue Lantern Studio/Corbis
As we focus a little longer on this verse we can come to a conclusion that the original interpretation of the Scriptures taught by Moses and held until the fall of Judah in 586 B.C. was no longer the foundation of how Jesus’ generation understood the Law. We can furthermore expect that the obscuration caused by addition of the Magian and other possible foreign trappings had rendered the original basics alien to the Jews. Jesus’ engagement with the Sadducees regarding a soul’s marriage at the resurrection, for example, showed how estranged these experts had become to generate such a question like, “…at the resurrection, whose wife will [a woman] be of the seven [brothers], since all of them were married to her” (Matthew 22:27)? The response Jesus gave was not even considered to be called a rebuttal:

“You are in error because you do not know the Scriptures or the power of God. At the resurrection people will neither marry nor be given in marriage; they will be like the angels in heaven. But about the resurrection of the dead—have you not read what God said to you, ‘I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’? He is not the God of the dead but of the living” (verse 29–32).

Interpretation: “Dudes, y’all missed the bridge by a hun’rid miles!” And if we may add: “Where y’all been?” Imagine the Sadducees, who did not believe in heaven, hell, or any resurrection of the dead, engaging Jesus in matters of the afterlife! Come on!—that is, unless they were propelled by the intention to promote Jesus as a Master of the Scriptures by making themselves look stupid! Though the Sadducees held a conservative understanding of the Scriptures, they were not unfamiliar to the popular teachings of their times espoused by the Pharisees, the Essenes, and other competing Jewish sects that were sprinkled with popular Magian hallmarks.

© Gideon Mendel/Corbis
It has been a popular assertion that Jesus was an Essene partly because of the number of statements He made in the Bible that can be directly traced to the Essene tradition. One such statement allegedly made was in Matthew 5 where He spoke about “the light of the world” (verse 14). It seems that such writers once detecting the word “light” were just too quick to refer to their Essene records and thus fit Him among the ascetics of the ancient Jewish religious spectrum who wore garments of white and called themselves the Sons of Light. Another giveaway was in His famous Beatitudes where He alluded to the virtue of Essene frugal life:

© Charles & Josette Lenars/CORBIS
“Blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness for they will be filled. Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy. Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called sons of God. Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:3,5–10).

Advocates of an Essene Jesus further assert that He advocated fasting, an activity that the Essenes were primarily devoted to, in that He even recommended it in more difficult cases of demon possession (Matthew 17:21 and Mark 9:29). But if this were so, then why was it asked, in Matthew 9:14, Mark 2:18, Luke 5:33, of His disciples why they never fasted as did those of the Pharisees and those of John? And for this, Jesus replied, “How can the guests of the bridegroom mourn while he is with them? The time will come when the bridegroom will be taken from them; then they will fast” (Matthew 9:15). The truth of the matter was that Jesus did teach His disciples to fast, to fast inconspicuously, not in the popular way that publicly advertised their moment of self-denial—

“…do not look somber as the hypocrites do, for they disfigure their faces to show men they are fasting” (Matthew 6:16).

Jesus instead recommended looking good and, most of all, normal: “But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that it will not be obvious to men that you are fasting, but only to your Father, who is unseen” (verse 17).

The Essenes were strictly legalistic, like the Pharisees, but not Jesus. In Matthew 12, Jesus’ disciples were once again placed under the spotlight as they passed through the grain fields and began picking and munching on some heads of grain (verse 1). The Pharisees were indignant and cried out, “Look! Your disciples are doing what is unlawful on the Sabbath” (verse 2). It can be one of two things, Him being an Essene in both cases: that Jesus was an irresponsible Teacher or a rebel to His own culture. His alleged “violations” of the Sabbath did not stop there. In verses 9 to 13, Jesus provoked His accusers to anger by healing a man’s shriveled hand on the same day with this in His defense:

“If any of you has a sheep and it falls into a pit on the Sabbath, will you not take hold of it and lift it out? How much more valuable is a man than a sheep! Therefore it is lawful to do good on the Sabbath” (verse 11 to 12).

With a strict Essene, it is doubtful for him to risk violating the regulation of the holy Sabbath. For this, an Essene will miss the point as will any Pharisee or Sadducee.

If Jesus were an Essene, would He delight one bit knowing that the version of the Law by which His society had been formed sports shards of Magian belief? Yet on the other side of the Essene prism, not even the Magi would agree to some of the Essene tenets, like asceticism and excessive fasting.

