Sunday, December 11, 2016

It Is Written

I just finished reading an intriguing little book, Revelation of the Magi: The Lost Tale of the Wise Men's Journey to Bethlehem (HarperOne, 2010), a translation by Brent Landau of an old story that apparently had never been translated into English before.  The eighth-century Syriac manuscript Landau worked from has been in the Vatican library since the eighteenth century, but few scholars had paid any attention to it.  Landau's book came to my attention when it was offered at a sharp discount on Amazon; I checked out a print copy from the public library and when I found it worth my two bucks, I ordered a digital copy.

Briefly, Landau thinks that the Revelation of the Magi was probably written in the late second or perhaps the third century.  The Magi, of course, are mentioned in the gospel of Matthew: the word is often translated as "wise men."  When Jesus was born they came first to King Herod, asking for the whereabouts of the newborn "King of the Jews."  They had seen a new star in the heavens, which had led them to Judea.  Herod's experts said that the prophets had foretold that such a person would be born in Bethlehem; Herod gave the Magi this information, and asked them to let him know when they'd found the child.  The star they'd seen led them to the very house where Jesus and his parents were staying, and they "offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh."  A dream warned the Magi not to report back to Herod, so they returned directly to their own country.

The Revelation of the Magi invents a backstory for the wise visitors.  Instead of the Persian astrologers / magicians / sages they were usually thought to be, the Revelation's Magi are from the distant land of Shir, by an unnamed ocean.  According to the text, their name meant that "in silence, without a sound, they praised the God of all" (page 36).  They were descendants of Adam's son Seth, custodians of books of prophecy and wisdom that he had bequeathed to them, as well as of treasures that they were to give to the Messiah when the star finally appeared to them and led them to him.  (Personally, I find this detail the most interesting one in the book: the gold, frankincense, and myrrh brought by the Magi are said to have been assembled by Seth and kept in storage for thousands of years, just so that they could be brought to the baby Jesus. Why? It obviously seemed important and reasonable to the author, but it makes no sense at all to me.)  When that day arrived, they had a vision of the star, which appeared to them as a child with a cross, who gave them instructions and led them to Judea.  They found that their provisions were miraculously restored, that mountains and other obstacles were leveled to let them pass, so that the journey passed quickly and easily.  Years after they returned to Shir, Jesus' disciple Thomas visited them, baptized them and their people, and bade them bring the gospel to their whole land.

This edition is intended for a general audience.  (Someday I may take a look at the scholarly version, his dissertation, which is available online.)   Landau does a fine job of giving the document a context, explaining its relation to the story of the Magi in the gospel of Matthew, and its remarkable influence on Christian imagery of the Nativity and the Wise Men.

All this is interesting enough, but I must say that the Revelation itself would be a disappointment if I'd had great expectations for it.  I expected it to be fan fiction filling out a fictional story, and so it was.  Whatever differences from or additions to Matthew's story it contained wouldn't matter except as they revealed something about the mindset of the author.  The structure of the story seems very much like today's Tolkien-inspired fantasy fiction, which often feels similarly pointless to me -- the authors create worlds for the sake of creating worlds, and then are not sure what to make happen in them.  Often they hope to teach beautiful lessons about how people should live, which while usually unexceptionable are nothing new, and the imaginary backdrops don't add anything to the lessons.  Luckily, the author of the Revelation had a plotline ready-made in the gospel.

What surprised me was that there was very little content.  Pages are filled with references to the "mysteries" and "treasures" of which the Magi are worthy to be custodians --
And when it became the first of the month, we ascended and went to the top of the mountain and stood before the mouth of the Cave of Treasures of Hidden Mysteries. And we knelt on our knees and stretched forth our hands to heaven, and we prayed and worshiped in silence, without a sound, to the Father of that heavenly majesty that is ineffable and infinite forever. On the third of the month we entered the cave up to the treasures, the treasures that were prepared as the star’s own [gifts] and for the adoration of that light that we awaited. And what we read and heard from the revelation, when we returned, descending in joy, we said to and instructed our sons, our families, and everyone who gave themselves with love to learn.
-- along with quotations from Seth's instructions to their ancestors and from Adam's instructions to Seth.
"For there will be from my family and my children glorious and honorable people, (the reciters) of the mysteries of the majesty. And they will find great mercy and will pray, ask, and be heard. And [text missing] of the majesty, but at the end times of that generation they will again be [rebelling,] and they will not be afraid of my foolishness and of the judgment that I have. Instead, they shall be headstrong and shall speak blasphemy unto the heavenly majesty. And they will say many things, and shall also make painted idols and graven images, and shall even serve the sun and the moon, and they shall speak words of blasphemy. And all these things that are among them from the deceits of my treacherous deceiver, because he will offer the love of his fraud and his deceit filled with poison to each of the generations that will be after me. And he will [show] and make them desire the empty praise of great riches, pride, clothes, property, fornication, boastfulness, injustice, greed, and various possessions. And he will appear to them like a lover or a friend and entice them. And again, with reveling, drunkenness, impure and defiled feasts, which are an illusion [of his] empty [apparitions,] and again, with possessions of assorted excesses, he will take hold of them with fraudulent affection, which is not virtuous, just as also to me through Eve."
As usual in apocalyptic literature, an ancient authority "predicts" what the reader (or audience -- this text was probably meant to be read aloud) can see in his or her present day.  Also as usual, what is predicted occurs in every generation, so that the predictions are hard to prove wrong.  Not that it matters -- most people are perfectly happy to overlook falsified predictions.  The New Testament contains multiple assurances that the End is near, that Jesus will return within the first Christians' lifetimes to judge the world, and so on, yet most Christians are able to overlook them, and indeed to miss them entirely.

