Who were the magi remembered by the Church at Epiphany?

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Epiphany on January 6 recalls the visit of Magi, or wise men, to the infant Jesus. It falls on the 12th day after Christmas and brings the Christmas season to a close. But who were the wise men that are remembered on this day?

The wise men in popular culture

The actual story of the wise men visiting Jesus is only found in Matthew 2:1-12. This account is lacking in details, and as often happens gaps in the biblical narrative are filled in by tradition.

We see this in Nativity plays, in crib scenes and on Christmas cards featuring the wise men. Typically these depict three kings riding on camels, each one carrying one of the gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.

The Magi appear in a number of Christmas carols. In the carol “the First Noel” they are called “three wise men”. In the carol “We Three Kings” they are imagined as a trio of oriental kings.

What does Magi mean?

In the Gospel of Matthew, it says that μάγοι (magoi) came to visit. The Latin Vulgate rendered this as ‘magi’ which is how the term came into English. Magi is the plural of the singular word ‘magus’. Forms of this word are the origin of the English words ‘magic’ and ‘magician’.

The same word in the singular is used in the New Testament, for two men mentioned in the Acts of the Apostles. Elymas the Magus (Ἐλύμας ὁ μάγος) is mentioned in Acts 13:6-11, where he is called a sorcerer or a magician depending on the translation. Simon Magus (Σίμων ὁ μάγος) is mentioned in Acts 8:9-13, where he is described as practising sorcery or practising magic, depending on the translation.

The word ‘magi’ came into Latin via Greek, and into Greek via the old Persian word for a Zoroastrian priest ‘magush’. The same word, in Greek in the Septuagint and in Latin in the Vulgate, is used of King Nebuchadnezzar’s wise men in the book of Daniel. Matthew was perhaps was making a link to the Babylonian court, where these men were referred to as ‘magicians, enchanters, sorcerers and astrologers’ (Daniel 2:2 NIV) and collectively as ‘wise men’ (Daniel 5:7 NIV). Whether Matthew is implying that they came from that region is not clear, but his choice of word gives an indication of the type of men they were.

Actually the word ‘Magi’ is very difficult to translate. The tradition of translating ‘Magi’ as ‘wise men’ in English goes back to William Tyndale in his 1526 New Testament, which was kept in the King James Version (KJV). Most modern English translations such as the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV), English Standard Version (ESV), New Living Translation (NLT), and the Contemporary English Version (CEV) have followed this tradition.

Other translations have called them ‘astrologers’. This word is used by the New English Bible (NEB), J.B. Phillips’ New Testament in Modern English, the Amplified Bible and the Living Bible. In ancient times, many royal advisers included studying stars as part of their methods, when the distinction between astronomy and astrology was fuzzier than it is today. Other attempts to translate the term have included ‘mages’ in Young’s Literal Translation, and ‘band of scholars’ in The Message. The Good News Bible has ‘some men who studied the stars’. Another solution is used in the carol “Angels from the Realms of Glory” where they are called “sages” who leave their contemplations.

Some modern translations prefer to leave the ambiguity of the term Magi. So, the word ‘Magi’ itself is used in the New International Version (NIV), and also in the recent New Revised Standard Version Updated Edition (NRSVue).

Who were wise men?

Groups of wise men are actually mentioned many times in the Bible. Rulers used to gather a group of advisers and counsellors to help them make decisions. The idea carries on in the United Kingdom with the Privy Council.

In the Old Testament we read of wise men being consulted by Pharaoh to explain his dream in Genesis 4:18. Later another Pharaoh calls his wise men to meet Moses and Aaron in Exodus 7:11. In 1 Kings 4:30, King Solomon is said to be wiser than the wise men of the East, or the wise men of Egypt. In 1 Kings 10:1 we read of the Queen of Sheba who came to visit King Solomon with a group of attendants, ready to ask difficult questions, so it seems she brought her wise men with her, and perhaps she had some wise women too. Wise men are then mentioned most often as being consulted by King Nebuchadnezzar in Daniel (see Daniel 1:20, Daniel 2:2, Daniel 2:10, Daniel 4:7, Daniel 5:7 and Daniel 5:15). In the Old Testament the knowledge of wise men is contrasted to the knowledge of God’s people such as Moses and Aaron, King Solomon and Daniel.

