Sometimes, when setting out on a journey, the trip may require more things of you than you’d either expected or planned. That is the case with Revelation of the Magi: The Lost Tale of the Wise Men’s Journey to Bethelehem. If you like to sit down and read an easy Christmas book, this may not be the one you want for your Advent journey. Brent Landau’s translation of an ancient manuscript requires your engagement, as a reader, all the way through. As one of our spiritual book club readers said, “it’s like walking through snow,” which can be fun and beautiful, but requires work. Often as a reader you’ll compare notes, between the story of the Magi that you grew up with, and this ancient manuscript which will tell you all sorts of new things about their trek of faith.
When reading Landau’s translation of this manuscript, it’s difficult to get a sense of the real time of the text. Had Landau given more background on what was going on historically during that time, how this text fit into the social picture of the time in which it was thought to have been written, and how it compares to other historical texts of that period, it would have been helpful. He does give background and information about apocryphal texts. Mostly, it’s confusing as to how seriously the reader should take this text? It’s hard for a lay person to see how it stacks up to other historical texts, and while Landau mentions some background, there is no definitive dating, which makes it feel vague. That’s a difficulty with ancient manuscripts, as their historicity is often hidden. However, Landau does discuss other texts that mention this manuscript, and that helps put the Revelation of the Magi into a context. As Landau states, “…there is only one copy of the Revelation of the Magi in existence, and that manuscript is securely dated to the late eighth century.” Fair enough.
As the reader leaves Landau’s voice, and moves into the first person voice of the Revelation of the Magi, one of our readers found the “we” and “they” confusing. For instance, “We were not pleased by your coming to us. You have lead away the light and the great hope of the whole world, and you have gone away [with him] and [have deprived us] of him.” (p.73) The inclusion of Adam is fascinating, and that the star shone on Adam and Eve until they sinned, but did the star leave then? The inclusion of Judas Thomas is interesting as well.
The artwork scattered (and it feels scattered) throughout the book was not helpful, nor was the cover design. The artwork thrown in feels like it is working to corroborate Landau’s story, when in truth, the artwork is much younger than the text, and would be better served in an appendix at the end, as it interrupts the text, which is flush with footnotes. The cover design does not do the book any favors, doesn’t project the fascinating “new” use of language found within this old manuscript. Sure, the cover has the baby as “the star-child,” but you can’t read this book by its cover. Revelation of the Magi will make you feel like you are reading the story for the first time, and that freshness is striking.
So what then is the reader to do with this manucript? What does it all add up to for the reader? Is the journey through the manuscript a journey worth making, as the Magi were said to have journeyed? The journey the reader takes, flipping to check footnotes, is through a text translated with rich, poetic language. What gets lost in translation? That is hard to say. The only known copy of the text is in Syriac, a language known fluently by few. Yet Landau gives the reader something she or he hasn’t had before in this text, a first person account of God appearing in all sorts of ways to all sorts of people. This is a far more inclusive God than Christians might be accustomed to, a God who is incarnate and not choosey about where, when, and to whom God appears, a God who is incarnate in “unspeakable forms.” (p.56) God comes as “a ray of light…a guide for you on the entire journey that you are traveling, seeing signs, glorious wonders, and great victories upon the entire earth.” (p.55)
These Magi who glorify God “without a sound” and who are steadfast in their worship, dating back to Adam and Eve’s son Seth, they are compelling. The notion of a God who is “the Lord of every soul who seeks life,” (p.37) is compelling too. Revelation of the Magi is a journey worth taking. Like the Magi in the Gospel of Matthew, who “went home by another way,” you’ll find this journey will take you home by another way too.
For more resources, and reviews of Revelation of the Magi, visit the Patheos Book Club.
The Rev. Susan Baller-Shephard, MSW, is the Editor-in-Chief of www.spiritualbookclub.com.