MAGI-"Wise men" or "Astrologers" ?

It may come as a surprise that there might be any criticism of the New World Translation where the word "magoi" has been translated as "astrologers" at the three places this occurs in the Gospel of Matthew at 2:1,7 and 16. But this has been the case. In a private discussion on many different subjects with a presbyterian from Northern Ireland we were sent a photo-copy of a book written by a critic by the name of W.Bowman. In his book Bowman had been critical of Winters "favourable review" of the Kingdom Interlinear Translation(see The Watchtower, August 1st, 1984, p.32 and Awake, March 22nd, 1987, p.14). Bowman goes on to cite the one example Winter uses to illustrate the "consistently accurate" quality of the K.I.T. Bowman quotes Winter as saying, "Where both the KJV and the RSV, for instance,have "wisemen" for the Greek 'magos'(Matt.2.1,7,16), the K.I.T. has astrologers." Bowman disagrees with Winter here by going on to say "It is therefore best to leave the word untranslated, or use some general translation such as "wise men" as the K.J.V. and the R.S.V. have done. Ironically, then,Winter's single example of the translation of the N.W.T. is an example of the shallowness of it's scholarship." (We have emphasised Bowmans words here.) Let us see if Bowman has a point or, rather, if he mistakenly allows his prejudices to get the better of him.!

We answered this criticism, nay, accusation, of the New World Translation of the Holy Scriptures in a letter to the presbyterian mentioned above. Herewith is which we have written:

"But our question is, has he[Bowman]proved his point? Or is he being fair and balanced? Let us explain.

"The N.E.B.(1960)translates the Greek word "magoi"[plural of "magi"] at Matthew 2:1,7,16 as "astrologers." So according to Bowman this would also be an "example of the shallowness" of the scholarship of this translation! However, let us cite other translations that translate similarly at these places where "magi" occurs.

"Although these translations may be less literal than others, the question might be asked about the translations cited above whether Bowman thinks are all "examples of shallow scholarship."? Does he convict all these translations aswell? Or, do you think, as we do, that he is very biased against the N.W.T.?"

We then referred to one other translation: The New Testament in the Language of the People by C.B.Williams who translates Matthew 2:1 as, "star gazers came from the east to Jerusalem." and the fact that this translation is highly praised and endorsed as "the most accurate and illuminating translation in the English langauge" by none other than our 'friend' J.Mantey.I continued:

"If Williams can be so good and he translates "magoi" as "star gazers" how can Bowman show from the N.W.T.'s treatment of the same Greek word be an example of inferior scholarship! It is one thing to prefer one version's translation to another but to go on and then say it is[in the NWT's case]an example of "shallow scholarship" is pure unfounded bias. W.Bowman is guilty of this. Reinecker's Linguistic Key supports the translation of the "magoi" as "astrologers" than "wisemen." Not that "wisemen" is not a possible translation but if, as the Linguistic Key says, that these Babylonian priests were noted for their science in regard to "stars and dreams", the word "wisemen" would not bring this out to the ordinary reader of Matt.2:1 but the word "astrologers" would. Do you not agree? And, although we are probably labouring the point we note that although the New American Bible transliterates the word "magoi", in it's footnote it says,"...Matthews's magi are astrologers."(see Cathlolic Study Bible, 1990 ed.) Also, the New Berkley Version(rev.ed.)has in it's footnote, "Magi,from magus meaning great, a Persian title that was used for teachers and wisemen, in this instance astrologers." Of interest here, we think you would agree, is how ancient readers of Matthew understood the "magi" to be. For instance, Tertullion wrote: "We know the mutual alliance of magic and astrology. The interpreters of the stars, then, were the present Him[Jesus]'gifts'." (The Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol.III, p.65) Justin and Origen wrote similiarly that the "magi" were "astrologers." The New Funk & Wagnalls Encyclopedia, Vol.22, p.8076, says the name "magi" became current "as a generic term for astrologers in the East." Prof. A.T.Robertson explains, "Here in Matthew the idea seems to be rather that of astrologers. Babylon was the home of astrology."- Word Pictures in the New Testament, Vol.1, p.15."

"Now we realise that you sending us the enclosure from Bowman's book was for our perusal and that by sending it you did not mean that you agreed with everything Bowman says or asserts[but in this the presbyterian later refused to budge, agreeing with Bowman here despite all the contrary evidence!], but you did send it in response to our question about Winter's remarks in comparison with your own. But the above might show that Bowman might not be as "fair" as you thought he was. We invite your comments. And in support of our feeling that Bowman is not being fair or is guilty of not telling the 'whole story,' and therefore might be convicted of misleading HIS readers, why does he not admit that the NWT gives an alternative rendering at Matthew 2:1, 7, 16 so that it could be left untranslated? We enclose Matt.2:1 from the 1950 edition of the NWT[of the Christian Greek Scriptures]where in a footnote we can read; "Or,"magi."]. Is this not what Bowman himself prefers should be done, for does he not write, "It is therefore best to leave the word untranslated." Was Bowman ignorant of the fact that the NWT Translation Committee said in the foreword of the 1st(1950)edition,"...we have offered alternative English renderings of the Greek text...Thus in our footnotes we have provided a sort of critical apparatus for our translation, rather than a commentary on the Scriptures." If he[Bowman]was ignorant of this then he is guilty of being too bold for poorly researched statements. And yet if he did know then he is guilty of misrepresentation, something he convicts the Watchtower Society of!"

