A panel of journalists joins Diane for analysis of the week's top international news stories.
Three kings or wise men are an integral part of today’s Christmas nativity scenes, plays and songs. In the most popular story, the magi travel from the east, led by the star of Bethlehem, to bring precious gifts to the newborn baby Jesus. But biblical texts tell us very little about these mysterious visitors – only a few verses in the Gospel of Matthew. New insights into who they were, where they came from and the purpose of their visit has been found in an Syriac version of the story. An expert in ancient biblical languages and literature found the manuscript forgotten in the vaults of the Vatican library. He tells us what it reveals about early Christian beliefs.
- Brent Landau in studio
MS. DIANE REHMThanks for joining us. I'm Diane Rehm. Our tradition of holiday gift giving is often traced to the story of the Magi in the gospel of Matthew. But another version claiming to be an eyewitness account from the Magi's perspective has turned up in the Vatican library. Brent Landau found the ancient Syriac manuscript when he was at Harvard University Divinity student. Now an expert in ancient biblical languages and literature, he currently teaches in the religious studies program at the University of Oklahoma.
MS. DIANE REHMHe's just published the first English translation of the, "Revelation of the Magi," and he joins me to talk about, "The Lost Tale of the Wise Men's Journey to Bethlehem." Please, join us, 800-433-8850. Send us your e-mail to email@example.com. Join us on Facebook or send us a tweet. Good morning to you. It's good to have you here.
MR. BRENT LANDAUGood morning, Diane, it's great to be here.
REHMLet's start by, if you would, please, reading the biblical text from Matthew.
LANDAUOkay. So what I'm reading from is the gospel of Matthew, chapter 2, verses one through 12.
LANDAUAnd keep in -- and according to the -- I'm not sure if this is the RSV or the NRSV, but at any rate, this is the only place in the New Testament that the story of the Magi is found.
LANDAU...that in mind. "Now, when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem saying, where is He who has been born king of the Jews? For we have seen his star in the East and have come to worship him. When Herod the King heard this, he was troubled and all Jerusalem with him. And assembling all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Christ was to be born. They told him in Bethlehem of Judea for so it is written by the prophet and you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah.
LANDAUFor from you shall come a ruler who will govern my people, Israel. Then Herod summoned the wise men secretly and ascertained from them what time the star appeared. And he sent them to Bethlehem saying, go and search diligently for the child and when you have found him, bring me word that I, too, may come and worship him. When they heard the King, they went on their way and, low, the star which they had seen in the East went before them 'til it came to rest over the place where the child was.
LANDAUWhen they saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy. And going into the house, they saw the child with Mary, his mother and they fell down and worshiped him. Then opening their treasures, they offered him gifts, gold, frankincense and myrrh. And being warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they departed to their own country by another way."
REHMAnd that’s it.
REHMAnd what got you so fascinated with those few paragraphs?
LANDAUIt was -- when people ask me when I first got interested in the wise men, I say, probably when I was about eight years old because that was when an astronomer from the local observatory came to our church and did a presentation on some of the various theories for what the star of Bethlehem may have been. So from that point on, I was very interested in stories about Jesus' birth. Eventually, I found out that there were stories preserved outside the New Testament that talked about His birth and childhood.
LANDAUAnd so when I started my doctorate at Harvard University, I decided I wanted to work on this. I didn't come up with the idea of working on the wise men until I had been on a study trip to Italy and was just really impressed at how much the Magi were showing up in artistic representations. They were in paintings, mosaics, catacombs...
LANDAU...sarcophagi, all over the place. So I got back to Cambridge and started doing some investigating to see if there were any interesting texts out there about the wise men that hadn't received much attention. And in an obscure article, I came across a reference to this text, to the revelation of the Magi, and it had a brief summary of the story. It sounded totally fascinating. I had never heard about this story before. And I read that it was preserved in Syriac. And fortunately, extremely fortunately at that time, I had just finished studying my first year of Syriac at Harvard. Extremely lucky because I wasn't planning at all to work on this text.
REHMThis is a totally ancient biblical language.
LANDAUAbsolutely. Absolutely. This is a language that was used by Christians of the Middle East. In the ancient church, it roughly had the kind of status that Latin had for the church in the west.
REHMSo from there, you went to attain permission from the Vatican?
