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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  • Jennifer says

    I was wondering why you still choose to be Christian even though there are contradictions in the Bible. There are so many of them, and yet it only takes one to disprove the entire Bible. I know many can be explained away, but others simply cannot. The biggest contradiction, in my opinion, deals with the very core of Christianity. God’s love. Some verses says that he loves everyone, earnestly wishing that everyone would be saved. Others however, says that he does not and the Bible goes so far as to say that he only loves the elect (which is the few) and that the vast majority of people he predestined to go to hell.

    Verses that prove God DOESN’T love everyone:
    John 15:16, Acts 15:17-18, Romans 9:11,
    1 Thessalonians 1:4, Proverbs 16:9,
    Romans 9:15-23, Acts 13:48, Romans 9:21-23

    Verses that prove God DOES love everyone:
    John 3:16, 2 Peter 3:9, 1 John 4:8,
    Romans 11:32, 1 John 2:2

    And if somehow you have an answer, then my next question is, if God loves everyone (in any way, shape or form) then why did he create people he KNEW would end up in hell. Is he an evil god that loves to watch people burn?

    Thank you for taking the time to read my question.

  • John says

    If these Magi were from Persia and the star was in the east they would end up in India so either the star was in the west or the Magi came from the west. You cannot have itboth ways so the famous star in the east means the Magi came from egypt or further west.

  • Rob says

    Somewhere recently in BAR I read where they were determined to be natives of Shiraz in Iran, a good sturdy rug-weaving town; I believe that I own one.

  • chuckles says

    The way I read the Bible is in a spiritual manor. What we need to get from this band of men is “they were wise men”. As opposed to foolish. We when we look up verses that refer to wise and foolish, we see people doing what they are supposed to be doing “wise”, and others NOT WATCHING for the return of Jesus “foolish”.
    IMO, these were Jews living in Babylon, but they knew about the prophesy of the star. They watched the sky’s, so you might say they were astrologers, but they could be called astronomers. If you read your Bible and are watching for the return of Jesus, you are wise. If you are not watching for His return, He will come at a time you are not aware. Leviticus 23 establishes He will return on some Feast of Trumpets, at the Last Trump. The day no one knows the day or the hour is Rosh Hashanah.
    The wise virgins of Mat 25 were ready to go, but the foolish weren’t prepared. Yet they were all virgins. Virgins are eligible to marry the High Priest, (Deut) and Jesus is the High Priest forever.
    Just as Rabbi’s know He would be born of a virgin, they also knew there would be a star over Bethlehem. Whatever the “star” was, they knew it was not normally in the sky. Knowing these things is neat to know, but what application is it for our lives? We are told we will be at the wedding feast on Trumpets. We will be hidden away to hide from God’s wrath as Noah was put in a room in the Ark while God judged the world. God’s wrath will fall for 7 years instead of 10 because no flesh would survive 10 years. We will be judged on Atonement, and return to live with Jesus for 1000 years on earth. Then the earth will burn and the eighth day will represent eternity with God.
    Leviticus 23 speaks of His first coming with Passover, Unleavened Bread, and First Fruits. Pentecost is the birth of the church, and the Fall Feasts teach us of His second coming.
    Do a word search for the word “watch”. 99% will deal with the Rapture and Jacob’s trouble beginning. God took Noah out 7 days before the Flood and took Lot out 3 days before the fire fell. He does NOT judge without warning. We have been warned. “As it was in the days of Noah and the days of Lot”, He will return.
    Look UP, your redemption draweth nigh. Watch therefore that you are not overtaken as a thief. That’s real “wise”.

  • Karen says

    The question of who the Magi were is addressed in several paces by the late Chuck Missler, including this article: http://www.khouse.org/articles/1999/142/ They were originally Medes, here’s an extract from the article:
    “Traditions

    Most of what we associate with the “Magi” is from early church traditions. Most have assumed there were three of them, since they brought three specific gifts (but the Biblical text doesn’t number them). They are called “Magi” from the Latinized form of the Greek word magoi, transliterated from the Persian, for a select sect of priests. (Our word “magic” comes from the same root.)

    As the years passed, the traditions became increasingly embellished. By the 3rd century they were viewed as kings. By the 6th century they had names: Bithisarea, Melichior, and Gathaspa. Some even associated them with Shem, Ham and Japheth-the three sons of Noah-and thus with Asia, Africa, and Europe. A 14th century Armenian tradition identifies them as Balthasar, King of Arabia; Melchior, King of Persia; and Gasper, King of India.

    (Relics attributed to them emerged in the 4th century and were transferred from Constantinople to Milan in the 5th century, and then to Cologne in 1162 where they remain enshrined.)

    These are interesting traditions, but what do we really know about them?

    The Priesthood of the Medes

    The ancient Magi were a hereditary priesthood of the Medes (known today as the Kurds) credited with profound and extraordinary religious knowledge. After some Magi, who had been attached to the Median court, proved to be expert in the interpretation of dreams, Darius the Great established them over the state religion of Persia.2 (Contrary to popular belief, the Magi were not originally followers of Zoroaster.3 That all came later.)

    It was in this dual capacity, whereby civil and political counsel was invested with religious authority, that the Magi became the supreme priestly caste of the Persian empire and continued to be prominent during the subsequent Seleucid, Parthian, and Sasanian periods. 4

    The Role of Daniel

    One of the titles given to Daniel was Rab-mag, the Chief of the Magi.5 His unusual career included being a principal administrator in two world empires-the Babylonian and the subsequent Persian Empire. When Darius appointed him, a Jew, over the previously hereditary Median priesthood, the resulting repercussions led to the plots involving the ordeal of the lion’s den.6

    Daniel apparently entrusted a Messianic vision (to be announced in due time by a “star”) to a secret sect of the Magi for its eventual fulfillment. But first let’s review some historical background.