After the criticism of Bowman, in the above appeared, out comes the New Revised Standard Version and unbeknown to our presbyterian friend at a footnote to Matthew 2:1 it says, after rendering "magi" as "wise men," "Or astrologers; Gk magi". As to whether this 'alternative' could stand in the main translation Bruce M. Metzger(whom Bowman himself recognises as a "biblical Greek scholar of the highest order")writes in 'To The Readers' of the above Bible version, "In both Testaments, alternative renderings of the text are indicated by the word "Or.".-(p.xv1.)

Bruce M. Metzger had written to us saying, "As regards the meaning of "magoi" in Matt.2:1 ff. Dictionaries of Greek define the word in various ways, including 'wise men', 'magician', 'astrologer', 'Magus' and similar words. The translation committee of the NRSV voted to continue with the traditional rendering, from the Authorised Version, of 'wise men' but thought it only fair to the reader to indicate also that another rendering that is accepted by lexica should also be cited('astrologer'), though we were unwilling to introduce this word into the text. May I mention that the New English Bible uses 'astrologers' in this passage, as does the Revised English Bible also. Neither version provides any footnote as to an alternative rendering. The upshot is that the American committee preferred the traditional rendering, and put this into the text, whereas the British Committee preferred 'astrologers' but did not see fit to offer the reader any alternative in a footnote." - Letter dated 4/8/95.

Also one retired English scholar from the University of Sheffield had written an enlightening letter to us saying:

"The translation of the Greek word "magoi" in Matthew 2 does present problems however it is rendered. If we opt for the simplest method, i.e. virtual transliteration,we have "magi" which, if it conveys anything, is likely to give the impression that what is being talked about of is "magicians" and that is not really the case. If we opt for the old translation "wise men", then there is no suggestion as to how they gained their wisdom, or what they were "wise" about: the word "wise" today suggests practical wisdom,wisdom about behaviour- and that is not what is implied in the Greek word. In the Greek texts of the period the word "magoi" refers to people who were skilled in reading astrological signs and in the interpretation of dreams. It seems to me, then, that the one word that conveys most information about those who followed the star is "astrologers", in that it tells us how they got their knowledge of and ability to interpret the special sign. To that degree, it seems the least incorrect way of rendering a word which has a broad range of meaning."

The Interpreters Bible: "Wise men is a translation of "magoi." The magi seem originally to have been a Median tribe of priests; later the word refers to the Zoroastrian priestly caste. An embassy of Parthian magi paid homage to Nero at naples in a.d.66 and returned home by another route. "Magi" also denotes astrologers and magicians generally. The N.T. and the rabbis usually employ it in an evil sense("magicians"), but Matthew probably thinks of Babylonians astrologers."

The Gospel According to Matthew, An Introduction and Commentary by R.V.G.Tasker: "The word 'magi', of Persian origin, almost certainly means, in the present context[Matt.2:1.ff] 'astrologers'...." Nor is it expressly stated by Matthew that the astrologers came from any particular part of the east,...Verse 1[of Matt.2.] should read 'astrologers from the east(i.e. eastern astrologers came to Jerusalem';...McNeile, who remarks,"The narrative is rich in spiritual significance. It affords a type of the early history of Christianity. The Son of God was revealed "to the Jew first, and also to the Gentile"-to the mother and Joseph first, and also to the foreign astrologers. He was revealed to the humble and ignorant first, and then to the honorable and learned; to the poor first, and then to the rich; to the West first, and then to the east. It has also other lessons. He was revealed to the astrologers by a method suited to their habits and understanding; and thier object in coming to jesus was not personal advantage, but solely to give Him homage.' (Additional Notes: ii.i.Wise men translates magoi which was used both in a good sense of learned astrologers, and in a bad sense of those who practised magical arts. It is curious that some of the early Fathers understood it here in the latter sense and regarded the story as symbolic of the triumph of Christianity over magic and sorcery."-pp 39,40.-emphasis ours.

The Gospel According To Matthew,-A New Testament Commentary(1969, based on the RSV)by H.L.Ellison: "The wise men (magoi)were astrologers..."-p142.-emphasis ours

Commentary On The New Testament by Professor E.M.Blaiklock: "The Magi were astrologers, probably from South-east Arabia..."-p.10 -emphasis ours

How To Choose Your Bible Wisely by A.S.Duthie, 2nd edition, 1995: "RIGHT WORD MEANING:...Even when it is relatively easy care should still be taken to get the right equivalent word: [In each case below,* is used to indicate an original literal meaning:and the English equivalents given in bold type are preferred to the equivalents in plain type.]......

Magoi; NAS, NIV :magi, Magi; NRS: wise men: REB: astrologers; GNB[TEV[men who studied the stars."

All of the above shows that Robert M Bowman has been found wanting and is himself guilty of poor research and unwarranted prejudiced comments. Can, therefore, anyone trust his writings?

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