the Week of Christ the King / Proper 29 / Ordinary 34
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Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological and Ecclesiastical Literature
is the Latin form of the Greek term μάγοι , magians, rendered "wise men" in Matthew 2:1 l 7, 16, and occurring likewise in the singular μάγος, "sorcerer," with reference to Elymas (Acts 12:6; Acts 12:8). Compare the epithet Simon Magus. The term is still extant on the cuneiform inscriptions (see Olshausen, ad loc. Matt.). It corresponds to the Heb. מִג Mag. The term magi was used as the name for priests and wise men among the Medes, Persians, and Babylonians. So the word Rabmag, in our version of Jeremiah 39:3, used as a proper name, properly signifies the prince magus or chief of the magi. While the priests and literati were known by the general name of magi, they were also known by the name of wise men, and likewise Chaldaeans (Isaiah 44:52; Jeremiah 1:35; Daniel 2:12-27; Daniel 4:6; Daniel 4:18; Daniel 5:7; Daniel 5:11-12; Daniel 5:15). To their number doubtless belonged the astrologers and star-gazers (Isaiah 47:13). So, also, the Chaldee soothsayers and dream-interpreters either denote various orders of magi, or they are merely different names of the same general class (Daniel 1:20; Daniel 2:2; Daniel 4:7; Daniel 5:7; Daniel 5:11). (See MAGICIAN). In the following account of this important and interesting class, we supplement what we have elsewhere said upon the subject.
I. Etymology of the Name. — In the Pehlvi dialect of the Zend, mogh means priest (Hyde, Relig. Vet. Pers. c. 31); and this is connected by philologists with the Sanscrit mahat (great, μέγας, and magnus; Anquetil du Perron's Zend-Avesta, 2:555). The coincidence of a Sanscrit mâ ya, in the sense of "illusion, magic," is remarkable; but it is probable that this, as well as the analogous Greek word, is the derived rather than the original meaning (comp. Eichhoff, Vergleichung der Sprache, ed. Kaltschmidt, p. 231). Hyde (1. c.) notices another etymology given by Arabian authors, which makes the word — cropt-eared (parvis auribus), but rejects it. Prideaux, on the other hand (Connection, under B.C. 522), accepts it, and seriously connects it with the story of the pseudo-Smerdis who had lost his ears in Herod. 3:69. Spanheim (Dub. Esvangc. 18) speaks favorably, though not decisively, of a Hebrew etymology.
II. Their Original Seat. — This name has come to us through the Greeks as the proper designation of the priestly class among the Persians (Herod. 1:132, 140; Xenoph., Cyrop. 8:1, 23; Plato, Alcib. 1:122; Diog. Laert. Parouem. 1, 2; Cicero, De Divin. 1:41; Apul. Apol. 1p. 32 ed. Casaubon, p. 290 ed. Elmenhorst; Porphyr. De Abst. 1. 4.; Hesych. s.v. Μάγος ). It does not appear, however, that Magism was originally a Persian institution, and it may be doubted if in its original form it ever existed among the Persians at all.
The earliest notice extant of the magi is in the prophecies of Jeremiah (Jeremiah 39:3; Jeremiah 39:13), where mention is made of Rab-mag, a term which, though regarded in the A.V. as a proper name, is a compound of רב and מג, and signifies chief nmagus, after the analogy of such terms as רִבאּקָרַיס (ch (chief eunuch), רִבאּשָׁקֵה (chiefbufler), etc. (See below, § iv.) The Rab-mag of Jeremiah is the same as the Rab Signin al kol Chakimin (כל חקמיו רב סגנון על ) of Daniel (2:48); the τῶν ἱερέων ἐπισημότατος οὕά Βαβυλώνιοι καλοῦσι Χαλδαιους of Diodorus Sic. (2:24); and the ἀρχίμαγος of the later Greek writers (Sozomen, Hist. Ecclesiastes 1:13). This indicates the existence among the Chaldaeans of the magian institute in a regular form, and as a recognized element in the state, at a period not later than 600 years B.C. In Jeremiah 1, 35, ittevidently the same class that is referred to under the designation of the "wise men of Babylon." In the time of Daniel we find the institute in full force in Babylon (Daniel 2:2; Daniel 2:12; Daniel 2:18; Daniel 2:24; Daniel 4:3; Daniel 4:15; Daniel 5:7-8). From him we learn that it comprised five classes-the Chartumsinim, expounders of sacred writings and interpreters of signs (1:20; 2:2; 5:4); the Ashaphim, conjurors (2:10; 5:7, 11; comp. 47:9,12); the Meekashephim, exorcists, soothsayers, magicians, diviners (2:2; comp. Isaiah 47:9; Isaiah 47:13; Jeremiah 27:9); the Gozerim, casters of nativities, astrologists (2:27; 5:7,11); and the Chasdin, Chaldaeans in the narrower sense (2:5, 10; 4:4; 5:7, etc.; compare Hengstenberg, Beitrage, 1:343 sq.; Havernick, Comment ü b. Daniel, p. 52; Gesenius, Thes. ad voc.). So much was Magism a Chaldtean institution that the term Chaldaean came to be applied as a svnonym for the class (Diod. Sic. 2:29 sq.; Strabo, 16:762; Diog. Laertius, Proaem. 1; Cicero, de Divinat. 1:1; Curtius, Hist. 3:3, 6; Josephus, War, 2:7, 3; Aul. Gellius, 15:20, 2; Apuleius, Asin. 2:228, etc.).
