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Who Were The Three Wise Men Of Christmas?

Posted: 12/10/10 07:45 AM ET

Of all the characters who appear in the Gospel accounts of Jesus' birth, the "Three Wise Men" are by far the most fascinating. Even someone who has never cracked open a Bible is very likely to know about the Wise Men, the star they followed and the gifts they brought to the infant Jesus on the first Christmas. But the story of these figures is found only in Matthew among the four canonical Gospels, and leaves many questions unanswered. Who were these mysterious foreigners? Where exactly did they come from? What was their star? And were there even three of them, since Matthew never gives a specific number, only tells us that there were three gifts?

Many early Christian writings attempted to provide answers to these questions, but one stands out as truly exceptional. Known as the Revelation of the Magi, it is a complex, rich, and strange narrative that purports to be the Wise Men's personal testimony about the birth of Jesus. According to this writing, the Wise Men (or better, Magi) are mystical sages living at the eastern edge of the world, guarding an ancient prophecy about a coming star that will signify the birth of God in human form. The appearance of the star, their miraculous journey to Bethlehem, and what became of them afterwards -- all of these events are presented in vivid detail in the Revelation of the Magi. There are no other early Christian writings that provide such a complete explanation of these mysterious figures.

My dissertation, completed in 2008, was the first English translation and study of this intriguing apocryphal Christian text. The newly released HarperOne edition of the Revelation of the Magi includes my fully annotated translation, along with a new introduction and conclusion designed for a more general readership. As a scholar, I feel incredibly fortunate to have stumbled upon such an intriguing and neglected text. I do not claim, however, to have "discovered" it, since that makes it sound as if I unearthed it from the sands of Egypt. In reality, it was sitting on a shelf in the Vatican Library, waiting for someone to pay closer attention to it. This should serve as a reminder to biblical scholars: important -- even revolutionary -- texts may be not truly be "lost" at all, but simply languishing in a library or a monastery, hidden in plain sight.

As a newly translated apocryphal Christian writing, the Revelation of the Magi will surely receive attention mostly for what it tells us about the Magi (or, to speak more precisely, what early Christians thought about them). But here, I would like to explore what this writing says about the scope of Christ's revelation to the world. At first glance, the text seems to display a much more tolerant attitude toward non-Christian religions than what is found in other early Christian writings. But how tolerant is it, actually? Does it still ultimately claim Christianity to be the only path to salvation?

Before addressing such questions, let me explain part of the story in a bit more detail. In my very brief summary of the plot above, I left out a crucial detail about the Magi's star. When their star finally appears, it descends from heaven and transforms into a small, luminous human being. It is not quite a star, and not exactly human either, but something else -- a star-child, if you will. Although the text never explicitly identifies this being as Christ, his words to the Magi and the overall narrative make this point clear. The Magi, naturally, rejoice that their long-awaited prophecy has finally come to pass. Surprisingly, however, the star-child tells them that his epiphany to them is only one small part of his revelation to the people of the world:

"And I am everywhere, because I am a ray of light whose light has shown in this world from the majesty of the Father, who has sent me to fulfill everything that was spoken about me in the entire world and in every land by unspeakable mysteries, and to accomplish the commandment of my glorious Father, who by the prophets preached about me to the contentious house, in the same way as for you, as befits your faith, it was revealed to you about me."

Further statements by Christ, the Magi, and even God himself reinforce this conception of Christ's boundless revelation throughout the world. In sum, the Revelation of the Magi contends that Christ is actually the hidden source of all or most of humanity's religious systems. Therefore, according to this text, non-Christian religions do not actually exist, since Christ pervades them all.

One does not have to be an expert in early Christian literature to recognize just how unusual and extraordinary this text's attitude toward other religions is. Although there are Christian churches and organizations that have made great contributions to inter-religious dialogue, it still remains true that traditional Christian thought rejects the validity of all other religions. The dominant attitude for much of the last two thousand years has been that of Jesus' words in John 14:6, still frequently quoted in Christian conversations about other religions: "I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me."

