The Magi Are Not Who You Think They Are

John Telgren

It seems that the most ambiguous passages in scripture often have the greatest amount of legendary embellishment to them, such as the Nephilim of Genesis 6. In cases such as this, speculation evolves into fantastic stories to try and satisfy human curiosity. Of course, most of these embellishments have no historical foundation whatsoever but are merely fanciful attempts to try and "fill in the blanks."

One well known example is the story of the wise men from Matthew chapter two. What is interesting is how these men have evolved over the centuries. In the middle ages, they were often referred to as "kings" rather than "wise men," probably reflecting the bias of those who looked for justification of Christian monarchs and Christian empires. After the renaissance, these were often referred to as "wise men," probably reflecting the renewed emphasis on learning in western culture. In fact, the term "wise men," was a very general term for artisans, scholars, engineers, philosophers, etc. Anyone with specialized education or skills could be called a "wise man." Our word, "specialist" might reflect what people meant when they referred to a "wise man." As interesting as this is, this is not what "magi" means. Contrary to popular legend, there were not three, and they were neither wise men nor were they kings.

We read of other magi in scripture. The most famous magus is Simon the Magician in Acts. Magi are those who engaged in the magic arts. In ancient Jewish literature, magi are usually portrayed as inept, bumbling idiots. The prototypical magi were Pharaoh's "wise men" in Exodus. Think about it. In answer to Moses turning the Nile to blood, their best response is to produce more blood out of water? Even worse, when the land is overrun with frogs, Pharaoh's "specialists'" best response was to produce more frogs? These "specialists" were not wise at all. They were idiots! In non-biblical Jewish literature, magi were almost always the proverbial idiots.

This is what makes the account of the Magi in Matthew 2 so interesting and ironic. Immanuel, "God with us," came into the world. Herod didn't get it, he tried to destroy him. The learned Jewish leaders didn't get it; they continued to go about their normal business. However, gentile magi, the proverbial idiots, got it. They were the only ones who honored Jesus in Matthews account.

Here is a question. Why include this account in the Gospel of Matthew, a Gospel written to a Jewish audience? What does this demonstrate? The most obvious is that Jesus came not just for Jews, but for the gentiles too. In fact, at the end of Matthew, Jesus tells his disciples to make disciples of all the "nations," a word consistently used by Jews to refer to the gentiles. But there is more. This tells us that Jesus was accessible to everyone, including people like magi. He was not teacher and lord of just the elite. In His kingdom, the least become the greatest and the greatest become the least. Notice His prayer of thanksgiving, "I praise you Father, Lord of Heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and learned, and revealed them to little children. Yes, Father, for this was your good pleasure" (Mt 11:25-26). Truly, God loves to be glorified in the "least of these," whether it was a nation of slaves who became his people, or an early recognition of the King of the Jews which came on the lips of gentile fools.

This should warn us against pride which can come from our privileged position or our great learning. God brings down the proud, but lifts up the humble.