Whether Magism was indigenous in Chaldaea, and was thence carried to the adjacent countries, or was derived by the Chaldaeans from Assyria, it is impossible now to determine with any certainty. In favor of its Assyrian origin it has been urged that the word מג is found as the name of the Assyrian fire-priest (Movers, 1:64, 240), and that the priests of the Assyrian Artemis at Ephesus were called Meg-Abyzi (Strabo, 14:641). But on this nothing can be built, as we find the syllable Meg or Mag occurring in names and titles belonging to other peoples, as Mag-Etzer (fire-priest), the father of Artemis among the Phoenicians; Teker-Mag, Teker the Magus (on a Cilician coin), etc. When it is considered that the Chaldaean was the older nation, and that the Assyrians derived many of their religious beliefs and institutions from the Chaldaeans (Rawlinson, Five Great Monarchies, 1:308; 2:228), the probability is that they derived the institution of the magi also. That the institution was originally Shemitic is further confirmed by the Phoenician tradition preserved by Sanchoniathon (ap. Euseb. Praep. Evang. 1:10), that Magos was a descendant of the Titans, and, with his brother Amynos, made men acquainted with villages and flocks. It must be confessed, however, that the word מג has more obvious affinities in the Indo-Germanic than in the Shemitic tongues (see above, § 1); but this can hardly be allowed to weigh much against the historical evidence of the existence of the magi in Shemitic nations anterior to their existence among those of the Aryan stock.
That Magism was not, as commonly stated, a Persian institution, is shown from several considerations:
1. The word does not appear to have existed in the Zend language; at any rate, it does not occur in the Zend-Avesta.
2. The religious system of the ancient Persians was a system of Dualism, as the most ancient documents concur with the monumental evidence to prove (see Rawlinson's Herodotus, 1:426), but with this Magism had no affinity.
3. In the Zend-Avesta, the Yatus, the practicer of magical arts, is vehemently denounced, and men are enjoined to pray and present offerings against his arts, as an invention of the Dews.
4. Xenophon informs us (Cyrop. 8:1, 23) that the magi were first established in Persia by Cyrus (comp. also Ammian. Marc. 23:6; Porphyr. De abstin. 4:16, etc.), a statement which can be understood only, as Haeren suggests (I, 1:451 sq.), as intimating that the magian institute, which existed long before this among the Medes, was introduced by Cyrus among the Persians also.
5. Herodotus (1:101) states that the magi formed one of the tribes of the Medes; and he also attributes the placing of the pseudo-Smerdis on the Persian throne to the magi, who were moved thereto by a desire to substitute the Median for the Persian rule (3:61 sq.; compare Ctesias, Persica, c. 10-15; Justin, Hist. 1:9; and the Behistun inscription as translated by Sir H. Rawlinson; see Rawlinson's Herodotus, 1:427).
6. Herodotus mentions that, after this attempt of the magi had been frustrated, it became a usage among the Persians to observe a festival in celebration of the overthrow of the magi, to which they gave the name of Magoplonia (μαγοφονία ), and during which it was not safe for any magus to leave the house (3:79; Agathias, 2:25), a usage which could have had its origin only at a time when Magism was foreign to Persian beliefs and institutions. 7. We find no allusion to the magi in connection with any of the Medo- Persian kings mentioned in Scripture, a circumstance which, though not of itself of much importance, falls in with the supposition that Magism was not at that time a predominant Persian institution. The probability is, that this system had its source in Chaldaea, was thence propagated to Assyria, Media, and the adjoining countries, and was brought from Media into Persia, where it came at first into collision both with the national prejudices and with the ancient religious faith of the people. With this accord the traditions which impute to Zoroaster, after he came to be regarded as the apostle of Magism, sometimes a Parthian and sometimes a Bactrian origin. (See ZOROASTER). Eventually, however, Magism seems to have been adopted into or reconciled with Zoroasterism, perhaps by losing its original theosophic character, and taking on a more practical or thaumaturgic phase.
III. Profane Accounts of the Order. — The magi were originally one of the six tribes (Herod. 1:101; Pliny, Hist. Nat. v. 29) into which the nation of the Medes was divided, who, like the Levites under the Mosaic institutions, were entrusted with the care of religion, an office which naturally, in those early times, made this caste likewise the chief depositaries of science and cultivators of art. Little in detail is known of the magi during the independent existence of the Median government; but under the Medo-Persian sway the magi formed a sacred caste or college, which was very famous in the ancient world (Xenoph. Cyrop. 8:1, 23; Ammian. Marcell. 23:6; Heeren. Ideen, 1:451; Schlosser, Universal Uebers. 1:278). Porphyry (Abst. 4:16) says, "The learned men who are engaged among the Persians in the service of the Deity are called magi;" and Suidas, "Among the Persians the lovers of wisdom (φιλόσοφοι ) and the servants of God are called magi." According to Strabo (2:1084, ed. Falcon.), the magi practiced different sorts of divination — 1, by evoking the dead; 2, by cups or dishes (Joseph's divining-cup, Genesis 44:5); 3, by means of water.
By the employment of these means the magi affected to disclose the future, to influence the present, and to call the past to their aid. Even the visions of the night they were accustomed to interpret, not empirically, but according to such established and systematic rules as a learned priesthood might be expected to employ (Strabo, 16:762; Cicero, De Divin. 1:41; AElian. V. H. 2:17). The success, however, of their efforts over the invisible world, as well as the holy office which they exercised, demanded in themselves peculiar cleanliness of body, a due regard to which and to the general principles of their caste would naturally be followed by professional prosperity, and this, in its turn, conspired with prevailing superstition to give the magi great social consideration, and make them of high importance before kings and princes (Diog. Laert. 9:7, 2) — an influence which they appear to have sometimes abused, when, descending from the peculiar duties of their high office, they took part in the strife and competitions of politics, and found themselves sufficiently powerful even to overturn thrones (Herod. 3:61 sq.). These abuses were reformed by Zoroaster, who appeared, according to many authorities, in the second half of the 7th century before Christ. He was not the founder of a new system, but the renovator of an old and corrupt one, being, as he himself intimates (Zend-Avesta, 1:43), the restorer of the word which Ormuzd had formerly revealed, but which the influence of Dews had degraded into a false and deceptive magic. After much and long-continued opposition on the part of the adherents and defenders of existing corruptions, he succeeded in his virtuous purposes. and caused his system eventually to prevail. He appears to have remodeled the institute of the magian caste, dividing it into three great classes: 1, Herbeds, or learners; 2, Mobeds, or masters; 3, Destur Mobeds, or perfect scholars (Zend-Av. 2:171,261). The magi alone he allowed to perform the religious rites; they possessed the forms of prayer and worship; they knew the ceremonies which availed to conciliate Ormuzd, and were obligatory in the public offerings (Herod. 1:132).
