Magi Series – I. The Magi – Who were they?

I am still surprised about how many people don’t know who were the Magi, those early visitors to the infant Jesus.  Where did they come from?  How did they know which sign in the heavens was the one they should respond to?  Why would they come specifically to Palestine and why now?   What was that “star”, since there are all sorts of things constantly going on in the heavens all the time, from comets to novas to conjunctions?  And what made the tin-pot dictator, Herod, quake so in his boots at their arrival?

When I researched these things for my book, *Creation’s Ballet for Jesus*, I discovered that there was quite a story to be told about this group of visitors, some of which will be covered in the following posts.

There really is no mystery to these visitors from the east.  Dictionaries and historical sources tell us that the name comes from the Persian empire, which at the time of Christ’s birth was a monster empire to the East of the Roman world.  There was a lot of friction between the empires and Rome did not fare very well against Persia – which is the reason why we don’t hear too much about it, since our history is dominated by the Roman perspective.  This conflict will surface later in our topics.

Rome’s concept of science revolved around its practical, efficient, and mechanical genius, as seen in their ability, for example, to formulate a cement which could set up under water, or to build roads which still bear traffic after thousands of years .  However the more abstract sciences were viewed with suspicion, such practitioners were considered as charlatans and slight-of-hand tricksters – or *magi*cians doing *magi*c.  It was an epithet that crept into the book of Acts: Elymas [Acts 13: 6, 8] and Simon (Simon “Magus”) [Acts 8: 9, 11] were Rome’s view of the “Magi.”

Did the Magi practice the occult arts?  Persons with “secret” knowledge were often advisors to kings in ancient days, already in Joseph’s and Moses’ times, but the Magi would not be involved in the dark arts, especially if they shared Zoroaster’s rejection of the evil god, Angra Mainyu.  Rather, consider the word “*magi*strate,” that is, having the level (strata) of a Magi – a word which refers to a judge or an administrator. That is quite a contrast to the negative concept of the “Magi,”  and this actually more accurately reflects the original use of the name.

The Persian word Magus, equal to the Hebrew chakam, meant “having great intelligence, wisdom and prudence.”  One of the six major “houses” of Persia, they were a hereditary scientist-priest caste of the Medes (known today as the Kurds), widely respected, the repository of Persian religious lore and learning, and religiously comparable to the Levites and Aaron’s descendents in Israel.  The Jewish philosopher Philo, a contemporary of Jesus, wrote:

Among the Persians there is a body of the Magi, who, investigating the works of nature for the purpose of becoming acquainted with the truth, would at their leisure become initiated themselves and initiate others in the divine virtues by very clear explanations.

Some have called the Magi “astrologers,” a term which today is connected to a fantasy understanding of the heavens.  Actually, throughout millennia, “astrology” was the sole name for the science of the heavens.  It was only “recently” during the time of Johannes Kepler at the end of the 16th century AD, when “astronomy” separated off on its own.  Therefore no mere “astrologers,” rather on a level comparable to their contemporary Chinese astrologers/astronomers, the Magi were as fully scientists in this and in all the sciences of the day.

Godly astrology may well have had its roots as far back as Seth, son of Adam.  Even Job and the Psalms refer to specific constellations and the Mazzaroth (the Hebrew Zodiac).

As priests, they would also be the keepers of the Zoroastrian religion, and would be familiar with Zoroastrian prophecies that a sign in Virgo would herald a world Ruler Who would come from the root of Abraham.  Ernest L. Martin [*The Star that Astonished the World*, Chapter II: “Who Were the Wise Men?” []] identifies that a number of non-Jewish writers mentions the expectation that a world ruler was to come from Judea.

Although one might think of the Magi as king-makers in the Persian Empire, their failed brief revolt around 520 BC ended with Darius becoming king and their power was somewhat decreased.

During the Parthian Dynasty (in the centuries prior to Jesus’ birth), there seemed to be a revival of sorts of this group.  Persia at that time ruled through a King and the Megistanes (related to “magistrate” and roughly equivalent to a Parliament) plus advisers.  The Megistanes’ Lower House were the “Sophoi” or “Wise Ones,” while the Upper House were the “Magoi” or “Great Ones,” who as keepers of the faith gave civil and political counsel with religious authority, based on the knowledge of the mysteries of the heavens, of the configurations of heavenly bodies, and of the marvels of the earth sciences.

Next: Zoroaster meets Jehovah


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