I see him, but not now;
I behold him, but not near --
a star shall come out of Jacob,
and a scepter shall arise out of Israel. (Num 24:17a)
Who stirred up one from the east who meets victory at every step?
He gives up nations before him, so that he tramples kings underfoot. (Isa 41:2)
The Lord called me from the womb, from the body of my mother he named my name. ...
Kings shall see and arise; princes, and they shall prostrate themselves. (Isa 49:1, 7)
Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you. ...
And nations shall come to your light and kings to the brightness of your rising ...
A multitude of camels shall cover you, the young camels of Midian and Ephah; all those from Sheba shall cone.
They shall bring gold and frankincense, and shall proclaim the praise of the Lord. (Isa 60:1, 3, 6)
In the second year of Nebuchadnezzar's reign, Nebuchadnezzar dreamed such dreams that his spirit was troubled and his sleep left him.2 So the king commanded that the magicians, the enchanters, the sorcerers, and the Chaldeans be summoned to tell the king his dreams. When they came in and stood before the king,3 he said to them, "I have had such a dream that my spirit is troubled by the desire to understand it."4 The Chaldeans said to the king (in Aramaic),1 "O king, live forever! Tell your servants the dream, and we will reveal the interpretation."5 The king answered the Chaldeans, "This is a public decree: if you do not tell me both the dream and its interpretation, you shall be torn limb from limb, and your houses shall be laid in ruins.6 But if you do tell me the dream and its interpretation, you shall receive from me gifts and rewards and great honor. Therefore tell me the dream and its interpretation."7 They answered a second time, "Let the king first tell his servants the dream, then we can give its interpretation."8 The king answered, "I know with certainty that you are trying to gain time, because you see I have firmly decreed:9 if you do not tell me the dream, there is but one verdict for you. You have agreed to speak lying and misleading words to me until things take a turn. Therefore, tell me the dream, and I shall know that you can give me its interpretation."10 The Chaldeans answered the king, "There is no one on earth who can reveal what the king demands! In fact no king, however great and powerful, has ever asked such a thing of any magician or enchanter or Chaldean.11 The thing that the king is asking is too difficult, and no one can reveal it to the king except the gods, whose dwelling is not with mortals."
12 Because of this the king flew into a violent rage and commanded that all the wise men of Babylon be destroyed.13 The decree was issued, and the wise men were about to be executed; and they looked for Daniel and his companions, to execute them.14 Then Daniel responded with prudence and discretion to Arioch, the king's chief executioner, who had gone out to execute the wise men of Babylon;15 he asked Arioch, the royal official, "Why is the decree of the king so urgent?" Arioch then explained the matter to Daniel.16 So Daniel went in and requested that the king give him time and he would tell the king the interpretation.
17 Then Daniel went to his home and informed his companions, Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah,18 and told them to seek mercy from the God of heaven concerning this mystery, so that Daniel and his companions with the rest of the wise men of Babylon might not perish.19 Then the mystery was revealed to Daniel in a vision of the night, and Daniel blessed the God of heaven.
"Blessed be the name of God from age to age,
for wisdom and power are his.
21He changes times and seasons,
deposes kings and sets up kings;
he gives wisdom to the wise
and knowledge to those who have understanding.
22He reveals deep and hidden things;
he knows what is in the darkness,
and light dwells with him.
23To you, O God of my ancestors,
I give thanks and praise,
for you have given me wisdom and power,
and have now revealed to me what we asked of you,
for you have revealed to us what the king ordered."
24 Therefore Daniel went to Arioch, whom the king had appointed to destroy the wise men of Babylon, and said to him, "Do not destroy the wise men of Babylon; bring me in before the king, and I will give the king the interpretation."
