We, Three Kings?

The Nativity stories in the Bible do not really mention any kings. The story of the Three Kings probably came from a story about King Tut (the Egyptian boy‐pharaoh Tutankhamun), who had died in about 1323 BC. Stories about Jesus and stories about King Tut were circulating in the same place at the same time. So it is possible that some of the stories about Jesus were actually influenced by stories about King Tut!

Kings or Wise Men?

Christmas pageants and Nativity scenes typically show three kings, one of whom is black. Yet the Bible does not actually say that there were any kings at the Nativity. Instead, it talks about wise men, and their story is found in only one of the four gospels (Matthew). The oldest existing copies of Matthew are in Greek. Those texts use the term magoi to describe these visitors.

Who Were the Magoi?

To understand the Gospels, you need to understand their primary audience, which would have been people within the Roman empire. This explains why the gospels were written in Greek. The followers of Jesus would have spoken Aramaic, but educated Romans could read Greek. The Greek word magos (plural, magoi) was used to describe the members of the priestly caste of the Zoroastrian religion from Persia. (Rockstar Freddie Mercury was a modern‐day Zoroastrian.) This story about the magoi would have been meaningful to a Roman audience at the time the gospels were written. In AD 66, the Armenian king Tiridates I, who was a magus himself, went to Rome, accompanied by several other magi, to visit the Emperor Nero.

Troublesome Priests in the West and the East

In the first century of the common era, the Romans were contending with rebellions, led by religious leaders, on the western and eastern edges of their empire. For example, the Roman general Vespasian fought against uprisings led by Druid priests in Britain, before being sent in February of the year 67 to Judea, where he put down uprisings by Jewish zealots. The Romans desperately wanted to control the eastern edge of their empire because beyond it lay the Parthian empire (Persia). So the idea that Persian priests would recognize a young peasant boy in Judea as a rightful king was a scary idea to a Roman audience.

What Was the Star Prophecy?

A famous Bible verse (Numbers 24:17) uses the image of a star to foretell that a king from the line of Jacob shall arise out of Israel and “destroy all the sons of tumult.” This verse may have inspired the Jewish rebels in their resistance to Roman rule. This star prophecy was popular in what is now the Holy Land at a time of political chaos in Rome. Since the time of Julius Caesar, some member of the extended Julio‐Claudian family had been emperor in Rome. However, this Julio‐Claudian dynasty came to an end with the death of the emperor Nero, in AD 68. The political turmoil that followed has been described as “The Year of the Four Emperors,” as Galba, then Otho, and then Vitellius each took the throne and then was quickly overthrown. This chaos was happening while Vespasian was fighting rebellions in Judea. Clearly, there was a need for someone to destroy the sons of tumult. So Vespasian left his son Titus in charge in Judea and headed to Alexandria.

Why Did Vespasian Go to Alexandria?

Alexandria was a port city on the coast of Egypt, but it had been founded in 331 BC by the Greek conqueror Alexander the Great. Alexandria later became the heart of the Roman economy, since it was the trading city that controlled the flow of grain from the Nile. On July 1 of the year 69, Vespasian was declared emperor by Roman legions in Egypt, under the command of Tiberius Julius Alexander. Alexander was the wealthiest man in the Roman Empire, thanks to his position as tax collector in Alexandria.  Vespasian was already popular with Roman legions throughout the empire. By controlling Alexandria, Vespasian controlled Rome’s grain supply. Thus, Vespasian was well positioned to become the next emperor, even though he was not of royal blood. Some even argued that Vespasian was the messiah.

What Was the Messiah?

The word messiah came from the ancient Egyptian word for crocodile. Crocodiles were feared and revered in ancient Egypt. A messiah was a king who had been properly crowned in a ceremony that involved being anointed with fat from a crocodile. Vespasian’s supporter Tiberius Julius Alexander would doubtless have known about the star prophecy. Alexander came from a wealthy Jewish family from Alexandria. He was the nephew of the Hellenistic Jewish philosopher Philo of Alexandria. Also, Alexander had served as procurator of Judea under the Roman emperor Claudius during the 40s. Vespasian had just come from Judea. Thus, Vespasian’s supporters argued that Vespasian was the world ruler whose rise was foretold by the star prophecy. This argument was, in fact, made by Vespasian’s court historian Flavius Josephus.

Who Was Flavius Josephus?

Josephus tells us that he was a Jewish general who switched sides in AD 67 to become a supporter of Rome. Josephus then supposedly wrote a book called The War of the Jews. His goal in writing the book was clearly to urge Jews to save themselves from annihilation by submitting to Roman rule. However, there are reasons to doubt that Josephus ever existed. It is likely that he was an entirely fictional narrator modeled loosely on Tiberius Julius Alexander. However, Tiberius Julius Alexander was no rebel who switched sides in AD 67. He had served as the Roman procurator of Judea in the 40s. Even his name suggests that he was thoroughly Romanized. In contrast, the name Flavius Josephus suggests a non‐Hellenized Jew who became a Roman citizen during the rule of Titus Flavius Vespasianus. The name Josephus implied that he was a Jew who became successful in Egypt while serving the pharaoh, like Joseph from the book of Genesis. Tiberius Julius Alexander was, in that sense, the Flavian family’s Joseph. For this reason, the writings of the Flavians’ Joseph should be regarded as propaganda from the Flavian dynasty (Vespasian and his sons Titus and Domitian), not as an honest attempt at history from a Jewish perspective. This could explain why the works of Flavius Josephus survived, and why they are the only contemporary accounts of the Jewish uprisings to survive. Agents of the Roman government would have destroyed any conflicting accounts.

