Ark of the Covenant - Bible History Online
Bible History Online

Naves Topical Bible Dictionary

MAGI Summary and Overview

Bible Dictionaries at a GlanceBible Dictionaries at a Glance

MAGI in Smith's Bible Dictionary

(Authorized Version wise men). 1. In the Hebrew text of the Old Testament the word occurs but twice, and then only incidentally. #Jer 29:3,13| "Originally they were a class of priests among the Persians and Medes who formed the king's privy council, and cultivated as trology, medicine and occult natural science. They are frequently referred to by ancient authors. Afterward the term was applied to all eastern philosophers." --Schaff's Popular Commentary. They appear in Herodotus' history of Astyages as interpreters of dreams, i. 120; but as they appear in Jeremiah among the retinue of the Chaldean king, we must suppose Nebuchadnezzar's conquests led him to gather round him the wise men and religious teachers of the nations which he subdued, and that thus the sacred tribe of the Medes rose under his rule to favor and power. The Magi took their places among "the astrologers and star gazers and monthly prognosticators." It is with such men that, we have to think of Daniel and his fellow exiles as associated. The office which Daniel accepted #Da 5:11| was probably rab-mag --chief of the Magi. 2. The word presented itself to the Greeks as connected with a foreign system of divination and it soon became a byword for the worst form of imposture. This is the predominant meaning of the word as it appears in the New Testament. #Ac 8:9; 13:8| 3. In one memorable instance, however, the word retains its better meaning. In the Gospel of St. Matthew, ch. #Mt 2:1-12| the Magi appear as "wise men"--properly Magians --who were guided by a star from "the east" to Jerusalem, where they suddenly appeared in the days of Herod the Great, inquiring for the new-born king of the Jews, whom they had come to worship. As to the country from which they came, opinions vary greatly; but their following the guidance of a star seems to point to the banks of the Tigris and Euphrates, where astronomy was Cultivated by the Chaldeans. [See STAR OF THE EAST] (Why should the new star lead these wise men to look for a king of the Jews? (1) These wise men from Persia were the most like the Jews, in religion, of all nations in the world. They believed in one God, they had no idols, they worshipped light as the best symbol of God. (2) The general expectation of such a king. "The Magi," says) Ellicott, "express the feeling which the Roman historians Tacitus and Suetonius tell us sixty or seventy years later had been for a long time very widely diffused. Everywhere throughout the East men were looking for the advent of a great king who was to rise from among the Jews. It had fermented in the minds of men, heathen as well as Jews, and would have led them to welcome Jesus as the Christ had he come in accordance with their expectation." Virgil, who lived a little before this, owns that a child from heaven was looked for, who should restore the golden age and take away sin. (3) This expectation arose largely from the dispersion of the Jews among all nations, carrying with them the hope and the promise of a divine Redeemer. Isai 9, 11; Dani 7 (4) Daniel himself was a prince and chief among this very class of wise men. His prophecies: were made known to them; and the calculations by which he pointed to the very time when Christ should be born became, through the book of Daniel, a part of their ancient literature. --ED.) According to a late tradition, the Magi are represented as three kings, named Gaspar, Melchior and Belthazar, who take their place among the objects of Christian reverence, and are honored as the patron saints of travellers.

