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Sunday, December 27, 2009

The Historical Milieu of Christ's Birth (part 2)

Part 2 - Other Pagan Preparations for Christ

It is a central tenant of the Christian Faith that Christ came to redeem the entire world. It is essential to 2000 years of Christology, from the earliest Christian writings to today’s parish homilies. The universality of the Redemption was apparent, as mentioned in the first part of this series, in the preparations for Christ found in the great civilization of Rome. The Romans were pagan, and were therefore separate from the Hebrews in Palestine. The Romans worshiped a pantheon of gods, ranging from the personal household gods to the great master gods of Jupiter and Apollo. The Hebrews on the other hand worshiped the one true God, seemingly unique in their monotheism.

Fortunately, this was not the case. There were several instances throughout the ancient world of monotheism, although these occasions more often than not were sparse and sporadic, not systematic and continuous, as found in Israel. In Ancient Egypt, for example, a pharaoh named Akenaten attempted a theological revolution by forcing the belief in one god, Aten, over other Egyptian gods. This occurred between 1375 – 1350 BC. Akenaten wrote a beautiful song to Aten, which bears a striking resemblance to Psalm 104. The monotheism of Pharaoh Akenaten, unfortunately, died out with the king.

Farther to the east of Palestine, though, there was another group of monotheists whose beliefs developed into a national religion. The land was Persia, now modern-day Iran. The religious leader was a man named Zarathustra (more commonly called Zoroaster), and his religion was named Zoroastrianism. Zoroastrianism, like Judaism, held to the belief in one true God. The God of Zoroaster was a personal one, who would redeem his people. The historical connection between Zoroastrianism and the Hebrew people is fascinating, though sometimes tenuous. It is believed by some historians (including Catholic historian Warren H. Carroll) that exiled Israelites, particularly those mentioned in the Book of Tobit, inspired Zoroaster to follow the one true God. Whether or not Zoroaster actually met the biblical Tobit is not important. What is important is that Zoroaster must have met and discussed with exiled Jews, for his spiritual descendents would travel very far to see the fulfillment of God’s promise of redemption.

After Zoroaster managed to convert the king of Bactria around 588 BC, his form of Eastern monotheism spread throughout the eastern half of the Middle East. Cyrus of Persia may have followed Zoroastrianism, and he did have in Persia magi, who were priests of Zoroastrianism. These magi are the same “wise men from the East” (Matt. 2:1) that came to give Christ gifts by following a “star” (we’ll discuss the Star of Bethlehem in a later post). Cyrus of Persia is the same Cyrus mentioned in the books of Daniel and Ezra in the Old Testament, the king of Persia that allowed the Israelites to return home and worship the Lord. A later king, Darius, would also deal with the Jews, as recounted in the book of Daniel, before spreading out the arm of the Persian Empire throughout the world. Darius was the Persian king that attacked Greece and fought the famous 300 Spartans. Likewise he reached out to the East and made contact with the strange civilization of India.

In India, an odd religion existed. The adherents to the religion followed a charismatic man named Siddhartha, who is known today as Buddha. This religion held that the soul is in a cycle of rebirth, which upon completion led the soul to a sort of enlightenment. It was a near impossible task, which led to debates and doubt over the existence of the final stage of enlightenment, and even over the existence of the world itself. Another teacher in India, Mahavira, taught that the soul eventually reached a state of “self-subsistence,” literally becoming God; not like God, in that the soul reaches a higher existence, but somehow becomes the cause of its own existence.

Despite all these metaphysical impossibilities, these strange theological philosophers still stressed the goodness of the human person. All should be treated with respect, a morality closely resembling the teachings of Israel more than some other pagan nations. Could it have been a glimmer of Heaven shining through the darkness of Hell?

In China, even farther east, there was a sort of agnostic society, which held there was a deity of some sort somewhere, but the more important matters of life concerned interaction between people. This was found in the great Chinese philosophers, such as Lao Tzu (founder of Taoism) and Confucius, who urged morality and ethics. This ethical teaching had a rebirth almost 300 years before Christ’s birth in the teaching of Mo Ti.

Around the time of King Cyrus, Buddha, and Confucius, Greece saw the rise of her earliest philosophers. These early philosophers tried to make sense of the material world, eventually tackling the problem of matter and essence. Thales, for example, held that matter was entirely made up of water. Others followed suit, but it wasn’t until Parmenides, who lived during the same generation as Cyrus, Buddha, and Confucius, that Greek philosophy examined the question of existence. Parmenides actual realized there must be being, that there must be something that is pure existence. It was this early realization of metaphysics that allowed the later great Greek philosophers, Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, to develop their own understanding of existence. This thought they taught to their disciples.

One of Aristotle’s disciples in particular, Alexander the Great, would conquer the world, paving the way for the Roman Empire, which had its own secretive preparation for the birth of Christ (mentioned in part 1). Alexander spread Greek culture and the Greek language throughout the world. It was in the Greek of Alexander that the Gospel was written, and it was the Greek rhetorical and philosophic tradition that the Apostles used to spread Christ’s teachings.

To a secular historian, the above mentioned spiritual and philosophical developments of the pagan world might seem distant and unconnected. To the Catholic historian, however, it becomes clear that God was preparing the way for his Incarnation, even through those who were not his Chose People. In our next segment, we will discuss how he prepared the way for his coming in the Scriptures and history of those chosen people.

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