Magi

MAGI (mā'jī, Gr. magoi). Originally a religious caste among the Persians. Their devotion to astrology, divination, and the interpretation of dreams led to an extension in the meaning of the word, and by the first century b.c. the terms “magi” and “Chaldean” were applied generally to fortune tellers and the exponents of esoteric religious cults throughout the Mediterranean world. Magus or “sorcerer” is the name given to Simon in Acts.8.9, to Bar-Jesus in Acts.13.6, and to Elymas in Acts.13.8. The “wise men from the East” in Matt.2.1-Matt.2.23 are often referred to as “the Magi.” Nothing is known of their land of origin, but it is a likely theory that they came from Arabia Felix (Southern Arabia). Astrology was practiced there, and a tradition of Israelite messianic expectation may have survived in the region since the days of the Queen of Sheba. Much early legend connects Southern Arabia with Solomon’s Israel. Ancient report, linked to later astrological study, may have prompted the famous journey. This, of course, can be no more than speculation. The legend of “the Three Kings” is late and medieval. The old Arabian caravan routes enter Palestine “from the East.” See also Wise Men.

According to the gospel of Matthew, magoi, guided by a mysterious star, came from the East to Bethlehem with gifts for the infant Jesus (2:1-12). The word magoi can mean either “wise men” or “magicians.” The only other use in the NT is Acts 13:6ff., where it clearly means “magician.” Whether Matthew also intended the word to be understood in this sense is not certain. Ignatius of Antioch did. Commenting on the appearance of the star, he says that from that time magic lost its power, since God had appeared in human form. At any rate, it is reasonable to infer that the evangelist looked upon the Magi as representatives of the Gentiles. Tradition has embellished the story in various ways. Origen stated there were three wise men, probably on account of their three gifts. In the sixth century they were named as Gaspar, Melchior, and Balthasar. The Adoration of the Magi soon became a popular subject in art. By the Middle Ages they were venerated as saints. What were claimed to be their relics were taken to Germany by Frederick Barbarossa in 1162 and are now enshrined in Cologne cathedral.

The Magi first appear in history by being identified as a tribe of the emerging Median nation in the 7th cent. b.c. Within this tribe there was a strong tradition which favored the exercise of sacerdotal and occult powers within the frame of their religious system, on the part of those who were capable of such activity.

Religion

The original religious system of the Magi, possibly of Scythian origin seems to have been based on philosophical concepts which they shared with some segments of the Hellenic world, namely, the primacy of the elements: fire, water, earth and air. Fire seems to have become the principal element of their worship, which was centered about an altar on which burned a perpetual flame which was believed to have been kindled from heaven. Blood sacrifices of domestic animals, including horses, were offered on a separate altar lit from the fire altar. Little of the victim was burned and the remainder was consumed by the worshiper and the priests. The meaningful element of the sacrifice was considered to be the life of the victim rather than its flesh.

The Magian priesthood dressed in white robes and wore tall, somewhat conical hats made of felt which had long side flaps covering their cheeks as far as the chin. They carried small bundles of divining rods known as barsoms with which they officiated at sacrifices; these rods also were utilized in divining and soothsaying by arranging them in various patterns on the ground while chanting their incantations.

They admitted of no personal gods and permitted no images. Temples, as far as is known, were of no monumental distinction and were apparently little more than shelters for the sacred fire. The priesthood believed in the destruction of certain unclean forms of life—reptiles and insects—and was equally concerned with maintaining the sanctity of the previously mentioned physical elements. In this latter activity the disposition of the bodies of the dead became a major problem which was solved in either of two different ways. The bodies could be exposed to birds of prey, or they could be interred, if first completely sealed in a covering of wax.

The absence of any compelling theology was remedied by the introduction of Zoroastrianism in the 6th cent., and its establishment as the state religion of Persia by Darius the Great. The Magi, anxious to maintain their religious and political favor, acceded to the royal decree, but did so without negating their original elemental philosophy or greatly altering their rituals.

At its best, the syncretistic Magian religion of Achaemenid days had much in common with the religion of the Jews. Each had its monotheistic concept of one beneficent creator, author of all good, who in turn was opposed by a malevolent evil spirit. Each had its hereditary priesthood which became the essential mediator between God and man by virtue of a blood sacrifice. Each depended on the wisdom of the priesthood in divination (the Urim and Thummim of the Levite was used in a way similar to that of the barsoms of the Magi) and to each was attributed considerable prophetic insight and authority. Their mutually-held concepts of clean and unclean forms of life and vegetation, and their positive attitude toward the four elements in material life as well as in religious symbolism are worthy of note.