In the earliest days of the Christian movement, there were two main ways of conceptualizing the gods of other peoples: they were demonic beings, or they were the products of human imagination. Neither of these outlooks seem to have been part of Jesus' teaching (see the intriguing story in Mark 9:38-40); instead, they were a standard feature of Judaism that the first Christians simply took over. In the second century, some philosophically-minded Christians allowed for the possibility that a few pagan luminaries, such as Socrates and Plato, were partly inspired by Christ. But such Christians were just as firm that these previews of Christ were quite vague and limited in comparison with the full revelation in the person of Jesus of Nazareth.

So, the outlook of the Revelation of the Magi goes far beyond what any other Christians of the time thought about other religions. In fact, its view seems rather comparable to the notion of "anonymous Christians" developed by Karl Rahner, one of the greatest Catholic theologians of the twentieth century and a key architect of Vatican II. In a nutshell, Rahner believed that non-Christians who diligently pursued their own paths to enlightenment or salvation were recipients of God's grace.

Yet Rahner's theory has encountered significant criticism, and not just from fundamentalist Christianity. Liberal Christian theologians such as Hans Küng and John Hick have found the idea of "anonymous Christians" to be condescending. After all, how many Buddhists, Muslims, or atheists do you know who would appreciate being told that they were actually worshipers of Christ without realizing it?

The same problem also potentially hampers the effectiveness of the Revelation of the Magi's theology. For it is absolutely clear, despite the text's steadfast avoidance of the names "Jesus" and "Christ," that the being whom the Magi encounter is the same one who appears in the Gospels of the New Testament.

Yet there is another way of reading the Revelation of the Magi that may yield a message that is more pluralistic. It is possible to argue that just because the Revelation of the Magi presents the Magi's star-child as the Christ of Judeo-Christian tradition, this does not necessarily mean that the text views these "Christian" qualities as essential and definitive for the identity of this divine being. Put more simply, the text may no more understand this being to be intrinsically "Christ" than to be intrinsically "Krishna" or "Buddha" or "Lao Tzu." In such a reading, the star-child would simply express itself in whatever a given culture values and comprehends, without privileging one of these revelations over another.

Of course, this alternative interpretation may not at all be what the text intends of its readers (though there are some very influential literary theorists who would say that what the author of a text meant is irrelevant, and that the reader is the one who really makes the meaning). But the very fact that such an interpretation is possible is an indication of the theological complexity of this text, and part of the reason this text is so fascinating.

At the very least, the Revelation of the Magi is an important and thoughtful exception to most early Christian attitudes toward other religions. Moreover, it is a narrative that embodies, I believe, a key idea of the Advent and Christmas season. Perhaps the key watchword of Advent is "mystery," a belief that God is at work in the world, but a realization that God's work is ultimately beyond human comprehension. In fact, one early Christian theologian says that the coming of Christ into the world is one of the great mysteries of the faith -- and the birth of a child, any child, is indeed an event filled with awe, hope, and mystery.

From the Introduction to Revelation of the Magi

The Magi -- usually known as the "Three Wise Men" or "Three Kings" -- are easily the most famous of the visitors who appear at Jesus's birth in the Gospel accounts of the Christmas story. Despite their great fame, however, there is only one short passage in the New Testament that tells of the Magi, and this account is remarkably vague about these figures, in Matthew chapter 2, verses 1 through 12.

Amid a wide range of early Christian speculation on the Magi -- apocryphal Gospels, hymns, sermons, mosaics, wood carvings, and sculptures on sarcophagi -- one composition is particularly impressive and yet surprisingly unknown. Called the Revelation of the Magi, it is a lengthy narrative that claims to be the personal testimony of the Magi themselves on the events of Christ's coming. Though versions of this legend were well known in Christian Europe throughout the Middle Ages, this book presents the first-ever complete English translation of the Revelation of the Magi.

Not only does the Revelation of the Magi have the distinction of being the most substantial early Christian composition about the Magi; its narrative complexity matches almost any early Christian writing. Thus, the first thing that one notices about the Revelation of the Magi is that whoever wrote it devoted a great deal of time and thought to crafting a rich and intricate story line. As a scholar of early Christian writings, I noticed several other surprising features immediately. Its location of the Magi in the far-eastern land of Shir was highly unusual, since most early Christians thought that the Magi came from Persia, Baylon, or Arabia.

