We often hear talk about "the magic of Christmas". Usually it has something to do with elves and flying reindeer and Santa Claus breaking into your house through the ceiling vent. However, we shouldn't forget that the original Christmas story (you know, the one with Jesus in it) also features magicians. Here they are, in the NIV translation of Matthew 2.
After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem and asked, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.”
Herod consults with his scholars and suggests they try Bethlehem, then asks them to report back to him after they have found the child.
After they had heard the king, they went on their way, and the star they had seen when it rose went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they were overjoyed. On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, they returned to their country by another route.
English translators have struggled with this little group of people over the centuries. The NIV wimps out and just uses the original Greek word, Magi. What is a Magus, though? The King James bible, and many others since, translated the term as "wise men". JB Phillips renders them as "astrologers". The Message calls them "a band of scholars".
The Greek word magus (plural "magi") originally applied to followers of the Persian religious teacher Zoroaster, whose teachings (at least in the popular mind) included an ability to both tell the future by the stars and manipulate that future. Over time the term came to be used more broadly of those who practiced various forms of magic - astrology, divination, alchemy and other esoteric arts.
The magi were generally viewed with suspicion in the ancient world, but their arts could also be seen as useful and powerful people would turn to them for help or advice. The two other times magi appear in the New Testament they are clearly enemies. In Acts 8 Peter has an encounter with Simon Magus who both the King James and NIV translate as someone who "used sorcery". Simon loses his following when the apostles arrive on the scene and he tries to buy their healing power from them, earning a stern rebuke from Peter. He lived on in later Christian tradition as an implacable opponent of Peter and the apostles.
The other , "Elymas the sorcerer", appears in Acts 13 as an advisor to the Roman official Sergius Paulus. He opposes the apostle Paul and is struck blind, convincing Paulus to become a follower of Jesus.
These stories represent the more typical Christian attitude to magic as something to be combated, as a suspect source of knowledge to be displaced by the true knowledge of God.
Matthew's portrayal could not be more different. It's no wonder the English translators went searching for a different word. For a start, their science is implicitly praised. Their astrological knowledge leads them correctly to Jesus' birthplace, and correctly identifies him as King of the Jews. Furthermore they come to worship, not to compete, and bring appropriate gifts.
Later Christian traditions recognised the difference, and embroidered their tale to great effect. They were generally portrayed as three men (no doubt to match the three gifts) although in some versions there were 12. They were given names. In the Western tradition they were known as Melchior, Caspar and Balthazar, respectively from Persia, Ethiopia and Arabia, while Eastern traditions gave them other names. In some versions they were promoted from magicians to kings.
Sometimes they were portrayed as representing various regions - one from Europe, one from Asia, one from Africa to represent the three continents which adjoin Palestine, all the gentile nations bowing before the King of the Jews. Early Chinese christians saw them as coming from China, giving themselves a role in the story. Their gifts also had prophetic significance - gold symbolising Jesus' kingship, frankincense his priesthood and myrrh his suffering.
Matthew didn't put this story here by accident. He starts his book with Jesus' genealogy, establishing his royal Jewish heritage. Yet the first people to pay him homage are these Gentile sorcerers, these suspicious practitioners of the dark arts. As Christians, this story reminds us to put aside our prejudices, to stop demonising those whose knowledge comes from sources we don't trust. Jesus didn't come into a safe little Jewish cocoon, he came into the wide world, with all its diversity, all its varied practices and varied ethnicities, all its diverse and fascinating sciences, arts and wisdoms. He came to challenge orthodoxy, not reinforce it. Everyone is welcome here, and each can add to our store of wisdom.
Happy Christmas everyone!