© Lebrecht Music & Arts/Corbis
But perhaps one of the greatest disregards to Scripture made by the advocates of an Essene Jesus is the allegation that He was actually born in Nazareth and not in Bethlehem. Claimants of an Essene Jesus explain that Nazareth was founded as an Essene settlement in the north for which the term “Nazarene” means “Northern Essenes” [Brother Nazariah, D.D., “Introduction to the Ancient Essenes and the Modern Essene Church of Christ” (, The Essene Church of Christ, 1998–1999]. Logic follows that the town was a bastion of the Essene culture with a population clothed in the simplest garments of white, living unsophisticated lives, never marrying, and starving because of excessive fasting. We have no arguments to this, except that Jesus was born here. The Bible is clear that His parents, Joseph and Mary, who were by then living in Nazareth, traveled down to Bethlehem, the town of their birth, in compliance to the Roman decree to register for the “first census” issued by Caesar Augustus (Luke 2:1–2,4). The story in Luke 2:5 continues that on that day, the holy couple were among the most inconvenienced because it was Mary’s most awaited month for Jesus to be born. In the sixth verse, the Expected One chose to be born “while they were there”“there” where? Bethlehem, that’s where. Luke documented the visit of the shepherds on the night of Jesus’ birth but it was Matthew who recorded that after the party of the Magi and local folk had left, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream telling him to spirit Mary and Jesus to Egypt because Herod had gone murderously crazy and issued a search-and-destroy for the One born King of the Jews (Matthew 2:13). On the nineteenth and twentieth verses, the same angel who appeared to Joseph in a dream came once again to tell him that Herod had died and thus was the coast clear for them to return to Israel. It took some years, therefore, for Joseph and Mary to have never set foot in Nazareth, thus Biblically junking the argument that Jesus was born in the northern town. But the debunking of the idea that Jesus was an Essene does not end there.

The account in Luke 4:14 to 30 tells how the synagogue in Nazareth where he grew up rose furious against Him and drove him to the brow of an outlying hill to hurl him down the cliff (verse 28 to 29). It was after Jesus read on the passage He read in Isaiah 61:1 and 2 and from it taught a strange prophetic sermon about the future of Israel, how the land of God’s Promise would be abandoned by His Spirit in the same way as Elijah was sent to a widow of Zarephath instead of the “many widows in Israel” in his time. For this, His listeners, who could have been Essenes, became homicidally incensed.

If Jesus were an Essene, this story in Luke would have made Him an ex-Essene, or worse, an anti-Essene. But the word “Essene” never appears in the Bible as do “Pharisees” and “Sadducees” stud the pages of the gospels. Jesus spoke against the latter two parties, calling them “vipers” (Matthew 12:34, 23:33), yet even though He never mentioned the Essenes, He likewise taught opposite to what they believed. The matter of being the “light of the world” in Matthew 5:14 was focused to all the Jews, not merely to a particular membership.

© Danilo Calilung/Corbis
The teachings of Jesus came from the heart of the Scriptures, that is, the Law and the Prophets. These were principles that determined the common ground of all Jewish sects, from the most politically outspoken to the religiously withdrawn. Not one sect, therefore, could claim ownership of even a fragment of the Scriptures and the truth they contain; and because of this, Jesus liberally drew from them with all the authority of His divine nature and His natural human right as a Jew, at to Him it mattered not whether that which He drew was upheld by the Pharisees or Sadducees or Essenes or whatever sect. Frequently in His teachings, in fact, He was quick to acknowledge the corresponding reward of any good deed. Notice these passages:

“So when you give to the needy, do not announce it with trumpets, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and on the streets, to be honored by men. I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full (Matthew 6:2).

“But when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by men. I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full” (6:5).

When you fast, do not look somber as the hypocrites do, for they disfigure their faces to show men they are fasting. I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full” (6:16).

Let us understand that though Jesus obviously spoke against the ways of “the hypocrites,” He was not about to deny the fact that they were nonetheless in obedience to God albeit in mere form and not by the sincerity of their hearts (Matthew 15:8, Mark 7:6).

Yet what Salvation might have been if Jesus were an Essene? Would Christian fashion mean wearing white? Would we be living in a tightly knit counterculture of simple living and simple food, awaiting the days to lead all mankind to final judgment? Would we be gathering in synagogues as the Jews still do and listen to one read from a huge scroll covered in an ornate case, with Leviticus our frequent reference to obedience? As we have understood earlier in our study, the Essenes were a legalistic sect and strictly adhered to the letter of the Law, as did the Pharisees. It was then a common point of agreement between both sects that in order to be saved, the Law must be the center of one’s life. If this were the situation, then St. Paul would not have fought against the Judaisers who later tried to infiltrate the Galatian brethren convincing them of the saving power of the Law—

“’How is it then that you force Gentiles to follow Jewish customs?’ We who are Jews by birth and not ‘Gentile sinners’ know that a man is not justified by observing the law, but by faith in Jesus Christ. So we, too, have put our faith in Christ Jesus that we may be justified by faith in Christ and not by observing the law, because by observing the law no one will be justified. You foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? Before your very eyes Jesus Christ was clearly portrayed as crucified” (Galatians 2:14–16; 3:1).

