Revelation of the Magi; What We Have Always Known

In recommending Brent Landau’s Revelation of the Magi to others, I have called it “a fast read that makes the heart soar,” and the book is certainly that; the illustrations are fascinating and enlightening, and the prose-voice praising God is not just lyrical, it is hypnotically joyful. It is joyful in the language of ancient prophecy, joyful at a depth even the New Testament only glimpses; it is the sort of skin-tingling joyfulness one sometimes experiences in a flash-fleeting instant of prayerful understanding that defies expression, and that makes the tale seem utterly authentic. We want to believe what is being shared in this manuscript, so long languished within the Vatican archives, because we love the light, and–in the image of the (unnamed) Christ as the very Star that Guides–the Revelation of the Magi harkens the reader repeatedly to a first antiphon of Lauds, “in your light, we see light itself.”

Apart from the engaging story and the excellent background provided by Landau, it is for the sheer beauty of this Adoration that I have already returned to this work several times. Landau’s translated text exposes the reader to the depths of a soul whose mystical acquaintance with the All Holy pulls one into the great gift of wide-open wonder. And, as Saint Gregory of Nyssa is credited as saying, “only wonder leads to knowing.”

Perhaps it is because I am a lay Catholic without scholarly credentials in biblical studies of any kind, but I didn’t find the absence of the name of Jesus Christ in the earliest texts to be as provocatively challenging to Christian understanding of itself or its evangelical mission as Landau appears to.

Landau writes:

A second consequence of the Revelation of the Magi’s [seeming news] about Christ’s all-encompassing revelation is that it renders the traditional model of Christian expansion completely pointless . . . why could not Christ himself have been the principal agent of Christian expansion? If Christ existed before Jesus of Nazareth did, (as the first verses of the Gospel of John claim) and could even visit people after his ascension (as Acts of the Apostles claims that he did to the Apostle Paul), then what would prevent Christ from appearing to anyone, at any place, at any time? This appears to have been a question asked by the author of the Revelation of the Magi, and his answer was, “Nothing.” Christ appears to the Magi before he assumed human flesh, and what is more, he apparently felt no need to identify himself as Christ. The author, to be sure, is very concerned that the Christian revelation be spread to all the people of the world, but in his estimation, human missionaries are in no way essential to this task.

Well, of course they’re not. Christ, who is the All-in-All, who Is, Was, and Ever Shall Be has always had the ability to reveal Himself to anyone he wished, but–if scripture is to be believed–he appears to have wanted the formation of a community of believers and the foundation of a church. He could have foregone His crucifixion and death, but He seems to have understood us better than we do ourselves; we needed an event, and a lasting memorial and Presence.

Nor is the absence of the name of Jesus Christ in the earliest part of the text, or its frequent use in the additional writing concerning the arrival of Thomas to the Magi of Shir, particularly tantalizing to me. Again, I’m not a scholar, but people write what they know. The addendum to the Revelation was written decades after the first writing. The writer who did not know the name of this Light–who revealed Itself to so many Magi as so many parts of Jesus of Nazareth–did not name Him. The writer who later learned the name of the One within that Light, did.

Occam’s Razor suggests that the simplest answer is often the correct one. Unencumbered as I am with scholarship in this area, this seems as simple as an explanation can get. God condescends to humanity in astonishing ways, but He never names himself. Jesus did not go through His ministry saying, “hey, I’m Jesus…the Christ…” to a humanity incapable of grasping even an infinitesimal sense of what that would mean, God does not give his name to Moses, either. He IS, and as IS, God is not as hung-up on names as the rest of us tend to be which is why, perhaps, He so frequently calls us by name, and then changes it.

There is a wonderful little exchange in the recently published book Light of the World. In this conversation between Pope Benedict XVI and journalist Peter Seewald, the pontiff is asked about a controversial petition for the conversion of the Jews, which is prayed specifically within the Good Friday liturgy of the “old” Mass. Benedict explains that he altered the text in such a way “. . .as to express our faith that Christ is the Savior for all, that there are not two channels of salvation . . . [the new formulation] shifts the focus from a direct petition for the conversion of the Jews in a missionary sense, to a plea that the Lord might bring about the hour of history when we all may be united.”

This speaks in a small way to Landau’s excitement in discovering Christ’s prerogative. Benedict succinctly states the mystery as fact without niggling: Christ is the Savior for all. As God, Creator of All, He can be nothing else.

Landau is fascinated by the notion that the unstuck-in-time Christ of the Revelation of the Magi potentially renders Christian evangelism irrelevant, but the truth is Christ does not need us; He wants us, and he uses each of us to continually draw us to Himself, as he draws all things. When spun down to its logical conclusion, that truth holds through the whole pageant of God’s interactions with humanity, until we arrive back at Eden, where God didn’t need to, but most confoundingly Willed us forth.

And how funny and right, then, that the Magi’s most ancient gleanings begin with Adam’s words to Seth, right outside of Paradise.

