Bible Scholar Brent Landau Asks “Who Were the Magi”?

Revelation of the Magi text gives wise men’s view of the Christmas story

Bible Scholar Brent Landau Asks “Who Were the Magi”?

A lost Syriac manuscript, the Revelation of the Magi, recently translated into English by Bible scholar Brent Landau, may help answer that key question from the Christmas story: “Who were the magi?”

Who were the magi, those gift-bearing wise men from the east who are so central to the traditional telling of the Christmas story? Bible scholar Brent Landau believes he has found at least one answer to this age-old question.

The Bible tells us very little about the magi. Their story appears but once, in the Gospel of Matthew (2:1–12), where they are described as mysterious visitors “from the east” who come to Jerusalem looking for the child whose star they observed “at its rising.” After meeting with King Herod, who feigns an intention to worship the child but actually plans to destroy him, the magi follow the same star to Bethlehem. There, upon seeing the baby Jesus and his mother Mary, the magi kneel down and worship him, presenting him with their three famous gifts—gold, frankincense and myrrh. Then, without reporting to Herod, they depart for their homeland, never to be heard from again.

For early Christians, the seemingly pivotal yet unexplained background of the mysterious magi provided abundant room to shape new narratives around the question, “Who were the magi?” One of the most compelling, recently translated into English by Brent Landau, professor of religious studies at the University of Oklahoma, is the so-called Revelation of the Magi, an apocryphal account of the traditional Christmas story that purports to have been written by the magi themselves.

The account is preserved in an eighth-century C.E. Syriac manuscript held in the Vatican Library, although Brent Landau believes the earliest versions of the text may have been written as early as the mid-second century, less than a hundred years after Matthew’s gospel was composed. Written in the first person, the Revelation of the Magi narrates the mystical origins of the magi, their miraculous encounter with the luminous star and their equally miraculous journey to Bethlehem to worship the child. The magi then return home and preach the Christian faith to their brethren, ultimately being baptized by the apostle Thomas.



Interested in learning about the birth of Jesus? Learn more about the history of Christmas and the date of Jesus’ birth in the free eBook The First Christmas: The Story of Jesus' Birth in History and Tradition.



According to Brent Landau, this dramatic account not only answers the question “Who were the magi?” but also provides details about how many they were, where they came from and their mysterious encounter with the star that led them to Bethlehem. In the Revelation of the Magi, there are not just three magi, as often depicted in early Christian art (actually, Matthew does not tell us how many there were), nor are they Babylonian astrologers or Persian Zoroastrians, as other early traditions held. Rather from Brent Landau’s translation it is clear the magi (defined in this text as those who “pray in silence”) are a group—numbering as few as 12 and as many as several score—of monk-like mystics from a far-off, mythical land called Shir, possibly China. They are descendants of Seth, the righteous third son of Adam, and the guardians of an age-old prophecy that a star of indescribable brightness would someday appear “heralding the birth of God in human form.”

When the long-prophesied star finally appears, the star is not simply sighted at its rising, as described in Matthew, but rather descends to earth, ultimately transforming into a luminous “star-child” that instructs the magi to travel to Bethlehem to witness its birth in human form. The star then guides the magi along their journey, miraculously clearing their path of all obstacles and providing them with unlimited stamina and provisions. Finally, inside a cave on the outskirts of Bethlehem, the star reappears to the magi as a luminous human child—the Christ child—and commissions them to become witnesses to Christ in the lands of the east.

It’s a fascinating story, but does it actually bring us any closer to understanding who the actual magi of the Christmas story might have been? Unfortunately, the answer is no, says Landau, although it may provide insight into the beliefs of an otherwise unknown Christian sect of the second century that identified with the mysterious magi.

“Sadly, I don’t think this is actually written by the historical wise men,” said Landau in an interview with National Public Radio’s Diane Rehm. “In terms of who wrote it, we have no idea. [But] the description of the magi and [their religious practices] is so remarkably detailed and I’ve often wondered whether it’s reflecting some actual community out there that practiced and kind of envisioned themselves in the role of the magi.”

 


 

Based on Strata, “Lost Syriac Text Gives Magi’s View of the Christmas Story,” Biblical Archaeology Review, November/December 2011.

