Dec 29, 2004, 23:23
Almost everyone knows about the magi, the "wise men from the East" who herald the birth of Jesus with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.
But few realize that these three kings of Orient are not Christians or Jews, but Zoroastrians -- members of an ancient faith that not only survives to this day, but holds its national convention next week -- Tuesday to Saturday -- in San Jose.
Who were these pagan astrologers, following yonder star into the Gospel according to Matthew and onto the set of countless Christmas cards and nativity scenes?
And what do they have to do with Zoroastrianism, an ancient Persian faith that heavily influenced the development of Judaism and Christianity?
Zoroastrians are followers of the Prophet Zoroaster, a monotheistic philosopher whose teachings became the state religion of the Persian Empire in the seventh century B.C.
Cyrus the Great, the Persian king, released the Jews from their captivity in Babylon and allowed them to return to Jerusalem to rebuild their temple.
Many scholars believe that the Jews brought back many ideas gleaned from the Zoroastrian faith -- stories that found their way into the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament.
Zoroaster, also known as Zarathustra, spoke of an almighty god named Ahura Mazda. He preached about the battle between good and evil, foretold of a millennial paradise and predicted a prophet who would be born to a virgin.
In the second chapter of the Book of Matthew, the "wise men from the East" are a translation of the Greek word magoi, a tribe of Zoroastrian priests.
These mysterious wanderers were important enough to secure starring roles in Matthew's story as experts sent by King Herod to confirm that the baby Jesus was, in fact, the messiah foretold in the Hebrew Bible.
Joseph Kelly, the chairman of the Department of Religious Studies at John Carroll University in Cleveland, says the magi "enjoyed enormous popularity in early Christianity.''
"As the church becomes increasingly gentile, new converts understandably took a great interest in the only non-Jews to play a role in the infancy narratives,'' says Kelley, the author of new book titled "The Origins of Christmas.''
Matthew' s account of the magi does not actually say there were three wise men, nor does it describe them as kings.
They are not even mentioned in the other gospel stories.
Nevertheless, three gift-giving Zoroastrians pop up every year around this time -- even though Christmas is not one of their holidays.
And that's just fine with Silloo Tarapore, a Zoroastrian Sunday school teacher who lives in Lafayette.
"We're OK with it,'' said Tarapore, who was busy this week preparing for the upcoming 13th annual North American Zoroastrian Congress.
"Zoroastrians are so used to being a minuscule cultural minority that things like that don't bother us at all.''
Tarapore estimates that there are about 900 Zoroastrians in Northern California, mostly immigrants from India and Iran. Worldwide, fewer than 200, 000 people consider themselves followers of the Prophet Zoroaster.
Over the centuries, their faith survived two great challenges.
Alexander the Great, known to Zoroastrians as "Alexander the Accursed,'' conquered the Persians in the fourth century B.C., burning the capital city of Persepolis and its library full of Zoroastrian manuscripts.
Muslim invaders wreaked havoc in the seventh century and continued to be harsh rulers over the centuries, forcing a band of freedom-seeking Zoroastrians to seek refuge in India, where they became known as the Parsis, the "people from Persia."
Tarapore immigrated to the United States from India in 1978 and married a Zoroastrian. She and her husband, Erach, raised two children in the Bay Area. Shenya, 21, is now a senior at UC Berkeley, and their 24-year-old son, Phiroz, is a third-year medical student at UCSF.
"It is extremely difficult to give children here a well-rounded Zoroastrian identity,'' Tarapore said. "Most Zoroastrian kids don't have a single other Zoroastrian in their entire school. You tell people you're a Zoroastrian, and they don't know what you're talking about.''
Zoroaster's teachings are contained in five books, called gathas.
"Good thoughts, good words and good deeds are the core of Zoroastrian belief,'' Tarapore said.
"Man is entrusted with free will and must choose the right path in every act. With each choice, man defines and redefines himself. He must take full responsibility for every action and is judged in the hereafter by the sum of his deeds on earth.''
Jamshid Varza, a Palo Alto software developer and investor, sees the story of the magi as one way to introduce people to the Zoroastrian faith.
"People ask us about them, but the story of the three wise men comes from the Bible,'' Varza said. "There is no trace of them in our scripture.''
Like the Tarapores, Varza and his wife made concessions to Christmas when raising young children.
"When the kids were little, they wanted a Christmas tree, so we got a Christmas tree,'' said Varza, who emigrated to the U.S. from Iran in 1975. "But as they grew up, they found out that this was not from our tradition.''
Nevertheless, Varza said Zoroastrians and Christians share many of the same beliefs.
"We believe that when things go bad, a savior will come and revive the world,'' he said. "Three saviors will come. Some of us believe that one of those saviors is Jesus.''
Varza will be one of five panelists talking about "Zoroastrianism in the Internet Age" at next week's convention, which begins Tuesday at the Doubletree Hotel in San Jose.