The Magi Story

There’s some discussion now about Brent Landau’s Revelation of the Magi: The Lost Tale of the Wise Men’s Journey to Bethlehem, a new and previously inaccessible translation of a (Syriac) Christian fictional, fantastical text about the magi. Patheos is hosting a commons on this very book. Since we know so little about the magi, they have become the source of imagination.

And Landau is right to point out that much of what people think comes from Christian legends and art. Not much can be traced back to the Revelation of the Magi, but his point is so important: we have absorbed so many Christian traditions that fill in details that simply aren’t found in the text.

This fictional tale, which I found to be a fascinating and fun read, is absorbed with light and with the magi’s star and with the East and a place called Shir. It also concerns the history of the magi — a group that descends from the story of Seth in Genesis — though the story almost jumps from Seth to the magi in Shir. And it’s a story of a mountain and a cave, a cave like the one in Bethlehem where Jesus was born. It is a story of promise that they would someday see a star and that star would lead them to Bethlehem. It’s quite fantastical and fun.

There are lots of stories like this in the collection of Christian writings, many of them as fantastical as this one. What they tell us is the theology and piety and practices of all sorts of Christians.

Landau, in my opinion, speculates on the date and seems intent on getting this book as early in dating as possible. I read his argument closely, and a book like this is not as detailed as Landau, who has specialized in The Revelation of the Magi, but I was simply not convinced. Postulating connections and redactions between obscure texts, building one possibility upon another, does not increase confidence or probability. Still, the dating of the text — which he locates about the 5th Century but perhaps as early as the late 2d or early 3d Century — is not critical to anything Landau argues. I see his early dating, and some would locate it in the 8th Century, as a possibility.

A notable feature of this text is that the name “Jesus Christ” is not found in the revelations of the magi themselves. That is, the stories in this text don’t call the obvious subject — and no one questions whether this text is about Jesus Christ — “Jesus Christ.” Instead, one metaphor after another is used: Jesus is the light mostly.  But there are sections of this text that are virtual downloads of biblical theology and early Christology about Jesus as the Son of the Father, as the divine-human, as incarnate, as the baby of Mary … it goes on and on and on.

But a point must be made: actually “Jesus Christ” is found twice, once early and once near the end, but Landau proposes both as interpolations. Why? Because that name is (1) not found any where else in the revelations, and (2) because it is found throughout the interpolation of the Thomas stuff at the end of the document. OK, this is reasonable but hardly demonstrable at a compelling level. Yes, I agree, the names here are unusual but interpolation is much harder to prove.

Landau makes much of this absence of “Jesus Christ.” He finds this indicative of a kind of early religious pluralism.

Instead of seeing non-Christian religions as products of human vanity or demonic inspiration, as most ancient Christians did, the Revelation of the Magi apparently believes that having an experience of Christ’s presence is much more important than being a Christian.

He draws this conclusion from the absence of the name Jesus Christ in the heart of this book.

Since Landau brought this point up in his introduction, I looked for this theme in the book and what I found was a very strong sense of election — the magi are a chosen people of God — and God’s sovereignty and a very traditional sense of gospel and salvation through the cross. Frankly, I find his theory unwarranted: What I find is a text that is powerfully christocentric and that salvation comes through him and I find no presence of sanctifying the religions of others. I just don’t know where he finds non-Christian religions. The religion of the magi can hardly be seen as anything but robustly orthodox Christianity, even if expressed in some peculiar forms. They call Jesus everything but Jesus Christ, and they call him every name in the Book.

One example from his text. Chp 14 is entitled “The Magi realize Christ’s polymorphism” by Landau. Polymorphism is sketched in the note, but he clearly sees this connected to this theme quoted above. The oddity of this though is that the so-called “polymorphisms” are nothing less than a sketch of the gospel story: an infant, then a youth, then a human being, then a cross and a person of light on it, then down into Sheol, then [assuming resurrection] ascended into glory … that’s the Story of the gospel in the early church. Landau casually observes this but makes nothing of it; I would make something of it: the polymporphism of this book is the successive stages in the life of the one who gave himself for the salvation of the world.

So, where are we? This is an interesting book, as interesting as some of the odd books in the Dead Sea Serolls for understanding Judaism, as interesting as some of the Gospel apocrypha for understanding odd groups in earliest Christianity … but I don’t find this book indicative of a kind of religious pluralism.

One theme in this book that Landau avoids but I can’t: the text is at times overtly misogynistic. The intensity of blame on Eve in the reflections of Adam in the early chapters of this text is too strong to ignore. Maybe I missed observations of his in this regard, but I would ask him why not make more of this theme?