This is a great Advent read or Christmas gift!

About Elizabeth Scalia
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  • archangel

    What has been lost to antiquity as a result of the sola scriptura notion of biblical understanding is the historical context of the period. Many do not realize, understand, or simply know that many of the world’s “religions” prior to Christ’s incarnation were truly brutal. Human sacrifice was common. That is why many do not fully grasp the story of Abraham and Isaac for its full import. Of course they see the analogy of God and His only Son but they miss the idea that Abraham was about to kill his own son without batting an eye. He was aware of the norm.

    That was the radical change of the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Even more so with Abraham’s royal priest Melchizadech. This is probably the type of society, complete with star worship and gazing, that the Magi lived. The actual birth process of Jesus has always fascinated and follows the same motif mentioned here. There is a thought that the only way that Mary kept her own virginity (not just through conception but DELIVERY) was that Jesus was born of woman the same way he was born from the grave. He WENT through the stone door of the tomb (he didn’t move it… the angels did) just as He went through the door of the womb. Interesting concepts.

    HE is God… He was IN time at the same time as being OUT of TIME. Saints were known to bilocate from time to time. If they could do it, I’m sure He was able as well. Also, there’s the understanding that He was also capable of changing His appearance, which I believe is brought up in the book being mentioned. Well, cf the Transfiguration. Biblically it was a “special event” but perhaps it was actually quite normal for Him. The specialness was that three of His apostles were there to witness it. PBXVI’s book Jesus of Nazareth hints at this point as well.

    Many of these stories are founded on extra-biblical stories and traditions and were rejected biblically. Not necessarily because they aren’t true or have a kernel of truth. They were rejected because the books that make up the Bible are there to PROVE to the reader that Jesus is the Messiah. The other stuff is interesting and can be used to flesh out the eras involved. Think about Sodom and Gemmorah. Imagine what it was really like there and think what “abominations” occurred in a brutal world of human sacrifice and normal brutality from which Abraham and Lot were from, that God finaly lost is infinite patience. Look at our own time… we think its bad. Could it have been worse? That context isn’t really provided in the Bible. That is where history helps to flesh out what was really going on.

    This book on the Magi does that, from what I can tell. It also shows how God worked within the overall world even while doting on His Chosen people. Logically, it makes sense. prepare One people to DELIVER SALVATION, prepare the rest to ACCEPT IT. Sometimes this point is lost.

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  • Bender

    If God does not have a name, then what is that Second Commandment all about?

    A “name” is more than a mere arbitrary label, as names often are today. Rather, a name signifies who and what a given person is — the name describes the essence of the person, so much so that the name and the person are one and the same. God has a Name. He told it to Moses (and hence to us). If He hasn’t told us His Name, then we really don’t know Him, and He really doesn’t want us to know Him, He wants to remain a stranger. If He hasn’t told us His Name, then He lied to Moses in saying that that is His “name.”

    Jesus also told people who He is — it was told by virtue of His name too — Yeshua (God Saves). And it was His application of God’s Name to Himself, in the presence of the Sanhedrin, that got Him found guilty of blasphemy (which was consistent with the multiple times in the Gospel of John where He applies the Name to Himself).

    As for this Landau fellow, he seems to proceed from the assumption that this is a factual historical account, rather than one of the countless mythical stories that circulated around that time, the functional equivilent of a historical novel, which might include a great deal of artistic license, and is not intended to be theological, much less divine revelation or even divinely inspired. That is was collecting dust for so long would tend to show that it was the latter.

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  • Manny

    What a coincidence. I was in Barnes and Noble this morning and saw that book on one of the tables. I had not heard of this text before and thought it interesting. I didn’t buy it, but now that you strongly recommend it, I may go back and pick it up.

  • Rich

    You say, “He could have foregone His crucifixion and death, but He seems to have understood us better than we do ourselves; we needed an event, and a lasting memorial and Presence.”

    What are you saying? His death and Resurrection are not about giving us an ‘event’. We didn’t need an event, we needed a Savior–a substitute, a Holy and blameless sacrifice to die in our place. How could He have “foregone His crucifixion and death” when all Scripture points to exactly that? The idea of His substitutionary death may have been a bit vague when first hinted at in Genesis 3:15, but the model of God asking Abraham to sacrifice Issac, and later the example of the Passover, the establishment of the sacrifices in the Temple, and all the Old Testament prophecies all pointed to the inevitability of God’s demand for justice and Christ’s death to satisfy that.

    To say that Christ’s death was to give us “an event, and a lasting memorial and Presence” is like saying that Christmas is about the ‘mas’ and not the ‘Christ.’ Isn’t this the bigger issue for most Christians: that we put the emphasis on the external celebration and functions of the Church while we ignore all of the power of the Godhead who dwells with in us?