As we have also seen earlier, there were instances when Jesus “disobeyed” the Law in full view of the mainstream religious leaders and followers, acts so controversial that no Pharisee, Sadducee, or Essene would risk bordering to be questioned and therefore be charged with sacrilege.

© Richard T. Nowitz/CORBIS
Ever since the modern fascination over the Essenes started, the virtual direction of the study has always led to how Jesus was very much like the Essenes. Never had it occurred to experts, and to Christians, to see the issue in reverse perspective—how much the Essenes were very much like Jesus—and to consider the unique implication thereof. We have seen how the Book of Isaiah had been an integral part of the Essene society, how they had adhered to the hope of the Prophet, particularly on his Messianic theme. It can be said that the Essenes were the backbone of the Israelite faith in the coming Messiah; they were the ones who kept this flame alive even if it meant pulling themselves away from the mainstream, not to hide themselves, but to put themselves on a stage far enough, high enough for all to see. And in their special way of conveying their message they lived it out, like the modern Christians do (ideally, anyway). In this we may see a special purpose for their white garments: serving as lights for all to see. Later on, Jesus may have picked out their example when He preached about letting “your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven” (Matthew 5:16). Yet even before Him, the prophets taught about “the people living in darkness [seeing] a great light; on those living in the land of the shadow of death, a light has dawned” (4:16).

© Nedal Eshtayah/ZUMA Press/Corbis
During the days right before Jesus began His ministry, the Essenes in their white garments served as this light in the distant wilderness for those living scared and hopeless in the walled cities to see. The Essenes, through their lifestyle, may have hoped to serve as a spark to those who had given up belief in the Promised Deliverer. To one in a city on a mountaintop looking at the setting sun, the Essenes teeming in the distant landscape may have appeared like white tongues of fire coming together as one as they actually gathered for their evening ritual. This may have been the significance that literally manifested among the disciples when the Holy Spirit descended upon them in the Upper Room on that Day of Pentecost, only that instead of the tongues of fire gathering before them, the flaming wonder “separated and came to rest on each of them” (Acts 2:3).

Pictured above is a congregation of Samaritans celebrating the festival of Shavuot at Mount Gerizim. Their garments of white are among the closest pictures of what the Essenes may have looked like at a distance during their dusk and dawn prayers: like flames of fire lighting up the dark distance.

(More to come!)

Sunday, July 8, 2012

The Priests of Persia

©Dietrich Madsen/Illustration Works/Corbis
History describes the Magi as the order of priests and religious teachers among the Medes and the Persians. It was in this context how the King James translation of the Bible chose to use “wise men” for these mystic dignitaries. In the Second Chapter of Matthew, these wise men were associated with a star said to signal the birth of the Jewish King. How they came to know this was by their knowledge of the Hebrew Scriptures, as facilitated by the Babylonian policy of liberal exchange of ideas that the Persians were just too happy to continue; another was through an expertise in astrology.

The Magi and the Messianic Star

► Ancient Astrology: the Egyptians

©Brooklyn Museum/Corbis
Astrology had been in existence thousands of years before the Persians, going back to the Sumerians of 6000 B.C. It was a primitive science that was almost exclusively mastered by the Semitic Mesopotamian civilizations, an erudition that distinguished them from the Egyptians. The Egyptian priests were never known to have displayed a knowledge of astrology as advanced as their Mesopotamian counterparts. This may explain why the whole Empire of the Nile was thrown into total panic when a “darkness that could be felt…covered all Egypt for three days” (Exodus 10:21–22). Not to suggest that the Mesopotamians would have reacted with more courage if it happened to them, but their priests could have tried to explain the phenomenon with the abundant stock of information gathered from years of systematic study of heavenly bodies. The Egyptian sages, however, possessing no advanced astrological method to attempt in any way to ease their panic, stood stiff in their place for three lightless days until the darkness past—“No one could see anyone else or leave his place for three days” (verse 23).
Photo source:
     Are You Sirius?

What we do know of Egyptian astrology concerned the annual flooding of the Nile on which the survival of the people depended. These people were quick to notice that the rise of the river waters coincided with the rise of the star Sirius in tandem with the ascension of the sun (Into the Unknown, New York/Montreal: Reader’s Digest Association, Inc., 1981; p.138). According to the 1970’s bestseller Chariots of the Gods? (New York: Bantam Books, 1978), however, author Erich von Däniken suspected that there was more to the observation of Sirius than the Nile flooding. He asserted that a Nile flooding did not occur every year, nor did every Nile flood take place on the same day. If Sirius, therefore, appeared on the horizon at dawn at the same time as the Nile flood, it was by mere coincidence (Däniken, p.65). Called the “Dog Star,” Sirius has been one of those heavenly bodies that were not as easily spotted as, say, the North Star. It was peculiar, he continues, that the Egyptians took a special interest on Sirius in that seen from Memphis, it can only be observed in the early dawn just above the horizon when the Nile floods begin (Ibid, p.64). But surprisingly, the Egyptian scholars were able to systematically organize a Sirius calendar running on annual cycles of more than 32,000 years (Ibid.).

