‘We three kings of orient are’

Three? Probably not. Kings? Certainly not. Matthew knew the Greek word for ‘king’; he uses it in the same passage to refer to both the ‘King of the Jews’ and ‘King Herod’. Instead, he uses the word magoi. The magi were ‘the class of Zoroastrian priests in ancient Media and Persia, reputed to possess supernatural powers’ (Random House Dictionary), and the word spread through various middle-Eastern and European languages, expanded to include those who practiced ‘astrology, alchemy and other forms of esoteric knowledge’ (Wikipedia), and eventually entered English as ‘magician’. In any other circumstances, Matthew and many translators since would have condemned their beliefs and practices in no uncertain terms. Instead, because the magoi sought, found and worshipped Jesus, they are labelled as ‘wise men’ and tacitly approved.

Of the 51 versions available at Bible Gateway, 24 translate the word as ‘wise men’, also capitalised and/or expanded as ‘Wise men’, ‘Wise Men’, ‘Wise-men’, ‘wise men [astrologers]’, ‘some wise men’ (4), ‘some wise men [astrologers; magi;  a class of wise men and priests who practiced astrology]’ (Expanded Bible), ‘some wise men who learned things from stars’, as well as ‘magi’ (6), ‘Magi’ (3), ‘mages’, ‘wise men or seers’, ‘some men who studied the stars’, ‘a party of astrologers’, ‘some astrologers’, ‘astrologers [kings, or wise men]’, ‘a band of scholars’, ‘chachamim’ (Orthodox Jewish Bible). The chachamim were scholars in the Jewish tradition. The Orthodox Jewish Bible, ‘completed by Phillip Goble in 2002, is an English language version that applies Yiddish and Hasidic cultural expressions to the Messianic Bible’ (Bible Gateway). Translating Greek words into Hebrew in an otherwise English translation of the bible is not entirely helpful to anyone outside the Yiddish and Hasidic cultural tradition.

Luke uses exactly the same word in Acts 13: 6, 8 to describe a man named Bar-Jesus (also known as Elymas (the Arabic word for ‘wise’)) who opposed Barnabas and Saul and tried to turn the proconsul of Cyprus from the faith. He was, clearly, a Bad Man, and is called a sorcerer and false prophet. Luke also uses the related noun magia (sorcery) and verb mageuo (to practice sorcery) in 8: 9, 11 to describe a man named Simon who ‘had practiced sorcery in the city and amazed all the people of Samaria’. He also was, clearly, a Bad Man.

How is the word pronounced? The problem is that it has passed through so many languages, and probably doesn’t have *a* pronunciation. The most common pronunciations in English are /meɪdʒaɪ/ (may-jai) or /mædʒaɪ/ (ma (short a) -jai). It is certainly not ‘maggy’. One of them is a /meɪgəs/ (may-j_s).


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