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|Crux of the matter|
|Speak of the devil|
|An act of faith|
The Magi in the Bible
The Bible, specifically the Gospel of Matthew, refers to Magi, Kings, or Wise Men who visited Jesus a few weeks after he was born to give the baby Jesus gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. Of the three various translations, the third translation is probably the most accurate, as the men appeared to be astrologers, not priests or kings. However, given the prominent place of astrology in several ancient Near Eastern religions, the distinction between an astrologer wise man and a priest would be less than clear cut. The main reason to render these Magi as The Three Wise Men™, rather than The Three Sorcerers as the term Magi is translated elsewhere (e.g in the case of Simon Magus mentioned below) is of course that the Bible tends to take a dim view of witchcraft, even though, in typical Biblical style, this attitude is somewhat inconsistent.[note 1] As Acts is particularly critical of
sorcerers Magi, the more innocuous term "Wise Men" serves as a (wholly artificial and arbitrary) distinction between the good "Wise Men" and the bad "sorcerers". After all, we can't have a gospel which tells us that Magi honoring Jesus was a sign of his divinity while the equally canonical Acts tells us that Magi are all charlatans and crooks, can we?[note 2]
How many Magi?
Don't believe what the songs say. The Bible never, ever, ever says how many Magi there were. There were three gifts, and tradition assumes one Magus per gift, but screw tradition. Clearly we need to teach the controversy and tell the children that there was a fourth Magus, who was a bit skint and had to chip in on the frankincense instead. Or perhaps there were only two Magi who happened to bring three gifts, or maybe even a half dozen Magi, for that matter. If we are to take the Bible literally, as fundamentalists insist we should, then we have no way to know how many Magi there were. Inferring one magus per gift would be interpreting the Bible, after all.
In the Greek of the New Testament, the same Greek word (μάγος) identifies Simon Magus, a sorcerer named in Acts 8, who wishes to buy the powers of the apostles, as well as Elymas the magus (the King James Version here translates μάγος as 'sorcerer') struck blind in Acts 13.
- Generally, it's fine when the "good guys", like King Solomon, do it, but typically bad otherwise.
- Early Church Fathers, such as saints Jerome, Origen and Augustine, were apparently less concerned with PR than with honesty and consistency in translation and thus used "magician" or similar words when translating "Magi", including in Matthew, but hey, what did the Church Fathers know, eh?