Below is an edited version of a word study for Magi done as part of a research paper on Acts 13:4-12 for a Hermeneutics class at Southern Evangelical Seminary. However, the scope of this study covers passages aside from the one in Acts chapter 13. Some sections are mere listings and not full statements.
A wise man and priest expert in astrology, interpretation of dreams and other secret arts; Persian and Babylonian origin (William F. Arndt and F. Wilbur Gingrich, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, translation and adaptation of the fourth revised and augmented edition, 2nd edition [Chicago and London: The University of Chicago, 1979], 484-5).
Regarded by many as Babylonian in origin; name given by Babylonians, Medes, Persians and others to the wise men, teachers, priests, physicians, astrologers, seers, interpreters of dreams, augurs, soothsayers, sorcerers, etc. In the New Testament, the name is given to the wise men in Matthew 2 and to false prophets and sorcerers in Acts 8 and 13 (Joseph H. Thayer, Thayer’s Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament [Peabody, MS: Hendrickson, 1997, reprinted from 4th ed., Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1896], 385-6).
From Old Persian, magu, a proper noun with no recognized inherent meaning. Rab-mag used to mean Chief of the Magi in KJV; also translated as wise men, astrologers, sorcerer and magician (Colin Brown, ed. and trans., The New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology, vol. 2; Grand Rapids: Zondervan and Paternoster, 1976, 557).
Other forms of the word: Mageia, meaning magic or sorcery, and mageno, meaning to practice magic (Spiros Zodhiates, ed., Greek Dictionary of the New Testament, The Hebrew Greek Key Study Bible, New American Standard (Chattanooga: AMG, 1984 and 1990, 45). Related terms in meaning are magos, meddlesome, curious, belonging to magic; pharmakeus, mixer of potions, magician; pharmakon, poison, magic potion, charm, medicine, remedy, drug; pharmakos, poisoner, magician; sorcerer; juggler; python, the Python, spirit of divination; baskaino, bewitch (New Int’l Dictionary of the NT, 558).
Uses Elsewhere in the Bible
The New Testament: Although the same Strong’s #3097 is used in Matthew 2:1, 7, and 16, Strong’s translates it in these verses as wise men whereas sorcerer is used in Acts. Therefore, one must be familiar with the word before looking in Strong’s or one would not know that #3097 is used in other passages under another translation. Complicating this is the fact that several Bible versions translate the word differently.
In Matthew 2:1, the word magi is used for the wise men from the East who have seen a star they believe indicates the birth of a King. Thayer’s and Unger’s make a distinction, however, between the use of this word in Matthew 2 versus the use of the word magician in Acts 8 and 13 (Merrill F. Unger, The New Unger’s Bible Dictionary, ed. R. K. Harrison; Chicago: Moody, 1985, 799). The margin note for Magi in The Hebrew-Greek Key Study Bible indicates that they are a caste of wise men specializing in astrology, medicine and natural science (1260). The Magi were a group of Persian-Parthians (Zondervan, vol. 4, 33).
In Acts 13, the term magus in the Greek world was used for a juggler, magician or astrologer. Some of these magicians may have claimed Median or Persian ancestry; some may have been Jews descended from the appointed Magi of Daniel’s time. (Zondervan, vol. 4, 34). The term used in Acts 13 is similar to pseudoprophetes, a house philosopher who uses the name of God magically (Gregory W. Bromiley, Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, Abridged in One Volume; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans and Paternoster, 1985, 547). In Acts 8, the term is used to describe magic practiced by Simon who impressed people with his apparent powers and is used with similar meaning to that of Acts 13 (Thayer’s, 386).
Old Testament: The Old Testament word is Strong’s #7248, rab-mag for great prince or chief prince (rab for great and mugi for prince or chief of the magi (Unger’s, 798) (Zondervan, vol. 4, 32). Rab-mag is used in Jer. 39:3 and 13 to describe a Babylonian official and does not carry the meaning of magi or magician in this passage (Zondervan, vol. 4, 32). Rab-mag was usually used for the Chief Soothsayer, but in Jeremiah it is used for the chief of princes. This term was a title used for Assyrian-Babylonian officials and is probably a loan word (Francis Brown, S. R. Driver, and Charles A. Briggs, The Brown-Driver-Briggs Hebrew and English Lexicon; Peabody, MS: Hendrickson, 1996; reprinted from 1906 ed., 913); (Zodhiates, Hebrew and Chaldee Dictionary, 106). There is an historical connection between the Babylonians and those who practiced the occult, sometimes called the Chaldeans or, as in Dan. 2:2, master astrologers (Unger’s, 798). Rabbis used magos as a loan-word for magician. The LXX has the term for Dan. 2:2 for those who practice magical arts in Babylon (Bromiley, 547). Words are used in the Old Testament that relate to the practice of sorcery but are not related to magos, rab-mag or magi. Two words, hrsm and kspm of Ugaritic and Akkadian origin, are used for magic and sorcery in Ex. 22:8 and 2 Kings 9:22 (Zondervan, vol. 4, 36).