It has not been so widely discussed but the Dog Star was held in high honor in both Egypt and Mesopotamia during ancient times, even before the time these two civilizations ever met. The Sumerian goddess Ninutra was symbolized by Sirius, believed to be the judge of the universe and passed sentence upon mortal men (Ibid., p. 62). It may probably be a coincidence but the oldest extra-Biblical proof of the Noahic Flood was discovered in an ancient Sumerian library which stored 60,000 clay tablets. In the Sumerian account, it was in a place called Shuruppak where its version of Noah built his ark (Ibid.). Did these ancient people agree on the link between Sirius and the flooding of the earth?

Advanced or not, however, the closed and xenophobic character of the Egyptian culture prevented its influence to rise as the standard of the ancient world. The privilege instead fell to the Babylonians as the intellectual founders of astronomy, revolutionizing the minds of even of the greatest of the western thinkers when they met in the days of Hellenization.

Astrology, the Magi, and the Holy Scriptures

Photo source: Baldur's Gate II: Shadow of Amn
When the Persians rose in power in 538 B.C., the faith and science of the stars fell into the committed hands of its new Aryan masters, the Magi. This is not suggesting, however, that the Persians possessed no knowledge or concern for astrology until they penetrated the gates of Babylon. The fact that they were regional neighbors may even be enough to give us the inclination to believe that these Aryans next door were infected with the same cultural astro-mania that possessed the Babylonians, Assyrians, and the Chaldeans. In this light, it can be safely followed that the Medes and Persians merely perfected their knowledge of astrology the moment they inherited the libraries and altars of Babylon.

Because of the liberalization of knowledge and learning, the stage was set for the fateful encounter between the Persian priest-scholar and the Hebrew Scriptures. Then interpreting the latter with the arcane science of astrology, the coming of the Jewish Messiah proved to be an inevitable event and a promise understandable and unhidden even among the pagans who would but cast a willing attention to the Word of God. To this day, the story of the wise men and the star of Bethlehem remains one of the prime evidences that spiritual salvation was not meant to be boxed up among the Jews. On that special night, not one in Israel was with the slightest hint that born on a manger somewhere in the towns in the periphery of Jerusalem was the One whom the entire nation had been praying to come and bring deliverance from Roman oppression. And it took the attention of several dignitaries from Persia to awaken the king of a surprisingly unsuspecting nation to the fact, written in both ink and in the stars, that the King of the Jews had been born.

©Alfredo Dagli Orti/The Art Archive/Corbis
© PoodlesRock/Corbis
Pagan Magi read the Scriptures, took them seriously to the point of applying their own system of learning so they could validate an exact date to supposedly join the whole nation of Israel in joyful celebration of the birth of its King. Now, please be reminded that this was an ancient world with ancient ways; and one of those ancient ways was that if some royalty was born at a neighboring kingdom, it was the way of an ally, or one seeking an alliance, to show goodwill and honor the regal celebrant with their presence with gifts. So this was no ordinary bash. Imagine the trouble that these people had to go through: planning what clothes to wear, practicing their entourage, preparing their speeches—what to say, what not to say—polishing gestures, picking out gifts for the newborn King! The main thing was that the Magi expected festivity of a national scale. But when they got there…. The imagery that held the faintest trace of a party were the crickets chirping in starlight and shepherds on graveyard shift, a-storytelling and a-warming around a bonfire. You can bet the Magi, this grand entourage meant for a conquering king, felt the same feeling we would feel if were all dressed up bejeweled and speckled head to foot and some guy comes along and remarks, “So where’s the party?”

Too bad that their astrology never presaged for them that it was going to be a boring night in the land of the Jews by the time the Persian delegation hit Palestinian borders.

Let it be confirmed here that the Persian discovery of Jesus’ birth and location did, or does it ever, suggest that God approved of the practice of astrology. At no time and with no exception did God relax His judgment on those who worshiped the heavenly bodies—

“If a man or woman living among you…is doing evil in the eyes of the LORD your God in violation of his covenant, and contrary to my command has worshiped other gods, bowing down…to the sun or the moon or the stars of the sky…then you must investigate it thoroughly. If it is true and it has been proved that this detestable thing has been done in Israel, take the man or woman who has done this evil deed to your city gate and stone that person to death” (Deuteronomy 17:2–5).

© Brooklyn Museum/Corbis
And though it appeared that God cooperated with the pagan Magi by guiding them with the Messianic star (Matthew 2:2,9–12), the very Star of Jacob prophesied by the Prophet Balaam during the wandering days of the Israelites (Numbers 24:17), it was a clear case of God asserting His sovereignty as He did when He seized control of the necromantic rites performed by the witch of Endor to arrange one last encounter between King Saul and the deceased ghost of the Prophet Samuel.