History

The early Magian system was decreed to be the state religion of Media by Cyaxares, king of the Medes, late in the 6th cent. b.c., after some Magi who were considered to be expert in the interpretation of dreams had been attached to the Median court. It was in this dual capacity, whereby civil and political counsel was invested with religious authority, that the Magi became powerful figures in the empire.

Nergal-sharezer, the chief of the Magi in the court of Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon, is mentioned by name as one of the principal officials of the court (Jer 39:3, 13). Such prominence is not surprising when it is remembered that this was a coalition government of Chaldeans and Medes. Median, and consequently Magian, ambition was to be reckoned with again in the early Pers. empire.

Cyrus the Pers. had wrested the government from the old Median line of Cyaxares and Astyages and had established the supremacy of Persia over Media. At the same time he acknowledged the role of the Magi as the supreme priestly caste of the empire. While they waited their time, the Magian opportunity to re-assert Median supremacy came during the reign of Cambyses and Bardiya (Smerdis), sons of Cyrus. During the palace intrigue that culminated in the murder of Bardiya (and the suicide of Cambyses), the Magi were in sufficiently high position to implement a conspiracy of their own. One of their own number, Gaumata (pseudo Smerdis) by name, actually usurped the throne. Such usurpation was severely punished by Darius the Great, founder of the Achaemenid dynasty, who destroyed the immediate conspirators as well as the ambitious Gaumata himself. However severely these political aspirations were rebuked, the Magi were not deprived of their priestly status nor were they removed from their office of being diviners and advisers to the King. Xerxes, the son of Darius, is mentioned as having consulted the Magi when formulating his plans for the invasion of Greece.

With the Parthian revolt against the Seleucids in the mid-3rd cent. b.c. the Magi again appeared, being incorporated into the constitutional government of the empire. As the Medes (and the Magi) had been accorded considerable deference when absorbed into the Babylonian and Persian empires, so the Persians (and the Magi) were accorded considerable privilege by their less sophisticated Parthian overlords. Magian Zoroastrianism was reinstated as the state religion.

A constitutional council, known as the Megistanes, was instituted whose duty was to assist in the election (and, if need be, the deposition) of the monarch; and to serve as his advisers in governing the nation. The Magian hierarchy was accorded the senior position in this council. The upper house was composed of the hereditary priesthood of the Magi, while the lower house was composed of appointees who were collectively known as the Sophi (wise men).

Apparently the Parthians, though showing considerable respect for the Persians and the Magi, were never enthusiastic converts to Zoroastrianism. By the 3rd cent. a.d. they had largely reverted to their original idolatry and ancestor worship coupled with much of the popular religious syncretism of the day. The Magi, in turn, lost much of their influence except in Persia proper, where they still were accorded their traditional veneration. Some of their vassal kings may have themselves been Magi.

In their traditional way the Persians and the Magi waited and plotted. They overthrew the Parthian rule and reimposed the rule of native (Sassanian) Pers. monarchs. The Magi again were granted the highest religious and governmental powers. Zoroastrianism was reinstated as the state religion and this situation prevailed until the empire fell to Islam in the 7th cent. In ensuing years, Zoroastrian refugees, doubtless with Magi among them, migrated to India where their descendants are still to be found among the Parsees.

Biblical reference—OT

It is to be noted that Jeremiah, writing objectively from outside the court milieu, uses the appropriately untranslated term Rabmag when referring to the chief Magian. Daniel, on the other hand, writing from within, chose to make a distinction by tr. the Median proper noun into a Heb. common noun. His reason may have been twofold: The king, as a reward for services rendered, apparently appointed Daniel to the office of Master of the Magians i.e., the Rabmag. It is to be noted that the prefix Rab is found in the Heb. (Dan 4:9; 5:11). As pro-Median as Daniel may have been, he was nevertheless fiercely proud of his Jewish identity, and chose to describe the Magian office to which he had been appointed by official decree (rather than by hereditary right) with an appropriate Jewish term. Had he done otherwise, he would tacitly have identified himself as a Mede of Magian ancestry.

This could also have had serious repercussions in the ranks of the Magi themselves who doubtless would have resented the appropriation of their hereditary name by an appointee from outside their ranks. In his account Daniel evidently attempted to make it quite clear that he recognized the distinction.

