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Bible Dictionaries

Hastings' Dictionary of the Bible


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MAGI. The plural of magus , which occurs in Acts 13:8 (tr. [Note: translate or translation.] ‘sorcerer’ see RVm [Note: Revised Version margin.] ). Used as a plural word it denotes the ‘ wise men ’ of Matthew 2:1-23 (see the RVm [Note: Revised Version margin.] note at v. 1). The subject of this article is twofold (1) the elucidation of that narrative, and of one or two other Biblical references to the Magi; (2) the brief delineation of the religion connected with the Magi, in its relation to the religious history of Israel. These two points need not be kept apart.

Herodotus tells us that the Magi formed one of six tribes or castes of the Medes. Since another of the six is expressly named as ‘Aryan,’ it seems to follow that the other five did not belong to the conquering race; and the Magi would accordingly be an aboriginal sacred caste, like the Brahmans in India. When Cambyses, the son of the great Cyrus, died, the Magi seem to have made an attempt to regain civil power, of which Cyrus and his Aryans had deprived them; and a Magian pretender Gaumâta held the throne of Persia for some months, until dispossessed aod slain by Darius in b.c. 522. There is reason to believe that the Magi, in the course of a generation or two, made a bid for spiritual power: they conformed to the religion of the conquerors, profoundly altering its character as they did so, and thus gained the opportunity of re-asserting their own sacred functions among their fellow-countrymen, who were predisposed to accept their re-introduction of the old beliefs under the forms of the new. We have but little evidence to guide us in re-constructing this primitive Median religion. The sacred caste itself appears to be mentioned in Jeremiah 39:3; Jeremiah 39:13 (see Rab-Mag); and a ritual observance, preserved still in Parsi worship, figures in Ezekiel 8:17 , from which we gather that sun-worship, accompanied with the holding of the barsom (‘bunch of fine tamarisk boughs,’ as the geographer Strabo defines it) to the face, was a characteristic of Magian ritual before it was grafted on to Persian religion.

There are three special characteristics of Magianism proper which never obtained any real hold upon the religion with which the Magi subsequently identified themselves. These are (1) astrology , (2) oneiromancy , or divination by dreams, aod (3) magic , which was traditionally associated with their name, but was expressly forbidden by the religion of the Persians. The first two of these features appear in the narrative of the Nativity. We have evidence that the Magi connected with the stars the fravashi or ‘double’ which Parsi psychology assigned to every good man a part of his persooality dwelling in heaven, sharing his development, and united with his soul at death. A brilliant new star would thus be regarded by them as the heavenly counterpart of a great man newly born. That dreams guided the Magi at one point of their adventure is expressly stated ( Matthew 2:12 ); and it is fair to postulate similar direction in the initial interpretation of the star. There is, of course, nothing in this to convince those who have decided that the narrative of the Magi is legendary; nor is this the place to examine the difficulties that remain (see Star of the Magi). But it may at least be asserted that the story has curiously subtle points of contact with what we can re-construct of the history of Magian religion; and the invention of all this perhaps involves as many difficulties as can be recognized in the acceptance of the narrative as it stands.

The doctrine of the fravashi , just now referred to, may be paralleled rather closely in the Bible; and it is at least possible that the knowledge of this dogma, as prevailing in Media, may have stimulated the growth of the corresponding idea among post-exilic Jews. When in Matthew 18:10 Jesus declares that the angels of the little ones are in heaven nearest to the Throne, the easiest interpretation is that which recognizes these angels as a part of the personality, dwelling in heaven, but sharing the fortunes of the counterpart on earth. This gives a clear reason why the angels of the children should be perpetually in the Presence they represent those who have not yet sinned. So again in Acts 12:18 Peter’s ‘angel’ is presumably his heavenly ‘double.’ The conception was apparently extended to include the heavenly representatives of communities, as the ‘princes’ of Israel, Greece, and Persia in Daniel 10:1-21; Daniel 12:1-13 , and the ‘angels’ of the churches of Asia in Revelation 2:1-29; Revelation 3:1-22 . If this doctrine really owed anything to the stimulus of Magianism, it is in line with other features of later Jewish angelology. It is only the naming and ranking of angels, and the symmetrical framing of corresponding powers of evil, that remind us of Parsi doctrine: the Jews always had both angels and demons, and all that is claimed is a possible encouragement from Parsi theology, which developed what was latent already. A more important debt of Judaism to Persian faith is alleged to be found in the doctrine of the Future Life. From the beginning Zoroastrianism (see below) had included immortality and the resurrection of the body as integral parts of its creed. It is therefore at least a remarkable coincidence that the Jews did not arrive at these doctrines till the period immediately following their contact with the Persians, who under Cyrus had been their deliverers from Babylonian tyranny. But though the coincidence has drawn some even to adopt the linguistically impossible notion that the very name of the Pharisees was due to their ‘Parsi’ leanings, a coincidence it remains for the most part. The two peoples came to the great idea by different roads. The Persians apparently developed it partly from the analogy of Nature, and partly from the instinctive craving for a theodicy. The Jews conceived the hope through the ever-increasing sense of communion with a present God, through which their most spiritual men realized the impossibility of death’s severing God from His people. But we may well assume that the growth of this confident belief was bastened by the knowledge that the doctrine was already held by another nation.

How well the religion of the Magi deserved the double honour thus assigned to it that of stimulating the growth of the greatest of truths within Israel, and that of offering the first homage of the Gentile world to the infant Redeemer may be seen best by giving in a few words a description of the faith in general.

Its pre-historic basis was a relatively pure Nature-worship, followed by the common ancestors of the Aryans in India and Persia, and still visible to us in the numerous elements which appear in both Veda and Avesta the most sacred books of India and Iran respectively. To Iranian tribes holding this faith came in the 7th cent. b.c., or earlier, the prophet Zarathushtra, called by the Greeks Zoroaster. He endeavoured to supersede Nature-worship by the preaching of a highly abstract monotheism. The ‘Wise Lord,’ Ahura Mazda (later Ormazd ), reigned alone without equal or second; but Zoroaster surrounded Him with personified attributes, six in number, called Amesha Spenta ( Amshaspands ), ‘Immortal Holy Ones,’ who were the archangels of the heavenly court. The problem of Evil he solved by positing a ‘Hurtful Spirit,’ Angra Mainyu (later Ahriman ), with his retinue of inferior demons (see Asmonæus), who is a power without beginning, like Ormazd, creator of all things evil, and perpetual enemy of God and of good men. In the end, however, he is to be destroyed with his followers, and Good is to triumph for ever. Truth and Industry, especially in agriculture, are the practical virtues by which the righteous advance the kingdom of Ahura Mazda. The eschatology is striking and lofty in its conception, and the doctrine of God singularly pure. Unhappily, with the prophet’s death the old polytheism returned, under the guise of angel-worship, and the Magi were ere long enslaving the religion to a dull and mechanical ritual. Many of these degenerate elements have, however, been largely subordinated in modern Parsism. The small community, mostly concentrated round Bombay, which today maintains this ancient faith, may assuredly challenge any non-Christian religion in the world to match either its creed or its works.

James Hope Moulton.

Copyright Statement
These files are public domain.
Text Courtesy of Used by Permission.

Bibliography Information
Hastings, James. Entry for 'Magi'. Hastings' Dictionary of the Bible. 1909.

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