Thursday, December 19, 2019

When the Magi Became Wise Men

I wonder how jarring the second chapter of Matthew might have been for the Jews who first read this Gospel.  The first act of worship toward Jesus came from a group of gentile magicians.  The magi were not kings, nor were they "wise men."  Our word "magic" is related to the word, "magi."  Magi were practitioners of magic.  History has embellished their identities and tried to sanitize what they were.

These are not the only magoi mentioned in the Bible.  Looking at the other magoi helps to get a better picture of what manner of people they were and how they would have been viewed by the Jewish population.

There are two other magoi in the New Testament mentioned by name.  The first is Simon in Acts 8.  Simon the magician practiced the magic arts, and seemed to be interested in acquiring the ability to perform miracles by the Spirit so he could add that to his bag of tricks.  The second magos in the New Testament is a man named called "Bar-Jesus," who was struck blind for opposing the Gospel in Acts 13.  Both of these men were charlatans.

In the Old Testament, Nebuchadnezzar had magoi that served him in his court in Daniel 2.  Of course, they were impotent and ineffective.   Ancient Jewish literature identified several other as magoi in the Hebrew scriptures.  Balaam was classed among the magoi.  Jewish literature pokes fun at Balaam as thick headed and an idiot.  The story of Balaam and the talking donkey continues to be a source of amusement.  Pharaoh also had magoi in his court which Jewish literature pokes fun at in Exodus 7-9.  Even though the magicians were able to also produce snakes with their staves as Moses did, Moses' staff ate theirs.  When Moses struck the water of the Nile and it turned to blood, the response of Pharaoh's magicians was to also turn water into blood.  When Moses stretched out his hand over the waters and frogs came up and covered the land, the response of Pharaoh's magicians was to also produce frogs!  Instead of making them go away, the magicians added to the problem!

Sometimes, sorcerers were referred to as "wise men."  However, in that culture, a "wise man" often meant simply that a person was educated in some sort of trade or practice.  It was a way of referring to some sort of professional.  Therefore, one who had been educated in the art of magic or sorcery would have been referred to as a "wise man."  However, Jews never saw magoi as wise.  When it comes to magoi, ancient Jewish literature pointed out that although they were "educated," they were educated in nonsense. 

All of this demonstrates that magoi were never seen in a positive light among Jews.  They were idiots at best, and charlatans at worst.  Instead of thinking of people dressed in royal robes or scholar's gowns, we ought to think of the magi as being like those from a seedy side street who peer into crystal balls, or who deal with spells, incantations, and potions. 

How amazing that a group of magoi were the first to worship Jesus as King!  I have to wonder why this was included in Matthew, a Gospel which appears to have a Jewish audience in mind.  It is equally interesting that one of the last acknowledgements of Jesus also comes on the lips of a gentile when the Centurion exclaimed, "Surely, this was the Son of God!"

As I think about this, I am reminded of 1 Corinthians 1:30 that says that Jesus the Messiah has become our wisdom from God.  I am also reminded of Proverbs 4:7 which points out where the beginning of wisdom is.  The beginning of wisdom is this: Get Wisdom!  Wisdom doesn't just come without effort.  In Proverbs 2:7, the sage said that one must search for it as hidden treasure.

These gentile magicians went on a quest to find Jesus, who is our wisdom from God.  They found him and worshipped him as King.  If they accepted Jesus as Lord, then those who were formerly fools had become wise.  What a contrast to the Jews who rejected Jesus.  1 Corinthians 1:27 says that God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise.  Is that what has happened here?

Perhaps it is appropriate for history to remember these magicians as "wise men" after all.