Thus saith the Lord, "Here's how it's goin' down, so shut up and listen!"

Many believers tend to forget that God will not be contained in a doctrinal expectation or two. While it is true that He in His holiness has set up rules and laws to show His predictability, He will, at the same time, will not be reduced and limited within borders of helplessness beyond which lie an endless stretch of darkness as treacherous as the enemy that rules it. What is usually forgotten here is that the God believed to be trapped by His own holiness is the same God addressed as the Almighty One, who claimed in Isaiah 46:10 in all power and authority, “I will do all that I please.”

Through the Prophet Isaiah, God thundered: “Bel bows down, Nebo stoops low…. I say: My purpose will stand, and I will do all that I please. What I have planned, that will I do” (Isaiah 46:1,10,11).

© SuperStock/SuperStock
This decisive declaration built up to the prophetic judgment of Babylon in which God spoke in terms that the Babylonians would understand. God has always been known to value every word coming from Him (Isaiah 55:11; Matthew 4:4; 24:25; Mark 13:31; Luke 11:28; 21:33; John 5:24; 6:63,68; 12:48); and in pronouncing judgment on the Babylonians, He made sure they understood what was coming to them. Observe the reference God made to magic, a preoccupation that the Babylonians knew so well:

Photo source: Baldur's Gate
“They (loss of children and widowhood) will come upon you in full measure, in spite of your many sorceries and all your potent spells. You have trusted in your wickedness and have said, ‘No one sees me.’ Your wisdom and knowledge mislead you when you say to yourself, ‘I am, and there is none besides me.’ Disaster will come upon you, and you will not know how to conjure it away. A calamity will fall upon you that you cannot ward off with a ransom; a catastrophe you cannot foresee will suddenly come upon you. Keep on, then, with your magic spells and with your many sorceries, which you have labored at since childhood. Perhaps you will succeed, perhaps you will cause terror. All the counsel you have received has only worn you out! Let your astrologers come forward, those stargazers who make predictions month by month, let them save you from what is coming upon you. Surely they are like stubble; the fire will burn them up. They cannot even save themselves from the power of the flame” (Isaiah 47:9–14).

© SuperStock/SuperStock
No power in heaven or on earth or anywhere else from the darkest corner at the outskirts of all the galaxies could ever limit the Mighty Almighty. No question, protest, complaint, doctrine, or doubt born out of man’s boisterous little brain could ever intimidate God. Not even a slanderous troublemaking sprite named Satan lurking around like a devouring lion could make God change His mind—not even on a bad day! The Bible says, “May God arise, may his enemies be scattered. May his foes flee before him” (Psalm 68:1). This means wherever God puts His foot on He scares away the opposition; and that anywhere, not just in places that invite His presence like churches, believers’ homes, or where two or three are gathered in Jesus’ name (Matthew 18:20). God is an unstoppable God, invading even the darkest, dirtiest, and the scariest—

As unstoppable as Samson was when he clobbered an army of Philistines with a jawbone of a donkey! But, really, it was God propelling Samson to wipe out that army, according to Judges 15:14–15: "The Spirit of the Lord came powerfully upon him. The ropes on his arms became like charred flax, and the bindings dropped from his hands. Finding a fresh jawbone of a donkey, he grabbed it and struck down a thousand men." "A thousand men," folks.

© Lebrecht 3/Lebrecht Music & Arts/Corbis
“Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me” (Psalm 23:4).

When God decided to stick His finger in Egypt and throw the Empire into panic and economic devastation, no one was able to provide a worthy opposition that could make God turn back and regroup—

“But when the magicians tried to produce gnats by their secret arts, they could not. And the gnats were on men and animals. The magicians said to Pharaoh, ‘This is the finger of God’” (Exodus 8:18–19).

© SuperStock/SuperStock
As far as the pharaoh was concerned, he could have prevented further destruction in his kingdom by declaring freedom to the Israelites. According to history, all Egypt was the pharaoh’s property. Surely the first sight of his Nile River turning to blood as a result of his mockery of Moses and Aaron must have compelled him to repent and emancipate His people. But as far as God was concerned it was too soon for the king to relent. God had determined to break the power of Egypt with various afflictions building up to the death of the firstborn. And before God commissioned Moses to return to Egypt and be His representative, He revealed a plan to manipulate the pharaoh’s heart to render the kingdom pregnable to the attacks of all ten plagues.

© SuperStock/SuperStock
“The LORD said to Moses, ‘When you return to Egypt, see that you perform before Pharaoh all the wonders I have given you the power to do. But I will harden his heart so that he will not let the people go. Then say to Pharaoh, ‘This is what the LORD says: Israel is my firstborn son, and I told you, “Let my son go, so he may worship me.” But you refused to let him go; so I will kill your firstborn son’” (Exodus 4:21–23).

