And the names of the 12 kings who followed yonder star?
Twelve kings? And Persians all. Or not?
First of all, what happened to Three Magi (aka Three Wise Men, or Three Kings)?
Are we facing a Magus bubble this Christmas?
Let's clarify the record. The earliest story about the Magi is, course, Matthew 2:1-12 (go back to 'The Magi and Christmas' to get the scoop on Matthew, Magi, Marco Polo and that star, as it appeared to this blogger in 2007). Matthew -- most likely writing between 85-90 AD -- tells of a visit by wise men (Greek: μάγοι; magoi)* from the East; to be precise:
In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, "Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage."He says nothing about their homeland -- other than that it is east of Jerusalem -- nor about their being kings, nor even how many men made the trip.
Nonetheless, the belief in the early church was that the Magi were Persians (with a minority rooting for Arabians; hence all those camels). They were pictured dressed in belted tunics and trousers, and wearing pointed Phrygian caps which, in the Graeco-Roman world, signified Easterners (left). It was in Europe, too, that the tradition of three kings was created -- simply because one gift [gold, frankincense, and myrrh] = one king. But the number could fluctuate: in the Roman Catacombs, where more than 20 representations occur, the number of gift-bearing Magi varied from three to six.
A much later Persian source (al-Tabari, ninth century, citing Wahb ibn Munabbih, born about 654 CE) is similarly ambiguous as to their number, but adds some local details: (1) they were indeed Persians; (2) not themselves kings, but the king's messengers; (3) and suggests they were true Magi (not simply 'wise men') because they were astrologers:
The sovereign in Jerusalem at the time was Caesar, and it was on his behalf that Herod the Great reigned in Jerusalem. Messengers of the king of Persia came to him. Sent to Christ, they came to Herod by mistake. They informed Herod that the king of Persia had sent them to offer Christ the gifts they carried, gifts of gold, myrrh and frankincense. They told him that they had observed that Christ's star had risen - they had learned through computation.
Twelve Good (Wise) Men and True
Now, into the old, old story, comes a completely new ancient version from a manuscript dubbed the 'Revelation of the Magi'. This text, written in Syriac (Middle Aramaic), purports to be an eye-witness report of events that took place in the year 0:
An account of the relevations and the visions which the kings, [sons of kings], of the great East spoke, who were called Magi in the language of that land....The 'Revelation' has just been translated into English by Brent Landau, Professor of religious studies at the University of Oklahoma, and an expert in biblical languages and literature. The text (920 lines long) had been copied into a larger history of the world from the Creation onwards, compiled by a monk named Joshua in the Zuqnin Monastery (today, south-eastern Turkey) in 775/776 AD. The whole manuscript later made its way to the Monastery of St Mary of the Syrian in the Scete Desert (Egypt), where it was discovered in the 18th century and taken to the Vatican Library. There, it lay on the shelves almost unnoticed. Prof. Landau dates the original 'Revelation' portion of the manuscript to possibly as early as late-second or third century AD; in any case, not later than the 5th century.**
The Personal Testimony of the Magi
The fantastical story told by the twelve Magi frequently departs from the common ancient Christian interpretations of Matthew 2:1-12.
These Magi -- despite their Persian names -- do not come from Persia but from a semi-legendary country on the eastern edge of the world known as Shir. Jewish, Christian and pagan traditions knew of a land called 'Seiris', a mysterious country on the shore of the great Ocean, sometimes identified with China or with the mountain where Noah's ark comes to rest.
And so there were those wise men, who were called Magi in the language of the land because in silence, without a sound, they praised the God of all....'Magoi' cannot be derived from a word for 'silence' in any likely language. Possibly the author hints at a Syriac monastic practice in which silence and solitude are means for inducing mystical experience. Certainly, the Magi of this text are mystics ... but they are far from 'silent'; to call them 'loquacious' is putting it mildly.
