Magi – Why Are They in a Jewish Nativity Story?
Magi were scorned by Judaism for their mystical reputation. Why then do the mystic Magi appear in Matthew’s Nativity account of a Jewish-born Messiah?
Greek text of Matthew uses the word magos, the Latin word equivalent to magus, its plural form is magi. The word is sometimes translated into English as “wise men” – both translations are correct.
Babylonians, Medes and Persians viewed magos as an eclectic group of priests, physicians, teachers, soothsayers, interpreters of dreams, astrologers, and sorcerers. It is easy to see how magi could be referred to as “wise men” – or just as easily, “mystics.” Not surprisingly, magi is the root word of “magic.”
MT 2:1 “After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem…” (NIV)
MT 2:1 “In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem…” (NRSV)
Clearly not worried his reference to the Magi would be called into question by his contemporaries, Matthew covered the Magi story with 12 verses, at least 10 providing specific details.
Roman era Jewish society had a dual-perspective of magi. One was of the famed Hebrew Daniel, a captured Israelite of royal descent by Nebuchadnezzar. Daniel was placed into the elite Babylonian school of the Chaldeans which included an education in astronomy and astrology.
God gave “Daniel understanding in all visions and dreams,” a gift that landed him in Nebuchadnezzar’s royal council of wise men, the chakkiym. Later, Nebuchadnezzar made Daniel chief of all the magi, a position known as Rab-mag.
After the Medes and Persians overthrew the Babylonian Empire, Daniel’s “extraordinary spirit” again elevated him to a high level of the government. The main religion under King Cyrus was Zoroastrianism. Its founder, Zoroaster, was himself known as the original magi.
Setting the stage for the other Jewish perspective of magi began when Alexander the Great marched through Judea. The Greek Empire’s open-minded Hellenistic culture allowed the Jews religious freedom, but it also introduced Zoroastrianism intermingled with influences of the Babylonian chakkiym; its priests called magi.
Over the coming decades, the effects of Hellenism on Jewish culture was unavoidable much to the frustration of the Jewish Rabbis. Liberal philosophies of Hellenism permeated Jewish culture meanwhile Greek became the common language. Next came the Roman Empire which seemed content to leave the prevailing culture in Judea alone.
As expert astronomers, the Magi used the legendary Babylonian astronomical science and charts to study of the motion of stars past, present and future. Their ability to plot upcoming cosmic events were scientifically predictive, not “mystical.”
Toward the very end of the BC era, a series of rare celestial conjunctions occurred, ones hard to ignore by astronomers – then or today. Witnessing just one such rare conjunction can be an once-in-a-lifetime experience. Imagine the scenario where, in a space of just 5 years from 7-2 BC, there were 13 rare conjunctions including two triple conjunctions!
Zoroastrianism beliefs held that celestial events served as signs with earthly significance. Signs of a newborn king observed by the Magi were so awe-inspiring, they set out on a month’s long quest to find and worship him. Matthew does not say there were only three Magi…it is a Christmas legend that may or may not be accurate.
Matthew’s introduction of the Magi into the Nativity story thus has a full historical context behind its setting. Not just anyone appearing on the door step of the King’s palace would expect to gain entry. Yet, when the Magi arrived unannounced, they had no problem gaining direct access to King Herod who gave them his immediate and full attention.
Herod did not question the credibility of the Magi when they gave him the alarming news about the birth of a King of the Jews. Neither did Herod’s Jewish religious council who, instead, pointed the King to Micah’s prophecy saying a Jewish ruler was to be born in Bethlehem.
Believing the prophecy to be true, Herod invited the Magi back for another meeting to investigate the timing of the star, directed them to Bethlehem, and slyly asked for their help in finding this newborn king. Angered when they didn’t return, Herod’s reaction by killing all the children 2 years old and under in the Bethlehem district testifies to his belief in the truth of the Magi’s message about a newborn King of the Jews.
King Herod and his royal Jewish religious council believed the credibility and message of the Magi. How likely is it that the Jewish author of Matthew would unnecessarily introduce the Magi…unless he also believed it to be true?
Updated September 11, 2022.
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