The Revelation of the Magi

Quite by accident I came across an online dissertation of an interesting yet obscure text here, via Flow of Consciousness:

Oklahoma has been hiding one of its most interesting secrets for two years, namely its very own Syriac scholar. Dr. Brent Landau, graduate of Harvard Divinity School, is Assistant Professor at University of Oklahoma’s Religious Studies Program.

Dr. Landau is noted for providing the first English translation of what has been named the “Revelation of the Magi”, a Christian apocryphal work and the most extensive Magi account from the ancient world. The Syriac narrative is preserved in a longer work comprising Vaticanus Syriacus 162, a codex housed in the Vatican Library.

Landau estimates the original “Revelation of the Magi” (ROM) was composed in the late second or early third century and was written from the perspective of the Magi themselves. It was then redacted in the third or fourth century to include the Apostle Thomas in a third-person account. The Vatican manuscript used by Landau for his English translation is from the 8th century.

With the Nativity approaching it is no accident that Harper Collins has released Landau’s research entitled Revelation of the Magi: The Lost Tale of the Wise Men’s Journey to Bethlehem, based on his dissertation and edited for the wider audience in mind. The press releases and articles begin with the usual dramatic titles about lost scrolls and Christian origins.

If you are interested in seeing the Syriac text (nicely vocalized) and a more technical treatment of the ROM, Landau’s dissertation can be downloaded here at

The Sages and the Star-Child: An Introduction to the Revelation of the Magi, An Ancient Christian Apocryphon

A critical edition will be available to the scholarly community when Landau publishes the Syriac text as part of Brepol’s Corpus Christianorum Series Apocryphorum.

The nice vocalisation of the Serto text validates my own decision to do the same with the Syriac in the Eusebius book.  It forces the editor to commit to an understanding of the text.

The text is found in Syriac and Latin (from which Dr. Landau sensibly supposes the existence of a Greek version linking the two):

The first chapter is a critical edition of the Syriac text of this apocryphon as found in the Chronicle of Zuqninan eighth-century world chronicle preserved in a single manuscript, codex Vaticanus Syriacus 162. The corresponding annotated English translation is the first of its kind for this text. …  a much shorter version of the narrative [is] contained in the Opus Imperfectum in Matthaeum, an Arian commentary on the Gospel of Matthew from the fifth century. It concludes that the Opus is a witness to a Greek version of this apocryphon, basically equivalent to the received Syriac.

An extremely important point is made in the thesis:

This edition of the Syriac text of the RevMagi as found in Vaticanus Syriacus162 relies upon three principal sources, listed here in order of their importance: the 1850 edition of Tullberg, the 1927 edition of Chabot, and my first-hand observation of the MS at the Bibliotheca Apostolica Vaticana in November of 2004. Because of the significant deterioration in the MS that took place in the period between Tullberg and Chabot, Tullberg is extremely valuable for the quality of his readings, many of which Chabot has followed.

We tend to think manuscripts are static objects.  But the books taken from the Nitrian desert to the damp climate of Europe are unlikely to remain intact.  I wonder how widespread this problem is?

Another useful comment appears at the end:

Beyond these problems associated specifically with the   RevMagi itself, this study has also called attention to several obscure apocryphal texts related to the birth of Jesus in which the Magi play a significant role. These texts include the “New Source” of M.R. James, the pseudo-Eusebian Syriac work “On the Star”, and the “Legend of Aphroditianus”, falsely attributed to Julius Africanus. Research on such texts has remained at a very basic level, not because of the dullness of their narratives, but because of the difficulties in their textual transmission and the theological biases that hamper the study of all noncanonical writings.

Actually I’m not sure what “theological bias” Dr Landau has in mind.   I’m as fundamentalist as they come, and I see no issue with studying these pieces of literature as the fiction that they are.  The only real theological barrier I can see is the dreary tendency of notoriety seekers to treat the veriest ancient tosh as equivalent to the canonical texts, which naturally irritates Christians and encourages them to ignore the texts.  But the tedium is undoubtedly a problem.

That said, I was pleasantly surprised in the Religionsgesprach as to how much interesting material there was — a citation of Josephus, a collection of pagan oracles predicting Christ, quotations from Philip of Side — and I think that other texts will also contain treasures.

Well done, Dr. L., for attacking something of real interest and making it available (if not in finished form) online.


4 thoughts on “The Revelation of the Magi

  1. I think Landau has done the world a considerable favour. I hope his book sells well. It’s good to see an English-language dissertation that isn’t well below continental standards. (He thanks J. F. Coakley for that, who supervised it — I’m certainly glad he did).

  2. Personally I have found this book to be a goldmine of information. The Magi corresponds with other early christian writings, such as, The Teachings of Silvanus, found in the Nag Hammadi Library, and The Book of Adam and Eve, found in the Lost Books of the Bible. I believe all these books were written in a short time of each other. All have a similar style especially the Magi and the Adam books. This is a great discovery and this find is much more important to me then anything Gnostic. This is not a Gnostic reading but early christian, for sure.

  3. One other comment is that this is a first edition in English, and for an ancient book like this to be hidden in the Vatican Library for over 1,600 or so years, and for a first edition in English now in 2010 is truly a blessing. Thank you Brent, What else is hidden in the Vatican Library?

Leave a Reply