Periodical Reviews -- By: Anonymous
BSac 157:628 (Oct 00) p. 486
By The Faculty And Library Staff Of Dallas Theological Seminary
Robert D. Ibach, Editor
“The Magi as Wise Men: Re-examining a Basic Supposition,” Mark Allan Powell, New Testament Studies 46 (2000): 1-20.
Elaborate legends have grown up around the Magi, virtually none of which have any basis in the text of Matthew. Many of them arose centuries after the New Testament period, including the identification of the Magi as kings. The most persistent and widely accepted interpretation in the last few centuries has been that the Magi were “wise men.” Powell calls this notion into question in this article.
Although the Magi are generally regarded as astrologers, the Gospel of Matthew does not say that their expectation of finding the Christ was based on their reading of the stars. Powell examines three tiers of information in order to ascertain how Matthew’s readers might have understood the search of the Magi for the Christ.
The literature of the Greco-Roman Empire in general ranges from high regard for magi (“wise and learned” men, Cicero) to contempt (“absurdities,” Tacitus). This body of literature is therefore ambiguous. Jewish literature, however, is uniformly negative toward magi. Various midrashim portray magi as “essentially bunglers who provide the story with an element of comic relief” (p. 6). Philo, a Hellenistic Jew, speaks of Balaam as a magus whom he calls the “most foolish of all men” (p. 7). Most importantly, the Septuagint contains the story of King Nebuchadnezzar in which magi figure prominently (Dan. 2). They are exposed as fools rather than wise men, and by their ineffectiveness they “serve as foils to Daniel,” the bearer of true wisdom (p. 8).
Powell takes these three lines of evidence as establishing that “Matthew’s readers are expected to regard magi, generally, not as wise men but as fools” (p. 8).
He then shows that throughout Matthew’s Gospel God chooses to reveal divine truth not to the wise but to infants (11:25), the disciples being prime examples of men unlearned even in the Scriptures. There is an interesting contrast between the wise and learned, such as the scribes and Pharisees, and those who are foolish and unlearned, such as the Magi and the disciples. It is to the latter that God reveals divine things.
Perhaps Powell’s weakest line of argument involves the character traits of the Magi that he believes he can identify in Matthew’s Gospel. For example they fail to understand the significance of the child who has been born, thinking that He is “King of the Jews,” a pol...
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