Thursday, December 18, 2008

Gold, frankincense, and myrrh

by John D Ramsey

This week my children have impressed me with their generosity to each other and their generosity to those outside our family. Their giving has been kind, sacrificial, and even extravagant.

Lately, I have been thinking of other extravagant gift bearers: the magi who came to visit Jesus in Bethlehem. To understand the account of the magi’s visit we must first understand who the magi were. The English word, magic, derives from the Greek word magus. Yet it would be clumsy to interpret the historical meaning of the word by its modern connotation. The word magi occurs five times in the New Testament: three times in Matthew and twice in Acts. In Acts 8 and Acts 13, Luke writes of a Jewish magus named Simon. Simon was known in Samaria as “the Great Power of God.” Most English translations of the New Testament obfuscate the reference to Simon being a Magi. The NIV and King James refer to Simon as a sorcerer. The NASB refers to Simon as a magician, but translates the same word as magi in Matthew. The King James refers to the magi in Matthew as “wise men.” It is a shame when translators intentionally shade the meaning of words. With only five occurrences of a word in the New Testament, it is unjustifiable to alter the translation based upon context.

Thankfully, the word magi occurs in the context of history. In the Septuagint (LXX), the book of Daniel refers to magi eight times. The translators of the LXX understood that Hebraic and Aramaic references to magi in the book of Daniel referred to a specific class of men. In Genesis and Exodus the Hebrew word chartom, was translated in the LXX as sophistas, or wise men. Yet when the translators of the LXX encountered the same word in Daniel, they translated it magus. The LXX translators knew the distinction between the wise men of Egypt and the magi of Persia.

Herodotus disambiguates the meaning of magi, helping us understand both the Old Testament record via the LXX as well as the New Testament record. According to Herodotus’ The Histories – Book One, the Magi were a tribe of the Medes. Moreover, according to The Histories – Book One and The Histories – Book Seven, the Magi were well known for their ability to interpret dreams. In Book One, Herodotus writes about Cyaxares, saying, “This vision he laid before such of the Magi as had the gift of interpreting dreams, who expounded its meaning to him in full, whereat he was greatly terrified.”

Later in the same book, Herodotus writes, “The Magi are a very peculiar race, different entirely from the Egyptian priests, and indeed from all other men whatsoever.” Herodotus’ short editorial establishes two fantastic facts. First, he validates the distinction between Egyptian and Persian wise men that the Septuagint translators also understood. Secondly, Herodotus erases any distinction between the race of the Magi and the practitioners of mageuwn.

The magi in Daniel differ from the conjurers, diviners, and astrologers from Persia, too. In fact, the word for astrologer in the book of Daniel is the same word translated elsewhere as Chaldean. The vocation of magi coupled with the race of the Magi in the same way that the practice of astrology coupled with the race of the Chaldeans. What do you call someone who practices the vocation of a magus who is not of the Magi race? You call him a magus, or in the case of Luke’s reference to Simon, “a Jewish magus.”

When the prophet Daniel writes of magi along with enchanters, sorcerers, diviners and astrologers, each word is distinct in meaning. A baseball player and a football player are both athletes, but the sports are distinct. A dentist and an optometrist are both doctors but you would only go to one for a root canal. Consequently, when Matthew writes about the magi coming to see Jesus, we should not presume that they were astrologers, sorcerers, or anything else other than interpreters of dreams from a tribe of the Medes.

Likewise, when Luke writes of Simon the magi, we should likewise not presume that he was a sorcerer. Putting the English definition of magic and magician aside, we can see that Simon presented himself to be a Daniel – a revealer of dreams and a prophet of God. However, Luke tells us that Simon, the Jewish magus, was a false prophet.

Nebuchadnezzar refers to the real Daniel as the chief of the magi saying,
O Belteshazzar, chief of the [magi], since I know that a spirit of the holy gods is in you and no mystery baffles you, tell me the visions of my dream which I have seen, along with its interpretation.

Daniel 4:9 (NASB)
When Nebuchadnezzar referred to Daniel as the chief of the magi, he was not referring to Daniel as a practitioner of sorcery; rather, he acknowledged Daniel’s God-given ability to reveal dreams. Obviously, there is a distinction between Daniel’s gift of interpreting dreams and the occult practices of the magi. Yet, Nebuchadnezzar could only describe Daniel from his frame of reference so he called Daniel, “chief of the magi.”

