The Nativity Magicians were social outcasts

Derek Ouellette —  January 7, 2013

Yesterday was Epiphany, the date on the religious calendar marking the arrival of “The Magi,” believed to be three, believed to be Kings. Tradition has even assigned mythological names to these three figures: Melchior, Casper and Balthasar. They are said, according to tradition, to be three Kings from three specific Eastern kingdoms: Arabia, India, Persia. The earliest record of these figures having names and specific locations appears in a manuscript dating to 500 C.E, in Egypt (in the Eastern Church it is sometimes thought that there were twelve magi). But recent scholarship has suggested that we may have pegged these mysterious “majoi” all wrong.

Scott Spencer, in Biblical Hermeneutics: Five Views, offers some interesting observations made recently regarding these mysterious figures from the East. And I’d like to share them with you for your consideration.

The first observation is both the most common and the most crucial. For everybody knows that the word in Greek rendered “wise men” or sometimes “kings” is “majoi.” But few have appreciated the fact that majoi is most naturally rendered “magicians,” a word that carries no royal connotation. In fact, Eastern majoi, typically served, as Spencer puts it,

“manipulative monarchical interests as sycophants and favour-granters, and when they fail to satisfy the despotic king, as often happens, they are quickly ridiculed, replaced and even exterminated.”

They were servants or slaves of Kings, they served in royal courts and were probably well paid, but it was also a high risk job.

Consider the biblical account of the majoi who served in the courts of the Eastern king Nebuchadnezzar. They barely escaped execution by the maniacal Babylonian king for their failure to interpret his disturbing dream (Daniel 2:1-24).

So the king summoned the magicians, enchanters, sorcerers and astrologers [i.e. the majoi] to tell him what he had dreamed. When they came in and stood before the king, he said to them, “I have had a dream that troubles me and I want to know what it means.” Then the astrologers answered the king in Aramaic, “O king, live forever! Tell your servants the dream, and we will interpret it.” The king replied to the astrologers, “This is what I have firmly decided: If you do not tell me what my dream was and interpret it, I will have you cut into pieces and your houses turned into piles of rubble. But if you tell me the dream and explain it, you will receive from me gifts and rewards and great honor. So tell me the dream and interpret it for me.”

Such was the life of an ancient Eastern majoi, a sort of Russian Roulette. Good pay. High risk. Short life expectancy.

We often think of the “magi”from the East as men of great stature, but as Allan Powell, a pioneering scholar in this discussion concludes, the court magicians were “victims of injustice, specifically at the hand of the king they served,” and “more oppressed by royal power than possessed of it.”

Considering this outlook, what are some of the implications within the child story of Christ? Perhaps some have run too quickly in juxtaposing King Herod with the “Kings from the East.” The real juxtaposition is between King Herod and King Jesus. Furthermore there is room to consider the implications of these, among the first of the victims of social injustice to visit Jesus, perhaps to seek reprieve from the tyranny of the kingly masters they routinely serve.

[Update: this theory is not without its problems. For starters, there’s nearly 600 years between Nebuchadnessar and the majoi from the nativity story, suggesting that a social parallel between the two sets of majoi may not work. Then there’s the question of whether the Greek of Matthew, majoi, accurately represents the Aramaic of ancient Persia, or whether or not Matthew even wrote in Greek, or whether or not he meant to appeal to Daniel in Greek (LXX) or Hebrew at this point. Further study is required, for sure.]

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Derek Ouellette

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a husband, new dad, speaker, writer, christian. see my profile here.