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Not so fast
Similarities in Christian-Persian traditions may not be what they seem

By Reza Ordoubadian
December 30, 1999
The Iranian

I am writing this note in response to Ms Ramona Shashaani's very interesting article "Borrowed ideas". At the out set, I must say that I enjoyed the article, and I admire and appreciate the amount of work the author has spent to research and put together her ideas in such an interesting and informative manner. However, I would like to bring a couple of points to the attention of your readers.

1) Even though the Gospel of Matthew passingly mentions "the wise men from the east," none of the other gospels, nor the rest of the New Testament, mentions the "Magi." It seems that, through the ages, the idea has caught on because it lends itself to wonderful theatricality. It is true that the origin of the word "magi, plural-magus, singular=a magician, a man of skills" is from the Old Persian (Avestan) word /maguS/ (magush), referring to the Zoroastrian priests, it was borrowed by the Greeks and then by the Romans (/magos/ and /magus/) long before the advent of Christianity.

Since borrowing of words (not necessarily the content because each borrowed word is normalized in the language which has borrowed it) is a natural process of language making; as such the word must be accepted as a Greek-o-Roman lexicon, and not Persian. Of course, it does not make any difference where it came from (everything comes from some place!), but it matters in what context a word is used, in this case in the context of three (?) men coming from the east, but not specifically from Persia. As a matter of fact, the apocrypha assumes that at least one of the wise men was from Abyssinia, a place quite to the west of Bethlehem, the place of nativity.

2) Christmas tree, very much like Santa Claus, is relatively a late comer to the celebration of the birth. Santa Claus came of age in the early eighteenth century, a Dutch gift, and Christmas tree came from the Germanic people's use of greenery in either of the two solstices. The Swedes still celebrate the summer solstice by decorating a maypole with flowers and greenery. The Low Germanic pagan tribes indeed used evergreen as a symbol of life to celebrate their feasts, winter or summer.

The practice entered the Christian rituals no earlier that the 15th century and was brought to England by Prince Albert only in 1841, after almost 1300 years of Christianity. Therefore, the use of a Christmas tree is not an original element in Christianity: thus, the Persian use of "sarv" in "yalda" has nothing to do with this practice. It has been really in the twentieth century that the tree has taken prominence and is used widely.

3) It is true that the so-called Manichean Heresy (Persian Mani, the painter/prophet, and the Greek philosopher Manikhaios) has its roots in Zoroastrianism and that the idea of dual light/dark (Ahriman and Ahuramazda) is a part of Christian belief; in no event is there a belief in Satan as an equal of God-albeit, Christ. Besides, the Manichean idea, based on Mithraism, came to Christianity at no earlier than the 3rd century after the advent of Christianity.

Interestingly enough, Manicheanism adopted such elements of Christianity as baptism, the Eucharist, and the third sacrament of remission of sins at the time of death, but rejected the reality of Christ's body and free will. Mithras (Mithra), the Persian god of light, the chief "yazata" and the guardian against evil, often identified with the sun, only obliquely may have affected Christianity, but not Christmas. If anything, Mithraism was a rival to Christianity, although many of the tenants of the two religions compare well with each other.

The religion was brought to Rome in 68 B.C. and spread rapidly through out the Roman Empire. As Ms. Shashaani points out, no less person than C.G. Jung deals with the notion of Mithra, but only in the context of dealing with archetypes, which Mithra is. Archetypes are the backbone of the human collective unconscious; therefore, the same archetype independently may manifest in any human being or any human culture.

Many Native American tribal beliefs are based on the sun-even more, for example, the Aztecs. One cannot argue that the Aztecs did borrow the notion of the sun worship from the Persians. It is always dangerous to approach such matters with naïve optimism because unreasoned cultural anthropology or linguistics, or theology is often misleading, if not self-deluding.

4) Who can be sure when Christ was born? No records were kept, and the earliest Gospel was written down-admittedly based on oral or fragments of written records-more than fifty years after the crucifixion. Christ may have been born December 25 or January 6-in the year 4 B.C. or A.D. 6. At noon or at night!

None of this matters because it is the spirit of the birth that is celebrated, not the physical birth itself-although some may wish for that. One cannot connect "yalda" with the birth of Christ because there is no connection except the argument that December 25 is not necessarily the date of His birth or that it was the assumed date of birth of Mithra. Where do we go from here? I suggest no where-just remain in intellectual limbo because no rational projection can be made.

It seems that one should distinguish between theology and cultural appendages to that theology. There is always the spiritual element that is systematically formalized by theology. Then, there is the popular culture that becomes a part of the tradition. For example, there is no Santa Claus or Christmas tree as a part of the Christian theology, but there they are: to celebrate the event. People do what they do to celebrate a matter of spirit with the ritual of matter. What about gift giving? There is no theological base for it, but we do, and I am glad of it; as we also give in Norooz.

It must be a great burden to want to be number one or the source of all that happens in the universe. Nothing is independent from any other thing, and all are related in a quantum, as the theory of chaos proposes. There is no such a thing as independence, but there is certainly interdependence. Eventually, in this small, global village, this earth, we borrow and influence each other in many subtle and not-so-subtle ways. Nothing grows in a vacuum nor from "zero."

It is the beauty of human creativity that can retell the same story over and again, but in a new fashion. It is also the imperative that we build newer things upon the old. Without Newton's theory of gravity, Eistein could not formulate his theories. One must realize that Newton did not produce what Einstein did. To paraphrase Ecclesiastes, "there is nothing new under the sun."

The glory of being ONE-HUMAN being with diverse roots is a great solace for me. I do not want to presume that what I have thought of is unique to me and no one else can think of the same. Let me be the inheritor of all and thankful for the same. One must cease at some point to have a need to prove that the world is his child. There are other parents to claim the honors, a collective Parent.

NOTE: Just so that your readers might know where I am coming from, allow me to say that, if anything, I am a mystic; I take Rumi (Molavi) seriously, even though I am not a Sufi. I am a universalist in theology and temperament who believes boundaries limiting and hubris unbecoming a mature mind. My lot is the whole world, not a small portion of it.

Reza Ordoubadian holds a Ph.D. degree in English and linguistics. He has held a professorship at Middle Tennessee State University and Visiting Professorship at Umea University (Sweden). He has published numerous pieces of fiction and poetry as well as scholarly articles and books on both sides of the ocean. He was the editor of SECOL Review for 18 years.

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