Twelfth Night: Celebrating Magicians

Starting with commercials after Labor Day and candy canes following Halloween, the build up to Christmas is so big, bigger, biggest, and then WHOOSH in one day it’s over.  Radio stations stop playing carols by midnight into December 26 (if not earlier), and by January 6, most of the neighbors have already put their trees out for recycle. I prefer the Twelve Days of Christmas: twelve days of feasting, culminating in Twelfth Night, Epiphany, Three Kings’ Day.

Who were the wise men?

Although tradition numbers them as three, and names them as Melchior, Caspar (Kaspar or Gaspar) and Balthazar, they aren’t actually named, or enumerated, in the Gospel of Matthew.

Strict literalist Protestants, among whom I was raised, discount anything which doesn’t appear in the Bible.

We know, at the very least, that they were “wise men” and they observed, and followed, a star to find the baby Jesus (Matthew 2: 2).  Astronomers, then, nearly everyone agrees.

(If you read my January 1 post, you know I love astronomers.)

The New Revised Standard Version translation has a footnote wherever the text lists ‘wise men’: or astrologers; Greek Magi.

                Why do Christians recklessly avoid the etymological meaning of “Magi”?

                Magi = magic = magician. You know: sorcerer, mage, witch.

 From the Oxford English Dictionary;  Wise Man:  “A man versed or skilled in hidden arts, as magic, witchcraft, and the like; a magician, wizard; specifically applied in Biblical versions and allusions to the three Oriental astrologers or Magi who came to worship the infant Jesus.”  The entry on Magus (singular of Magi):  “a member of the Persian priestly class. . . regarded  from Patristic times as a type of the anti-Christian exponent of magic arts.”

At the bare minimum, the word is associated with divination, and even Matthew tells us they were “warned in a dream” to go home another way (v. 12). Astronomy, astrology, alchemy:  the pseudo-sciences blended into one another carelessly.  We can’t know exactly what the gospel-writer meant, opponents may argue. It’s true that astronomy was not always a well-defined science.

                Throughout the rest of the chapter, Matthew tells us that “an angel of the Lord” appeared to Joseph in a dream and told him to escape to Egypt (v. 13). Later on, the angel calls the all-clear, and reappears by dream to tell Joseph it’s okay to return (v. 19). Well-meaning Christians, nervous about spiritualism, have advised against dream divination. It’s a good thing Joseph and the Magi didn’t listen to them.

                Was it the angel of the Lord who appeared to the wise men in their dreams as well?

I have heard sermons expounding the Epiphany visitors, apparently kings in their own right (a detail also not mentioned by Matthew), who humbled themselves and knelt to the infant King of the Universe.

Consider:  apart from the shepherds (which Luke mentions, not Matthew)—and Mary, if you count the Magnificat— the first worshippers of Jesus were diviners, soothsayers, dream-interpreters. Magicians. Today we celebrate the sorcerer worshippers of Jesus.

Call them astrologers or astronomers if it makes you feel better.


“He was, in a quiet way, an observant Christian. They were rare among magicians.”

—Lev Grosman, The Magicians

(reviewed on January 2).



Magus, noun. Oxford English Dictionary. Third edition March 2000. Online edition December 2011. Retreived fromhttp://  Accessed January 4, 2012.

 Wise man, noun. Oxford English Dictionary. Second edition 1989. Online edition December 2011. Retrieved from  Accessed January 4, 2012.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s