Kingdom of Fools: Who were the Magi?
By John Telgren
Perhaps one of the most embellished parts of the Bible comes from the Christmas stories, particularly the one of the wise men who came to visit Jesus in Matthew 2:1-12. The legends concerning them grew and evolved over time. However, the Biblical text says very little about these men. It is interesting to note how the legends came about.
The earlier legends concerning these men said that they were "kings." How did we go from "wise men" in the text itself, to legendary "kings?" This legend arose after the time of Constantine when he had made Christianity a legal and legitimate religion. Theodosius, the emperor who followed Constantine, made it the only legal religion, which outlawed all other religions. With these "Christian" emperors, the church acquired ruling power. Interpreters began to interpret scripture through the lens of church controlled government. Therefore, interpreters saw the magi as "kings." Church leaders saw this text was seen as one of several that legitimized the existence of "Christian" monarchs.
This interpretation remained essentially intact until the renaissance and reformation. Reformation leaders rejected the notion that the church should have political power. Instead of "kings," many began to see the magoi as "wise men." This seems to follow suit with what was going on in the world. With the acquisition of learning and wisdom, now these men were no longer kings, they were "wise men." You can see this depiction in some of the paintings of this period. These men no longer wore royal robes, but now donned the scholar’s gown.
So, the acquisition of power by the church made them "kings" in the fourth century. Later, the acquisition of great learning and wisdom by the church in the fifteenth century made them "wise men." However, the text does not define precisely what they were. They were most definitely not "wise men" (sophoi in Greek). Neither were they "kings" (basileoi in Greek). The identification of "wise men" is nothing more than a fifteenth century tradition. Matthew takes for granted that his readers would know what they were. This is where we need some good research. The place to start is to look at how the first century viewed "magoi."
Matthew does not identify what the magi were and assumes his readers already know. The only description beyond the actual word, "magi" is that they were from the east. They may have been from Babylon, which had a significant Jewish population. This would have explained their familiarity with Jewish messianic expectation.
The sparseness of information for the magi has led to a lot of speculation over what they were. In addition to kings and wise men, some of the possibilities scholars have put forth over the years for their identity include Persian priests, magicians, or astrologers.
The best way to find out how they would have understood magi would be to look at how the word is used in the literature of the times.
In Greco-Roman literature, magi are sometimes seen as good, and sometimes as bad. However, there is no way to know how familiar the original readers of Matthew were with Greco-Roman literature. Therefore, this is perhaps the weakest indicator of how the original readers of Matthew would have regarded the magi. Jewish literature is by far a much stronger indicator of how they would have seen the magi.
Jewish literature never portrays magi as wise. Jewish writings (midrash) depict Pharaoh’s magicians as "magi". In the story, Pharaoh’s magicians are portrayed as bumbling idiots. In Exodus 7:12, Aarons staff swallows theirs. In Exodus 7:22, their secret arts could not get rid of the blood in the Nile river, but they could change a little water to blood themselves. This was hardly a solution to the problem. In Exodus 8:7, their secret arts did not get rid of the plague of frogs that infested the land. Instead, they created more frogs! Their reaction was to make the plague worse! Then in Exodus 8:18, they failed at bringing forth gnats as Moses did. Finally, in Exodus 9:11, they themselves become victim to the plague of boils and could not stand before Moses. This humorous depiction of Pharaoh’s magoi as fools seems to be consistent throughout Jewish literature.
Another "magus" (singluar for magoi) in Jewish writings (Palestenian Targums) is Balaam. Philo of Alexandria portrays Balaam as a thick-headed idiot. The Lord did not want Balaam to go with Balak’s men, but he kept asking. At Balaam’s insistence, the Lord let him go, but was not pleased. After the incident with the Donkey, thick-headed Balaam said, "If it is displeasing, I will go back!" Do you think so? Philo concludes that magoi were stupid, ignorant people. Magoi were experts at nonsense. They were learned, but not wise.
In the Greek translation of the Old Testament (Septuagint), Magi appear in Daniel, Chapter two. There, they are ineffective and powerless. The situation exposes them as fools. Only Daniel, by the power of God, could reveal the king’s dreams and their interpretation to him.
