What are we supposed to think when someone claims he's getting important life-changing news in a dream or from an angel? For some, the reaction is: Get the straitjacket ready. Others, however, will turn to someone like Richard Dawkins, who says such experiences are a byproduct of our organic wiring, a demonstration, he writes in "The God Delusion," of the "formidable power of the brain's simulation software." That's all. Elsewhere, in "The End of Faith," Sam Harris writes with obvious scorn that "it is demonstrative of mental illness to believe that [God] is communicating with you by having the rain tap in Morse code on your bedroom window."
When you survey world literature, though, you find that the oldest storytellers didn't treat such experiences as mental gymnastics or signs of psychosis. Hardly. They regarded them as forms of privileged information. An angel or a dream was a means by which God (or the gods) communicated with humanity. Consider it a divine version of Fed Ex.
The same goes for other phenomena. Drought, earthquakes, comets, eclipses — all were treated as signs to be read. Which brings us to "Revelation of the Magi: The Lost Tale of the Wise Men's Journey to Bethlehem" (HarperOne: 158 pp., $22.99) by Brent Landau. What better phenomenon to signal the birth of a great king than a new star blazing in the night sky?
Landau explores that familiar story of Christ's nativity found in Matthew's gospel — the visit to Bethlehem by wise men from the East — through an obscure document believed to have been written in the 3rd or 4th century AD in Syria. This account, which gives Landau the title of his book, tells the story from the Magi's point of view.
Even though there are plenty of theories about what the star of Bethlehem actually was — some say it was a comet, a supernova or, what many astrologers and astronomers believe, a conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn that blended them into one very bright light — the "Revelation" says it was the divine babe himself:
"And when it concentrated itself, it appeared to us in the bodily form of a small and humble human, and he said to us: 'Peace to you, sons of my hidden mysteries.'… the inhabitants of the world cannot bear to see the glory of the only Son of the Father of majesty, unless it appeared for them in the form of their world."
(Am I the only one who can't stop seeing Arthur C. Clarke's star-child?)
A teacher at the University of Oklahoma, Landau discovered the "Revelation" not in a cave by the Red Sea but in the Vatican Library.
How did it get there?
He writes that it was among manuscripts collected in Egypt by G.S. Assemani (an 18th century orientalist working for the Vatican Library) who "brought it to Rome, where it resides today." Few have approached it, however, because most scholars say it has little historical value, he explains, and because the text is "preserved in Syriac, a language used by ancient Christians ... but one in which only a relatively small number of early Christian scholars are fluent." Landau says his translation of the "Revelation" (with the help of Cambridge scholar J.F. Coakley) is the first in English.
No matter what scholars might say of its historical value, Landau shows, with skill and authority, how the "Revelation" contains a valuable message of tolerance that is needed as much today as in the years of its composition.
Forget the Christmas carol by John Henry Hopkins, "We Three Kings of Orient Are." The "Revelation" says there were 12 wise men, and their home was the distant, legendary "land of Shir." The early part of the story describes their study and training in "the mysteries," the prophecy of a star and the journey to Bethlehem. When they arrive and encounter the star-child, he tells them of God's plan to redeem the entire world.
The Magi meet Mary and Joseph, and it's curious that the child is never identified by name as Jesus or Christ. It seems strange, but, as Landau explains, there is an intentional reason for this omission: "If the Magi in the first-person narrative come to the end of the story without ever using the name, this implies that they have had an experience of Christ without ever knowing this savior figure as Christ. The case of the Magi, then, raises the possibility that Christ has appeared to many people and yet not revealed himself as Jesus Christ."
The Magi, in fact, become a part of Christ's mission: After their visit to Bethlehem, they return to Shir and preach the Good News. The "Revelation" ends on a hopeful note about salvation and grace available to all. Landau, too, ends his own commentary on a bright note, pointing out that today's pluralistic world is the right environment for the "Revelation's" ecumenical message.
"It has become more intellectually challenging to insist on the obvious and exclusive truth of one's religion when one lives and works in close proximity to other people who cherish their own religious tradition just as much," Landau concludes. "Are those who do not share our religious beliefs foolishly misguided? According to the 'Revelation of the Magi,' the answer of Christ to the Magi appears to be no."
Postscript: Landau's opportunity to translate such an interesting document makes me feel a little like Robert Langdon in "Angels & Demons," longing to get a look inside the Vatican Archives. How many more intriguing documents like the "Revelation" are out there somewhere? How many documents that might shape and expand our views are just sitting on a shelf?
Owchar is Times deputy book editor. The Siren's Call appears monthly at http://www.latimes.com/books.