The United Methodist Reporter is offering the latest headlines in the RSS format.
Q & A
Q&A: Newly discovered text enhances Magi story Mary Jacobs, Dec 9, 2010
No live nativity is over until the Magi arrive. These three mysterious wise men from the East are mentioned only briefly in the Gospel of Matthew. One recently rediscovered ancient text, however, imagines the rest of the story from the Magi’s perspective.
Scholar Brent Landau shares the story of the text and its translation in Revelation of the Magi: The Lost Tale of the Wise Men’s Journey to Bethlehem (HarperOne). Dr. Landau, who teaches religious studies at the University of Oklahoma, spoke recently with staff writer Mary Jacobs.
The text claims to be a personal testimony of the Magi themselves. Is there any reason to believe that? No, definitely not, because the text quotes writings from the New Testament and other early Christian texts that would have been composed long after the Magi would have died. There’s the additional issue of whether Matthew’s story is historical at all, but assuming it is, this text would not be a good candidate to have been written by the Magi.
So who did write it and when? I’m not sure we can say anything about who wrote it. In terms of when it was written, based on a number of factors, I’m dating the original to the late second or early third century. I worked from a copy made in the eighth century.
Briefly, what does the text say? The story starts by describing the Magi—mystic philosophers who live in a far eastern land called Shir. They have a prophecy of the coming of a star that’s going to signal the birth of God in human form, and they’ve been waiting for this prophecy to be fulfilled for thousands of years. Finally the star shows up and turns into a human being, and that human being is Jesus. It’s a very unusual interpretation.
The star takes the Magi on a miraculous journey to Bethlehem, where they get commissioned by Jesus to go back to their own country and proclaim the gospel. The texts ends with the apostle Thomas showing up and baptizing and commissioning them to preach the gospel throughout the whole world.
If it’s not written by the Magi, and if it’s essentially a story concocted after the fact, is this relevant at all to modern Christians? What’s more interesting than what the text tells us about the Magi is what it tells us about Jesus. Jesus tells the Magi that he has appeared to and been prophesied about by all sorts of people all over the world. The text seems to believe that most of the world’s revelations are actually Jesus himself. So it’s got a very unusual message in terms of religious pluralism to the story, a lot more liberal than most early Christian texts would be.
Also, in the text itself, in the first-person part, the Magi never learn the name “Jesus Christ.” The star goes by a number of different names—“our guide” or “the sun”—but the name Jesus Christ never appears, so that feeds into this view of religious diversity.
You call this an “apocryphal” writing. It might be useful to talk a little bit about the significance of apocryphal writings to Christians. Historically since the Protestant Reformation, there’s been a very negative view of apocryphal literature. That tends to obscure the fact that elements of these apocryphal stories have been part of our popular understanding of biblical stories for a long time. A very good example is in the Christmas story. Everybody “knows” that Mary and Joseph take a donkey to Bethlehem, except that’s not in the New Testament anywhere. The first time that shows up is in a second century apocryphal text. And somehow that’s become part of the “official” version of the Christmas story.
The Magi stand out in my mind because they follow a star and a prophecy, like astrologers guided by a horoscope, which doesn’t seem very biblical. What’s that about? The word that refers to these figures is magoi, a Greek word that only shows up a couple of other times in the New Testament. It means “magicians,” and everywhere else they are bad people. But Matthew clearly views these people as good, despite the fact that the name has tinges of astrology or magic.
As to what Matthew was trying to do with this story, I still struggle with that. But here’s one interesting point: Most of the Gospel is Jewish. Even Jesus discourages teaching non-Jews, until the end where he tells his disciples to go unto all nations. That Great Commission is bracketed at the other end of the gospel by the Magi story. They are the first people to recognize the significance of Jesus, and they’re not Jews, they’re Gentiles.
As you worked on the translation, what was the oddest part of the story that emerged? This is an easy one. Fairly late in the story when the Magi get back, they are preaching to people in their country and the star has actually created food for them. Whenever the star’s light shined on them, the food would multiply. What becomes really interesting is when the Magi show up, they give the people this food and it makes them start seeing visions of the heavenly and earthly Jesus. So it’s talking about a hallucinogenic, which is very strange for an early Christian text. I had to look at it a couple of times to make sure I was actually understanding this correctly.
While you were studying these ‘lost’ texts in the Vatican library, did you feel like you were in a scene in The Da Vinci Code? There are some amazing books and manuscripts there, but it really is a functioning library. They don’t let just anybody in, but there are lots of scholars who go there every day. It’s not as forbidden as people might think. But I have to say, going inside the walls of the Vatican City was one of the coolest experiences of my life.