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
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).