They accordingly became the sole medium of communication between the Deity and his creatures, and through them alone Ormuzd made his will known; none but them could see into the future, and they disclosed their knowledge to those only who were so fortunate as to conciliate their good will. Hence the power which the magian priesthood possessed. The general belief in the trustworthiness of their predictions, especially when founded on astrological calculations, the all but universal custom of consulting the will of the divinity before entering on any important undertaking, and the blind faith which was reposed in all that the magi did, reported, or commanded, combined to create for that sacerdotal caste a power, both in public and in private concerns, which has probably never been exceeded. Indeed the soothsayer was a public officer, a member, if not the president, of the privy council in the Medo-Persian court, demanded alike for show, in order to influence the people, and for use, in order to guide the state. Hence the person' of the monarch was surrounded by priests, who, in different ranks and with different offices, conspired to sustain the throne, uphold the established religion, and conciliate or enforce the obedience of the subject. The fitness of the magi for, and their usefulness to, an Oriental court were not a little enhanced by the pomp of their dress, the splendor of their ceremonial, and tie number and gradation of the sacred associates. Well may Cyrus, in uniting the Medes to his Persian subjects, have adopted, in all its magnificent details, a priesthood which would go far to transfer to him the affections of his conquered subjects, and promote, more than any other thing, his own aggrandizement and that of his empire.
Neither the functions nor the influence of this sacred caste were reserved for peculiar, rare, and extraordinary occasions, but ran through the web of human life. At the break of day they had to chant the divine hymns. This office being performed, then came the daily sacrifice to be offered, not indiscriminately, but to the divinities whose day in each case it was an office, therefore, which none but the initiated could fulfill. As an illustration of the high estimation in which the magi were held, it may be mentioned that it was considered a necessary part of a princely education to have been instructed in the peculiar learning of their sacred order, which was an honor conceded to no other but royal personages, except in very rare and very peculiar instances (Cicero, De Divin. 1:23; Plutarch, Themistocles). This magian learning embraced everything which regarded the higher culture of the nation, being known in history under the designation of "the law of the Medes and Persians." It comprised the knowledge of all the sacred rites, customs, usages, and observances, which related not merely to the worship of the gods, but to the whole private life of every worshipper of Ormuzd — the duties which, as such, he had to observe, and the punishments which followed the neglect of these obligations, whence may be learned how necessary the act of the priest on all occasions was. Under the veil of religion the priest had bound himself up with the entire public and domestic life. The judicial office, too, appears to have been, in the time of Cambyses, in the hands of the magi, for from them was chosen the college or bench of royal judges, which makes its appearance in the history of that monarch (Herod. 4:31; 7:194; comp. Esther 1:13). Men who held these offices, possessed this learning, and exerted this influence with the people, may have proved a check to Oriental despotism no less powerful than constitutional, though they were sometimes unable to guarantee their own lives against the wrath of the monarch (Herod. 7:194; compare Daniel 2:12); and they appear to have been well versed in those courtly arts by which the hand that bears the sword is won to protect instead of destroying. Thus Cambyses, wishing to marry his sister, inquired of the magi (like Henry VIII) if the laws permitted such a union: "We have," they adroitly answered, "no law to that effect; but a law there is which declares that the king of the Persians may do what he pleases" (Heeren, Ideen, I, 1:451 sq.; Hyde, Rel. Vet. Persarum, ch. 31, p. 372 sq.; Brisson, Princip. Pers. p. 179 sq.).
Among the Greeks and Romans they were known under the name of Chaldseans (Strabo, 16:762; Diog. Laert. Proaem. 1), and also of magi (Diog. Laert. 8:1, 3). They lived scattered over the land in different places (Strabo, 16:739; compare Daniel 2:14), and had possessions of their own. The temple of Belus was employed by them for astronomical observations, but their astronomy was connected with the worship of the heavenly bodies practiced by the Babylonians (Diod. Sic. 2:31; Ephraem Syrus, Op. 2:488; consult Ideler, in the Transactions of the Berlin Academy for 1824-25), and was specially directed to vain attempts to foretell the future, predict the fate of individuals or of communities, and sway the present, in alliance with augury, incantation, and magic (Aul. Gell. 3:10. 9; 14:1; Am. Marcell. 23:6; p. 352, ed. Bipont; Diod. Sic. 2:29; comp Isaiah 47:9; Isaiah 47:13; Daniel 2).
