Did the Wise Men Know Jewish Prophecy?

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Archaeological discoveries are helping to illuminate the biblical account of the humble birth of Jesus.

Almost everyone on Earth knows the story of Christmas. The angels announcing the birth of the Messiah to the shepherds and the wise men following the star to the little town of Bethlehem where they found the Son of God lying in a manger.

But there's a lot more to the story. What led the wise men to follow a Jewish prophecy?

Few Saw The Signs

The birth of a baby -- a small event that became the turning point in world history. 2,000 years ago, the Messiah arrived on earth, but only a few people saw the signs.

"Where is he who has been born King of the Jews? For we have seen his star in the East."  
Matthew 2:2

The only people who see the sign in the stars of the night are the people who are looking for it. The ones who saw the sign were wise men from the East. Their search for the King of the Jews brought them to the palace of Herod the Great.

The irony of course, is that they have seen a star that they associate with the rising of a King over Jacob and this takes us back to the book of Numbers, chapter 24 and the prophecy of Balaam the prophet

So who exactly were the wise men who called on King Herod? Where did they come from? And why did they seem to know Jewish prophecy better than the Jews?

3000-Year-Old Inscription Discovered

The answers may lie in a 3,000-year-old inscription discovered in Jordan. In 1967, archaeologists found the remains of an ancient temple in a village called Deir Alla.

On the wall of the temple was an inscription about Balaam the prophet, the same character that we know from the book of Numbers.

Balaam, the son of Beor. visited by an angel and scolded by a donkey. A freelance prophet hired to curse the nation of Israel.

But instead, he prophesied the coming of the Jewish messiah by the star of Jacob.

"A star shall come out of Jacob; a scepter shall rise out of Israel." 
Numbers 24:17

Only small fragments of the Balaam inscription have survived. It's written in Aramaic and it reveals a vision of judgment from the gods of Canaan.

"[It's] totally different context archaeologically with a story about him that is not the biblical story," said Stephen Pfann, one of the editors of the Dead Sea Scrolls.

"But it shows us that his reputation as a professional foreteller or prophet was known throughout the eastern Jordan or Trans-Jordan."

Balaam is one of the few Old Testament prophets with archaeological proof of his existence.

"I think it's just exciting, Pfann said. "It lends plausibility in one sense to Matthew's story, because the people who are familiar with Balaam's prophecies are people who are coming from that side of the Jordan River."

Herod's Secret Meeting With The Wise Men

Balaam's prophecy led the wise men to look for a star and the star led them first to Jerusalem.

The tower of David -- the spot where Herod's palace once stood. A place historians have called wondrous beyond words.

It was here that Herod summoned the wise men to a secret meeting.

"The humor of the text is that they come to the King of the Jews, Herod, who does not know his own scriptures," Pfann explained.

"He has to ask his counselors and his advisors to search the scriptures so that he can find out which prophecy they're talking about while they who are foreigners and gentiles know the prophecy of Balaam," he said.

Herod's men found a 700-year-old clue from the prophet Micah. A passage that led the wise men to the birthplace of the Messiah.

"But you, Bethlehem, out of you will come for me one who will be ruler over Israel. 
Micah 5:2-5

They went to Bethlehem and found Joseph, Mary and Jesus. They brought gold, frankincense and myrhh.  Gifts that were described by the prophets, hundreds of years earlier.

"Nations shall come to your light, and kings, shall bring gold and frankincense." 
Isaiah 60:2 - 6

Massacre of the Innocent

But while the wise men worshipped Jesus, Herod planned to kill him.

"I think nowadays if we were to meet Herod the Great, we would probably consider that he suffered from severe paranoia, and was in need of medical treatment and a good psychiatrist," Pfann said.

The wise men only fueled his paranoia. They were known as the king makers of the East and now they were in Herod's palace, looking for the one who had been born King of the Jews.

Herod saw their visit as a threat.

"This is just who Herod is," Pfann said. "He's a convert with no Jewish blood who is always fearful, doesn't trust anyone, loved his wife so much he killed her, loved her to death, I say."

Herod ordered a massacre in Bethlehem. Every male under the age of two was killed. An event that was prophesied by Jeremiah more than 600 years before it happened.

"A voice was heard in Ramah, Rachel weeping for her children, refusing to be comforted for her children, because they are no more." 
Jeremiah 31:15

Joseph and Mary fled to Egypt, a journey predicted by the prophet Hosea and fulfilled in the Gospel of Matthew.

"Out of Egypt I called my son." 
Hosea 11: 1

"Hosea 11:1 says when Israel was a child, and I loved him. and out of Egypt have i called my son," said Pfann. "Some of the rabbis say Matthew misquoted Hosea 11 terribly. Nonsense. "What was his point? His assumption was that his audience would know the whole verse when Israel was a child I loved him, out of Egypt have i called my son," he continued. "As it happened to Israel, it happened to the Messiah. You have this pattern all over the scriptures."

Nowhere is the promise of the Messiah more powerful than in the book of Isaiah. He spoke of a child, born of a virgin. A son called wonderful counselor, mighty God, everlasting Father and Prince of Peace.

Book of Isaiah Found Among The Dead Sea Scrolls

The words of Isaiah were copied by scribes, hidden in caves and protectedfor more than 2000 years.

When the Dead Sea scrolls were rediscovered, the book of Isaiah was found completely intact.

"I would say the one scroll that has had more impact on the world than any other scroll that was found here was the great Isaiah scroll," Pfann said.

The oldest known copy of the book of Isaiah is the only one we have today that existed before the birth of Christ.

"There we have a scroll from around 100 B.C. that is nearly as well-preserved as it was in the days it was being read over 2000 years ago," Pfann explained. "Otherwise, the next complete copies of the book of Isaiah come from a thousand years later."

"And with this, we are going to be able to say, now and for all time, that we have the text that existed 2000 years ago," he said.

From the desert caves near the Dead Sea to the ruins of an ancient temple in Jordan, the story of the Messiah was etched in stone and written on parchment hundreds of years before Jesus was born.

"And the word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we beheld his glory. For the law was given through Moses, but grace and truth came through Jesus Christ." 
John 1: 14 &17

*Original broadcast Dec. 25, 2009.

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