MAGI in Schaff's Bible Dictionary

MA'GI , a word of Median or Chaldaean origin, was the name of the sacerdotal caste which among the Medians, Persians, Chaldaeans, and other Eastern nations occupied an intermediate position of great influence between the despot, to whose council they often were called, and the people, whose leaders in revolt they often were. As the administrators of the religion of Zoroaster they were the priests among the population belonging to the Medo-Persian empire. They alone had the right to perform the religious ceremonies. Distinguished by a peculiar dress, living apart by themselves, and forming a complete hierarchy, they were engaged in keeping alive the sacred fire on the altar of Ormuzd and combating the evil plans of Ahriman. But they were not only the priests of the Persian nation; they were also its scholars. Deeply versed, according to the measure of the time, in philosophy and the sciences, especially astronomy, they accompanied the king even in war as his advisers, Jer 39:3; but as, at that time, a practical application of science did not mean the subjugation of natural powers and their employment for useful purposes, but the divination of future events and their possible modification through spiritual and mysterious agencies the Magi became on this field mere soothsayers, fortune-tellers, dream-interpreters, not to say sorcerers and enchanters. When the Greeks became acquainted with Persian religion and civilization, and here discovered a system of divination and oracles quite different from their own, it was natural enough for them to throw a special odium on the representatives of this system ,- and in the Greek-Roman literature the Magi always appear as impostors. Not so in the O.T. During the Captivity the Jews became well acquainted with them, and Daniel describes them as men of wisdom, Dan 1:20; he intercedes for them with Nebuchadnezzar, Dan 2:24; and accepts a position as their chief or master. Dan 5:11. The same impression of dignity, truthfulness, and aspiration after the true religion is conveyed by the narrative in Matt 2:1-14. Whence these Magi came we have no means of ascertaining, but it is a very probable inference that by the intercourse between the Magi and the exiled Jews some seeds of Messianic expectations were sown and took root among the former, and by special Providence these wise men were led to the cradle of the Messiah as a sign of the coming of the Gentiles. They were the forerunners of the heathen converts. The Christian legend represents them as three kings. Their memory is celebrated on Epiphany, the 6th of January, or the festival of Christ's manifestation to the Gentiles. See Star of the Wise Men.

MAGI in Fausset's Bible Dictionary

("magicians".) Called "wise men"' Matthew 2:1. Hebrew chartumiym, "sacred scribes," from two roots "sacred" and "style" or "pen" (cheret); priests skilled in sacred writings, and in divining through signs the will of heaven. A regular order among the Egyptians, devoted to magic and astrology. (See DIVINATION.) The word is Persian or Median; it appears in Rab-mag, "chief of the magicians" (Jeremiah 39:3), brought with Nebuchadnezzar's expedition, that its issue might be foreknown. The Magi were a sacerdotal caste among the Medes, in connection with the Zoroastrian religion. "They waited upon the sacred fire, and performed ablutions, and practiced observation of the stars." Muller (Herzog Cyclopedia) says that the Median priests were not originally called Magi, but by the names found in the Zendavesta "Atharva," guardians of the fire, and that the Chaldaeans first gave them the name Magi. Nebuchadnezzar gathered round him the religious teachers and wise men of the nations he conquered (Daniel 1:3-4; Daniel 1:20).

The Magians probably lost some of the original purity of the simpler Median religion by contact with the superstitions of Babylon: still there remained some elements of truth and opposition to idolatry, which formed common ground between them and Daniel (Daniel 5:11; Daniel 6:3; Daniel 6:16; Daniel 6:26; Ezra 1:1-4; Isaiah 44:28). Artaxerxes, Pseudo Smerdis "the "Magian," naturally thwarted the rebuilding of the temple to the one true God, for he had reintroduced a corrupted Chaldaic magianism instead of Cyrus' purer faith in Ormuzd. The Zoroastrian religion Darius restored, and destroyed the Mugtans; as the Behistun inscription states, "the rites which Gomates (Pseudo Smerdis) the Magian introduced I prohibited, I restored the chants and worship," etc. Naturally then the Jews under Darius resumed the suspended work of building the temple (Ezra 4:24; Ezra 5:1-2; Ezra 6:7-8).

All forms of magic, augury, necromancy, etc., are prohibited in the Zendavesta as evil and emanating from Ahriman the evil one. The Magi regained power under Xerxes, and were consulted by him. They formed the highest portion of the king's court, the council about the king's person. Gradually the term came to represent divining impostors. However, Philo uses it in a good sense: "men who gave themselves to the study of nature and contemplation of the divine perfection, worthy of being counselors of kings." So in Matthew 2:1 it is used in the better sense of "wise men," at once astronomers and astrologers "from the E.," i.e. the. N.E., the region toward the Euphrates from whence Balaam came (Numbers 23:7; Numbers 22:5). (See BALAAM.) Balaam' s prophecy seems to have been known to them: "there shall come a star out of Jacob, and a scepter shall arise out of Israel." Accordingly the very guide they look to is a star (a meteor probably), and the question they ask is "where is He that is born King of the Jews?"