The men who came from the east to worship Jesus were magi. To say that they were astrologers, conjurers, sorcerers, or diviners would be as clumsy as saying that Peyton Manning plays professional baseball for the Indianapolis Colts. Football Player == Athlete == Baseball Player is a logical fallacy. Peyton Manning played baseball in high school, but we cannot infer that by the fact that he plays football for the Colts. A magus might have practiced astrology or sorcery, but we cannot infer that by the title. Vocationally, the magi interpreted dreams. To assume that the magi were primarily astrologers ignores the history of the word.

Nevertheless, many teach that the magi were enlightened astrologers who were anticipating the Christ based upon Balaam’s prophecy:

I see him, but not now;
I behold him, but not near.
A star will come out of Jacob;
a scepter will rise out of Israel.

Numbers 24:17 (NIV)

The star and scepter in this passage, while messianic symbols, are figurative. Yet the magi witnessed a visible phenomenon. Applying this correlation to the magi and the star of Bethlehem opens the door to an infinite number of arbitrary scriptural correlations. With such rules of interpretation, you could construct anything from Scripture. Presuming that the magi were astrologers because they followed a star is as careless as presuming there were three magi because they brought gold, frankincense, and myrrh.

Yet people stumble on this question: How did the Magi know that the star of Bethlehem announced the birth of Christ? Church tradition has decided upon an unscholarly and impractical answer to that question. Presuming that the magi were astrologers who studied Old Testament prophecy, why did they need to ask Herod where the child had been born? The Jewish teachers of the law answered Herod’s inquiry without hesitation, paraphrasing the prophet Micah.

But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
for out of you will come a ruler
who will be the shepherd of my people Israel.

Matthew 2:6 (NIV)

This was news to the magi. When they left Herod and started toward Bethlehem, they again spotted the star. “[It] went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they were overjoyed.” Matthew 2:9 (NIV) Whatever the star of Bethlehem was, it was not an astrophysical entity. Nor is walking behind a light in the sky an astrological practice. Yet the light went ahead of them on the road and came to a stop over the house where Jesus was.

The star leading the magi is more akin to the pillar of fire and the cloud leading Israel in Sinai – a fully miraculous revelation from God. In modern astronomy, a star has a very precise definition, yet to the ancients a star was a small light in the sky. We would err to try to force a modern definition of a word upon an ancient text. We may never know why God led the magi by a light in the sky anymore than we will know why a host of angels appeared to the shepherds. God works the way he wants to work, and not necessarily the way we expect him to. The magi followed the light to Bethlehem because they believed it would lead them to Christ.

On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold and of incense and of myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, they returned to their country by another route.

Matthew 2:11-12 (NIV)

So how did the magi know that the star would lead them to the one born king of the Jews? I propose that the answer is obvious – although unstated. The magi knew about the Christ by the same means that they knew to go home by another way. If God led them away from Herod through their dreams, could he not have also revealed himself to them in dreams? These men were magi – they interpreted dreams. It is more probable that God provided necessary information to the magi in their dreams than presuming that the magi deciphered God’s plan by their intellect and superstition. Parsimony leaves little room for astrology in Matthew chapter two.

So, the dreamers came to Bethlehem to worship the child who had captured their hearts and their hopes. When they found the boy, Jesus, they presented him with their treasures of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. To kneel before the king of the Jews these men traveled hundreds of miles.

God revealed the birth of Jesus Christ to Jewish shepherds who were nearby, and he revealed the birth of Jesus Christ to the magi who were far away. The shepherds were close by both physically and figuratively, and the magi were far away both physically and figuratively. Yet in both cases, God put lights in the sky announcing that God had become man. The shepherds saw the glory of the Lord in the sky and heard the voice of the angel saying,

Fear not: for, behold,
I bring you good tidings of great joy,
which shall be to all people.
For unto you is born this day
in the city of David
a Saviour,
which is Christ the Lord.

Luke 2:10, 11 (KJV)

Likewise, the magi saw a light in the sky, and God told them that this light would lead them to him who was born king of the Jews. Neither the shepherds nor the magi could have figured it out on their own. Rather God revealed himself to men inviting them to come into the presence of Jesus. Both the shepherds and the magi responded in faith and came to Bethlehem. Both the shepherds and the magi worshiped and glorified God.

The magi in Matthew 2 embody the mystery of God’s salvation. Through the person of Jesus Christ, he has reached out men who were far away. God met them in their darkness – the darkness of the night and the darkness of their dreams – to bring them by faith into the light of Jesus Christ.

As God reveals himself to us in the person of his Son, may we, too, like the magi come to worship him with our lives and with our resources.

Read more about gold, frankincense, and myrrh here.

1 comment:

  1. A very interesting study. Thanks I really enjoyed it.