Although the words related to magos are used only in a few passages of Scripture, there are many other words used to describe magic or sorcery which are translated sometimes as magic or sorcery or other times as witchcraft or enchanter. There are also practices related to sorcery using other terms that are used in various passages of the Bible. Isaiah 3:3 uses a term for a skillful magician and Jezebel is described with the term kesheph in 2 Kings 9:22, meaning sorceries or witchcrafts (New Int’l Dictionary of the N.T., 555). Another Hebrew word, qacam, is translated sometimes as divination and other times as witchcraft. This topic is expanded on in the Historical Background section and in Conclusions and Applications of this article.
The Magi, originally a Median tribe, were a hereditary priesthood in the Median, Babylonian, Persian and Parthian empires. They first appear in history in the 7th century B.C. They had a tradition of sacrificial rites and occult powers as part of their religious system. Their emphasis was on the four elements of air, fire, earth and water, especially fire. They sacrificed animals on altars and carried divining rods known as barsoms used at sacrifices and for divination and soothsaying. The rods were arranged on the ground during the chanting of incantations. The Persians and Babylonians used them as diviners and advisers to the king. They later combined beliefs with the Zoroastrian religion (Zondervan, vol. 4, 31-2).
These priests and wise men of Median/Persian/Babylonian origin included those who were interpreters of signs, conjurers, exorcists, soothsayers, magicians, diviners, and astrologers. The predominant meaning in the New Testament of magi and related words is connected to forms of divination and fraud. However, in Matthew 2, the word is not used with these implications, but rather to describe the wise men from the East who practiced astronomy and astrology. These wise men were different from magicians who practiced an art dependent on spirit beings and attempts to gain supernormal power. Related practices included astrology; belomancy (divination by arrows); charmers; divination by dreams, entrails or rods; enchantment; Jewish exorcism; consulting spirits or images; a medium; necromancy; prognosticators; soothsaying; sorcery; spiritism; stargazing; and witchcraft (Unger, 798-800; 802-4).
The Magian system was the state religion of Media in the late 6th century B.C. and Magi priests became part of the royal court. Thus, Jer. 39:3,13 mentions Nergal-sharezer, chief of the Magi, at Nebuchadnessar’s court in Babylon. This was a government ruled by Chaldeans and Medes (Zondervan, vol. 4, 31). The Magians or Magi were originally Medians who became priests in the Persian empire. Their identity and profession were one and the same. They were not ordinary occultists or astrologers, but believed that God showed signs in the heavens. Thus, the Magi looking for a king because they saw a star in Matthew 2 is consistent with their history (New Int’l. Dictionary, 557, 558).
The Magi who came to Herod were a group of Persian-Parthians. There had been bitter rivalry and wars between the Romans and Parthians and, fearing another Parthian invasion, Herod thought that the Persian Magi were politically maneuvering to choose a successor king (Zondervan, vol. 4, 33-4).
Magic as a ritual or technique to supernaturally manipulate forces goes back as far as early man and is found in cave paintings. Magic is common in Greek mythology, Homer, Canaanite religious literature, Akkadian myths, and Egyptian religion and myths (Colin Brown, ed. and trans., The New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology, vol. 2, Grand Rapids: Zondervan and Paternoster, 1976, 552-4). Magic is found in Egyptian papyri dating from the 3rd and 4th centuries A.D.; and in Greece magic was a combination of Greek and Egyptian influences. This included belief in creatures half-man, half-animal and in the magic power of words. Magical practices were also found in Judaism, often using the name of God (New Int’l Dictionary, 556).
Magic, also known as sorcery, can be defined as casting spells using a special formula of words or actions to gain control and also as a technique for manipulating supernatural forces to attain certain ends through contact with spirits and psychic realms. White magic was believed to be used for good ends; black magic for evil ends (New Int’l. Dictionary, 552, 6). A magician can be defined as one possessing occult knowledge as a diviner, or an astrologer. It is one who tries to bring about certain results beyond man’s normal abilities. In Egypt and Babylon, magicians were educated and wise in science; they were priests. They were thought to possess special knowledge and so were used by rulers to interpret dreams (Zondervan, vol. 4, 38).
