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Watson's Biblical & Theological Dictionary
or MAGIANS, a title which the ancient Persians gave to their wise men, or philosophers. Magi, among the Persians, answers to σοφοι , or σιλοσοφοι , among the Greeks; sapientes, among the Latins; druids, among the Gauls; gymnosophists, among the Indians; and priests, among the Egyptians.
The ancient magi, according to Aristotle and Laertius, were the sole authors and conservators of the Persian philosophy; and the philosophy principally cultivated among them was theology and politics; they being always esteemed as the interpreters of all law, both divine and human; on which account they were wonderfully revered by the people. Hence Cicero observes that none were admitted to the crown of Persia, but such as were well instructed in the discipline of the magi; who taught τα βασιλικα , and showed princes how to govern. Plato, Apuleius, Laertius, and others, agree that the philosophy of the magi related principally to the worship of the gods; they were the persons who were to offer prayers, supplications, and sacrifices, as if the gods would be heard by them alone. But, according to Lucian, Suidas, &c, this theology, or worship of the gods, as it is called, about which the magi were employed, was little more than the diabolical art of divination; so that μαγεια , strictly taken, was the art of divination. These people were held in such veneration among the Persians, that Darius, the son of Hystaspes, among other things, had it engraven on his monument, that he was the master of the magi. Philo Judaeus describes the magi to be diligent inquirers into nature, out of the love they bear to truth; and who, setting themselves apart from other things, contemplate the divine virtues the more clearly, and initiate others in the same mysteries. The magi, or magians, formed one of the two grand sects into which the idolatry of the world was divided between 500 and 600 years before Christ. These abominated all those images which were worshipped by the other sect, denominated Sabians, and paid their worship to the Deity under the emblem of fire. Their chief doctrine was, that there were two principles, one of which was the cause of all good, and the other the cause of all evil. The former was represented by light, and the latter by darkness, as their truest symbols; and of the composition of these two they supposed that all things in the world were made. The sect of the magians was revived and reformed by Zoroaster. This celebrated philosopher, called by the Persians Zerdusht, or Zaratush, began about the thirty-sixth year of the reign of Darius to restore and reform the magian system of religion. He was not only excellently skilled in all the learning of the east that prevailed in his time, but likewise thoroughly versed in the Jewish religion, and in all the sacred writings of the Old Testament that were then extant: whence some have inferred that he was a native Jew both by birth and profession; and that he had been servant to one of the prophets, probably Ezekiel or Daniel. He made his first appearance in Media, in the city of Xix, now called Aderbijan, as some say; or, according to others, in Ecbatana, now called Tauris. Instead of admitting the existence of two first causes, with the magians, he asserted the existence of one supreme God, who created both these, and out of these two produced, according to his sovereign pleasure, every thing else. According to his doctrine, there was one supreme Being independently and self-existing from all eternity. Under him there are two angels; one the angel of light, the author and director of all good; and the other the angel of darkness, who in the author and director of all evil. These two, probably speaking figuratively, out of the mixture of light and darkness, made all things that are; and they are in a state of perpetual conflict; so that where the angel of light prevails, there the most is good; and where the angel of darkness prevails, there the most is evil. This struggle shall continue to the end of the world; and then there shall be a general resurrection, and a day of judgment: after which, the angel of darkness and his disciples shall go into a world of their own, where they shall suffer in everlasting darkness the punishment of their evil deeds; and the angel of light and his disciples shall go into a world of their own, where they shall receive in everlasting light the reward due unto their good deeds; and henceforward they shall for ever remain separate.
Of the controversy as to Zoroaster, Zeratusht, or Zertushta, and the sacred books said to have been written by him, called Zend or Zendavesta, which has divided the most eminent critics, it would answer no important end to give an abstract. Those who wish for information on the subject are referred to Hyde's "Religio Veterum Persarum;" Prideaux's "Connection;" Warburton's "Divine Legation;" Bryant's "Mythology;" "The Universal History;" Sir W. Jones's Works, vol. iii, p. 115; M. du Perron, and Richardson's "Dissertation," prefixed to his Persian and Arabic Dictionary. But whatever may become of the authority of the whole or part of the Zendavesta, and with whatever fables the history of the reformer of the magian religion may be mixed, the learned are generally agreed that such a reformation took place by his instrumentality. "Zeratusht," says Sir W. Jones, "reformed the old religion by the addition of genii or angels, of new ceremonies in the veneration shown to fire, of a new work which he pretended to have received from heaven, and, above all, by establishing the actual adoration, of the supreme Being;" and he farther adds, "The reformed religion of Persia continued in force till that country was conquered by the Musselmans; and, without studying the Zend, we have ample information concerning it in the modern Persian writings of several who profess it. Bahman always named Zeratusht with reverence; he was, in truth, a pure Theist, and strongly disclaimed any adoration of the fire or other elements; and he denied that the doctrine of two coeval principles, supremely good and supremely bad, formed any part of his faith." "The Zeratusht of Persia, or the Zoroaster of the Greeks," says Richardson, "was highly celebrated by the most discerning people of ancient times; and his tenets, we are told, were most eagerly and rapidly embraced by the highest in rank, and the wisest men in the Persian empire." He distinguished himself by denying that good and evil, represented by light and darkness, were coeval, independent principles; and asserted the supremacy of the true God, in exact conformity with the doctrine contained in a part of that celebrated prophecy of Isaiah in which Cyrus is mentioned by name: "I am the Lord, and there is none else, there is no God beside me," no coeval power. "I form the light, and create darkness, I make peace," or good, "and create evil, I the Lord do all these things." Fire, by Zerdushta, appears to have been used emblematically only; and the ceremonies for preserving and transmitting it, introduced by him, were manifestly taken from the Jews, and the sacred fire of their tabernacle and temple.
