By Jay Williams
Originally printed in the NOVEMBER-DECEMBER 2005 issue of Quest magazine.
Citation: Williams, Jay. "The Magi." Quest 93.6 (NOVEMBER-DECEMBER 2005):206-211.
One of most familiar symbols of Christmas in America today is the cre¨che—we see it in front of churches, on village greens, and on people's mantels and end tables. Though the size and style of the figures may vary, the characters represented are usually the same. There is, Mary, of course, always dressed beautifully in blue and white, and Joseph, somewhat less ostentatiously clad. Both of them kneel before a feeding trough that contains the infant Jesus. (It has never been explained to me why the mother of a newborn should be formally robed and kneeling rather than resting supine after the painful ordeal of birthing.) There are shepherds often accompanied by sheep, an angel or two, and, finally three "wise men" wearing kingly crowns and usually leading camels. This is the way our culture pictures that night when Jesus was born in Bethlehem.
In fact, however, that scene is the conflation of two different stories that do not really fit together at all. The Gospel of Luke offers one account, describing how Mary and Joseph, who lived in Nazareth, traveled to Bethlehem of Judea to be enrolled for tax purposes when Quirinius was governor of Syria. Quirinius, by the way, apparently did not assume that position until 6 CE., ten years after the death of Herod the Great. To make Luke and Matthew concur, literalist readers assume that Quirinius also served an earlier term, though there is no evidence to support this hypothesis.
According to Luke, Mary and Joseph, who were betrothed but not married, were not residents of Bethlehem and could not find a suitable place to stay. They had to use a stable for a delivery room, and it is there that the baby Jesus was born. Angels, singing in the heavens, announced the birth of Jesus, prompting shepherds to come and pay their respects to the new infant.
Matthew, however, tells the story differently, and, frankly, his telling does not cohere with Luke's story. He sets the coming of the Magi during the reign of Herod the Great, who died in about 4 BCE. When the Magi arrive they find Mary and Jesus in a house, not a stable. Jesus, if we can believe the Greek vocabulary used, is no longer an infant but a toddler. There is no mention of shepherds or angels being there. Apparently, the author of Matthew believes that Mary and Joseph were residents of Bethlehem until Herod attempted to kill the new Messianic "pretender." As a result of his so-called slaughter of the innocents, they fled to Egypt and then, after the death of Herod, moved to Nazareth to escape possible persecution at the hands of Herod's son.
The greatest puzzlement in Matthew, however, is the identity of those "Magi" who came to pay their respects to Jesus. We should begin by saying what they clearly were not. Although the cre¨che scene pictures them with crowns, they were not kings. The favorite Christmas hymn "We Three Kings of Orient Are" greatly embellishes the original Gospel story. The idea that they were kings comes in part from the prophecy in Isaiah 60:2—3:
But the Lord will arise upon you, and his glory will be seen by you. And nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your rising.
Psalms 72:10—11 also emphasizes kings paying tribute to the anointed one of Israel:
May the kings of Tarshish and of the isles render him tribute,
May the kings of Sheba and Seba bring gifts!
May all kings fall down before him!
In verse 15 it is added:
Long may he live,
May gold of Sheba be given to him!
Because there were no Gospel accounts of kings visiting Jesus, and both the prophet and the psalm intimated that there should have been kings, the Magi became kings in the Christian imagination. This shift in identity may also have been prompted by the embarrassment that the presence of magi may have caused. By the third century they were called kings, and by the sixth century they were given early versions of the now-familiar names: Caspar, Melchior, and Balthazar. Subsequent imagination identified them as representatives of the three sons of Noah—Shem, Ham, and Japheth—and as having distinctly different racial characteristics.
We should also add there is no mention in the Bible that the visitors were three in number. The number three is derived from the fact that they offered Jesus three gifts: gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Since Magi (Greek: magoi) is plural, there must have been at least two of them, but there could have been ten or twenty—we do not know. In the Eastern Christian tradition they usually are believed to number twelve.
