Books and Authors, New Testament

Revelation of the Magi – Overview part 1

New Testament scholar Brent Landau has translated this early Christian text into English for the first time in his new book “Revelation of the Magi”.  The dating of the text is up in the air, but appears to have been written between the 3rd century and the 8th century of the Common Era.  It provides interpretations of earlier varied traditions and also some new material, not present in other Christian writings.

In this first commentary, I am going to take you on a whirlwind tour of (Landau’s translation of) this ancient text, and will delve into the specifics in subsequent posts.  Landau has divided the text into chapters and verses, which I will follow.  So let’s have a seat at the table and see what’s for dinner.

1. Introduction
1:1-2  – “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, 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.”

This is a new interpretation of who the Magi might have been.  The introduction redefines that the Magi were not Persian Zoroastrian astrologers, but were worshipers of the same deity as the Jews.  Now they are called “Magi” because they worshiped and prayed in silence.

2. The Magi – Their Names and Lineage
The text identifies 12 names of “wise men and kings” that were called Magi.  I won’t give the entire list but will list the first four, to make a point.

2:3 – “… Zaharwandad son of Artaban;
Hormizd son of Sanatruq;
Austazp son of Gudaphar;
Arsak son of Mihruq”

Not mentioned in the book by Landau , is a list of names very similar, almost identical to that, in the same order, in another Christian text.  (I had mistakenly identified that this was from the “Cave of Treasures” but it is actually found in the Book of the Bee.  The correction is appreciated)

From “Book of the Bee”
Zarwândâd, the son of Artabân.
Hôrmîzdâd, the son of Sîtârûk (Santarôk).
Gûshnâsâph (Gushnasp), the son of Gûndaphar.
Arshakh, the son of Mîhârôk.

Landau has graciously clarified this:

“The list of twelve Magi is in the “Book of the Bee” (a 12th century text), not the “Cave of Treasures.” The RevMagi and the CoT share a number of traditions, but not this one. In fact, this list of twelve Magi shows up in a couple other Syriac sources, which is one of the reasons I think it wasn’t originally part of the RevMagi. I made this point more clearly in the original footnote in my dissertation (available via my blog), but it ended up on the cutting-room floor for the Harper edition.”

A copy of the Landau’s dissertation can be found here.  I am looking forward to reading it as I get a chance.  Thanks again for your input, Dr. Landau.

2:6 – “And generation from generation, one by one, they received from the time of Seth, the son of our father Adam, because Adam revealed to his son Seth when he had him.”

We now learn that these Magi claimed to be descendants of Adam’s third son, Seth.  Another thing not mentioned by Landau is that we have other groups from antiquity that claimed the name of Seth, the Sethian Gnostics, the Christian Gnostics such as the Valentinians, and the Mandaeans.  I think that it is crucially important to remember this as we continue to move forward.

3. The Transmission of the Mysteries
The text tells how Seth wrote what he was told by Adam in a book, and then passed the book down to Noah.

3:5-7 – “And Noah [took] the books of commandments with him when he came out of the Ark, Noah also commanded the generations after him, who recounted his deeds and the hidden mysteries that were written in the books of Seth about the majesty of the Father and all the mysteries.  And the [books,] and the mysteries and the speech were handed down in succession by tradition even until our fathers.  And they learned and received with joy, and handed them down to us ourselves, and we also kept with love and fear their mysteries of the books and the secrets of the words.”

We now have a lineage of transmission from Adam all the way to the Magi.

The next post will continue with “4. The Prophecy of the Star

Revelation of the Magi, Landau: Introduction
Revelation of the Magi, Landau: Part 2
Revelation of the Magi, Landau: Part 3
Revelation of the Magi, Landau: Part 4 (final)



6 thoughts on “Revelation of the Magi – Overview part 1

  1. This is a bit over my head since my knowledge is very limited in this area, but it was enjoyable and educational read.

