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What’s a Magi and are they “Wise” (Matt 2:1)

We were singing Christmas hymns in church yesterday and I was reminded about words that are either unknown or misleading.

The lyrics to “It Came Upon The Midnight Clear” include, “For lo! the days are hastening on by prophet bards foretold.” What’s a “bard”? Wikipedia says, “In medieval Gaelic and British culture, a bard was a professional poet/story teller, employed by a patron, such as a monarch or nobleman, to commemorate one or more of the patron's ancestors and to praise the patron's own activities.” I guess we have to give some poetic license, but I do struggle when we use words that the vast majority of people can’t know what they mean.

A more serious example, in this case a misleading word, is the word “Magi” (μάγοι) in Matthew 2:1. Is a Magi a “wise” person? Depends.

BDAG gives this definition: “a Magus, a … wise man and priest, who was expert in astrology, interpretation of dreams and various other occult arts.”

Osborne tells us that “Magi in the ancient world were a priestly caste of magicians and astrologers who were wise in interpreting the stars (hence ‘wise men’). Simon ‘Magus’ in Acts 8 was one such.” Osborne goes on to say that they probably came from Arabia, Babylon, Persia, or Egypt. They were most likely followers of Zarathustra and believers in Zoroastrianism.

Perhaps they were wise in human terms, but let’s not forget that they were astrologers and that consulting magicians was strictly prohibited in Old Testament law (Deut. 18:9-14).

This is my problem with the all-to-common translation of the word as “Wise Men,” which all major translations adopt except for the NIV and NASB. They definitely were not wise in the Christian sense, and using the common “Wise Men” is misleading. Better to stick with the transliteration “Magi” and not teach our children through song that astrologers are good.

Probably the bigger question is why did God use astrologers to herald the birth of his son?

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