Who Were the Magi?

The Gospel of Matthew says, After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east arrived in Jerusalem (Mat 2:1). Matthew uses the Greek term μάγοι, (magoi) and notes simply that they came from the east.

Exactly what “Magi” are is debated. The Greeks of antiquity (ca. 450 B.C.) used the term to refer to a priestly class of men among the Medes and later the Persians, but in later centuries it was used in a wider sense; it came to be applied to men skilled in hidden knowledge and magic. By 200 B.C., its meaning would include men skilled in astronomy and those given to visons and the interpretation of dreams. This expanded definition continued into New Testament times.

What is interesting is that Matthew presents these Magi as men of great dignity while other references to magi in the New Testament are generally negative. For example, in the Acts the Apostles there is a man named Simon, a man described as μαγεύων (mageoun), practicing magic:

But there was a man named Simon, who had previously practiced magic in the city and amazed the people of Samaria, saying that he himself was somebody great. They all paid attention to him, from the least to the greatest, saying, “This man is the power of God that is called Great.” And they paid attention to him because for a long time he had amazed them with his magic. But when they believed Philip as he preached good news about the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ, they were baptized, both men and women. Even Simon himself believed, and after being baptized he continued with Philip. And seeing signs and great miracles performed, he was amazed.

Now when the apostles at Jerusalem heard that Samaria had received the word of God, they sent to them Peter and John, who came down and prayed for them that they might receive the Holy Spirit, for he had not yet fallen on any of them, but they had only been baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. Then they laid their hands on them and they received the Holy Spirit. Now when Simon saw that the Spirit was given through the laying on of the apostles’ hands, he offered them money, saying, “Give me this power also, so that anyone on whom I lay my hands may receive the Holy Spirit.” But Peter said to him, “May your silver perish with you, because you thought you could obtain the gift of God with money! You have neither part nor lot in this matter, for your heart is not right before God. Repent, therefore, of this wickedness of yours, and pray to the Lord that, if possible, the intent of your heart may be forgiven you. For I see that you are in the gall of bitterness and in the bond of iniquity.” And Simon answered, “Pray for me to the Lord, that nothing of what you have said may come upon me” (Acts 8: 9-24).

Thus, Simon, a magos and therefore likely among the magoi (or magi), while presented in a sympathetic light, is in need of conversion precisely because of his past as a magician or magos.

The Didache also says, you shall not practice magic (μαγεύσεις (mageuseis)) (Didache 2.2).

Thus, in the time of the New Testament, being among the magoi was generally not considered a good thing at all. Matthew’s description of the Magi is a significant exception. He presents them as noble, wise, and persistent in their pursuit of the truth. They are morally upstanding in the face of Herod and more zealous than the Jewish scribes whom they consult. In the end, they worship Christ and offer him fitting sacrifices, whereas Jesus’ own people did not even offer Him a room in the inn. The situation drips with irony.

Given that the Magi are following a star, in using that term, Matthew likely has in mind their role as astronomers. He may not have intended significant references to magic, dream interpretation, or fortune-telling.

So, it is likely that they are wise men, ancient astronomers in particular.

We often think of the Magi as Kings, although the text does not call them that. This mischaracterization may be a result of conflating two Old Testament texts that are read at Epiphany:

The kings of Arabia and Seba shall bring tribute.
All kings shall pay him homage,
all nations shall serve him
(Psalm 72:10-11).

The wealth of nations shall be brought to you.
Caravans of camels shall fill you,
dromedaries from Midian and Ephah;
all from Sheba shall come
bearing gold and frankincense,
and proclaiming the praises of the LORD
(Is 60:5-6).

For the record, the text in today’s Gospel does not call them kings, but Magi. And although they offer gold and frankincense, they do so in fulfillment of Isaiah 60 as Magoi not as kings.

St. Thomas, in his Summa Theologica, sidesteps these questions about the exact identity of the magi and instead emphasizes their role. He writes,

The Magi are the “first-fruits of the Gentiles” that believed in Christ; because their faith was a presage of the faith and devotion of the nations who were to come to Christ from afar. And therefore … the Magi, inspired by the Holy Ghost, did wisely in paying homage to Christ (Summa Theologiae, III, Q 36, art 8).

So, their key identity is that they are Gentiles and have been called. Up to this point in the Christmas story, Jesus was manifest only to Jews in Bethlehem—but now the Gentiles come. This detail cannot be overlooked; it is clear that the gospel will be going out to all the world. St. Paul rejoices in this fact when he speaks of

the mystery made known to me by revelation.
It was not made known to people in other generations
as it has now been revealed
to his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit:
that the Gentiles are coheirs, members of the same body,
and copartners in the promise in Christ Jesus through the
gospel (Ephesians 3:4-6).

Rejoice, fellow Christians, especially if you are of Gentile origin. The truest identity of the Magi is you. You are among the magi who seek him. Yes, wise men still seek the Lord.

2 Replies to “Who Were the Magi?”

  1. Some other things to consider, and ponder. Magi from the East could only have come from one place that could afford astronomers — the Parthian Empire. The Parthian Empire arose from the ashes of the Babylonian Empire. It was also an enemy of the Roman Empire, with frequent border skirmishes. In addition to an emperor-king, the Parthians were ruled by the Parthian Megistanes, a class of powerful politicians and scholars who were also known as “kingmakers”. The Emperor could not become emperor without the approval of the Megistanes.

    As scholars, they would have been well-versed in astrology, which at the time was not used to predict the future. Instead, events in the sky reflected events on earth. The rising of a particular star would not have foretold the birth of Jesus, it would have been the announcement that the new king was being born, or would be born soon.

    Because of their power and wealth, they would not have traveled light. Based on historical writings, it would not be unthinkable for the Magi to be accompanied by between 10,000 and 20,000 soldiers for protection.

    So look at it from Herod’s point of view. Without warning, an army of over 10,000 soldiers invade from Parthia and come to his doorstep. The army is there to escort and protect a contingent of people whose authority to proclaim kings is recognized throughout the region. They’re not here to cause trouble; they’re here because the stars have announced the birth of a new king in Israel. Not something Herod wants to hear.

    What’s more: these Parthian Megistanes would have arisen from the class of court astrologers used by the Babylonians, **of which Daniel was one.** Thanks to Daniel’s influence, these Magi would have been well versed in Hebrew prophesy and may have been looking for just such a sign in the stars. Daniel himself would have amassed great wealth, but since he had no children, it’s possible he instructed his fellow astrologers to keep his inheritance safe and to give it to the new King when he is born.

    Just something to think about…

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