LANDAUNot yet. What I did before I ever got to the Vatican, and I guess it was probably for a couple of years before I even got to the Vatican, is I worked from what's known as a critical edition. So somebody had gone to the Vatican, made a transcription of the manuscript, printed the Syriac text in a book. And then, over the course of, I guess, the next year and a half, I would meet with my Syriac professor every week and go over the translation that I had made of the text and we'd work on trouble spots and things like that.
LANDAUSo by the time I actually got to the Vatican, I already had a complete translation. I was mainly looking at trouble spots in the manuscript because there were some parts that, at least in the critical edition, it wasn't clear what the reading was. And one of the things that I actually found out when I got to the Vatican is that looking at the manuscript under ultra violet light actually helped me to read some of those parts of the manuscript that earlier scholars hadn't been able to read at all.
REHMOh, I see. Now, for example, three, two, one, 20, how many wise men? We assume because of gold, frankincense and myrrh, you're talking about three.
LANDAUAbsolutely, that's where the idea of three wise men comes from. Most Christians reason, well, there were three gifts, there must've been three wise men carrying them. In terms of the revelation of the Magi, the most concrete answer I can give is definitely not three, more than three. In one passage which may not be original to the text, but in one passage it has the name of -- the names of 12 Magi. And 12 seems to have been a popular number for the wise men in the Syriac speaking church and the symbolism of that is obvious.
LANDAUBut there are some passages in the text that even seem to suggest that we've got a much bigger group because it uses a term to describe the wise men's caravan, that is a word that's usually used in the New Testament to describe, like, a small army.
REHMWow. Well, Brent, tell me who wrote this text and when it might've been written?
LANDAUThe text wants you to believe that it was written by the Magi themselves so it's written in the first person plural from the perspective of the wise men themselves. Sadly, I don't think this is actually written by the historical wise men. And I should point out that many biblical scholars aren't entirely sure that there were historical wise men at all, that the story actually happened. So in terms of who wrote it, we have no idea. The description of the Magi and the religious practices that they do is 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.
LANDAUSo that's the question of who wrote. In terms of when it was written, the only manuscript we have is an 8th century manuscript and so we have to work backward from that because with many of these apocryphal Christian writings, they're only preserved in one manuscript and it may be centuries later than when the text itself was actually written. So I'm able to get back from the 8th century manuscript to the 5th century because there was a Latin summary of it that was done in a 5th century text. I'm able to get back beyond that by the fact that the story ends with the Apostle Thomas showing up in the land of the Magi.
LANDAUAnd it's clear that this ending is a new addition to the text because it shifts from first person narration to third person narration. The first person text never used the name Jesus or Christ. In this short third person ending, it uses the name Jesus Christ approximately 20 times so it's very different. And what I did was I compared that Apostle Thomas ending to other early Christian texts about the Apostle Thomas, figured out on the basis of those other texts, when this might've been written. So the Apostle Thomas ending was probably added about the mid 3rd century. So that gives me a rough date of late 2nd, early 3rd century for the first person.
REHMBut we're still way beyond the birth of Jesus Christ?
LANDAUAbsolutely, absolutely. The most -- the date you'll hear from most scholars is that Jesus was born ironically in 4 B.C. so in fact, four years before supposedly he was born. But that's due to an error in the dating. But, yes, we're talking about probably 200 years after the birth of the historical Jesus, probably about 100 years after the gospel of Matthew was written, which, again, is the only place where this story is preserved.
REHMBrent Landau, we have in front of us a new book titled, "Revelation of the Magi: The Lost Tale of the Wise Men's Journey to Bethlehem." It is the first English translation of a forgotten ancient manuscript and I know you have many questions. We'll open the phones shortly, 800-433-8850.
REHMSo Brent Landau with his "Revelation of the Magi: The Lost Tale of the Wise Men's Journey to Bethlehem," the document you found in the Vatican, the translation from the original Syriac. Why would we put any more credence in that as a reality considering the fact that it was 800 years -- written 800 years -- even though you got back to first century A.D., why should we put any more credence in that than anything else we've read about the wise men?
LANDAUWell, certainly you're absolutely right. As I said before, there's not really any evidence that this is written by the historical wise men themselves. So this is not something that we should kind of privilege on a historical level. I think what we should privilege it on is the fact that, of the early Christian speculation about the wise men, and there was quite a bit, this text is by far the longest, the most complex, the most rich from a narrative perspective and certainly the most strange text about the wise men that has survived from the ancient Christian periods.
