Scot McKnight on Revelation of the Magi

Scot McKnight on Revelation of the Magi December 8, 2010

By Scot McKnight, Blogger at Jesus Creed

There’s some discussion now about Brent Landau’s Revelation of the Magi: The Lost Tale of the Wise Men’s Journey to Bethlehem, a new and previously inaccessible translation of a (Syriac) Christian fictional, fantastical text about the magi. Patheos is hosting a commons on this very book. Since we know so little about the magi, they have become the source of imagination.

And Landau is right to point out that much of what people think comes from Christian legends and art. Not much can be traced back to the Revelation of the Magi, but his point is so important: we have absorbed so many Christian traditions that fill in details that simply aren’t found in the text.

This fictional tale, which I found to be a fascinating and fun read, is absorbed with light and with the magi’s star and with the East and a place called Shir. It also concerns the history of the magi — a group that descends from the story of Seth in Genesis — though the story almost jumps from Seth to the magi in Shir. And it’s a story of a mountain and a cave, a cave like the one in Bethlehem where Jesus was born. It is a story of promise that they would someday see a star and that star would lead them to Bethlehem. It’s quite fantastical and fun.

There are lots of stories like this in the collection of Christian writings, many of them as fantastical as this one. What they tell us is the theology and piety and practices of all sorts of Christians.

Landau, in my opinion, speculates on the date and seems intent on getting this book as early in dating as possible. I read his argument closely, and a book like this is not as detailed as Landau, who has specialized in The Revelation of the Magi, but I was simply not convinced. Postulating connections and redactions between obscure texts, building one possibility upon another, does not increase confidence or probability. Still, the dating of the text — which he locates about the 5th Century but perhaps as early as the late 2d or early 3d Century — is not critical to anything Landau argues. I see his early dating, and some would locate it in the 8th Century, as a possibility.

A notable feature of this text is that the name “Jesus Christ” is not found in the revelations of the magi themselves. That is, the stories in this text don’t call the obvious subject — and no one questions whether this text is about Jesus Christ — “Jesus Christ.” Instead, one metaphor after another is used: Jesus is the light mostly.  But there are sections of this text that are virtual downloads of biblical theology and early Christology about Jesus as the Son of the Father, as the divine-human, as incarnate, as the baby of Mary … it goes on and on and on.

But a point must be made: actually “Jesus Christ” is found twice, once early and once near the end, but Landau proposes both as interpolations. Why? Because that name is (1) not found any where else in the revelations, and (2) because it is found throughout the interpolation of the Thomas stuff at the end of the document. OK, this is reasonable but hardly demonstrable at a compelling level. Yes, I agree, the names here are unusual but interpolation is much harder to prove.

Landau makes much of this absence of “Jesus Christ.” He finds this indicative of a kind of early religious pluralism.

Instead of seeing non-Christian religions as products of human vanity or demonic inspiration, as most ancient Christians did, the Revelation of the Magiapparently believes that having an experience of Christ’s presence is much more important than being a Christian.

He draws this conclusion from the absence of the name Jesus Christ in the heart of this book.

Since Landau brought this point up in his introduction, I looked for this theme in the book and what I found was a very strong sense of election — the magi are a chosen people of God — and God’s sovereignty and a very traditional sense of gospel and salvation through the cross. Frankly, I find his theory unwarranted: What I find is a text that is powerfully christocentric and that salvation comes through him and I find no presence of sanctifying the religions of others. I just don’t know where he finds non-Christian religions. The religion of the magi can hardly be seen as anything but robustly orthodox Christianity, even if expressed in some peculiar forms. They call Jesus everything but Jesus Christ, and they call him every name in the Book.

One example from his text. Chp 14 is entitled “The Magi realize Christ’s polymorphism” by Landau. Polymorphism is sketched in the note, but he clearly sees this connected to this theme quoted above. The oddity of this though is that the so-called “polymorphisms” are nothing less than a sketch of the gospel story: an infant, then a youth, then a human being, then a cross and a person of light on it, then down into Sheol, then [assuming resurrection] ascended into glory … that’s the Story of the gospel in the early church. Landau casually observes this but makes nothing of it; I would make something of it: the polymporphism of this book is the successive stages in the life of the one who gave himself for the salvation of the world.

So, where are we? This is an interesting book, as interesting as some of the odd books in the Dead Sea Serolls for understanding Judaism, as interesting as some of the Gospel apocrypha for understanding odd groups in earliest Christianity … but I don’t find this book indicative of a kind of religious pluralism.

One theme in this book that Landau avoids but I can’t: the text is at times overtly misogynistic. The intensity of blame on Eve in the reflections of Adam in the early chapters of this text is too strong to ignore. Maybe I missed observations of his in this regard, but I would ask him why not make more of this theme?

Return to the Take & Read Blog to read Magi author Brent Landau’s response to Scot’s review later today!

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