Sunday, February 3, 2008

Of the 3 Magi and Mithra

Since its Ash Wednesday today, I thought I'd blog on something related to the topic of Christianity. Early this year, I bought a book called Map of Bones by (my new favorite author) James Rollins. The book is about the adventures of Sigma Force, a group of scientists/spy working under DARPA (the same government entity that practically "invented" the Internet as we know it today).

As I mentioned in my earlier blog, the book revolves around the bones of the 3 Magi, who supposedly visited Jesus as a child. The word "magi" came from some ancient (Greek?) word that is closer to what we know today as "magician". But we're not talking here of David Copperfield or Penn & Teller. "Magician", in those days, referred more to men of wisdom (hence, the "wise men"). It is generally believed, even by Biblical scholars, that these magi were of Persian origin. Anyway, going back to the story, these bones were of interest to some clandestine and ancient order called the Dragon Court (I'm not sure if this order is of pure fiction or whether it actually has historical basis), who went to great lengths to steal them.

One of the interesting but little known facts I learned from the novel is that every Roman Catholic altar must contain some blessed item in it -- whether it be a toe-nail of some saint; or a piece of the Holy Cross where Jesus was crucified; or a lock of hair from some ancient pope. And all of these religious relics are cataloged at the Vatican and dispatched around the world to new churches needing them via FedEx. In the case of the Magi bones, it seems that there are several Catholic churches with pieces of their bones, although the most prominent one is at Cologne Cathedral in Germany. The history of how the bones ended up in the golden sarcophagus at Cologne is explained there.

But wait -- if there were only 3 magi, how come there are several churches claiming they have the magi bones? Well, it seems that there was never really a concensus as to how many magi there were. We have always assumed they were 3 for the simple reason that the Bible mentioned the magi brought with them 3 gifts -- gold, frankinsence and myrrh; ergo, one for each magi. But the Bible never actually mentioned how many of them there were! So who's Gaspar, Melchor and Balthazar? Well, one thing for sure, those names never came from the Bible either. These traditional names were taken from some text in the 6th century already from some writings. So there could have been 2 magi, 8 magi, or even more. Nobody really knows!

One other information that I learned from the book which I thought was very interesting (and got me to do a little bit of research via Google) is the myth of the Iranian god, Mithra, not to be confused with the giant, Pacific Island-based insect Mothra, who also happens to be the mortal enemy of Godzilla. Iran used to be Persia. The Magi were Persians. I wonder if there is a connection somewhere. Anyway, according to Rollins, this ancient god had the following characteristics among others:
  1. He was born on Dec 25 from a virgin
  2. He was considered a teacher and had twelve disciples
  3. He died and resurrected after 3 days (his resurrection is celebrated every year)
  4. He was the god of light
  5. catacombs in Rome were found to have images of Mithra sitting on the lap of his virgin mother with the Persian magi offering gifts
You can read more on these similarities from sites like What makes the comparison interesting is that the Mithra myth actually pre-dates Christiany by hundreds of years. So the reasoning goes that it must have been Christianity that borrowed from the Mithraic legend and not the other way around. Some website counter that even though Mithra workship pre-dates Christianity, Christianity itself is based on Old Testament prophecies which pre-dates even Mithra! And therefore, the Mithra worship must have been the one who borrowed from old Jewish concepts. So there -- its a pissing contest as to who was around longer!

Personally, I don't find the above explanation intellectually satisfying. I have always believed that one of the reasons why Christianity has lasted much longer than the other ancient religions is that it has adapted. Instead of fighting other religions head-on, it has chosen to assimilate them. This is not to say that there is no truth to Christianity. But setting aside those subjective issues, I do believe that a lot of rituals observed by Christians today do not really have any Biblical basis, and most likely, came from other pagan religions that were assimilated through time.

Take for example Jesus' birthday. Even Biblical scholars would agree that the tradition of celebrating Dec 25 as Jesus' birthday has no Biblical basis. I've read some scientific articles which tried to pinpoint a time around 0 B.C. when there might have been a very bright star at night (the Star of Bethlehem); and I seem to recall that it said it must have been around March. And it seems that Dec 25 is a very common birthday of a lot of gods (including Mithra) because it usually coincides with the winter solstice.

Worshiping on a Sunday is believe to have originated from Egyptian worships of their Sun god. I don't know where the Catholics got their tradition of making the sign of the cross before and after praying. I certainly don't recall any Bible passage talking about that. While Christianity has (or is supposed to have) a spiritual/metaphysical foundation, we cannot deny the fact that its mortals/humans that practice it. Hence, it really cannot be avoided that there will be human influences over time that may deviate from the original practice or teaching.

But anyway, for those of you really interested in hearing more about this Mithra vs. Jesus controversy, I think this article from Tekton offers a more compelling argument (in favor of Christianity). The argument is more logical and its debunks some assumptions about Mithra that most people (including James Rollins, I suppose) take for granted and makes appear as fact.

1 comment:

hkakembo said...

The Bible is not that old if you figure the bulk of it, even Genesis, was recorded in Alexandria by the Ptolemys in the 3rd century BCE.