25 Then Arioch quickly brought Daniel before the king and said to him: "I have found among the exiles from Judah a man who can tell the king the interpretation."26 The king said to Daniel, whose name was Belteshazzar, "Are you able to tell me the dream that I have seen and its interpretation?"27 Daniel answered the king, "No wise men, enchanters, magicians, or diviners can show to the king the mystery that the king is asking,28 but there is a God in heaven who reveals mysteries, and he has disclosed to King Nebuchadnezzar what will happen at the end of days. Your dream and the visions of your head as you lay in bed were these:29 To you, O king, as you lay in bed, came thoughts of what would be hereafter, and the revealer of mysteries disclosed to you what is to be.30 But as for me, this mystery has not been revealed to me because of any wisdom that I have more than any other living being, but in order that the interpretation may be known to the king and that you may understand the thoughts of your mind.
The first extant reference to the magi occurs in Herodotus, where they are described as one of the six tribes of the Medes:
101. Thus Deioces collected the Medes into a nation, and ruled over them alone. Now these are the tribes of which they consist: the Busae, the Paretaceni, the Struchates, the Arizanti, the Budii, and the Magi.
140. Thus much I can declare of the Persians with entire certainty, from my own actual knowledge. There is another custom which is spoken of with reserve, and not openly, concerning their dead. It is said that the body of a male Persian is never buried, until it has been torn either by a dog or a bird of prey. That the Magi have this custom is beyond a doubt, for they practise it without any concealment. The dead bodies are covered with wax, and then buried in the ground. The Magi are a very peculiar race, different entirely from the Egyptian priests, and indeed from all other men whatsoever. The Egyptian priests make it a point of religion not to kill any live animals except those which they offer in sacrifice. The Magi, on the contrary, kill animals of all kinds with their own hands, excepting dogs and men. They even seem to take a delight in the employment, and kill, as readily as they do other animals, ants and snakes, and such like flying or creeping things. However, since this has always been their custom, let them keep to it. I return to my former narrative. Herodotus, Histories 1.101-140
107. Astyages, the son of Cyaxares, succeeded to the throne. He had a daughter who was named Mandane concerning whom he had a wonderful dream. He dreamt that from her such a stream of water flowed forth as not only to fill his capital, but to flood the whole of Asia. This vision he laid before such of the Magi as had the gift of interpreting dreams, who expounded its meaning to him in full, whereat he was greatly terrified. On this account, when his daughter was now of ripe age, he would not give her in marriage to any of the Medes who were of suitable rank, lest the dream should be accomplished; but he married her to a Persian of good family indeed, but of a quiet temper, whom he looked on as much inferior to a Mede of even middle condition.
108. Thus Cambyses (for so was the Persian called) wedded Mandane, and took her to his home, after which, in the very first year, Astyages saw another vision. He fancied that a vine grew from the womb of his daughter, and overshadowed the whole of Asia. After this dream, which he submitted also to the interpreters, he sent to Persia and fetched away Mandane, who was now with child, and was not far from her time. On her arrival he set a watch over her, intending to destroy the child to which she should give birth; for the Magian interpreters had expounded the vision to foreshow that the offspring of his daughter would reign over Asia in his stead. ...
120. Such was the mode in which Astyages punished Harpagus: afterwards, proceeding to consider what he should do with Cyrus, his grandchild, he sent for the Magi, who formerly interpreted his dream in the way which alarmed him so much, and asked them how they had expounded it. They answered, without varying from what they had said before, that "the boy must needs be a king if he grew up, and did not die too soon." Then Astyages addressed them thus: "The boy has escaped, and lives; he has been brought up in the country, and the lads of the village where he lives have made him their king. All that kings commonly do he has done. He has had his guards, and his doorkeepers, and his messengers, and all the other usual officers. Tell me, then, to what, think you, does all this tend?" The Magi answered, "If the boy survives, and has ruled as a king without any craft or contrivance, in that case we bid thee cheer up, and feel no more alarm on his account. He will not reign a second time. For we have found even oracles sometimes fulfilled in an unimportant way; and dreams, still oftener, have wondrously mean accomplishments." "It is what I myself most incline to think," Astyages rejoined; "the boy having been already king, the dream is out, and I have nothing more to fear from him. Nevertheless, take good heed and counsel me the best you can for the safety of my house and your own interests." "Truly," said the Magi in reply, "it very much concerns our interests that thy kingdom be firmly established; for if it went to this boy it would pass into foreign hands, since he is a Persian: and then we Medes should lose our freedom, and be quite despised by the Persians, as being foreigners. But so long as thou, our fellow-countryman, art on the throne, all manner of honours are ours, and we are even not without some share in the government. Much reason therefore have we to forecast well for thee and for thy sovereignty. If then we saw any cause for present fear, be sure we would not keep it back from thee. But truly we are persuaded that the dream has had its accomplishment in this harmless way; and so our own fears being at rest, we recommend thee to banish thine. As for the boy, our advice is that thou send him away to Persia, to his father and mother."