The old religion of the Persians was corrupted by Sabianism, or the worship of the host of heaven, with its accompanying superstition. The magian doctrine, whatever it might be at first, had degenerated; and two eternal principles, good and evil, had been introduced. It was therefore necessarily idolatrous also, and, like all other false systems, flattering to the vicious habits of the people. So great an improvement in the moral character and influence of the religion of a whole nation as was effected by Zoroaster, a change which is not certainly paralleled in the ancient history of the religion of mankind, can scarcely, therefore, be thought possible, except we suppose a divine interposition, either directly, or by the occurrence of some very impressive events. Now as there are so many authorities for fixing the time of Zoroaster or Zeratusht not many years subsequent to the death of the great Cyrus, the events connected with the conquest of Babylon may account for his success in that reformation of religion of which he was the author. For, had not the minds of men been prepared for this change by something extraordinary, it is not supposable that they would have adopted a purer faith from him. That he gave them a better doctrine, is clear from the admission of even Dean Prideaux, who has very unjustly branded him as an impostor. Let it then be remembered, that as "the Most High ruleth in the kingdoms of men," he often overrules great political events for moral purposes. The Jews were sent into captivity to Babylon to be reformed from their idolatrous propensities, and their reformation commenced with their calamity. A miracle was there wrought in favour of three Hebrew confessors of the existence of one only God, and that under circumstances to put shame upon a popular idol in the presence of the king and "all the rulers of the provinces," that the issue of this controversy between Jehovah and idolatry might be made known throughout that vast empire.—Worship was refused to the idol by a few Hebrew captives, and the idol had no power to punish the public affront:— the servants of Jehovah were cast into a furnace, and he delivered them unhurt; and a royal decree declared "that there was no god who could deliver after this sort." The proud monarch, himself also is smitten with a singular disease;—he remains subject to it until he acknowledges the true God; and, upon his recovery, he publicly ascribes to him both the justice and the mercy of the punishment. This event takes place, also, in the accomplishment of a dream which none of the wise men of Babylon could interpret. It was interpreted by Daniel, who made the fulfilment to redound to the honour of the true God, by ascribing to him the perfection of knowing the future, which none of the false gods, appealed to by the Chaldean sages, possessed; as the inability of their servants to interpret the dream sufficiently proved. After these singular events, Cyrus takes Babylon, and he finds there the sage and the statesman, Daniel, the worshipper of the true God, "who creates both good and evil," "who makes the light, and forms the darkness." There is little doubt but that he and the principal Persians throughout the empire, would have the prophecy of Isaiah respecting Cyrus, delivered more than a hundred years before he was born, and in which his name stood recorded, along with the predicted circumstances of the capture of Babylon, pointed out to them. Every reason, religious and political, urged the Jews to make the prediction a matter of notoriety; and from Cyrus's decree in Ezra it is certain that he was acquainted with it; because there is in the decree an obvious reference to the prophecy. This prophecy, so strangely fulfilled, would give mighty force to the doctrine connected with it, and which it proclaims with so much majesty:—
"I am JEHOVAH, and none else, Forming LIGHT, and creating DARKNESS,
Making PEACE, and creating EVIL;
I JEHOVAH am the author of all these things."
