In chapter two of the gospel according to Matthew, we read that magi (Zoroastrian priests of the ancient Medes and Persians1) studied the stars, and upon seeing a particular astrological phenomenon, left their homeland and set off for Israel to worship the “new born king of the Jews.” The story has been derided as legend by Bible critics as a fanciful birth legend, invented after Jesus’ rise as a great religious figure, which was a customary practice in ancient times. After all, why would a star – even if it did foretell the birth of a Hebrew king of Israel – cause pagan priests to abandon their religion and suddenly believe this new born Jewish king was worthy of their worship?
In studying the validity of Matthew 2, we must understand the religion of these priests. Zoroastrianism was a religion based on the teaching and writings of Zoroaster, whose novel beliefs stemmed from a vision he had while taking a ritual bath. In the Gathas, an ancient text believed to be written by Zoroaster himself, we read that this former polytheistic priest was now adamantly monotheistic, believing in an uncreated Creator. The name of this lone deity in the ancient Persian tongue is Ahura Mazda, who is believed to be “the Beginning and the End, the creator of everything that can and cannot be seen, the Eternal, the Pure, and the only Truth.”2
Zoroaster himself was persecuted for teaching monotheism, as well as for his insistence that sacrifices to any other gods was essentially worshipping demons. Forced to flee his hometown, he traveled all over Persia spreading his message until the king of Bactria converted to this new religion. Over the next few centuries, Zoroastrianism spread, and by the time of the Persian king, Cyrus the Great, whom God calls “his anointed,” Zoroastrianism was the official religion of Persia. It is worth noting that Darius I, a subsequent Persian king who was an ardent Zorastrian,3 not only used funds form his own treasury to rebuild the Jewish temple, but had the Jewish priests offer prayers and sacrifices in their temple on behalf of himself and his family (Ezra 6:8-12).
Later Zoroastrian texts (considered commentary as they were not written by Zoroaster himself), developed the idea of dualism—that Ahura Mazda was in a cosmic battle with Satan, his opposite but equal. These texts also promoted the veneration of angels, the servants of Ahura Mazda, as well as worship for Mithras, the deity’s most beloved creation who served as his ambassador.
It was during this later stage of Zoroastrianism that the Magi of Matthew 2 saw what is referred to today as “the star of Bethlehem.” In part two, I will cover the combination of Persian, Babylonian, and Hebrew texts that likely inspired these priests to make the arduous journey to Israel with the sole intent of worshipping a Hebrew babe.
1 Based on the Random House Unabridged Dictionary, definition two, entry Magi: the class of Zoroastrian priests in ancient Media and Persia.
2 Quote taken from World Heritage Encyclopedia, entry Zoroastrianism, under Principal Beliefs
3 Moulton, James (2005), Early Zoroastrianism, Kessinger Publishing