    In this Christmas season, read John 14:12-14 and ask if you really believe the words of Jesus. He said, “Verily,” literally, “I’m telling you the truth.” He is calling us to do greater things than He did on the earth, through His power. Do we have the faith to believe Him?

  • Joseph

    I’ve long been interested in the subject of the Magi, and this sounds like a good Christmas read, so I ordered it almost immediately after reading your review. However, like Bender, I consider it one story among many, highly apocryphal, with no more authority than the Gnostic “gospels”.

  • Maureen

    Well, now, that’s a bit harsh. Plenty of the “one story among many” were completely orthodox, and seem to have preserved a certain amount of what early Christians knew (or widely tended to believe) that didn’t get into the Bible. Like the Proto-Evangelion of James — that’s anti-Gnostic, if anything, and a lot of the traditions about Mary’s life come through that. Or there’s the bit from the Acts of Paul and Thecla, which seems to have the same tradition about St. Paul’s appearance that we see in art.

    You can’t take them totally seriously because they are most like today’s historical novels; but they do have a lot of interest and tell us a lot about early Christian ways of thinking, just like our historical novels tell us both about the past and about the times in which they were written.

    I’m also pretty fond of the bits of the Acts of Peter (or whatever it’s called) where the dog talks and the dried fish are raised from the dead. There’s a lot of good bits in apocryphal apostle books.

    Gnostic apocryphal books are pretty devoid of funsies, except when they use a legend that already was running around and is found in lots of other places. Very boring authors, those Gnostics.

  • Maureen

    Re: event

    Well, obviously, God being omnipotent, He could have just said “Let them be saved”, and we would have been.

    The necessity of Him dying and rising for us is bound up with things other than power alone, like the preservation of human free will and respect for His Creation. It’s almost more of an artistic necessity than a cause-and-effect necessity. Which is still an absolute necessity; but it is the necessity that He act according to His logic, which He put into our world in the first place. It wasn’t the only way to do it; it was the only right way to do it, which is the only way God will do anything.

  • archangel

    Actually, His dying was a consequence of the covenant made with man. Once man broke the original covenant, he was bound to suffer the penalty of breaking the covenant. Part of that penalty is Original Sin. The fuller penalty is death and the banning from paradise.

    Though God could require the death of all of humanity, He chose another way to restore humanity. The OLD covenant could not be replaced with a NEW covenant until the conditions of the former were completed. In order to end the old covenant, one of the parties had to die; God or Humanity. God CAN’T die, so He incarnated so that He could. That is the salvation story. That is why Jesus, being God, established a “new and everlasting covenant”. That is the truest sense of redemption. Next time you have a Bible study or an ecumenical meeting with a Protestant or even a fellow Catholic, ask WHY did Jesus have to die. You will be shocked at the responses. That covenental notion is completely lost.

    Bender and Joseph are correct as to how one should view the Magi parchment. It does not mean that it is without value. Again, speaking with a historical bent, it does provide an intriging glimpse into the era of the magi. To the magi, this “God” and “God-Man” was probably nameless until they arrived at the manger. And even then, their theophany was more than likely imperfect given their background as non-Jews. I treat stuff like this as interesting and take it for what it is. There’s an old saying that history begets legend that then begets myth.

    Its no different than the Mormon history point that Jesus appeared to the Indians on the North American continent after the Ressurection. Did it happen? Maybe. Its like the old apochryphal stories of Jesus as a child that come to us from some of those lesser known non-biblical gospels. There’s the one that has Jesus as a child, literally playing God. He’d play with an animal, take away its life then give it back. Some would say Jesus wouldn’t be that cruel but He’s God. He gives, He takes, He restores. Is it plausible? I think maybe it is. His human nature was coexisting with His divine. Does it matter in the long run? No. There are plenty of apochryphal events occurring right after the crucifixion all over the world. One was that the Sea of Galilee actually changed shape as a result of the earthquake when Jesus died and that many of those who mocked Him went home to desimated communities and not so live family members. Stuff like that. Biblical… no. Possible… yes. Interesting… absolutely. Faith altering… not in the least.

    Truth is stranger than fiction… always. I’m sure the historical/factual day to day things that aren’t in the Bible would hold this premise true.

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  • anniebird

    Dear Elizabeth, if you will add this book to your bookshelf, I will gladly click though to Amazon and buy it!

    [Aw, hon, I WISH I had time to go into my bookshelf and jigger things around, but I'm almost submerged with work. You can order Revelation of the Magi: The Lost Tale of the Wise Men's Journey to Bethlehem by pressing that link I just made especially for you! :-) -admin]

  • Anniebird

    Thank you!

  • BDaddy

    It seems that God does not need us to evangelize, but that he has chosen to put the fate of the world in our hands as Christians. This makes evangelizing, that is, bringing God’s kingdom to earth through the means of doing his will, an imperative for all Christians. This is the meaning of the Lord’s prayer, “thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” If we are to demonstrate God’s love, then we will be bring God’s message to the world, using words if necessary.

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