the land of Shir... east of the land of Nod, that place in which dwelt Adam, head and chief of all the families of the world. And these sons of kings received commandments, laws, and even books from their fathers. And generation by generation, one by one, they received them, from the time of Seth, [third] son of our father Adam....Seth was believed by many early Jews and Christians to be extremely pious and virtuous. Seth writes the commandments down in books -- without a doubt the first books ever to appear on earth:
And those books of hidden mysteries were placed 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.These books contained instructions for Seth's offspring to wait for the appearance of a star which would signal the birth of God in human form. This star had initially hovered over the tree of life in the Garden of Eden before Adam’s sin caused it to disappear. Now, Adam revealed to Seth that the star would one day return. Adam, don't forget, had tasted of the forbidden fruit -- a sin, but a useful one which, in some traditions, gave him the power to foretell the future. Really, Eve should get the credit for this, but she doesn't; only the blame (Adam hasn't forgiven her -- or the serpent; not for a moment). Anyway, Seth wrote down his father's prophecy and generations of Magi awaited its fulfilment over thousands of years. In expectation of the event, on the 25th of every month, the Magi purified themselves in a sacred spring and then, on the first day of the new month, ascended the sacred mountain in silent prayer.
Finally, just as they are gathering to commence their monthly rituals, the star appears as an ineffable pillar of light in the sky, descends from the heavens, and enters the Cave of Treasures. This, the Magi's yonder star, is not a star, a comet, a planetary conjunction, not even an angel, but Christ himself in celestial form -- a 'star-child'. Christ tells the Magi that he has been sent by the Father for the salvation of humanity and instructs them to follow the star to Bethlehem to see his birth in human form.
The journey from Shir to Bethlehem does not take two years -- as surmised by commentators on Matthew 2 -- but is accomplished in the blink of an eye by miraculous means. The power of the star's light levels mountains and hills under their feet, they walk across rivers, and food supplies are constantly refreshed by the same magic. For some reason, they, too, are sidetracked to Jerusalem, which they reach in the month of April, in the month of flowers -- thus, not within the December 25th tradition of Christmas. Neither Herod nor the Jewish elders will listen to them (the star is visible only to the Magi) so they move on to Bethlehem. At Bethlehem, the star enters a cave and transforms itself into a luminous infant.
We took our crowns and put them under his feet, because the everlasting kingdom is his.... And we brought forth our treasures before him.Disappointingly, these gifts, the entire treasure that was deposited in the cave, which had been hidden away since the time of Seth, are not described: no gold, myrrh, or frankincense; not even silks from China!
Having met Mary and Joseph and heard invisible angels singing, the Magi make their wondrous journey back to Shir under the same guidance of the star. They proclaim the Gospel of Christ in their country. Everyone is joyful. Everyone eats from the magical provisions and has visions. And no one is silent about what they have seen; not for a minute.
As we come to the end of this story, we have to admit that it has not advanced the quest for the historical Magi by even a jot. But it tells us some things none of us knew about the beliefs of an early group of Christians somewhere in old Mesopotamia. That's a lovely way to end the year.
Happy Christmas, Happy Holidays to all.
I am grateful to the Paleojudaica blog for first highlighting the 'Revelation' and for continuing to update reviews and comments on Landau's book. See especially the discussions on the Patheos blog and Landau's responses to some.
Translation of al-Tabari from M. Perlmann, The History of Al-Tabari, Volume IV, The Ancient Kingdoms, State Univ. New York, Albany 1987, 124-5.
* Besides meaning 'wise men', magoi can also be translated as magicians, teachers, Zoroastrian priests, astrologers, seers, or interpreter of dreams.
** The text presents the Holy Spirit as grammatically feminine, a practice in Syriac Christianity that dies out in the fifth century; online: Revelation of the Magi: The Lost Tale of the Wise Men's Journey to Bethlehem, 2010,
Above left: Syriac icon now in Berlin (Preuss. Bibl. Sachau 220 fo 8v.); note the kings ride horseback, not on camels. My thanks to Hanna Hajjar for this link and notes.
Middle left: 2nd Century Sarcophagus, Vatican Museums, Rome. Photo credit: Wikipedia.
Upper centre: 3rd C Painting in the Catacomb of Priscilla, Rome. Photo credit: Edicolaweb.
Lower centre: from the doors of Basilica di Santa Sabina, Rome (2nd half 5th C). Photo credit: Gliscritti Gallery.
Lower left: ancient Roman map of the world, produced by M. Vipsanius Agrippa, commissioned by Augustus: Appiuslucretiusmartius Audax Alma (I've added arrows to indicate Seres (China) and Judea). Turn the map 90 degrees clockwise to get our more familiar view of the world.