But who exactly are the MAGI who, in the New Testament, are only mentioned briefly in the book of Matthew? What country did they come from? Were they Kings or other important people or just some wealthy guys who understood Biblical prophecy and liked to travel?
We first learn of the Magi in relation to Herod the Great. Matthew tells us they were "from the east" and followed a star all the way to Judea, where they then seek Herod's help in located Christ. Note that whoever these wise men are, they are important enough to receive an immediate audience with the busy King Herod. He finds out from the priests and scribes that the Messiah will come from Bethlehem (Matthew 2:1 - 6). Upon conveying this information to the Magi he tells them,
"Go and search diligently for the little child; and when you have found Him, bring word back to me, so that I also may go and worship Him." (Matthew 2:8)
Was Herod telling the truth? Was he, as the Roman Senate's appointed King of Judea (King of the Jews), humble enough to worship a baby who would become the TRUE King of the Jews (Matthew 27:37)?
We can begin to answer the above questions by knowing about some of the things Herod did in his 32 years of rule prior to Christ's birth (37 to 5 B.C.). He is known to have appointed people as High Priest then later have them killed. He pillaged Jerusalem's treasures and robbed the city's wealthy so that he could give money to friends in order to curry their favor. He searched for and took from the dead any silver, gold or other valuables they had on them. He had King David's tomb opened and personally searched it for anything of value. Herod also had family members killed, such as his own sons, whom he accused before Caesar in Rome.
According to the historian Josephus, Herod was feared among the Jews "because they saw that Herod was a violent and bold man, and very desirous of acting tyrannically" (Antiquities (History) of the Jews). He also wrote "He was such a warrior as could not be withstood" and "a man of great barbarity towards all men equally and a slave to his passions." A later writer labeled Herod the "evil genius" of the Jews.
Herod's history (and later actions) shows he had NO INTENTION of worshipping anyone who could threaten his throne and his iron grip on power. He was lying so that he could find out EXACTLY where Jesus was and have him killed! While Herod no doubt felt justified in deceiving the wise men, notice what happened when he thought THEY had done him wrong.
16. Then Herod, seeing that he had been mocked by the Magi, WAS FILLED WITH RAGE; and he sent and put to death all the boys who were in Bethlehem and in the area all around, from two years old and under, according to the time that he had ascertained from the Magi (Matthew 2:16)
Herod made himself quite angry when he ASSUMED that he was being mocked - just like he had "mocked" them by lying in order to get information to MURDER the person they wanted to worship! The truth is, the wise men had planned to return to Herod but,
being divinely instructed in a dream not to go back to Herod, they returned to their own country by another way (Matthew 2:12)
Herod directed his rage against his Parthian guests toward the murder of countless innocent children. There is, however, a big unanswered question most Bible students and Bible sites completely overlook. WHY did a wrathful Herod, who had the power, ability and ego to do so, not pursue and punish the Magi for their "disrespect" of his authority? What stopped this evil tyrant from exacting the same kind of REVENGE he took on others?
Who are the wise men?
The Magi were high-level Parthian priests and very influential members of one of Parthia's two assemblies which elected the empire's monarchs and helped rule the empire. Parthia as an empire began in 247 B.C. and rivaled of the Roman Empire at the time of Christ. In fact, the Parthians dealt the Romans one of their worst defeats in history when half of Rome's 40,000 man army got killed and half of those who remained alive were captured c. 53 B.C. at the battle of Carrhae.
The absence on Herod's part of revenge against the Parthians, whom he felt mocked him, attests to their status and power. Herod was known for his temper and was not afraid to use violence against those who disrespected him. Instead of attacking the wise men, he directs his rage (Matthew 2:16) against innocent, defenseless children.
There are at least three main reasons why Herod did not dare go after and punish those he thought slighted him.
According to the historian Josephus, just before Herod became the King of Judea his rival Antigonus offered the Parthians a very large sum of money to KILL HIM! Herod was so afraid of them that he fled Jerusalem under the cover of night (Antiquities of the Jews, Book 14, Chapter 13). No doubt this event caused Herod to think twice before trying to exact revenge on high-ranking members of Parthia's ruling elite.
Herod did not want to risk incurring the wrath of Rome. "there is no record that he (Herod) made any attempt to overtake or punish the Magi. As high Parthian nobles, they had 'diplomatic immunity,' and Herod dared not anger Caesar by provoking the Parthians." (Lost Ten Tribes of Israel . . .Found! by Stephen M. Collins, pages 385 - 386)
Because of who they were, what they carried (gold, frankincense, myrrh), and the distance of their travel, the Magi came to Judea with a fairly large caravan. This caravan included servants, cooks, and so on, plus an armed escort of perhaps a few hundred Parthian soldiers. The entourage was so HUGE that when they first entered Jerusalem looking for the Christ they GREATLY alarmed the king AND the entire city (Matthew 2:3). It would have been suicide for Herod to even try to attempt revenge against the Parthians. As author Stephen Collins states "the size of the Magi’s armed escort apparently dissuaded Herod from attempting to pursue them" (ibid., pages 381, 386).