132. To these gods the Persians offer sacrifice in the following manner: they raise no altar, light no fire, pour no libations; there is no sound of the flute, no putting on of chaplets, no consecrated barley-cake; but the man who wishes to sacrifice brings his victim to a spot of ground which is pure from pollution, and there calls upon the name of the god to whom he intends to offer. It is usual to have the turban encircled with a wreath, most commonly of myrtle. The sacrificer is not allowed to pray for blessings on himself alone, but he prays for the welfare of the king, and of the whole Persian people, among whom he is of necessity included. He cuts the victim in pieces, and having boiled the flesh, he lays it out upon the tenderest herbage that he can find, trefoil especially. When all is ready, one of the Magi comes forward and chants a hymn, which they say recounts the origin of the gods. It is not lawful to offer sacrifice unless there is a Magus present. After waiting a short time the sacrificer carries the flesh of the victim away with him, and makes whatever use of it he may please.
During the reign of Augustus, Virgil (29–19 BC) composed a Latin epic poem that recounted the legend of Aeneas, a Trojan who traveled to Italy, where he became the ancestor of the Romans. His decision to leave Troy was assisted by the appearance of a heavenly sign:
Scarcely had the aged man thus spoken, when with sudden crash there was thunder on the left and a star shot from heaven, gliding through the darkness, and drawing a fiery trail amid a flood of light. We watch it glide over the palace roof and bury in Ida’s forest the splendour that marked its path; then the long-drawn furrow shines, and far and wide all about reeks of sulphur. At this, indeed, my father was overcome and, rising to his feet, salutes the gods, and worships the holy star. ‘Now, now there is no delay; I follow, and where you lead, there am I. Gods of my fathers! save my house, save my grandson. Yours is this omen, and under your protection stands Troy. Yes, I yield, and refuse not, my son, to go in your company.’ Aeneid II.692ff (Translated by H.R. Fairclough)
Justinus (active in the reign of Augustus, 2 BCE to 14 CE) describes the occurrence of a miraculous heavenly sign at key points in the life of Mithridates VI:
His future greatness was even proclaimed in advance by miraculous heavenly signs. In the year in which he was born and also in the year in which he first began to reign, during the two-fold period a comet shone for seventy days, so brightly that it seemed to make the whole heaven glow. For not only did it occupy the fourth part of the heavens with its magnitude, but the gleam which flashed forth from it even surpassed the splendor of the sun; and it occupied the period of four hours each time it rose and set. [Epitome from Pompeius Trogus, 37,2]
Pliny the Elder
When discussing stars and other heavenly bodies in his encyclopedia, Natural History, Pliny (23-79 CE), an older contemporary of Josephus, refuted popular notions that variations in the appearance of the stars are related to the circumstances of individuals on the earth:
The stars which are described as fixed in the heavens, are not, as the vulgar suppose, attached each of them to different individuals, the brighter to the rich, those that are less so to the poor, and the dim to the aged, shining according to the lot of the individual, and separately assigned to mortals; for they have neither come into existence, nor do they perish in connexion with particular persons, nor does a falling star indicate that any one is dead. We are not so closely connected with the heavens as that the shining of the stars is affected by our death. Natural History 2.6
Pliny also disdained magic and its practitioners, the magi. In dismissing the magical arts, he provided a further ancient witness to the state visit to Rome by the Armenian ruler, Tiridates, whom he described as a member of the magi:
The Magian Tiridates was at his court, having repaired thither, in token of our triumph over Armenia, accompanied by a train which cost dear to the provinces through which it passed. For the fact was, that he was unwilling to travel by water, it being a maxim with the adepts in this art that it is improper to spit into the sea or to profane that element by any other of the evacuations that are inseparable from the infirmities of human nature. He brought with him, too, several other Magi, and went so far as to initiate the emperor in the repasts of the craft; and yet the prince, for all he had bestowed a kingdom upon the stranger, found himself unable to receive at his hands, in return, this art. Natural History 30.6
In The Jewish War VI.5 Josephus describes the appearance of a miraculous star over Jerusalem around the time the rebellion began:
