The Christian celebration of Epiphany is observed, in the Western tradition, on Jan. 6. On Dec. 12, Ross Douthat wrote an excellent opinion piece in the New York Times titled “The Return of Paganism.” The proximity of his essay to Epiphany gave rise to some related thoughts about this holiday.
Epiphany is one of those Christian feast days that many of us may have only a vague idea about what it is supposed to mean, in a larger theological sense. Yes, it has to do with the Three Wise Men (the Magi) following a star that leads them to Bethlehem, where they find the Christ child in a manger. And we have been subjected to countless renditions of this tale in pageants shakily performed by children in our places of worship. But is that it? Is it just a quaint story about a very important baby being born in very modest circumstances — just a story to pull on our heart strings?
As you might have guessed, I don’t think so.
The story of the Magi’s arrival to Bethlehem to see the baby Jesus has been an important part of the New Testament since the 1st century. It is recounted in the Gospel of Matthew (2:1—12). This is one of those passages where the failings of the King James translation come to surface. The King James translates the Greek word here as “wise men,” but that is not really accurate. The Greek word is “magoi,” which is the specific name for the priestly class of the Zoroastrian religion that was widely practiced in the area of ancient Persia, to the east of Palestine — hence, they come “from the East.” These men are identified as practitioners of a polytheistic religion, one that was widely known as a religion of “the Gentiles:” a religion of those who are not of the Israelite/Jewish religion. Of course, Christianity came out of Judaism.
The religion of Zoroastrianism, like almost all polytheisms, was very involved with astrology — they believed strongly that the observation of the stars could lead to understanding of present and future events. Zoroastrianism (still a living religion in the Middle East, by the way) is a type of proto-monotheism — however, it is strongly dualistic in that there are two supremely powerful forces, one for good and one for chaos and evil. There are lesser gods (angelic divinities) as well, the most important one being Mithra, the god of covenants. The worship of Mithra developed into its own sect, known as Mithraism, which became one of the strongest competitors to early Christianity in the 2nd and 3rd centuries. Mithraism was, among various attributes, particularly focused on the individual person’s relationship with Mithra and on Mithra’s ability to provide guidance and protection to initiated followers.
In light of the above, Epiphany represents first and foremost the manifestation of the Christ child to the Gentiles — to the non-monotheists, the non-Jews. (Christos is simply the Greek translation for the Hebrew word Messiah, meaning “anointed.”) Even in the theology of the early church, this was emphasized as one of the most important aspects of the event: this birth was important not only to the Jewish people, but to the Gentiles, to the “nations,” i.e., to those born in places other than Judea, to those who were not fully monotheistic.
Some 2,000 years after the event, the Christ child’s birth still marks the beginning of the Common Era (C.E.), a dating system now used all around the planet. Until recently, this designation was A.D., standing for the Latin “Anno Domini,” meaning “in the year of the Lord.” Unlike Zoroastrianism, Mithraism and Greco-Roman polytheism, both Judaism and Christianity made a sharp break with the practices of temple worship and blood sacrifice. In the year 70 CE, the Jewish temple in Jerusalem was destroyed by the Roman army, so that was the end of Jewish blood sacrifice. One of the most distinguishing characteristics of early Christianity was its insistence on the non-participation of Christians in any aspect of temple sacrifice.
What we tend to forget is that all of the ancient temple-sacrifice religions were very much bound up with the establishment and maintenance of a ruling class of kings and their closely related priestly class; combined, they had absolute power over the people. This was transferred onto the Roman emperors via the state-sanctioned Imperial Cult, the mandatory making of sacrifices to the divine nature of the Roman emperor and, by extension, of the exercise of the emperor’s power through the state. This system operated not only in the Roman Empire, but in the Mayan, Aztec and Inca empires in the Americas, as well — and many other places around the world.
The Roman emperors were absolutely right to think that the “followers of Christos” were antithetical to maintaining imperial power and the powers of the state. One of the biggest problems with paganism, whether the ancient form or the New Paganism of today, is that it is a form of religion that all too easily lends itself to being either indifferent to the growth of state power or, in a number of well documented cases across history, being highly supportive of massive, abusive state power.
Douthat is right to notice similarities between the old paganism and the new form taking shape today. But, there is a problem lurking just below the surface: this new paganism, one that is wrapped up in the “sacredness of Nature” and an all-important experience of “being spiritual” in a highly personal way, may very well provide too little motivation to nurture the well-being of the human community as a whole and to combat the misuse of power by the state.
Epiphany marks not only a birth, but also the birth of a revolution. Jesus of Nazareth was many things, and became many things to many people — including people who held, and still hold, that he was/is God incarnate (“in the flesh”). But even without going that far, from the very beginning, he was, at the very least, a revolutionary. His life and teaching gave birth to the largest revolution to spread across the Earth: the rejection of all temple-based, blood-sacrifice forms of state-sponsored worship. Those were forms of worship that co-mingled sacred and state power in ways that were abusive for the people at large. This was surely part of what Jesus was saying when he announced in the temple, “The Scriptures say, ‘My house is to be a house of prayer,’ but you have made it into a den of thieves,” (Matthew 21:13).
Today, many citizens of “the nations” have become, in a way, the new Gentiles — in as much as they no longer follow a monotheistic Judeo-Christian religion. Perhaps we should remind ourselves that Epiphany commemorates “Christ’s manifestation to the Gentiles.” Are secularized Westerners the new Gentiles?
The world’s peoples lived for many thousands of years following pagan, polytheistic, Gentile religions. But now, they don’t. When the Greco-Roman world converted itself to Christianity, it was definitely not at the point of a sword — in fact, quite the reverse. Today, even in places such as Mexico, for example — where indigenous people have the option and right to practice versions of the old religion — they still hold onto Christianity. They don’t want to go back to a 100 percent pre-Christian religion. They certainly do not want to return to blood and human sacrifice.
Epiphany marks, at the barest minimum, an all-important moment in human history: the arrival of a voice that changed the world — not only in Palestine, but in all the nations. It is worth thinking about that at least once a year, regardless of one’s religious affiliation, or even lack thereof.
Joy to the world.
John Nassivera is a former professor who retains affiliation with Columbia University’s Society of Fellows in the Humanities. He lives in Vermont and part-time in Mexico.