The Three Magi are one of the most recognized symbols of the festive season, emulated in nativity plays all over the world and whose imagery adorns the front of millions of Christmas cards.
However, the three wise men who presented the newborn baby Jesus with gold, frankincense and myrrh could have been larger in numbers if a new interpretation of an ancient document is correct.
An eighth-century script has been translated into English for the first time and throws an incredible new light on the Christmas story.
The translation of the mysterious “Revelation of the Magi” describes how the three wise men actually numbered over a dozen and came from a faraway land, possibly China.
The Magi was the term, used from at least the fourth century BC, for ancient stargazers who were able to read and manipulate the fate foretold in the skies.
The script also reveals how it was Jesus himself who was the famous star followed by the Magi.
Brent Landau, a Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Oklahoma, spent two years translating the eighth-century text from its original Syriac.
The document has been held in the Vatican for 250 years and the story is thought to have been first told in the late second, or early third, century.
This takes it back to possibly just 100 years after Matthew wrote his Gospel – the only one to include the story of the Magi.
Matthew never mentions how many the Magi numbered; they are described as three wise men simply because there were three gifts.
There could have been several scores of them, according to the new translation.
The authors of the document claim it was penned by the Magi. However experts do not believe this to be the case and say it could have been written by their descendents, as it carries detailed accounts of their prayers and rituals.
Professor Brent Landau thinks the sect that wrote it identified with the mystics.
The story tells how the Magi were descended from Adam’s third and righteous son, Seth.
It says they came from a semi-mythical place called Shir, which is on the eastern edge of the world – where modern-day China is.
Prof. Brent Landau said: “The story says that Seth passed down a prophecy that at some point a star would appear that would signal the birth of God in human form.
“The Magi waited thousands of years, passing down the prophecy and then the star appeared where the Magi were.
“It transformed into a small luminous human being who was Christ himself in a pre-existent, celestial form.
“It is saying that Jesus Christ and the Star of Bethlehem are the same thing and Jesus Christ can transform himself into anything.
“The star guides them to Bethlehem and into a cave where it transforms into a human infant who tells them to go back and be preachers of the Gospel.
“Later the Apostle Thomas turns up and baptizes the Magi and tells them to go into the world.
“The story does say that the Magi brought gifts to Jesus, but interestingly the text never tells us if they are the familiar gold, frankincense, and myrrh.”
Prof. Brent Landau said it is unknown who wrote the text but added: “Somebody was really fascinated by the wise men to have created this big, long story and tell it from their perspective.
“The Revelation of the Magi is part of the Christian Apocrypha and was written in the Syriac language that was spoken by Christians from Syria through Iran and Iraq.
“There might have been a community who were using the Magi or its persona to get its religious perspective across.
“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 wondered if it was the community’s actual practices that were being described.
“There is much in the Revelation of the Magi which is not self evident why it is there.
“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.”
In terms of the text itself, very little is known about its origins.
It is unclear who wrote it or when, though academics think it is an 8th century manuscript written from a story from the second or third century.
After, it is unsure where the text was for a millennium until a collector stumbled across it in a Turkish monastery in the eighteenth century.
The collector then transferred the document, written on Vellum, a type of parchment made from animal skin, to the Vatican Library.
It was then lost, archived away in Syriac until a Harvard student, Brent Landau, spent almost a decade translating the text.