Humanities for the Unbound Mind / My Bookshelf

Book Review ~ More than a Scene in the Christmas Story

Originally published August 13, 2012

Revelation of the Magi, By Dr. Bret Landau.  Available for less than $20.00

This delightful book was acquired for Christmas one year, because I couldn’t resist. The author received his Th.D. from Harvard University with an emphasis on ancient biblical languages and literature. He knows his stuff.

Whatever your religious inclination, most folks are aware of the Christmas story including the part where the three kings of the east arrive at the manger to pay homage to the new born child. Landau had a lifetime fascination with the story and while studying at Harvard, he read an article that referenced an ancient document that purported to be the story of the Magi – by the Magi. When he started to ask about the document, no one knew anything about it. Thus begins Landau’s journey to find the document and to translate it.

He found the only known extant copy in the Vatican Library. The text is written in ancient Syriac, the language used by Christians throughout the Middle East and Asia. The text was most likely ignored because it was considered apocryphal (not part of the accepted cannon) and scholars tend not to focus on materials on the birth of Jesus since there are conflicting narrations (even within scripture) and early Christians were far more focused on the death and resurrection. Syriac is also not a particularly popular field of study.

Landau used his studies in Syriac, and his particular interest in the Christmas story, to look at the text, work out a possible date of writing, provide an English translation and an intriguing commentary. Using his knowledge of the Syriac language and the usage within the text, Landau places the writing somewhere between the late 2nd and early 5th century CE.

It is a wonderful tale that provides and entirely different perspective on the visitors and their agenda. It tells of ancient wisdom and interprets many Christian symbols in ways reminiscent of Paul the apostle. If you are a biblical literalist, you may become uncomfortable. However, with the study of ancient texts written by people of the times, we may also learn a great deal more of the depth and breadth of our religious heritage. This little book is a delightful way to learn more about our shared literary history.

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