NORMAN â€” Many Christians can recite the basics of the Christmas story, complete with the account of the three wise men from the East following a bright star to Bethlehem.
As the story goes, the men known as the Magi find the infant Jesus in a lowly manger. They fall down and worship Him, presenting the babe with frankincense, gold and myrrh.
Brent Landau, of Norman, grew up entranced by the familiar story and the lore surrounding the star of Bethlehem.
So, he was delighted when he got the chance to translate an ancient text that reveals many details surrounding the star and the trio that offered those first gifts to the newborn Messiah.
Landau, a University of Oklahoma religious studies professor and ancient biblical languages expert, shares his findings in his new book, â€œRevelation of the Magi: The Lost Tale of the Wise Men's Journey to Bethlehemâ€ (HarperOne, $22.99). The Episcopalian said the book had its beginnings in his Harvard University dissertation and then evolved into much more.
â€œThe wise men have managed to get into popular culture in a way that very few figures from the Bible have,â€ Landau said in a recent interview.
â€œIf you went up to people who have never been to church, and you asked them who the Apostle Paul was, they wouldn't necessarily know, even though Paul is hugely important for the history of Christianity. But if you asked them who the wise men were, they'd know there were three wise men and that they brought gifts to Jesus.â€
Landau, 34, said his natural curiosity about the Christmas story and a coincidence led him on the path to find startling revelations behind the traditional biblical tale. He said the Gospel of Matthew actually reveals very little about the wise men. But Landau said the ancient text he translated reveals the broad scope of Christ's ministry and how He connected with the wise men more than 2,000 years ago.
â€œIt is very unusual, and it is by far the longest and most complex, detailed account of who early Christians thought the Magi were,â€ Landau said of the Syriac text.
â€œBeyond that, it's just a creative, original story as well.â€
Landau said he remembers becoming fascinated with the star of Bethlehem when he was 8 years old, and an astronomer discussed it during a Christmastime visit to his church.
He said the story took on special significance when he was a Harvard University student. He said he knew when he started his doctoral program that he wanted to work on something related to Jesus' birth. Landau said he took a study trip to Italy, where he saw many artistic representations of the Magi. Then he learned about an ancient Syriac text that many scholars believed to be a historical account of the Magi and their connection with the star of Bethlehem.
Landau said the eighth-century manuscript had been in the Vatican Library for many years, but no one had translated it into English. Syriac is a literary language based on an eastern Aramaic dialect. He said the earliest version of the text probably was written in the second or third century.
Landau said he learned about the ancient text in 2002, when he had just coincidently completed his first year of Syriac language studies. He said he began a project to translate the ancient Syriac text using a photocopy of the text. He said his Syriac professor helped with the project.
Landau said his efforts eventually led him to see the Vatican Library manuscript firsthand. He was able to study the text under ultraviolet light that helped him see parts that he could not decipher from the photocopy.
He said he pored over the ancient text for the next six years and completed his dissertation in 2008.
He said the author of the text is unknown, but it is written in first-person plural from the perspective of the Magi themselves. Landau said scholars don't have a lot to go on in terms of who wrote it, but there is no chance that it could have been written by the Magi because it references later biblical texts. Still, he said it seems to have been written by someone who knew much about the Magi's spiritual practices and beliefs.
Landau said some of his findings from the text were surprising â€” many having to do with the wise men themselves and others regarding Jesus and the star of Bethlehem.
For starters, Landau said the text describes more wise men than three. An army of men is more like it, he said.
The Syriac text describes the Magi using a biblical word used to describe a small army. And he said the text gives the names of 12, not just three, specific wise men.
Landau said the text also says the Magi came from a place where there was a great wall and that produced silk. He said these hints indicate the wise men were more likely from China â€” and from not Persia (modern-day Iran) as many early Christians believed. He said many early Christians believed the wise men were Zoroastrian priests.
Regarding the star of Bethlehem, Landau said there has been much speculation about what it might have been. He said some people throughout the centuries have suggested it was a comet or an angel or maybe the Holy Spirit.
However, Landau said the Syriac text states that the star of Bethlehem was revealed to the Magi as Christ himself in celestial form.
â€œThe way the text narrates this is that when the star finally appears to the Magi, it descends to the mountain they were praying on. Slowly the light kind of dissipates, and it reveals this small human being that the text makes very clear is actually Jesus Himself,â€ Landau said.
â€œIt's a very strange understanding of the star of Bethlehem and Jesus, but in some ways it makes sense. One of the most famous sayings of Jesus from the Gospels is, â€˜I am the light of the world.' Most people read that as kind of metaphorical, but the text interprets it very literally â€” that Christ is actually a light and can shine.â€
Landau said most important perhaps is the way the ancient text more clearly shows how Christ revealed Himself to mankind in a broader sense than what readers of the Gospel of Matthew may realize.
â€œIt's essentially saying that the people who recognized the significance of Jesus were not just Jews but people from a totally different culture and a totally different religious system,â€ Landau said. â€œOne of the points I made in the book is that Christ tells the Magi that even as excited as they are that their prophecy has been fulfilled, that this is actually one of a number of occurrences in which Christ has appeared to people in the world. So, this text seems to be claiming that Christ has actually been the foundation of a number of humanity's religious revelations.
â€œIt's a really interesting view of how broad the scope of Christ's revelation was and a much wider understanding and a more inclusive understanding than what we find in many Christian writings.â€
Landau said, thus far, people who have read his book have told him the writings have touched them and helped them get into the Christmas spirit. He said he is not surprised by that.
â€œIt's interesting and exciting, a beautiful story,â€ Landau said.
â€œFor a number of people, it has been a very uplifting book that has helped them have some kind of wonder and imagination about this event that is central for Christians.â€
It's essentially saying that the people who recognized the significance of Jesus were not just Jews but people from a totally different culture and a totally different religious system. One of the points I made in the book is that Christ tells the Magi that even as excited as they are that their prophecy has been fulfilled, that this is actually one of a number of occurrences in which Christ has appeared to people in the world. So, this text seems to be claiming that Christ has actually been the foundation of a number of humanity's religious revelations.â€