The story of the Three Wise Men is one of the most familiar and beloved parts of the Christmas story. But for all of their popularity, the mysterious travelers from the East — known as the Magi — appear in only one short passage in the New Testament, following a star to the site of Jesus' birth and bringing gifts of gold, francincense and myrrh. Many religious scholars aren't even sure they really existed.
Are the Three Wise Men part of the Illuminati Hierarchy?
Brent Landau, a professor of religious studies at the University of Oklahoma and an expert in ancient biblical languages, found references to a text about the wise men in writings from the Middle Ages and learned that a collector in the 18th century had discovered in a Turkish monastery a manuscript called "the Revelation of the Magi" with a narrative about the wise men. He gave it to the Vatican Library, where the document, written on vellum, a type of parchment made of animal skin, remains archived away in virtual obscurity.
As part of his doctoral dissertation at Harvard Divinity School, Landau spent seven years translating and analyzing the text, written in Syriac, a language used by early Christians throughout the Middle East and Asia — and which he happened to be studying. He worked from both a 1927 published text in Syriac and the original document at the Vatican.
Landau's book, Revelation of the Magi: The Lost Tale of the Wise Men's Journey to Bethlehem (HarperOne) describes the Magi as an ancient mystical sect descended from Seth, the pious and virtuous third son of Adam and Eve. From Seth they inherited a prophecy of "a star of indescribable brightness" someday appearing and "heralding the birth of God in human form." This same star had initially hovered over the Tree of Life in the Garden of Eden.
Among the book's other revelations:
•The Magi are described as coming from a land called Shir, "located in the extreme east of the world, at the shore of the Great Ocean." In other ancient texts, Shir is referred to "as a place where silk comes from," says Landau, suggesting that the references were to China.
•In Syriac, the word Magi means "to pray in silence." Landau says it has no relationship to magicians or astrologers, sometimes cited in stories today.
•The text names 12 Magi, not three, while other parts of the text suggest that "a group the size of a small army" traveled to Bethlehem, says Landau.
Other religion scholars who reviewed Landau's work recognize the unique interest the wise men narrative holds.
Of the many early Christian documents recently discovered, Magi "is by far the most fascinating," writes John Dominic Crossan, professor emeritus at DePaul University, in a comment on the book's back cover.
"Landau is to be congratulated for bringing this important and unexpectedly influential work to light," adds Jennifer Knust of Boston University School of Theology, in another comment.
Although the text claims to be personal testimony, "it seems unlikely that it could have been written by the Magi themselves," Landau says. He cites a number of anachronisms, such as references to Christian writings recorded years after Jesus' death.
Who then wrote the wise men story?
"One guess," says Landau, "is some kind of religious community of Christian mystics."
The fact that the Magi are described as standing for days at a time on top of a sacred mountain, visiting a purifying spring, and seeing visions after eating certain foods could suggest that this was a way for a community to talk about itself and give it some authority by putting it in the mouths of the Magi, he says.
In addition to offering a detailed account of the life and background of the wise men, the text sheds some light on how some early Christians experienced Christ, Landau says.
When they first encounter the long-prophesied star, the text says it initially appears in a celestial form that then transforms into a human form or "star child," who instructs them to go to Bethlehem to witness its birth. Each of the Magi, in fact, sees the star child in a different form, with each vision representing a different time in the life of Christ. Nowhere in the text is the name Jesus Christ used to designate the Magis' celestial guide, suggesting that they experienced Christ and became followers without ever knowing the savior figure by that name, Landau says.
This speaks to the "universality of Christ's revelation," says Landau, an Episcopalian.
What should everyday readers take from this retelling, especially during the Christmas season?
An appreciation for the "imaginative way in which early Christians engaged" the story of the wise men to make it their own, says Knust. They "loved this story enough to write this version."
Christians carry on that same tradition today, whether through Christmas pageants, or songs, or art. "We continue to re-imagine the significance of the Christmas story in a way that is meaningful to the people," she says.
Giant Stealth Planet May Explain Rain of Comets from Solar System's Edge
Our sun may have a companion that disturbs comets from the edge of the solar system — a giant planet with up to four times the mass of Jupiter, researchers suggest.
A NASA space telescope launched last year may soon detect such a stealth companion to our sun, if it actually exists, in the distant icy realm of the comet-birthing Oort cloud, which surrounds our solar system with billions of icy objects.
The potential jumbo Jupiter would likely be a world so frigid it is difficult to spot, researchers said. It could be found up to 30,000 astronomical units from the sun. One AU is the distance between the Earth and the sun, about 93 million miles (150 million km).
Most systems with stars like our sun — so-called class G stars — possess companions. Only one-third are single-star systems like our solar system.
Scientists have already proposed that a hidden star, which they call "Nemesis," might lurk a light-year or so away from our sun. They suggest that during its orbit, this red dwarf or brown dwarf star would regularly enter the Oort cloud, jostling the orbits of many comets there and causing some to fall toward Earth. That would provide an explanation for what seems to be a cycle of mass extinctions here.
Still, other astronomers recently found that if Nemesis did exist, its orbit could not be nearly as stable as claimed.
Now researchers point to evidence that our sun might have a different sort of companion.
To avoid confusion with the Nemesis model, astrophysicists John Matese and Daniel Whitmire at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette dub their conjectured object "Tyche" — the good sister of the goddess Nemesis in Greek mythology, and a name proposed by scientists working on NASA's Wide-Field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE) space telescope.