IV. Position occupied by the Magi in theperiod covered by the History of the O.T. — In the Hebrew text the word occurs but twice, and then only incidentally. In Jeremiah 39:3; Jeremiah 39:13 we meet, among the Chaldaean officers sent by Nebuchadnezzar to Jerusalem, one with the name or title of Rab-Mag (רִבאּמִג ). This word is interpreted, after the analogy of Rab- shakeh and Rab-saris, as equivalent to chief of the magi (Ewald, Propheten, and Ilitzig, ad loc., taking it as the title of Nergal-Sharezer), and we thus find both the name and the order occupying a conspicuous place under the government of the Chaldieaus. It is clear that there were various kinds of wise men, and it is probable that these were classes belonging to one great order, which comprised, under the general name of magi, all who were engaged in the service of religion; so that we find here an ample priesthood, a sacred college, graduated in rank and honor (see Bertholdt, 3 Excurs. zumn Daniel; Gesenius, Comment. on Isaiah 2:351 sq.). The word Rab-Mag (if the received etymology of magi be correct) presents a hybrid formation. The first syllable is unquestionably Shemitic, the last is all but unquestionably Aryan. The problem thus presented admits of two solutions:
(1.) If we believe the Chaldaeans to have been a Hamitic people, closely connected with the Babylonians, (See CHALDAEAN), we must then suppose that the colossal schemes of greatness which showed themselves in Nebuchadnezzar's conquests led him to gather round him the wise men and religious teachers of the nations which he subdued, and that thus the sacred tribes of the Medes rose under his rule to favor and power. His treatment of those who bore a like character among the Jews (Daniel 1:4) makes this hypothesis a natural one: and the alliance which existed between the Medes and the Chaldaeans at the time of the overthrow of the old Assyrian empire would account for the intermixture of religious systems belonging to two different races.
(2.) If, on the other hand, with Renan (Histoire des Langues Shenitiques, p. 66, 67), following Lassen and Ritter, we look on the Chaldaeans as themselves belonging to the Aryan family, and possessing strong affinities with the Medes, there is even less difficulty in explaining the presence among the one people of the religious teachers of the other. It is likely enough, in either case, that the simpler Median religion which the magi brought with them, corresponding more or less closely to the faith of the Zend-Avesta, lost some measure of its original purity through this contact with the darker superstitions of the old Babylonian population. From this time onward it is noticeable that the names both of the magi and Chaldaeans are identified with the astrology, divination, and interpretation of dreams, which had impressed themselves on the prophets of Israel as the most characteristic features of the old Babel religion (Isaiah 44:25; Isaiah 47:13). The magi took their places among "the astrologers, and stargazers, and monthly prognosticators."
It is with such men that we have to think of Daniel and his fellow-exiles as associated. They are described as "ten times wiser than all the magicians (Sept. μάγους ) and astrologers" (Daniel 1:20). Daniel himself so far sympathizes with the order into which he is thus, as it were enrolled, as to intercede for them when Nebuchadnezzar gives the order for their death (Daniel 2:24), and accepts an office which, as making him "master of the magicians, astrologers, Chaldaeans, soothsayers" (Daniel 5:11), was probably identical with that of the Rab-Mag who first came before us. May we conjecture that he found in the belief which the magi had brought with them some elements of the truth that had been revealed to his fathers, and that the way was thus prepared for the strong sympathy which showed itself in a hundred ways when the purest Aryan and the purest Shemitic faiths were brought face to face with each other (Daniel 6:3; Daniel 6:16; Daniel 6:26; Ezra 1:1-4; Isaiah 44:28), agreeing as they did in their hatred of idolatry and in their acknowledgment of the "God of Heaven?" The acts which accompanied his appointment serve as illustrations of the high reverence in which the magi were held: "Then the king, Nebuchadnezzar, fell upon his face and worshipped Daniel, and commanded that they should offer an oblation and sweet odors unto him" (Isaiah 44:46; see also Isaiah 44:48). From the 49th verse it would seem not unlikely that the administration of justice in the last resort belonged to this priestly order, as we know it did to the hierarchy of northern and more modern courts. (See Mü nter, Antiq. Abhandlung. p. 144; Bleek, in Schleiermacher's Theol, Zeitschr. 3:277; Hengstenberg's Daniel, p. 341.)
The name of the magi does not meet us in the Biblical account of the Medo-Persian kings. If, however, we identify the Artaxerxes who stopped the building of the Temple (Ezra 4:17-22) with the pseudo-Smerdis of Herodotus, (See ARTAXERXES), and the Gomates of the Behistun inscription, we may see here also another point of contact. (Compare Sir Henry Rawlinson's translation of the Behistun inscription: ‘ The rites which Gomates the magian had introduced I prohibited. I restored to the state the chants, and the worship, and to those families which Gomates the magian had deprived of them" [Journ. of Asiatic Soc. vol. 10, and Blakesley's Herodotus, Excurs. on 3:74]). The magian attempt to reassert Median supremacy, and with it probably a corrupted Chaldaized form of Magianism, in place of the purer faith in Ormuzd of which Cyrus had been the propagator, would naturally be accompanied by antagonism to the people whom the Persians had protected and supported. The immediate renewal of the suspended work on the triumph of Darius (Ezra 4:24; Ezra 5:1-2; Ezra 6:7-8) falls in, it need hardly be added, with this hypothesis. The story of the actual massacre of the magi throughout the dominions of Darius, and of the commemorative magophonia (Herod. 3:79), with whatever exaggerations it may be mixed up, indicates in like manner the triumph of the Zoroastrian system. If we accept the traditional date of Zoroaster as a contemporary of Darius, we may see in the changes which he effected a revival of the older system. It is, at any rate, striking that the word magi does not appear in the Zend-Avesta, the priests being there described as atharva (guardians of the fire), and that there are multiplied prohibitions in it of all forms of the magic which, in the West, and possibly in the East also, took its name from them, and with which, it would appear, they had already become tainted. All such arts, auguries, necromancy, and the like, are looked on as evil, and emanating from Ahriman, and are pursued by the hero-king Feridoun with the most persistent hostility (Du Perron, Zend-Avesta, vol. 1, part 2, p. 269, 424).
