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Matthew 2 recounts the visit of the wise men to the nativity:

2:1 After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, in the time of King Herod, wise men 4 from the East came to Jerusalem 2 saying, “Where is the one who is born king of the Jews? For we saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.”

As they brought three gifts, western tradition numbers them at three (though some Eastern traditions, especially Syriac, count twelve).

The only indication of origin in the text is that they came from the East. Tradition holds they were kings. Matthew calls them μάγοι. This is often translated as "wise men" or transliterated as "magi." The notes from the NET Bible state, "The Greek term magi here describes a class of wise men and priests who were astrologers (L&N 32.40)." What does it mean that they were "wise men"? Was this an official title in the Eastern realms or more of an honorific? What more has been learned of such "priests and astrologers"?

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The word 'magi'

Nolland1 summarizes the initial difficulty as such:

The word 'Magi' was originally applied exclusively to members of a priestly caste of the Medes and Persian [sic] who had esoteric skills in interpreting dreams. However, the use of the word broadened to embrace various categories of persons who were marked out by their superior knowledge and ability, including astrologers, soothsayers, and even oriental sages. From here the term became debased first to functioning as a label for sorcerers and magicians in general, and then in the end to becoming a term for quacks, deceivers, and seducers. The difficulty with the term is that later developments do not displace earlier usages, but rather the various usages tend to coexist. . . .

This is also explained by Ogden2 as follows:

One of the words that the Greeks used to refer to a magician is magos (pl. magoi), a term originally used to denominate members of a caste of Iranian fire-priests. It has been suggested that members of the caste made their way to the Greek cities of Asia Minor in the second half of the sixth century BC and from there to the rest of the Greek world. The suspicion with which the rituals performed by magoi were met may have led to the word's acquiring a derogatory connotation.

Picking up on the obvious and subtle in Matthew's narrative, Nolland3 continues:

Matthew's Magi do not interpret dreams, but they do observe and interpret the stars (or at least one), and they are from the East. If Matthew has one eye on the role of Magi/astrologers in Moses' infancy haggadah (as seems likely), then this helps to bring the role of astrologer to the fore.


Astrologers following Jewish traditions

Because of the original association of magi with 'a priestly caste of the Medes and Persian[s]', and that Matthew mentions the magi come from 'the east', it has been commonly accepted that the magi are, indeed, astrologers who traveled from Chaldea, Media, or Persia.

Conservative Christian scholarship sometimes has the magi in Matthew following after some sort of prophetic tradition that traces back to from the Jews who were exiled to Babylon. Smillie4 calls the magi 'Chaldean seekers [of the Christ]', summarizing this view with:

The magi who come seeking Jesus in Matthew 2 are informed of the plan of God precisely because Israel had earlier been deported to and had taken up residence in Babylon, where their Scriptures became available to public scrutiny.

This is sometimes taken to a much more specific end, that the magi seen in Matthew came from a tradition that went back to the sage Daniel. MacArthur5 says:

The magi from the east . . . who came to see Jesus were of a completely different sort [than Simon Magus]. Not only were they true magi, but they surely had been strongly influenced by Judaism, quite possibly even by some of the prophetic writings, especially that of Daniel.

However, this entire theory would be undermined if messianic thought didn't emerge until after the Babylonian exile. The view that such a tradition was taught to Persian magi by Daniel is virtually non-existent in critical scholarship, since the stories found in Daniel 1-6 are considered to be legendary fiction.6


A connection to Balaam's 'star' prophecy

At least one alternate connection, from Goldberg,7 has been suggested as well:

Also of particular interest is the parallel between the non-Jewish magi who come to Jesus having seen 'his' star and that other Gentile magus, Balaam, who foresaw a star coming forth from Jacob (see Num. 24:17). For Matthew, therefore, Jesus' prophesied messiahship is once more unmistakable. See Brown, Birth of the Messiah, p. 188-96.


