It’s not often that something is added to the traditional Christmas story, but Bible scholar Brent Landau has managed to accomplish that feat this year! He’s adding at least 9 Magi, or Wise Men or Kings, to the traditional Nativity Scene. The news is all contained in Landau’s first-ever English translation of an ancient Christian story about the Magi—those world-famous figures popularized by a host of writers and producers from O. Henry (“Gift of the Magi”) to network television and Hollywood.
REMEMBERING AMAHL AND THE NIGHT VISITORS
How important are the Magi in 20th-Century American culture? They’re huge, because the Christmas season itself—for all of its good and for all of its excessive ills—is a huge part of American life. Many Americans still recall that the Magi were part of a landmark in American television arts long before MTV. For Christmas 1951, the NBC network and Hallmark produced a new opera, “Amahl and the Night Visitors.” It was the first “Hallmark Hall of Fame” production—and 60 years later Hallmark productions have expanded across cable TV. We just reviewed a Hallmark Christmas production. Many cultural historians credit “Amahl” with sparking a whole range of fresh approaches to music and theater arts on network television. AND NOTE: While researching the Magi this week, we found that there’s a DVD of a 1955 television production of Menotti’s “Amahl and the Night Visitors” available via Amazon. If you recall “Ahmal” from your childhood, you may enjoy the nostalgia of watching it again on DVD.
THE MYSTERY OF THE MAGI—SO MANY IMAGES, SO FEW VERSES!
All of this creativity through centuries of fine arts—and now in millions of mass-produced Nativity sets in Christian homes around the world—is the result of 12 verses in the second chapter of Matthew’s gospel. That’s how Brent Landau opens his new book … with the mystery …
Brent writes: Notice the enormous gaps in this story, gaps that a thoughtful reader must attempt to fill in. The wise men have no specific country of origin. No number or names are given for the wise men, though three were destined to become the most common number because of the three gifts. In fact, “wise men” itself is a rather poor translation of the Greek word magoi, which elsewhere in the New Testament means “magicians” in a clearly negative sense. Equally problematic … is the puzzling nature of this “star” that the Magi have followed to Judea. … The star itself behaves very strangely, reappearing to the Magi on their way to Bethlehem and then coming to rest directly over the place where the child Jesus was. All in all, the story of the Magi from Matthew’s Gospel is a very bizarre one, and many early Christians struggled to make sense of it.
There’s the mystery! But, in the early centuries of Christianity, writers did try to flesh out that mystery. For years, Landau’s professional talents as a biblical scholar and an expert in the ancient Syriac language led him toward a document that was popular in those early centuries of Christianity, but had never been translated into English. You can buy a copy of Brent’s “Revelation of the Magi: The Lost Tale of the Wise Men’s Journey to Bethlehem,” which is on sale at Amazon now.
What are some of the revelations about the Magi?
Here are just a few of many you’ll find in Brent’s book:
- CHINESE CONNECTION? The Magi may have been associated with the region we now call China. According to the newly translated story, there also may have been further Christian connections with this Far East land.
- EXPAND THAT NATIVITY SET! The Magi most likely numbered far more than three. Twelve names are listed in the new book, but the group may have been much larger than that.
- AMAZING STAR: The world-famous Star in the story had spiritual properties of a startling nature. You’ll have to read the book to learn all the revelations about the Star itself.
- INTERFAITH IMPLICATIONS: The newly translated document also holds fascinating clues to an ancient awareness of the diverse nature of world religions. The ancient story may have at least opened a door to establishing relationships with other faiths.
HIGHLIGHTS OF OUR INTERVIEW WITH BRENT LANDAU
ON “THE REVELATION OF THE MAGI”
DAVID: In the opening pages of your book, you point out that the Bible story of the Magi is very sketchy. How did we reach the point, today, where we think we know so much about them?
BRENT: It’s like a snowball of perceptions that has rolled along and grown larger through the centuries—and keeps on rolling today. There’s no single moment when the Magi suddenly emerge as the three wise men we think about today. There are several stages. One of the earliest developments is the association of three figures with the three gifts they bring. It seems logical that, if there are three gifts, then three people were carrying them. But, in the ancient world, there were diverse stories. Some versions have two. Some have four. This “Revelation of the Magi” that I have now translated lists 12 names among the Magi.
DAVID: Who were those guys!?! Your book cannot answer all the questions, but it provides us a whole lot more information than we’ve known before. Tell us more about how their identities sprang to life over time.
BRENT: By the 5th century, we have a regular iconographic tradition of three Magi. The ancient Christian author Tertullian wrote about them earlier than that. Around the year 200, Tertullian writes that, in the East, the Magi were almost considered kings. By the time you get to Augustine, he says the Magi were actually kings. The history never seems to look backward and the Magi end up being cast as kings. There’s more to it, related to biblical passages referring to kings that were applied by early Christians to the Magi story. But, it was a case of the story changing over time and becoming fixed after a number of centuries.
DAVID: And their names? We’re going to reproduce the image, which is also included in your book, of a 6th-century mosaic in Italy that lists their names as Balthassar, Melchior and Caspar. Your book includes a number of historic Magi images like this one of the mosaic that readers probably will enjoy. (NOTE: That image is at the very top today. The images from Nativity scenes, shown below, are not in the book.)
BRENT: These three names show up for the first time in a 6th-century document and they become the dominant names used from then on. But, in other ancient Christian sources there are variations on those three names. By the 6th or 7th century, the major features we’ve come to associate with the Magi have all come into play. There’s one detail that comes later—the reference to them as “wise men.” That really happens in the Renaissance era with the birth of scholarship. In that era, scholars liked to think of them as their own prototypes in seeking wisdom.