Who then were the Magi? The origin of the word magusis from the Medes, a people inhabiting what is now northwestern Iran. Their ancient language may have been the ancestor of modern Kurdish. Among their tribes was a priestly tribe, the Magi, comparable, one may suppose, to the Israelite tribe of Levi that also was responsible for priestly duties. When the Medes and Persians united to form the basis for the Persian Empire, the Magi became the priestly caste for the religion of Zarathustra, or what is known in the West as Zoroastrianism. Exactly what they taught and did is not wholly clear, but it would appear that they may have been somewhat more conservative than Zarathustra himself and may have retained within that religion certain ancient Median traditions. Like all priestly groups, they were doubtless interested in the heavens, for holy days and festivals are dated according to the heavenly calendar. Priests, almost by definition, had to be astrologers who paid attention to both the consistencies and the unusual phenomena of the heavens.
It is possible that when the author of Matthew described the coming of the Magi from the east, he simply had this group of so-called fire-priests in mind. That would be the most literal interpretation of the text, but it would also be a shocking one. Persia had been, and remained for centuries, the great enemy of the Roman Empire. To picture Persian priests paying their respects to a newborn Messiah would have appeared to many both heretical and treasonous. It is not surprising that Herod, who had played footsie with Roman authority for years, would have been "greatly troubled and all of Jerusalem with him" (Matt. 2:3).
Was the writer trying to depict Jesus as a teacher connected to and carrying on the traditions of Zarathustra? Was he making a political statement by relating the new Messiah to the great political and military force to the east? Most Roman readers would know that in Persia, as elsewhere, church and state were by no means separate and that the priestly caste worked hand in glove with political authorities. If the Magi were to be understood as Persian priests, there would have been all kinds of religious and political consequences.
There were for Western readers, however, some other interpretive options. From quite early times, Greek culture had known about the Magi of Persia. Herodotus, in fact, describes them in some detail. There is also evidence that some of the early Greek philosophers, like Democritus, actually studied with a magus. Thus magus as a word entered into the classical Greek vocabulary. Although writers continued to use it in a positive sense to refer to Persian priests, it also came to refer rather negatively to people who might be referred to as magicians. By "magicians," however, I do not mean those clever entertainers who today mystify their audiences with sleight-of-hand. A magus, in the ancient sense, was someone who, through ritual and incantation and secret gnosis, could gain control over angels and daemons to hurt or heal, create or destroy. A true magus was thought to have tremendous power and was therefore both sought after and feared. The fact that many papyri containing the secrets of the ancient magicians have been discovered indicates that this was not a rarity in the Greco-Roman world.
There is a tendency by some scholars today to downplay the importance or even the reality of such wonder-workers. Their argument is that maguswas a term of opprobrium applied to all sorts of people who in fact had no genuine interest in "magic" at all. It eventually included such a wide variety of characteristics that the word came to mean little more than "bad person." Certainly there is no doubt that many people were accused of magic quite irresponsibly and that the word magusbecame so generalized that it scarcely meant anything very definite at all. Frequently there was so little distinction made between religion and magic that sometimes magus was applied to a representative of an unpopular religion. Thus Jews would accuse Jesus and his followers of being magicians, while Christians would apply that label to all sorts of "pagans."
Nevertheless, those who downplay the reality of the magus must account for the various magical papyri from the ancient world as well as the many accounts of magicians found in a great plethora of documents. The fact that many were unjustly accused of magic does not prove that no magicians existed. Moreover, one does not have to look very hard around our world today to discover that the magus still exists in many cultures as the shaman, for example, or the Taoist priest, or an African tribal houngan. I myself once met in Haiti a voudon houngan who claimed to be able to kill people at a considerable distance through the use of his magical powers. One may doubt the efficacy of such power, but hardly the existence of people who believe in it.