Thus were the miserable people persuaded by these deceivers, and such as belied God himself; while they did not attend, nor give credit, to the signs that were so evident and did so plainly foretell their future desolation; but, like men infatuated, without either eyes to see, or minds to consider, did not regard the denunciations that God made to them. Thus there was a star resembling a sword, which stood over the city, and a comet, that continued a whole year. Thus also, before the Jews’ rebellion, and before those commotions which preceded the war, when the people were come in great crowds to the feast of unleavened bread, on the eighth day of the month Xanthicus5 [Nisan], and at the ninth hour of the night, so great a light shone round the altar and the holy house, that it appeared to be bright day time; which light lasted for half an hour. This light seemed to be a good sign to the unskillful, but was so interpreted by the sacred scribes, as to portend those events that followed immediately upon it. [18.104.22.1688-292]
In Antiquities XVI V. 1,136-41, Josephus gives an insight into the media hype associated with political celebrations when he described foreign ambassadors traveling to Jerusalem to hail King Herod on the occasion of the completion of the palace in Caesarea, around 9 BCE:
1. ABOUT this time it was that Cesarea Sebaste, which he had built, was finished. The entire building being accomplished: in the tenth year, the solemnity of it fell into the twenty-eighth year of Herod's reign, and into the hundred and ninety-second olympiad. There was accordingly a great festival and most sumptuous preparations made presently, in order to its dedication; for he had appointed a contention in music, and games to be performed naked. He had also gotten ready a great number of those that fight single combats, and of beasts for the like purpose; horse races also, and the most chargeable of such sports and shows as used to be exhibited at Rome, and in other places. He consecrated this combat to Caesar, and ordered it to be celebrated every fifth year. He also sent all sorts of ornaments for it out of his own furniture, that it might want nothing to make it decent; nay, Julia, Caesar's wife, sent a great part of her most valuable furniture [from Rome], insomuch that he had no want of any thing. The sum of them all was estimated at five hundred talents. Now when a great multitude was come to that city to see the shows, as well as the ambassadors whom other people sent, on account of the benefits they had received from Herod, he entertained them all in the public inns, and at public tables, and with perpetual feasts; this solemnity having in the day time the diversions of the fights, and in the night time such merry meetings as cost vast sums of money, and publicly demonstrated the generosity of his soul; for in all his undertakings he was ambitious to exhibit what exceeded whatsoever had been done before of the same kind. And it is related that Caesar and Agrippa often said, that the dominions of Herod were too little for the greatness of his soul; for that he deserved to have both all the kingdom of Syria, and that of Egypt also.
Suetonius briefly reports on the state visit of Tridates of Armenia to Rome during the reign of Nero. A more detailed account is found in Dio Cassius (see below).
I may fairly include among his shows the entrance of Tiridates into the city. He was a king of Armenia, whom Nero induced by great promises to come to Rome; and since he was prevented by bad weather from exhibiting him to the people on the day appointed by proclamation, he produced him at the first favourable opportunity, with the praetorian cohorts drawn up in full armour about the temples in the Forum, while he himself sat in a curule chair on the rostra in the attire of a triumphing general, surrounded by military ensigns and standards. 2 As the king approached along a sloping platform, the emperor at first let him fall at his feet, but raised him with his right hand and kissed him. Then, while the king made supplication, Nero took the turban from his head and replaced it with a diadem, while a man of praetorian rank translated the words of the suppliant and proclaimed them to the throng. From there the king was taken to the theatre,37 and when he had again done obeisance, Nero gave him a seat at his right hand. Because of all this Nero was hailed as Imperator,38 and after depositing a laurel wreath in the Capitol,39 he closed the two doors of the temple of Janus,40 as a sign that no war was left anywhere. Suetonius, Nero 13
Suetonius also gathers together traditions about miraculous omens that attended Augustus, even prior to his birth. This collection of popular beliefs in omens is especially relevant since it is more or less contemporary with the Gospel of Matthew.
