Re: magoi

On Mon, 26 Sep 1994, David Coomler wrote:

> On the topic of "Matthew's motives, if it does not exceed the boundaries
> of this list, I am curious about the _magoi_, the "Wise Men" of Matthew 2.
> I have seen many reasons given for the use of the tale, including the view
> that Matthew intended to show the "occult" practitioners of the East
> giving up their astrology, etc., at the appearance of the Christ.
> It seems to me quite the opposite.  _Magoi_ can with reason be translated
> into English as "astrologers," though that does not give the title its
> full significance.  Nonetheless, it seems that Matthew fully endorses the
> concept of astrology.  Not only do the magi know of the birth of Christ
> from the appearance of a star in the East, but they also correctly
> interpret its significance and determine the location of the birth.  Also,
> King Herod adopts their interpretation without question.  In addition, the
> Magi are presented as sympathetic characters who deliberately evade the
> wiles of Herod to protect the newborn Christ (though of course they have
> caused all the trouble by bringing the topic to his attention, which leads
> to the slaughter of the innocents).

There is an idea presented by R. McNamara that I have been toying with of 
late.  In a 1968 article ( I will post the precise reference if 
interested) McNamara argued that the Magi were Essenes which would go a 
long way to explaining Herod's ready acceptance of their information, 
according to Josephus at least Simon the Essene was also called a Magus 
(in a favorable fashion) as well as Essenes in Josephus were known for 
their prophetic abilities.  All of this would add up to a NT mention of 
Essenes and all be well within Second Temple Judaism.

In any case, I think that the Magi are a foil.  Whoever they are they 
stand in sharp relief and contrast to the chief priests and to Herod.  We 
see the Magi as honest seekers of Jesus, king of the Jews.  We see Herod 
and the chief priests as false seekers, blind not to see what is going on 
and ultimately murderers, even though the chief priests are in the 

At the other end of the gospel we see pretty much the same thing.  There 
are two serious attempts on Jesus life-at his birth and the Passion.  In 
both we have a govt leader, chief priests etc.  In the first we have the 
Magi.  In the second we have Pilate's wife whose dream says declares 
Jesus righteous who again puts her husband and the chief priests in 
contrast to an honest seeker.  We have revelations-either a star in the 
first case or a dream in the second-but God has revealed something about 
Jesus to those who are not in the "guild" of the day, and their 
revelation is ignored.  Finally of course we have the Roman centurion 
"truly this was the son of god."
Anyway, I think that the role of the magi is as a foil which condemns 
Herod and the chief priests for their blindness-if the Magi are to be 
understood as Gentiles this only increases this role-that God has 
revealed truth to Gentiles and not to those who serve in His temple.
> So, is astrology sympathetically presented in Matthew, and its efficacy
> taken for granted?  I recall that a horoscope of significance was found at
> Qumran.  Perhaps the attitude toward astrology was not as condemnatory in
> early Christianity as it later became? 

Yes.  This is true of Second Temple and Mishnaic Judaism in 
general-astrology was not a negative thing, as it became in Gentile 
Christianity, which seemed to need to define itself against these 
practices.  It must have been a real problem for say Justin Martyr.

Larry Swain
Parmly Billings Library