Three Wise Men following a star across the desert clutching their gifts for baby Jesus is one of the best-known images from the Nativity.
Now, an ancient document found in the Vatican has revealed a different and more in depth version of the Magi's journey.
The mysterious 'Revelation of the Magi' document has been held at the Vatican for 250 years and has only now been translated from ancient Syriac by a university professor.
Brent Landau - an expert in religious studies from the University of Oklahoma - spent two years poring over the frail pages of the 8th-century manuscript. The document itsself is merely a copy of a text first written down almost half a millennium earlier.
The additional details and differences from the traditional story of the Three Wise Men based on the Gospel of Matthew are:
- Rather than being Persians, the travelers came from the semi-mythical land of Shir which is now associated with ancient China - making their journey even longer.
- The document claims there were 'scores' of Magi rather than just three, suggesting that several men visited baby Jesus. The Gospel of Matthew doesn't specify an amount - the idea that it was three men arose from the number of gifts they are supposed to have delivered.
- The wise men are described a descendants of Seth, the third son of Adam.
- They belong to a sect that believed in silent prayer.
- The Magi waited thousands of years for the star to appear, which they believed would signal God had arrived in human form.
Professor Landau told The Times: "Somebody was really fascinated by the wise men to have created this big, long story and tell it from their perspective. A great deal of thought and imagination has gone into it.
"There are many details of strange rituals, praying and silence. There is a description of a sacred mountain and purification at a sacred spring.
"The detail is so great I wonder if it is the community's actual practices that are being described. Nobody knows where Matthew got the story from so along with Matthew's Gospel this is as close as you can get to the Magi."
The Revelation of the Magi by Brent Landau is published by HarperOne.
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