A text-critical approach

Within the narrative of Matthew, especially the opening chapters, it has long been recognized that the author sought to draw parallels between Jesus' career and that of Moses, but 'caution' is needed in drawing any connections to the 'star' prophecy of Balaam. Luz offers, I think, the best summary treatment of how the episode in Matthew should be approached. As Luz8 says:

Among kindred stories of the royal child, the Moses haggadah is closest to our story and to [Matthew] 2:13-23. Magi (TgJ on Exod. 1:15; ExR 1:18 on Exod. 1:22) or scribes (Josephus, Ant. 2.205) predict for Pharaoh the birth of Moses; he is perplexed (Josephus, Ant. 2.206) and conceives the plan of infanticide. The Moses traditions probably have fructified our story. At the same time, it proves itself independent of them—especially in the use of the motif of the Magi—that it can in no way be understood as a mere copy of the Moses haggadah.

This does not explain the motif of the star. A star occurs in the story of the Abraham child who is pursued by Nimrod. However, the examples are from a late period. In non-Jewish parallels there are reports of a comet at the birth of Mithridates and in the Nero episode in Suetonius. A "great sign in the sky" is mentioned in Rev. 12:1. Comets or other phenomena of light at the birth of great men are widespread in antiquity. The question is difficult whether there is reminiscence of Balaam's prophecy of the star out of Jacob (Num. 24:17). The messianic interpretation of this passage was widespread; the history of interpretation shows that Christians were aware of it. But the star is not identified with the Messiah, as in the interpretation of Num. 24:17. Literal reminiscences of the story of Balaam in Numbers 22-24 are almost completely missing in [Matthew] 2:1-12. In Jewish tradition, relationships are drawn between the Magi who appear in the Moses haggadah and Balaam, but the examples are late. Thus caution is indicated.

But this, of course, raises another question: If the author was deliberately arranging his birth narrative of Jesus to remind his readers of the birth traditions surrounding Moses, with the incorporation of a popular cosmic sign used in birth stories, should we understand the episode in Matthew as historical at all? Luz9 suggests not:

Our story is a legend told briefly and soberly which does not conform to the laws of historical probability. The desperate questions of the interpreters demonstrate this: Why did Herod not at least send a spy along with the Magi? How could the whole population of Jerusalem, the scribes, and the unpopular King Herod be perplexed by the coming of the Messiah? The star also is not described realistically, i.e., as astronomically possible.

. . .

Of all these attempts [to locate the 'star' in natural astronomical phenomena from the time period] it may be said that they rarely are a help for the explanation of our narrative. Matthew intended to describe a miraculous star which appeared in the East, preceded the Magi on the way from Jerusalem to Bethlehem (thus from north to south!), and then remained standing above the house where the child was to be found.

. . .

Finally, the fact that Luke does not report a similar event argues against a historical nucleas; besides, the episode of the Magi could not be integrated into the Lukan birth narrative. The parents of Jesus too seem not to know anything of the miraculous event at his birth (Mark 3:31-35)! In short, a historical nucleas is no longer comprehensible; however, the numerous parallel traditions in the history of religions makes the embellishment of the narrative more understandable.

In this case, there were no literal magi who visited Jesus. Any attempts to associate them with a particular group would be futile, because the author of Matthew (or perhaps an early Christian tradition he is relying on) didn't see their exact identity as necessary to the birth narrative's purpose.


Footnotes

1 John Nolland, The Gospel of Matthew: A Commentary on the Greek Text (2005), p.108.

2 Daniel Ogden, A Companion to Greek Religion (2010), p.358.

3 Nolland, Gospel of Matthew, p. 109.

4 Gene R. Smillie, '"Even the Dogs": Gentiles in the Gospel of Matthew', JETS 45.1 (2002), p. 73-97.

5 John F. MacArthur, The MacArthur New Testament Commentary: Matthew 1-7 (1985), p. 28. (Bold original.)

6 See the conclusion, with its citation, in my answer here.

7 Michael Goldberg, Jews and Christians: Getting Our Stories Straight (2001), p. 149, note 1.

8 Ulrich Luz, Matthew 1-7 (1992), p. 131. (Italic original.)

9 Ibid., p. 132-133.

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Priests, Astrologers, Healers, Diviners, Fortune Tellers, Seers and Shamans were a class of people who were considered to have secret and sacred knowledge. It was believed that their connection to the spiritual realm allowed them insight and access to wisdom and knowledge that could only be divine. This made them "wise men" and the Greek word for wise men used here is more accurately translated as Magi as these men were from this class of people. In fact, the word in Greek is pronounced "magos" and the Greek Lexicon indicates that this indicates they were though to be magically gifted