In the New Testament book of Acts we encounter two such magicians working in competition with Christianity. The first is Simon, traditionally called Simon Magus, who appears in chapter 8, claiming to be great and amazing everyone with his magic. Apparently he had a large following until Philip came to Samaria preaching the gospel. Simon was so amazed by the signs and miracles done in the name of Christ that he himself believed and was baptized. When he witnessed the Holy Spirit being poured out with power, however, he offered to pay Philip to learn how to do that. As a result he was branded by the church the first heretic. He committed the offense that came to be known as simony, by trying to pay for and sell spiritual blessings. Clearly here the magus is put in a bad light. However, it is difficult to explain why Philip, with his signs and miracles, was not considered a magus too.
The second story is in Acts 13. Paul and Barnabas sail to Cyprus, where they proclaim the Gospel to the Jews on the island. They are actually invited to speak to the proconsul, but, as they do so, a Jewish magus named Elymas Bar-Jesus seeks to persuade the proconsul not to believe them. Paul, in response, utters words that would often be echoed by the church in the future:
You son of the devil, you enemy of all righteousness, full of all deceit and villainy, will you not stop making crooked the straight paths of the Lord? And now, behold, the hand of the Lord is upon you, and you shall be blind and unable to see the sun for a time. (13:10—11)
Bar-Jesus, of course, is immediately struck blind. From an objective point of view, it is difficult to see why Paul is no less a magus than Bar-Jesus, for he taps into pine power to do miraculous things. Nor does his miraculous power only help people. Here he blinds his demonized opponent. Apparently, the major difference is that the magician is said to conjure with daemons, while the apostles rely upon the power of God. It was on that basis that the church consistently attacked the magus as evil.
A word should be said about these daemons from whom magicians were supposed to draw their power. The word daemonoriginally meant simply "god," particularly a god known as a power within. Hence Socrates speaks positively of the daemon that prompts him to pursue the truth. For Israel, of course, there was officially only one God, Yahweh, and so the gods of other people tended to be regarded as evil forces that stood opposed to the true God. That is, all the gods but Yahweh were demonized. Curiously, daemons gradually became demonized throughout the Roman Empire by non-Jews and Jews alike, so that by the time the New Testament was written nearly everyone believed that there were not only angels that communicated the will of the heavenly gods or God to people but also demons, the agents of the devil. These demons were considered real and could do a great deal of harm. Magicians, therefore, were not considered frauds but rather workers of iniquity.
This attitude persisted for centuries in Christianity. In the fifteenth century, as the Malleus Maleficarumso clearly shows, Christians would still attack and even burn witches, female forms of the magus, because it was believed they consorted with the devil.
So we return then to our initial question: Who were the Magi who visit the baby Jesus? Why would Matthew include a story about the Magi when both in "paganism" and in the early Christian Church the magus had such a bad name? The Roman Empire officially banned magi by law. Most regarded the magus with fear and trepidation. Surely Matthew did not mean that consorters with the devil and workers of iniquity came to offer Jesus gifts. Even the mention of Magi in this context seems a matter of considerable embarrassment. Is there any other alternative?
Matthew, in fact, chooses his words quite carefully. He does not mention anything about Persia or its priesthood; he speaks only of Magi "from the East." In fact, two of the gifts they bring, frankincense and myrrh, come from Arabia rather than Persia. Nor does Matthew say anything about demonic powers, enchantment, or secret gnosis. These Magi are simply astrologers who have seen a star "in the east" that has indicated to them the birth of a Messiah and with him a new age.
At that time and for many centuries thereafter, there was no distinction made between astrology and astronomy. Astrologers were simply keen observers of the heavens who charted out in rather exact detail the movements of the stars and the other heavenly bodies. No people on earth were more exacting in their observations than the astrologers of the Tigris and Euphrates Valley. Long before the Greeks had developed their celestial knowledge, the Babylonians had unlocked many heavenly secrets. Hipparcus discovered in 129 BCE what Babylonians had known for centuries: the precession of the equinoxes.