The name, however, kept its ground, and with it probably the order to which it was attached. Under Xerxes the magi occupy a position which indicates that they had recovered from their temporary depression. They are consulted by him as soothsayers (Herod. 7:19), and are as influential as they had been in the court of Astyages. They prescribe the strange and terrible sacrifices at the Strymon and the Nine Ways (Herod. 7:114). They were said to have urged the destruction of the temples of Greece (Cicero, De Legg. 2:10). Traces of their influence may perhaps be seen in the regard paid by Mardonius to the oracles of the Greek god that offered the nearest analogue to their own Mithras (Herod. 8:134), and in the like reverence which had previously been shown by the Median Datis towards the island of Delos (Herod. 6:97). They come before the Greeks as the representatives of the religion of the Persians. No sacrifices may be offered unless one of their order is present chanting the prescribed prayers, as in the ritual of the Zend-Avesta (Herod. 1:132). No great change is traceable in their position during the decline of the Persian monarchy. The position of Juidaoea as a Persian province must have kept up some measure of contact between the two religious systems. The histories of Esther and Nehemiah point to the influence which might be exercised by members of the subject-race. It might well be that the religious minds of the two nations would learn to respect each other, and that some measure of the prophetic hopes of Israel might mingle with the belief of the magi. As an order they perpetuated themselves under the Parthian kings. The name rose to fresh honor under the Sassanidae. The classification which was ascribed to Zoroaster was recognized as the basis of a hierarchical system, after other and lower elements had mingled with the earlier dualism, and might be traced even in the religion and worship of the Parsees.
V. Transition-stages in the History of the Word and of the Order between the close of the O.T. and the time of the N.T. — In the mean while the title magi was acquiring a new and wider signification. It presented itself to the Greeks as connected with a foreign system of divination, and the religion of a foe whom they had conquered, and it soon became a by-word for the worst form of imposture. The rapid growth of this feeling is traceable perhaps in the meanings attached to the word by the two great tragedians. In AEschylus (Persae, 291) it retains its old significance as denoting simply a tribe. In Sophocles (Ed. Tyr. 387) it appears among the epithets of reproach which the king heaps upon Tiresias. The fact, however, that the religion with which the word was associated still maintained its ground as the faith of a great nation, kept it from falling into utter disrepute, and it is interesting to notice how at one time the good and at another the bad side of the word is uppermost. Thus the μαγεία of Zoroaster is spoken of with respect by Plato as a θεῶν θεραπεία, forming the groundwork of an education which he praises as far better than that of the Athenians (Alcib. 1:122 a). Xenophon, in like manner, idealizes the character and functions of the order (Cyrop. 4:5, 16; 6, 6). Both meanings appear in the later lexicographers. The word magos is equivalent to ἀπατέων καὶ φαρμακευτής, but it is also used for the θεοσεβὴς καὶ θεόλογος καὶ ἱερεύς (Hesych.). The magi, as an order, are οἱ παρὰ Περσαῖς φιλόσοφοι καὶ φιλόφεοι (Suidas). The word thus passed into the hands of the Sept., and from them into those of the writers of the N.T., oscillating between the two meanings, capable of being used in either. The relations which had existed between the Jews and Persians would perhaps tend to give a prominence to the more favorable associations in their use of it. In Daniel (Daniel 1:20; Daniel 2:2; Daniel 2:10; Daniel 2:27; Daniel 5:11) it is used, as has been noticed, for the priestly diviners with whom the prophet was associated. Philo, in like manner (Quod omnis probus liber, p. 792), mentions the magi with warm praise, as men who gave themselves to the study of nature and the contemplation of the divine perfections, worthy of being the counselors of kings. It was perhaps natural that this aspect of the word should commend itself to the theosophic Jew of Alexandria. There were, however, other influences at work tending to drag it down. The swarms of impostors that were to be met with in every part of the Roman empire, known as "Chaldaei," "Mathematici," and the like, bore this name also. Their arts were "artes magicse." Though philosophers and men of letters might recognize the better meaning of which the word was capable (Cicero, De Divin. 1:23, 41), yet in the language of public documents and of historians they were treated as a class at once hateful and contemptible (Tacitus, Ann. 1:32; 2:27; 12:22, 59), and, as such, were the victims of repeated edicts of banishment. See Lenormant, Chaldaean Magic (Lond. 1877).
VI. The Magi as they appear in the N.T. — We need not wonder, accordingly, to find that this is the predominant meaning of the word as it appears in the N.T. The noun, and the verb derived from it (μαγεία and μαγεύω ), are used by Luke in describing the impostor, who is therefore known distinctively as Simon Magus (Acts 8:9). Another of the same class (Bar-jesus) is described (Acts 13:8) as having, in his cognomen Elymas, a title which was equivalent to Magus. (See ELYMAS).
In one memorable instance, however, the word retains (probably, at least) its better meaning. In the Gospel of Matthew, written (according to the general belief of early Christian writers) for the Hebrew Christians of Palestine, we find it, not as embodying the contempt which the frauds of impostors had brought upon it through the whole Roman empire, but in the sense which it had had of old, as associated with a religion which they respected, and an order of which one of their own prophets had been the head. In spite of patristic authorities on the other side, asserting that the Μάγοι ἀπὸ ἀνατολῶν of Matthew 2:1 were sorcerers whose mysterious knowledge came from below, not from above, and who were thus translated out of darkness into light (Justin Martyr, Chrysostom. Theophylact, in Spanheim, Dub. Evang. 19; Lightfoot, Hor. Heb. in Matthew 2), we are justified, not less by the consensus of later interpreters (including even Maldonatus) than by the general tenor of Matthew's narrative, in seeing in them men such as those that were in the minds of the Sept. translators of Daniel, and those described by Philo — at once astronomers and astrologers, but not mingling any conscious fraud with their efforts after a higher knowledge. The vagueness of the description leaves their country undefined, and implies that probably the evangelist himself had no certain information. The same phrase is used as in passages where the express object is to include a wide range of country (compare ἀπὸ ἀνατολῶν, Matthew 8:11; Matthew 24:27; Luke 13:29). Probably the region chiefly present to the mind of the Palestinian Jew would be the tract of country stretching eastward from the Jordan to the Euphrates, the land of "the children of the East" in the early period of the history of the O.T. (Genesis 29:1; Judges 6:3; Judges 7:12; Judges 8:10). It should be remembered, however, that the language of the O.T., and therefore probably that of Matthew, included under this name countries that lay considerably to the north as well as to the east of Palestine. Balaam came from "the mountains of the East," i.e. from Pethor, on the Euphrates (Numbers 23:7; Numbers 22:5). Abraham, (or Cyrus?) is the righteous man raised up "from the East" (Isaiah 41:2). The Persian conqueror is called "from the East, from a far country" (Isaiah 46:11).