Having reached this point, it will not be out of place to add an account of the omens which occurred before he was born, on the very day of his birth, and afterwards, from which it was possible to anticipate and perceive his future greatness and uninterrupted good fortune.
12 While in retirement at Apollonia, Augustus mounted with Agrippa to the studio of the astrologer Theogenes. Agrippa was the first to try his fortune, and when a great and almost incredible career was predicted for him, Augustus persisted in concealing the time of his birth and in refusing to disclose it, through diffidence and fear that he might be found to be less eminent. When he at last gave it unwillingly and hesitatingly, and only after many requests, Theogenes sprang up and threw himself at his feet. From that time on Augustus had such faith in his destiny, that he made his horoscope public and issued a silver coin stamped with the sign of the constellation Capricornus, under which he was born. Augustus 94.1-12
2 In ancient days, when a part of the wall of Velitrae had been struck by lightning, the prediction was made that a citizen of that town would one day rule the world. Through their confidence in this the people of Velitrae had at once made war on the Roman people and fought with them many times after that almost to their utter destruction; but at last long afterward the event proved that the omen had foretold the rule of Augustus.
3 According to Julius Marathus, a few months before Augustus was born a portent was generally observed at Rome, which gave warning that nature was pregnant with a king for the Roman people; thereupon the senate in consternation decreed that no male child born that year should be reared; but those whose wives were with child saw to it that the decree was not filed in the treasury, since each one appropriated the prediction to his own family.
4 I have read the following story in the books of Asclepias of Mendes entitled Theologumena. When Atia had come in the middle of the night to the solemn service of Apollo, she had her litter set down in the temple and fell asleep, while the rest of the matrons also slept. On a sudden a serpent glided up to her and shortly went away. When she awoke, she purified herself, as if after the embraces of her husband, and at once there appeared on her body a mark in colours like a serpent, and she could never get rid of it; so that presently she ceased ever to go to the public baths. In the tenth month after that Augustus was born and was therefore regarded as the son of Apollo. Atia too, before she gave him birth, dreamed that her vitals were borne up to the stars and spread over the whole extent of land and sea, while Octavius dreamed that the sun rose from Atia's womb.
5 The day he was born the conspiracy of Catiline was before the House, and Octavius came late because of his wife's confinement; then Publius Nigidius, as everyone knows, learning the reason for his tardiness and being informed also of the hour of the birth, declared that the ruler of the world had been born. Later, when Octavius was leading an army through remote parts of Thrace, and in the grove of Father Liber consulted the priests about his son with barbarian rites, they made the same prediction; since such a pillar of flame sprang forth from the wine that was poured over the altar, that it rose above the temple roof and mounted to the very sky, and such an omen had befallen no one save Alexander the Great, when he offered sacrifice at the same altar.
6 Moreover, the very next night he dreamt that his son appeared to him in a guise more majestic than that of mortal man, with the thunderbolt, sceptre, and insignia of Jupiter Optimus Maximus, wearing a crown begirt with rays and mounted upon a laurel-wreathed chariot drawn by twelve horses of surpassing whiteness. When Augustus was still an infant, as is recorded by the hand of Gaius Drusus, he was placed by his nurse at evening in his cradle on the ground floor and the next morning had disappeared; but after long search he was at last found on a lofty tower with his face towards the rising sun.
7 As soon as he began to talk, it chanced that the frogs were making a great noise at his grandfather's country place; he bade them be silent, and they say that since then no frog has ever croaked there. As he was lunching in a grove at the fourth milestone on the Campanian road, an eagle surprised him by snatching his bread from his hand, after flying to a great height, equally to his surprise dropped gently down again and gave it back to him.