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As a way of getting a slightly different view on the question, it's interesting to look at translations in other modern languages. In Spanish, for example, you can look up the RVR1960 translation, one of the best. Here's the phrase you get for the wise men.

unos magos

Now the word "magos" can easily be traced back, via Latin, to the original Greek word. It's made more complicated by the fact that, in ordinary usage, "magos" means "magicians". The word "unos" leaves the exact number explicitly unspecified, at least in this text. This adds support to the conclusion that the number of wise men is unknown.

As far as the issues raised by conflating wisdom with magic goes, I'm just going to call attention to the current practice of calling an infotech expert a "wizard".

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Wiki has this posted, he is using a special use of the word.

Noun

magus (plural magi)

(common usage) magician, and derogatorily sorcerer, trickster, conjurer, charlatan

(special usage) a Zoroastrian priest

Note: the two meanings overlap in classical usage— both derive from the Greco-Roman identification of "Zoroaster" as the "inventor" of astrology and magic. The first meaning ('magician') derives from the sense of "practitioner of the Zoroaster's craft", and the second meaning ('priest') from the sense of "practitioner of Zoroaster's religion".

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  • Welcome to Biblical Hermeneutics! I reformatted your answer to stop the side scroll. Please share more. – Frank Luke Aug 20 '14 at 13:25
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The wise men (magi) were probably astronomers who came from the land of Seir , (Edom) from where the Prophet Balaam prophesied about A star coming out of Jacob . The Magi would have been waiting patiently for the prophecy of Balaam to be fulfilled, evident here.

There is even an ancient tradition that Balaam, the notorious prophet from Mesopotamia, was an early member of the Magi, perhaps even their founder explained here If so, this fact would at least partially explain why the Magi at the time of Christ were aware that a special star would be used by God to announce the Savior's birth to this world. It was Balaam's prophecy, of course, as recorded in the Bible, that spoke of this future star.

Etymology

Magi is a transliteration of the Greek magos (μαγος pl. μαγοι), which is a derivative from Old Persian maguš. The term is a specific occupational title referring to the Zoroastrian priests of the late Persian Empire. The Greek word is attested from the fifth century B.C.E. as a direct loan from the term maguš, which is a Persian u-stem adjective from an Indo-Iranian root *magh, "powerful, rich." This root (*magh-) appears to have expressed ability, which is also seen in Attic Greek mekhos (cf. mechanics) and in Germanic magan (English may), magts. The original significance of the name for the Magi thus seems to have been "the powerful." Avestan has the related terms maga and magauuan, meaning "sacrifice" and "sacrificer" and the modern Persian Mobed is derived from an Old Persian compound magu-pati, "lord priest." According to the Greek writer Herodotus, the word magos was held by aristocrats of the Median nation and specifically to Zoroastrian astronomer-priests. In Herodotus' writings, the term magos usually referred to a member of the tribe of the Medes who could interpret dreams. However, with the spread of Hellenism, magos started to be used as an adjective, meaning "magical," as in magas techne, "ars magica" (e.g. used by Philostratus). Some translations of the Bible, such as the King James Version and the New Revised Standard Version, render magos as "Wise Men." Yet, the same Greek word is rendered as "sorcerer" or magician in the account of "Elymas" the sorcerer in Acts of the Apostles 13. The term is also used to identify Simon Magus in Acts 8. Since the passage in Matthew implies that they were observers of the stars, most conclude that the intended meaning of magos is "astrologer-priests." Indeed, John Wycliffe's (c. 1330–1384 C.E.) translation of the Gospel reads not "wise men" but "astrologers" because in ancient times "astrology" encompassed both astrology and astronomy. Ludolph of Saxony (died 1378) thus wrote: The three pagan kings were called Magi not because they were magicians but because of the great science of astrology which was theirs. Those whom the Hebrews called scribes and the Greeks, philosophers, and the Latins, wise men, the Persians called Magi. And the reason that they were called kings is that in those days it was the custom for the philosophers and wise men to be rulers (Vita Christi) 2

