Persians: Matthew and Luke-Acts on two contrasting approaches to Magians (late first century CE)

Citation with stable link: Philip A. Harland, 'Persians: Matthew and Luke-Acts on two contrasting approaches to Magians (late first century CE),' Ethnic Relations and Migration in the Ancient World, last modified April 7, 2024,

Ancient authors: Anonymous authors of the so-called Gospel of Matthew 1:18-25 and Acts of the Apostles 8:4-25 and 13:1-13 (link).

Comments: As I clarified in the discussion of the Roman Pliny’s (link) negative characterization of Magians (Magi in Latin, Magoi in Greek), there were at least two main reactions among Greek and Roman literary elites regarding these figures who in their Persian home, at least, played multiple roles as philosophers, priests, astrologers and healers. On the one hand, there is what seems to be the more dominant approach among Greek intellectuals to think of the Magians as being among the more important sources of “barbarian” wisdom (see the cases of “Persian wisdom” under category four). On the other, there are particular authors and especially Roman authors who disparage the Magians as dangerous barbarians engaged in “superstition” and deceptive practices. This second group was in the minority in the first century, according to one of its own proponents, Pliny again.

Not surprisingly in light of the materials pulled together on this website, the authors who produced documents about Jesus or Jesus movements — whether Judean authors like the author of Matthew’s biography of Jesus or others who may be Greek fearers of the Judean god, like the author of Luke-Acts — were very much a part of this world of ethnographic culture. On the one hand is the author of the biography of Jesus known as the Gospel of Matthew whose story of Jesus’ birth zeroes in on the wise Magians from the east who recognize a new king by means of reading the stars. On the other hand is the author of the Adventures (Acts) of the Apostles who on more than one occasion pictures the main rivals or antagonists of Peter or Paul (Saul) as individuals trained in Magian knowledge or skill, Simon the Magian (though also perhaps considered a Samaritan) and Elymas the Magian (though also a Judean). This picture fits with Pliny’s idea of the dissemination of Persian Magian knowledge into various parts, including Judea itself.

It is worth noting that, like the author of Luke-Acts, some other roughly contemporary Judean authors similarly portray particular Magians in a negative light in connection with Judeans or historical Hebrews or Israelites. See, for instance: the Testament of Reuben 4.8-10 (first century BCE), on how Egyptian women brought in Magians to attempt to seduce Joseph; Pseudo-Phokylides 132-152 (first centuries BCE or CE), calling on readers to “keep away from Magian books”; the Wisdom of Solomon 17.7 (first centuries BCE or CE), on the failure of “Magian technique” among Egyptians during one of the plagues (17.7); and, Josephos, Antiquities 20.141-142, on the Roman procurator Felix hiring a Cyprian Judean to pretend to be a Magian in order to persuade a woman to marry Felix. On the other hand, Philo of Alexandria (first century CE) seems to reflect both Matthew’s approach and that of Luke-Acts in conceiving of both deceptive and true Magian knowledge or practice (Moses 1.91; Special Laws 3.100-101).

The more negative approach of Luke-Acts, where “Magian” becomes a derogatory or dismissive term (and much later leads to our words “magic” and “magician” with negative connotations) had a much longer and more impactful legacy within the Jesus movements specifically. In particular, it played a critical role in attempts to define others as dangerous “choosers” (heretics) who selected “foreign” and unacceptable knowledge and practice. In that setting, Simon the Magian, or Simon Magus, himself becomes the arch-heretic par excellence, on which go to this link (coming soon) on heresy-hunters among the so called “church fathers.”

Source of the translation: Lexham English Bible, adapted by Harland.


Matthew’s biography of Jesus with Magians at Jesus’ birth

(1:18-25) Now the birth of Jesus Christ occurred in the following way: His mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they came together, she was found to be pregnant by the Holy Spirit. So Joseph her husband, being righteous and not wanting to shame her, intended to divorce her secretly. But as he was considering these things – look! – an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for what has been conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. And she will give birth to a son, and you will call his name ‘Jesus,’ because he will save his people from their sins.” Now all this happened in order that what was spoken by the Lord through the prophet would be fulfilled, saying, “Behold, the virgin will become pregnant and will give birth to a son, and they will call his name Emmanuel” [Isaiah 7:14], which is translated, “God with us” [Isaiah 8:8, 10 in the LXX]. And Joseph, when he woke up from sleep, did as the angel of the Lord commanded him, and he took his wife and did not have sexual relations with her until she gave birth to a son. And he called his name Jesus.

(2:1-19) Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, Magians (Magoi in Greek, often Latinized as Magi) came from eastern regions to Jerusalem, saying, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Judeans? For we have seen his star at its rising and have come to prostrate ourselves [i.e. as if before an eastern king] to him.” And when king Herod heard it, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him, and after calling together all the high priests and scribes of the people, he inquired from them where the Messiah (Christos) was to be born. So they said to him, “In Bethlehem of Judea, for thus it is written by the prophet: ‘And you, Bethlehem, land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah, for from you will go out a ruler who will shepherd my people Israel’” [Micah 5:2].

