(The Dialog) — Christmas Nativity scenes around the globe function a well-recognized solid of characters: Jesus, Mary, Joseph, an angel or two, some barnyard animals, shepherds and, in fact, the three clever males led by a star.
Inside the New Testomony, the story of the clever males is discovered solely within the Gospel of Matthew. It spans 12 short verses, and is easier than most readers doubtless keep in mind. The clever males arrive in Jerusalem from an unnamed location “within the East,” led by a star and in quest of a brand new king. They make their strategy to Bethlehem, the place they bow earlier than Jesus and supply presents of gold, frankincense and myrrh. Then, they return dwelling by a special route.
The small print on this story are slim, and so it raises extra questions than it solutions. The place have been the clever males truly from? Why have been they involved in Jesus? And, above all, who have been they?
I’m a scholar of early Christian literature who has spent years researching and writing about the wise men. I preserve that their identification in Matthew’s Gospel is in the end extra mysterious and extra advanced than what conventional Christmas tales recommend. One of many keys to understanding them lies in what Matthew calls them: “magi.”
What’s in a reputation?
“Magi” is a Greek phrase that’s troublesome to translate. Some variations of the New Testomony render it as “wise men” and others say “astrologers.” However neither of those captures the total sense of the time period.
“Magi” is the place the English phrase “magic” derives from, and simply as magic can have each constructive and detrimental connotations at the moment, so too did magi have a variety of meanings and makes use of within the historic world. Some historic authors converse positively of people they describe as magi, whereas others think about the label to be extra of an insult.
Simon is a performer who amazes crowds together with his capability to do magic, and he angers Jesus’ apostles by providing them cash in alternate for a few of their powers. Elymas is an adviser to a authorities official on the island of Cyprus, and he’s known as a “false prophet.” He’s struck blind for making an attempt to intervene with the apostle Paul’s makes an attempt to convert the official to Christianity.
On the subject of each of those characters, the label “magi” is supposed negatively. It was supposed to recommend to readers that they’re sinister charlatans, and to not be trusted.
In different historic literature, nonetheless, magi are sought-after specialists who possess invaluable expertise like divination. In the Greek translation of the Book of Daniel, the king of Babylon summons magi to his courtroom and asks them to decipher the main points of a wierd dream.
The Greek historian Herodotus tells a similar story during which the Median king Astyages asks magi a few dream that includes his daughter, and so they foretell the delivery of the Persian king Cyrus the Nice. The Jewish thinker Philo of Alexandria likewise speaks of magi as individuals with the particular capability to grasp mysterious visions.
Many historic authors who converse of individuals as magi additionally continuously accomplish that within the context of faith and ritual. One of many extra well-known situations of this can be a instructor named Zoroaster, from whom Zoroastrianism takes its identify.
The Greek biographer Diogenes Laertius says that Zoroaster was actually the first of all the magi. He also writes that magi lived easy, ascetic lives characterised by restricted comforts, and that they’d a repute for worshiping their gods by way of sacrifice.
The Greek biographer Plutarch speaks similarly of Zoroaster as a magi who taught a type of non secular dualism, good versus evil.
The identification of Matthew’s magi
Who, then, are the magi who go to Jesus within the Gospel of Matthew? The reply, it seems, is sophisticated. Matthew doesn’t inform his readers precisely what he means when he refers to his guests on this manner, and so it’s as much as them to determine it out.
Biblical students often argue that Matthew supposed for the magi in his Gospel to be understood as gentiles or non-Jews who come to Bethlehem to worship Jesus. They surmise that this story is supposed to foreshadow the truth that Christianity would ultimately turn into a gentile spiritual motion as an alternative of a Jewish one.
The argument that the magi are supposed to be understood as gentiles relies partially on the truth that they arrive to Jerusalem and Bethlehem “from the East,” which might recommend that they’re “outsiders.” However in gentle of how magi are spoken of in different historic literature, this understanding is simply too easy. Had Matthew supposed to say that gentiles got here to Bethlehem, he would have executed so with out utilizing a loaded phrase like magi.
As a result of Matthew doesn’t hassle to say precisely who these guests have been alleged to be, the magi have fascinated readers and saved them guessing for almost 2,000 years.
Given the advanced nature of the phrase magi within the historic world, one has to surprise if Matthew selected this phrase exactly to encourage a way of thriller in his readers, and to maintain them questioning about who the magi truly have been.
If that is so, then I’d argue that he actually achieved that aim many occasions over.
(Eric Vanden Eykel is an affiliate professor of spiritual research at Ferrum School. The views expressed on this commentary don’t essentially replicate these of Faith Information Service.)