LANDAUStrange in terms of what it views about the origin of the Magi. I would say overall it is definitely out of step with a lot of the kind of more traditional interpretations of the Magi story. This text places them in China, for example. What it believes about the star of Bethlehem is completely unusual. I hesitate to say exactly what it is, but I think I will. In this text, the star of Bethlehem and Jesus are the same thing.
REHMOne and the same.
LANDAUOne and the same. The star descends to where the Magi are and slowly concentrates itself into the form of a small and luminous human who is clearly described as Christ. So those are some of the more unusual interpretations. There is hallucinogenic food that's produced by the star. Mary and Joseph are concerned that the wise men are stealing their baby. There's all sorts of unusual strange narrative twists. And whoever wrote this text did a lot of thinking and was certainly a very gifted writer and storyteller.
REHMNow, here's our first e-mail and it has to do with the star. "Please explain the geographical implications of an eastern star guiding the way to Bethlehem. There is much land to the west of Bethlehem before the Mediterranean from which to travel to the east. Where did the Magi really start from?"
LANDAUWell, in terms of Matthew's story -- this is one of the places that Matthew never actually says how the wise men got there. All he says is that the star appeared in the east or that they saw the star at its rising and somehow they managed to, from that, get to Jerusalem. What Matthew also goes on to say is that after they left Jerusalem, the star seems to have reappeared and led them directly to Bethlehem. So a lot of interpreters said, well, if it let them directly from Jerusalem to Bethlehem, probably it led them on their entire journey. And that's essentially what the "Revelation of the Magi" believes, that it led them all the way from China to Bethlehem.
LANDAUThe interesting twist here is that we would expect this to be an incredibly long journey, two years perhaps. That's the interpretation of a lot of early Christian writings. This text almost makes it sound like it was instantaneous.
LANDAULike the star sort of picked them up and...
LANDAU...transported them. Exactly. They're able to cross rivers by foot. It says that all the stages of the journey were incredibly short and swift so it is a very miraculous journey.
REHMSo a great deal of magical thinking involved here that is condensed in the reading of Matthew.
REHMHere's another. "Does the guest recommend the older translation? Is there something wrong with the New Revised Standard translation? Thanks for checking on what he read at the top of the show and will he post further information at a blog?"
LANDAUYeah, I will definitely post information about the translation. And I'm not entirely sure what the translation is. It's worth keeping in mind that for these kinds of traditional stories, even the New Revised Standard Version often tends to imitate the language of the King James Version quite a bit. So there are a few places where there's maybe some question about what is actually being said, but there's not -- at least in this story, there's not a lot of difference between what the NRSV says versus the King James Version. In other parts of the New Testament, it's a much different story.
REHMSo considering your point that there's a lot of miraculous or magical thinking in this text that you've translated, should one assume that there are Christian mystics who are doing the writing here?
LANDAUI'm very tempted to think so because one of the things that this text says about the Magi that really sets it apart from other early Christian interpretations is it says within the first couple sentences, these people were called Magi in the language of their country because in silence they prayed and they glorified God.
REHMAnd that is what the word Magi actually means, to pray in silence?
LANDAUAccording to the text, that's what it means. But this is one of the big puzzles that I've never managed to figure out. It's clear that the text is presenting this as some sort of word derivation, but in Syriac, in Greek, in Latin, none of these...
LANDAU...yeah, I can't figure out where the etymology is from, but clearly this is a major feature of who this text believes the wise men to be.
REHMAnd here's a question, I think a number of our listeners are interested in. Thomas says, "I would like for the guest to comment on the connection between the Magi being from the Zoroastrian religion and any parallels to this Christianity and Christmas itself."
LANDAUThe first thing I would want to mention is that in the "Revelation of the Magi," these Magi are most definitely not Zoroastrians. It may very well be that in the Gospel story, that's who Matthew considered them to be. But these Magi don't live in the land of Persia. They live further east in China in some kind of...
LANDAU...in a mystical never-never land. And the way I've described who these Magi are is they're kind of this almost the pinnacle of pre-Christian pagan religion. Their system is completely invented. I don't think that these Magi are actually based on any one religious group that would've been out there. So in terms of the connection with Zoroastrianism, I wouldn't say that this text has a lot to do with that.