    Political Background

    Since the days of Daniel, the fortunes of both the Persian and the Jewish nation had been closely intertwined. Both nations had, in their turn, fallen under Seleucid domination in the wake of Alexander’s conquests. Subsequently, both had regained their independence: the Jews under Maccabean leadership, and the Persians as the dominating ruling group within the Parthian Empire.

    It was at this time that the Magi, in their dual priestly and governmental office, composed the upper house of the Council of the Megistanes (from which we get the term “magistrates”), whose duties included the absolute choice and election of the king of the realm.

    It was, therefore, a group of Persian-Parthian “king makers” who entered Jerusalem in the latter days of the reign of Herod. Herod’s reaction was understandably one of fear when one considers the background of Roman-Parthian rivalry that prevailed during his lifetime.

    Rome on the Rise

    Pompey, the first Roman conqueror of Jerusalem in 63 B.C., had attacked the Armenian outpost of Parthia. In 55 B.C. Crassus led Roman legions in sacking Jerusalem and in a subsequent attack on Parthia proper. The Romans were decisively defeated at the battle of Carrhae with the loss of 30,000 troops, including their commander. The Parthians counterattacked with a token invasion of Armenia, Syria, and Palestine.

    Nominal Roman rule was reestablished under Antipater, the father of Herod, who, in his turn, retreated before another Parthian invasion in 40 B.C.

    Mark Antony reestablished Roman sovereignty in 37 B.C. and, like Crassus before him, also embarked on a similarly ill-fated Parthian expedition. His disastrous retreat was followed by another wave of invading Parthians, which swept all Roman opposition completely out of Palestine (including Herod himself, who fled to Alexandria and then to Rome).

    With Parthian collaboration, Jewish sovereignty was restored, and Jerusalem was fortified with a Jewish garrison.

    Herod, by this time, had secured from Augustus Caesar the title of “King of the Jews.” However, it was not for three years, including a five months’ siege by Roman troops, that Herod was able to occupy his own capital city! Herod had thus gained the throne of a rebellious buffer state which was situated between two mighty contending empires. At any time his own subjects might conspire in bringing the Parthians to their aid. At the time of the birth of Christ, Herod may have been close to his final illness. Augustus was also aged, and Rome, since the retirement of Tiberius, was without an experienced military commander. Pro-Parthian Armenia was fomenting revolt against Rome (which was successfully accomplished within two years.)

    The Tensions in Parthia

    The time was ripe for another Parthian invasion of the buffer provinces, except for the fact that Parthia itself was racked by internal dissension. Phraates IV, the unpopular and aging king, had once been deposed and it was not improbable that the Persian Magi were already involved in the political maneuvering requisite to choosing his successor. It was conceivable that the Magi might be taking advantage of the king’s lack of popularity to further their own interests with the establishment of a new dynasty, which could have been implemented if a sufficiently strong contender could be found.

    At this time it was entirely conceivable that the Messianic prophecies of the Old Testament, culminating in the writings of Daniel, one of their own Magians, was of profound motivating significance. The promise of a divinely imposed world dominion at the hands of a Jewish monarch might be more than acceptable to them. (Their own Persian and Medo-Persian history was studded with Jewish nobles, ministers, and counselors; and in the great Achaemenid days, some of the kings themselves were of Jewish blood.)

    The Entourage to Jerusalem

    In Jerusalem, the sudden appearance of the Magi, probably traveling in force with all imaginable oriental pomp and accompanied by an adequate cavalry escort to insure their safe penetration of Roman territory, certainly alarmed Herod and the populace of Jerusalem.

    It would seem as if these Magi were attempting to perpetrate a border incident which could bring swift reprisal from Parthian armies. Their request of Herod regarding the one who “has been born King of the Jews”7 was a calculated insult to him, a non-Jew8 who had contrived and bribed his way into that office.

    Consulting his scribes, Herod discovered from the prophecies in the Tanach (the Old Testament) that the Promised One, the Messiah, would be born in Bethle-hem.9 Hiding his concern and expressing sincere interest, Herod requested them to keep him informed.

    After finding the babe and presenting their prophetic gifts, the Magi “being warned in a dream” (a form of communication most acceptable to them) departed to their own country, ignoring Herod’s request. (Within two years Phraataces, the parricide son of Phraates IV, was duly installed by the Magi as the new ruler of Parthia.)

    Daniel’s Messianic Role

    Living six centuries before the birth of Christ, Daniel certainly received an incredible number of Messianic prophecies. In addition to several overviews of all of Gentile world history,10 the Angel Gabriel told him the precise day that Jesus would present Himself as King to Jerusalem.11

    It is interesting that Daniel’s founding of a secret sect of the Magi also had a role in having these prominent Gentiles present gifts at the birth of the Jewish Messiah.

    The Christmas Gifts

    The gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh were also prophetic, speaking of our Lord’s offices of king, priest, and savior. Gold speaks of His kingship; frankincense was a spice used in the priestly duties; and myrrh was an embalming ointment anticipating His death.

    In the Millennium, He will also receive the gifts of gold and frankincense;12 but no myrrh: His death was once and for all.

    What gifts are YOU going to give Him this year? Discuss it with Him.

    * * *

    For a review of other background items, see The Christmas Story: What Really Happened. Also, for a complete study of one of the most captivating and astonishing books of the Bible, see our Expositional Commentary on the Book of Daniel.”

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