Also surprising was its identification of the Star of Bethlehem with Christ himself, an interpretation found nowhere else in the diverse array of early Christian speculation about this mysterious celestial portent. But finally, and most importantly, I was surprised that neither I nor any of my colleagues knew of this impressive text's existence before I stumbled across a mention of it in an article.

The Revelation of the Magi is indeed a fascinating and imaginative story about some of the Bible's most intriguing figures. But the emphasis of the Revelation of the Magi on the universality of Christ's revelation may also captivate many readers. The questions this writing poses are of potential importance for anyone who considers herself or himself religious, spiritual or simply interested in theological questions.

From the text:

1. Introduction

About the revelation of the Magi, and about their coming to Jerusalem, and about the gifts that they brought to Christ. An account of the revelations and the visions, which the kings, [sons of kings,] of the great East spoke, who were called Magi in the language of that land because in silence, without a sound, they glorified and they prayed. And in silence and in the mind they glorified and prayed to the exalted and holy majesty of the Lord of life, to the holy and glorious Father, who is hidden by the great brightness of himself and is more lofty and holy than all reasoning. And the language of human beings is not able to speak about him as he is, except as he has wished, and when he has wished, and by means of whom he wishes. And neither his heavenly worlds nor the lower ones are able to speak about his majesty, except as it is fitting for the will of his majesty to reveal to the worlds so that they are able to partake from the gift of his majesty, because (his majesty) is great and they are not able to speak of it.

11. The Appearance of the Star to the Magi

Then, when the time and fulfillment of what was written in the books happened, concerning the revelation of the light of the hidden star, we were indeed thought worthy for it to come in our days and to receive it with joy, as we were commanded by our fathers and as we ourselves read in the books. And each of us saw wondrous and diverse visions that were never before seen by us, but their mysteries were in these books that we were reading. And each one came from his dwelling place according to our ancient custom to ascend the Mountain of Victories [text missing] to wash in the Spring of Purification, as we were accustomed. And we saw [text missing] in the form of an ineffable pillar of light descending, and it came to rest above the water. And we were afraid and shook when we saw it. And we cannot speak about the brilliance of the star of light, since its radiance was many times greater than the sun, and the sun could not stand out before the light of its rays. And just like the moon looks in the daytime in the days of Nisan, when the sun rises and it is absorbed in its light, so also did the sun seem to us when the star rose over us. And the light of the star, which surpassed the sun, appeared to us ourselves and the sons of our mysteries, but it did not appear to anyone else, because they were removed from its mysteries and its coming. And we rejoiced, and glorified, and gave unmeasured thanks to the Father of heavenly majesty that it appeared in our days and we were thought worthy to see it.

16. The Miraculous Journey

And when all these things and many others were spoken about the revelation that appeared to us, the star was with us in all (its) excellent forms so we could see it. And we spoke about it like frail human beings, not being able to say anything that we saw. And we got ready with our whole encampment, and with our provisions, and with the pure and holy gifts, those that we brought out of the Cave of Treasures of Hidden Mysteries, in which they were [deposited] previously by our fathers, and we went forth in great joy, our hearts exulting to come to the place that was commanded to us, to worship the vision of the star of infinite light. And the star, our guide, our good messenger, our perfect light, our glorious leader, again appeared for us, going before us and upholding our whole caravan from all sides, and enlightening us by its hidden light. And we had no need of the light of the sun or of the moon, because their light became diminished in its sight, and by night and by day we walked in its light, exulting and rejoicing without distress or weariness. And it prepared before us a blessed dwelling place in which to reside while we rested and exulted. Even our provisions were abundant in our eyes and did not decrease, but rather from one day to another they increased when it came to rest over us with its light. And it gave rest to us from all our fatigue as if we were not journeying on the road, and it made mountains, and hills, and rugged places level before us. Even the rivers before us we crossed by foot without fear, because of the light of our good guide that went along with us for our encampment. And again, when we crossed into the places [of beasts and vicious snakes,] we trampled them with our feet. And our leader and our guide, in his glory, appeared to each one of us in all forms and appearances in every (stage). And he filled our hearts with great joy, and all the (stages) in which we journeyed were short and swift in our eyes, because our victorious sign and our powerful light, which is beyond every human mouth to speak, guided us with its victorious strength.