Questions From Readers
● Why does the New World Translation speak of the men who came from the East to view the child Jesus as astrologers? (Matt. 2:1) According to Strong’s dictionary of Greek words, the word here is magos and means ‘a Magian, i.e., Oriental scientist, by implication a magician, a sorcerer.’—R. A., United States.
Because magos means Magus or Magian, various Bible versions do have “Magi” in a marginal or footnote reading at Matthew 2:1, such as the Newberry Study Bible and the American Standard Version. On the other hand, some translations have the word “Magi” right in the text. Among such are Weymouth and the Catholic Confraternity. Now, who were these magi and for what were they renowned?
Many dictionaries speak of the magi as being a priestly caste of ancient Media and Persia. The Imperial Bible Dictionary gives considerable information about the background of the magi:
“According to Herodotus the magi were a tribe of the Medes, who professed to interpret dreams, and had the official charge of sacred rites; they were, in short, the learned and priestly class, and having, as was supposed, the skill of deriving from books and the observation of the stars a supernatural insight into coming events, they came to be possessed of great influence, and never failed to be consulted on all great occasions. Whether there was a native class among the Babylonians who practised the same learning and arts, or the Median tribe became naturalized also there, there can be no doubt that a class bearing the name of magi, and holding much the same position as among the Persians, existed in Babylon. Nay, so much did they appear to be at home there, that the word Chaldean came to be nearly synonymous with magus among the Greeks and Romans, and reference is also made in Scripture to the great account that was made among the Babylonians of that kind of mystic lore and assumed supernatural skill, for which the magi were renowned. Indeed, later investigations tend rather to make Babylon than Media and Persia the centre of full-blown magianism. ‘Originally, the Median priests were not called magi. . . . From the Chaldeans, however, they received the name of magi for their priestly caste, and it is thus we are to explain what Herodotus says of the magi being a Median tribe.’”
It is true that the word magos can mean “Oriental scientist,” but what kind of science was it for which the magi were famous? Was it science as it is understood today? Hardly. Rather, it appears to have been compounded largely of magic and astrology. The prophet Isaiah said concerning Babylon and its magi: “Stand still, now, with your spells and with the abundance of your sorceries, in which you have toiled from your youth; that perhaps you might be able to benefit, that perhaps you might strike people with awe. You have grown weary with the multitude of your counselors. Let them stand up, now, and save you, the worshipers of the heavens, the lookers at the stars, those giving out knowledge at the new moons concerning the things that will come upon you.”—Isa. 47:12, 13.
Rightly, then, the word magos at Matthew 2:1 was taken by the ancient readers of Matthew to refer to astrologers. Among them are Justin, Origen and Tertullian. Wrote Tertullian, for instance: “We know the mutual alliance of magic and astrology. The interpreters of the stars, then, were the first . . . to present Him [Jesus] ‘gifts.’” (The Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. III, p. 65) The name “Magi” became current “as a generic term for astrologers in the East.”—The New Funk & Wagnalls Encyclopedia, Vol. 22, p. 8076.
So it is most likely that those particular “magi” or “wise men” of Matthew 2:1 were astrologers, for were they not being guided by lights in the sky, by what appeared to be a moving star? (Matt. 2:2) This is strong circumstantial evidence that these magi were astrologers. Thus The New Testament by Charles B. Williams reads “star-gazers,” at Matthew 2:1, with a footnote in explanation: “That is, students of stars in relation to events on earth.” Fittingly, then, not only the New World Translation, but also three other modern English translations, An American Translation, The New English Bible and The New Testament in Modern English by J. B. Phillips, all read, at Matthew 2:1, “astrologers.”