The Magi

Matthew 2 recounts the familiar Christmas tale of three “wise men” (Greek magoi) visiting Palestine and worshiping the young Jesus with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. Who or what were the Magi?

Most of our information about the precedents to the Gospel account comes from the Histories of Herodotus, where the term appears a couple of dozen times and mostly is used to refer to a priestly caste among the ancient Medes, which was particularly known for oneiromancy (dream interpretation).

In his own time, Herodotus indicates that the magoi were priests of Persia, and at that time the dominant religion of Persia was Zoroastrianism, making them Zoroastrian priests.

But by the time of Christ, the term magos (singular of magoi; the Latin equivalents are magus singular and magi plural) had become common in the Mediterranean region for a certain sort of scholarly profession (without indicating any particular religion or culture), as attested for instance in the writings of Strabo and Plutarch.

We know of at least three Jews who were magoi: Simon Magus (Acts 8:9-24), Elymas (Acts 13:6-11. amd Atomos of Cyprus (Josephus, Antiquities XX.vii.2). The NT gives a definitely unfavorable impression of the first two. All three were described as being attached to the courts of highly placed Roman officials. Positive assessments of magoi and their knowledge are to be found in such writers as Philo of Alexandria and Cicero.

The Septuagint uses the Greek word magos to translate various Hebrew terms for necromancers, conjurors, and so forth. The term came to be used for various types of adepts in magic (the English word “magic” itself derives from magos).

Matthew makes no effort to identify the Magi of his story, telling us only that they come from the East.

There is a significant Mormon meme of trying to avoid the idea that the Magi were pagan priests of some sort schooled in the arts of dream interpretation and astrology. Consider, for example, this extract from a 2006 article in the Church News:

As to the identity of the wise men, there is no scriptural support for the notion that they were astrologers or members of a cult from Media and Persia. Elder McConkie even objects to the term Magi, noting that the very word magic derives from it and relates to the ritual practiced by the apostate Persian cult.

“It is much more probable that they were devout men who knew of our Lord’s coming advent,” he wrote, “including the promise that a new star would arise, and that they came as prophets of any age would have done to worship their King. It is clear that they were in tune with the Lord and were receiving revelation from Him, for they were `warned of God in a dream that they should not return to Herod.’ (Matt. 2:12)” (Mormon Doctrine, p. 462.)

Personally I find this point of view to be overly defensive. The account seems to reflect them coming from a far distance, and the questions the Magi ask suggest that they themselves were not Hebrews. The main point of identifying the visitors as Magi is to explain their capacity to read the heavenly portents in the sky. There is no need to make them men of the ancient Israelite covenant, much less to Mormonize them as BRM seems to want to do. The premise seems to be that foreign priests cannot receive genuine revelation from God, a premise that I would reject.

Comments

  1. Julie M. Smith says:

    Yes.

    Further, I think the story is playing on an OT meme of the clash between pagan priests/magicians that ends with the superiority of Hebrew wisdom; think Joseph in Egypt interpreting dreams, think Moses and pharoah’s men, think Daniel interpreting dreams.

    But as is usually the case with NT use of the OT, the theme is tweaked: in this case, the pagans are superior in that Herod’s men can recite the sign but have (apparently) no interest in pursuing it. The entire story is an incredible indictment of the corruption of the current religious authority.

  2. Latter-day Guy says:

    No, Julie. That cannot be. The Stick of Bruce IS NEVER MISTAKEN! ;)

    Actually, having finished the BOM early, I’ve started going over the birth narratives with my primary class; we talked about Matthew’s genealogy and the Magi this morning (it’s fun when you can use Raymond Brown with 10-yr-olds–they’re an insightful bunch).

  3. Julie and Kevin, one of the things I like about our religion is it’s insistence to not having an exclusive claim on revelation. Mohomad was inspired, the founding fathers, etc.

  4. Kevin Barney says:

    I agree Matt W., that’s one of the things I like about it as well, and you’re right that that impulse is properly applied here.

  5. While on my mission, I found an old copy of the Ensign (1971) and it had an article by Ellis T. Rasmussen entitled, “Zoarastrianism.” It is a fascinating piece and concludes with this:

    Much of the truth and significance of ancient revelations from other than the Judeo-Christian prophets would not be appreciated so readily if it were not for the modern restoration of the gospel as promulgated by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Through the perspective of the gospel, it is possible to see why revelations may have been sent to such men as Zoroaster and why some of his teachings would resemble those of our prophets. In fact, it may have been the Magi of Zoroastrianism who perceived by some manner of revelation from the heavens that a miracle child was born in Judea to be a king and who came to worship him.

    In searching for the article, I found a “I have a Question” response by Tvedtnes (scroll down) that goes for Zoroastrians as well.

    Anyway, it seems like a bad idea to impugn the inspiration of someone with ties to magic…

  6. Mephibosheth says:

    #5 LOL at the last line.

  7. Thanks for this summary, Kevin.

    I agree completely that we have no need to Christianize or Mormonize the wise men – when a big part of our theology allows for inspiration and revelation and authority outside of the narrow definition of the House of Israel.

  8. 3 Nephi 1:2-3! :)

  9. Amen to the post and the comments.

    J, #5: awesome!

    Kevin, I will say that I don’t think BRM’s “premise seems to be that foreign priests cannot receive genuine revelation from God.” Rather, I think it is that genuine revelation cannot come from the stars (or other pagan ritual divining objects). But since Matthew is pretty explicit that the magi followed the stars, we have to convert their astrology into something more palatable.

  10. Wgat about Samuel the Lamanite being one of them? I remember hearing this mormonised rumour some years ago. Shortly before the birth Samuel leaves the area where he preached and nobody knew where he went. There is also some kind of legend that one of he wise men were black and this tradition seems to carry through to modern day nativity sets. Obviously with Samuel being a Lamanite it fits. Pure speculation from soemone attempting to identify who these men were!!

  11. Deacon, the Mormon rumour I heard also includes Nephi among the wise men. He also disappears around the same time as Samuel and is never heard from again.

  12. Three wise men: Samuel the Lamanite, Nephi, and…hmm let’s see. Someone else who was “never heard from again.” Oh, oh! I know: Hagoth! Amazing! (and to think the Persians tried to take credit for the three Lehite wise men!)

  13. On my mission, I went to a Smithsonian exhibit called “Circa 1492” – it was a global (and truly global) survey of art specifically from 1480 to 1500. Huge, immense, stunning exhibit, with every culture well represented. One painting in particular showed the Magi visiting the Christ child, and one of them was a Brazillian native, with dress details specific enough for the tribe and region to be identified today. I saw this and probably started the Samuel the Lamanite rumor in the very next zone conference.