It is the WISE observatory that, using its all-seeing infrared eye, stands the best chance of having spotted Tyche, if this companion to the sun exists at all, the researchers said. [WISE telescope's amazing images]
Matese and Whitmire detailed their research Nov. 17 online edition of the journal Icarus.
Comet-flinging sun companion
The researchers noted that most comets that fly into the inner solar system seem to come from the outer region of the Oort cloud. Their calculations suggest the gravitational influence of a planet one to four times the mass of Jupiter in this area might be responsible.
Two centuries of observations have indicated an anomaly that suggests the existence of Tyche, Matese said. "The probability that it could be caused by a statistical fluke has remained very small," he added.
The pull of Tyche might also explain why the dwarf planet Sedna has such an unusually elongated orbit, the researchers added.
If Tyche existed, it would probably be very cold, roughly minus 100 degrees F (-73 degrees C), they said, which could explain why it has escaped detection for so long — its coldness means that it would not radiate any heat scientists could easily spot, and its distance from any star means it would not reflect much light.
"Most planetary scientists would not be surprised if the largest undiscovered companion was Neptune-sized or smaller, but a Jupiter-mass object would be a surprise," Matese told SPACE.com. "If the conjecture is indeed true, the important implications would relate to how it got there — touching on the early solar environment — and how it might have affected the subsequent distributions of comets and, to a lesser extent, the known planets."
Is Tyche really out there?
The fact of Tyche's existence is questionable, since the pattern seen in the outer Oort cloud is not seen in the inner Oort.
"Conventional wisdom says that the patterns should tend to correlate, and they don't," Matese said.
If the WISE team was lucky, it caught evidence for the Tyche solar companion twice before the space observatory's original mission ended in October. That could be enough to corroborate the object's existence within a few months as researchers analyze WISE's data.
But if WISE detected signs of Tyche only once (or not at all), researchers would have to wait years for other telescopes to confirm or deny the potential solar companion's existence, Matese said.
Dark Jupiter May Haunt Edge of Solar System
A century of comet data suggests a dark, Jupiter-sized object is lurking at the solar system’s outer edge and hurling chunks of ice and dust toward Earth.
“We’ve accumulated 10 years’ more data, double the comets we viewed to test this hypothesis,” said planetary scientist John Matese of the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. “Only now should we be able to falsify or verify that you could have a Jupiter-mass object out there.”
In 1999, Matese and colleague Daniel Whitmire suggested the sun has a hidden companion that boots icy bodies from the Oort Cloud, a spherical haze of comets at the solar system’s fringes, into the inner solar system where we can see them.
In a new analysis of observations dating back to 1898, Matese and Whitmire confirm their original idea: About 20 percent of the comets visible from Earth were sent by a dark, distant planet.
This idea was a reaction to an earlier notion that a dim brown-dwarf or red-dwarf star, ominously dubbed Nemesis, has pummeled the Earth with deadly comet showers every 30 million years or so. Later research suggested that mass extinctions on Earth don’t line up with the Nemesis predictions, so many astronomers now think that object doesn’t exist.
“But we began to ask, what kind of an object could you hope to infer from the present data that we are seeing?” Matese said. “What could possibly tickle [comets'] orbits and make them come very close to the sun so we could see them?”
Rather than a malevolent death star, a smaller and more benign companion called Tyche (Nemesis’ good sister in Greek mythology) could send comets streaming from the Oort Cloud toward Earth.
The cosmic snowballs that form the hearts of comets generally hang out in the Oort Cloud until their orbits are nudged by some outside force. This push could come from one of three things, Matese said. The constant gravitational pull of the Milky Way’s disk can drag comets out of their icy homes and into the inner solar system. A passing star can shake comets loose from the Oort Cloud as it zips by. Or a large companion like Nemesis or Tyche can pull comets out of their comfort zones.
Computational models show that comets in each of these scenarios, when their apparent origins are mapped in space, make a characteristic pattern in the sky.
“We looked at the patterns and asked, ‘Is there additional evidence of a pattern that might be associated with a passing star or with a bound object?’” Matese said.
After examining the orbits of more than 100 comets in the Minor Planet Center database, the researchers concluded that 80 percent of comets born in the Oort Cloud were pushed out by the galaxy’s gravity. The remaining 20 percent, however, needed a nudge from a distant object about 1.4 times the mass of Jupiter.
“Something smaller than Jovian mass wouldn’t be strong enough to do the deed,” Matese said. “Something more massive, like a brown dwarf, would give a much stronger signal than the 20 percent we assert.”
There’s one problem, however. The pattern only works for comets that come from the spherical outer Oort Cloud, which extends from about 0.3 to 0.8 light-years from the sun. Comets from the flatter, more doughnut-shaped inner Oort Cloud don’t create the same distinctive pattern.
“That’s troubling,” Matese said. “It requires an entirely new dynamical explanation for how inner Oort Cloud comets are made observable.”
That the same weird pattern from 1999 is still there today “definitely makes it a stronger case than past papers,” said planetary scientist Nathan Kaib of the Canadian Institute for Theoretical Astrophysics, who was not involved in the new work. But he would still like to see more data.
“I think this whole issue will be resolved in the next five to 10 years, because there’s surveys coming on line … that will dwarf the comet sample we have today,” he said. “Whether these types of asymmetries in the directions that comets are coming from actually do exist or not will definitely be hammered out by those surveys.”
We may not have to wait that long, Matese said. An object like Tyche could be seen directly by WISE, NASA’s infrared space telescope.
“We anticipate that this WISE is going to falsify or verify our conjecture,” he said. “We just have to be patient.”