Saturday, December 17, 2011

The Magi

The Journey of the Magi
by James Tissot

Jesus, the Magi and Herod
The Magi (singular Magus, from Latin, via Greek μάγος ; Old English: Mage; from Old Persian maguš) was a tribe from ancient Media, who - prior to the absorption of the Medes into the Persian Empire in 550 BC - were responsible for religious and funerary practices. Later they accepted the Zoroastrian religion (Zoroastrianism), however, not without changing the original message of its founder, Zarathustra (Zoroaster), to what is today known as "Zurvanism", which would become the predominant form of Zoroastrianism during the Sassanid era (AD 226–650). No traces of Zurvanism exist beyond the 10th century.
The best known Magi are the "Wise Men from the East" in the Bible, whose graves Marco Polo claimed to have seen in what is today the district of Saveh, in Tehran, Iran. In English, the term may refer to a shaman, sorcerer, or wizard; it is the origin of the English words magic and magician.
1 After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem 2 and asked, "Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews We saw his star in the east and have come to worship him."

3 When King Herod heard this he was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him.
—Matthew 2:1-3

Nature of the Magi

Unlike Luke, the author of Matthew pays no attention to the actual birth of Jesus, focusing instead on what occurred before and after. Skipping the actual birth, Matthew introduces the Magi, who have come to pay their respects, while accidentally informing Herod of Jesus' existence. The word Magi is a Latinization of the plural of the Greek word magos (μαγος pl. μαγοι), which is a derivative from Old Persian Magupati. The term is a specific occupational title referring to the priestly caste of Zoroastrianism. As part of their religion, these priests paid particular attention to the stars, and gained an international reputation for astrology, which was at that time a highly regarded science, only later giving rise to aspects of mathematics and astronomy (as well as the modern practice of fortune-telling going by the same name.) Their religious practices and use of astrological sciences caused derivatives of the term Magi to be applied to the occult in general and led to the English term magic.

The KJV translation as wise men may be somewhat politically motivated: the same word is translated as sorcerer to condemn "Elymas the sorcerer"
7 who was an attendant of the proconsul, Sergius Paulus. The proconsul, an intelligent man, sent for Barnabas and Saul because he wanted to hear the word of God. 8 But Elymas the sorcerer (for that is what his name means) opposed them and tried to turn the proconsul from the faith. 9 Then Saul, who was also called Paul, filled with the Holy Spirit, looked straight at Elymas and said, 10 “You are a child of the devil and an enemy of everything that is right! You are full of all kinds of deceit and trickery. Will you never stop perverting the right ways of the Lord
—Acts 13:8-10 NIV

and is translated "sorcery" to describe Simon Magus in Acts 8. Treating Simon Magus as being as wise as the Magi that visited Jesus could be viewed as heresy — Simon Magus was considered by many Christians as the founder of Gnosticism, a Christian group condemned as heresy. It is unlikely that the New Testament would deliberately refer to Simon Magus in glowing terms; the name of the canonical crime of simony derives from the name of Simon Magus.


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