We Three Spies of Parthia Are

We Three Spies of Parthia Are January 6, 2019

I received a delightful email not long ago that has made me want to turn it into a short story, a piece of historical fiction rather than my usual sci-fi, so as to explore it. Alas, I didn’t manage to accomplish this by today (I had another story I was trying to get finished – that one most definitely is science fiction), and today would be the natural day to share it, being Epiphany, the day that celebrates the arrival of the Magi. And so I thought I’d at least share the email prompt and story concept, and see what readers of this blog think of the idea. If you think this is worth pursuing, I will do so, and try to have it out in time for Epiphany 2020! Here’s the relevant part of the email:

Maybe it’s the times, with all the fuss about Russian hacking and election meddling, but this Christmas season I have been thinking about the Matthean story of the Magi in a new, and somewhat cynical way. Grant for the moment the perhaps generous assumption that there is a historical kernel to that story, what might it have been about?

Assuming that the Magi were Zoroastrian priests, or something similar, in the Parthian Empire, why would the Parthian government have been willing to let them travel to Judea to pay homage to a potential claimant to the kingship of that troubled land? Because the Parthians were geopolitical rivals of the Romans, it might have been in their best interests to let the Magi go to Judea, with any luck to stir up unrest, maybe destabilize things a bit, for the notoriously paranoid client ruler (Herod) of the Romans. So let the astrologers travel to the west, following whatever it was they saw in the sky. Or–thinking even more darkly–maybe even make up the story of the star altogether, just to see if this could shake things up against the Romans in their always troublesome eastern province?

Has anybody ever considered such a possibility?

To my knowledge, no one has considered this. But I think it is worth exploring, at least as a thought experiment through fiction. Here’s what I envisage. The story would start in the court of the Parthian king Arsaces XXII. He hatches a plan with his advisors to sow discord in the kingdom of Herod the Great, his enemy. Three spies claiming to be astrologers will show up in the palace of Herod saying they have seen astrological signs that a new king has been born, who will reign over the land of Israel. They do so, and are directed to Bethlehem – which they hadn’t anticipated, but they must go to continue their ruse. They inquire and find out where there is a home with a young boy born roughly two years earlier, present gifts, and then return to Parthia. King Herod seeks after them as well as trying to eliminate the potential threat. Their plan has worked! But it has an unforeseen side effect. The parents of the child before whom they prostrated themselves take this as a miraculous sign, and tell the story to their son, raising him to believe that he will indeed become king…

What do you think? Should I flesh out this story?

"I'm not sure what 3rd-4th century texts you're talking about. Historians are working with the ..."

Cognitive Science, Memory, Oral Tradition, and ..."
"All speculation appears pointless unless someone can present authentic and original, first century originated evidence ..."

Cognitive Science, Memory, Oral Tradition, and ..."

Browse Our Archives

Follow Us!


TRENDING AT PATHEOS Progressive Christian
What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • It is interesting to note that, “When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him.” (Matt. 2:3 ESV) BDAG gives the translation of troubled as, “troubled, frightened, terrified”. I can understand Herod being troubled, but why all of Jerusalem. Could it be because of the political and military tension between Partha and Rome that caused it? Just a thought. Blessings.

  • KateGladstone

    Yes! Write this story! And maybe a song, too …

    • Thanks for the encouragement! I’m not sure how the song would go, but I’ll think about it!

  • Scurra

    There’s also the (unexpected) side-effect that, according to the story, as a result Herod killed practically a whole generation of children which would have had longer term consequences both internally and externally. (I have sometimes wondered what happened in Egypt after the ‘death of all the first-born’ too; that story gets lost in the desert a bit so we never really find out.) If one was a geopolitical rival, that would likely help too, albeit definitely not planned.

    • Yes, the failure of the death of all firstborn children, widespread destruction of cattle and crops, and loss of the charioteers/some portion of the military to register in any way in the literary and historical record is one of the many indications that the story cannot simply be treated as a straightforward factual account of historical events.

  • Erp

    Perhaps have Herod’s son, Antipater, hear the magi and decide he is the intended messiah and decide to speed things up. He is executed in 4BCE for planning patricide. Or have Herod suspect Antipater of thinking this and framing him.

    • Oh my goodness! This is wonderful! I love this suggestion so much, and all the more so because I am fascinated by this crowdsourced approach to writing, where an idea was shared with me, developed, shared with others, eliciting responses, and making me excited to write this as well as giving concrete plot suggestions. I am now so eager to work on this! Thank you!!!

      • Erp

        You could also ignore Luke and have John the Baptist be a teenager at the time and have his own interpretation.

  • Timothy Weston

    I think you should try to flesh out this story. The story lends itself to it.

    The idea reminds me of this one book where a character did some research on Christmas and came to the conclusion that they were “a bunch of dirty spies.”

    • Thanks. Do you happen to recall which book it was?

      • Timothy Weston

        “The Best Christmas Pageant Ever” by Barbara Robinson. It was a TV special and adapted into a stage play.