It is noteworthy that when Daniel did become the intended victim of a plot fomented by jealousy (Dan 6), it was at the hands of regional governors (satraps) rather than the Magian dominated hierarchy of the court.

Biblical reference—Matthew 2

In identifying the Magi in this account of the birth of Christ (Matt 2:1, 7, 16), it is necessary to call attention to some significant historical background. Since the days of the prophet Daniel in the 6th cent. b.c. the fortunes of Persia and the Jewish nation had been closely intertwined. There is a strong probability that a Jewish-Median conspiracy had accomplished the fall of Babylon and gained for Cyrus the Pers. undisputed supremacy of the ancient world. Persian gratitude was magnanimous. With the exception of the interlude during the reign of Cambyses, the consistent Pers. policy toward the re-emerging Jewish nation was overwhelmingly supportive.

Both nations had in their turn fallen under Seleucid domination in the wake of Alexander’s conquests. Subsequently both had regained their independence—the Jews under Maccabean leadership, and Persians as the dominantly ruling group within the Parthian empire. It was at this time that the Magi, in their dual priestly and governmental office, composed the upper house of the council of the Megistanes whose duties included the absolute choice and election of the king of the realm. It was, therefore, a group of Persian-Parthian king makers who entered Jerusalem in the latter days of the reign of Herod.

Herod’s reaction was understandably one of fear when one considers the background of Roman-Parthian rivalry that prevailed during his lifetime. Pompey, first Rom. conqueror of Jerusalem in 63 b.c., had attacked the Armenian outpost of Parthia. In 55 b.c. Crassus led Rom. legions in sacking Jerusalem and in a subsequent attack on Parthia proper. The Romans were decisively defeated at the battle of Carrhae with the loss of 30,000 troops, including their commander. In retribution the Parthians counterattacked with a token invasion of Armenia, Syria, and Palestine. Nominal Rom. rule was re-established under Antipater, the father of Herod, who in his turn retreated before another Parthian invasion in 40 b.c. Mark Antony re-established Rom. sovereignty in 37 b.c., and like Crassus before him also embarked on a similarly ill-fated Parthian expedition. His disastrous retreat was followed by another wave of invading Parthians which swept all Rom. opposition completely out of Pal. (including Herod himself who fled to Alexandria and then to Rome). With Parthian collaboration Jewish sovereignty was restored and Jerusalem was fortified with a Jewish garrison.

Herod had by this time secured from Augustus Caesar the title of king of the Jews. However, it was not for three years, including a five months’ siege by Rom. troops, that the king was able to occupy his own capital city. Herod had thus gained the throne of a rebellious buffer state which was situated between two mighty contending empires. At any time his own subjects might again be instrumental as a fifth column in bringing the Parthians to their aid.

At the time of the birth of Christ (prob. c. 4 b.c.), Herod was certainly close to his last illness. Augustus was also aged; and Rome, since the retirement of Tiberius, was without any experienced military commander. Pro-Parthian Armenia was fomenting revolt against Rome (a revolt that was successfully accomplished within two years). The time was ripe for another Parthian invasion of the buffer provinces, except for the fact that Parthia itself was racked by internal dissension. Phraates IV, the unpopular and aging king, had once been deposed, and it was not improbable that the Pers. Magi were already involved in the political maneuvering requisite to choosing his successor. It is possible that the Magi might have taken advantage of the king’s lack of popularity to further their own interests with the establishment of a new dynasty which could have been implemented only if a sufficiently strong contender could be found. At this point in time it was entirely possible that the Messianic prophecies of the OT, culminating in the writings of Daniel, one of their own chief Magians, was of profound motivating significance. The promise of divinely-imposed world dominion at the hands of a Jewish monarch was more than acceptable to them. Their own Pers. and Medo-Pers. history was studded with Jewish nobles, ministers and counselors; and in the great Achaemenid days some of the kings themselves were apparently partly of Jewish blood.

In Jerusalem the sudden appearance of the Magi, prob. traveling in force with all imaginable oriental pomp, and accompanied by adequate cavalry escort to insure their safe penetration of Rom. territory, certainly alarmed Herod and the populace of Jerusalem, as is recorded by Matthew. It would seem as if these Magi were attempting to perpetrate a border incident which could bring swift reprisal from Parthian armies. Their request of Herod regarding him who “has been born king of the Jews” (Matt 2:2), was a calculated insult to him who had contrived and bribed his way into that office.

