Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Book Review: "Journey of the Magi" (Paul William Roberts)

TITLE: Journey of the Magi - in search of the Birth of Jesus
AUTHOR: Paul William Roberts
PUBLISHER: Vancouver: Raincoast Books, 2005. (399 pages)

Mention Paul William Roberts (PWR), and not many people will know him. Mention Madonna studying Kabbalah under him, and perhaps more people will sit up and pay attention. PWR literally attempts to trace the journey of the Magi to search for the birthplace of Jesus.  Some call it a travel book. Others see it as radical scholarship to shed more light on the gospel narrative. From the author's standpoint, there are 3 journeys. The first is physical, where he describes his expedition from Iran through to Palestine. The second is mental, where he researches academic material to learn more about the ancient and modern geography. The third journey is something more 'spiritual' for lack of a better word. PWR calls it the 'heart of the heart,' and the 'source of the self.' (xii)

Why Read This Book?
Christmas is here again. In carols, and in Scripture reading, we often come across the Three Magi, or the Three Wise Men. Not much is known about them. This book is essentially a journey to trace the history of the Magis. If you are curious about all things Magi, this book is illuminating. (For Christians, note the following. It is also part of PWR's personal journey in practicing his own Kabbalah faith.) If you are keen to learn more about the Magi, and their history, you will appreciate the sharp observations and the wide scholarship that are conveniently collected in one volume by the author.

My Comments
While PWR does a credible job observing the differences within the gospels of Matthew and Luke, his interpretation is weak and skeptical. He concludes that the nativity narratives of Matthew and Luke conflict with each other, and proceeds with his own version of hermeneutic of suspicion. In trying to make sense of the 'conflicting data,' PWR mixes different personalities from different time periods in order to create a more 'meaningful' story, a 'history that meets his own needs' (x). So we hear Santa Claus, Marco Polo, ancient Zoroastrians in the first century, the Roman Church from the Middle Ages, on the basis that history needs to be modified for the benefit of his personal understanding. Quite a bold move.

He points out accurately that Matthew mentions Magi, while Luke talks about shepherds and question this contradiction. Without much explanation why, he chooses to go with Matthew's version, centering his search on one premise: "Everything relates to one subject:" the Magi (15). My question: Is this already too self-limiting? Will this constrain scholarship per se?

It is sometimes not easy to critique this book, as it is a book mixed with imagination and facts, of scientific data as well as his creatively worded narrative of his own journey and interpretation.

In his journey, he encounters people of different faiths. In his search for the birthplace of Jesus, he works on a lateral level, seeking to discover a horizontal connection between the ancient Persians and the Jews. (54) This downplays any supernatural work from above.  Being a Kabbalah teacher himself, I am not surprised that he wears this lens of interpretation. Why choose to study the Magi and not the shepherds? This is because the Magi has a lot more 'mystical' element, as Kabbalah itself centers on mysticism. Hence, scholarship and research becomes subject to this lens of mysticism. PWR admits to discarding some material of history to fit his ends. Thus with such an attitude, only the mysterious stuff has a higher chance of catching his eye. I find this type of scholarship less credible. PWR begins well and makes good observations, but ultimately stutters in his interpretation and overwhelmingly Kabbalah-centric focus. His sense of feeling successful is determined by him getting more 'connected' to the Magi in the gospels (367).

For example, this conclusion is so Magi-centric:
"The Magi, as I see them - thanks to Marco Polo - came to pay homage not to Christ but to the whole world; to celebrate the still, sad music of humanity, as well as its extraordinary ability to climb ceaselessly toward higher and higher goals, using the strength acquired through countless falls." (382)

PWR practices a form of panentheism, where the highest goal is the completion of the journey from 'self' to 'Self.' In simpler terms, it is a belief that the ultimate 'god' is within oneself.

Overall, I find that while PWR's research and scholarship is impressive, and his active mind asks good questions, his conclusions remain somewhat weak. It is like using Google to grab a massive amount of statistics on a certain topic and try to interpret them. Such a task is in itself complicated, and does not give one a good chance at accurate conclusions.

If you want to read the book, read it for its many fascinating observations about the 'contradictions.' If you enjoy reading about his first journey from Iran to Palestine, this book is fun reading. If you like scholarship, you will like his second journey. However, when it comes to conclusions, especially his description of his 3rd kind of journey, be aware of the deeply Kabbalah-centric hermeneutic.


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