We cannot wonder that there should have been very varying interpretations given of words that allowed so wide a field for conjecture. Some of these are, for various reasons, worth noticing.
(1) The feeling of some early writers that the coming of the wise men was the fulfillment of the prophecy which spoke of the gifts of the men of Sheba and Seba (Psalms 72:10; Psalms 72:15; compare Isaiah 60:6) led them to fix on Arabia as the country of the magi (Justin Martyr, Tertullian, Epiphanius, Cyprian, in Spanheim, Dub. Evang. 1. c.), and they have been followed by Baronius, Maldonatus, Grotius, and Lightfoot.
(2) Others have conjectured Mesopotamia as the great seat of Chaldaean astrology (Origen, Hom. in Matthew 6, 7), or Egypt as the country in which magic was most prevalent (Meyer, ad loc.).
(3) The historical associations of the word led others again, with greater probability, to fix on Persia, and to see in these magi members of the priestly order, to which the name of right belonged (Chrysostom, Theophylact, Calvin, Olshausen), while Hyde (Rel. Pers. l. c.) suggests Parthia, as being at that time the conspicuous Eastern monarchy in which the magi were recognized and honored.
It is, perhaps, a legitimate inference from the narrative of Matthew 2 that in these magi we may recognize, as the Church has done from a very early period, the first Gentile worshippers of the Christ. The name, by itself, indeed, applied as it is in Acts 13:8 to a Jewish false prophet, would hardly prove this; but the distinctive epithet ‘"from the East" was probably intended to mark them out as different in character and race from the Western magi, Jews, and others, who swarmed over the Roman empire. So, when they come to Jerusalem, it is to ask, not after "our king" or "the king of Israel," but, as the men of another race might do, after "the king of the Jews." The language of the O.T. prophets and the traditional interpretation of it are apparently new things to them. The narrative of Matthew 2 supplies us with an outline which we may legitimately endeavor to fill up, as far as our knowledge enables us, with inference and illustration. Some time after the birth of Jesus there appeared among the strangers who visited Jerusalem these men from the far East. They were not idolaters. Their form of worship was looked upon by the Jews with greater tolerance and sympathy than that of any other Gentiles (compare Wisdom of Solomon 13:6, 7).
Whatever may have been their country, their statement indicates that they were watchers of the stars, seeking to read in them the destinies of nations. They said that they had seen a star in which they recognized such a prognostic. They were sure that one was born king of the Jews, and they came to pay their homage. It may have been simply that the quarter of the heavens in which the star appeared indicated the direction of Judaea. It may have been that some form of the prophecy of Balaam, that a "star should rise out of Jacob" (Numbers 24:17), had reached them, either through the Jews of the Dispersion, or through traditions running parallel with the O.T., and that this led them to recognize its fulfillment (Origen, c. Cels. 1; Hon. in Numbers 13; but the hypothesis is neither necessary nor satisfactory; comp. Ellicott, Hulsean Lectures, p. 77). It may have been, lastly, that the traditional predictions ascribed to their own prophet Zoroaster, leading them to expect a succession of three deliverers, two working as prophets to reform the world and raise up a kingdom (Tavernier, Travels, 4:8), the third (Zosiosh), the greatest of the three, coming to be the head of the kingdom, to conquer Ahriman and to raise the dead (Du Perron, Zend A v. 1:2, p. 46; Hyde, c. 31; Ellicott, Hulsean Lect. 1. c.), and in strange fantastic ways connecting these redeemers with the seed of Abraham (Tavernier, 1. c.; and D'Herbelot, Biblioth. Orient. s.v. Zerdascht), had roused their minds to an attitude of expectancy, and that their contact with a people cherishing like hopes on stronger grounds may have prepared them to see in a king of the Jews the Oshanderbegha ("Homo Mundi," Hyde, 1. c.) or the Zosiosh whom they expected. In any case they shared the "vetus et constans opinio" which had spread itself over the whole East, that the Jews, as a people, crushed and broken as they were, were yet destined once again to give a ruler to the nations. It is not unlikely that they appeared, occupying the position of Destur-Mobeds in the later Zoroastrian hierarchy, as the representatives of many others who shared the same feeling. They came, at any rate, to pay their homage to the king whose birth was thus indicated, and with the gold, and frankincense, and myrrh which were the customary gifts of subject nations (comp. Genesis 43:11; Psalms 72:15; 1 Kings 10:2; 1 Kings 10:10; 2 Chronicles 9:24; Song of Solomon 3:6; Song of Solomon 4:14). The arrival of such a company, bound on so strange an errand, in the last years of the tyrannous and distrustful Herod, could hardly fail to attract notice and excite a people among whom Messianic expectations had already begun to show themselves (Luke 2:25; Luke 2:38). "Herod was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him." The Sanhedrim was convened, and the question where the Messiah was to be born was formally placed before them. It was in accordance with the subtle, fox-like character of the king that he should pretend to share the expectations of the people in order that he might find in what direction they pointed, and then take whatever steps were necessary to crush them. (See HEROD).