REHMWhen was -- beyond the birth of Christ, when can we point to the first celebration of Christmas?
LANDAUThat's a great question. Certainly in terms of what we consider to be the modern date of the celebration of Christmas, December 25, we don't have much evidence for that before the 4th century. There were some Christians who were saying that it was in April. There's one Egyptian Christian who says that. In fact, the "Revelation of the Magi" actually says that the Magi got to Jerusalem in the month of April. So that may very well be when they think it happened as well.
LANDAUBut in terms of when Christians for the first time celebrated the birth of Christ, I would assume it was sometime in the first century. But what I would caution is to say that as fixated as modern culture is on the story of Jesus' birth, it's important to remember that this was a relatively late development in the Jesus tradition. The earliest traditions about Jesus were much more interested in the stories of His death, the sayings that He had, miracles that he performed. And it was only probably 60 years after Jesus' death that for the first time we start getting, at least written down, stories of how Jesus was born. Earlier Christians don't seem to have been that concerned about it.
REHMAnd what about His childhood? You became interested in that phase of His life.
LANDAUIt happens relatively early. Certainly not earlier than the other infancy traditions, but we can already see some interest in this in Luke's Gospel because Luke ends his infancy narrative with a story of Jesus being in the temple at age 12 and impressing the teachers there with His knowledge.
REHMBut there is nothing between birth and age 12.
LANDAUNot in the New Testament.
LANDAUBut then, in the second century, you get a text that is, well, sometimes called the infancy Gospel of Thomas, but probably better to call it the childhood deeds of Jesus. And what this text does is gives us a window into what this Christian thought Jesus was doing between age five and age 12 and it's not a pretty picture. Essentially, imagine what would happen if you had a young child who was endowed with all of the divine power, but none of the kind of anger management or kind of mental...
LANDAU...reason thinking. So Jesus -- this Jesus will actually -- a boy bumps into him and He kills him. He strikes him dead. When the parents start to complain, He makes them blind. So there's this great line in the story where Joseph takes him inside, puts him with Mary and says, don't let Him outside because those who annoy Him are ending up dead. But eventually by the end of the story, everything has gotten better. Jesus has brought everybody back to life and He's starting to use his divine power responsibly. But this is a really -- probably of the apocryphal text out there one of the strangest ones that we have.
REHMAnd Thomas would've written that 100 years after the birth of Christ?
LANDAUI would say the text was probably written sometime in the middle of the 2nd century. The attribution to Thomas is actually pretty late, though. But it's just one of those things that, in terms of the way scholars refer to the text, it has stuck, even though it's kind of a misleading name.
REHMBrent Landau and we're talking about his new book. It is titled "Revelation of the Magi: The Lost Tale of the Wise Men's Journey to Bethlehem." It is the first English translation of a forgotten ancient manuscript. If you'd like to join us, 800-433-8850. You can send us an e-mail. You can join us on Facebook or Twitter. We're going to open the show now and take your calls, 800-433--8850, to Terre Haute, Indiana. Good morning, Marla, you're on the air.
MARLAGood morning. I am a Bible student and I just want to mention that the Bible is the truth and there's so much speculation that's been brought out. But the Magi that is being discussed today were astrologers that were not worshippers of the Hebrew God Jehovah. And as the account that the guest read from the Book of Matthew, when they arrived, they arrived at a house and Jesus was already a child. And so some time had passed by before these astrologers had visited Jesus. And actually, they were being manipulated by King Herod in order for him to be able to contact the child in order to kill Him. So this star was actually not anything that God would have provided for them in order to contact Jesus. But it was something that was actually sinister that the astrologists had fallen prey to.
REHMBrent, do you want to comment?
LANDAUYes. There's a lot of interesting thoughts there. Just in terms of -- let's just start with the question of the star. I understand that some people would want to interpret the star, since it leads the Magi directly to Herod who wants to kill the child, people would want to interpret the star as something negative. The fact of the matter is that none of the early Christians who comment on this story view it as negative. They say that this was some good being, either the Holy Spirit or an angel or some other kind of element of God's providence. The idea that the star was somehow evil was just never present in early Christian interpretation.
REHMThanks for calling, Marla. I want to go back to the practice of silent prayer. How is that related to the Magi and the overall theological outlook that they had?
