The magi and the military: Unusually interesting parallels

Commentary by W. Thomas Smith Jr.
[This article was originally published at NationsDefense, December 15, 2017]

THE BIBLICAL STORY OF THE MAGI (wise men or three kings) is perhaps one of the most fascinating tales of adventure, mystery, faith and promise ever told; though it appears in only a few lines of only one chapter of only one of the canonical Gospels; the book of Matthew. And little is known of these men except they were “magi” from the east, following a star – either as a sign of the birth of Christ or for direction to the birthplace; or both – they were bearing very expensive gifts, and they were seeking God to worship Him.

We could spend literally hours discussing their journey of more than 2,000 years ago, and I plan to spend at least one Sunday School hour doing just that.

But, for fun, let’s take a moment to go off in an entirely different direction – perhaps a rabbit trail as some say – and look at the interesting possible parallels between the journey of the magi and a military expedition.

Two things led me to consider these parallels: The first was that the journey from Babylon across the desert to Jerusalem then south to Bethlehem (Assuming, as so many scholars have done, that the wise men were from Babylon. We really don’t know.) would have been a distance of anywhere from 600 to 1,000 miles, depending upon whether or not they followed a stretch of the Euphrates River, clinging to that water source, or simply ventured west then south.

That great arid distance reminded me of U.S. Marine Lt. Presley N. O’Bannon’s trek across 700 miles of Libyan desert toward the now-famous “shores of Tripoli” in 1805 with a handful of American Marines at the head of a largely Arab-North African army during the First Barbary War.

The second point that led me to consider any parallels between the journey of the magi and a military expedition was a comment by Dr. John F. MacArthur, the great pastor and writer, during one of his Christmas sermons. He suggested that the magi and their accompanying entourage would have numbered in the thousands as opposed to just three wise men as tradition holds.

I enjoy the teachings of Dr. MacArthur. I agree with most of what he says. And I agree that there would have been more than three wise men. But “thousands” as he has suggested? Hardly.

The magi are traditionally said to be three, because they were bearing the three gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Scripture does not number the men themselves.

But the approach of “thousands” would have almost assuredly put the occupying Roman Army forces in-and-around Jerusalem on high alert.

Granted, such an expedition led by the wise men would have likely required numbers which also would have included the wise men’s baggage train and handlers (remember, magi were very important advisors to kings. They would have held some level of regal status. Tradition, not Scripture, has even accorded them the status of kings). And if they were “wise” – and we know they were – the magi almost certainly would have employed an armed security element for their personal physical protection and to secure both their baggage and the expensive gifts with which they were traveling.

Keep in mind, traveling anywhere from the eastern lands of southwest Asia to Judea in the 1st century would have been fraught with bandits and other dangers. Indeed, that stretch of the Middle East is even dangerous to travelers today.

We also read in Matthew 2:3 that when King Herod learned of the magi, “he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him.”

Naturally Herod and all Jerusalem were “troubled.” Here we have a group of foreign travelers arriving suddenly and speaking about the birth of a King, and with many of the foreign travelers’ accompanying men bearing arms for prudent security reasons: These things were what likely troubled those in Jerusalem.

So we probably would have had a sizable force of armed men with the magi. How many? Who knows. I would estimate between the magi themselves (however many there might have been), their baggage handlers, and their security; perhaps 50 to 200 men: And more likely toward the lower number. But that is strictly a guess. Nothing more.

At any rate, that’s another military parallel.

What about an expedition of any size and strength having to travel across harsh environs. That to me is a military operational consideration and therefore a parallel. The threats would have been myriad, from the aforementioned bandits to the threat from any number of territorial tribes in the various regions to wild animals to the relentless sun and the constant need for “outriders,” if you will, to find sources of fresh water.

What about good men who could navigate? Surely the wise men were expert navigators. They did, after all, study the stars. They were both astrologers and astronomers: Astrology was and is a discipline to be shunned. Astronomy was a physical science that is embraced today. In the 1st century, these two disciplines were often one-in-the-same in terms of their study, but their practitioners certainly knew how to read maps and direct themselves by celestial means.

Again, a military parallel.

All in fun. No real connection. Just a few fascinating parallels, and the fact that I love the story of the magi. And the military parallels to me are obvious.

Merry Christmas, all.

– Visit W. Thomas Smith Jr. at

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