8 After Quintus Catulus had dedicated the Capitol, he had dreams on two nights in succession: first, that Jupiter Optimus Maximus called aside a number of boys of good family, who were playing around his altar, and put in the fold of his toga an image of Roma, which he was carrying in his hand; the next night he dreamt that he saw this same boy in the lap of Jupiter of the Capitol, and that when he had ordered that he be removed, the god warned him to desist, declaring that the boy was being reared to be the saviour of his country. When Catulus next day met Augustus, whom he had never seen before, he looked at him in great surprise and said that he was very like the boy of whom he had dreamed. Some give a different account of Catulus's first dream: when a large group of well-born children asked Jupiter for a guardian, he pointed out one of their number, to whom they were to refer all their wishes, and then, after lightly touching the boy's mouth with his fingers, laid them on his own lips.
9 As Marcus Cicero was attending Gaius Caesar to the Capitol, he happened to tell his friends a dream of the night before; that a boy of noble countenance was let down from heaven on a golden chain and, standing at the door of the temple, was given a whip by Jupiter. Just then suddenly catching sight of Augustus, who was still unknown to the greater number of those present and had been brought to the ceremony by his uncle Caesar, he declared that he was the very one whose form had appeared to him in his dream.
10 When Augustus was assuming the gown of manhood, his senatorial tunic was ripped apart on both sides and fell at his feet, which some interpreted as a sure sign that the order of which the tunic was the badge would one day be brought to his feet.
11 As the Deified Julius was cutting down a wood at Munda and preparing a place for his camp, coming across a palm tree, he caused it to be spared as an omen of victory. From this a shoot at once sprang forth and in a few days grew so great that it not only equalled the parent tree, but even overshadowed it; moreover many doves built their nests there, although that kind of bird especially avoids hard and rough foliage. Indeed, it was that omen in particular, they say, that led Caesar to wish that none other than his sister's grandson should be his successor.
The state visit to Nero by the Armenian ruler, Tiridates, is described in some detail by Dio Cassius (born 155 or 163/164 and died after 229 CE) in his Roman History.:
1 1 In the consulship of Gaius Telesinus and Suetonius Paulinus one event of great glory and another of deep disgrace took place. For one thing, Nero contended among the lyre-players, and after Menecrates, the teacher of this art, had celebrated a triumph for him in the Circus, he appeared as a charioteer. 2 On the other hand, Tiridates presented himself in Rome, bringing with him not only his own sons but also those of Vologaesus, of Pacorus, and of Monobazus. Their progress all the way from the Euphrates was like a triumphal procession.2 Tiridates himself was at the height of his reputation by reason of his age, beauty, family, and intelligence; and his whole retinue of servants together with all his royal paraphernalia accompanied him. Three thousand Parthian horsemen and numerous Romans besides followed in his train. 2 They were received by gaily decorated cities and by peoples who shouted many compliments. Provisions were furnished them free of cost, a daily expenditure of 800,000 sesterces for their support being thus charged to the public treasury. This went on without change for the nine months occupied in their journey. 3 The prince covered the whole distance to the confines of Italy on horseback, and beside him rode his wife, wearing a golden helmet in place of a veil, so as not to defy the traditions of her country by letting her face be seen. In Italy he was conveyed in a two-horse carriage sent by Nero, and met the emperor at Neapolis, which he reached by way of Picenum.18 4 He refused, however, to obey the order to lay aside his dagger when he approached the emperor, but fastened it to the scabbard with nails. Yet he knelt upon the ground, and with arms crossed called him master and did obeisance.3 Nero admired him for this action and entertained him in many ways, especially by giving a gladiatorial exhibition at Puteoli. It was under the direction of Patrobius, one of his freedmen, who managed to make it a most brilliant and costly affair, as may be seen from the fact that on one of the days not a person but Ethiopians — men, women, and children — appeared in the theatre. 2 By way of showing Patrobius some fitting honour Tiridates shot at wild beasts from his elevated seat, and — if one can believe it — transfixed and killed two bulls with a single arrow.
