ISBE: MAGIMagi, The
(Mat_2:1, Mat_2:7, Mat_2:16, “Wise-men,” the Revised Version (British and American) and the King James Version, “Magi” the Revised Version margin)):
1. Originally a Median Tribe: Were originally a Median tribe (Herodotus i. 101); and in Darius' Inscriptions Magush means only a member of that tribe. It was one of them, Bardiya, who pretended to be Smerdis and raised the rebellion against Cambyses. Rabh Magh in Jer_39:3 does not mean “Chief Magus,” but is in Assyrian Rab mugi (apparently “commander”; compare rab mugi s?a narkabti, “commander of chariots”), having no connection with “Magus” (unless perhaps Magians were employed as charioteers, Media being famous for its Nisean steeds). The investment of the Magi with priestly functions, possibly under Cyrus (Xen. Cyrop. viii), but probably much later, was perhaps due to the fact that Zoroaster (Zarathus?tra) belonged, it is said, to that tribe. They guarded the sacred fire, recited hymns at dawn and offered sacrifices of haoma-juice, etc. Herodotus i. 132) says they also buried the dead (perhaps temporary burial is meant as in Vend??da?d, Farg. viii). They were granted extensive estates in Media for their maintenance, and the a?thravans and other priests mentioned in the Avesta may have been of their number, though only once does the word “Magus” occur in the book (in the compound Mo?ghu-thbish, “Magus-hater,” Yasna, lxv. 7, Geldner's edition). The Magi even in Herodotus' time had gained a reputation for “magic” articles (compare Act_13:6, Act_13:8). They also studied astrology and astronomy (rationes mundani motus et siderum (Amm. Marc., xxiii. 6, 32)), partly learned from Babylon.
2. The Magi at Bethlehem: These latter studies explain why a star was used to lead them to Christ at Bethlehem, when our Lord was less than two years old (Mat_2:16). No reliable tradition deals with the country whence these particular magi came. Justin Martyr, Tertullian and Epiphanius fancied that they came from Arabia, founding their opinion on the fact that “gold, frankincense and myrrh” abounded in Yemen. But the text says they came not from the South but from the East. Origen held that they came from Chaldea, which is possible. But Clement of Alexandria, Diodorus of Tarsus, Chrysostom, Cyril of Alexandria, Juvencus, Prudentius and others are probably right in bringing them from Persia. Sargon's settlement of Israelites in Media (circa 730-728 BC (2Ki_17:6)) accounts for the large Hebrew element of thought which Darmesteter recognizes in the Avesta (SBE, IV, Intro, chapter vi). Median astronomers would thus know Balaam's prophecy of the star out of Jacob (Num_24:17). That the Jews expected a star as a sign of the birth of the Messiah is clear from the tractate Zohar of the Gema?ra? and also from the title “Son of the Star” (Bar Ko?khebha?) given to a pseudo-Messiah _ (130-35 AD). Tacitus (Hist. Jer_39:13) and Suetonius (Vesp. iv) tell us how widespread in the East at the time of Christ's coming was the expectation that “at that time men starting from Judea would make themselves masters of things” (compare Virgil, Ecl. iv). All this would naturally prepare the Magi to follow the star when it appeared. See also ASTROLOGY; ASTRONOMY; DIVINATION; MAGIC; WISE MEN; ZOROASTRIANISM.
Literature. Herodotus; Xenophon; Amm. Marcellinus; Strabo; Spiegel, Altpersische Keilinschriften; Geldner, Avesta; Muss-Arnolt, Assyrian Dict.; BDB; RE.