Magi Author Responds to Scot McKnight

Magi Author Responds to Scot McKnight December 10, 2010

by Brent Landau

I was delighted to read Scot McKnight’s review of my book on the Revelation of the Magi; it is one of the first genuinely scholarly responses to this project, and I am very grateful for the feedback of such a respected scholar in the field of New Testament and early Christian studies. I would like to use this opportunity to reply to McKnight’s main criticisms of my arguments concerning the text. Before proceeding to that, however, I want to say how pleased I was that McKnight found the text itself to be a “fascinating and fun read.” For, regardless of whether or not one agrees with my interpretation of the Revelation of the Magi, it is truly a text that deserves the attention of layperson and scholar alike.

As I see it, McKnight’s main objections are composed of: a relatively straightforward criticism of the date I have proposed for the text; a more multifaceted rejection of my thesis about the view of other religions in this text; and finally, a brief criticism of my failure to discuss the misogynistic elements of the text.

I shall address the last of these first, since it requires the least detailed explanation. Yes, McKnight is absolutely correct that the misogyny present in Adam’s speech to Seth is quite unpleasant and problematic. I do believe, however, that this is the only overt example of misogyny in the text. For example, even if there are no explicit references to female Magi, the masculine term “sons” could easily allow for the presence of women among their ranks—just as Paul’s use of “brothers” does not imply an all-male Christian community. Ultimately, though, the presence of misogyny in a canonical or extracanonical Christian text, while always offensive, is by no means unusual for such literature. That does not mean that the misogyny of the RevMagi does not merit some scrutiny; I simply have chosen to focus my attention on those aspects of the text that distinguish it more sharply from other early Christian writings.

I will now address McKnight’s claim that I am “intent on getting this book as early in dating as possible.” At the outset, let me say that the most defensible date for this text is that it was written no later than the fifth century, for at least two reasons. First, a short summary of the narrative appears in the fifth century Opus Imperfectum; several nearly verbatim citations of the RevMagi and the presence of the Apostle Thomas make it practically certain that a Syriac version of this text existed by this point. Second, the text presents the Holy Spirit as grammatically feminine, a practice in Syriac Christianity that dies out in the fifth century.  The suggestion briefly raised by McKnight that the document could be as late as the eighth century therefore is simply not credible.

So, in my opinion, the really pressing question is: how much earlier than the fifth century did the text exist? My dating of the RevMagi to the late second or early third century is based on several considerations, only two of which need to be addressed here. The first is that the new ending that features the Apostle Thomas (and I inferred from his review that McKnight accepts my theory that this ending is a secondary addition) is quite similar in form to material found in the Apocryphal Acts of Thomas, which is traditionally dated to the third or fourth century. Therefore, at the very latest this new ending would have been added sometime in the fourth century, and it could have been added a century or so earlier depending on the dating of the Acts of Thomas and the question of whether the RevMagi actually knew and used the Acts of Thomas.

If the new ending was added to the RevMagi in the third or fourth century, then when was the first-person form of the narrative composed? To my mind, at least two features of the text would suggest a date in the late second or early third century. First, the RevMagi is an infancy gospel, and at least two other infancy gospels (those of James and Thomas) are usually thought to have been written in the late second century. Of course, there are much later infancy gospels, but these recycle much of the material in the early infancy gospels—and the RevMagi does not show any clear awareness of the Infancy Gospel of James or that of Thomas. The other feature that points in favor of this dating is that the RevMagi is a Christian pseudepigraphon put in the mouth of pagan authors. There are relatively few representatives of this literary genre, but the most impressive—the Christian Sibylline Oracles, the Abgar legend, and the correspondence of Pilate and Tiberius—date more or less securely to this timeframe.

At any rate, McKnight is correct that this “early dating” (and I honestly do not think it to be that early, given the dates claimed by some scholars for this or that apocryphal writing) has little to no bearing on the arguments I make about the text’s theology. A fifth century date would suit my arguments just as well.

Lastly, I come to a series of objections McKnight raises about my interpretation of the text’s theological orientation. I do indeed claim that the RevMagi sees Christ as the underlying referent behind many or all of humanity’s religious traditions, a perspective that is astonishingly unique among early Christian writings.

McKnight is correct that a major piece of my argument is the absence of the name “Jesus Christ” throughout the first-person plural part of the text. While admitting that this absence is indeed striking, McKnight contends that I have conveniently ignored two occurrences of the name “Jesus Christ” in the first-person narrative. He only describes them as “once early and once near the end,” so I am guessing somewhat as to which instances he refers. If by “early” he means the reference in 1:1, that is obviously part of the title that was given to the work by the author of the Chronicle of Zuqnin; it almost certainly was not part of the text that the scribe received. If by “once near the end” he means 28:6, that is indeed just before the Apostle Thomas appears on the scene, but it is also after narration has switched from first person to third person, which would seem to indicate the presence of the redactor. There is also the use of the word “Messiah” by the Magi in 17:3 (to which McKnight may or may not have been referring), but there it is one in a list of titles the Magi are rattling off to Herod. It is not referring to Jesus Christ, but to the concept of a Christ/Messiah more generally.

McKnight also suggests that even if there are no mentions of the name “Jesus Christ” in the text, this is ultimately inconsequential since the Magi “call Jesus everything but Jesus Christ, and they call him every name in the Book.” True enough, but is not Jesus Christ the name above all names? In all seriousness, though, given the numerous references in early Christian literature to the utter superiority of the name “Jesus Christ” (e.g., Acts 4:12), it is indeed a startling omission that demands explanation.

Most pointedly, McKnight says, “I find no presence of sanctifying the religions of others. I just don’t know where he finds non-Christian religions.” This is indeed the most serious challenge to my thesis of Christ as the source of humanity’s religious revelations—where exactly in the RevMagi are these other religions that I claim Christ has inspired? The truth is that they are not present in the narrative, because this is the story of the Magi. But the Magi themselves are put forth by the text as the paradigmatic example of a pagan religion. They are certainly not Jews, and how can they practice “robustly orthodox Christianity” if Christ has not yet appeared to them?

But if one wishes to set aside the Magi and look for other examples of non-Christian religions in the RevMagi, then several statements of both Christ and the Magi appear to refer to such religions. Otherwise what does Christ mean when he says in 13:10 that he has come “to fulfill everything that was spoken about me in the entire world and in every land”? Or when the Magi inform Herod in 17:5 that Christ “has worshipers in every country”? Or when the Magi tell Mary and Joseph in 23:4 that “the forms with him are seen in every land, because he has been sent by his majesty for the salvation and redemption of every human being”? If McKnight has an alternative interpretation for such verses, I would be very eager to hear it.

In conclusion, McKnight has rightly pressed me on exactly the points of my interpretation that I expected to be most controversial. I hope the above remarks have served to clarify my analysis of the RevMagi’s date of composition and theological outlook, and I would welcome further exchanges with him in the future.

Visit the Patheos Book Club for more reviews and resources on this month’s featured book, Revelation of the Magi.

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