Infancy narratives III—The Magi

A New Account of Christian Origins / pt. 26

In the preceding post we considered a work routinely ignored by scholarship and virtually unknown, The Revelation of the Magi (RevMagi). The bulk of this work dates to the early second century CE—about a half century before the writing of the canonical gospels—and reveals the evolving thinking in proto-Catholic circles regarding the Incarnation of Jesus. RevMagi depicts not a birth, but a metamorphosis of the universal Jesus spirit, that “appeared to you to concentrate its light in its rays, [and] that it appeared to you in the form of a small, humble, and unworthy human.”  

The initial “we-source” itself is divisible into two parts: (a) an incarnation account in which the principal figures are the Magi on the one hand, and the star-child on the other; and (b) a second incarnation account with Joseph and Mary. The latter more detailed account is clearly later, while the original account of the Incarnation involved only the star-child and the Magi.

Most readers will be perplexed and surprised that the insignificant Magi play a leading role in the first accounts of the Incarnation of Jesus. Christians, of course, learn of the Magi from the familiar account in Matthew 2:

In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, magi [Gk: magoi] from the east came to Jerusalem, 2 asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star in the east and have come to pay him homage.” 3 When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him, 4 and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. 5 They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea, for so it has been written by the prophet:

6 ‘And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
are by no means least among the rulers of Judah,
for from you shall come a ruler
who is to shepherd my people Israel.’ ”

7 Then Herod secretly called for the magi and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. 8 Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child, and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.” 9 When they had heard the king, they set out, and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen in the east, until it stopped over the place where the child was. 10 When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. 11 On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother, and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. 12 And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.

The RevMagi offers a good deal of information about the nature and identity of these “Magi.” They are not merely the “wise men” or “kings” of tradition but something much deeper—the preservers of secret wisdom traditions going back to Adam, the first man:

     The Magi’s revelatory knowledge ultimately comes from Adam, who told his son Seth the prophecy of the coming star before his death. This incident, of course, is not present in the book of Genesis, but it does have some commonalities in the wealth of extrabiblical speculation surrounding the figure of Seth. Seth’s knowledge survives throughout the ages until the time of the generation of Magi who experience Christ’s coming and serve as the narrators of the RevMagi. The books of revelation, passed down within the Sethian family from father to son for generations, escape the catastrophe of the great Flood through Noah’s custody of them in the Ark. The generation of Noah, however, is the RevMagi’s final link with the events of Genesis; at that point the narrative departs from the scriptural record. As a result, the race of the Magi has only the most distant connections with the people Israel, and they become witnesses to God’s revelation independent of Abraham, Moses, and the prophets.
                    (B. C. Landau, THE SAGES AND THE STAR-CHILD, Harvard diss. 2008:239–40)

Thus, the Magi were Sethians. Landau remarks that Seth finds mention in Gen 4:25–26 and 5:3–8, “however, the proliferation of legends about Seth in antiquity was vast” (diss. 239). Before proceeding we should carefully note what Landau fails to realize—as bearers of secret wisdom, the Magi were none other than Natsarenes. The word derives from the Semitic root N-Ts-R with the meanings “guard, keep secret, observe, watch over, protect.”  Landau writes: “[The RevMagi] envisions the Magi as central participants in a drama that encompasses the whole of salvation history as contained within the biblical narrative. Their [Sethian] lineage has its origins at the world’s beginning, and the members of this ancient order become witnesses to the ultimate fulfillment and perfection of the Scriptures of Israel” (diss. 238–39). Furthermore, not only do the Magi possess the first books ever to be written (RevMagi 3:3-4), but those books “contained instructions for Seth’s offspring to wait for the appearance of a star, which would signal the birth of God in human form” (RevMagi 4:2-10; cf. Landau, diss. 7).

Traditions of the Sethian Magi

– “On the 25th of every month the Magi purify themselves in a sacred spring” (Landau diss. 7). This is baptism, a rite that ultimately goes back to the age-old notion of water as a symbol of gnosis. The “25th” day signals the end of lunar light, when that primordial symbol of gnosis (only the moon, and its minions the stars, are able to shine in darkness) disappears for three days of complete darkness—a time of fear for prehistoric man during which the darkness of night was total.

– “And then on the first day of the next month they ascend their country’s most sacred mountain, the Mountain of Victories, to glorify God in silent prayer (5:2-7). After praying in silence upon the mountain’s pinnacle for two days, on the third of the month they enter the Cave of Treasures of Hidden Mysteries, where Seth’s books were kept” (ibid). The two days of silent prayer correspond to the monthly period of lunar darkness. The “third day” (cf. the resurrection of Jesus) corresponds to the reappearance of the moon’s light—a great celebratory event in ancient times, one honored in the Buddhist religion, as also in Muslim traditions, where the month begins with the first light of the new moon. (The moon’s crescent = first light appears on many flags of Islamic nations.)

–  The Magi were meditators. According to RevMagi (1:2; 2:1), the Magi were so called due to their practice of silent prayer. This immediately recalls Buddhism, the quintessential religion of meditation. Support comes from two sources: (a) The word “Magi” does not etymologically trace back to Syriac, Greek, or Latin (Landau diss. 272)—however, in Pâli (the earliest language of Buddhism) maggati means “track, hunt for, trace out, follow, seek” (cf. Sanskrit margayati).  These meanings aptly describe the Magi. (b) In a related apocryphal Christian text about the Magi—one from Ireland (to be discussed in a forthcoming post)—we read that the Magi “come from the eastern part of India.”  Combining these clues (meditators, MAG-, “from India”) the suspicion is justified that the Magi were Buddhists, now assimilated to Sethian traditions. In this regard, precisely in the first centuries of the common era Buddhism came to the West via the overland route (as opposed to via the earlier southern sea route to Egypt, known since III BCE). Buddhism, thus, would have had to first transit Persia (Bactria)—hence, the common notion in the West that the Magi hailed from Persia.

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About René Salm

René Salm is the author of two books on New Testament archeology and manages the companion website

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