Vol. 6, No. 6
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The Greek word magoi (Matthew 2:1), that is translated "wise men" (KJV, NKJV, ASV), "magi" (NASB, NIV), and "astrologers" (NEB), has a literal, unsavory meaning pointing to "one trained in astrology and dream interpretation," to a "magician, sorcerer" (Barclay M. Newman, Jr., Greek-English Dictionary of the New Testament, p. 110). The literal translation of Matthew's magoi "were a priestly caste," with the word, from "the 1st century A.D. onward," applied "to magicians and soothsayers" (Encyclopedia Britannica, vol. 14, p. 569).
The literal meaning of magoi was used by Luke (mageuon) in describing Simon of Samaria, as one who "practiced magic in the city" and who gave out that he was "some great one" (Acts 8:9). The same literal meaning of a form of magoi Luke used to describe Elymas Bar-jesus of Paphos as a "sorcerer," and Paul called him a "son of the devil" (Acts 13:6, 8-10).
But the literal meaning of magoi (English, "magi") as "sorcerers," or "astrologers" (Matthew 2:1, NEB), is false in its meaning in Matthew 2:1-16). The magi of Matthew 2:1-16 were God-fearing devout men whom God miraculously directed by a star to find Jesus. Therefore, contextually, the magi of Matthew 2:1-16 are the "wise men" of the KJV, NKJV, ASV.
The Encyclopedia Britannica (vol. 14, p. 570) ignores the context in Matthew 2:1-16 about the magi in that passage, declaring a "connection of the Magi with astrology." Moreover, the lexicographer Joseph Henry Thayer does the same thing in declaring that the magi of Matthew 2:1-16 were "astrologers" (A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament, p. 385).
Astrology is a "pseudo science which claims to foretell the future by studying the supposed influence . . . of the moon, sun, and stars on human affairs" (Webster). But the wise men of Matthew 2:1-16 were not under "the supposed influence" of a star, but under the actual, visible influence of a real God-directed star, and they had divine instructions to follow that star from the east all the way to Palestine. This occurrence shows that they were worshipers of the one true God, and shows that God recognized them as his followers. That God was back of the journey of the wise men is further seen by the fact that the guiding star led them from Jerusalem to Bethlehem, and stopped above the house where was the baby Jesus.
On their own, the wise men, without a real miraculous help from God, could not have known that a "King of the Jews" was to be born, nor could they have known that the birth of the King was imminent, nor could they have known in what country he was to be born.
Furthermore, the devotion of the wise men to God is seen, not in an imaginary exercise in astrology, but their willingness to make an arduous and tiresome journey, not to be paid money, but to enjoy the privilege of giving gold, frankincense, and myrrh as they worshiped the newborn King. The gold was God's providence as a "seasonable relief to Joseph and Mary in their present poor condition" (Matthew Henry's Commentary, vol. V, p. 14). "The gold which they presented to the child was a providential supply for the expenses to Egypt and to live upon while there" (H. Leo Boles, A Commentary on the Gospel According to Matthew, p. 49).
"Some will have these gifts to be emblematic to the Divinity, the regal office, and manhood of Christ. 'They offered him incense as their God; gold as their king; and myrrh as united to a human body, subject to suffering and death'" (Adam Clarke, New Testament Commentaries, vol. I, p. 46).
Men not physically fit could not have attempted their fatiguing trip. "No reliable tradition deals with the country whence these particular magi came" (International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, p. 1962). All that is certain that they "came from the east to Jerusalem" (Matthew 2:1).
Arabia was southeast of Jerusalem, some 200 miles. Could you, or would you, ride 200 miles on a camel's back to see Jesus? Persia was northeast, some 300 miles. Clement of Alexandria said that the magi came from Persia (International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, p. 1962). Directly east was Chaldea, some 500 miles. Origen held that they came from Chaldea (International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, ibid.).
How many wise men that made the long trip we do not know. Traditions say 3 or 12 or 14, with the number 3 being most accepted, because of the 3 gifts. "The names Gaspar, Melchior, and Balthasar are first mentioned in the 6th century" (Encyclopedia Britannica, vol. 14, p. 570). Those three names Lew Wallace put in his book of Ben Hur.
If the people devoted to God, named and unnamed, in Hebrews chapter 11, may rightfully be described as "heroes of the faith," then certainly the wise men who wanted to worship Jesus, and did so, may also be listed in the catalogue of God's faithful followers. Thank God, he has "a book of remembrance" of those who "feared the Lord, and that thought upon his name. And they shall be mine, says the Lord of hosts, in that day when I make up my jewels" (Malachi 3:16-17).