The New International Dictionary of the New Testament lists pharmakos as a related term (though a different word) because herbs were traditionally gathered and used for spells and to invoke spirits at magical ceremonies (558). Python is also listed as a related term because of its connection to the Delphi oracle. Delphi was where Apollo killed the serpent Python that guarded the oracle. Python came to mean a spirit of divination; also, a ventriloquist was believed to have this spirit in his belly. This term is used in Acts 16:16 for the girl in Philippi who had the pneuma pythona, a spirit of divination or literally, a spirit of a python (p. 558).
Several terms are used in both the Old and New Testaments to describe practices similar to magic and sorcery. There is an Old Testament word, qacam, from which comes divination in some Bible version while in others it is translated as witchcraft. In addition, there are several Old Testament words from which one can derive sorcerer, witch, astrologer, or magician. Many of these words share origin in meaning even though the words themselves differ. For example, a word translated as astrologer might come from a root word meaning to divide up the heavens. Some words for witch or casting spells in the Old Testament come from a word meaning to whisper or hiss, kashaph, so the noun form, kashshaph, means an enchanter, sorcerer, magician. The use of this word is an onomatopoeia because it is meant to sound like the hiss or whisper of one doing spells. In the New Testament, sorcerer is used in Rev. 21:8 and 22:15 while sorceries is used in Rev. 9:21 and 22:15. The words used here (Strong’s #5332 and 5331) are pharmakeus meaning a druggist or poisoner and by extension, a magician or sorcerer (Strong’s, Greek Dictionary of the New Testament, 95). In Gal. 5:20, this same word is translated as witchcraft in the King James Version. Druggist designates one who used plants and herbs for occult practices. (Information summarized from all sources cited).
There is a tremendous crossover and overlap in the translation from the Hebrew and Greek into English due to the fact that all these practices relate to occult arts. Giving the English translation for these words depends on context and what the particular practice of the occultist was, which could have included many things. The most common English translations seems to be witch, sorcerer, spiritist, magician, soothsayer, and divination.
Conclusions and Applications
A thorough study of magos by itself is not sufficient to understand the implications of the word. It is necessary to also investigate other words which are used to mean practices similar to magic by looking up cross-references and related terms in study Bibles and in the dictionaries. The history of the word sheds some light on its meaning, but it is not specific enough, especially since several of the commentators remarked that the Magi in Matthew 2 were not the same as the magician Simon in Acts 8 or Elymas in Acts 13.
Understanding this word Magi or related terms requires an understanding of the contemporary meaning of magic and sorcery since different Bible versions translate the Greek word as different English words. One must examine the context of the passage being studied, the context of the Bible in general, the history of the word, various commentaries, and the meanings in various dictionaries to obtain any conclusions.
The modern use of the word magic is often associated with magic tricks, such as sawing a woman in half on stage. Although there appears to be some relationship to magic as a trick in the history of this word, there is an equal amount of information revealing that the word was connected to occult practices, i.e., manipulation of supernatural forces or use of supernatural powers (or attempts thereof). Additionally, other practices such as soothsaying, mediumship and astrology are connected to the practice of magic.
Practices related to magic in the Old Testament such as divination, augury, conjuring, casting spells, necromancy, having a familiar spirit, and astrology are strongly condemned in passages such Deut. 18:9-14; Lev. 20:27; Is. 8:19, 47: 9-15; Jer. 27:9, 10; Ez. 13:18; and I Sam. 28:7 ff. Jezebel is condemned as a sorceress in 2 Kings 9:22 and Manasseh’s occultic practices are condemned in 2 Kings 21:3-6 (Zondervan, vol. 4, 36).
The New Testament offers the same treatment such as in Acts. 19:19 where those who had practiced the magic arts (perierga) burned their books, and in Acts 16 where Paul casts an evil spirit out of the fortunetelling slave girl. Gal. 5:20 and Rev. 21:8 specifically condemn those who practice sorcery (derived from the term for the use of drugs for occult purposes and/or poison). As explained earlier, drugs (made from plants and herbs to be used in occult practices) were often used in ceremonies by magicians to summon spirits or possibly to get into a state to communicate with spirits.
It seems clear from the information studied that magic, as described in the history of the word and in context within the Bible, is a practice which, while at times might be mere trickery, was often an attempt (whether successful or not) to contact spirits or powers forbidden by God. The word sorcerer is better understood today as the word describing these kinds of practices. Although the word magic is also acceptable, it can be misinterpreted too easily as a trick meant for entertainment.