Lecture 1 – Second Hour
The Patriarchate of Babylon
I. Mesopotamia at the Dawn of Christianity
The Previous Seven Centuries: The Chaldean rule (from 612 BC to 538 BC), the last national government of the land of Mesopotamia, was terminated by Cyrus the Achaemenian in 538 BC, with a dominance that lasted about two centuries.
Remarkable Events during the Chaldean Rule:
a) Babylon was the most splendid city in the world, with popular temples and mythologies, with famous schools of Law, of Astronomy, Astrology, Mathematics, and Medicine.
b) Though most of the scribes and priests used the Akkadian language up to the decay of the city in the First Century AD, the Aramaic language became the language of popular communication.
c) As a consequence of Jewish rebellion, Jerusalem with its temple were destroyed (586 BC), and the Jewish nobility and professionals were deported to Babylon.
Alexander the Great, following victory in 331 BC in the battlefield of Arbela against Dara III, truncated the Achaemenian dynasty, settling in Babylon, and opening the Hellenistic era in Mesopotamia that lasted until ca. 120 BC. The center of Hellenistic culture was the city of Seleucia, built in the ancient Babylonian settlement of Opis, immediately after the death of Alexander in 337 BC, maintaining a recognized administrative autonomy until 43 AD. The installation of government in Seleucia caused the slow decline of Babylon, until it became ruins around the middle of the first century; furthermore, the founding of Ctesiphon, across the river, as a military and administrative center, led gradually as well to the decline of Seleucia in the third Christian century (with Ardashir the Parthian moving his court to it in 228-229 AD).
The Rulers when Jesus of Nazareth was born:
Around 240 BC, Arsaces the Chief of Parni, a nomadic tribe in Parthia, established the dynasty that ruled Mesopotamia and Persia until its collapse ca. 226 AD. With brief intervals of Roman invasions, these rulers, called therefore Parthians, reached full control of Babylonia with King of Kings Mithridates ca. 120 BC., terminating therefore the Greek and Macedonian dominance. Note that:
a) The Parthian Arsacids were a military aristocracy who ruled through intermediaries, regional kings and chiefs, having no interest in changing local governmental structure or culture. Therefore, Aramaic, Greek, and Persian languages remained in local practice, as well as religion and administrative autonomy.
b) Given the succession of events, the population became a mixture of native Babylonians, mostly Chaldeans, Greeks and Macedonians, Jews and Syrians, and Parthians the last comers; some of them, especially the foreigner Greeks and Macedonians, will be absorbed in the local culture with later developments.
The Gospel’s Narrative (Matt. 2: 1-12):
* The Greek term “magos, magoi” is reported for the first time in the Behistun monument in Mount Zagros, where King Darius describes his victory over rebellious Magi a. 552 BC.
* The historian Herodotus mentions them several times in his History, explaining them to be a Median priestly sect; later the term will indicate a priest of the Zoroastrian religion, which became popular in Babylon during the rule of Parthians, being their own official religion, with influential representatives in the Royal Court.
* Marduk, the head god of the mythological Babylonian pantheon, recognized ceremonially in the main temple of Babylon (E-sag-ila), faded away through centuries of Persian dominance of Babylonia; the cultural and social status of Marduk’s priests passed to the Zoroastrian priests, the Magi.
* The basic meaning of the term “magos” is a pagan noble priest with a religious and civil knowledge accessible only to his class, connoting also special expertise: in religion, astronomy and mathematics if the mention is with positive intent, or a claim in astrology and divination, if it is done with negative intent.
* Babylon, though timely in decay, is the most fitting location for spotting the Star: having the most competent schools, the astronomical records, the knowledge of Jewish tradition, the proximity to the source and markets of the gifts presented to the new-born.
Implications of the Gospel’s Narrative:
- “He came to his own, but his own people did not accept him. To those who did accept him, he gave power to become children of God.”(John 1:11-12). Indeed, the Shepherds are not mentioned to be from the Hebrew people, and certainly the Magi are not. Thus, Luke, through the shepherds’ narrative, as does Matthew through the Magi, relates the call of the Nations to share in the divine plan.
- Nevertheless, the generic call of the nations, as the only or the main theme of the Magi narrative, cannot satisfy the analytical eye. Indeed: a) The Greek and Roman world was already infiltrated by the missionaries of the Risen Lord, when the narrative was written, without them being mentioned as present at his birth. b) Talking so innocently about flagrant pagan symbols, such as a star and the magi from the East, must be justified by preponderant theological reason, since it makes the inherited science of the Chaldeans, searching to reach heaven, so worthy to be rewarded by the ultimate prize. Therefore the narrative, to be connected in the genealogy with Babylon in its center (Matt. 1:17), must imply the meaning of fulfillment of a divine promise.
- Having made a public statement about the nobles of the East, i.e. Babylonians very fittingly, these must be available to the writer of the Gospel, at the time of his writing, an existing reachable proof, otherwise the content of the narrative becomes an empty and disconnect claim. That proof should be the existing contemporaneous Christian community in Mesopotamia.
- Reading stars, trying to connect the earth to heaven, is an endeavor very similar in its scope to building a tower that may reach heaven, this time with emphatic blessing of God. Chaldeans and their endeavor have been included in divine providence. (See in that regard texts of the Chaldean Hudhra.)