Then Herod secretly called in the Magians and determined precisely from them the time when the star appeared. And he sent them to Bethlehem and said, “Go, inquire carefully concerning the child, and when you have found him, report to me so that I also may come and prostrate before him.” After they listened to the king, they went out and – look! – the star which they had seen at its rising led them until it came and stood above the place where the child was. Now when they [the Magians] saw the star, they rejoiced with very great joy. And when they came into the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother, and they fell down to the ground and prostrated before him. And opening their treasure boxes, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. And being warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they went back to their own country by another route.

Now after they had gone away, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph, saying, “Get up, take the child and his mother and flee to Egypt, and stay there until I tell you. For Herod is about to seek the child to destroy him.” So he got up and took the child and his mother during the night and went away to Egypt. And he was there until the death of Herod, in order that what was said by the Lord through the prophet would be fulfilled, saying: “Out of Egypt I called my son.”

When Herod saw that he had been deceived by the Magians, he became very angry. He sent soldiers and executed all the children in Bethlehem and in all the region around it from the age of two years old and under, according to the time which he had determined precisely from the Magians. Then what was spoken by the prophet Jeremiah was fulfilled, saying: “A voice was heard in Ramah, weeping and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children, and she did not want to be comforted, because they exist no longer” [Jeremiah 31:15]. Now after Herod had died – look! – an angel of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt, saying, “Get up, take the child and his mother and go to the land of Israel, for those who were seeking the life of the child are dead.”


Luke-Acts narrative with the rival Magian Simon

(8:4-25) Now those who had been dispersed went around proclaiming the good message of the word. Philip came down to the city of Samaria and began proclaiming the Messiah (Christos) to them. With one mind, the crowds were paying attention to what was being said by Philip, as they heard him and saw the signs that he was performing. For many of those who had unclean spirits, they were coming out of them, crying out with a loud voice, and many who were paralyzed and lame were healed. There was also great joy in that city.

Now a certain man named Simon had been in the city practicing Magian skill (mageuōn) and astonishing the people of Samaria, saying he was someone great. They were all paying attention to him, from the lowly to the powerful, saying, “This man is the power of God that is called ‘Great.’” And they were paying attention to him because for a long time he had astonished them with his Magian skill (mageia).

But when they believed Philip as he was proclaiming the good message about the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus the Messiah, both men and women were being baptized. Simon himself also believed, and after he was baptized he was keeping close company with Philip. And when he saw the signs and great miracles that were taking place, he was astonished.

Now when the apostles in Jerusalem heard that Samaria had accepted the word of God, they sent Peter and John to them, who went down and prayed for them so that they would receive the Holy Spirit. (For it had not yet fallen on any of them, but they had only been baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus.) Then they placed their hands on them and they received the Holy Spirit.

When Simon saw that the Spirit was given by the apostles putting their hands on them, Simon offered them money, saying, “Give this power to me as well, so that whomever I put my hands on may receive the Holy Spirit!” But Peter said to him, “May your silver be destroyed along with you, because you thought you could acquire the gift of God by means of money! You have no part or share in this matter, because your heart is not right before God. Therefore repent of this wickedness of yours, and ask the Lord if perhaps the intent of your heart may be forgiven you! For I see you are in a state of bitter envy and bound by injustice.” But Simon answered and said, “Pray to the Lord for me so that nothing of what you have said will happen to me.” So when they had solemnly testified and spoken the word of the Lord, they turned back toward Jerusalem, and were proclaiming the good news to many villages of the Samaritans.


Luke-Acts narrative with the Magian Elymas son of Joshua on Cyprus island

(13:1-13) Now there were prophets and teachers in Antioch in the assembly that was there: Barnabas, and Simeon (who was called Niger), and Lucius of Cyrene, and Manaen (a close friend of Herod the tetrarch), and Saul. And while they were serving the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, “Set apart Barnabas and Saul now for me to accomplish the work to which I have called them.” Then, after they had fasted, prayed and placed their hands on them, they sent them away.

Therefore, sent out by the Holy Spirit, they came down to Seleukeia [Seleukeia on the Kalakadnos river in Cilicia], and from there they sailed away to Cyprus island. And when they came to the city of Salamis, they began to proclaim the word of God in the synagogues of the Judeans. And they also had John as assistant. When they had crossed over the entire island as far as the city of Paphos, they found a certain man, a Magian, a Judean false prophet whose name was son of Joshua (bar-Jesus), who was with the proconsul Sergius Paulus, an intelligent man. This man [the proconsul] summoned Barnabas and Saul and wished to hear the word of God.

But Elymas the Magian – for his name is translated in this way – opposed them, attempting to turn the proconsul away from the faith. But Saul – also called Paul – filled with the Holy Spirit, looked intently at him and said, “O you who are full of all deceit and of all kinds of recklessness, you son of the devil, you enemy of all righteousness! Will you not stop making crooked the straight paths of the Lord! Now look, the hand of the Lord is against you, and you will be blind, not seeing the sun for a while. Immediately mist and darkness fell over Elymas, and he was going around looking for people to lead him by the hand. Then when the proconsul saw what had happened, he believed, because he was astounded at the teaching about the Lord. Now Paul and his companions put out to sea from Paphos and came to Perga in Pamphylia . . . [remainder omitted].

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