Magi

The story of the wisemen coming from the East to visit the young Christ occurs in only one of the Christian gospels and is considered by many to be a late inclusion to the story of Christ, but it is a curious account for other reasons as well.

Consider that the word ‘wisemen’ is a translation of the Greek word μάγοι, which is sometimes better translated as ‘magi’.  This word was derived from Old Persian and refers primarily to the priests of Zoroastrianism, who were widely known for their knowledge of astrology, but it can also be used more broadly in reference to wisemen, interpreters of dreams, sorcerers, and magicians, and it is used elsewhere in the Christian scriptures to describe Elymas the Sorcerer and Simon Magus.  In other words, despite many attempts to identify these magi as Jewish priests from Babylon or Persia or Yemen, this was almost certainly not the case, as is further evidenced by the fact that they needed to consult with the priests in Herod’s palace about the Jewish scriptures to learn where the Messiah was to be be born.  This is not to say necessarily that the magi were entirely unfamiliar with Jewish faith and scriptures, since substantial Jewish populations had been taken captive into Babylon and Persia in earlier times, and since there were Jewish communities in many of the major cities to the East, but it is to note that these men were almost certainly from quite another land and quite another race and quite another faith entirely.

How strange is it, then, that the gospel of Matthew would record the magi as coming to offer gifts to the child Messiah?  How strange is it that men who were regarded as sorcerers and magicians and astrologers, all of whom were forbidden by Jewish scriptures, were accorded such a prominent role in the story of Christ’s birth?  Whether or not we regard the account as corresponding to some historical event, is this not a strange story to be telling about the one whom you believe to be the Messiah?

I have no good answers here, but perhaps it should make us see the magi a little differently when next we see them standing in somebody’s creche.

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2 comments
  1. Curtis said:

    We have a few misconceptions when it comes to magic versus sorcery- sorcery is the practice of any form of magic and spiritual diplomacy for the cursing or retention of power, while magic, can be simple herbology, astrology, and priestly activities like healing, group catering, and oration or cantoring. Pharmiceiae is actually a temple practice where, well the roots we use today are obvious, they are loosely associated with magic, as the symbol for healing is Aeslepsos’ Rod.

    As for the apprehension regarding magic historically, you can see a stark opposition in Scandanavian Culture, where they fear Finnish ‘Sorcerers’ and kill the inhabitants of Lindisfarne as a strategic attempt to eliminate the ‘magicians’ of Christendom, cutting them off from their God, as the classical association would be understood by the pagan- Priests= Magicians= clear power from communicating with gods.

    The real problem when it comes to Magic, is that in fearing the negative kind, Rome made all non-temple ‘magical’ practice illegal- esp. to curse. unsanctioned freelancers were forbidden to practice anything other than selling lead tablets to hurt a champion in the arena, an odd way to make sports bets indeed, to us.

    The real barrier is in the Enlightenment, people who restricted their categories to the absurd and were very little known for paying real studying attention to their surroundings, leading them to accuse hermits and herbologists, nature livers, and druids of witchcraft for being able to make untcions,pastes, salves, infusions that actually helped people, where prayer by the church did not result in the wellness their pharmicology did. They were surrounded by vermine and cate etc in order to test these materials safely before applying them to people- it is this reason that these secretive people with their collection of rodents have made their association ‘putrid’ or ‘decrepit’.

    But fear of magic is much less Christian or Jewish than it is Roman and folk barbaric. We see that Daniel and Joseph are in a class of ‘magician’ contemporaries, the prophets by the power of God do ‘magical things’, the very root of Gospel denotes the magic of a ‘good spell’. And when Paul tells us we can now go into the temple of idols to eat their meat, he is also implying we can accept their medicines as well.

    Sorry about the length, I know you’ve mentioned this before.

  2. Jordan Vetro said:

    I actually have a bit of an idea in my head that they could really have been Zoroastrian. I can’t recall the story perfectly at the moment but I believe the story goes with Zoroastrians that God spoke to Zarathustra long ago to tell him that there would be 3 Messiahs coming which would end the battle between God and the Anti-God as it were. Naturally Zoroastrians don’t see Jesus as any fulfillment of whatever that prophesy was, but I’ve always like the thought that the Magi fulfill that old story. It knits history together nicely and gives me something to think about in the way of God’s revelations to non-Jewish cultures before Chist. They’re just thoughts, but I remember being quite excited when I put them together, and still share them as often as I can find a place to do so.

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