God Didn't Say That

Bible Translations and Mistranslations

What Reading Level is “Magi”?

I’ve only just glanced at the new CEB translation of Matthew (available on-line here), so I’ll have more organized and thorough thoughts soon, but as I was paging through it, I saw this:

After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judah during the reign of King Herod, magi came from the east to Jerusalem. [2:1]

This surprised me, because one of the goals of the CEB is to provide a translation in elementary English. The preface notes:

The CEB is presented at an average 7th grade reading level, with most books (e.g., Matthew) scoring in the 6th grade range. [Emphasis in original.]

So I have to wonder: Is an irregular plural of a rare word compatible with the goals of the CEB? What were the other considerations that made more common English translations undesirable here? Wouldn’t “maguses” work just as well (or as poorly)? Should “magi” (or maybe even the Greek magoses?) be italicized, to give readers a clue that it’s not an English word (which for most people it isn’t)?

While we’re at it, I also have to wonder if the point is “magi came from the east,” or “magi from the east came….” I tend to think it’s the latter, that is, that “from the east” describes where the people were from, not where they were coming from.

(And by the way, I think the version on-line is still a draft. For example, still in verse 2:1 ioudaia is translated “Judah” — perhaps having been confused with ioudas — even though in 2:5 it’s the more common “Judea.”)

[Update: More more about the CEB is available on BBB here.]


November 5, 2009 - Posted by | Bible versions, translation practice, translation theory | , , , , , , ,


  1. As i read through it, that was my first question too. I wonder if there isn’t there a better word that actually means something besides those three guys who came to visit Jesus.

    Comment by Ryan | November 5, 2009

  2. Of course, you know that the Bible doesn’t say there were three of them, that is just tradition. 😉

    But maybe magi (Magi?) is better than “wise men”, because it’s more accurate, and it can provide a teaching opportunity. Maybe.

    I got it downloaded, but haven’t had a chance to start reading it yet.

    Comment by Gary Zimmerli | November 5, 2009

  3. This was also one of my first issues to email to the CEB team.

    I have suggested using the tradition “wíse men” (accent on the first word) which has a different referential meaning from “wise mén” (accent on mén). At least we know from this wording who is being referred to, whereas with “magi” most English speakers don’t know who is being referred to. As Gary has mentioned, teaching can fill in what these “wíse men” did, i.e. what magi were, without using that rare word, “magi”.

    Comment by Wayne Leman | November 5, 2009

  4. I feel compelled to quote the James Taylor song, “Home By Another Way,” as being especially appropriate here:

    “Those magic men, the Magi. Some people call them wise.
    Oriental. Even Kings. Well, anyway, those guys….”

    Comment by Mark Baker-Wright | November 5, 2009

  5. Those who are into medieval fantasy would readily associate magus/magi with wizards (note the word “wize” in there!) — mysterious, usually older people who know obscure/arcane lore more ancient than even their beards.

    I don’t know if thaumaturgy is actually associated with the biblical word magos, but I can at least point a small subset of the target demographic and say that at least they might get a somewhat accurate picture of what magi are.

    Of course, that’s a minority that would dimly understand; the majority would be completely clueless. I agree that transliterating magoi does nothing for the 7th-grade reading level.

    However, perhaps wizard (with its lexical association with wisdom) is an option to explore — for a higher reading level.

    Comment by Gary Simmons | November 5, 2009

  6. “Wizard” will be a word well known to anyone whose reading level is high enough for Harry Potter – or perhaps misunderstood. Those up to reading “The Lord of the Rings” or even “The Hobbit” might get a better model in Gandalf. Another suggestion might be “magician”, as “magic” is of course derived from “magus” – but that might have wrong connotations of stage trickery.

    Comment by Peter Kirk | November 9, 2009

  7. When I come out with the NIV World of Warcraft study edition, I will definitely use “wizard.”

    Comment by Gary Simmons | November 11, 2009

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