Who Were The Magi?

    Two of my grandsons were wisemen in the Christmas program at their church. They are a year apart and are like two mischievous raccoons. More like wise guys than wisemen at this stage of their life, and I love them to the moon and back as the saying goes.


    Also dearly loved, one of my granddaughters asked me what my favorite part of the Christmas story was besides Jesus. I told her at that moment it was the story of the wisemen. I like a good mystery, and the real wisemen are certainly mysterious.


    We do not know who they were, or do we? We do not know how they heard about the prophecies of Jesus, or do we? We do not know where they were from, or do we?


    The truth is, the Bible tells us more about them than you might think. But first, rid your mind of all the details of the song written about them and the figurines of them in the nativity. Let's take a closer look at the clues the Bible gives about these men.


    Who were the magi?

    Anton-Hermann Chroust in his article "Aristotle And The Philosophies Of The East" quotes Aristotle as saying the magi are older than the Egyptians. Some ancient historians say they began as a tribe of Medes who served as a priestly sect. But the first mention of magi written in stone was made by King Darius on the Behistun Inscription in 520BC.


    The word magi is derived from the language of the Medes and the Persians. It is a class of men designated as magicians, priests, astrologers, scientists, mathematicians and sorcerers. They used fire as part of their religious duties, always keeping a flame lit. One is called a magus. Two or more are called magi. They were the most educated men of their day.


    There may be a distinction between Babylonian magi and Persian magi, however, one being more inclined toward mathematics, astrology and astonomy than fire keeping. Philo spoke of an Eastern school of magi in his work Every Good Man Is Free.


    Among the Persians there is the order of the Magi, who silently make research into the facts of nature to gain knowledge of the truth and through visions clearer than speech, give and receive the revelations of divine excellency. (74)


     Magi were responsible for the state religion in Persia and accompanied the king on his expeditions. In Jeremiah 39:3 Nergal-sharezer's title Rabmag is a Babylonian word for a magus. This man was considered a government official. Magi were present in royal courts throughout the Empire. See Esther 1:13.  Cyrus was well acquainted with them too.


    Why need I bring forth from Dinon's Persian annals the dreams of that famous prince, Cyrus, and their interpretations by the magi? But take this instance: Once upon a time Cyrus dreamed that the sun was at his feet. Three times, so Dinon writes, he vainly tried to grasp it and each time it turned away, escaped him, and finally disappeared. He was told by the magi, who are classed as wise and learned men among the Persians, that his grasping for the sun three times portended that he would reign for thirty years. And thus it happened; for he lived to his seventieth year, having begun to reign at forty. 


    Even after Alexander the Great conquered Persia, the magi continued their roles. By Jesus' day they were still thought of as wise men, and that is how our Bibles translate the word magos in Matthew 2. But they were not usually spoken of well in the Bible. They were pagan priests. Pharaoh had his magicians. Nebuchadnezzar had his. In Acts 13 Sergius Paulus had his. Elymus is described as a sorcerer, a magos, and Paul called him a child of the devil. Elymus ended up blind. But the wisemen of Matthew 2 were anything but blind. They were among the few paying attention to the times and the prophecies. 


    Magi were also kingmakers. The ancient writer Strabo says the magi "appointed kings."  As they were the most educated, it  made them good candidates as advisors and tutors to the royals.The Parthian Empire existed at the time of Jesus. Some consider it to be the second Persian Empire. The magi were active and still influential during this time.


    This means they were important men. Respected and feared by others. Add that the Parthian Empire was a rival of Rome and you understand why Herod did not harass them. Herod had already fought against the Parthians, but he was superstitious. He knew the magi's reputation, and he took their word as fact. But despite the pictures, even the one with this post, there were more than three men because they would have traveled in a caravan like the royal officials they were. Were there more than three magi? Or less? We cannot answer that for sure, but the magi did not travel alone.


    Where were the magi from?

    The magi were most likely Persian and most likely traveled to Jerusalem from Iran which is east of Israel. But is possible they came from Iraq. The Bible says they came from the east so this seems to eliminate the northern or southern regions of the Parthian Empire. The connection between the kings of Babylon and Persia to the prophet Daniel also seem to indicate these regions.

    As a side note, even Saddam Hussein recognized the connection between the maji and Persia which is modern day Iran.  In the 1980s during the Iran-Iraq war,  Hussein called Iranians majus. It was not a compliment. He was implying they were not true to Islam but to the religion of the magi.


    Also, some suggest the magi who visited Jesus were of Jewish descent, and they could have lived nearby as there were Jewish magi in Samaria and Judea. (Acts 8:9 for example) It is possible for a Jewish magi to be in Iran or Iraq since Daniel and his friends certainly were. But Matthew is firm in his description that these magi came to Jerusalem from the East and not the east side or somewhere local.


    How did the magi know about a "king of the Jews?"

    In Daniel 2:13 we discover that Daniel and his friends are part of a group called charṭôm in Hebrew, magicians in English. "And the decree went forth that the wise men should be slain; and they sought Daniel and his fellows to be slain." This is the group designated as magi by Cyrus and Darius. Daniel was worshipped by Nebuchadnezzar (Daniel 2:46-48) and promoted to the head of the wisemen. Belshazzar made him the third most important man in the Babylonian government. Darius desired to make Daniel rule over presidents and princes so that they would have to answer to him. This stirred persecution against Daniel by said presidents and princes. After surviving the den of lions, Darius decreed Daniel's God was to be feared and honored.


    I make a decree, That in every dominion of my kingdom men tremble and fear before the God of Daniel: for he is the living God, and stedfast for ever, and his kingdom that which shall not be destroyed, and his dominion shall be even unto the end.He delivereth and rescueth, and he worketh signs and wonders in heaven and in earth, who hath delivered Daniel from the power of the lions. Daniel 6:26- 27 


    Daniel became a very important and influential man under Darius and then Cyrus. How might this influence have shaped the magi's studies? They might have respected all of Daniel's prophecies and studied them along with other Hebrew writings. Daniel was legendary among this group. Daniel 9:25-26 speaks of the arrival of the Messiah. Remember the magi also studied astronomy and were called astrologers. When they saw something they understood as a sign of Daniel's Messiah/Ruler, they took time to study it. But something may have been missing in their knowledge:  Micah's prophecy of where the Messiah would be born. 


    So we've answered some of the questions about the magi. But there is more we can learn from the wisemen who visited Jesus.


    • They took God's word as truth and studied it.
    • They acted on His word.
    • They received His instruction and obeyed it.


    Read their story again with these points in mind. Those are life lessons we as Christians should implement every day. The magi were thought of as pagans, but there they were, the first seekers of Jesus, the first Gentiles we know of bowing at His feet.


    There is so much more to say and learn about these men and their gifts...


    But let's end this post with this. This Christmas let's all agree with Darius' decree: God is the living God. He delivers and rescues and works signs and wonders in heaven and in earth. He is steadfast forever, and His kingdom and His dominion shall be forever. 


    Merry Christmas Blessings to All!


    Image by Vicki Hamilton from Pixabay


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