Did the Wise Men Come from China?

Did the wise men come from China? Perhaps if we look to records outside the Bible. There is a manuscript in the Vatican titled Vat. Syr. 162 that could provide a clue to the answer of this question. A recent dissertation by Brent Landau at Harvard University investigates this manuscript. It tells of Kings or wise men who were from the land of Shir (China) who traveled to Bethlehem following a star. The star-child was none other than Jesus although he is not named directly.

I have read this obscure and long lost 8th century text a few years ago. It was published early in the last century as the Chronicle of Zuqnin (Chabot, CSCO,1927.) I retranslated a portion of this manuscript for my book on the Story of the Battle of Amida in the 7th century which contributed to the collapse of Christianity and rise of Islam in the region of Mesopotamia.

The word shir is a play on the word for silk. The men are said to come from the capital which would have been Chang’an (modern day Xian). They worshipped on a mountain called the Mountain of Victories which is Mount Taishan. I believe this is a mountain outside of present day Xian in the Qianling Mountain Range. The five peaks of this sacred mountain area includes caves and inscriptions dating back 3,000 years. Zoroastrians certainly gravitated to this mountain area as did others. It was recognized as a place to welcome the sun and where heaven and earth meet. Emperors of China worshipped at the foot of this mountain.

Zoroastrians had a presence in Xian before the time of Christ. Some of the earliest firm evidence of Zoroastrian presence in China is found in the so-called “Ancient Letters,” dated to around 313 CE and found near Lou-lan, demonstrate the presence of Sogdian Zoroastrianism in Xinjiang by the early fourth century.

The magi were the priests of the Zoroastrians who had several temples in and around Xian at the time. They were fire worshippers and students of the stars. Astrology was their forte.

Landau, now an associate professor at Oklahoma University, writes the following summary in the opening of his dissertation:

Introduction—The Sages and the Star-Child:

The Revelation of the Magi, An Ancient Christian Apocryphon

(1:2). The Magi are said to be both kings and wise men, and the text gives a

patronymic list of their names (2:3). They live in the land of Shir, which is described as

being at the easternmost edge of the inhabited world, at the shore of the great Ocean

(2:4). They are descendents of Seth, the son of Adam and Eve, who received

commandments from his father and wrote them in books, the first books which

appeared in the history of the world (3:3-4). These 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 (4:2-10).

In expectation of this event, on the twenty-fifth day of every month the Magi

purify themselves in a sacred spring, 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 and where treasures were housed in expectation of the

star (5:8). When the rituals have ended and the Magi descend from the mountain,

they instruct their families and the people of their country who wish to learn about

their mysteries (5:9). The Magi carry on this ritual throughout the generations, with a

son or a close family member taking the place of his father when the father has died

(5:10).

After the RevMagi introduces the Magi, their lineage, the prophecy of the star,

and their ritual system, the flow of the narrative is interrupted by an excerpt from the

books of revelation written by Seth (6:1-10:7). In this excerpt, Adam tells Seth about

the prophecy of the coming star, since he had seen it standing over the Tree of Life in

the Garden of Eden before he sinned, at which point the star disappeared (6:2-3).

Adam warns Seth not to obey Eve and the deceitful serpent as he did (8:8), predicts

that at the end of time his lineage will be in rebellion (9:2-6), but promises that if Seth’s

descendents ask for mercy, God will hear them (10:5-7).

After this excerpt from the books of revelation, the text narrates the moment

when the star appears to the Magi at the Mountain of Victories, just when they are

gathering to commence their monthly rituals (11:3). The star appears in the sky,

descends from the heavens, and enters the cave, inviting the Magi to come inside (12:3-

5). In the cave, the star takes the form of a small and humble human being and tells

the Magi that such a form is necessary for the inhabitants of the world to see the Son of

the Father — indicating that this star-child is none other than Christ himself (13:1-2).

Christ tells the Magi that he has been sent from the Father for the salvation of all

humanity, and instructs them to follow the star to Bethlehem to see his birth in human

form (13:8-13). As they set out for the journey, the Magi discuss what they saw in the

cave, and learn that each of them witnessed Christ in a different form, each of which

corresponds to a stage in Christ’s life (14:3-9). While they are marveling at this, a voice

from heaven — revealed to be the Father himself — calls out to them and tells them that

what they have seen is only a very small portion of the power of the Father and the Son

(15:1-10). Once the Magi have gathered their traveling supplies, the star leads them on

the journey to Judea, making the mountains and valleys level in front of them, relieving

their fatigue and increasing their food supply through the power of its light, and

making the lengthy journey impossibly short (16:3-7).

When they reach Jerusalem in the month of April, the star leads them into the

city. Herod and the scribes ask the Magi why they have come, and the Magi say that

the savior of the world is to be born in this region (17:1-3). Having been informed that

this will take place in Bethlehem, the Magi again see their star and go on their way,

scorning the blindness of the inhabitants of Jerusalem (17:6-8). At Bethlehem, the

Magi find a cave, into which the star enters and transforms itself into a luminous infant

(18:2-8). The child blesses them and commands them to be witnesses to the Gospel

along with his disciples (19:1-6). As the Magi are exiting the cave, Mary and Joseph

approach them, concerned that the impending departure of the star with the Magi

means that the child who has just appeared in their house is being taken from them

(22:2-5). After the Magi reassure Mary that the child is still in their house despite his

continuing presence with the Magi in the form of the star (23:2-4), the child blesses

Mary and tells her that his mission is the redemption of all humanity (25:1-4). The star

leads the Magi on the journey back to their country, again miraculously refilling their

food supply through its power (26:1-7). When they return to the land of Shir, the Magi

tell the inhabitants of the wondrous visions and revelations which they saw, and they

give the people some of the food that the star had supplied for them (27:1-11). The

people eat the food, which immediately produces visions for them of the life of Christ,

and many of the inhabitants convert to the faith proclaimed by the Magi (28:1-4).

After some time has passed, the Apostle Judas Thomas arrives in the land of the

Magi and converts people to the faith of Jesus Christ through mighty deeds (29:1).

When the Magi hear that he has arrived, they realize that he is one of the disciples

about whom the Christ child had spoken (29:2). They go to him and tell him about

the appearance of the star and their journey to Bethlehem, and Judas Thomas

recognizes that they have received the gift of the Lord (29:3-4). He tells them of his

experiences with the earthly Jesus, and the Magi ask him to give them the seal of the

Lord (29:4-5). Early on Sunday morning, Judas Thomas leads the Magi to a spring,

takes oil, and sings a hymn over it (30:1-9). He baptizes the Magi, and when they come

up from the water, Christ descends to them from heaven in the form of a glorious

youth (31:1). He produces a loaf of bread and gives it to Judas Thomas and to all of

the Magi, proclaims to the Magi that their ancient mysteries have been accomplished,

and ascends once more to heaven (31:2-3). At the closing of the RevMagi, Judas

Thomas commissions the Magi to preach throughout the entire world (31:10), and they

depart, doing mighty works and urging hearers to flee from the coming judgment of

fire through faith in Christ (32:1-3).

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About daleinchina

Chongqing University of Arts and Sciences.
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