The Star of the Magi

Courtney Roberts, M.A.

              Jerusalem's Debt to the Persians               

     The opinions of the Magi were obviously important to the Jews. Otherwise, why would the author of Matthew waste precious time and space in the very beginning of his gospel?  He needed a strong opening, something that would play upon the Jews? deepest priorities and immediately grab their attention.  So why Persian priests and astrology?

     What Matthew and his contemporaries knew, and we seem to have forgotten, is that the Jews owed their return to Jerusalem and indeed, their very existence as a nation to the Persian Empire. It was not for nothing that the author of the latter part of the book of Isaiah referred to Cyrus the Great, the conquering hero and architect of the Persian Empire, as a Messiah.

'Thus saith the Lord to His anointed (messiah), to Cyrus whose right hand I have holden, to subdue nations before him, and to loose the loins of kings;' (KJV)   

    In the year 579 BCE, Jerusalem was laid waste, and its temple defiled and desecrated by the armies of Babylon.  Any Jew of rank or substance had either been killed or carted off into captivity in Babylon. There the children of Judah languished by the waters of Babylon, lamenting the loss of everything; their land, their temple, their holy scriptures; everything that defined them as a people, except their hope. It was Cyrus who gave it all back to them.   


When Cyrus conquered Babylon, he not only repatriated the Jews to Jerusalem (538 BC), he funded the expedition, providing the resources and the protection necessary to rebuild the city and begin the restoration of the temple, at least according to the Bible. After his death, when things were not going particularly well in the Jerusalem colony, subsequent emperors Darius and Artaxerxes continued this crucial support over the ensuing century.

                      How Cyrus Saved The Jews                  

Chapter 5 of the Old Testament Book of Daniel recounts the fall of mighty Babylon to the Medo-Persian armies of Cyrus the Great, complete with the story of the mysterious hand and the 'writing on the wall'.  

While the author of Daniel purports to be an eyewitness to these events, even a participant in the unfolding drama, the book contains a number of awkward historical errors, which make it a little hard to believe the author/s was/were actually there at the time.  

It's more likely that the Book of Daniel was compiled considerably later, perhaps passing through the hands of several authors and editors in the process. 

For instance, 'Daniel' claims throughout Ch. 5 that Belshazzar, son of Nebuchadnezzar (Ch. 5, vs. 2, 11 & 18), was the king of the Babylonians, and that he was slain on the night of the siege (Ch. 5, vs. 30).  In fact, Nabonidus was the king of Babylon at the time.  Belshazzar was his son.  The two were not even related to the infamous Nebuchadnezzar, the king who destroyed the Jews and Jerusalem in 586 BCE.

After Nebuchadnezzar died in 562 BC, his son Amel-Marduk reigned for two years but was then  assassinated by his brother-in-law, Neriglissar. Neriglissar only survived a few years on the throne (559-556 BC) and then was succeeded by his son, Labashi-Marduk. Labashi-Marduk lasted only a month and presumably was assassinated when Nabonidus came to the throne (555 BC).

This line of succession has been well established, based upon contemporary king lists which are further corroborated by corresponding astronomical phenomena. 

Nevertheless, the author/s of Daniel claim in Chapters 1-4 that Daniel first served in the court of Nebuchadnezzar, then survived that monarch to serve in the court of his son, Belshazzar.  That is where they place Daniel on the night that Babylon fell to the armies of Cyrus the Great.  

Of course, 'Daniel' also claims that Darius the Mede conquered Babylon (Ch. 5, vs. 31) and makes no mention at all of Cyrus.  That is a rather ungrateful omission.  Darius was the eventual successor to Cyrus the Great, who, along with being one of the greatest military leaders of all time, was also a true friend to the Jews.  If Cyrus had not freed the Jews and led them to restore Jerusalem and their temple cult, they could have easily disappeared into the dim mists of history, like so many other ancient peoples.  If not for Cyrus the Great, we might not even be talking about the Jews right now.

It is always enlightening to compare the Bible's versions of history with other relevant sources.  At times it doesn't hold up particularly well, but at the end of the day, all history is historiography, especially mine.  In the art of writing history, our deepest prejudices come to the fore. Consequently, we have no truly objective accounts of anything. All reports are steeped in the biases and hopes of the reporter. 

