Were the Magi From Persia or Arabia? -- By: Tony T. Maalouf

Journal: Bibliotheca Sacra
Volume: BSAC 156:624 (Oct 1999)
Article: Were the Magi From Persia or Arabia?
Author: Tony T. Maalouf


Were the Magi From Persia or Arabia?

Tony T. Maalouf

The visit of the Magi to worship Christ, mentioned only in Matthew 2:1–12, raises several questions. Where did these Magi come from, and what was their ethnic origin? Why would they, as Gentiles, be interested in the King of the Jews? What is the significance of the gifts they offered to Christ? What role does their story play in the argument of Matthew’s infancy narrative?

Since Matthew did not offer any explanation of this episode, interpreters can infer that Matthew assumed that many elements in the story were familiar to his readers.1 Because of the mystery behind this visit, however, some have gone so far as to disclaim the historicity of the visit of the Magi.2 Meanwhile others who affirm the historicity of the Magi’s visit have proposed various answers to the questions asked above.

*Tony T. Maalouf is Professor of Biblical Studies, Jordan Evangelical Theological Seminary, Amman, Jordan.

Survey of Different Views on the Magi

Many evangelical scholars hold that the Magi of Matthew’s infancy narrative were Zoroastrian priests and astrologers from Persia3 or Chaldean astrologers from Mesopotamia.4 Several factors favor these views. Many uses of the word “magi,” the relevance of astronomy to the story, and the testimony of church fathers make these views popular among commentators.

In fact the term μάγοι (plural of μάγος) referred initially to members of a Median tribe that became responsible for the priestly function under the Persians (in the sixth to fourth century B.C.).5 They conducted sacred rituals at the offering of sacrifices.6 Magi had the ability to interpret special signs and dreams7 and may have adopted some form of Zoroastrianism8 by Herodotus’s

time (450 B.C.).9 Pliny and Tacitus associated them with magic and sorcery,10 and English derivatives “magic” and “magician” have been used to render descriptions of Simon of Samaria, known for his ability to do

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