Shining the Light on the Wise Men: A Review of Revelation of the Magi

Join the Book Club discussion on this book.

UPDATE : Brent Landau answers questions from me and others about the book here.

This year a number of Christmas stockings will no doubt be stuffed with a copy of a beautiful little book, Revelation of the Magi: The Lost Tale of the Wise Men's Journey to Bethlehem (published by HarperOne). It's the first English translation of an ancient manuscript that has languished in the Vatican library for centuries.

Though his translation of the document itself takes up only about 50 pages of the book, Dr. Brent Landau bookends it with intriguing essays on the history of the manuscript (which he suggests could date to as early as the late second century) and the translation process, as well as what we can learn from the text, not only about the Magi but also about Christ himself.

While the journey of the Magi and their encounter with the newborn Christ recounted here is familiar and mostly parallels the meager account in Matthew's gospel, much of the story shatters our understanding of who the Magi were and what they were up to.

In the Revelation, we are told that the star of Bethlehem was the celestial Christ himself. The so-called Magi, adherents of an ancient and silent faith (who numbered more than three), set out on their journey to follow this star after preparing for it since the time of Adam and Seth.

Like many ancient documents translated carefully if not literally (this from the Syriac), the story itself can be rambling, redundant, confusing, and awkward. For instance, you might stumble over such phrases as "they met us with great joy and received us, rejoicing, and exulting, and glorifying" (27:2) and "speaking figuratively with figures of speech" (7:1). The manuscript is already brief, but a good editor could have halved it easily.

And yet it is still quite luminous and wonderful. The back-story that comprises the first half of the tale introduces an understanding of the foundations of the faith, going back to Adam's son Seth, that was entirely new to me.

The text tells us that Adam shared great mysteries with his third son, who recorded the revelations in a book kept safe, generation after generation, "on the Mountain of Victories in the east of Shir, our country, in a cave, the Cave of Treasures of the Mysteries of the Life of Silence" (4:1). (You have to wonder whatever happened to Seth's book. Perhaps a sequel is in the works? See Landau's appendix for more on this.). Seth's mysteries essentially involved waiting and looking for the shining star, which would reveal the coming of the Christ into the world.

As you read the story, it seems as though God simply can't contain God's love for humanity. Like incense, the pages--which include black and white reproductions of several related medieval paintings--radiate divine grace, mercy, and love. They seem infused with light, glory, majesty, epiphany, and joy. (Crassly, a friend who skimmed the tale said he thought it read like the Christmas story on acid.)

And it's nice to see the Christ child laugh: In chapter 24 as the Magi encounter him we catch a glimpse of the "child of light laughing about and glorifying all his great and amazing mysteries, proclaimed in the entire world from [ancient times,] and behold, all of them are fulfilled in his appearance today" (24:2).

Interestingly, the text carefully and frequently notes that the Magi are able to encounter this Christ because they are "deemed worthy." In their commissioning (chapter 21) they are "deemed worthy" to see and hear and receive the light and witness to it, to know and learn the ancient hidden mysteries. That phrase is repeated numerous times. Those of us who wish to experience this for ourselves, presumably, must also be "deemed worthy" by God, although the text is never very specific as to how we should go about that.

There are some other troubling things in the text. For one, Eve comes off very badly. Adam explains to Seth that "all these things happened to me, my son, and I was brought low from my majesty. The cause of all these evil things, Eve your mother, was a stumbling block to me" (8:7,8). Adam takes no responsibility whatsoever for his actions. However, Mary in effect redeems Eve because "Mary became the gate for the great light the entered the world in grace to banish the darkness" (22:2); because of Mary, "Eve and her offspring will have hope and salvation" (25:2).

Also, Landau concludes that the last few chapters, in which the Apostle Thomas makes a guest appearance, were likely tacked on by later redactors. Not only are the tone and language usage different, but the overtly evangelistic message Thomas presents also seems to counter the overall message of the Magi's experience.

And that message is perhaps the most fascinating aspect of the book, in that it offers a "positive appraisal of religious pluralism." Although Landau might stretch his point a bit too far for comfort, it's well worth pondering.

His deduction arises mostly out of chapters 14 and 28, in which groups of people--first the Magi and later those with whom they share the light--encounter the incarnate God. Each time the Christus Lux appears, the people experience him in different ways simultaneously. After their mutual encounter they share with one another what they saw, and discover that each caught a glimpse of a different facet of Jesus' life and work: as an infant, an "unsightly" human being, a pillar of light, a lamb hanging on the tree of life, and so forth.

From all of this Landau concludes that "the Revelation of the Magi sees potentially all revelation as coming from Christ himself." In other words, the divine light expressed in this Christ is essentially the source of all religious truth in the world. As he puts it, "an experience of Christ's presence is much more important than being a Christian" (p. 97, emphasis his).

Landau writes: "...are those who do not share our religious beliefs foolishly misguided? According to the Revelation of the Magi, the answer of Christ to the Magi appears to be no: 'And I am everywhere, because I am a ray of light whose light has shone in this world from the majesty of my Father...."

Not only does Landau's book offer enthralling insights into the study and translation of ancient manuscripts, and not only does it provide a significant and often moving account of the story of the Magi, but it also therefore offers some existential hope for unity in this age of religious divisiveness.

Revelation of the Magi reminds us once again of the power of story to communicate truth. Jesus the Rabbi taught primarily in parables, and the stories he told, while not necessarily factually true, nevertheless conveyed truth. Similarly, the tale of the Magi may have the patina of the fantastic and unbelievable, but it intends to communicate truth. It is well worth prayerfully and open-mindedly considering what that truth might be for all of us.