In the providence of God the Messianic prophecy of the kingdom was not then fulfilled; the Magi “being warned in a dream” (a type of communication most acceptable to them) “departed to their own country” (2:12), with empty hands. Within two years Phraataces, the parricide son of Phraates IV, was duly installed by the Magi as the new ruler of Parthia.

Biblical reference—Acts 13

In the western Hel. and Rom. world the name magus was used in general description of any juggler, magician or astrologer. Such implication may have been intended in Acts 13:6, 8. Some of these magi may have been of Median or Persian descent and may have laid claim to some degree of mystical authority. It also is possible that some of them were Jews descended from appointed Magi of Daniel’s day. Elymas could have been such a person. It is doubtful that the proconsul, being described as a “man of intelligence,” would have employed a total impostor. See Astronomy.

Bibliography

F. Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, The Jewish War (Havercamp tr., Whiston ed.) (1853); Herodotus, The History of Herodotus (Rawlinson tr.) (1858); G. Rawlinson, The Seven Great Monarchies of the Ancient World (second ed. 1870); A. Olmstead, History of the Persian Empire (1948); R. Frye, The Heritage of Persia (1963).

In Detail

ma’-ji, (Magoi (Mt 2:1,7,16, "Wise-men," the Revised Version (British and American) and the King James Version, "Magi" the Revised Version margin))

1. Originally a Median Tribe

Were originally a Median tribe (Herodotus i.101); and in Darius’ Inscriptions Magush means only a member of that tribe. It was one of them, Bardiya, who pretended to be Smerdis and raised the rebellion against Cambyses. Rabh Magh in Jer 39:3 does not mean "Chief Magus," but is in Assyrian Rab mugi (apparently "commander"; compare tab mugi sa narkabti, "commander of chariots"), having no connection with "Magus" (unless perhaps Magians were employed as charioteers, Media being famous for its Nisean steeds). The investment of the Magi with priestly functions, possibly under Cyrus (Xen. Cyrop. viii), but probably much later, was perhaps due to the fact that Zoroaster (Zarathustra) belonged, it is said, to that tribe. They guarded the sacred fire, recited hymns at dawn and offered sacrifices of haoma-juice, etc. Herodotus i.132) says they also buried the dead (perhaps temporary burial is meant as in Vendidad, Farg. viii). They were granted extensive estates in Media for their maintenance, and the athravans and other priests mentioned in the Avesta may have been of their number, though only once does the word "Magus" occur in the book (in the compound Moghu-thbish, "Magus-hater," Yasna, lxv.7, Geldner’s edition). The Magi even in Herodotus’ time had gained a reputation for "magic" articles (compare Ac 13:6,8). They also studied astrology and astronomy (rationes mundani motus et siderum (Amm. Marc., xxiii.6, 32)), partly learned from Babylon.

2. The Magi at Bethlehem

These latter studies explain why a star was used to lead them to Christ at Bethlehem, when our Lord was less than two years old (Mt 2:16). No reliable tradition deals with the country whence these particular magi came. Justin Martyr, Tertullian and Epiphanius fancied that they came from Arabia, founding their opinion on the fact that "gold, frankincense and myrrh" abounded in Yemen. But the text says they came not from the South but from the East. Origen held that they came from Chaldea, which is possible. But Clement of Alexandria, Diodorus of Tarsus, Chrysostom, Cyril of Alexandria, Juvencus, Prudentius and others are probably right in bringing them from Persia. Sargon’s settlement of Israelites in Media (circa 730-728 BC (2Ki 17:6)) accounts for the large Hebrew element of thought which Darmesteter recognizes in the Avesta (SBE, IV, Intro, chapter vi). Median astronomers would thus know Balaam’s prophecy of the star out of Jacob (Nu 24:17). That the Jews expected a star as a sign of the birth of the Messiah is clear from the tractate Zohar of the Gemara and also from the title "Son of the Star" (Bar Kokhebha) given to a pseudo-Messiah.

(130-35 AD). Tacitus (Hist. v.13) and Suetonius (Vesp. iv) tell us how widespread in the East at the time of Christ’s coming was the expectation that "at that time men starting from Judea would make themselves masters of things" (compare Virgil, Ecl. iv). All this would naturally prepare the Magi to follow the star when it appeared.

See also ASTROLOGY; ASTRONOMY; DIVINATION; MAGIC; WISE MEN; ZOROASTRIANISM.

LITERATURE

Herodotus; Xenophon; Amm. Marcellinus; Strabo; Spiegel, Altpersische Keilinschriften; Geldner, Avesta; Muss-Arnolt, Assyrian Dict.; BDB; RE.