Who were the Magi?

by frankbeswick

The story of the Magi [three wise men] is told in the gospels, but it is a tale filled with mystery and doubt.

There came wise men from the East who were following a mysterious star, which led them first to King Herod and then to Bethlehem where they met the infant Jesus and his family. They then returned to their own land and are never heard of again. A myth has arisen around the event, and many scholars think it a fable, though there are some who disagree and believe that there is historical truth in the tale.
Image above courtesy of guy_dugas

The Legend

Matthew's gospel contains the story of the wise men from the east who came to visit the infant Jesus, bearing him gifts of gold,  frankincense and myrrh. The tale goes that they had seen his star in the East and were led first to Jerusalem, then the capital of the Roman province of Palestine, where they met the tyrant Herod the Great, who on hearing that a new king was born decided to eliminate the rival to his dynasty. So he sent them on their way to Bethlehem to find out the identity of the child, so that Herod could worship him too. But his intention was murder, so when an angel warned the wise men in a dream they returned to their country by another route, whereupon Herod massacred all boys under two in Bethlehem. But, having been warned by an angel, Jesus' family had escaped and spent some time in Egypt. Herod was unaware that one family had escaped and so did not seek them out. 

The story has a clear mythological pattern to it. The true king is born, but the false king tries to kill him, but fails to do so, leaving the true king to be revealed at the appointed or proper time. This fits in with the mythological theme of the return of the king to take his inheritance from the imposter. But I have  always thought that doubting Bible scholars miss the point here, because in thinking that if there are clear literary mythological parallels between a Bible story and life, as many do, the story must be fictitious, they overlook that literature is about life and shows us how life works. The  false king will in real life try to eliminate his rivals, we saw this with England's own tyrant Henry the Eighth, who massacred the remnants of the Plantagenet family who had a better claim to the throne than he did. 

A  further point to remember is that Jesus' family members were part of the early church, according to Acts of the Apostles,chapter 1, and so Jesus' family traditions could have been accessed by the gospel writers. It is for these reasons that I reject any firm conclusions about the historicity of the Magi, and I distance myself from the many scholars who draw certainty from data that does not support it. There is no certainty in history.  

But be clear, the Bible says that they were wise men, not  kings; and the number three is an inference from the number of gifts. It is not Biblical. The image of the wise men coming from different races is Christian imagery to show that Christ came for all humankind; and the Bible does not give their names. Nor does it detail where they came from or what were the routes that they took. The gospel includes them to show that Christ came for all humanity,not just the Jews, and they were the first Gentiles [non-Jews]  to honour Christ.   

Two Theories

A recent article by Father Dwight Longenecker in the Catholic Herald [Dec 24 2017]  summarized his recent book, see above.  He notes that frankincense and myrrh were the source of the riches of the Nabatean Arab kingdom, outside the Roman Empire in North Arabia, based at Petra, the city carved from rock and that gold was a universal currency.The Nabateans had long been familiar with Jews and were aware of the prophecies of the messiah, and thus when they saw the star of Bethlehem, which was a conjunction of the planets Jupiter, Saturn and Mars,their astrologers read it as a sign that a great king would be born in Israel. The birth of great men was believed to be portended by heavenly signs, and so the Arab king sent his wise men to pay his respects. Sadly, they discovered that the Herod family were not blessed with a child at the time and got themselves caught up in a situation which they had not expected 

A second theory, my own view, though others may have suggested it,  rests upon the fact that the term Magi specifically denoted wise men of the Zoroastrian faith followed in Iran, a religion that worshipped a good God who was in conflict with an evil spirit similar  to the Devil. The Jews and Zoroastrians were aware of the similarities between their faiths and there was a degree of mutual respect, with Zoroastrian ideas filtering into Judaism. The Zoroastrian magi were also skilled astrologers, a fact that fits well with the star of Bethlehem. They would have been aware that of the three   planets in conjunction Jupiter stood for kingship, Mars for great events and Saturn for Israel, so they would have drawn the inference that a great king who would bring about great events as to be born in Israel. What would be more apt than for a king to send a diplomatic mission to greet the new heir to the throne?

The Political Situation

Palestine was a border terrritory in the Roman empire, and as its tetrarch Herod's job would have been to collect tax, repel enemies and keep the peace. The Nabataean Arabs had the potential to cause trouble, so it was wise to keep them sweet, But Persia/Iran was along with Rome one of the superpowers of the day, and its  shah had long coveted Palestine, for prior to the arrival of Alexander the Great Palestine had been Iranian territory, the Iranians wanted it back and they were not shy of trouble.   For Herod trouble with the Nabateans would have been war, trouble with Iran would have been  superpower conflict, and so the Emperor Augustus would not have thanked Herod for causing problems with the Iranians. Who wants thousands of angry Iranians descending on their territory? Augustus didn't. Herod knew this, and so did the Magi. 