The answer given, based upon the traditional interpretation of Micah 5:2, that Bethlehem was to be the birthplace of the Christ, determined the king's plans. He had found out the locality. It remained to determine the time: with what was probably a real belief in astrology, he inquired of them diligently when they had first seen the star. If he assumed that that was contemporaneous with the birth, he could not be far wrong. The magi accordingly were sent on to Bethlehem, as if they were but the forerunners of the king's own homage. As they journeyed they again saw the star. which for a time, it would seem, they had lost sight of, and it guided them on their way. ( (See STAR IN THE EAST) for this and all other questions connected with its appearance.) The pressure of the crowds, which a fortnight, or four months, or well-nigh two years before, had driven Mary and Joseph to the rude stable of the caravanserai of Bethlehem, had apparently abated, and the magi, entering "the house" (Matthew 2:11), fell down and paid their homage and offered their gifts. Once more they received guidance through the channel which their work and their studies had made familiar to them. From first to last, in Media, in Babylon, in Persia, the magi had been famous as the interpreters of dreams. That which they received now need not have involved a disclosure of the plans of Herod to them. It was enough that it directed them to "return to their own country another way." With this their history, so far as the N.T. carries us, comes to an end.
It need hardly be said that this part of the Gospel narrative has had to bear the brunt of the attacks of a hostile criticism. The omission of all mention of the magi in a Gospel which enters so fully into all the circumstances of the infancy of Christ as that of Luke, and the difficulty of harmonizing this incident with those which he narrates, have been urged as at least throwing suspicion on what Matthew alone has recorded. The advocate of the "mythical theory" sees in this almost the strongest confirmation of it (Strauss, Leben Jesu, 1:272). "There must be prodigies gathering round the cradle of the infant Christ. Other heroes and kings had had their stars, and so must he. He must receive in his childhood the homage of the representatives of other races and creeds. The facts recorded lie outside the range of history, and are not mentioned by any contemporary historian." The answers to these objections may be briefly stated.
(1) Assuming the central fact of the early chapters of Matthew, no objection lies against any of its accessories on the ground of their being wonderful and improbable. It would be in harmony with our expectations that there should be signs and wonders indicating its presence. The objection therefore postulates the absolute incredulity of that fact, and begs the point at issue (compare Trench, Star of the Wise Men, p. 124).
(2) The question whether this, or any other given narrative connected with the nativity of Christ, bears upon it the stamp of a mythus, is therefore one to be determined by its own merits, on its own evidence; and then the case stands thus: A mythical story is characterized for the most part by a large admixture of what is wild, poetical, fantastic. A comparison of Matthew 2 with the Jewish or Mohammedan legends of a later time, or even with the Christian mythology which afterwards gathered round this very chapter, will show how wide is the distance that separates its simple narrative, without ornament, without exaggeration, from the overflowing luxuriance of those figments (comp. § VII, below).
(3) The absence of any direct confirmatory evidence in other writers of the time may be accounted for, partly at least, by the want of any full chronicle of the events of the later years of Herod. The momentary excitement of the arrival of such travelers as the magi, or of the slaughter of some score of children in a small Jewish town, would easily be effaced by the more agitating events that followed. The silence of Josephus is not more conclusive against this fact than it is (assuming the spuriousness of Ant. 18:4, 3) against the fact of the crucifixion and the growth of the sect of the Nazarenes within the walls of Jerusalem.
(4) The more perplexing absence of all mention of the magi in Luke's Gospel may yet receive some probable explanation. So far as we cannot explain it, our ignorance of all, or nearly all, the circumstances of the composition of the Gospels is a sufficient answer. It is, however, at least possible that Luke, knowing that the facts related by Matthew were already current among the churches, sought rather to add what was not yet recorded. Something, too, may have been due to the leading thoughts of the two (Gospels. Matthew, dwelling chiefly on the kingly office of Christ as the Son of David, seizes naturally on the first recognition of that character by the magi of the East (comp. on the fitness of this, Mill, Pantheistic Principles, p. 375). Luke, portraying the Son of Man in his sympathy with common men, in his compassion on the poor and humble, dwells as naturally on the manifestation to the shepherds on the hills of Bethlehem. It may be added further that everything tends to show that the latter evangelist derived the materials for this part of his history much more directly from the mother of the Lord, or her kindred, than did the former; and, if so, it is not difficult to understand how she might come to dwell on that which connected itself at once with the eternal blessedness of peace, good will, salvation, rather than on the homage and offerings of strangers, which seemed to be the presage of an earthly kingdom, and had proved to be the prelude to a life of poverty, and to the death upon the cross.
VII. Later Traditions which have gathered round the Magii of Matthew 2 :— In this instance, as in others, what is told by the Gospel writers in plain, simple words has become the nucleus for a whole cycle of legends. A Christian mythology has overshadowed that which itself had nothing in common with it. The love of the strange and marvelous, the eager desire to fill up in detail a narrative which had been left in outline, and to make every detail the representative of an idea — these, which tend everywhere to the growth of the mythical element within the region of history, fixed themselves, naturally enough, precisely on those portions of the life of Christ where the written records were the least complete. The stages of this development present themselves in regular succession.
(1) The magi are no longer thought of as simply "wise men," members of a sacred order. The prophecies of Psalms 72; Isaiah 49:7; Isaiah 49:23; Isaiah 60:16, must be fulfilled in them, and they become princes ("reguli," Tertull. c. Judges 1:9; c. Marc. 5). This tends more and more to be the dominant thought. When the arrival of the magi, rather than the birth or the baptism of Christ, as the first of his mighty works, comes to be looked on as the great epiphany of his divine power, the older title of the feast receives as a synonym, almost as a substitute, that of the Feast of the Three Kings.
(2) The number of the wise men, which Matthew leaves altogether undefined, was arbitrarily fixed. They were three (Leo Magn. Serm. ad Epiph.), because thus they became a symbol of the mysterious trinity (Hilary of Aries), or because then the number corresponded to the threefold gifts, or to the three parts of the earth, or the three great divisions of the human race descended from the sons of Noah (Bede, De Collect.).
