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Who were the Magi?


The Magi Journey by James Tissot (1836-1902), Wikipedia/Public Domain/{{PD-US}}

One of the tough questions surrounding the story of Jesus’ birth revolves around the magi.

Who were they?

Well looking at the Biblical account of their arrival only recorded in Matthew, we can determine several things:

First we don’t know how many there were. The plural version of this word is used in Matthew, so we know there was more than one. Though they brought three expensive gifts — gold, myrrh and frankincense — it doesn’t mean there were three of them. Some believe this involved a larger group, as many as 12. For sure, they would have been travelling in a caravan for protection.

Secondly, they were important enough that King Herod eventually requested a meeting with them. Their gifts express wealth or political connections and probably both. In fact, we read that Herod and all of Jerusalem was troubled by what they had to say about the new king (Matthew 2:3). In other words, Herod respected their opinion enough to be very concerned.

We know that thee magi did not arrive at the time of Jesus’ birth. Because the passage tells us that after they left, Herod ordered the murder of all the boys two years and younger at Bethlehem (Matthew 2:16-18). After talking with the Magi, Herod had a rough idea how old Jesus was and this would suggest that Jesus was a toddler at this stage, closer to two. In Matthew 2:11, we are told that the Magi visited Mary at a house, so Joseph and Mary had moved from where they kept animals into a home at this point. And confirming this, Luke who focused on Jesus’ birth until he was circumcised on the eighth day (Luke 2:21), does not mention the magi visit.

When the magi asked, “Where is the one born King of the Jews,” it tells us that these were gentiles, and we are also told they were from the East (Matthew 2:1-2). This has led many to suggest that they were from Persia, which was 1400 miles (ca. 2,253 km) away or Babylon 600 miles (ca. 966 km) away. In other words, it could have taken them months to make the journey to Judea after first seeing the star.

We also know they were closely studying the movements of stars and the appearance of a unique star led them to believe a new King had been born in Judea. They were astrologers and one star’s movement was of particular interest to them as it revealed something significant as the star led them to Christ (Matthew 2: 2, 9).

Well, the word Magi (Greek magos) used in the Book of Matthew was a term used to describe astrologers who worked for Persian kings. We derive our English word magic from this word.

In Daniel 2:2, we have a reference to the tradition of the astrologers in Babylon in Daniel’s day:

Then the king commanded that the magicians, the enchanters, the sorcerers, and the Chaldeans be summoned to tell the king his dreams. So they came in and stood before the king.

Daniel 2:2 ESV

In the ancient Septuagint, which is an early Greek translation of the Hebrew Old Testament, they used the Greek word “magos” for magician. These were a priestly class that worked with Babylonian and Persia kings. There were astrologers, soothsayers, sorcerers, seers and dream interpreters.

Wikipedia describes them this way:

Magi (/ˈmeɪdʒaɪ/; singular magus/ˈmeɪɡəs/; from Latinmagus) were priests in Zoroastrianism and the earlier religions of the western Iranians. The earliest known use of the word magi is in the trilingual inscription written by Darius the Great, known as the Behistun Inscription. Old Persian texts, predating the Hellenistic period, refer to a magus as a Zurvanic, and presumably Zoroastrian, priest.

Wikipedia

We see evidence of their dream interpretation in Matthew, when God spoke to them in a way they were accustomed to, a dream, warning them to avoid Herod on their return home, despite Herod having requested a second visit (Matthew 2:12).

So these men were astrologers, probably closer to sorcerers, as they used celestial events to provide supernatural insight for those they were advising.

In Acts 13, we have reference to another magi, (same Greek word magos), by the name of Bar-Jesus who was advising Sergius Paulus, a Roman proconsul on the island of Cyprus.

When they had gone through the whole island as far as Paphos, they came upon a certain magician, a Jewish false prophet named Bar-Jesus. He was with the proconsul, Sergius Paulus, a man of intelligence, who summoned Barnabas and Saul and sought to hear the word of God.

Acts 13:6-7 ESV

In this instance, the magician was trying to persuade Sergius from listening to Paul and Barnabas leading Paul to deal with the situation:

But Saul, who was also called Paul, filled with the Holy Spirit, looked intently at him 10 and said, “You son of the devil, you enemy of all righteousness, full of all deceit and villainy, will you not stop making crooked the straight paths of the Lord?

Acts 13:9-10 ESV

Notice how Paul called him a “son of the devil” and enemy of righteousness then cursed the magi with blindness.

So the story of the magi tells us how God pulled out men involved in the dark arts to come and worship Jesus (Matthew 2:11).

It revealed God’s total domination of the demonic realm when men who would be considered the leaders in the dark realm submitted themselves to Christ.

The fact the Bible refers to their expensive gifts as treasure (Matthew 2:11), speaks to another promise recorded in Isaiah:

I will give you the treasures of darkness
    and the hoards in secret places,
that you may know that it is I, the Lord,
    the God of Israel, who call you by your name.

Isaiah 45:3 ESV

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