LANDAUIn "The Revelation of the Magi," one of the emphases that it has is that kind of the divine nature, divine power is basically beyond the comprehension of human language and human thought. And so because of this the only proper response to -- the only proper way of praising God is to actually say nothing at all, to pray in silence. So I think that's the reason that the Magi are doing this. It's worth keeping in mind that even though we think of praying in silence as that's what most people do, in the ancient Christian period, this is actually pretty unusual. Most people prayed out loud because they assumed that gods had ears and gods could hear them. But the idea of praying in silence is much more unusual.
REHMAnd somehow regarded as more deep theological connection.
LANDAUPossibly, yeah. It could go in a couple different directions.
LANDAUOn the one hand, if you were praying in silence, people tended to think maybe you were doing something suspicious, you were praying to injure people or something like that. But on the other hand, yes, it was definitely something in terms of the early Christian mystical tradition that was developing the emphasis on silence and the unspeakability (sic) of God as -- yeah.
REHMBrent Landau. "Revelation of the Magi: The Lost Tale of the Wise Men's Journey to Bethlehem." And when we come back, we're going to talk more about what happened afterwards. Where did they go? Where did Jesus and his family go? It remains a mystery.
REHMWelcome back. And here is an e-mail that I think is making an awfully good point. George in Schenectady, N.Y. says, "Your guest makes numerous references to apocryphaltics. I would be help to define the term apocryphal because in many cases these other writings were rejected as canon because of unknown or unverified origin or authorship."
LANDAUWhen I use the term apocryphal, what I'm referring to is simply the fact that these texts were preserved outside of the New Testament canon, out of the 27-book New Testament canon. I would also clarify that occasionally you will find bibles, Roman Catholic, Greek Orthodox bibles that have something called the apocrypha in the middle. That's not actually what I'm talking about. That's a different category. But what I'm talking about is New Testament apocrypha, this range of writings, gospels, apocryphal acts, infancy gospels, all sorts of various literary genres that were circulated among early Christians.
REHMAnd then, excluded from the bible as we know it.
LANDAUOr at least simply not included. Excluded seems to suggest that we've got, you know, the records of all of the ones that were being rejected, and a lot of them we just don't know why they're not in there.
REHMWe don't know.
LANDAUWe don't know. There...
REHMScholars have been over them and over them.
LANDAURight. I mean, we can make guesses about certain aspects of it that may have been controversial. The fact that in this text, in the "Revelation of the Magi," the star of Bethlehem and Jesus are the same thing. This doesn't really seem to be a text that emphasizes the full humanity of Jesus very much, which becomes a big deal in the 4th century with the Council of Nicaea, so that may have been problematic. But for the most part, we don't really know how the decisions are being made to say who's in and who's out.
REHMAll right. Let's go to Paul who's in Boca Raton, Fla. Good morning, Paul.
PAULGood morning. I hate to say this, but I am fuming listening to this discussion. This is hocus pocus. I mean, we have given away our Christianity of love and affection and friendship and filled it up with a bunch of nonsense. Whether there were 3 people or not, 12 people, whether they brought gold or silver or mirth, where they came from, who cares? This is all nonsense that people create for themselves as the years go by and they create a demi-god in the form of Jesus and they forget God Himself, and they forget the fact that He came here and say, love each other, forgive each other and be good to each other. And now we're worried whether the Magi came from China or they came from Persia or where do -- this is nonsense.
REHMSo it doesn't matter to you, Paul, is what you're saying, that what is really at the center is goodness and individuals being good to and loving each other.
REHMAll right. Brent, do you want to respond?
LANDAUYeah, let's see. What would I say? Well, first of all, I don't think the text itself is in disagreement with Paul's basic vision of what Christianity is about. But I would caution that many of the stories in the New Testament, and the Magi story is certainly one of these, are stories. They're not theological treatises. So Paul's making reference to what Christianity is all about in terms of a doctrinal level, when they are stories, you actually have to interpret them and try and understand what the meaning of these stories is. And in terms of Matthew's story, early Christians were fascinated with this, in part because Matthew just left a lot of holes in the narrative and didn't really explain very much.
LANDAUSo, you know, whether you talk about it in terms of doctrine or just curiosity, the early Christians were fascinated with filling in these gaps. And I don't think that renders their interpretative processes to be against the kind of ultimate meaning of Christianity.