Here the great principle of corrupted magianism was directly attacked; and, in proportion as the fulfilment of the prophecy was felt to be singular and striking, the doctrine blended with it would attract notice. Its force was both felt and acknowledged, as we have seen in the decree of Cyrus for the rebuilding of the temple. In that Cyrus acknowledged the true God to be supreme, and thus renounces his former faith; and the example, the public example, of a prince so beloved, and whose reign was so extended, could not fail to influence the religious opinions of his people. That the effect did not terminate in Cyrus, we know; for, from the book of Ezra, it appears that both Darius and Artaxerxes made decrees in favour of the Jews, in which Jehovah has the emphatic appellation repeatedly given to him, "the God of heaven," the very terms used by Cyrus himself. Nor are we to suppose the impression confined to the court; for the history of the three Hebrew youths, of Nebuchadnezzar's dream, sickness, and reformation from idolatry, of the interpretation of the hand writing on the wall by Daniel the servant of the living God, of his deliverance from the lions, and the publicity of the prophecy of Isaiah respecting Cyrus, were too recent, too public, and too striking in their nature, not to be often and largely talked of. Beside, in the prophecy respecting Cyrus, the intention of almighty God in recording the name of that monarch in an inspired book, and showing beforehand that he had chosen him to overturn the Babylonian empire, is expressly mentioned as having respect to two great objects, first, the deliverance of Israel, and, second, the making known his supreme divinity among the nations of the earth. We again quote Lowth's translation:—
"For the sake of my servant Jacob,
And of Israel my chosen,
I have even called thee by thy name,
I have surnamed thee, though thou knewest me not.
I am JEHOVAH, and none else, Beside me there is no God;
I will gird thee, though thou hast not known me,
That they may know, from the rising of the sun,
And from the west, that there is NONE BESIDE ME."
It was therefore intended by this proceeding on the part of Providence to teach, not only Cyrus, but the people of his vast empire, and surrounding nations,
1. That the God of the Jews was Jehovah, the self-subsistent, the eternal God;
2. That he was God alone, there being no deity beside himself; and,
3. That good and evil, represented by light and darkness, were neither independent nor eternal subsistences, but his great instruments, and under his control.
The Persians, who had so vastly extended their empire by the conquest of the countries formerly held by the monarchs of Babylon, were thus prepared for such a reformation of their religion as Zoroaster effected. The principles he advocated had been previously adopted by Cyrus and other Persian monarchs, and probably by many of the principal persons of that nation. Zoroaster himself thus became acquainted with the great truths contained in this famous prophecy, which attacked the very foundations of every idolatrous and Manichean system. From the other sacred books of the Jews, who mixed with the Persians in every part of the empire, he evidently learned more. This is sufficiently proved from the many points of similarity between his religion and Judaism, though he should not be allowed to speak so much in the style of the Holy Scriptures as some passages in the Zendavesta would indicate. He found the people, however, "prepared of the Lord" to admit his reformations, and he carried them. This cannot but be looked upon as one instance of several merciful dispensations of God to the Gentile world, through his own peculiar people, the Jews, by which the idolatries of the Heathen were often checked, and the light of truth rekindled among them. In this view the ancient Jews evidently considered the Jewish church as appointed not to preserve only but to extend true religion. "God be merciful to us and bless us; that thy way may be known upon earth, thy saving health unto all nations." This renders Pagan nations more evidently "without excuse." That this dispensation of mercy was afterward neglected among the Persians, is certain. How long the effect continued we know not, nor how widely it spread; perhaps longer and wider than may now distinctly appear. If the magi, who came from the east to seek Christ, were Persians, some true worshippers of God would appear to have remained in Persia to that day; and if, as is probable, the prophecies of Isaiah and Daniel were retained among them, they might be among those who "waited for redemption," not at Jerusalem, but in a distant part of the world. The Parsees, who were nearly extirpated by Mohammedan fanaticism, were charged by their oppressors with the idolatry of fire, and this was probably true of the multitude. Some of their writers, however, warmly defended themselves against the charge. A considerable number of them remain in India to this day, and profess to have the books of Zoroaster.
2. The term magi was also anciently used generally throughout the east, to distinguish philosophers, and especially astronomers. Pliny and Ptolemy mention Arabi as synonymous with magi; and it was the opinion of many learned men in the first ages of Christianity, that the magi who presented offerings to the infant Saviour, Matthew 2:1 , came from southern Arabia; for it is certain that "gold, frankincense, and myrrh." were productions of that country. They were philosophers among whom the best parts of the reformed magian system, which was extensively diffused, were probably preserved. They were pious men, also who had some acquaintance, it may be, with the Hebrew prophecies, and were favoured themselves with divine revelations. They are to be regarded as members of the old patriarchal church, never quite extinguished among the Heathen; and they had the special honour to present the homage of the Gentile world to the infant Saviour.
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Watson, Richard. Entry for 'Magi'. Richard Watson's Biblical & Theological Dictionary. https://www.studylight.org/dictionaries/eng/wtd/m/magi.html. 1831-2.