Gift of the Magi

Gift of the Magi December 9, 2010

Our blogger roundtable on Revelation of the Magi continues with a review by Amy Julia Becker of Thin Places.  Becker raises two questions about the text for author Brent Landau at the end of her review; his responses follow.

I was invited to participate in Patheos’ Blogger Roundtable on Brent Landau’s Revelation of the Magi, a translation of an ancient Syriac document that recounts the legend of the magi who visit the baby Jesus. I finished the book with two thoughts. One, I was more interested in Landau’s scholarship about the story than I was in reading the story itself. Landau’s Introduction and Conclusion place the text in its historical, literary, and theological context, and I appreciated the thoroughness and accessibility of his explanations. Very few modern scholars have noticed this ancient tale until Landau took it upon himself to translate it from the Syriac. He does a good job explaining how it was influential for centuries before it fell out of use within the Christian community.

The story itself begins with the origin of the magi, tracing their lineage back to Adam. It describes the star of Bethlehem as visible only to those who have eyes to see. In some ways, it is akin to a modern day gloss on the Christmas story—taking a kernel of Luke or Matthew’s account and imagining before and after and behind-the-scenes. I prefer the canonical Gospels as my source for the story of Jesus’ birth, but the imaginative work of later followers of Jesus certainly can enhance our own theological reflections upon the meaning of this story. If Imogene from The Best Christmas Pageant Ever and Charlie Brown can help unfold the “true meaning” of Christmas, so can this tale.

According to Landau, one of the most distinctive features of The Revelation of the Magi is the fact that Jesus is never named Christ (except in a postscript involving St. Thomas, which Landau concludes was added centuries after the original text, perhaps to correct what was seen as dangerous theology). In Landau’s interpretation, “According to the author of the Revelation of the Magi, the fundamental Christian message is not simply that Christ has been sent to save all humanity… The Revelation of the Magi goes much further than this, claiming that the revelation of Christ is actually the foundation of all humanity’s religious beliefs and practices.” Furthermore, Landau explains, “The Revelation of the Magi apparently believes that having an experience of Christ’s presence is much more important than being a Christian.”

The Revelation of the Magi may well be an early Christian text that supports the idea of universal salvation through Christ. If so, it resonates with some contemporary Christian theology. But this idea isn’t as revolutionary as it may seem, and whenever we connect ancient texts to modern ideas we run the risk of accidentally imposing modern ideas upon those texts.

But let’s assume that Landau is correct, and The Revelation of the Magi is a document that downplays the need to become a Christian in order to be saved. Most contemporary people would still find its theology offensive. It still asserts that salvation is necessary for all people, and salvation is possible only through Christ, even if the ones being saved don’t put it in those terms. Perhaps this text comes closer to religious pluralism than canonical Scripture, but, like the proclamations from within the Gospels about Jesus, it is only through Christ that anyone can be saved. Christians believe this salvation is good news, even as it is news that offends modern sensibilities about tolerance and respect for other religions. In fact, I’m not sure whether it is more offensive to believe that everyone needs to become a Christian to be saved or to believe that people experience Christ’s presence and gain salvation without knowing it.

According to Landau, The Revelation of the Magi demonstrates the fact that human beings have wondered about the universality of Christ’s salvation since the days of his birth. Whether or not modern readers agree with his theological interpretation, Brent Landau has given us access to one more story that offers insight into the meaning of Christmas.

I was also given a chance to ask Dr. Landau a few questions about the text. My questions are as follows:

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.

Author Brent Landau Responds:

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.

Read more questions and answers about the Reveleation of the Magi at the Patheos Book Club blog, Take & Read, here.

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