Mystery of the Magi: The Quest to Identify the Three Wise Men by Dwight Longenecker, Regnery History, 320pp, £17.99

For all those who dismiss the story of the Magi as a fairy tale, Fr Dwight Longenecker has produced a lively, well-researched and fascinating book that separates the truth from the legends and makes a convincing case for concluding that “the wise men were Nabatean courtiers on horseback, travelling a few hundred miles to Jerusalem on their own well-travelled trade routes.”

This is not to debunk the myths so much as to give them a real historical underpinning and background. Reminding us that the passage in Matthew 2:1-13 makes no mention of kings, numbers or names, Fr Longenecker shows how the legend of three Persian kings with the names of Caspar, Melchior and Balthasar came about through the famous 6th-century frescoes at Ravenna. In doing so, he reminds us that truth is stranger and more satisfying than fiction. The story of the Magi is not “a fabulous fiction after all”. And if it is seen to be true: “We must treat the rest of the Gospel stories with similar seriousness.” In other words, “we must confront the reality of Jesus Christ”. Writing as “an amateur scholar and freelance sleuth”, the author has produced a first-class piece of detective work.

Saint Bruno the Carthusian, by André Ravier SJ, Gracewing, 198pp, £9.99

The author of this biography argues that “the Bruno of history far surpassed the Bruno of legend”. In other words, the unyielding, unworldly ascetic who trod a lonely, sacrificial path to God in the mountains near Grenoble is shown as a great-hearted human being, devoted to his few companions and to the Church of his time, whose flaws he recognised only too well.

Fr Ravier succeeds in making St Bruno, the founder of the strictest order in the Church, come alive in the authenticated documents he presents and interprets. Bruno’s saintliness is evidenced by his single-minded zeal, prayer life and fidelity.

Fr Ravier comments that “In every society, but especially in a corrupt one, such devotion to the words of God, such love of noble friendship, such integrity, destine a person to be, in a real sense, solitary.” Repelled by the rampant simony evident among the ecclesiastics at Rheims, where he was much admired as a scholar and a man of great moral authority, Bruno walked into the wilderness of La Grande Chartreuse with six companions in June 1084, to live the eremitical life in common – a new form of religious life, alone yet together. A thousand years later, this formidable vision is still followed by men with a rare vocation to live out their longing for closeness to God in silence and severe simplicity.

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