As much as the pharaoh probably wanted to free Moses’ Israelites and stop the devastation of his kingdom, there was nothing he could do to resist the power of God that unremittingly hardened his heart. One important reason why the Egyptian king was so easily swayed to defy God was that he had a natural disposition toward stubbornness—

© Bettmann/CORBIS
“But I know that the king of Egypt will not let you go unless a mighty hand compels him. So I will stretch out my hand and strike the Egyptians with all the wonders that I will perform among them. After that, he will let you go” (Exodus 3:19).

This is but one case that bears witness to God’s “bragging” claim in Isaiah 46:10 and 11—“My purpose will stand, and I will do all that I please. What I have said, that will I bring about; what I have planned, that will I do.” 

© Universal Group Images/SuperStock
Thousands of years later God was at it again, so to speak, when He one day decided to slap some perspective in a vainglorious megalomanic Nebuchadnezzar. In Daniel 4:29 we find the Babylonian king “walking on the roof of the royal palace of Babylon,” surveying his vast and endless realm; he comments on the thirtieth verse: “Is not this the great Babylon I have built as the royal residence, by my mighty power and for the glory of my majesty?” According to history, Nebuchadnezzar did bring the Babylonian civilization into its greatest glory when, under his command, he led the battle of Carchemish and crushed the power of Assyria in 606 B.C. wresting for himself the great empire of these hated merciless people that curved from Gaza in southern Palestine and covered the entire course of the twin rivers Tigris and Euphrates down to the Persian Gulf. Though he failed to restore the original excitement of the Babylonian religion, the greatest extent of his civilization’s political and military power was proven under his rule in 570 B.C. But there was more to this. In the Bible, the Creator of heaven and earth called Nebuchadnezzar His “servant” and chose him master of all the lands once held by the Assyrians—

“Now I will hand all your countries over to my servant Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon; I will make even the wild animals subject to him. All nations will serve him and his son and his grandson…. If, however, any nation or kingdom will not serve Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon or bow its neck under his yoke, I will punish that nation with the sword, famine and plague, declares the LORD, until I destroy it by his hand” (Jeremiah 27:6–8).

What business did God have with this Godless and ruthless pagan Nebuchadnezzar who in his life never acknowledged the real Master of heaven and earth? This was a guy who ransacked the Temple of the Lord when he penetrated Jerusalem in 607 B.C. and carried away “the vessels of the house of the LORD and “put them in the house of his gods” (Ezra 1:7), desecrating these holy articles by using them in his religious celebrations. The Prophet Jeremiah needed but one answer to this:

© SuperStock/SuperStock
“With my great power and outstretched arm I made the earth and its people and the animals that are on it, and I give it to anyone I please” (Jeremiah 27:5).

But the day Nebuchadnezzar basked in his own glory was the day God flung him to the ground in total humiliation—

“The words were still on his lips when a voice came from heaven, ‘This is what is decreed for you, King Nebuchadnezzar: Your royal authority has been taken from you. You will be driven away from people and will live with the wild animals; you will eat grass like cattle. Seven times will pass by for you until you acknowledge that the Most High is sovereign over the kingdoms of men and gives them to anyone he wishes’” (Daniel 4:31–32).

© SuperStock/SuperStock
In a very long thirty-third verse, it accounts how “Immediately…Nebuchadnezzar…was driven away from people and ate grass like cattle. His body was drenched with the dew of heaven until his hair grew like the feathers of an eagle and his nails like the claws of a bird.” At the end of a period described as “seven times” (verse 32), or what could be a week, he raised his eyes toward heaven and his sanity was restored (verse 34). And as immediately as when his wits evaporated away, this king, who once ascribed to himself the eminence of single-handedly resurrecting Babylonian supremacy, began singing a new song:

“Then I praised the Most High; I honored and glorified him who lives forever. His dominion is an eternal dominion; his kingdom endures from generation to generation. All the peoples of the earth are regarded as nothing. He does as he pleases with the powers of heaven and the peoples of the earth. No one can hold back his hand or say to him: ‘What have you done’” (4:34–35)?

Not only did Nebuchadnezzar learn a valuable lesson that time. And not only was Nebuchadnezzar restored to his throne and “became even greater than before” (verse 36). He learned of a King of heaven whose deeds are always right and whose ways are always just and who could humiliate any dude who walks in pride (verse 37). How about that, Nebuchadnezzar became born again!

For what happened to their king, the Babylonians could be considered very, very fortunate as compared to the Israelites when King David got himself into the same trouble when he decided to measure his military might and explain the consistent victories he had been securing in his campaigns. God in His sovereignty decided to step in give the man after His own heart a stern reminder of nudging Him out of the picture:

“Before David got up the next morning, the word of the LORD had come to Gad the prophet, David’s seer: ‘Go and tell David, “This is what the LORD says: I am giving you three options. Choose one of them for me to carry out against you…. Shall there come upon you three years of famine in your land? Or three months of fleeing from your enemies while they pursue you? Or three days of plague in your land”’” (2 Samuel 24:12–13)?

