In-Depth Studies, News, Old Testament

The Magi

Author: Frank J. Brierton

MAGI. The word is well-known, perhaps most commonly for its use in the Bible. Matthew 2:1 NAB.

Astrologers from the East arrived one day in Jerusalem inquiring” where is the newborn King of the Jews?  We observed his star at its rising and have come to pay him homage…”.   The star which they had observed at its rising went ahead of them until it came to a standstill over the place where the child was. They were overjoyed at seeing the star, and on entering the house found the child with Mary his mother. They prostrated themselves and did him homage. Then they opened their coffers and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.

This is but one version of the story of the three Christmas Magi, sometimes referred to as the three wise men, or as in the source referenced, three astrologers. But who were these Magi really, and was their role more than what we are commonly told? There is evidence that the Magi had a direct, influential relationship with both the Jewish people and the early Christians, and were even cohabitants with the community at Qumran, which authored the Dead Sea Scrolls. They were directly involved in the beliefs of many faiths in today’s world.

The story of the Magi has evolved to multiple legends of three Kings, whose identities change between the legends. In Psalm 72: 10 they are the kings of Tarshish, Seba, and Sheba. In the Syriac cave of Treasure, Perozadh, King of Sheba, has changed his companions to Hormizdah, King of Persia, and Yazdegerd, King of Saba.  In Excerpts of Latina Barbari, we find them as Kings Melgon (Melchoir) from Persia, Balthasar from Arabia and Gasper from India. It is these three Kings whose graves Marco Polo claimed to have actually visited in Tehran Persia1. Yet the Bible  quoted above stated in its footnotes:

“Astrologers from the east: the various personages designated by the Greek term magoi did not include Kings. Many think that the allusion is to learned men from Babylon, who had contact with Jewish messianism.”  While it is common to find three terms interchanged to describe the visitors to Jesus’  cradle:  Eastern wise men, astrologers or Magi, the translators of the Bible referenced specifically chose the term “astrologer” to equate with Magi, not” Kings”.

Historians, on the other hand, identify the Magi neither as Kings or astrologers but as priests from the land of Persia. According to the Byzantine historian Gregorius Cedrenius, there is a legend that the  god Perseus brought the initiation of magic to Persia, and with his secrets cause the celestial fire to descend to earth where it is preserved in a Temple under the name of the sacred immortal fire. He then chose virtuous men as ministers of a new cult: the Magi, Guardians of this fire.

It Is the ancient historian Herodotus , who identifies the Magi as originally one of the six tribes of the Medes, who functioned as priests and diviners under the  Achaemedian Persians in the 6th to 4th centuries B.C.   They were the priests who presided over ceremonies in worship of Ahura Mazda,. 

If you do not believe in the ‘literal’ word of the Bible, that is no relief from the sense of this story. Who so ever you choose to believe wrote the story, was of that era. They knew who the Magi were, what they were and where they came from. We can only believe their inclusion in the story was deliberate. So it cannot be by passed so easily.

I asked myself, and still ask, why our religious leaders, who surely know history(?), choose to just ignore this link, and explore the possible significance of priests of a strange belief system, in a foreign land now Iran, followed this path. These priests also had a savior they sought, the Saoshyant.   Perhaps they hoped to find him in the Christ child.

The belief in heaven that Christianity took from it’s Jewish roots, did not start with the Jewish people. Prior to the Exile, the Jewish belief was that the dead went to a shadowy place called Sheol. The Jewish people belief in heaven and hell did not come until during and after the Diaspora, and their exposure to Zoroastrianism. We can thank the Persian King Cyrus for making that happen.

Perhaps there is much we can learn from our deeper roots, if we open our eyes and dig further. Maybe this ‘thing’ that we have in common with Persia, now Iran, could lead to something else. Either way, the Magi should not be dismissed too lightly, as three old albeit wise men.

Frank J. Brierton

Frank Brierton spent 26 years in the United States Army, retiring as a Chief Warrant Officer, CW4, Personnel Officer (aka: HR), with a career culminating by serving the last 8 years, as the Deputy Chief of the Military Personnel Office, Washington Headquarters Services, for the Office of the Secretary of Defense (OSD) in the Pentagon.

After retiring from the military, Frank spent the next 12 years in Executive and Legal Recruiting, rising to Executive Vice President and Team Leader.  This resulted in significant exposure to and expertise in a multitude of other industries beyond the focus of his personal legal and executive practices.

Frank is currently retired in sunny Florida, free to pursue his studies of scripture, religion, and ancient history.  Frank obtained his Bachelor of Science degree from the University of the State of New York,  with dual concentrations in Operations Management and History.  He obtained his Masters degree in Ancient History of the Near East, from Vermont College of Norwich University, Montpelier Vermont.  Frank is a lifetime member of the Military Officers Association of America (MOAA), and a recent member of Mensa.