Then in the Nativity story, we read that when the Magi first arrived at the court of King Herod, that King Herod consulted his own wise men, who were the chief priests and scribes (Matthew 2:4). Here the Jewish wise men of King Herod knew the Scriptures, implying perhaps that these Magi were Gentiles.

So, it is likely that these wise men were linked to the royal court, and were not Jewish. Stories of wise men show that they were employed by a monarch. They probably worked for a King, but we know from the stories of Queen Athaliah of Judah (2 Kings 11:3), the Queen of Sheba (2 Chronicles 9:1) and Queen Candice of Ethiopia (Acts 8:27), that in biblical times there were also ruling Queens, so they might have worked for a Queen. The wise men did their duty and alerted their monarch to the birth of a new king in Judea, and then he (or possibly she) sent them on his (or her) behalf with suitable gifts from one king to another.

Were they kings?

Sometimes the wise men are called ‘kings’. Our idea is reinforced by the Christmas carol, ‘We three kings of Orient are’, written in 1857. This references Isaiah 60:3, 6 which reads ‘And nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your rising … They shall bring gold and frankincense …’ (Isaiah 60:3, 6 ESV). Another verse with this idea is Psalm 72:11, which says ‘all kings shall fall down before him’. Wise men were attached to royal courts, so these wise men probably had royal connections, and may have represented a king. However had they been kings themselves Matthew would no doubt have called them such, rather than as Magi. Most likely they came as envoys of a king.

Did they know the Scriptures?

When the Magi came to visit Jesus they were following a star. The idea that a star heralded the Messiah comes from Numbers 24:17, which includes the phrase ‘There shall come a Star out of Jacob’. As such perhaps they knew the Scriptures. However, they first went to Jerusalem and not Bethlehem, and it was Herod’s wise men who told him that the new king would be from Bethlehem from, citing the verse which reads ‘And you, O Bethlehem … from you shall come … one who is to be ruler in Israel’ (Micah 5:2 ESV). So it is not clear if they knew the Scriptures or not, or perhaps they knew some of the Scriptures but did not know the Minor Prophets.

What were their names?

In the carol ‘We Three Kings’ the Magi are assigned names Caspar, Melchior and Balthazar. These are traditional names, which have been used since the sixth century, but the wise men are not named in the Bible, and we will probably never know what their names were.

How many were there?

In Europe, the idea that there were three of them comes from the three gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh mentioned in Matthew 2:11. The Early Church writer John Chrysostom (c347 – 407 AD), the great scholar and Archbishop of Constantinople, believed that there were twelve of them, which is still the tradition in many churches in the East. The idea of twelve might have been symbolic of the twelve tribes of Israel.

If we read the Bible story, there is no mention of the number of wise men at all. Magi is just plural. People travelling with gold, frankincense and myrrh, which were very valuable, were more likely to travel in a larger group for safety, and a royal delegation was more likely to have been larger. Often in the Bible when there are a two of something they are referred to as a pair, so it seems that that there were at least three of them. It maybe that there was a larger group and the exact number is not given, simply because Mary could not remember the exact number when she related to the story to Matthew, or whoever he got the story from. So, it might have been three men, but it seems likely it was more.

Were they all men?

They may not even have all been male. The Greek word Magi is a masculine plural, which means it might be all males, or a mixture of males and females. For example when Jesus told his disciples to be ‘fishers of men’ (Matthew 4:19) we assume he meant women too. So possibly the group of ‘wise men’ included one or more women, or perhaps one or more brought their wife or female retainers. We can’t be sure. Perhaps instead of ‘wise men’ it would be better translated as ‘wise people’?

We don’t actually know a lot about the wise men, but we do know that wise men sought Jesus, and that wise people still do.

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