Magi. The ancient word conjures intrigue. Who were these men? And most of all, what drove them to travel so far to pay homage to the newborn King?
The word magi, plural form of magos, is believed by many scholars to be Babylonian in origin. According to Strong’s Concordance, magi means “wise men, teachers, priests, physicians, astrologers, seers, interpreters of dreams, augurs, soothsayers, sorcerers etc.” Hence, it’s easy to see where the modern word magician comes from. The first time magi or magus was used was in the 6th century BC, in the Old Testament book of Daniel, when said wise men were called upon by King Nebuchadnezzar to interpret his dream. Recall that prior to this, King Nebuchadnezzar had seized Jerusalem and carried off the young educated men of Israel. Daniel and his three companions were cast among the magi. When no one could interpret his dream, Nebuchadnezzar ordered all the wise men be put to death. God provided Daniel the interpretation of the dream, not only saving him and his fellow Jewish companions, but the lives of all the wise men. Subsequently, the king placed Daniel in charge of the wise men, as well as over the entire province of Babylon (Daniel, chapter 2). Later we see Daniel continue to distinguish himself when King Darius set him up as a satrap (governor). This was typical of the additional duties magi performed, such as confirming the divine nature of the kingship, supervising the collection of land-taxes, and acting as judges.
Meanwhile, as these events with Daniel took place, there was a religious reformer named Zoroaster and his followers were called Zoroastrians. This group remained active throughout Babylonia for hundreds of years including during and after the time of Christ’s birth. In fact the King Vologeses I (51-80 AD) reinstated these magi at his court, and it was common practice for magi to visit and be accepted at court by other kings.
But could there be a deeper reason for their desire to pay homage? It turns out King Vologeses had family ties leading back to King Darius. Traditions and the passing on of knowledge is tantamount in keeping a religion alive. It is doubtful that the tales of Daniel and his God missed the magi’s notice. Whether they loved or hated him is not the point. The prophecy and dream interpretation made by Daniel (Chapters 2 through 7) was recorded not in Hebrew like the rest of the book, but switched to Aramaic, the language of the world. So at any time afterward, anyone could read how God granted that gift to Daniel, and that his prophecy of the Gentile world had all come true. The part in Aramaic also covers Daniel’s vision of the coming of the Son of man (Chapter 7). Couple this with the fact that the magi were trained to watch the skies for signs, as stars and comets were regarded as heralding the birth of kings.
Could it be that Daniel’s faithfulness in foreign captivity began a traditional teaching among the Zoroastrians and passed down through the generations of magi?
One more thing to note: After Jesus’ death and resurrection, the apostle Jude (also known as Thaddeus) went into Armenia and parts of Persia and in his mission work there ended up converting 3000 Zoroastrians to Christianity. Did he reference their homage to the newborn Jewish Messiah as the bridge to their salvation?
Whoever the magi were, they were certainly the first Gentiles with authority to recognize Christ as King.
Joy to the World!
…and behold, the star which they had seen in the East went before them, till it came and stood over where the young Child was. 10 When they saw the star, they rejoiced with exceedingly great joy. 11 And when they had come into the house, they saw the young Child with Mary His mother, and fell down and worshiped Him. And when they had opened their treasures, they presented gifts to Him: gold, frankincense, and myrrh.