Mind the Gap

Gordon MackleyPosted on Monday, 18th December, 2017 by Gordon Mackley (based on his talks in church at the 9am and 10:30am services on Sunday morning 17th December).

… between tradition and Scripture / history


Daniel 9: 23-26 (NIVUK) & Matthew 2:1-6 and 19-23 (NIVUK)

A traditional Christmas card type view of the Magi

When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him’ (Matthew 2:3 NRSA version)

Would three old men on camels frighten you let alone Herod a very bloodthirsty tyrant King of Judea?

It is not my intention to destroy the magic of traditional nativity scenes and I thoroughly enjoyed the Live Nativity in Maidstone but it is my intention to give some insights into the scriptural and historical background to the visit of the Magi, described in Matthew’s Gospel.

The Nativity Stories are, in one way, so well-known even among non-Christians – but many get carried away by the almost Disney-like-images. Do we as Christians understand what was actually happening?

I shall look at two different background influences: one military and political but secular and the other one religious but as with all religion at that time and place, impacting on politics.


The history leading up to Herod being the king of Judea is complex but Judea was last an independent truly Jewish state in 160 BC. Judea was effectively a Roman province from 63 BC. Herod the Great married into the ruling Hasmonean family, the last king of which he then murdered. Herod was not Jewish by race but was appointed by Rome, ‘King of the Jews’.

The Parthian Empire at the time of Jesus’ birth

Everyone has heard of the Roman Empire but their enemy to the east which was also very powerful is much less known. The Parthian Empire had taken over from earlier empires and contained Babylon (circled) where Daniel (500 years earlier) was in exile. He was the leader of the Babylonian kings’ mystics, so Magi were the successors in this school of mysticism. Judea is in yellow so the Magi had a long journey from where they saw the ‘star’ to Bethlehem (around 900+ miles/1500+ km).

In 53 BC Rome fought against this big empire to the east, the Parthian Empire. In the war the Parthians had 1,000 cavalry armed with lances, and 9,000 horse archers with a baggage train of about 1,000 camels to give a constant supply of arrows. They were outnumbered roughly four to one by Crassus’ Roman army but defeated them at Carrhae (modern day Turkey).

Parthian cavalry with lances

Parthian Archer Cavalry

The Parthians remained a threat to Herod as the time of Jesus’ birth approached and Herod only kept his kingdom because of support by Rome. Herod was afraid of Parthian invasion and them replacing him with a king of their choice. Rome and Parthia remained deadly enemies.


This passage is from the Book of Daniel in the Old Testament.

Know and understand this: from the time the word goes out to restore and rebuild Jerusalem until the Anointed One, the ruler, comes, there will be seven “sevens”, and sixty-two “sevens”.
Daniel 7:25

69 sevens is 483 years. There are many different interpretations of exactly what the predicted date was, but however you worked it out it was very close to the time of Jesus’ birth so expectation was high of the appearance of an anointed one (the meaning of ‘messiah’), a new ruler over Judea.

This was even more so in a country ruled by a very unpopular non-Jewish king supported by a pagan empire. There was no agreement on what such a person might be like or what he might do. The Magi would have been aware of all the background described here. They ask Herod,
(Matthew 2:2) ‘Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews?’

This is an intended insult to Herod who was not born Jewish let alone their King. Herod is aware of this too:
(Matthew 2:4) When he had called together all the people’s chief priests and teachers of the law, he asked them where the Messiah was to be born.

The obvious intention of Herod here is to kill the new king (as he tries to do later as well). He then wants the Magi to return to him later. In the meantime he can muster his forces ready to kill them too. Both plans are thwarted by God.

Against this background Jesus is born and the Magi set out to visit him. They are coming from Rome’s deadliest enemy to a state under Roman control and led by a vicious king. For their own protection they would have needed an armed escort of Parthian soldiers. We can thus be sure that they arrived not as three (no number indicated in scripture; three is just traditional because of the three gifts) harmless old men on camels (as shown on Christmas cards) but with a large force of heavily armed men.

This is why the verse states, When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him (Matthew 2:3)

This is why even after the Magi and the accompanying military escort have gone, Herod tries to ensure that any boy Messianic king is killed (Matthew 2:16) and this is why God sends an angel to direct Joseph to take Mary and the boy Jesus into Egypt until Herod dies (Matthew 2:13).

Herod’s son Archelaus is no better so Joseph, Mary and Jesus take up permanent residence in Mary’s home town of Nazareth a quiet backwater in Galilee in the north rather than Joseph’s home town of Bethlehem which was so close to the capital of Judea, Jerusalem, with all its political intrigue and danger (Matthew 2:22-23).

Why is this Important?
As stated, the Nativity stories are probably the best known stories in the Bible, both among Christians and almost certainly among non-Christians. The problem is that the latter can so easily regard them as nice stories but having no factual basis, a bit like fairy tales such as Cinderella.

Modern day people tend to be quite cynical. Today we all have instant news and we know what goes on around the world with evil rulers and conspiracies. Atheists would love to be able to divorce the Nativity stories from real life such as we experience, by making them like pleasant children’s stories which can then be dismissed as ‘nice’ but fictional. Whilst not losing the magic of the traditions, we need to be able to understand the factual historic realism of the stories and be able to defend scripture against cynical and dubious atheistic theories.

Jude tells us in verse 3: I felt compelled to write and urge you to contend for the faith that was once for all entrusted to God’s holy people.

So it is our responsibility as Christians to ensure that others understand the factual reality behind the scriptures with politics, conflict, corruption and religious turmoil involved just as much as these things are today.

I finish with a ‘parting shot’.

Parthian Archer Cavalryman firing backwards

This was the Parthian forces specialty. Their archers on horseback would pretend to retreat and then turn back in the saddle and fire arrows at the following enemy troops and all without stirrups. This was known as the ‘Parthian Shot’ which has come to us in modern English as ‘parting shot’.

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