REHMExactly. All right. Thanks for your call, Paul. Let's go now to Kurt who's in (sounds like) Dolly Center, Kansas. Good morning to you.
KURTGood morning. My question was didn't Josephus document or record Herod's killing of all the infants when the Magi didn't go back? That's a question. I thought Josephus documented that Herod had killed all the little ones trying to kill the king of the Jews.
LANDAUNo. Herod did not -- or Josephus didn't preserve any reference to Herod doing this. Based on what Josephus did preserve, it's certainly not out of character with Herod. It's actually a big enough atrocity that you would've expected Josephus to cover it if he did know about it.
REHMTell us who Josephus was.
LANDAUJosephus is a 1st century Jewish historian, provides some of the earliest information about Jesus and about John the Baptist and about the land of Israel and the time that Jesus was born outside of the New Testament. So in terms of knowing what was going on in the 1st century in the land of Judea, he is extremely important as a historical source.
REHMAll right. Thanks for calling, Kurt. And to Brad who also lives in Norman, Okla. He asks, "Does the text introduce any theological concepts not found in the New Testament? Do we know anything about the religion of the Magi?"
LANDAUThe "Revelation of the Magi" has this absolutely fascinating view on what the origin of non-Christian religions is. So in terms of most early Christians, most early Christians thought that the gods that other people worshipped were either illusions, that they weren't actually real, or that they weren't really gods, but they were demons, that they were evil beings. In this text, Christ actually tells the Magi that this is one of a number of appearances He has made to humanity throughout time. And my interpretation is that this text is actually saying there may not actually be any non-Christian religions at all, but that, in fact, the origin of all humanity's religious revelations is Christ himself.
LANDAUSo it's a very unusual, very -- I guess what we would say advanced or theologically liberal perspective on the kind of relevance and the integrity of non-Christian religions.
REHMSo what does that say about the Muslim world, for example?
LANDAUWell, this text certainly is not writing at the time that Islam was yet on the scene, but presumably this text would say that Mohammad is a prophet of this and his inspiration, whether you call that the Angel Gabriel who appeared to him or whatever, was this kind of -- was the star child of the "Revelation of the Magi." I should caution, however, that as nice as this perspective is to say that other religions have an element of truth in them, it's still kind of condescending because essentially what you're telling a Muslim or a Buddhist or a Hindu is you're actually worshipping Christ, but you don't really realize that. And I don't think too many people like to be told something like that.
REHMAll right. To Silver Spring, Md., good morning, Nancy.
NANCYOh, thank you very much. Again, back to the Zoroastrians. Have you heard of the Saoshyant, who's a Christ figure, who was in the prophecies of the Zoroastrians and the Magi were supposed to be looking for this particular manifestation, the Saoshyant?
LANDAUYes. The Saoshyant is this kind of Zoroastrian messianic figure. He's supposed to be kind of the reincarnation of Zoroaster, the main prophet of the religion. He's supposed to be born of a virgin so there's obviously some interesting parallels there. And it's quite possible. And, in fact, I think we do have some evidence of this, that some early Christians were taking the Zoroastrian idea of the Saoshyant and saying, well, this is actually a -- you know, they were having their own predictions about the coming of Christ.
LANDAUAgain, this text -- despite the fact that many early Christians thought that the Magi were Zoroastrians, this text is going in a completely different direction so it doesn't actually talk about the Saoshyant or really reference this prophecy at all. But it certainly was out there.
REHMNancy, it's been a long time since I've heard from you. It's good to hear from you.
NANCYWell, thank you very much.
REHMAll right. And...
NANCYI listen every day.
REHMThank you so much. Happy holidays to you. And then there is the question about the gender of the Holy Spirit and what the Magi have to say about that.
LANDAUOne of the things that helps me to date this text to figure out when it was written is the fact that in the Syriac language, before you get to the 5th century, the Holy Spirit is considered to be a feminine entity. Not only is Holy Spirit a noun that's grammatically feminine, but a lot of the Syriac literature about the Holy Spirit kind of endows it with feminine characteristics. When you get to the 5th century, then under the influence of Greek theological thought, the Holy Spirit ceases to become feminine, becomes masculine instead and so text stop referring to the Holy Spirit as a feminine being.
