Not so fast
Similarities in Christian-Persian traditions may not be what
By Reza Ordoubadian
December 30, 1999
I am writing this note in response to Ms Ramona Shashaani's very interesting
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
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.