(3) Symbolic meanings were found for each of the three gifts. The gold they offered as to a king. With the myrrh they prefigured the bitterness of the passion, the embalment for the burial. With the frankincense they adored the divinity of the Son of God (Suicer, Thes. s.v. Μάγοι; Brev. Romans in Epiph. passim).
(4) Later on, in a tradition which, though appearing in a Western writer, is traceable probably to reports brought back by pilgrims from Italy or the East, the names are added, and Gaspar, Melchior, and Balthasar take their place among the objects of Christian reverence. and are honored as the patron saints of travelers. The passage from Bede (De Collect.) is in many ways interesting, and as it is not commonly quoted by commentators, though often referred to, it may be worth while to give it: "Primus dicitur fuisse Melchior, qui senex et canus, barba prolixa et capillis, aurum obtulit regi Domino. Secundus, nomine Gaspar, juvenis imberbis, rubicundus, thure, quasi Deo oblatione dignla, Deum honoravit. Tertius fiuscus, integre barbatus, Baltassar nomine, per myrrham filium hominis moriturulm professus." The treatise De Collectaneis is, in fact, a miscellaneous collection of memoranda in the form of question and answer. The desire to find names for those who have none given them is very noticeable in other instances as well as in that of the magi; e.g. it gives those of the penitent and impenitent thief. The passage quoted above is followed by a description of their dress, taken obviously either from some early painting, or from the decorations of a miracle-play (comp. the account of such a performance in Trench, Star of the Wise Men, p. 70). The account of the offerings, it will be noticed, does not agree with the traditional hexameter of the Latin Church: "Gaspar fert myrrham, thus Melchior, Balthasar aurum." We recognize at once in the above description the received types of the early pictorial art of Western Europe. It is open to believe that both the description and the art-types may be traced to early quasi-dramatic representations of the facts of the nativity. In any such representations names of some kind would become a matter of necessity, and were probably invented at random. Familiar as the names given by Bede now are to us, there was a time when they had no more authority than Bithisarca, Melchior, and Gathaspar (Moroni, Dizionar. s.v. Magi); Magalath, Pangalath, Saracen; Appellius, Amerius, and Damascus, and a score of others (Spanheim, Dub. Evang. 2:288).
In the Eastern Church, where, it would seem, there was less desire to find symbolic meanings than to magnify the circumstances of the history, the traditions assume a different character. The magi arrive at Jerusalem with a retinue of 1000 men, having left behind them, on the further bank of the Euphrates, an army of 7000 (Jacob. Edess. and Bar-hebreus, in Hyde, l. c.). They have been led to undertake the journey, not by the star only, or by expectations which they shared with the Israelites, but by a prophecy of the founder of their own faith. Zoroaster had predicted that in the latter days there should be a mighty One and a Redeemer, and that his descendants should see the star which should be the herald of his coming. According to another legend (Opus inmperf. in Matthew ii apud Chrysost. t. 6, ed. Montfaucon) they came from the remotest East, near the borders of the ocean. They had been taught to expect the star by a writing that bore the name of Seth. That expectation was handed down from father to son. Twelve of the holiest of them were appointed to be ever on the watch. Their post of observation was a rock known as the Mount of Victory. Night by night they washed in pure water, and prayed, and looked out on the heavens. At last the star appeared, and in it the form of a young child bearing a cross. A voice came from it and bade them proceed to Judaea. They started on their two years' journey, and during all that time the meat and the drink with which they started never failed them. The gifts they bring ‘ are those which Abraham gave to their progenitors the sons of Keturah (this, of course, on the hypothesis that they were Arabians), which the queen of Sheba had in her turn presented to Solomon, and which had found their way back again to the children of the East (Epiphan. in Comp. Doctr. in Moroni, Dizion. 1. c.). They return from Bethlehem to their own country, and give themselves up to a life of contemplation and prayer. When the twelve apostles leave Jerusalem to carry on their work as preachers, St. Thomas finds them in Parthia. They offer themselves for baptism, and become evangelists of the new faith (Opus impsers: in Matthew 2:1. c.).
The pilgrim-feeling of the 4th century includes them also within its range. Among other relics supplied to meet the demands of the market which the devotion of Helena had created, the bodies of the magi are discovered somewhere in the East, are brought to Constantinople, and placed in the great church which, as the Mosque of St. Sophia, still bears in its name the witness of its original dedication to the divine Wisdom. The favor with which the people of Milan had received the emperor's prefect Eustorgius called for some special mark of favor, and on his consecration as bishop of that city he obtained for it the privilege of being the resting-place of the precious relics. There the fame of the three kings increased. The prominence given to all the feasts connected with the season of the Nativity — the transfer to that season of the mirth and joy of the old Saturnalia — the setting apart of a distinct day for the commemoration of the Epiphany in the 4th century all this added to the veneration with which they were regarded. When Milan fell into the hands of Frederick Barbarossa (A.D. 1162), the influence of the archbishop of Cologne prevailed on the emperor to transfer them to that city. The Milanese, at a later period, consoled themselves by forming a special confraternity for perpetuating their veneration for the magi by the annual performance of a "Mystery" (Moroni. 1. c.); but the glory of possessing the relics of the first Gentile worshippers of Christ remained with Cologne. (For the later medieval developments of the traditions, comp. Joan. von Hildesheim, in Quart. Rev. 78. 433.) In that proud cathedral which is the glory of Teutonic art the shrine of the Three Kings has for six centuries been shown as the greatest of its many treasures. The t
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McClintock, John. Strong, James. Entry for 'Magi'. Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological and Ecclesiastical Literature. https://www.studylight.org/​encyclopedias/​eng/​tce/​m/magi.html. Harper & Brothers. New York. 1870.