Moreover, Daniel, "chief of the Magi," had foretold Messiah's kingdom (Daniel 2:44; Daniel 9:25); naturally the Magi ("wise men") looked for the kingdom and the king among the people of him whose fame as a Magian they had heard of. Zoroaster's predictions led them to look for Zosiosh, the Head of the kingdom who should conquer Ahriman and raise the dead. Their presents, "gold, frankincense, and myrrh," were the usual gifts of subject nations (Psalm 72:15; 1 Kings 10:2; 1 Kings 10:10; 2 Chronicles 9:24; Song of Solomon 3:6; Song of Solomon 4:14). They came to the infant Jesus some considerable time after the shepherds in Luke 2, for now He is no longer in an inn but in the "house" (Matthew 2:11). (For details, see JESUS CHRIST, BETHLEHEM, and HEROD.) The star remained stationary while they were at Jerusalem, where they had turned aside; but when they left it the star again guided them until they reached Christ's birthplace.

Only so long as we follow the sure word of revelation have we guidance to Jesus and safety in Him (2 Peter 1:19). Herod discovered the foretold birthplace of Messiah from the scribes' quotation of Micah (Micah 5:2) in answer to his query where He should be born. But the Child had escaped, and the Magi, being warned of God in a dream (they were famed for interpretation of dreams), had returned a different way, before Herod's cruel decree for the slaughter of the infants took effect at Bethlehem. Matthew, dwelling on Christ's kingly office as the Son of David, gives the history of the Magians' visit, since they first hailed Him as King. Luke, dwelling more on His human sympathy, gives the history of the divinely guided visit of the humble shepherds. Luke records the earlier event, according to his plan stated in his preface, "to write all things from the very first," and omits the already recorded visit of the Magi, which seemed the presage of an earthly kingdom, as unsuited to the aspect of lowliness and identification with the needs of universal mankind in which he represents our Lord.

The names given by tradition to the "three kings" so-called (presumed to represent Europe, Asia, and Africa; Psalm 72:10 was the plea for their kingship), Melchior, Gaspar, and Balthasar, are of course mythical, as is the story of their bones being in the shrine of Cologne, having been removed first from the East by Helena to Constantinople, then to Milan, then to Cologne. In the sense "magician" Simon Magus at Samaria is an instance (Acts 8:9-10); also Elymas the Jewish sorcerer and false prophet who with. stood Paul and Barnabas at Paphos (Acts 13:6-12); also the exorcists and those who used "curious arts" and who "brought their books together, and burned them before all men" to the value of "50,000 pieces of silver," at Ephesus (Acts 19:13-19).

Pharaoh's magicians practiced the common juggler's trick of making serpents appear "with their enchantments" (from a root, "flame" or else "conceal," implying a trick: Exodus 7:11-12); but Aaron's rod swallowed theirs, showing that his power was real, theirs illusory. So they produced frogs after Moses had done so, i.e. they only increased the plague, they could not remove it. At the plague of lice or mosquitoes they could not even increase the plague, and had to say, This is the finger of God (Exodus 8:7; Exodus 8:18-19). At last the plague of boils broke out upon the magicians themselves (Exodus 9:11); they owned themselves defeated, "they could not stand before Moses." The peculiarity of Balaam was, he stood partly on pagan magic and soothsaying augury, partly on true revelation.(See BALAAM.) For "enchantments" translated "auguries" (Numbers 23:3; Numbers 24:1). The Teraphim were consulted for divining purposes (Judges 18:5-6; Zechariah 10:2). (See TERAPHIM.) There is extant the Egyptian Ritual of amulets and incantations.