630. The Magi

 •  5 min. read  •  grade level: 11
Matthew 2:11Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, there came wise men from the east to Jerusalem, (Matthew 2:1). Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, there came wise men from the East to Jerusalem.
These “wise men,” or, more properly, magi, (υάγοι,) belonged to a numerous and influential order of men. The origin of Magism is involved in obscurity. It is thought to have had its beginning among either the Chaldeans or the Assyrians; more probably among the former. Starting in Chaldea, it would naturally make its way to Assyria, Media, and the adjoining countries. From Media it was brought into Persia, where it exerted a powerful influence in modifying the ancient religious faith of the people. Some profess to trace the Magian doctrines to Abraham, who, it is said, if he did not originate them, at least purified them from the errors of Zabaism. See note on Deuteronomy 4:1919And lest thou lift up thine eyes unto heaven, and when thou seest the sun, and the moon, and the stars, even all the host of heaven, shouldest be driven to worship them, and serve them, which the Lord thy God hath divided unto all nations under the whole heaven. (Deuteronomy 4:19) (#189). After Abraham’s time they became corrupted, and were again purified by Zoroaster, who is supposed to have been a descendant of the prophet Daniel.
In Daniel’s time the Magi were very prominent in Babylon. In Daniel 2:22Then the king commanded to call the magicians, and the astrologers, and the sorcerers, and the Chaldeans, for to show the king his dreams. So they came and stood before the king. (Daniel 2:2), “magicians,” “astrologers,” “sorcerers,” and “Chaldeans” are mentioned; while in the twenty-seventh verse of the same chapter “soothsayers” are named. These are represented by five different words in the original, and some writers think that five distinct classes of Magi are here referred to. It is difficult, however, at this late day to specify the difference between them, though the attempt has Sometimes been made.
It has been supposed from Daniel 5:1111There is a man in thy kingdom, in whom is the spirit of the holy gods; and in the days of thy father light and understanding and wisdom, like the wisdom of the gods, was found in him; whom the king Nebuchadnezzar thy father, the king, I say, thy father, made master of the magicians, astrologers, Chaldeans, and soothsayers; (Daniel 5:11), compared with 2:48, and 4:9, that Daniel himself was made a member of the Magian order, and its chief; but the expressions there used may only mean that the king regarded him as superior to all the magicians in his dominion, and as having authority over them. In any case, we cannot believe that Daniel embraced any theological notions of the Magi which were in opposition to Hebrew orthodoxy.
An account of the worship practiced by the Magi of Media will give us some idea of the peculiarities of the order. Rawlinson says: “Magism was essentially the worship of the elements, the recognition of fire, air, earth, and water as the only proper objects of human reverence. The Magi held no personal gods, and, therefore, naturally rejected temples, shrines, and images, as tending to encourage the notion that gods existed of a like nature with man; that is, possessing personality—living and intelligent beings. Theirs was a nature worship, but a nature worship of a very peculiar kind. They did not place gods over the different parts of nature, like the Greeks; they did not even personify the powers of nature, like the Hindus; they paid their devotion to the actual material things themselves. Fire, as the most subtle and ethereal principle, and again as the most powerful agent, attracted their highest regards; and on their fire-altars the sacred flame, generally said to have been kindled from heaven, was kept burning uninterrupted from year to year and from age to age by bands of priests, whose special duty it was to see that the sacred spark was never extinguished” (Five Ancient Monarchies, vol. 2, p. 346).
The Magians were a priestly caste, and the office is supposed to have been hereditary. They uttered prophecies, explained omens, interpreted dreams, and practiced rhabdomancy or divination by rods. See note on Hosea 4:1212My people ask counsel at their stocks, and their staff declareth unto them: for the spirit of whoredoms hath caused them to err, and they have gone a whoring from under their God. (Hosea 4:12) (#597). Their notion of the peculiar sanctity of the so-called elements led to a singular mode of disposing of the bodies of the dead. See note on Psalm 79:22The dead bodies of thy servants have they given to be meat unto the fowls of the heaven, the flesh of thy saints unto the beasts of the earth. (Psalm 79:2) (#443).
In Persia they became a powerful body under the guide of Zoroaster, and were divided into three classes: Herbeds, or disciples; Mobeds, or masters; and Destur-mobeds, or perfect masters. After a time the term Magi became more extended in its meaning. As the Magi were men of learning, devoting special attention to astronomy and the natural sciences, it happened that, after the lapse of years, men who became celebrated for learning were called Magi, whether belonging to the priestly order or not. So, as the Magi joined to the pursuits of science the arts of the soothsayer, in process of time mere conjurors who had no scientific knowledge were called Magi. Simon Magus (Acts 8:99But there was a certain man, called Simon, which beforetime in the same city used sorcery, and bewitched the people of Samaria, giving out that himself was some great one: (Acts 8:9)) and Bar-Jesus or Elymas (Acts 13:6,86And when they had gone through the isle unto Paphos, they found a certain sorcerer, a false prophet, a Jew, whose name was Bar-jesus: (Acts 13:6)
8But Elymas the sorcerer (for so is his name by interpretation) withstood them, seeking to turn away the deputy from the faith. (Acts 13:8)
) were men of this sort.
The Magi who came to visit the infant Saviour were no doubt of the better class. The idea, however, that they were kings and three in number is mere imagination, and unsusceptible of proof. They were evidently skilled in astronomical knowledge, and were earnest seekers after the newborn king. Where they came from is a disputed question. Various writers have suggested that they were Babylonians, Arabians, Persians, Bactrians, Parthians, or even Brahmins from India. Matthew says they were from “the East,” which was a geographical term of very elastic meaning.
One of the best dissertations on this subject is a monograph by Dr. Upham,1 who claims a Persian nationality for these Magi. His opinion is indorsed by some of the best recent biblical critics.
1. The Wise Men: Who They Were and How They Came to Jerusalem. By Francis W. Upham, L.L.D. New York, 1878.