Who were the Magi?

Matthew 2:1-3
1 Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men from the east came to Jerusalem, 2 saying, Where is he who has been born king of the Jews? For we saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him. 3 When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him.

Why was Herod and all Jerusalem troubled upon the appearance of the wise men from the East? Herod could have been worried because they were espousing a newborn king of the Jews. This certainly would make Herod very uncomfortable. Here was a man who had his wife, mother-in-law, and two sons assassinated because he feared they were calculating the overthrow of his government. He was an insecure man, constantly in fear of his life. The inhabitants of Jerusalem, however, were also concerned and troubled with the appearance of the magi. Why?

The Greek word "Magoi" in this Matthew scripture is transliterated into English as "magi" or "wise men." They came from the East, i.e. east of Jerusalem, which meant an area controlled by the Parthians. This would include the modern countries of Syria, Jordan, Iraq, Iran, Armenia, Georgia, Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Tajikistan, and part of Turkey. We also know from the Bible that Daniel, serving under Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon, was called the Rab-mag or chief of the Magi (Dan. 4:9; 5:11). As the Rab-mag, Daniel ruled the entire province of Babylon (Dan. 2:48). Magi evidently were powerful men who consulted kings. The magi of Scripture may be descendants of Daniel's office and could have been Jewish as well. Daniel had never returned to Israel and must have left a great legacy in Persia. If the magi were of Hebrew descent, then it stands to reason why they would have been looking for the sign of the king of Israel, would want to find him, and would desire to worship him.

The Parthian empire, although ruled by kings, also had a governing body known as Megistanes, which means "lords" or "great ones.". The were comprised of Magi who incidentally had a part in choosing the kings. They were preeminent, authoritative, and influential; and their power was exceeded only by the kings. When they traveled, therefore, they would have been riding Arabian horses and accompanied by a small contingent of the army. When they came to Jerusalem, they were not three magi on camels. Scripture only tells us there were at least two magi and three gifts. There could have been more than three magi and more than three gifts. The picture of wise men on camels can be traced to the origin of Christmas cards. When the wise men were depicted, the artist portrayed them on camels, even though Scripture never tells us what they rode.

If the normal Roman garrison of soldiers protecting Jerusalem were off fighting the Homonadensian War (as some scholars surmise), then Jerusalem was vulnerable. An army suddenly appearing from Parthia would have terrified all of Jerusalem as well as Herod, Rome's puppet king of Israel.