Now the wise men. We all know it doesn’t say anywhere that there were three. I discovered in reading earlier today that the tradition that there were three wise men to match their three gifts (Matt. 2:11) goes back to one of our church fathers (was it Tertullian?), but can’t find that source again now. More importantly, Matthew’s term for them is ‘μάγοι’, magoi, (Matt. 2:1, 7, 16), which is where we get our term ‘magician’, although that’s a potentially misleading connection. But they weren’t just old guys with a lot of life experience, they were readers of the stars. We call them ‘astrologers’. The only other mention of such a role by name is when Elymas the Sorcerer whom Paul and Barnabas met on Cyprus is called a ‘magos‘ in Acts 13:6, 8. I believe that tradition holds the Simon mentioned in Acts 8:9-13, 18-24 to have been a ‘magos‘; Irenaeus’ Against Heresies and other sources talk at length about the troublesome teaching of Simon Magus and his followers. In the Greek translation of the Old Testament, ‘magus‘ is used to describe the court conjurors that prove so ineffective in the Daniel stories. In the Septuagint version of Daniel, the Greek term appears in 2:2, 10; then it is used more extensively in the Greek version that soon replaced the Septuagint version, attributed to Theodotion, who used it also in 1:20; 2:27; 4:7; 5:7, 11, 15, replacing the Septuagint’s ‘φαρμακος’ in some of these references (where we get the term ‘pharmacy’!). The term isn’t exactly complementary in either Acts or Daniel, and Christian thinkers fought hard to exclude astrology from the church right down through church history.
So it isn’t talked about much, but some of the first people to acknowledge the infant Jesus were professionals at reading current events and their significance from the stars. How do we reason this through theologically? It seems inconsistent with a Bible that offers no encouragement elsewhere to seek truth about human life and destiny from the stars, birth signs, etc. We may be looking at an example of God’s ‘accommodation’, an important term theologically, one that signifies that God (am I getting this from Calvin) knows how to use baby talk when he’s addressing infants in understanding. Calvin certainly is famous for speaking about this principle, and other reputable Christian minds have articulated the same principle. It’s fitting somehow, if Jesus is not just to benefit Israel, that right at the beginning of Jesus’ life and ministry God should permit his significance to leach out into the Gentile media in a way these Gentiles at least innately understood.
Although one act of divine condescension does not a reliable medium make.