December 21, 2016

Case File #016.12.21: MAGI

According to the Gospel of Matthew in the Bible, the baby Jesus was visited by a group of Eastern wise men or philosophers who also gifted him with expensive items such as gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Some English translations of the New Testament refer to these visitors as Magi, and probably because of their three flashy presents, the men are traditionally characterized, especially during the Christmas season, as a trio of Eastern kings. But the word magi, which came to English directly from Latin, suggests something else, as it is the plural form of the Latin word magus, which means “magician” or “sorcerer.” We can substantiate this as the Gospel author's intended definition for magi simply by looking at what is purported to be the original Greek manuscript: magoi is the Greek word translated in English-language Bibles as magi or wise men, and magoi is itself the plural form of magos, which means “magician” or “sorcerer.” So in the biblical narrative, neither kings nor philosophers journeyed to the Bethlehem manger; rather, the Eastern gift bearers who came to honor the baby Jesus were essentially well-heeled wizards. Even so, you shouldn't let this fact influence your Christmas traditions or festivities. After all, it would look kind of silly for a crèche to depict three wizards kneeling at the manger. And a song title such as “We Three Sorcerers” just doesn't have the poetic cadence of “We Three Kings.”

©2016 Michael R. Gates