The Bible is no exception, for its history was written with specific slants and biases which become more evident with each comparison.  Meanwhile, everything we believe about the past molds our expectations for the future.

The real irony here is that the book of Daniel has been highly touted as a source of end times prophecy. A lot of time and effort has been invested in interpreting its more obscure passages as if they were inspired oracles encrypting all of God's plans for the future.  

The sad truth is that 'Daniel' doesn't even have his facts straight about the past.

            History vs. Historiography         
Fortunately, we do have more reliable and earlier accounts of the return of the exiled Jews that shed better light on these momentous events. 

The story of Cyrus's conquest of Babylon is included in the Cyropaedia of Xenophon (The Life of Cyrus the Great, Book 7, section 5, vs. 7-36) and in the Histories of Herodotus ( Book 1, Clio, pt. II, vs. 191).  Of course, these books are not without their own biases. For example, the writing in the Cyropaedia, which is a literary portrayal of Cyrus as the ideal ruler, borders at times upon hagiography.  Meanwhile the Hellenism of Herodotus allows but grudging acclaim for any Persian, and tends to portray Cyrus as indebted to Greek allies like Croesus for their sage advice.

So bearing in mind the limits of historiography and personal subjectivity, let's at least attempt to take a more 'holographic' approach in trying to unravel the story of the return of the Jews to Jerusalem. Specifically, in gathering together different accounts of the same events, different perspectives will illuminate different facets. Ultimately, when illuminated from all sides, a more holistic image emerges.  Even then, we are still bound by our own prejudices and our personal attachment to the things we feel we need to believe.

From any perspective, the story of Cyrus the Great and the fall of Babylon ranks as one of the most remarkable tales of all time.  From small beginnings in 558 BC as King of Anshan, an obscure Persian principate in southwest Iran, Cyrus embarked upon a campaign of conquest and consolidation across the ancient world.  In the process, he constructed the first world empire. Two centuries before Alexander and at least half a millennium before the dawn of the Roman Empire, Cyrus amassed all the territory from India to the Mediterranean under his sway. 

But all the while, his eye was on Babylon.

 Babylon was the crown jewel, the greatest city of its time, and a renowned center of culture and learning.  Plus, Babylon controlled the crucial Mediterranean territories of Syria and Palestine. Cyrus camped his armies against its walls in the year 539 BC. He soon realized that laying siege to the city would never do  The walls could not be breached, and the Babylonians boasted from the battlements that they had enough provisions to hold him off for years.

So Cyrus thought again. Pondering on the city?s history and the lay of the land, the Persians devised and executed an ingenious stratagem.

They engineered a series of canals and drainage to divert the Euphrates river upstream, out of sight of the Babylonian sentinels. In October of 539 BC, the Persian armies entered Babylon virtually unopposed, marching up the river bed right under its impenetrable walls.  All of Babylon was celebrating an annual festival, and most of its citizens were already in their cups by the time they realized what was happening. 

  The bold Persian vanguard made straight for the royal palace, and here, Daniel?s version may be a bit closer to the truth. 'Daniel' may have been copying from Xenophon when he tells of how Belshazzar was feasting drunkenly in the palace, with all his nobles and courtiers about him. Even if, as 'Daniel' claims, they had already been warned by the mysterious writing on the wall that they had been weighed in the balance and found wanting, and their kingdom would be divided and given to the Persians and Medes, they carried on shamelessly nonetheless, until the Persians burst in upon them and put them to the sword.

At least, that is how Xenophon and Herodotus describe it.  Maybe it is just folklore, but maybe not.  From the Cyrus cylinder comes the official version of these events:  

"Marduk, the great lord, a protector of his people, beheld with pleasure Cyrus' good deeds and his upright mind and therefore ordered him to march against his city Babylon. He made him set out on the road to Babylon going at his side like a real friend. Cyrus' widespread troops -their number, like that of the water of a river, could not be established- strolled along, their weapons packed away. Without any battle, he made him enter his own town Babylon, sparing Babylon any calamity."

Apocalypse Not?