We all know which David chose. In verse 15, it says that God sent a plague that within three days took the lives of seventy thousand Israelites, from one end of the kingdom to the other. It was a choice in which both David and God relented.

© SuperStock/SuperStock
The Bible has got pages of God’s answer to anyone who challenged His sovereignty, right back to the Garden of Eden when Adam and Eve started meddling with the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, and the Tower of Babel, when He decided to descend uninvited and mess up the Shinar project aimed to build a city “with a tower that reaches to the heavens, so that we may make a name for ourselves and not be scattered over the face of the whole earth” (Genesis 11:4).

© SuperStock/SuperStock
And on the night Christ was born, God in His power and mercy lit up the night sky with a star that a group of pagan Magi had been expecting for probably centuries before. Probably because of the excitement of the season it is set in, Christians today take the story of the Magi and the star of Bethlehem too casually that they miss the details of God’s sovereignty and the apparent negligence of the people, who were supposed to be ardently praying for the Messiah to come, to realize what the pagan Magi had known during, or even way before, that time. To be fair, the Magi used astrology, a craft forbidden in Israel; and with the close guidance of the synagogue system, which every Jewish person felt strongly compelled to be a part of “or die,” so to speak, astrology generally won no takers among the Jews.

© SuperStock/SuperStock
So was it a technicality then that the pagan Magi won the attention of God for unraveling the exact date of the birth of the Messiah with their arcane and forbidden art? That’s not true. It was God who revealed to these pagan wise men about the star. By now you might be noticing and even bothered by the detail of my recurrently using the word “pagan” as a modifier for the Magi. And I think you know why. God, by His sovereign choice—God has a choice, just like you and I! If He didn’t, then we wouldn’t have been made in His likeness!—chose to intervene in their mystic craft and send them pagan Magi an exclusive invitation to come to the birth of the One who will break the power of sin and death once and for all! Now why did God do that and forget about the “expectant” Jews? Well, doubtless here is God’s sovereign choice so we shouldn’t be asking why at all. On the other hand, God is not intimidated by our questions, so He says, “Come now, and let us reason together” (Isaiah 1:18, King James Version).

First of all, what the pagan Magi knew about the Messiah was old news to the Jews; they held the same Scriptures. In fact, the Jews should have known more because they had the prophets, priests, rabbis, and “various ways” (Hebrews 1:1) at their disposal to help out in interpreting God’s Word. And that was not difficult because the Scriptures were written in the language they understood more than the Magi! Furthermore, God was and is still not a stranger to this nation. The Magi—oh, I forgot! The pagan Magi—on the other hand, needed the help of the stars, a method that was supposed to add more difficulty in an already intricate task of studying the Scriptures of a foreign culture. Imagine, therefore, the predicament of the Magi who looked at the Scriptures and asked, “Could this mean that…?” and then turned to their telescopes and asked, “Could this alignment mean that…?” The trouble in this would be a resultant knowledge surrounding the Messiah more than the Messiah Himself. Because of their knowledge of astrology, the Magi knew more of the star than the Messiah; and in Matthew 2:2 nothing in their arsenal of sophisticated erudition could yield where exactly the Christ was to be born. Thank God—and literally, thank God—for the star.

© Stock Montage/SuperStock
The Prophet Daniel: A Possible Link to the Magi?

But could have it also been that the Magi were given the appropriate understanding in the Hebrew Scriptures that ultimately linked them to the Messiah? The answer to this is surprising. When Cyrus the Great pushed back the gates of Babylon and entered its temples seventy years after the Israelite deportation, the great Israelite Prophet Daniel was the chief of all the wise men in the capital. It is even stated in Daniel 2:48 that he ruled over the entire province of Babylon. These were positions which he held from the time the Israelites had settled in the empire “until the first year of Cyrus” (1:21). Furthermore, in the time when the Jews were heading back to Jerusalem in waves after Cyrus the Great proclaimed them free to return and rebuild their ravaged nation, Daniel remained in the royal palace prospering (6:28).What better person to have interpreted the Scriptures to the Magi than the Scriptures’ greatest exponent, the Prophet Daniel? The Prophet Daniel was a man of the Scriptures. It was, in fact, this devotion to the Scriptures that propelled him to his knees and intercede for the restoration of Jerusalem:

© Bettmann/CORBIS
“…I, Daniel, understood from the Scriptures, according to the word of the LORD given to Jeremiah the prophet, that the desolation of Jerusalem would last seventy years” (9:2).