WERE THE ANCIENT MAGI ACTUALLY KINGS?
DAVID: In this ancient document you’ve translated, they come across as kings, as wise men, as scholars. Their professions still aren’t entirely clear from the ancient story you’ve translated.
BRENT: That’s right. Part of the problem is that some details were inserted into this ancient story through the years. In the story, they don’t seem to act very much like kings. They don’t seem to have their own territory. There is a reference that they lay down their crowns when they arrive at the cave where Jesus was born. But mostly their story revolves around revelation. I think of them as sages, philosophers, mystics, some secret brotherhood. They all seem to be related to each other as part of a single lineage, but they don’t seem to have political power.
DAVID: Strangely enough, given the lingering mysteries that still remain in this new book you’ve translated, we do have a very specific list of names.
BRENT: Yes, there is a list of 12 names, but I don’t think that list of 12 names was part of the earliest version of the text. That appears in one place in the text, but if you read further in the text, their names never appear again. It’s as though someone just plugged in that list early in the story. There are other later passages that seem to envision the Magi as an even larger group than just the 12. The size of the group is unclear, but it could have been much larger than the 12.
THE RELIGIOUS IMPORTANCE OF ANCIENT SYRIAC
DAVID: This document was never translated partly because it concerns the Nativity and Bible scholars today are much more interested in other sections of the Bible. And it wasn’t translated partly because it appears in ancient Syriac. In the modern world, Eastern Christians are more familiar with this language. It’s a very important language historically and a number of ancient texts in the Eastern church were preserved in Syriac. Tell us a bit about this language.
BRENT: Well, at one time, people were widely aware of this story about the Magi and it circulated in manuscript form, too. I worked from a text of the story in Syriac, which was a local dialect of Aramaic. And, Aramaic presumably is a language Jesus spoke. I would describe it to people as a language somewhere between biblical Hebrew on the one hand and Arabic on the other hand. It’s a Semitic language. It becomes a very important liturgical language and written language for Christians in the East. Essentially, Syriac in the East is what Latin becomes in the West.
THE “LOST” CHURCH OF THE EAST
DAVID: Most American Christians are unaware of the enormous centers of Christianity that existed across the East in these early centuries. We’ve featured two different interviews with Philip Jenkins on his books that involve the early history of the Eastern church. (Here’s one on “Jesus Wars;” and here’s one on “Lost Christianity.”) Brent, your book is sharing fresh insight from this part of the world, as well. I think it’s great to see that huge, vibrant area of Christianity lifted up for an American audience.
BRENT: Jenkins writes about the Syriac-speaking church that goes all the way from Syria into India and even into China, but by the 12th or 13th century it had more or less died out in most of those areas.
DAVID: Also, we should tell readers that St. Thomas shows up in your book as well. We’ve got readers who live in India—and many who have migrated to the U.S. from India. Those readers are well aware of Thomas’ long association with Christianity in India. I think Thomas’ cameo role at the end of “Revelation of the Magi” will be intriguing to many readers.
BRENT: Yes, there is a long Christian tradition of Thomas evangelizing India. So, it’s entirely possible that the tradition of this Magi story found its way into India, too. One thing that’s really interesting about Thomas’ role in this document I’ve translated is that there is no reference to his evangelizing India at all.
AN ANCIENT EXPRESSION OF RELIGIOUS DIVERSITY
DAVID: Well, Thomas’ role in this story is another one of the many mysteries readers can ponder. Finally, one last gem I want to mention in your book: I found the “Revelation of the Magi” opens up an ancient window into what interfaith relationships might have looked like close to 2,000 years ago.
BRENT: We have to remember that typical early Christian viewpoints toward “pagan” religions take one of two approaches: Either the pagans are worshipping gods that don’t really exist—or they’re worshipping things that actually are demons or evil powers. So, either their gods don’t exist at all, or they’re bad.
What we get in the “Revelation of the Magi” are statements that suggest Jesus is actually the source of many, if not all, of humanity’s religious traditions. There’s one particular verse in which Jesus describes himself as a ray of light, sent by the Father to fulfill everything that has been spoken about me in the entire world. As I am appearing to you in a way that’s fitting to you now, I have also appeared to others in ways that were appropriate to them. This kind of passage suggests that Christ’s revelatory activity is much broader than most ancient Christians would have thought was the case. This text raises all kinds of new questions.
DAVID: And, because of additions to the ancient text, it even contains some contradictions, as well.
BRENT: Yes, the additions at the end about Thomas seem to say something different about the revelation of Christ and the need to be baptized to truly become a part of the worldwide church.
DAVID: It’s hard to think of another ancient story with as much interest, year after year, in millions of households around the world. Of course, the Magi are only part of the annual Christmas holidays, but they’re certainly an enduring image.
BRENT: They are and I think part of this has to do with that frustrating, brief story in Matthew. It’s such an evocative story and it’s so mysterious. The figures who appear are mysterious—and this powerful star is mysterious, too. There is something very strange going on in this story. Then, the figures give their gifts and they disappear! Compare that with Luke’s version in which shepherds came to visit. There’s no mystery there. Luke is very interested in issues like poverty and humility and there’s no accident in the way he focuses on humble people who show up at Jesus’ birth. Shepherds are part of the story to this day, but the legacy of the shepherds’ story isn’t nearly as big as the legacy of the Magi.
Perhaps our fascination with the Magi relates to our strong emphasis on gift giving today. The Magi were our prototype gift givers. There are so many ways that these Magi are enormously important—to this day.
REMEMBER: You can buy a copy of Landau’s “Revelation of the Magi: The Lost Tale of the Wise Men’s Journey to Bethlehem,” which is on sale at Amazon now.
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(Originally published at readthespirit.com)