Greek: μάγος (magos)
English: magi, wise man, sorcerer
by Mark D. Taylor, NLT Bible Translation Committee
The New Testament uses the term magos in two different contexts: In Matthew 2, it refers to the magi from the east who came to visit the young Jesus, and in Acts 13, it is used to describe a sorcerer or magician named Bar-Jesus (note the relationship of the word magos and our word magician). Our focus here is on the magi who are traditionally part of the Christmas story and whose arrival to visit the Christ child is commemorated in the Christian celebration of Epiphany.
Matthew’s text tells us only a few details about the magoi (this is the plural form) who came to visit Jesus. We don’t know their names or their number, though ancient legend says there were three (corresponding to the number of gifts brought to Jesus), and that their names were Caspar, Melchior, and Balthazar. We do know that they came “from eastern lands” (Matthew 2:1). But which eastern lands exactly, we don’t know. One legend states that they were kings from Arabia, Ethiopia, and Tarsus. These magoi may have been part of a priestly class of Persia, and as Matthew 2 indicates, they were involved in observing the stars.
The question for Bible translators is how to render this term in the receptor language (in our case, English). As in many passages, William Tyndale’s translation proved quite influential in the English-speaking world. In Matthew 2:1, Tyndale rendered magoi as “wyse men.” The KJV, ASV, RSV, NRSV, and ESV follow suit and call these visitors “wise men.” The NASB and NIV break ranks and simply transliterate the term as “magi.” (But the NIRV, which is an adaptation of the NIV for young readers, uses the traditional term “wise men.”) The Living Bible and the J. B. Phillips translation both use the term “astrologers,” and The Message calls the magoi “a band of scholars.”
The translators of the NLT had long discussions about this term. In the end, they decided to retain the traditional term “wise men.” They reasoned that since the term “wise men” was so familiar (every child has heard the story of the “wise men” with their gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh), it would be prudent to use this general term—and avoid potential confusion. But the NLT does add a footnote that says, “Or royal astrologers; Greek reads magi.”
Is “magi” more accurate than “wise men”? Only in the sense that it is a transliteration (i.e., a transferring of the sounds from one language to another) of the Greek word into English. Do most readers understand the transliterated term “magi”? If they don’t, it seems that we do them no favor by using an unfamiliar term.
Whether we call them “magi” or “wise men,” let us learn a life lesson from them. When they arrived in Jerusalem, they asked, “Where is the newborn king of the Jews? We saw his star as it rose, and we have come to worship him.” I have a coffee mug that reminds me “Wise men still seek him.” May we also seek and worship him—no matter our backgrounds, prior associations, or occupations. And may we recognize, along with these first Gentile worshipers of Jesus, that the hope and salvation provided through Jesus is for all people.