What we thought we knew

Cue the music marking the entry of Indiana Jones on horseback (replete with leather jacket, hat tilted at a rakish angle, whip at the ready) accompanied by skilled Bedouin horsemen all at a mad-dash gallop – and all we need is an amazing backdrop. The Nabatean world historical site at Petra, Jordan was happy to supply the setting for Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. Part of my summer pilgrimage was a two-day excursion into Jordan visiting the place of Jesus’ baptism, Mt. Nebo, where Moses overlooked the Jordan River into the Promised Land; and Petra. Petra is an amazing place for which my photographs do not do justice. But other than “how I spent my summer vacation,” why would I bring it up in this column?

Petra was built by the Nabatean people who emerged in the sixth century BC from nomadic people of the Arabian Peninsula. In time, the Nabateans became experts in trading and they were perfectly situated to dominate the commercial enterprises of their day. Enclosed by towering rocks and with its own water sources, Petra not only possessed the advantages of a fortress, but controlled the main commercial routes that passed through it to the port of Gaza in the west, to Bosra and Damascus in the north, to Aqaba on the Red Sea, and across the desert to the Persian Gulf. By the second-century B.C. the Nabateans were a trading empire.

While there is scholarly debate about the origins of the Nabatean people, it is strongly indicated that they share a common origin with the Jewish people – not through Jacob, but through Abraham’s son, Ishmael, and via Jacob’s brother, Esau. But history also brought them together again with their Hebrew kin.

The Nabatean emerged in the sixth century in the aftermath of the Babylonian invasion of Israel and the destruction of Jerusalem. While many Jews were taken to Babylon, the Jewish historian Josephus records that many more became refugees, scattering into Arabia where they would have been received in the Jewish trading colonies stretching as far south as Medina and Yemen. Key among those cities was Tayma, a center of Nabatean trans-Arabia trading.

After Israel’s destruction by Babylon, the Edomites moved west into traditional Judean lands — and the Nabateans expanded their lands to include Edom, Moab and Gilead. In time, many northern Nabatean converted to Judaism, all part of the great melting pot that was the Nabatean kingdom. Family, commercial and political interest were well intertwined between the Nabateans and Judah, so much so that they were allies in the second-century B.C. Maccabean revolt against the Seleucid overlords of Judah. In short, the Nabatean had a political and economic interest in what happened in Judah and who was in charge — and especially so near the time of Jesus’ birth since King Herod the Great was definitely not a friend to the Nabateans.

Add to this melting pot, the many religious dimensions. One particularly important element was the fall of the Babylonian empire to the Persian Cyrus the Great. One group that became refugees were the court magi. Many of them fled to Tayma where they settled and were assimilated into Nabatean life. They brought their skills in mathematics, court administration, teaching, and astrology. By the time of Christ, the Nabatean magi had deep exposure of the Abrahamic religion, were neighbors to Judah, and were influential advisors in the court of the King. Meanwhile, the magi of Persia had faded and were no longer influential. They would not have had any reasons to care about a newborn king in Judah.

The Nabatean magi would have had religious, cultural, political, and economic reasons to care – and would be watching the stars for signs in order to advise the Nabatean King. And when the signs appeared, they would have brought gifts for the newborn king. Gold, frankincense, and myrrh? These people are the trading center of Arabia at the height of their economic power – and Jerusalem was on their regular trade route. They knew the way.

You have probably guessed where I am heading with this: Who were the magi who visited the Christ child? If perhaps your mind is racing with all you think you know about the magi, St. Matthew only says, “Wise men came from the East.” He does not say a long distance, nor does he mention camels. Sorry. Where is the East? For Judah, it is not Persia, Africa, or beyond. For Judah, the East always has been Arabia.

Long before Indiana Jones reached Petra, did magi from Petra visit the newborn King in Bethlehem? Maybe. Just saying…

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