Wednesday, December 15, 2010

The Mysterious Magi - Part Two

I didn't realize what a deep hole I stepped into with my last post about the Magi. The answers to the questions I raised can't be understood without some background. We're going to have to delve into the Biblical history of ancient Israel and some secular history as well. I'll just hit the highlights. If this stuff interests you as much as it does me, you can always get the whole story with all the fascinating details from the Bible and various other sources.

The Old Testament tells us that God had a special relationship with Abraham and promised, among other things, that Abraham would have many descendants. Abraham's grandson was named Jacob at birth, but his name was later changed to Israel. The Bible uses the two names interchangeably, so the "children of Jacob" and the "children of Israel" are the same people. Jacob had twelve sons - the founders of the twelve tribes of Israel. I guess if you want to get technical there were thirteen tribes because two of Jacob's grandsons, Ephraim and Manasseh (the sons of Joseph) were given the status of sons and are often listed in the Bible in place of Joseph.

In 1020 B.C. or thereabouts these tribes united to form the nation of ancient Israel. They stayed united until 931 B.C. All these people were human just like the rest of us, and they didn't always get along. Who can say that they come from a family that never squabbles? Disagreements among the twelve tribes reached a climax in 931 B.C., and ancient Israel divided into two kingdoms. The northern kingdom kept the name Israel and consisted of ten of the twelve tribes. The southern kingdom was called Judah (or Judea) and consisted of the two remaining tribes.

Now don't think that this dividing up was perfect. There were remnants from the ten tribes - especially from the priestly tribe of Levi - that went with Judah. And there were some remnants of the two tribes who went with the northern kingdom of Israel. After this division, the two tribes of Judah (and associated remnants) were called Jews. The ten tribes were called Israelites. Sometimes they were called Ephraim because Ephraim was a prominent tribe among the ten. Sometimes they were called Joseph (remember Joseph was Ephraim's father), but they were never called Jews.

These two kingdoms coexisted side by side geographically. Sometimes they fought with each other. Sometimes they united and fought together against common enemies. But disaster struck in 722 B.C. The Assyrians - the superpower of the day - conquered Israel (the northern ten tribe kingdom) and began carrying its citizens off as slaves. The Israelites who were able to escape did so and avoided slavery. The Book of Esdras in the Apocrypha tells of a large group who fled to a "far country." (II Esdras 13:40-44)

Flavius Josephus (b. 87 A.D), a Jewish historian writing shortly after the time of Christ, said ". . . the ten tribes are beyond Euphrates till now, and are an immense multitude, and not to be estimated by numbers." Although Josephus was writing 700+ years after Israel fell to Assyria, apparently the whereabouts of this large remnant of the ten tribes of Israel was known.

Steven M. Collins suggests (in his book Parthia: The Forgotten Ancient Superpower and Its Role in Biblical History) that a multitude of members of the ten tribes settled in what came to be called Parthia at the time of Christ. I don't know about you, but Parthia was little more than a blip on the radar screen of my history education. Nevertheless, it was a powerful rival to the Roman Empire.

Collins suggests that the Magi were probably Parthian leaders/priests of Israelite (ten tribe) descent. This is certainly pausible and would answer the first question I raised in the last post - why did the Magi care about a new King of the Jews? They cared because, after all, the Jews (of the two tribes of Judah) were their long separated kin. And since Partia was located around the Caspian Sea - a long way to the east of Jerusalem - Matthew's describing the Wise Men as "Magi from the east" makes perfect sense, too.

Three questions remain to be answered -
Why was all Jerusalem troubled about the arrival of the Magi?
What exactly was the star that the Magi saw?
Why couldn't King Herod and his officials follow the star just as the Magi did?

to be continued - some plausible answers on the way . . .

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