 


 

More on the Magi

In art, the adoration of the magi appeared earlier and far more frequently than any other scene of Jesus’ birth and infancy, including images of the babe in a manger. Read Robin M. Jensen’s full article “Witnessing the Divine: The Magi in Art and Literature” as it appeared in the December 2001 issue of Bible Review for free online in Bible History Daily.

Read the Bible History Daily feature “Why Did the Magi Bring Gold, Frankincense and Myrrh?” to understand how the gifts of the magi may have been tributes or medical treatments.

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  1. Peg says

    The whole account does sound like other documents from the Nag Hammadi find. Perhaps the 2nd cent version of the Magi would solve many problems w/o the hyperbolic narration.
    thanks for the article though.

  2. John says

    Professor Landau has made, as I can see, two critical errors in his assessments. First, he claims that the Magi are “descendants of Seth, the righteous third son of Adam.” If the biblical flood account is correct (which I and many bona-fide geologists believe it is), then we would ALL be direct descendants of Noah, and not Seth specifically. Seth’s descendants would have been wiped out. The origins of the Magi, as Professor Landau presents them, contradict the biblical account, and their origins could not possibly pre-date the flood. Second, he makes the mistake that most modern literary critics make. He assumes the existence of documents for which he has not a shred of forensic evidence. The result is simply that–his conclusions are based, not on evidence, but on assumptions.

  3. Mark says

    Two other small details to consider. One is that Professor Landau states in his text that the star led the magi to Bethlehem. In the biblical account they went to Jerusalem and were then directed to Bethlehem by Herod’s scribes. Secondly, Professor Landau’s text says that the magi went to a cave when they arrived at Bethlehem. According to the biblical account they went to a house. It is quite probable that Jesus was born in a cave but when the magi came to worship Him the family had taken up residence in a house. The magi’s visit most likely occurred one to two years after Jesus was born.

  4. Dennis says

    There is anecdotal evidence that the Emperor Nero was initiated into the sect called the Magi; there is also anecdotal evidence that the Magi were Persian [Iranian] priests who were given teh task of protecting the Holy Fire of Mt Olympus on Earth. They were respected as astrologers, and some scholars believe that the star that they followed was a triple conjunction that occurred three times in the year 7 BCE. Those of Zarathustrian persuasion follow a similar belief but were enemies of the Magi because of their religious belief. There are, I am told, a number of Zarathustrian temples in the UK and in both Canada and America. Has Mr Landau considerd any of these alternatives? If not, perhaps he should before venturing out with such a title.

  5. Frank says

    An interesting story, but a pathetic waste of time and scholarship!

  6. jeff says

    Interesting story, whether factual or not; Zarathustra may have been one of the first Magi.

  7. Mike says

    In Comment 2, John writes that Landau “assumes the existence of documents for which he has not a shred of forensic evidence.” I’m having trouble figuring out what documents he is referencing. Can anyone help?

  8. Harry says

    40 years ago ( 1973) I saw the magi in an epiphany experiense as I saw God on his throne as did Daniel, Ezekiel, Isaiah, st John. One of these magi was appeared as a cartoon caracter in the form of a little witch, very prominent with the sharp pointed witches black hat. She was bowing up and down at an incredable fast speed before this Being ( Christ) on His throne. One explanation of a magi is a magician or sorcerer hence the ” witch “. The other person was a big potbelly eastern man with a very lush black beard. None of them seemed “christian like”. I had the idea that they came from a religion other than mine ( reborn christian) and up till now I am still puzzled by this. Was God showing me there is a plce for everybody irrespective of religion. I sincerely believe so.

  9. rod says

    was Jesus created by the Magi, through the power of suggestion ? I believe he was.

