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, translated into English by Bible scholar Brent Landau, may help answer that key question from the Christmas story: “Who were the magi?” Photo: Ms Vaticanus Syriacus 163, © 2011 Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana.

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 Bible scholar Brent Landau, 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.
 


 
magi

The earliest known depiction of the magi is this mid-third-century C.E. fresco decorating the Catacomb of Priscilla, one of Rome’s oldest Christian cemeteries. Photo: Scala/Art Resource.

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.”

This Bible History Daily feature was originally published on November 29, 2011.
 


 
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 Bible History Daily:

Why Did the Magi Bring Gold, Frankincense and Myrrh?

Witnessing the Divine: The Magi in Art and Literature by Robin M. Jensen

Christmas Stories in Christian Apocrypha by Tony Burke

Frankincense and Other Resins Were Used in Roman Burials Across Britain

Magi Reunited
 


 

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  • Wes says

    Interesting background story (and stories), but someone ought to say something in behalf of the more straightforward explanation relating to Zoroastrian magi ( singular or plural, depending on language in which encountered).

    Were it not for the account at the beginning of the NT and Matthew, the term magi would have remained rather obscure. But since it is there, it should be understood as well that the documentation in its behalf can be traced to the writing of Darius I King of Persia on the monument at Behistun – and also the commentaries of Herodotus in his Histories, evidently as passing references to Zoroastrian priests. In the former instance, the Rosetta-stone like inscriptions on Behistun cliff wall, carved during the reign of Darius I, refer to tribal Medes or perhaps Zoroastrian priests in the ancient Persian – and presumably translated into the other two languages (Elamite and Babylonian cuneiform).

    Herodotus uses the term “magi” twice in the Histories (Book.paragraph:1.101 and 1.132). He speaks of the magi as one of the tribes/peoples (ethnous) of the Medes. Later (1.132), Herodotus uses the term “magi” to generically refer to a “sacerdotal caste”. Elsewhere, “we hear of Magi not only in Persia, Parthia, Bactria, Chorasmia, Aria, Media, and among the Sakas, but also in non-Iranian lands like Samaria, Ethiopia, and Egypt. Their influence was also widespread throughout Asia Minor. It is, therefore, quite likely that the sacerdotal caste of the Magi was distinct from the Median tribe of the same name.”[ Zaehner, Robert Charles (1961), The Dawn and Twilight of Zoroastrianism, New York: MacMillan]

    Xenophon, in his early 4th century BCE Cyropaedia, depicts the magians as authorities for a depicts the magians as authorities for all religious matters (8.3.11).

    Subsequently, in Roman times, “magikos” was associated with Zoroaster and Zoroastrianism with writers such as Pliny the Elder remarking on Greek fascination with it. And all this is quite difficult to summarize here and would require examining a whole host of writings about magic and deciding which ones were related to Zoroastrians directly – or just assumed.

    While we are familiar in the Bible with the Proclamation of Cyrus that ended the Babylonian captivity ( in Chronicles II and Ezra), it should also be noted that there was a universal version of this proclamation, i.e., the Cyrus Cylinder. How many other peoples beside the people of Judea were carried into captivity and then released is another story or controversy, but the Cylinder is the basis for the claims. When the document is examined, one notes that while Cyrus disparages Nabonidus, he pays homage to traditional Babylonian beliefs and the god Marduk. But yet only a few decades later with Darius I, there is a significant contrast. At Behistun ( in old Persian “Begastan” or “place of God”) the royal inscription speaks in terms of the deity in other terms. Repeatedly, Darius declares that “by the grace of Ahuramazda”, I became king. Yet at the same time, his path to ascendancy was blocked by “the Magian” Gaumata, despite the best efforts of both Persians and Medes. Mede and Magi are not equivalent.

    So admittedly there are riddles and discrepancies about the explanation for what is a magi even with the testimony of many Greeks, Romans and Darius himself. He was a Zoroastrian who quarreled with a rebellious magi? Was his predecessor a Zorastrian or a believer of something else? But altogether, I find it likely that Matthew was referring to Zoroastrians.

  • John says

    The Greek word maʹgoi at Matthew 2:1 is translated in several Bible translations as astrologers………..it wasn’t until about the 6th century that these three magi were called kings…….and they were certainly not led to Herod the Great in Jerusalem by a sign (star) from God.

  • John says

    (Hebrews 6:20) says, where a forerunner has entered in our behalf, Jesus, who has become a high priest in the manner of Mel·chizʹe·dek forever.

    (Hebrews 7:17) 17 For it is said in witness of him: “You are a priest forever in the manner of Mel·chizʹe·dek.”
    ACCURATE knowledge is far better; God’s Word is far more reliable than that of so called scholars………in light of the 2 scriptures above we can see that Jesus is likened to Melchizedek, in that he was a priest and king, and Jesus will also fulfill the role of high priest and king of God’s Kingdom……….and certainly NOT to be aligned with the magi or astrologers

  • michael says

    I believe the Magi to be Tibetan monks, if you have any understanding of their beliefs you may understand their knowledge of life.
    The Bible tells us that these “three wise men” Tibetan monks are trained in the art of developing wisdom, of the ages.
    The Bible tells us that theses “Three Wise men” Traveled from the East, If you place a ruler on a world map at Bethlehem and Tibet you will find that ruler is exactly due East, of Bethlehem.
    The Tibetan Monks are the wisest people of this world, as far as I can ascertain, they were fulfilling a prophecy that was handed down from Dalai Lama to Dalai Lama. Cheers.

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