Yet was it in Daniel’s heart to willingly share the secrets of the Scriptures to pagans? As we have seen earlier, the conversion of Nebuchadnezzar’s heart, as expressed in his confession in Daniel 4:34 to 37, may have given Daniel an outlook that God was, by that period, willing to share His revelation to the pagans; this would therefore mean a primary understanding of His Scriptures. The Book of Daniel is full of accounts regarding God revealing Himself through the miracles seen moving in Daniel’s life and compelling Nebuchadnezzar and later the Persian official of Babylon named Darius to proclaim the wonder of “the God of Daniel.” An example of these was one written by the satrap Darius “to all the peoples, nations and men of every language throughout the land” in 6:26 to 27:

© Image Asset Management Ltd./SuperStock
“I issue a decree that in every part of my kingdom people must fear and reverence the God of Daniel. For he is the living God and he endures forever; his kingdom will not be destroyed, his dominion will never end. He rescues and he saves, he performs signs and wonders in the heavens and on the earth. He has rescued Daniel from the power of the lions.” 

Throughout Daniel’s life as the chief of the Babylonian, and later the Persian, wise men, it was from the
Scriptures and the Spirit of God where he drew his inspiration and nothing more. Never do we find this great man sinking his curiosity in the magic arts and astrology of his subordinates and contemporaries. And because he was the chief, he may have gained a following who learned from him and adhered to his wisdom derived from God’s holy Scriptures. In the years that followed after him, his teachings may have been carefully documented and lovingly enshrined for generations of mystics to come.

Back to the first Christmas.

© Brooklyn Museum/Corbis
God used a star to guide the Magi. The star was a real star, not some spectral vision or one of those you see when passing out or when you shut your eyes too hard. This was a star that could be seen by everyone, both Magi and any Jew who looked up to the night sky. And even if this star looked just as ordinary as the others that twinkled that night, special only to the learned—but pagan—Magi, it was hard to resist, at least for some, to satisfy a measure of curiosity and follow a mighty train of royal dignitaries as if it was making its way to heaven on foot! Matthew 2:3 says that when the Magi came to Herod as asked him where the real King of the Jews could be found, “all Jerusalem” was troubled. Who wouldn’t be?

© Brooklyn Museum/Corbis
© Corbis/SuperStock
This Persian contingent was more than the traditional Christmas picture of three lonely old men on camelback that we have gotten so used to. How a traditional procession of incoming VIP’s on a state visit is a more likely picture, complete with bodyguards and heavily armed escorts! We also have to consider the part of history which was shared between the Jews and the kingdom these Magi by then more or less represented. Around 40 B.C., a not-so very distant time before the first Christmas, Parthia, a kingdom made from the remnants of the fallen Persian Empire in 250 B.C., lent its troops to the last Jewish Hasmonean Prince Antigonus in his political power struggle against Herod, the Idumean appointed by the Romans to rule southern Palestine alongside Hyrcanus II. For three years, Parthian soldiers occupied Jerusalem securing Antigonus’ government until the Roman legions headed by Herod finally trounced them. Forty years later, as this very same Herod snuggled soundly on his royal mattress, a knock on his royal palace revealed the presence of a formidable entourage of Parthian soldiers headed by Persian Magi looking for the real King of the Jews. For sure, they knew who Herod was and it didn’t take no star to tell them that he ain’t the King and he ain’t no Jew! But even so, this impostor on the throne had the audacity to tell the Magi:

© Stapleton Collection/Corbis
“Go and make a careful search for the child. As soon as you find him, report to me, so that I too may go and worship him” (Matthew 2:8).

Yeah, right. If Herod really had any intention of worshiping the One whose throne he by then illegally and immorally occupied, why he didn’t and his chief priests join in the search? They could have just tagged along since it was not that hard to miss the sparkling mass of sophisticated foreign pilgrim even if one trailed after a wide distance. The problem was no one in Jerusalem had any courage, time, or interest to know where the Messiah was. Later, the Messiah would allude to this event in one of His parables that told of a wedding banquet where the invited refused to come. In Matthew 22:9 to 10, the master of the feast told his servants—

© The Gallery Collection/Corbis
“’Go to the street corners and invite to the banquet anyone you find.’ So the servants went out into the streets and gathered all the people they could find, both good and bad, and the wedding hall was filled with guests.” 

On the night Jesus was born, a group of pagan Magi ardently searched for the address of this holy Celebrant with the help of a single star God provided in the heavens which He was sure they would never cease to follow until He was found. At the same time—

© Historical Picture Archive/Corbis
“…there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, ‘Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord. This will be a sign for you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger. When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, ‘Let’s go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about.’ So they hurried off and found Mary Joseph, and the baby, who was lying in the manger" (Luke 2:8–12,15–16).

© SuperStock/SuperStock
Now get this: where the Magi failed, the shepherds succeeded—“When they had seen him, they spread the word concerning what had been told them about this child, and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds said to them” (verses 17–18).

And there was a party after all.

[There's more a-comin'!]