How Did the Wise Men Travel to Bethlehem?

The journey of the magi would have been laid out according to well-known travel and trade routes already long-established.

August von Wörndle, “Journey of the Magi,” 1852
August von Wörndle, “Journey of the Magi,” 1852 (photo: Public Domain)

I have written in this venue before about the wise men, with regard to how they could be guided by a star, with reference to astronomy (conjunctions and constellations), phenomenological language as to the star’s “movements,” where they came from, and “who” they were (likely priests of Zoroastrianism; neither “magicians” nor sorcerers).

Skeptics of the story — mostly atheists these days, and folks who delight in mocking Christianity at every turn and making it and Christians look ridiculous — seem to believe that it is unthinkable that such a journey as the wise men undertook could be made with the simple aid of a star in the west. But “it’s not rocket science” (then or now) to know and understand that Jerusalem was west of Persia. A star to the west having to do with a king (Jupiter and Regulus were associated with a king) and a lion (of Judah) — the constellation Leo — would logically lead people familiar with Judaism to Jerusalem, both geographically and in the context of existing religions.

I looked at my globe of the world and saw that Jerusalem is almost exactly due west from northwest Persia, where the Magi likely came from, because they were from the Medes, who inhabited northwest Persia (present-day Iran). In current maps, Baghdad and Amman, Jordan, are roughly on the line due west from this area. Baghdad was built only in the 8th century. Ancient Babylon lies about 53 miles south of Baghdad, but it was conquered by the Persians in 539 B.C. and was never the same again, eventually becoming a ruin and wasteland.

So the Magi were likely not directed (by signs they believe they read in the stars) from Babylon. Amman (ancient Ammon, in the region of the Ammonites in current-day Jordan) was not religiously significant enough at this time, either, and after the 4th century B.C. it was conquered by the Greeks, Egyptians and Romans. Thus, it was no extraordinary astronomical deduction to conclude that some important happenings due west were to occur in (or near) Jerusalem.

The question then becomes: How did they journey from Persia to Jerusalem? Was it just a fly-by-night random affair or were there known routes? The latter was in fact the case. An ancient “superhighway” of sorts, called the Royal Road, was built (or rebuilt) by the Persian king Darius the Great in the 5th century B.C. The course of this road has been determined from the writings of the Greek historian Herodotus, archeological research and other historical records. Portions in Persia were also near or identical with the famous Silk Road.

The Royal Road was well north of Israel — even north of Damascus, Syria. So it couldn’t have been the entire route of the wise men. Most of the rest would have very likely been the equally famous ancient road: the King’s Highway. A UNESCO site elaborates on the relation between these two great roads:

Although the idea for such a highway may have been borne out of military and political considerations, the Royal Road went on to serve as an integral link in the Silk Roads. This was enhanced largely by Darius’ own modernisation of the road through the introduction of systematic military checkpoints alongside Caravanserai. Travellers were therefore not only offered a place to sleep for the night and the chance to change horses, but were also guaranteed safety. These protected caravanserais ensured that in the years following the fall of the Persian Empire the road continued to be used by merchants and traders crossing the route.

The wise men would have had to simply follow one or the other great roads (Royal Road/Silk Road), and then travel to Jerusalem via the King’s Highway. These were the “big highways” of the ancient world in the Near East. Between the three, and additional necessary connecting routes (just as it was with, for example, the Oregon Trail and various “shortcuts” in the American West), the entire journey can be visualized and mapped with a fair degree of likelihood or probability: just as most travelers by car in America are likely to take interstate freeways on long trips.

In any event, they weren’t merely following a star literally every moment. The Bible doesn’t assert that. It only states that “the star which they had seen in the East went before them” (Matthew 2:9, RSV), referring solely to the five-mile journey between Jerusalem and Bethlehem — and all that meant was that a very bright Jupiter (by the astronomical calculations some have proposed, in December, 2 B.C.) was then due south from Jerusalem, so that it looked like it went before them, as they traveled.

My point is that the “celestial navigation” played a relatively minor role in the journey of the wise men. Most of it was laid out according to well-known travel and trade routes already long-established. To travel to Jerusalem from Persia, most travelers went around the Arabian Desert and Syrian Desert via the Fertile Crescent. They didn’t need a star to guide them all that way, but rather, simply followed the water and the fertile land outside of the desert, with the understanding that they were making their way to Jerusalem.

The more difficult and interesting question about their journey is: what route did they take back? The Bible states that “being warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they departed to their own country by another way” (Matthew 2:12). They may have followed the coastal route on the Mediterranean Sea, till they were out of reach of Herod (probably most likely), or else they actually went across the Arabian Desert (see a map showing both routes in 1300 B.C.). There are various ways to find water, even in the desert. And since their land was likely due east, the rising sun is all they required for broad navigation — especially taking a more direct route across the desert. The camels did the rest.

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