LANDAUBut the fact that this text does refer to it as a feminine being is one of the ways that I'm able to say that this text was written before the 5th century. So it's helpful in terms of dating, but it's also -- it's not something that I think many people are aware of the idea that there were some Christians out there who actually considered the Holy Spirit to be a feminine deity, almost in some ways Jesus' mother or co-mother alongside of Mary.
REHMWhen do we get or how do we get the idea that Mary, the mother of Jesus, believed that they, the Magi, were there to steal her son?
LANDAUIt's a difficult and kind of confused episode in the text, but basically Mary and Joseph kind of just abruptly arrive on the scene after the Magi have witnessed Jesus' birth in a cave. They see the star going with them and somehow they believe that what has happened is that the Magi have brought gifts and have kind of bought off Jesus. Again, on a narrative level, it's kind of strange, but the clear implication is that the Magi have stolen Jesus. And so what the Magi have to do to Mary and Joseph and say -- is to say, yes, the star is coming with us, that's Jesus, but if you go back and you look in your house, what you will find there is you will find baby Jesus as well. So this text not only believes that Jesus can change into multiple forms, but that he can actually be present in two places at the same time.
REHMI mean, it's just stunning to hear that kind of interpretation and we must remember this was written in the 8th century and there is no way to prove anything.
REHMAnd you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." To Grand Rapids, Mich., good morning, Brian, you're on the air.
BRIANGood morning and fascinating show. And I can't help but hearken back to the Monty Python skit where in the life of Brian the Magi went to the wrong house. (laugh) My question is...
LANDAUIt's a great scene. It's one of my favorites.
BRIAN...Saint Thomas, you said he went out and spread the gospel to the western part of India. And I'm wondering if that might be a clue as to where the Magi came from.
LANDAUYou're absolutely right that the dominant interpretation or the dominant tradition in early Christianity is that Thomas evangelized India. And what I think is really interesting about this text is that it doesn't mention that India tradition at all. It maybe doesn't even seem to be aware of it or at least not to see as problematic for him going to China.
LANDAUBut because that tradition of Thomas going to India becomes so well-engrained, that was actually one of the ways I was able to look at this Thomas ending and say, this must have been composed fairly early because this Thomas going to India tradition hasn't become so well-engrained that it would’ve been -- and he dies in India. It's worth keeping in mind that he is actually martyred in India. So how he would've gotten to China after being martyred wouldn't really make a lot of sense.
REHMHe's martyred because of his belief in Christ and attempting to spread the word.
REHMBrent, last question for you, how has all this affected your own religious belief, your own understanding of who Christ was, how He came into this world and where He went afterwards?
LANDAUIt's a difficult question for me to answer because as a biblical scholar, somebody who studies these writings from kind of a historical academic perspective, I tend to have a pretty different view. It's hard for me to read these texts devotionally, even though I am a Christian and am an active participant in a Christian community. But it's almost as if it's on two separate tracks. But certainly this text has made me think about some of the theological issues related to the coming of Jesus. And this text is part of a tradition in early Christianity that says, it's not enough to just say that all of God's revelation and Jesus happened in those 30 years that He was in Palestine, which was a relatively obscure part of the Roman world.
LANDAUWhat Jesus meant had cosmic implications, was something that impacted the whole world. The first Christian probably to realize this was the Apostle Paul, who doesn't always get a good reputation for perhaps his views on women and some other things, but certainly in terms of his view of the significance of Christ coming, he's one of the earliest to say, this is something that's for the whole world. And the "Revelation of the Magi" is very much in agreement with it. And by portraying Jesus as a star who can transform into human form and could reveal himself to people all over the world and who isn't even known by the Magi by the name Jesus Christ, they never learned that name, this is very much in the same tradition as the Apostle Paul.
REHMDoes it make you feel differently about Christ and his teachings?
LANDAUIt's hard to say because so much of what we know about the historical Jesus is based on the gospels themselves, and so we don't know how much of a universalist Jesus was. It makes me feel different about the Apostle Paul's teachings and much warmer and fuzzier about those.
REHMBrent Landau. We're talking about his new book titled "Revelation of the Magi: The Lost Tale of the Wise Men's Journey to Bethlehem." Merry Christmas to you.
LANDAUMerry Christmas, Diane. Thank you so much.
REHMAnd thanks all of you for listening. I'm Diane Rehm.
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