Friday, December 26, 2003

Who Were the Magi?

Most of what we associate with the "Magi" is from early church traditions. Most have assumed there were three of them, since they brought three specific gifts (but the Biblical text doesn't number them). They are called "Magi" from the Latinized form of the Greek word magoi, transliterated from the Persian, for a select sect of priests. (Our word "magic" comes from the same root.)
As the years passed, the traditions became increasingly embellished. By the 3rd century they were viewed as kings. By the 6th century they had names: Bithisarea, Melichior, and Gathaspa. Some even associated them with Shem, Ham and Japheth--the three sons of Noah--and thus with Asia, Africa, and Europe. A 141h century Armenian tradition identifies them as Balthasar, King of Arabia; Melchior, King of Persia; and Gasper, King of India.
The ancient Magi were a hereditary priesthood of the Medes (known today as the Kurds) credited with profound and extraordinary religious knowledge. After some Magi, who had been attached to the Median court, proved to be expert in the interpretation of dreams, Darius the Great established them over the state religion of Persia. (2) (Contrary to popular belief, the Magi were not originally followers of Zoroaster. (3) That all came later.)It was in this dual capacity, whereby civil and political counsel was invested with religious authority, that the Magi became the supreme priestly caste of the Persian empire and continued to be prominent during the subsequent Seleucid, Parthian, and Sasanian periods. (4)
Later on the Magi hugely influenced Jews and since the Roman conquered Jerusalem in 63 B.C., the Magi influence slipt in to thier customs as well. In the Bible (Matthew 2), the Magi are known as the The "wise men from the East" who came to adore Jesus in Bethlehem .
In Persia much of the evidence from the acitvities of Magi comes from the Greek historian Herodotus. In his books Herodotus states that the Magi provided priests for Persia, and, regardless of dynastic vicissitudes, ever kept up their dominating religious influence. He also mentions,The Magi are a very peculiar race, different entirely from the Egyptian priests, and indeed from all other men whatsoever. The Egyptian priests make it a point of religion not to kill any live animals except those which they offer in sacrifice. The Magi, on the contrary, kill animals of all kinds with their own hands, excepting dogs and men. They even seem to take a delight in the employment, and kill, as readily as they do other animals, ants and snakes, and such like flying or creeping things.
After the downfall of Assyrian and Babylonian power, the religion of the Magi held sway in Persia. Cyrus completely conquered the sacred caste; his son Cambyses severely repressed it. The Magians revolted and set up Gaumata, their chief, as King of Persia under the name of Smerdis. He was, however, murdered (521 B.C.), and Darius became king. This downfall of the Magi was celebrated by a national Persian holiday called magophonia (Her., III, lxiii, lxxiii, lxxix). Still the religious influence of this priestly caste continued throughout the rule of the Achaemenian dynasty in Persia (Ctesias, "Persica", X-XV); and is not unlikely that at the time of the birth of Christ it was still flourishing under the Parthian dominion. Strabo (XI, ix, 3) says that the Magian priests formed one of the two councils of the Parthian Empire.
The visit of the Magi took place after the Presentation of the Child in the Temple (Luke 2:38). No sooner were the Magi departed than the angel bade Joseph take the Child and its Mother into Egypt (Matthew 2:13). From Persia, whence the Magi are supposed to have come, to Jerusalem was a journey of between 1000 and 1200 miles. Such a distance may have taken any time between three and twelve months by camel. Besides the time of travel, there were probably many weeks of preparation. The Magi could scarcely have reached Jerusalem till a year or more had elapsed from the time of the apperance of the star. St. Augustine (De Consensu Evang., II, v, 17).
The philosophy of the Magi, erroneous though it was, led them to the journey by which they were to find Christ. Magian astrology postulated a heavenly counterpart to complement man's earthly self and make up the complete human personality. His "double" (the fravashi of the Parsi) developed together with every good man until death united the two. The sudden appearance of a new and brilliant star suggested to the Magi the birth of an important person. They came to adore him - i.e., to acknowledge the Divinity of this newborn King (vv. 2, 8, 11). Some of the Fathers (St. Irenaeus, "Adv. Haer.", III, ix, 2; Progem. "in Num.", homil. xiii, 7).

Pictures of Magi:
http://www.ldolphin.org/magi.jpg


2 Comments:

Blogger Ali Mostofi said...

As an Zoroastrian Iranian Astrologer I find the comment about the Magi "The philosophy of the Magi, erroneous though it was ..." very wrong.

Astrologically three great periods were identified by ancient Iranian Astrologers, each marked by a Messianic leader known as Sayoshant. The delineations of the planets were deemed by the Magi to be a sign of the great age of Pisces with Jesus Christ its Messiah.

There is more to this, but please be careful to dismiss it all.

10:47 AM  
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7:22 PM  

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