Who Shall Be King?

Many ancient peoples worshipped their kings and emperors as gods or at least as demi‐gods. Yet gods are typically considered to be immortal and can rule forever. In contrast, even a popular king will eventually die and must be replaced. Often, this process of replacement, called succession, is peaceful. But sometimes it is not. The Roman empire had terrible problems with succession, not just in the Year of Four Emperors. Often, an emperor had to adopt his chosen heir, as when Caesar Augustus adopted his stepson Tiberius Claudius Nero, who succeeded him as the emperor Tiberius. The succession problem in Rome, and in later European countries, was particularly serious because a European king could have only one legitimate wife at a time. In contrast, the Egyptian pharaohs and Chinese emperors had huge harems of wives and concubines. As a result, the Egyptian pharaohs and Chinese emperors produced a large crop of potential heirs. The oldest son of his first wife was not necessarily the best candidate. The decision of which son should succeed his father was made behind the scenes by influential human beings. Once this decision had been made, priests could then use astrology or some other form of divination as evidence that the gods had chosen one candidate over another. Thus, many ordinary people would take it for granted that priests could use astrology or other omens to predict who would become king.

Wise Men and Kings

Not even the wisest wise man could know which newborn prince would eventually become king, especially if the current king had several wives. A priest would have a lot to lose and probably nothing to gain by making that kind of prediction. The priest would look foolish if the child died in infancy or if someone else was chosen. Worse yet, by declaring that a child is a future king, the priest would actually be taking sides in a dispute that could lead to civil war. No wise man would do that until it was absolutely necessary. Nor would a wise man have told a ruling monarch, such as Herod, that someone else’s child would eventually become king. So if wise men from the East really did come to the Nativity, it would have been a truly otherworldly event.

Three Kings

It makes no sense for wise men to travel a long distance to declare that an obscure baby boy, especially the son of a carpenter, will eventually become king. However, it makes perfect sense for client kings to pay tribute to their emperor, especially when he first ascends to the throne. So if kings come bearing gifts, you can be pretty certain that the person who is to receive the gifts is already a king, most likely their own ruler. So if the story of kings (as opposed to wise men) coming from afar, bearing gifts to a boy‐child was based on a true story, that true story would have been about a boy‐emperor: a boy who was already a king of kings. Many boys have ascended to an imperial throne while they were still children. Egyptian history even gives us some examples. Thutmose III supposedly became pharaoh at the age of 2, although during the first 22 years of his reign his stepmother Hatshepsut was regarded as the real pharaoh. Likewise, King Tut ascended to the throne at about age 9. So the story about kings bringing gifts to a boy‐king could have some basis in fact. The Egyptian pharaoh’s client kings would have come from three geographic regions: to the south (e.g., Nubia), to the west (Libya), and to the east (i.e., Western Asia). This is probably the source of the idea of three kings, one of whom is black.

Princes of Peace

Jesus Christ is often called the Prince of Peace, but King Tut was also a prince of peace. Normally, the Egyptian pharaoh was supposed to be a military man, a leader of great armies. However, King Tut was a little boy whose coronation put an end to a civil war. Tut’s predecessor Akhenaten had started a religious revolution in Egypt. Akhenaten had wanted Egyptians to worship the one true God, whose symbol was the Aten, or sun disk. As a result, Akhenaten closed the temples of the other gods and cut off royal support to the priests. These changes were unpopular, and Akhenaten may eventually have been forced to abdicate. (The tomb that had been built for him near his new holy city of Amarna was never used, and his mummy has never been identified and might not have been found.) Tut’s original name had been Tutankhaten, which meant the living image of the Aten. After Tut became pharaoh, his name was changed to Tutankhamun, which meant the living image of Amun, which had been Egypt’s traditional main god. This change in name signaled an end to the religious upheaval that had created so much chaos in an otherwise orderly land. Tut’s administration even allowed the traditional temples to reopen, and it restored the support for the priesthood.

Did Jesus Sometimes Get Confused With King Tut?

Christianity eventually became the official religion of the Roman Empire. For this reason, lots of stories about Jesus were being told throughout the Roman Empire. However, it is also likely that some stories about Egypt’s ancient history were still being told in Alexandria, where there was a great library and where the Greek‐language versions of the gospels may have been written. Egypt was an extremely conservative society that lasted a long time. The Pyramids were already more than a thousand years old by the time that King Tut was born. Akhenaten’s religious revolution was a dramatic, jarring interruption of that long pattern of stability. The Greeks of Alexandria would have known about Akhenaten and Tut from the works of Manetho. Manetho was an Egyptian priest from the third century BC who wrote about Egyptian history in Greek, for a Greek audience. His work the Aegyptiaca was widely read in ancient times and is mentioned in several surviving works, but the Aegyptiaca itself did not survive. Since stories about King Tut were circulating at the same time and in the same place that the stories about Jesus were being told, it is easy to see how some of the details from stories about Tut might easily have made their way into stories about Jesus.


Photo by ancientartpodcast.org

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