  10. rod says

    For the last 30 years I have be looking at the Pyramids of Egypt, there is a story that goes with this, weird ! but interesting, this I will keep for another time. I am not a religious person ! I believe I have stumbled onto a theory that you may find interesting, I don t think that the pyramids where built just to service the afterlife of the pharaohs, but rather they were leaving a permanent legacy to mankind for the ages. Each stone is a principal component that makes up the superstructure and the shape is significant in what I want to tell you! Let us start with a question! Why would the Knights Templar who were imprisoned in Chi none castle in France, scratch on the walls of their cell, the star of David, this had no significance to the Jewish people, other that King David and his son Solomon, or did they know something the star of David is 2 pyramids (integrated). I believe it predates the pyramids , it was a pagan symbol and the ancient Egyptian symbol for SUNRISE. The great pyramid as discovered by Napoleons surveyor general, makes up HALF PI, that s half a circle, for anything to be whole, it would need to have 2 halves. As I found in the star of David, place each to each other s base and we have the full circle. Now it gets tricky! Oh- for a white board, half pi is an arch, just maybe! That missing arch, and is the pyramid in real terms not a covenant? Hieroglyphics are interesting as all their expressionism was done through pictures and symbols, yet today we use words , but at the end of it! We say do you get the picture! Same thing just a different pen. Now listen to the words we use, APEX, ATTITUDE, ENCLINED, PERSPECTIVE, HIGHERARCHY, ASPECT, ASPRATION, etc. etc., this is all pyramidal. Trans actual analysis is the parent, adult, child in our communication with one another, and the aspects of our own nature. One may have parent child relationship with our partner, by talking down to them. Yet, within ourselves we must come to terms with our maturity, the brain we were bo!
    rn with,
    is the same one we carry thru life, as we evolve from child to adult, just like dropping a pebble into a pond, we get the rings, like the tree that s cut in half, we get the rings of growth, so it is with the pyramid and the star of David (the Magan star). The base of the pyramid is the broad spectrum that youth requires to run around in as we age we need less, I believe the expression goes, as we get older life tappers of. Yet! All our experiences and wisdom rises with use, by now you should be pushing thous 2 halves of the pyramid together, you see just like the pyramids we are also the sum total of our principals. HELL this is getting scatty! Sorry! I will try to make sense of all this. Today! Pyramids influence our lives, just people don t notice them, In Australia, our capital building, has a structure in the shape of a pyramid, it hold up our flag! Underneath it there is a small glass pyramid, there is 1 outside the Louvre in Paris, 1 outside in Rome,1 in Memphis there all over the place. They are probably Masonic, but the idea came from somewhere. This is all about enlightenment, as sunrise (half pi) is first light, a time when we can start to relate to a new day, apart from warmth, so why wouldn’t one worship the sun, half pi is also a moon sign, Horus is a moon sign, you see! When the moon is in 2 halves, dark and light! This to the ancients was the way they came to terms with the way their minds worked, you know! If something is not understood, we say! I am in the dark, after reasoning, we might say! Oh yes I see the light. Jesus said! I, am the truth the light and the way. This then is the essence of truth, the 2 halve of the pyramid, shows us how the 2 halves of the moon, has value. The eye of Horus (moon sign), by the way! 1 eye white and the other dark. When Jesus came to heal the blind! It was not the physical, but the metaphysical, the mind! Oh yes I see, henceforth, I understand, just bake to sunrise! If one was to have a sudden awareness about something! We may say, oh yes!!
    It just
    dawned on me, – there’s that sunrise again! In the Mason there are 3 pillars, 1 with a moon, 1 with a sun, and 1 with a man s head (symbols), all aspects of enlightenment, illumination. Genius let there be light, in the book of Isaiah, there will be discovered in the land of Egypt, a monument to the Lord of hosts. in the Luke he who falls from the cornerstone, with be Brocken, this is not the cornerstone of the upright pyramid, but the corner of the inverted pyramid., for if one goes too far outside your base principal one could make a fool of one’s self. (needs explanation). In the Masons, there is a pyramid shape, it has in it an inverted T , this is the key, all experience in life is horizontal , until we encounter adversity, then we stop an reflected, then we start to grow UP ! so ! I believe thous Egyptians were really smart. Love to talk and shed real light on all this. As Budda said ! I could talk all day, finding someone to listen is a problem, finding someone who understands is a bigger problem. I trust you get my drift with all this, and I might add! Dan Brown got a lot right sort of! In his movie, the Divinci code, Robert Landon (Tom Hanks) said whilst addressing a class, at the beginning of the move! We must search for basic truth, well once again the way we talk has clues of its own, like the truths out there, the truth as it stands, etc. etc. The best place to hide something is right under your nose! I say again the 2 halves of the pyramid give us 2 hemispheres, just like the half moon, just 1 we can’t see. I am sorry this is all over the place! But it all can be explained notice churches, especially European ! they have 2 towers either side of a pyramid shape, the information is all there we just have to see it. Hope you understand this! The grail is the star of David and it can be explained !

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  11. cheating says

    Hey there, the photo towards the top of this web site article is reloading a little bit odd to me? I used delivering an email however it bounced again.

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