3 Such, then, was this occasion; and of course they had a costly banquet. Afterwards Nero publicly sang to the lyre, and also drove a chariot, clad in the costume of the Greens and wearing a charioteer's helmet. 4 This made Tiridates disgusted with him; but he praised Corbulo, in whom he found only this one fault, that he would put up with such a master. Indeed, he made no concealment of his views even to Nero himself, but said to him one day: "Master, you have in Corbulo a good slave." 5 But this remark fell on uncomprehending ears. In all other matters he flattered the emperor and ingratiated himself most skilfully, with the result that he received all kinds of gifts, said to have been worth 200,000,000 sesterces, and obtained permission to rebuild Artaxata. 6 Moreover, he took with him from Rome many artisans, some of whom he got from Nero, and some of whom he persuaded by offers of high wages. Corbulo, however, would not let them all cross into Armenia, but only those whom Nero had given him. This caused Tiridates both to admire him and to despise the emperor more than ever. 7The king did not return by the route that he had followed in coming,— through Illyricum and north of the Ionian Sea,— but instead he sailed from Brundisium to Dyrrachium. He viewed also the cities of Asia, which served to increase his amazement at the strength and beauty of the Roman empire. Roman History 62.1-3
4 After this event Nero took him up to Rome and set the diadem upon his head. The entire city had been decorated with lights and garlands, and great crowds of people were to be seen everywhere, the Forum, however, being especially full. 2 The centre was occupied by civilians, arranged according to rank, clad in white and carrying laurel branches; everywhere else were the soldiers, arrayed in shining armour, their weapons and standards flashing like the lightning. The very roof-tiles of all the buildings in the vicinity were completely hidden from view by the spectators who had climbed to the roofs. 3 Everything had been thus got ready during the night; and at daybreak Nero, wearing the triumphal garb and accompanied by the senate and the Praetorians, entered the Forum. He ascended the rostra and seated himself upon a chair of state. Next Tiridates and his suite passed between lines of heavy-armed troops drawn up on either side, took their stand close to the rostra, and did obeisance to the emperor as they had done before.5 At this a great roar went up, which so alarmed Tiridates that for some moments he stood speechless, in terror of his life. Then, silence having been proclaimed, he recovered courage and quelling his pride made himself subservient to the occasion and to his need, caring little how humbly he spoke, in view of the prize he hoped to obtain. 2 These were his words: "Master, I am the descendant of Arsaces, brother of the kings Vologaesus and Pacorus, and thy slave. And I have come to thee, my god, to worship thee as I do Mithras. The destiny thou spinnest for me shall be mine; for thou art my Fortune and my Fate." 3 Nero replied to him as follows: "Well hast thou done to come hither in person, that meeting me face to face thou mightest enjoy my grace. For what neither thy father left thee nor thy brothers gave and preserved for thee, this do I grant thee. King of Armenia I now declare thee, that both thou and they may understand that I have power to take away kingdoms and to bestow them." 4 At the close of these words he bade him ascend by the approach which had been built in front of the rostra expressly for this occasion, and when Tiridates had been made to sit beneath his feet, he placed the diadem upon his head. At this, too, there were many shouts of all sorts.6 By special decree there was also a celebration in the theatre. Not merely the stage but the whole interior of the theatre round about had been gilded, and all the properties that were brought in had been adorned with gold, so that people gave to the day itself the epithet of "golden." 2 The curtains stretched overhead to keep off the sun were of purple and in the centre of them was an embroidered figure of Nero driving a chariot, with golden stars gleaming all about him.
Hendrickx [Infancy Narratives, 39] quotes the following midrash which incorporated a supernatural star into the legend:
As the Queen of Sheba approached the holy city reclining in her litter, she saw at a distance a wondrous rose growing at the edge of a lake. But when she came near she saw to her astonishment the rose suddenly transformed into a flashing star. The closer she came the more dazzling was its light.