Landau believes that "whether one is a born-again Christian, a Latter-day Saint, a 'religious seeker,' or a Buddhist, the Revelation of the Magi raises challenging questions about divine revelation, religious pluralism, and the uniqueness of religions—questions that merit deep, sustained reflection."  In particular he finds an endorsement of religious pluralism in the story, though I think he's overreaching there.  But even if he's right, that aspect of the story had no detectable influence on Christian doctrine over the centuries.  Its influence appears to have been limited to details of the representation of the Magi in Christian art: the Star of Bethlehem was often represented as the Christ Child with a Cross in the sky above the travelers, for example.  The theologian and saint Thomas Aquinas also was influenced by it, according to Landau.  It also influenced European invaders'  understanding of the peoples they met in the New World.  To me, however, this indicates that the Revelation was understood to be about Christian universalism, the doctrine that the whole world would come to worship Christ (and had unknowingly been waiting for his missionaries to arrive all along), rather than about religious pluralism, and that's probably what the story's writer meant to convey.  As Stephen Colbert mockingly put it, there are infinite paths to accepting Jesus Christ as your personal savior.

Any text can be and will be understood as its readers wish to understand it, and this extends far beyond an old Syriac manuscript.  I'm trying to figure out what people take from the Revelation.  The customer reviews of the book at Amazon are instructive.  Quite a few readers take for granted that the Revelation, though apocryphal, supplies authentic information on Matthew's Magi, filling in details that he left out.  "The story of the Magi, their preparation for the events that would change history, their description of the trip to Bethlehem, and their re-telling of their conversations with all involved, for me, had a feeling of truth about it," wrote one.  "Fascinating unknown information on the Magi, which contributes to ancient Christian tradition," wrote anotherAnother, after dismissing "A lot of introductory material that was of less interest," reported that she "personally treasure this manuscript as filling in much description no more astonishing than the virgin birth of the Messiah."  "I love to learn about books that have been left out of the bible to figure out what really happened," wrote another.  "I would definitely recommend to anyone interested in learning about where the Magi might have come from," wrote yet another.  

And so on.  Even if you insist that Matthew's Nativity story has some basis in fact, there's no reason to suppose that the Revelation adds any factual information to it.  The Revelation of the Magi is a fictional expansion of a fictional story -- fan fiction, in short.  Yet many people jump to the conclusion that because it's not in the Bible, it is the truth, long forgotten or (better) suppressed by the Church.  (That the story influenced orthodox conceptions of the Magi and the Star of Bethlehem for over a thousand years shows that it wasn't suppressed, by the way.)  We can see the same thought process at work today, in readers' objections to the revelation that Dumbledore was gay.  Even though this information was handed down by the Creator herself, many readers (including gay ones, to my amazement) rejected it in favor of their own fantasies and prejudices.  Other readers proved to their own satisfaction that Rowling was wrong in pairing Harry Potter with Ginny Weasley, since Scripture itself showed that he should have married Hermione Grainger.  Though they knew on some level that the Potteriad is fiction, they demanded that it conform to their wishes.  It's not surprising, then, that people would take for granted that any ancient text, "apocryphal" or not, contains fact.  This is how many (most?) people respond to stories they find attractive.

This would be enough to baffle me, but even more, I don't get what other readers get from Revelation of the Magi.  I know that stories are important tools that people use to make sense of the world, but they aren't the only ones, and since any story can be interpreted in mutually contradictory ways, no story can authorize any doctrine or principle.  People ignore even the most direct commands in canonical writings, so an ambiguous passage in one non-canonical story mandates nothing.  

Recently I got into another dustup on Facebook when a friend posted a meme about how nice it would be if we had a story in the Bible about a "Middle Eastern" family looking for shelter, like today's refugees.  I disputed the meaning of the story the meme-maker had in mind (Joseph and Mary unable to find a room at the inn), and was chastised for supposing that it had the meaning I suggested.  My accuser advised me to study some theology, unaware that I've spent many years doing that.  Which is unimportant; what is important is that he violated his own stricture by assuming that the story had one meaning, a meaning congenial to his political principles; the assumption of the meme was that the right story, understood rightly as any right-thinking liberal would, could settle a contemporary political question.  Reading theologians will quickly show you that biblical stories can be interpreted to endorse almost any principle you like, including mutually contradictory ones. Whichever one you happen to like will conform to your "faith," and that, I've often been told, is beyond the reach of reason or even persuasion.  So whatever you want to do about refugees, the Bible cannot settle it.

There are plenty of good reasons to value religious pluralism, and I don't see that the Revelation adds anything to it other than the very dubious possibility that one writer may have endorsed it.  I'm intrigued too when I find "modern"-seeming arguments in old writings, because people will often claim that the ancients had no such concept and couldn't possibly have seen things that way.  Such examples show that in fact, the ancients could and did (and many moderns don't), but they don't settle anything, and they especially don't settle anything in religious doctrine.  

This is important right now, as people of all political positions wax indignant about the lies and myths their opponents accept, while credulously accepting the lies and myths spread by their own faction.  I'm not going to specify which ones just now.  The reader will surely be able to think of several, according to his or her own predilections and affiliations.  Readers' reactions to the Revelation of the Magi indicate that the problem is much more general than religion or politics.