In the New Testament, there are other magi. The book of Acts mentions two. These include Simon in chapter 8, and Elymas in chapter 13. In both cases, these men are charlatans. Their trade is easily exposed.
It is interesting to note that a similar word in Hebrew, "mag" means "soothsayer." I am not sure if there is a connection between the Hebrew word mag and the Greek magus. Given the fact that many of the magoi clearly practiced their secret arts, or "magic," it seems highly likely that there is a relationship between these words. In other words, a "magus" was a "soothsayer" of some sort.
So, the original readers of Matthew would have clearly seen magi in a negative light. They likely would have regarded magi as fools.
So why God would reveal the birth of Jesus to gentile fools? A reading of Matthew reveals an ideological perspective in which God’s revelation to the magi fits (Matt 3:9; 4:18-22; 9:9; 11:19, 25; 12:42; 13:54; 21:16; 23:34). Matthew 11:25-26 expresses the book’s ideological point of view well.
At that time Jesus said, "I praise You, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that You have hidden these things from the wise and intelligent and have revealed them to infants. Yes, Father, for this way was well-pleasing in your sight."
God rejected those who were wise and powerful while the weak and the "fools" were the ones who accepted God’s message. Those who were wise and intelligent, such as the Pharisees, became fools. Jesus said to leave them alone because they were "blind guides of the blind (Mt 15:14)."
What an irony! God reveals the truth about Christ to pagan fools while those who were smart enough to figure it out missed it. When Herod heard of it from them, he set out to destroy Jesus. When the Jewish leaders heard of it, they seemed unconcerned. When the rest of Jerusalem heard of it, there were simply "troubled." Ironically, the "foolish," gentile magi seem to understand the significance of the birth of Jesus more than Herod or the chief priests and the scribes.
It appears that Matthew highlights the aspect of the Kingdom of Heaven where the norms of power and wisdom are turned upside down. The kingdom belongs to the poor in spirit (Mt 5:3). The greatest becomes the servant and the servant becomes the greatest (Mt 23:11). The humble are exalted and the exalted are humbled (Mt 23:12). This idea is further developed in other parts of the New Testament. The Kingdom of Heaven belongs to the poor (Lk 6:20; Jas 2:5). The nobodies become somebody and the somebodies become nobody (1 Cor 1:28). The less honorable, less presentable members of the body receive more abundant honor (1 Cor 12:23-25). And the list goes on and on.
Matthew is the only one who records the magi narrative. What was his purpose? If he is writing mainly to Jewish Christians, then he is writing to a people that typically despise gentiles. He is writing to a people that typically see themselves as better than the gentiles. Yet, in Matthew’s gospel, it was gentiles who uttered the first confession of faith in Jesus. To top it off, it wasn’t just gentiles, but gentiles who were also magoi. The last confession of faith in Jesus also came on the lips of gentiles.
" Now the centurion, and those who were with him keeping guard over Jesus, when they saw the earthquake and the things that were happening, became very frightened and said, "Truly this was the Son of God! (Mt 27:54)"
This anticipates the Great Commission of Matthew 28. The wording is rather interesting. They were to make disciples of all the "nations." Nations in Hebrew is goy. This was the word Hebrews typically used for gentiles. There were the Jews who were the people of God, and there were the despised and unclean goy.
All of this would have had a great impact on Jewish Christians who had an aversion to gentiles, especially gentiles that were magoi. The message comes through loud and clear. The Gospel was for every nation, all the goyim.
We don’t have an aversion to gentiles, because we are gentiles. So is there a relevant message to us today? Yes, there is a very clear message. We should not turn away from those we have an aversion to. Homosexuals, convicts, dirt-poor people, alcoholics, etc. etc. etc. God’s word is not just for the wise, intelligent, "respectable" people of our society. Just because people’s lives are a mess, just because their sins may be offensive, just because they are not like us, is no excuse for us to go around them. We need to be "good Samaritans" and stop to minister and share the Gospel to all who need to hear it. The Gospel is for all. Besides, it is usually easier to share the Gospel with a know nothing than a know it all!
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