Katharine J. Dell
Perhaps the most famous reference to ‘wise men’ is that in the New Testament to the wise men who came to visit the baby Jesus, as recorded in Matthew 2. We are told that the wise men came to worship Jesus bringing with them expensive gifts, their visit the result of observation and the pursuit of a star or other heavenly body. These were magi, men from the East, probably from Persia, trained in the art of wisdom, which included astronomy, astrology, and other powers of divination as well as wise thoughts and actions. This reference links up with a particular brand of wisdom known as mantic wisdom—the interpretation of omens and dreams and of the future, of divination, and of astral bodies—also witnessed to in the Old Testament figure of Daniel, who possessed ‘wisdom’ of this type and is described amongst other young men of the court as ‘versed in every branch of wisdom, endowed with knowledge and insight’ (Dan. 1: 4). Daniel famously interpreted dreams which proved to be true, and so was elevated to a high position at the Persian court. This is wisdom from a particular country of the ancient Near East—that of the Persian empire—and is generally considered a sub-branch of what we know as mainstream ‘wisdom’ from both Israel and other ancient Near Eastern countries, but it serves to raise the question: what is this tradition of ‘wisdom’ to which the wise men ultimately belong? How far back do its roots go, and what literature specifically contains its insights?