Christians present the Magi as scholars seeking the truth. How nice, but to my view they were a diplomatic mission. Imagine Herod's anxiety when he hears that an Iranian diplomatic mission is on its way. He would not have  wanted them, but trapped between Iran and the Roman emperor he just had to avoid trouble. The principle would have been to keep these guys sweet   for the duration of their stay,then happily wave goodbye to those he thought were his worst enemies. Then to his horror he finds that they were looking for the newborn heir. Herod knew immediately that they were talking   about the messiah, who was a bigger enemy than the Iranians were. But he tries a plan in which he allows the Magi to go and find the new heir, but knows what he will do when they are gone. So with gritted teeth he wishes them a safe journey. 

History does not record the massacre of the innocents at Bethlehem, so there is no corroboration outside the gospels, but this sort of behaviour was within character for Herod, whose suspicious nature may have been  sign of paranoid schizophrenia. He killed ruthlessly when crossed. 

We cannot know with certainty whether or not the Magi are legendary, but if the story is historical we have turned it into a myth that may not reflect what truly happens. Personally, as one who studies religion I can identify with the myth of scholars seeking truth at the expense of a long journey, but I suspect that the reality is more a tale of political  machinations. But at the heart of the tale there is light erupting into the darkness, innocence in a savage world.An unexpected new truth had made itself felt in the complexity of political machinations. God springs surprises!

Tomorrrow is the feast of the Holy Innocents, the children murdered at Bethlehem. But it is not just for them, but for all innocent children abused and mistreated by the world.January the Sixth, the Epiphany, celebrates the coming of the Magi, which is for the church the shining of the light of truth on all humankind. We ought not to forget our feast days, for they give a structure to the sacred year, whic our secular society forgets at its peril.  

Updated: 12/27/2017, frankbeswick
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frankbeswick on 12/30/2017

Zoroastrianism still exists as a minority faith in Iran and as the Parsee faith in India

Veronica on 12/29/2017

I read book last year called "Heirs to the forgotten kingdoms " which links the Magi to Zoroastriansm . Very interesting . I had never connected the two things.

This is a fascinating article ty .

frankbeswick on 12/29/2017

The Catholic Herald is a magazine for the more cerebral Catholics. It has articles on doctrine, Catholic history, politics and general news, etc, in fact anything of concern to Catholics. I get it weekly.The Catholic Herald costs £2.50, which is about three dollars.

blackspanielgallery on 12/28/2017

Ah, sometimes I read what is close and think of the more familiar. Catholic Herald was mentioned, not Clarion Herald. I suspect they are similar. The Clarion Herald is a newspaper that is given out in church by the ushers, or placed on a table. Parishes pay for them, so donations are asked once a year. It is a newspaper with some local interest, such as parochial schools and sports teams, and articles on religion or morals from a wider source. It was a case of reading too fast.

frankbeswick on 12/28/2017

I did not think that Venus was in the conjunction, for the reasons that you stated. You are right, the conjunction took place thrice over a period of two years. I do not think that a comet has been identified for that time,but who knows, a small passing comet might explain it. All explanations here are tentative. You have far more physics than I have.

The names of the Magi are non-biblical and were invented in the Middle Ages, as was their route home, which took them a strange path finishing up in Cologne where their relics were conveniently found by monks who traded on their "discovery."

Keep them sweet is a British term. Your understanding of the term is correct. I don't understand the reference to the Clarion Herald, which I have never read.

blackspanielgallery on 12/27/2017

Frank, the expression "keep them sweet" is obviously a British term, and I imagine from the context it means keep them content.
We, here in the United States, get the Clarion Harold. I did not realize it was international.
As for the conjunction of Saturn and Mars, I am more aware of the conjunction of Jupiter and Venus in about 4 B. C., and that year 0 is approximated, so it is another possibility. Here the problem is a conjunction involving an inner planet, Venus, could not possibly stand overhead at night. And, conjunctions are brief, the journey should have taken a couple of years. Another possibility is a comet. But, even a star does not stand still, unless there is a time of day used as a reference. This, I have never understood. In those days astrology and astronomy were not separate, so astrology of today is not implied. As astronomers they would have known about conjunctions, and been able to head to the plae under where the conjunction had fully occurred.
Finally, there are three names associated with the Magi. If not the Bible, from where do they originate?

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