Bible Astronomy

In Biblical Astronomy, Seir refers to the name of a star in the constellation Orion, which is considered to be a Messiah figure representing Christ. Sacred Astronomy is the study of "the Gospel in the Stars," an examination of the constellations in Earth’s night sky to discern the hidden allegorical message within them from the Creator God to His people.For example, in the Dendera Zodiac, the hawk symbol for Canis Major is identified by the term "Naz Seir". This hawk symbol represents the star Sirius in Canis Major. In Egyptian, "Naz" means "Sent," while "Seir" means "Prince" or "Chief." Therefore, the title "Naz Seir" can mean "Sent Prince." Since "Naz" and "Zar" both mean "Prince" in Hebrew, Naz Seir could also mean "Prince of princes," a fitting title for Jesus as the King of kings. This may also be the hidden origin of the term Nazarene used to identify Christ, the Naz, Zar, or Prince of Peace Ancestor of the "dukes of the Horites" in the land of Seir, later Edom (Gen. 36:20-30).{1}

This extract helps one understand about astronomy in the land of Seir,where Josephus mentions Seir in relation to the stars.

Is Siriad (Seiris) connected with Seir? Manetho (pillars of Thoth) spelled Siriad as Seiread. The root word for both Seiris and Seiread is Seir. Was Josephus referring to the original land of Seir which extended to Egypt? Notice the spelling. Most scholars explain Josephus’ land of Seiris as the land where they studied the star Sirius, called Sopdet by the Egyptians, and Seiris by the Greeks. It is note worthy to realize the Greeks attached a feminine gender to the Seirus (Seiris) legends. Egyptians associated Isis with the star. This is only part of the story. It is not only a reference to the star but also the land of Seir and included part of Egypt. Some scholars interpret Josephus’ word as seiris not siriad. It is once again a misinterpretation of the original Greek word to Latin.

Interestingly, in these two novels, it is written that one of the Magi was named Seir it is also written here that Seir had "dark skin."

Conclusion

From the information available it appears that the land of Seir was a place where the practice of astrology/astronomy was prevalent,even up until the birth of Christ.This prophecy about Seir may help us understand about the decline of astrology/astronomy as people came to believe in Jesus Christ - The bright morning star, causing star gazers' like the "Magi" to pass into obscurity.

References

{1} Wikipedia.

2 New world encyclopedia

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  • The connection to Balaam is interesting (this is the first time I've heard it; most often I hear people connect the magi to Daniel). Do you have any first-hand references that you could cite? – user2910 Aug 21 '14 at 21:25
  • @MarkEdward Here is the reference-books.google.co.uk/… – Bagpipes Aug 24 '14 at 15:13
  • This is good stuff and I'm all for editing to improve posts for almost any reason (I'm even down with minor edits), but bumping the question to the homepage 17 times now is a little excessive. Can we ask you batch edits in slightly larger groups? There is a fully rendered preview below the edit box so you can proof read the output and edit as you review without saving a bunch of in-between states. Thanks... – Caleb Aug 26 '14 at 11:52
  • @Caleb- No problem ! I got a bit carried away trying to select and process the information. – Bagpipes Aug 26 '14 at 13:23
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They were astronomers. During that time period they typically travelled in groups of three, although the Bible does not say that there were three. The did not come to the manger either. The Bible says they met the "young child." It was a several year journey to get there.

sources: Matthew 2 (young child)

http://branham.org/messageplayer/63-0803E (they were astronomers)

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  • Hello, and welcome to Biblical Hermeneutics! Please take a moment to take our site tour. Showing your work is a requirement on this site. Tell us not only your conclusions but how you’ve arrived at them. – Susan Aug 14 '14 at 5:09
  • Susan's right, this doesn't really help unless you tell us why you think they were astronomers and that they typically travelled in groups of three. How do you know that? When you say "the Bible says", it's helpful to quote the verse(s), but when you make factual assertions about history it's helpful to show us your source or reasoning. – Jack says try topanswers.xyz Aug 14 '14 at 8:43

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