Astrologers, however, were more than mere observers, for they took to heart the motto of much later hermetic literature: "As above, so below." That is to say, for them the heavens could be interpreted as revealing what was happening on earth. This was not so much a matter of causation as of synchronicity. Earth mirrored heaven, so if something occurred in heaven, its mirror image was bound to appear on earth. Although Christians tended to demythologize astrology somewhat and certainly did not regard each of the planets as a separate god, the Church did not totally deny the influence of the planets upon human life or the belief that the heavens can reveal pine secrets. This attitude is made quite evident in the Malleus Malificarum.
What was it, then, that the Magi saw that would send them on such a journey? A star rising in the east. Many hypotheses have been put forward as to what this "star" was: a nova, a comet, a configuration of planets in one zodiacal sign. My own suggestion is simpler: What the Magi observed was the precession of the equinoxes. That is, they saw that monumental shifting of the heavens that occurs about every two thousand years. The new "star" was Pisces rising at the vernal equinox in the place of Aries, a phenomenon that sent all of astrology into a tizzy. It meant that all the old connections between heaven and earth were transformed. Aries had become the second, rather than the first sign of the zodiac; Aquarius had become the last sign of winter.
The story of the Magi is Matthew's dramatization of a fact: The world had entered a whole new astronomical age. Just as the age of Aries had begun more or less with the birth of the Patriarchs and encompassed the whole history of the people of Israel, now human life was about to set off in a new direction. To prepare us for the new age, Mattthew opens charting out the age of Aries by offering the genealogy of Jesus beginning with Abraham. This genealogy, and thus the age, is organized in three stages of fourteen generations each, corresponding, one may suspect, to the cardinal, fixed, and mutable periods of an astrological age. Since fourteen is the "number" of David (for each Hebrew consonant is also a number) the genealogy really reads: "David, David, David."
Whether magi actually came from the east is not really important to Matthew. What was important was that his Gospel was astronomically rooted. The baby Jesus had come to usher in on Earth a new age, and that age had its counterpart in the heavens. Hence it is called in Matthew "the kingdom (or reign) of the heavens." (It should be noted that ouranonor heavens, here is in the plural, a fact that most translators simply fudge.) The age of Aries, the Law, is over; the age of the Christ has begun. Followers of Jesus were taught to accept this radical new departure by praying, "Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as in the heavens" (Matt. 6:10). Hence Matthew emphasizes the symbol of the new Age, Pisces, the fish, and sees all disciples as "fishers of men" (Matt. 4:17). The Christian Church soon adopted the fish as one of its central symbols.
At the very end of the Gospel the risen Jesus meets his disciples on a mountaintop in the Galilee, where he commissions them to make disciples of all nations by baptizing them in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit and teaching them all that he has commanded. Then he ends the Gospel, saying: "And, lo, I am with you always, to the close of the age" (aeon (Matt. 28:20).
After more than two thousand years, the age of Pisces is almost over and the age of Aquarius is due to arrive. Should not the new Magi be looking to set forth again in search of the master of the age of Aquarius that is dawning? That is the question that every contemporary reader of the Gospels should ask most seriously.
Dickie, Matthew W., Magic and Magicians in the Greco-Roman World. New York: Routledge, 2001.
Graf, Fritz. Magic in the Ancient World. Translated by Franklin Philip. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1997.
Janowitz, Naomi. Magic in the Roman Empire: Pagans, Jews, and Christians. New York: Routledge, 2001.
Kramer, Heinrich and James Sprenger. The Malleus MaleficarumTranslated and introduced by the Reverend Montague Summers. New York: Dover Publications, 1971.
Luck, Georg. Arcana Mundi>. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1985.
Jay G. Williams is Walcott-Bartlett Professor of Religious Studies at Hamilton College in Clinton, NY. Among his many publications are two Quest Books: Yeshua Buddha and Judaism. He is a member of the American Academy of Religion and the Theosophical Society.