Revelation of the Magi

We three kings of Orient are:

Bearing gifts we traverse afar,

Field and Fountain, moor and mountain, 

Following yonder star.

Christmas carol by John Henry Hopkins, Jr (1857)

The Bible (Gospel of Matthew 2:1-12) tells how the Magi follow a star from the East to Bethlehem in search of Christ, the newborn king. [1] After presenting gifts of myrrh, frankincense, and gold, they disappear as mysteriously as they’ve arrived.[2]

Although this story has spawned countless interpretations and theories, perhaps one of the most intriguing is the Revelation of the Magi, a text originally written in Syriac, a language used by ancient Christians in Asia and the Middle East, most likely at the end of the 2nd century. The text was known in Constantinople in the 5th century, copied in the 8th century by a Turkish monk, and mouldered in a monastery in the Egyptian desert until, in the 18th century, it arrived at the Vatican Library in Rome, where it languished, virtually unknown, until recently.

This text purports to have been written by the Magi themselves; however unlikely that might be, it reads like an exciting novel, the important message of which we might only have been ready for today.

The story starts in the Garden of Eden, where the star of indescribable brightness initially hovers over the Tree of Life before Adam’s sin causes it to disappear. This, along with the prophecy that someday the star would reappear, heralding the birth of God in human form, is passed down to the Magi through their ancestor, Seth, the third son of Adam and Eve. Each month, for thousands of years, the Magi, who live in a semi-mythical land called Shir, perform ancient rituals in preparation for the star’s arrival.[3]

Then, one day, it does arrive in the form of a luminous ‘star-child’ who claims to be the Son of God. This child invites the Magi to go to Jerusalem to witness its birth and thus partake in the salvation God has planned for the whole world. 

And so, led by this magical star which ensures their safe, speedy journey, the Magi arrive at a cave (not a manger) in Bethlehem, where the star transforms into a luminous, talking infant whose birth is accompanied by unseen singing angels. After explaining to the Magi that, at this moment, the ancient prophecy handed down to them through Seth, has come true, the star child tells the Magi to go home and become witnesses to him and his Gospel in their own country.

Interestingly, no one but the Magi could see the star.

Equally interesting is that the Magi each saw a different manifestation of the star-child, one of which was “a cross and a person of light who hung upon it, taking away the sins of the entire world.” Another saw him “ascending to the heavenly height, and angels opening the gates of heaven before him”.

Finally, according to the story, Joseph and Mary were not present at the star child’s birth. Indeed, when the Magi encounter the couple upon leaving the cave to return home, Mary accuses them of trying to steal her newborn son. Luckily, the Magi convince her that because the child is the world’s saviour, he can be in multiple places at the same time.

This leads to what Brent Landau, the man who went to the Vatican and translated this ancient text into English, concludes is the important message of this story and why, until very recently, it languished virtually unknown.

Crucially, neither the star-child nor the Magi mentions the name of Jesus or Christ. Landau suggests this is important because, until recent times, Christians were not ready to entertain the idea that the birth of their saviour was one of self-revelation, which the Magi were invited to witness, not as Christians (which they were not) but as men of faith.

The implication is that faith comes in many flavours; because the saviour God sent to Earth for man’s salvation manifests in different ways to different people, one religion is not better than another.

[1] To this day, there remains significant conjecture as to the precise astronomical nature of this ‘star’ and whether it should be part of the nativity narrative.

[2] It is worth noting that of the four Gospels, only two (Luke and Matthew) address the birth of Christ. These two biblical accounts could not be more different. Luke’s, which features shepherds and angels, is humble, peaceful, and low-key, which is in direct contrast to that of Matthew, which is driven by the high political stakes of Herod’s reaction to the newborn child. 

[3] Interestingly, the Magi in this story were neither astrologers nor Zoroastrian priests. They were called Magi because they prayed in silence. 

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