This coming Sunday we celebrate the Epiphany of the Lord. In yesterday’s post we took a first look at the Magi. Today we will take a second look.
If you have ever been to Petra in Jordan, you were at the heart of the Nabatean Empire. Petra is a historical site of international importance, here in the United States we are more likely to know Petra because of the movie Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.
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 to 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.
St. Matthew only says, “Wise men came from the East.” He does not say a long distance, nor does he mention camels. Where is the East? For Judah, it is not Persia, Africa, or beyond. For Judah, the East always has been Arabia. Did magi from Petra visit the newborn King in Bethlehem? I think so. And if true, it makes the historicity of their visit easily viable.
Image Credit: The Adoration of the Magi by Edward Burne-Jones (1904) | Public Domain