An Ancient Letter Print
By Joseph Wood   
Saturday, 07 January 2012

Archaeologist’s Note:  Around three years ago, we announced in this space the discovery of a document from a Near Eastern kingdom dating back to approximately 2000 years ago. Written, it appears, just before the winter solstice, that memorandum from the bureaus and agencies responsible for foreign affairs to a royal priest of the kingdom – a magus, as they seem to have been sometimes called – urged him not to join with counterparts from neighboring kingdoms in a proposed journey to Judea, whereto the magi apparently believed a mysterious star beckoned them. Today, we report the uncovering of a second document from the same kingdom, written a few years after the first and also in the winter period. This later letter from one of the foreign policy advisors who had opposed the Judean expedition to the same magus provides further insight into the events of that era.

To:  Royal Prisoner #1027, formerly known as The Magus

In Care of the Royal Correctional Facility, Block A

Your former highness,

At this time of year, as we celebrate the return of lengthening days thanks to the generosity of the gods and goddesses, let me extend my warmest hopes for your welfare. I trust that the conditions of your confinement are satisfactory. 

While I understand that you have expressed no remorse for your ill-fated trip to Judea, I and many others retain our profound desire that you might admit the error of your decision, renounce those conclusions that you drew while traveling (and which have been rightly suppressed for reasons of security and royal prestige), and open the way for your reinstatement to your station and your original position of authority. I offer this wish for the sake of your family’s reputation as well as your own.

But I write you now with a specific question. As you may have heard, my next service to our kingdom will be to write my personal memoirs of my years in government. With the advantage of various consultancy arrangements and speaking fees that assure my family and myself the financial security appropriate to former senior officials, I now have the time to focus on this challenging effort. 

I have given my new book the tentative working title, How Right I Was. Naturally, I want to give you and all the others who served our government the full benefit of fair consideration of their views, however wrong and misguided their disagreements with me may have been.

I will not review in detail the events of your journey to Judea and its tragic aftermath. As you know, I and every other member of the National Foreign Policy Committee recommended unanimously and strongly that you not undertake such a trip. 

Subsequent events vindicated our advice to the fullest. Your clumsy mishandling of the relationship with King Herod resulted in his condemning to death all the male children under the age of two in Bethlehem and the vicinity. 

Of larger import, your actions provoked a crisis between our kingdom and both the Roman authorities and the local Judean tribal officials, which cost enormous time and energy to contain, all for no positive outcome. Fortunately, the coming to power of King Archelaus in place of his father has given us the opportunity to reset our relations in the area and pivot towards the region in a way that has preserved and advanced the interests of our kingdom. 

But the entire crisis was foreseen by myself and other experts. That your trip resulted in far fewer deaths than it might have without my own diplomatic skill and exertions only deepens your personal responsibility. It saddens me that one of the greatest demonstrations of my strategic prowess had to come in the wake of your poor judgment.

But that is all behind us now, though our intelligence sources in the region continue to pick up occasional data points regarding a family, like the one you described meeting in Judea, that escaped Herod’s wrath by fleeing to Egypt and has now returned to the area. We will monitor these rumors closely but do not expect any significant events to emerge from them. 

As I say, my point in writing you is to clarify one matter for my book, to make sure the public record of my period in government is complete for future historians and policy makers to study.

As you know, your former highness, I am a person of the world, comfortable in the corridors of power and confident with the affairs of state. I am neither sentimental nor superstitious, always sticking to the demonstrable facts and taking a pragmatic point of view. 

I am of the firm belief that the striking changes in your behavior after your return – your preternatural calm under the immense pressures of media scrutiny and the official investigation, your shift from your former distracted nature to your focused presence for any person you encounter, your quiet but urgent assertions that “everything has changed” – can all best be explained by contemporary psychological theory.

So do not misunderstand – my question is purely an intellectual one, with no strange supernatural motive such as the one you claimed for your benighted expedition.  But please, former magus, just for the sake of the full historical record, tell me:

What did you see in Judea?

Joseph R. Wood is a former White House official who worked on foreign policy, including Vatican affairs.

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