Thursday, December 24, 2015

Juan Cole's Christmas Eve Post Is Great


"So the flight to Egypt of the holy family was the migration of Syrian refugees from a combination of religious and political persecution. A blanket killing of boy babies is what we would now call a war crime, and Jesus was directly targeted. Like little Aylan Kurdi, who washed up dead on a Turkish beach, he was forced by a violent regime out of his home, to seek refuge in another country. Unlike Aylan, baby Jesus survived the journey to Egypt."

While Juan Cole is often not exactly Christian friendly - and, admittedly, the "Christians" he's not exactly friendly to earn it by their un- if not antichristian words and deeds - I love his post today filling in the background history and making some intelligent speculations about the birth and the early years of the life of Jesus.   His analysis of the story of the Magi is the first one that makes real sense, I've generally assumed it was mostly myth but, if he is right, maybe it's a lot more true than that.

The wise men or magi from the East and Jesus in the manger are staples of Christmas celebrations. (Matthew does not say there were three wise men, and early Syrian tradition held that there were 12 of them). Actually, however many there were, the wise men caused baby Jesus a very great deal of trouble.

Magi were the priests of the Zoroastrian or Parsi religion of ancient Iran. Iranian religions like Zoroastrianism and Mithraism were present in the Near East. In fact, the Iranian Parthian Empire (250 BC-220 AD), stretching from Afghanistan to Mesopotamia, had taken the the Near East and greater Syria away from Rome briefly for a couple of years some 33 years before Jesus was born. In that couple of years, the Iranians deposed the Rome-appointed local governor, Herod the Great, who fled to Rome, and the Iranians installed the Hasmonean, Antigonus, son of Aristobulus II, as their governor.

Herod intrigued with Mark Antony, who was planning a counter-offensive, and offered him a bribe, and talked up the Persian threat, so that the Roman senate appointed him king over the territory when Mark Antony took it back. Herod played the same Iran card with the Roman Senate that Binyamin Netanyahu now plays with the US Congress.

So Zoroaster predicted that following a star would lead his priests to a nativity scene, where they would find the world-savior, which they would have called Saoshyant.
Oh, no, Iranian religious leaders spreading their religious ideology in Syria! Alert the Republican National Committee!
The delegation of wise men from Iran appear to have met with Herod before they went off wandering around looking for the savior. Herod tried to keep good diplomatic relations with the neighboring Parthian Empire, still strong in what is now Iraq, explaining why he might have given the priests safe passage.

In any case, an Iranian invasion had deposed Herod once, and he would have been very nervous about Iranian priests spreading end-of-days talk about the rise of an everlasting king. You just have to read the Qumran scrolls to see that some Jewish sects would have been primed for this Iranian message. According to Matthew, their millenarianism got back to Herod.
He says that the magi were instructed in a dream not to go back for an audience with Herod after he had been angered by their prophecy, and so they departed directly “to their own country, by another way.” I.e. they sneaked back to Iran, avoiding Herod’s guards.
Herod, having heard the Zoroastrian prophecy that the Saoshyant or eternal monarch had just been born, took it literally and was afraid that on reaching adolescence an Iranian-inspired boy-king would dethrone him, just as the Parthian emperor had in 39 BC at the beginning of his career. So he announced he would kill all boy babies 2 years old or less

Most important of all, Juan Cole notes how the American congress would never let a refugee Baby Jesus or his parents into the country, he would be excluded under laws and measures proposed by, mostly, the Republicans.   Cole's take on Matthew 25 will give me a lot to think about for weeks, maybe years to come.  I will be sending extra money to Oxfam Syrian Refugee effort and the Catholic Near East Welfare Association, both of which aid refugees and others regardless of their religion, citizenship or other status.   


  1. I'm not sure such a slaughter ever happened. If it did, it missed the rest of the Gospel writers and the non-canonical gospels.

    But the political analysis shows Matthew probably had recent events in mind (in a world where news was what had happened in Rome several months ago, at best, "recent events" had a very different interpretation than it does today, where "recent events" can be something said this morning on the internet, and that can be stale and "old news" by the afternoon) when he crafted his nativity. Scholars agree the flight of the Holy Family into Egypt is meant to recapitulate Israel's history, as well as give Matthew an excuse for Jesus to be born in Bethlehem and then come from Galilee and be a Nazarene.

    Just as the massacre of the innocents shows how ruthless Herod is, how desperately he clings to power, and how brutal the world is that Jesus has come into.

    This entry at New Advent ( makes me a bit skeptical about the claim of Zoroaster and a star and a king/messiah, mostly because so much of the scriptures of Z-ism were destroyed in the library at Alexandria, and there's not much support in the description of what's left for the star prophecy.

    And some of the sacred scriptures of the Parsees, as New Advent notes, date from the 9th century C.E. onward, so.....

    I take it with a grain of salt, IOW. Cole is a good scholar, but that's the kind of story he could have picked up somewhere without ever really investigating (a little out of his field, I think, even though it's not that far out). So, on the "prediction": eh, maybe.

    I still think Matthew had his own purposes, and wasn't recording history. On the other hand, as I say, a nice analysis showing how the more things change, the more they remain the same.

    1. I do take it with some salt, it's not exactlyl Cole's specialty. And even if he were talking about something that had some kind of a basis in actual events, the killing of the blessed innocents, Matthew would have given it meaning according to his understanding.

      I'd say it adds about two points to the "there was something that happened" side of the scale. I can easily imagine a puppet of Rome deciding to kill all of the male infants in a town or so born within a period in order to protect his dynasty. Look at what Bush I did to try to secure his.

    2. Oh, yeah; I've always thought if it didn't happen, it could have.
      Matthew was wise about the world. That's what I draw from Cole's analysis, which is a good one.