Daniel, Chief of Wise Men – Was Daniel a Hebrew Magi?
Magi from the East, known by a name that is the root word for “magic, seems at complete odds with a Jewish setting in a Christian story about Jesus of Nazareth. Behind the curtains, was there a connection to these Magi through Daniel?
King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon had wiped out Jerusalem, raided the Temple, and ended the House of David’s succession of sitting kings. Treasures taken as spoils of war included Hebrew people with particular qualities.
One such selected captive was named Daniel who, along with three other Hebrew captivities, was chosen to be educated for three years in the exclusive Babylonian school of Chaldeans in preparation for service to the King. They would become part of an eclectic group of royal wise men that included “the magicians, the astrologers, the sorcerers, and the Chaldeans” known as the chakkiym.”
Two Aramaic words exclusive in the Bible and found only in the first five chapters of the Book of Daniel are key to defining the four Hebrews, kisday and chakkiym. Aramaic kisday has the same meaning as the Hebrew Kisdiy – the “Clod-breakers.” Chakkiym literally means “wise men” or simply “wise.”
One day Nebuchadnezzar challenged the chakkiym to interpret his dream. Gladly, they agreed once Nebuchadnezzar revealed his dream. The king was suspicious of their dubious abilities – if they truly had mystical powers, then they should be able to know his dream and its interpretation. Nebuchadnezzar commanded that failure would result in their dismemberment and destruction of their homes.
Realizing they were backed into a corner, these royal wise men informed the King that his request was impossible because no one could do what he was asking. In a fit of rage, Nebuchadnezzar ordered all the chakkiym in the kingdom to be executed.
All this was unknown to Daniel until Arioch, captain of the King’s guard, came to arrest and execute Daniel as one of the kingdom’s chakkiym. Daniel asked Arioch for details, then convinced Arioch to allow him to approach the King. A day’s reprieve was granted by Nebuchadnezzar and that night Daniel and his friends prayed for the revelation.
Daniel approached King Nebuchadnezzar the next day saying, “The secret which the king has demanded, the wise men , the astrologers, the magicians, and the soothsayers cannot declare to the king. But there is a God in heaven who reveals secrets…”
God gave “Daniel understanding in all visions and dreams” and in answer to his prayers, Daniel revealed the King’s dream and its interpretation. Nebuchadnezzar was completely humbled bowing down to Daniel, rewarding him with riches and making him head of all the kingdom’s chakkiym. In Jeremiah, the chief position of the wise men was called a Rab-mag.
Handwriting on the wall in Belshazzar’s palace was the last time chakkiym appears in the Bible. At the urging of Belshazzar’s wife, Daniel was summoned to interpret the message which said the Medes and Persians would overthrow the Babylonian kingdom – it happened that very night.
Daniel’s supernatural abilities of interpreting visions and prophecies valued by kings continued under Cyrus and Darius. Chaldean wise men’s mystical abilities meshed well with the mystic aptitudes of the Magi.
Authors and teachers of the Hellenistic age produced many writings by noted Greek historians and philosophers giving additional insights to these mysterious wise men. Accounts about the Chaldeans and the Magi reveal striking similarities.
Herodotus (c. 484-420) identified the Magi as one of the six Median tribes who had the ability to interpret dreams. Two of his stories demonstrate the considerable political influences of the Magi.
Median King Astyages, who reigned during the same years of the Babylonian Empire, consulted Magi to interpret dreams about his daughter. Their interpretation said the King’s newborn grandson would rise to rule the kingdom. Alarmed, Astyages tried to thwart this fate by commanding his grandson to be secretly killed…but he didn’t want to know any of the details.
Years later in a strange coincidence of events, the boy was surprisingly discovered to be alive by Astyages who then proudly named his grandson Cyrus. At the urging of his Magi advisors, the King sent the young Cyrus away to be raised by his father, Cambyses, in Persia. The fascinating story ends when the Persian Cyrus rose up to overthrow his Median grandfather, but not before Astyages had the Magi impaled who had advised him to send away his grandson to Persia.
Pythagoras (c. 570-499 BC), who wanted to learn their ways, “journeyed among the Chaldaeans and Magi,” a period before Cyrus took Babylon. Democritus (c. 460-370 BC) “was a pupil of certain Magians and Chaldaeans” from whom “he learned theology and astronomy.”
Xenophon (c. 430-350 BC) wrote that under Cyrus, “…the first time the college of magi was instituted…” and that the influences of the Magi “continued in force with each successive king even to this day.” Cyrus is quoted, “set apart for the gods whatever the magi direct, as they interpret the will of the gods.”
Cicero (106-43 BC), famed Roman orator and lawyer, referenced “Dinon’s Persian annals the dreams of that famous prince, Cyrus, and their interpretations by the magi…who are classed as wise and learned men among the Persians…”
Daniel, the Hebrew wise man of Babylon, was assigned by Darius as one of three top government positions over the satraps – province governors and chiefs. His two Median-Persian counterparts conspired to have Daniel eliminated, pretext for the famous story, Daniel in the Lion’s Den. Unscathed, Daniel survived; his two rivals met the terrifying fate intended for Daniel.
In another account about Magi, Herodotus wrote of a pair of Magi who attempted a silent coup of the kingdom through trickery of an imposter king who was a Magus. After 7 months, the Magus imposter was eventually discovered by seven men including Darius who ended up being the one who killed the Magus. The assignation inciting the “massacre of the Magi.” Darius was chosen among the seven to become King.
Magians, according to Diogenes (412-320 BC), came from a long line of succession from Zoroaster “down to the conquest of Persia by Alexander.” Making reference to historian Clitarchus, he said, “the Chaldaeans apply themselves to astronomy and forecasting the future; while the Magi spend their time in the worship of the gods, in sacrifices and in prayers…”
Chaldeans were skilled in the science of astronomy, said Diodorus (c. 75-20 BC). They had an extraordinary ability saying, “the Chaldeans in Babylon and the other astrologers succeed in making accurate prophecies.”
Plato (circa 428-347 BC) wrote that Magi were “king-makers,” that a king’s son at the age of 14 is taught “the magian lore of Zoroaster, son of Horomazes; and that is the worship of the gods…”
Parthian Empire, considered by some to be the second Persian Empire, followed the Greek Empire in world history. It coexisted with the Roman Empire at the end of the millennium, though not without wars and confrontations.
Strabo (c. 64 BC-21 AD) wrote “the Council of the Parthians, according to Poseidonius, consists of two groups, one that of kinsmen, and the other that of wise men and Magi, from both of which groups the kings were appointed.” He said:
“And the priests of the Egyptians, the Chaldeans, and Magi, distinguished for their wisdom above those around them, obtained from our predecessors honour and authority…” – Strabo
Magi, renowned for their ability to read the stars, make accurate predictions and reputed for being king-makers, came to the palace of King Herod asking “Where is He who has been born King of the Jews?” Without hesitation, Herod gave them immediate access to his palace and did not question their quest.
Historically, the presence of the Magi in Matthew’s Gospel is not at all unusual, but what is unusual is Magi seeking out a baby King of the Jews to worship him. Was Daniel an original Magi, “distinguished for their wisdom above those around them, obtained from our predecessors honour and authority,” whose dream and vision interpretations influenced the quest of these Magi?
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