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Five Things You Didn't Know About the Magi
Brent Landau is the author of Revelation of the Magi: The Lost Tale of the Wise Men’s Journey to Bethlehem, the first-ever English translation of an ancient manuscript that tells the famous story from the Magi’s perspective. Here he shares five things you didn’t know about the Magi.
1) The Gospel of Matthew doesn’t say how many Magi there were. Three became the most popular answer because of the three gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. But some paintings in Christian catacombs have two or four, the Revelation of the Magi has a list of twelve Magi with names, and other Christian writings imagine an entire army of Magi!
2) Early Christians didn’t agree on where the Magi were from. The most popular answer was Persia (modern Iran), but others thought they were from Babylon or Arabia. In the Revelation of the Magi, they come from a land called Shir, which, because it is located at the eastern edge of the inhabited world, is probably equivalent to China.
3) Nobody knows what the Star of Bethlehem really was. Some early Christians thought it was an angel or the Holy Spirit, and more recent theories include a comet or a supernova. In the Revelation of the Magi, the star is none other than Christ himself in celestial form.
4) Opinions differ about how long it took the Magi to reach Bethlehem. Based on Herod’s asking of Magi when the star appeared, coupled with his subsequent command to kill all male infants under the age of two, many Christians thought it took them two years. Some imagined a much faster journey of twelve days, based on the “twelve days of Christmas” between December 25th and the celebration of Epiphany on January 6th. Their journey is even faster in the Revelation of the Magi, since the star “carries” the Magi to Bethlehem in the blink of an eye.
5) A number of answers were proposed for how the Magi knew that a star signified the birth of the King of the Jews. Many Christians thought that they knew the prophecy of Balaam, a prophet who predicts in Numbers 24:17 that “a star shall come out of Jacob.” In the Revelation of the Magi, the Magi are descendants of Seth, who learned about the prophecy of the star from his father Adam -- since the star used to stand over the Tree of Life in the Garden of Eden.
Visit the Patheos Book Club for more resources on the Revelation of the Magi, including an excerpt from the Introduction, discussion questions, and an online discussion.