By Steven Titch
On this year’s Christmas podcast, dropping Tuesday, Dec. 21, we explore the Magi, their journey to Judea from the East, and their encounters with Herod the Great and, lastly, with the Christ child, as recounted in the Gospel of Matthew, 2:1-12
These literally are men on a faith journey. The Magi were a group of men firmly rooted in the study and science of the natural world, yet their willingness to question and investigate with an open mind led them to the Son of God.
Magi, which is transliterated from Greek, is plural of magus. A magus was a priest of the ancient Zoroastrian religion, which flourished in Persia and Mesopotamia between the 5th Century BC to the 7th Century AD, when it was largely supplanted by Islam. Zoroastrianism has some parallels with monotheistic Judaism, but is more mystical. It is essentially dualist, believing forces of good and evil are in constant battle, but of equal strength: neither is strong enough to defeat the other.
Going by the Biblical account, plus what is known historically about Eastern religion during the time of Christ, the Magi were a combination of priests and scientist/philosophers, in that they were interested in understanding natural phenomena, including astronomical developments. Eugene Peterson uses the word “scholars” in The Message. The King James Version’s translation of magi to “wise men” is not inaccurate. For KJV translators, the word “magi” was uncomfortably close to the word “magic”—indeed they share the same root—but magi were not regarded by their contemporaries as magicians or sorcerers, such as the type the apostles encounter in Acts 8:9-25.
Matthew says simply that they came from the East, offering no other specifics. This suggests an origin in the former Babylon empire–what is today Iraq–or perhaps as far as Persepolis, the one-time center of the Persian empire.
Debate continues to this day as to whether there was a bright comet or supernova at the time of Christ’s birth (there is evidence outside the Bible there was). Either way, the Magi in the Bible observed it and its uniqueness piqued their curiosity enough that they consulted other ancient writings, including perhaps the prophesies of Daniel, who likely lived the latter end of his life in Persepolis. They believed that this unusual celestial phenomenon portended something wonderful—enough to organize a trip that, had they started as far as Persepolis (near present-day Shiraz in southwestern Iran), could have been as long as 1,100 miles.
From Matthew, we know they had enough information to link the appearance of the star with the birth of a messianic figure that would arise from the Jewish nation. So it made sense that to learn more, they set out for Jerusalem, the seat of the Jewish religion and de facto Judean capital. They were prestigious enough to gain an audience with Herod, then the current King of the Jews. Also telling is the fact that Herod had no clue about Jesus’ birth—he is surprised by the information—from a group of foreigners no less–that the prophesized Messiah may have been born two years prior (Matthew 2:16). He asks his own priests and teachers to run down the ancient prophesies, and they come up with Micah 5:2, which identifies Bethlehem as the birthplace of the promised “ruler of Judah.”
So onward the Magi go. By Matthew’s account, Jesus, Mary and Joseph have by now settled in Bethlehem and live in a house (2:11a). The Bible does not specially say how many Magi there were. I suppose the number of three derives from the three gifts the brought.
The gifts were significant of course, and it’s clear that the magi did not come all this way just to celebrate the birth of an earthly ruler. Matthew makes clear they worshipped him (2:11b). Although their learning was all rooted in the physical, empirical world, the magi had the imagination and open-mindedness to grasp the divine.
God, through a dream, warns the Magi not to return to Herod to report on their discovery, because Herod had his own nefarious purposes at hand. Instead, they return to their country “by another route.” The same, the choice of a “new route,” can be said of many who encounter Christ.
May the blessings of the season be with you and yours this Christmas.
Audio is great; video not so much so.