More Christian Apocrypha Updates 2: Revelation of the Magi

[This is the second in a series of posts on texts to be featured in New Testament Apocrypha: More Noncanonical Scriptures edited by Brent Landau and I. The material here is included also on my More Christian Apocrypha page].

The Revelation of the Magi has appeared recently in an English translation: Brent Landau, Revelation of the Magi: The Lost Tale of the Wise Men’s Journey to Bethlehem (San Francisco: Harper Collins, 2010), based on his dissertation (to be published in CCSA) “The Sages and the Star-Child: An Introduction to the Revelation of the Magi, An Ancient Christian Apocryphon” (Ph. D. diss.., Harvard Divinity School, 2008 [available HERE]). Brent and I did not feel it was necessary to include another translation of the text in the MNTA volume, but did want to expose a wider audience to the text. So, we decided to include an introduction and a summary. The same strategy was going to be employed for the Armenian Infancy Gospel (recently translated into English by Abraham Terian) and the apocryphal Apocalypses of John, but those contributions have not materialized.

The text is available in a single Syriac manuscript (Vatican, Biblioteca apostolica, syr. 162) of a larger text known as the Chronicle of Zuqnin. There are a number of apocryphal Jewish and Christian texts that have been preserved in such chronicles and compendia (e.g., Joseph and Aseneth, material in the Book of the Bee and the Cave of Treasures). The story is told from the perspective of the Magi, who are described much differently than in the canonical account of their journey. Here there are twelve Magi (perhaps more), they hail from a mythological eastern land named Shir, and the name “Magi,” it is said, derives etymologically from their practice of praying in silence. They knew to follow the star to Bethlehem because they are descendants of Seth, the third child of Adam and Eve, who passed on to them a prophecy told to him by his father Adam. The star appears to the Magi in the Cave of Treasures on the Mountain of Victories. There it transforms into a small, luminous being (clearly Christ, but his precise identity is never explicitly revealed) and instructs them about its origins and their mission. The Magi follow the star to Bethlehem, where it transforms into the infant Jesus. Upon returning to their land, the Magi instruct their people about the star-child. In an epilogue likely secondary to the text, Judas Thomas arrives in Shir, baptizes the Magi and commissions them to preach throughout the world.

Rev. Magi contains several interesting parallels with other texts from antiquity, indicating that its traditions about the Magi were wide-spread. The “Cave of Treasures” is mentioned also in the Syriac version of the Testament of Adam (a Christian work from the fifth or sixth century) and from there is taken up in the Cave of Treasures (dated to the sixth century) and the Book of the Bee (from the thirteenth century). Several elements of Rev. Magi's story are found also in the Liber de nativitate salvatoris, an expansion of the Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew with curious features that may have originated in a very early infancy gospel. Some aspects of Rev. Magi were also passed on in summary by the anonymous author of a fifth-century commentary on the Gospel of Matthew known as the Opus Imperfectum in Matthaeum. From here some elements found their way into the Golden Legend (ch. 6). The Rev. Magi traditions are surprisingly widespread for a text that, were it not for that one manuscript, would have been lost to history.

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