    Posted by Byroniac | January 6, 2011, 12:10 am
  2. Hi White Rabbit,

    Thanks for taking the time to take a close look at my book! Since you had raised some questions about the names and lineage of the Magi, I thought I’d just clarify two of my points.

    1. The list of twelve Magi is in the “Book of the Bee” (a 12th century text), not the “Cave of Treasures.” The RevMagi and the CoT share a number of traditions, but not this one. In fact, this list of twelve Magi shows up in a couple other Syriac sources, which is one of the reasons I think it wasn’t originally part of the RevMagi. I made this point more clearly in the original footnote in my dissertation (available via my blog), but it ended up on the cutting-room floor for the Harper edition.

    2. And yes, the RevMagi does have some superficial similarities with Nag Hammadi materials that privilege Seth, but these connections don’t run very deep IMO. Seth isn’t a kind of “second Christ” in the RevMagi, nor is the RevMagi fundamentally Gnostic (by which I mean rejection of the material world).


    Posted by Brent Landau | January 2, 2011, 12:59 am
    • Brent,

      Thank you so much for the book, your comments and the information regarding the Book of the Bee. I was familiar with the CoT in name only, and scanned through it on, since RevMagi also mentions a/the Cave of Treasures. I will correct the post to reflect that information more accurately. I enjoyed the book immensely, since it brought up something refreshing and new. I went out and bought it the day that I heard about it. I’m glad I did.

      I also agree with your conclusions about it not being a Gnostic text, but I just have this “bug” that keeps crawling around in my scatterbrained skull, which I was going to come back to after walking through the book again. Resolving it in advance would be a great help, if possible. I am not a scholar, nor am I very familiar with the Syriac tradition. Here’s the thing, I keep seeing Gnostic language and undertones running throughout the text until the Thomasine section, which looks like a later addition to me, too. I keep wondering if perhaps the author might have been attempting to reconcile some Gnostic views through an Orthodox lens; trying to help bring back together what was being torn asunder, so to speak. I was planning on discussing that as I got to those chapters. It seems that many of these writings tend to be dealing with events of the various authors’ time as well as attempting to clarify questions that early believers had regarding things that were left obscure in biblical texts.

      I am also struggling with the “China” part. It seems to me like it’s a reference to some mythical place to the east, not an actual physical location, almost like no one is supposed to know where it was. But I do see it as early Christian fiction, not a historical accounting written by the Magi, who I see as fictional characters of the Matthean author’s creation anyway; used as a literary devise to aid in the telling of his Moses/Jesus saga and to reinforce that Jesus was a universal savior, not just a Jewish messiah.

      Thanks again for taking the time to comment. If you see where I misrepresent you anywhere else, let me know and I’ll fix it. I hope the book gets a lot of exposure and look forward to seeing more of your work. Had I known about it before Christmas, I would have picked up several copies as gifts. I will also make it a point to reference your dissertation as I continue walking through the book.

      Posted by Xcntrik | January 2, 2011, 3:41 am
  3. Interesting! Did the magi tell of how jesus was supposed to meet his bad end? if so, it’s very similar to what augurs prophesied when Baby Dionysius was born:

    The… artifact [shown two-fifths down] is a marble sarcophagus from Rome, dated to the 100s or 200s A.D., of Dionysus as a baby, in which an older man carries a staff-sized cross with the image of a crucified man on it, in what could only be interpreted as a device prophesizing his ultimate fate.

    The crucifx detail on the sarcaphogus shows a man – presumably Dionysius – nailed to I believe a flat plane cross [tropaeum] with his palms placed flat on the surface of the crossarm. I see an apparent bend at the elbows with the forearms more horizontal than the upper arms.

    Posted by Ed-M | January 1, 2011, 11:30 pm
    • Yes there are specific references to the crucifixion, which I’ll be discussing as we move along. Once we get into the second and third centuries CE, it’s kind of difficult for me to tell who borrowed from who many times. Here is the photograph that I think you were referencing:
      Birth of Dionysius

      Posted by Xcntrik | January 2, 2011, 3:56 am

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