The Magi were an ancient order of priests, originating among the Medes of northern Iran. Herodotus, Philo of Alexandria, Strabo, and Josephus all describe them in their work.1 The Magi were eventually absorbed into Zoroastrianism during the development of the Persian Empire and even Zoroaster himself is often portrayed as a member. It’s quite possible that the priestly order predates the religion, but the exact age of Zoroastrianism has yet to be fully determined.
The marriage between the Magi and Zoroastrianism was not without its tensions; particularly during the difficult period following the death of Cyrus the Great and the eventual succession of Darius. By the time of Christ, the Magi were generally respected as philosophers, and reputed to possess astronomical knowledge of considerable depth and breadth.
According to Philo, they were among the
“numerous companies of virtuous and honourable men…Among the Persians there exists a group, the Magi, who investigating the work of nature for the purpose of becoming acquainted with the truth…initiate others in the divine virtues, by very clear explanations.2
According to John North,
“The Greeks were already in Plato’s century giving due credit to the ‘Magi’ or the ‘Chaldeans’ and throughout the world of classical antiquity these epithets stuck, as synonyms for ‘astrologer’.”3
The influence of the Magi, through the expansion of the Persian Empire, was widespread. They were great travellers, and according to David Hughes in The Star of Bethlehem Mystery, ancient writers like Dio Cassius, Suetonius, Pliny, and Seneca all tell stories of visiting delegations of Magi.4 Astronomer Percy Seymour believes that the Magi:
“…initiated an approach to mathematical astronomy that was to influence all later aspects of the subject…Because they travelled a great deal, they assimilated the astronomical ideas of their neighbouring cultures and blended these ideas with their own… they imparted what they knew to those people with whom they came into contact, and so were also the transmitters of the ancient wisdom of astronomy, astrology and the religious beliefs based on these subjects.” 5
According to Seymour, the average Magi travelling about during “Matthew’s” time could have been well-versed in the astronomical and astrological traditions of Babylon and Egypt; in Pythagorean, Platonic, Aristotelian, and possibly even Druid mathematics and astronomy, with all their astrological implications, as well as the hermetic doctrines of the schools of Alexandria. Seymour further contends that:
“…symbolism, particularly astrological symbolism, was a universal feature of myth and religion for the centuries before and following Christ’s birth. While several groups argued and fought over their differences in religious belief, all learned men knew about astrology, and astrological symbolism was often used as a form of common language…However, this lingua franca of symbolism was clearly the culmination of non-Christian and pre-Christian ideas.” 6 (the emphasis
However, “Matthew” puts an intriguing question into the mouths of his Magoi: “Where is he that is born King of the Jews?” The Catholic Encyclopaedia quotes Strabo as saying that Magoi was also the name of the upper house of the council of magistrates of the neighbouring Parthian Empire.7 Composed of members of this priestly caste, the upper council’s duties may have included the designation of the king of the realm.
The Parthian magoi and Judeans shared a common enemy in the Romans. The crack Parthian cavalry units had done what precious few could: beat the Romans in battle, dealing the legions a humiliating defeat at Carrhae in 53 B.C. The Zoroastrian Parthians, incorporating much of the former Persian Empire into their own, had supported subsequent attempts at re-establishing Judean sovereignty.8 Conservative Christians, trying to sidestep the astrological issue, contend that “Matthew’s” Magoi were a subversive delegation of king makers, sent to rattle Herod, and provoke a potential border incident that would expose more legions to those deadly “Parthian shots.”9