The King of Persia, the Parthian Phraates IV (reigned 37-2 BC), was the ruler who sent the Magi to pay homage to Jesus. The Parthians were deadly enemies of the Romans and the two empires vied for control of lands from 66 BC until 217 AD. Herod the Great was, of course, a friend of Rome, but a foe of the “newborn King of the Jews” Jesus from His birth until Herod’s death.
Phraates was not the type of person one would consider devout in either the Christian or the pagan sense. When he became king in 37 BC, he methodically purged his family of pretenders to the throne. He killed his father, all thirty of his brothers and sent five of his sons as hostages to Caesar Augustus. According to Josephus, Phraates was persuaded to exile his sons to Rome by his Italian concubine, Thermusa aka Musa:
“When Phraates had had legitimate sons of his own, he had, also, an Italian maidservant whose name was Thermusa whom Phraates called the Goddess Musa….He first made her his concubine; but he being a great admirer of her beauty, in process of time having a son by her, whose name was Phraataces, he made Thermusa his legitimate wife and had a great respect for her. Now she was able to persuade him to do anything that she said and was earnest in procuring the government of Parthia for her son; but still she saw that her endeavors would not succeed, unless she could contrive how to remove Phraates’ legitimate sons. So she persuaded Phraates to send his sons as pledges of his fidelity to Rome; and they were sent to Rome accordingly, because it was not easy for him to contradict her commands.” Jewish Antiquities 18.2.4
It was not a kindly king that sent his Magi with the gifts to Bethlehem. Phraates was, perhaps, trying to buy alliance and good will with this new king of the Jews whose birth was announced by supernatural events as far away as Persia.
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With so many family enemies at home, Phraates was, like Herod in Jerusalem, paranoid with reason. Phraates must have been relieved when the Magi returned with the news that the new king came from humble origins. He need not have worried about the infant Jesus. Phraates was murdered in 2 BC by his son Phraataces, whose mother Thermusa crowned him Phraates V.
Herod the Great, also, must have been relieved when he had all the males two years old and under slaughtered in Bethlehem and its vicinity. (Matthew 2:16-18) He need not have worried about the toddler Jesus. In 4 BC Herod died of an excruciating disease:
“Herod’s illness progressively worsened as God exacted punishment for his crimes. A slow fire burned inside him, less obvious to the touch. He had an insatiable desire for food, ulcers in the intestines, terrible pain in the colon, and a clammy edema in his feet. His bladder was inflamed and his genitals gangrenous, breeding worms. His breathing was rapid and extremely offensive due to its stench, and every limb was convulsed intolerably. Wise onlookers declared that God was exacting retribution from the king for his many wicked deeds.” Josephus, Jewish Antiquities 17.6.5
The late Professor of Archaeology at Hebrew University, Ehud Netzer, announced on May 7, 2007 that he had found the tomb of Herod the Great right where Josephus had said it was at a hill called Herodium outside of Jerusalem. Inside the tomb was Herod’s broken sarcophagus but no body. It is ironic and sad that Netzer, who had searched for Herod’s tomb for over 35 years, died several years later in October of 2010 as a result of a fall at the ruins of Herodium.
Two prominent ancient kings were associated with Jesus’ birth. Instead of his kingdom rebelling, Herod’s own body turned against him and his tomb was looted. And Phraates’ favored son murdered him in his royal bed and the crown of Persia was placed upon his own young head.—Sandra Sweeny Silver