Wise Men HeaderMagi, or Wise Men.

By Rev. Phil Greetham. © Copyright 1996. This Version, 2012.

6: How credible is our Magi account?

Accounts of Magi occur throughout ancient literature. Typical is this verse from Herodotus when the King asked advice about a possible rival king.
The Magi said, "O King, we too are very anxious that your sovereignty prosper: for otherwise, it passes from your nation to this boy who is a Persian, and so we Medes are enslaved and held of no account by the Persians, as we are of another blood, but while you, our countryman, are established king, we have our share of power, and great honour is shown us by you.
(Histories 1.120.5)

Magi were very involved in the affairs of kings and often had the responsibilities of deciding who would be king in the event of a dispute. It was not unknown for them to rule a country in certain circumstances.
It might be supposed that groups of Magi did not take it upon themselves to go visit important people, hundreds, maybe thousands of miles away. In fact this is not the case; part of the job of some Magi was to act as envoys on behalf of their monarch.
The historian, Josephus tells us that in 10 BC ambassadors came to celebrate the building of Caesarea Sebaste, bearing gifts. They came apparently to reciprocate for gifts given by King Herod to their respective countries. (Ant. 16.5.1)
A story is found in various places of the King of Armenia, Tiridates. (This includes Dio Cassius 63.1-7, Pliny's Natural History 30.6.16-17 and Suetonius' Nero 13) It tells us that in AD 66, he and his three royal companions, journeyed to Rome to pay homage and to make predictions about the Emperor Nero. Pliny, a Roman historian particularly notes that they were Magi. However there are several differences between these Magi and the gospel Magi. The gospel Magi are not described as kings (but most Magi were of the lordly classes or related to the monarchy). Neither do our Magi make predictions or have ulterior motives for wanting to worship the holy child. However, what we can say of these other accounts is that they demonstrate the normality of the gospel account. There is nothing improbable about it. To what extent our account has affected these other accounts, or to what extent these other accounts have affected Matthew's account is not known. However it is interesting that in Pliny's account he says that Tiridates and his companions did not go back the way they came but returned by another route. This is a curious phrase for they apparantly had no reason to go back by another route but of course our Magi did. The gospel Magi returned home by another route to avoid King Herod. (Matt 2:12)
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