About Scot McKnight

Scot McKnight is a recognized authority on the New Testament, early Christianity, and the historical Jesus. McKnight, author of more than forty books, is the Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL.

  • Carl Gregg

    Thanks for sharing your insights on the book, especially in regard to the dating. I reviewed the book for Patheos. For anyone interested, my review — as well as the other Patheos review — include a question and response from the author. My question for Landau was his best tip of using the text to preach on Epiphany 2011: http://www.patheos.com/community/carlgregg/2010/12/03/contemplative-wise-men/

  • Andrew Tash

    Scot:

    A couple of points here. First, the excerpt reads differently than the preview sentence. Perhaps its contextual and I’m unable to assess the statement from the portion given. But the book quote runs a similar path to the recent Operdeck postings on the D’Costa book, especially post 3.

    Second, I loved this line. “They call Jesus everything but Jesus Christ, and they call him every name in the Book” Every name in the Book. Bravo :)

  • smcknight

    Andrew, sorry but not sure what you are saying in the first paragraph.

  • http://cktygrett.wordpress.com Casey

    Interesting to read this as I’m preparing to preach on the Magi story and am finding a real vacuum of people who have worked the story through in a preaching/teaching context. Any suggestions?

  • Lived in Wien!

    Scot?? Has Hades frozen over? You read FICTION?

  • smcknight

    Casey,

    Folks from afar worship Jesus.
    Gentiles recognize the King.
    Leaders often fail to see the revelation.

    This text is about Gentiles, the Abrahamic promise to bless the nations, coming to the Messiah to honor him.

  • http://allempires.com Cyrus

    I’m a Muslim from Iran, it is interesting to know that Shia Muslims also believe 12th Imam Mahdi will come from Shir region of Khorasan in the northeast of Iran, in fact Shir has been always considered as a holy land for Iranians, the complex of caves and waterfalls of Shir-abad in this region is considered as a natural wonder in the hot and dry climate of Iran.

  • Clay Knick

    I’m preaching on Scot’s first point on 1/2 which we will celebrate as Epiphany Sun. This is an option since Epiphany is on 1/6, as always.

  • http://cktygrett.wordpress.com Casey

    thanks Scot and Clay – we’re including this in our Kingdom of Christmas series where we’ll deal with the “Outsiders Get In” aspect of the Kingdom of God. Good leads from you both.

    BTW – giving away a copy of Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove’s “Common Prayer” book on my blog tomorrow. Check out my interview with him.

    http://cktygrett.wordpress.com/2010/12/09/you-should-know-jonathan-wilson-hartgrove/

  • http://www.cavemanart.com/osroene Hanna Hajjar

    The Three Magi Wise Men came to Bethlehem on horses & not camels!

    Being a Syriac/Assyrian, I am interested in my people’s culture, and while researching ancient Syriac icons, I was amazed to find unique features in them. They differ in style (and occasionally in contents) from both Greek Orthodox and Roman Catholic icons, although they all cover Christian themes.

    There is a Syriac icon which is now in Berlin, (Preuss. Bibl. Sachau 220 fo 8v.). It is about the three Magi wise men who saw the star and followed it to Bethlehem and offered baby Jesus their gifts (see link below).

    According to Syriac tradition there were twelve Magi who came from Assyria to Edessa, nine of them had to return home due to a natural disaster there, while the remaining three continued from Edessa to Bethlehem. The Syriac icon shows them riding horses NOT camels, and this makes sense since they didn’t come from Arabia where camels are the main means of transportation. Ironically the western world portrays the Magi as camel riders, because they stereotype the people of the Middle East as being “Camel Jockeys”.

    The uniqueness of this icon lies in the fact that the Syriac/Chaldean/Assyrian Christian forefathers portrayed the actual true way things happened in the Middle East because they lived there, during the same period of time those events took place, and they were also the first nation that adopted Christianity (Note that the correspondence of our King Abgar Ukomo with Jesus took place during the lifetime of Jesus on this earth). So their knowledge of those events were firsthand knowledge, and not based on the wild imagination of some western artists who had never been to the Middle East

    You can view the icon of the three magi on horses at the following link:
    http://cavemanart.com/osroene/images/WiseMen.jpg

    By the way, another misconception in the western world is the icon of the Final Supper by Leonardo Da Vinci, where Jesus and his twelve disciples are sitting at one side of a table, as if they were posing for the camera in a Kodak moment! However it doesn’t look realistic, because no family members sit at one side of a table when they are having supper. On the other hand according to Syriac tradition, the last supper is represented in a very simple and realistic way, there was no table, it took place on the floor, with Jesus and his disciples actually sitting on the floor around a large round plate with food placed on it, an ancient tradition that is still practiced to this date in remote poor villages in the Middle East.


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