This month in the Patheos Book Club, we’re exploring Brent Landau’s compelling new book, Revelation of the Magi. In it, Landau reveals a forgotten ancient manuscript discovered at the Vatican that recounts a very different and suprising tale of the Wise Men’s journey to Bethlehem than we’ve learned from the biblical Christmas story. Read more about the book here.
As part of our blogger roundtable on the book, we invited several authors to review the book and submit their questions to Landau for his response. Our Q&A begins here.
I came away from reading this book appreciating once again the power of story or myth to communicate truth. What are the primary truths you see this story communicating to us today?
I’d also like to know if you found any other interesting documents in the Vatican library we don’t know much about!
A. Author Brent Landau:
I agree with you that truth can be manifest in a story, whether or not that story is “historically factual.” This is certainly the case with the Revelation of the Magi, since this text–interesting as it may be–tells us nothing about the “historical Magi” (whoever they were). I think that the central truth communicated in the RevMagi is that trying to impose human limitations on divine revelation is bound to fail. Christ informs the Magi that the fulfillment of their long-awaited prophecy is but one isolated instance of his revelation to humanity. Indeed, the very fact that the earliest form of the RevMagi never uses the names “Jesus” or “Christ” may suggest that the author felt these designations to be too particularistic and culturally-bound to be helpful in describing this being. In this way, the RevMagi is a logical outgrowth of the Apostle Paul’s idea that the “Christ event” is truly cosmic in scale.
As for whether there are other texts still hiding in the Vatican Library: I hope so! The only way I ever learned about the RevMagi was because I was looking for a text like this to research for my dissertation. So I don’t know what other secrets the Vatican Library might be holding. However, it’s a very important reminder that some of the most fascinating ancient writings aren’t buried in the sand, but simply sitting on a shelf in a library or monastery somewhere, waiting to be found!
Q. Blogger Carl Gregg, progressive Baptist pastor in MD, and Spiritual Director:
If you were asked to preach on a text from “The Revelation of the Magi” in an open-minded, progressive Christian congregation on Epiphany Sunday 2011, what text(s) would you chose and what are some highlights of the sermon you would preach?”
If I were going to preach a sermon on the RevMagi, I would probably preach on what I consider to be the most pivotal verse in the entire text–what Christ says in his epiphany to the Magi:
“And I am everywhere, because I am a ray of light whose light has shone in this world from the majesty of my Father, who has sent me to fulfill everything that was spoken about me in the entire world and in every land by unspeakable mysteries, and to accomplish the commandment of my glorious Father, who by the prophets preached about me to the contentious house, in the same way as for you, as befits your faith, it was revealed to you about me.”
My sermon would ask whether this statement is a truly pluralistic theology. Yes, it does do quite a bit better than most ancient and modern Christian thought on other religions. But it does so inclusively, that is, it includes other religions within the framework of Christian revelation. In essence, it seems to suggest that everybody in the world is a Christian but doesn’t know it–a position that probably wouldn’t sit well with very many Buddhists or Muslims. But it is also possible to understand the RevMagi to be saying that the divine revealer that the Magi encounter is no more intrinsically “Christ” than intrinsically “Buddha” or “Krishna.” That is much closer to a truly pluralistic theology, but is this the religious vision that open-minded, progressive Christians should seek after? That is the ultimate question I would pose to the congregation.
Dr. Landau mentions the contemporary theological implications of this ancient text, and he mentions the influence of the text on art and, to a lesser degree, the conquistadors. I’m wondering if there is any sense of why this legend fell out of use, if it “lived” for a thousand years, and I’m wondering what it’s theological value was during those years of use.
Secondly, what does the role of silence– in the naming of the magi and the emphasis on silent prayer– tell us about the origins of this document and/or the theology within? I’m curious especially if there is any connection to the eastern orthodox tradition.
First, the question of why it fell out of use. I’m still studying the reception history of the text, and I don’t yet have a sense of the precise moment when the text fell into oblivion. My best guess would be that it was connected with the Protestant Reformation, because that’s when many apocryphal texts and traditions became the victims of Martin Luther’s Sola Scriptura (“only the Bible!”) doctrine. But this is something I hope to understand better in the next couple years–and I do agree with you that it’s strange for a text that was so influential to have become almost totally unknown today.
As for its theological value during the years that it was in use; again, the reception history has not yet been fully documented. But I would mention two uses to which I know it was put–one theological, and one more “theo-political.” For the first, Thomas Aquinas found it very useful in his Summa Theologica for countering a possible objection to God’s providence. If one were to object that it was unnecessarily obscure for God to reveal the birth of Christ by means of a star because nobody would understand the significance of such a star, Aquinas counters that the Magi text indeed explains that the Magi were expecting such an event and did understand its significance.
For the “theo-political” influence of the text, the consequences have arguably been quite negative. The Revelation of the Magi was part of a complex of legends in the medieval world that claimed that powerful Christian kingdoms did exist in unknown parts of the world. So this text may have inadvertently contributed to the start of European exploration–the explorers could find these kingdoms, unify Christendom, and share in the material wealth of these communities. And of course we know how that turned out for the people who actually lived in such places.
Finally, the Magi’s practice of silent prayer. I don’t know nearly as much about Eastern Orthodox Christian traditions as I would like, but I have indeed received other suggestions that the Magi’s practice in this text may be related to the Orthodox practice of saying prayers that are purposefully made inaudible. I think that the Magi’s silent prayer is closely related to the overall theological outlook of the Revelation of the Magi. If God’s being and revelation are as boundless as the narrative as a whole claims, then perhaps the only suitable way of praising such a God is in silence, without words. It could be that the community in which the Revelation of the Magi was produced did indeed practice silent prayer, since it is obviously such a central feature of the Magi’s piety and it’s not otherwise clear why the Magi would be so closely associated with silent prayer. It’s also important to keep in mind that silent prayer in antiquity was relatively unusual–it doesn’t necessarily mean that a group that practiced this would have automatically been considered heretical, but it’s definitely not a typical mode of religiosity at this time.
Check back for more questions and answers in the coming days!
Return to the Patheos Book Club for more resources on Revelation of the Magi, including a book excerpt, book reviews and discussion questions.