Abraham Bar Hiyya (ca. A.D. 1100) thought that the phenomenon [of a planetary conjunction involving Jupiter and Saturn] occurred every 2,859 years (actually it occurs every 257 years), and that the last conjunction was in 1395 B.C., heralding the promulgation of the Torah through Moses. He expected that the Messiah would appear before the next conjunction which was to occur in A.D. 1464. This next conjunction occurred during the lifetime of Isaac Abravanel (1437 - 1508) who was deeply interested in the coming of the Messiah. Working with Bar Hiyya's calculations, Abranavel estimated that the Exodus took place eighty-three years after the conjunction of 1395 B.C. and that, correspondingly, the Messiah would come within an eighty-three-year period after the conjunction of 1464 -- to be precise, in the year 1503.
SOURCE: R.E. Brown, Birth of the Messiah (1977:173), citing J. Sarachek, The Doctrine of the Messiah in Medieval Judiasm, and A.H. Silver, A History of Messianic Speculation in Israel
In Persia is the city called Saveh, from which the three Magi set out when they came to worship Jesus Christ. Here, too, they lie buried in three sepulchres of great size and beauty. Above each sepulchre is a square building with a domed roof of very fine workmanship. The one is just beside the other. Their bodies are still whole, and they have hair and beards. One was named Beltasar, the second Gaspar, and the third Melchior.
Messer Marco asked several of the inhabitants who these Magi were; but no one could tell him anything except that they were three kings who were buried there in days gone by. But at last he learnt What I will tell you.
Three days farther on, he found a town called Kala Atashparastan, that is to say Town of the Fire-worshippers. And that is no more than the truth; for the men of this town do worship fire. And I will tell you why they worship it. The inhabitants declare that in days gone by three kings of this country went to worship a new-born prophet and took with them three offerings -gold, frankincense, and myrrh - so as to discover whether this prophet was a god, or an earthly king or a healer. For they said : 'If he takes gold, he is an earthly king; if frankincense, a god; if myrrh, a healer.'
When they had come to the place where the prophet was born, the youngest of the three kings went in all alone to see the child. He found that he was like himself, for he seemed to be of his own age and appearance. And he came out, full of wonder. Then in went the second, who was a man of middle age. And to him also the child seemed, as it had seemed to the other, to be of his own age and appearance. And he came out quite dumbfounded. Then in went the third, who was of riper years; and to him also it happened as it had to the other two. And he came out deep in thought. When the three kings were all together, each told the others what he had seen. And they were much amazed and resolved that they would all go in together.
So, in they went, all three together, and came before the child and saw him in his real likeness and of his real age; for he was only thirteen days old. Then they worshipped him and offered him the gold, the frankincense, and the myrrh. The child took all three offerings and then gave them a closed casket. And the three kings set out to return to their own country.
After they had ridden for some days, they resolved to see what the child had given them. They opened the casket and found inside it a stone. They wondered greatly what this could be. The child had given it to them to signify that they should be firm as stone in the faith that they had adopted. For, when the three kings saw that the child had taken all three offerings, they concluded that he was at once a god, and an earthly king, and a healer. And, since the child knew that the three kings believed this, he gave them the stone to signify that they should be firm and constant in their belief.
The three kings, not knowing why the stone had been given to them, took it and threw it into a well. No sooner had it fallen in than there descended from heaven a burning fire, which came straight to the well into which it had been thrown. When the three kings saw this miracle, they were taken aback and repented of their throwing away the stone; for they saw clearly that its significance was great and good. They immediately took some of this fire and carried it to their country and put it in one of their churches, a very fine and splendid building.
They keep it perpetually burning and worship it as a god. And every sacrifice and burnt offering which they make is roasted with this fire. If it ever happens that the fire goes out, they go round to others who hold the same faith and worship fire also and are given some of the fire that burns in their church. This they bring back to rekindle their own fire. They never rekindle it except with this fire of which I have spoken. To procure this fire, they often make a journey of ten days.
That is how it comes about that the people of this country are fire worshippers. And I assure you that they are very numerous. All this was related to Messer Marco Polo by the inhabitants of this town; and it is all perfectly true. Let me tell you finally that one of the three Magi came from Saveh, one from Hawah, and the third from Kashan.
[Marco Polo and the Three Kings, Penguin classics edition, translated by Ronald Latham]