Getting aHEAD in the legends of John the Baptist

John the Baptist is one of the most enigmatic characters of the New Testament.  His prophetic birth, his mysterious childhood and his outrageous lifestyle draws attention and speculation from all serious Biblical readers.   But, one of the most insane legends surrounding John is what became of his head.  Yes, his HEAD.

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For those of you who do NOT know the story, John made a habit of pointing out the sins of Israels royalty at the time: the Family of Herod.  He especially made himself a pest to Herod Antipas concerning his marriage to his brother’s former wife.   This being an intolerable breaking of Biblical moral code, John was not afraid to call a sinner a sinner no matter how powerful they were.

Herod, due to his fascination of John, protected him as long as he could.  But he knew, sooner or later, he would have to imprison him.  And he did.  In an amazing act of trickery, Herod’s stepdaughter gained Herod’s approval through, no doubt, provocative dance and offered anything up to half his kingdom.  When the girl ask mother dear what she should ask for.  Her mother told her to ask for John, the Baptists head.  Herod, appalled, gave in and allowed it.

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But what happened to John’s head afterwards?

Not a question that usually comes up in Sunday School and nothing in the Bible gives testimony to any such thing.  But legends are rampant in the early church.  And one legend answers the question (sort of) and stands by it even to this day.

SIDE NOTE: Many Christians of that day believed that the beheading of John the Baptist led to the fall of Herod since not long after that the father of Herod Anipas’ first wife, one King Aretas of the Nabateans, invaded and devestated him (with the help of a betrayal from his brother Philip whom he stole his second wife from.  Finally, his nephew too Philips place and had Herod exiled by claiming treason to Rome.

During the invasion of King Aretas,  Herod Antipas was said to have sent the head of John to the angry King as a warning.  This didn’t stop the invasion and the resulting embarrassing defeat.

Later, not sure how much later, the head was brought to Damascus.  There was a strong Christian church there and John the Baptist was respected greatly.  The head was placed in an ‘ornate gilded sepulcher’ and the church became known as the CATHEDRAL OF SAINT JOHN THE BAPTIST.

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The Cathedral was built on the site of an old pagan temple and fell to the Muslims in 634 AD.  According to one writer, the head of John was asserted to still be there even to this day.

Amadiya: another home of the Biblical Magi?

In northern Iraq just southeast of Mosel, stands the flat mountain city of Amadiya.  Once again, there are legends that place the ‘Three Wisemen’ here at the time of the birth of Christ.

U.S. Soldiers Take Part in Kurdish Labor Day CelebrationIn ancient times, the city was known as Amedi and fell under all the great empires of the region: the Achaemenids, the Seleucids, the Assyrians, the Romans, the Parthians and the Sassanids.

From time immortal, the region was home to Magi as most of what is now Iraq and Iran was.  But, as stated before, this was home to not just any Magi but THE Magi of the Biblical infancy narrative.  For eons, this city was only accessible by a stairway cut into the cliff rocks.  This made it a strategic place for keeping watch over any kingdom.  Here you can find ruins of ancient Assyria, as well as a historical mosque and church.

The Coin, the Kingdom and the Cross

If asked what country first minted coinage with the image of the Christian cross on it, most would answer Rome or some place in Europe.  Other more scholarly people would say Antioch or the holy lands.  But, the fact is, the first coin to bear the image of the Cross was minted in Ethiopia!

As stated before, the country of Ethiopia was ruled by a long line of kings who claimed to be descended from the son of the Queen of Sheba and King Solomon.  This Solomonic dynasty reigned off and on for most of antiquity.  Once such King, Bozan, was said to be the Balthazar of the Nativity.

Did the traditional Magi, Gaspar, have connections to northern Iran?

We have already discussed the three traditional names of the Magi (Melchior, Balthazar and Gaspar) and many of the connections.  Gaspar, especially, has strong connections to India and the Gondaphares dynasty.  This also lines up with the Gospel of Saint Thomas who also has strong connections in India due to his missionary journeys there.  In fact, to this day there is a strain of Christians there who call themselves Saint Thomas Christians.

But, in digging through the list of Magi in the recently released document, REVELATION OF THE MAGI, I found an interesting connection again possibly to the Kings named Gondaphares, India and, therefore, Gaspar.

I have found that most of the King names whose sons make up the twelve magi who visited the Christ child (So far at least) have coincided with the time of the early Sassanid rulers and their conquests of the Parthian kings.  Artaban, who was killed by Ardashir in 224 CE, and Santatruq, who was destroyed with his city, HATRA, in 240 CE are both mentioned in the list along with Merian and Khosrov who were kings in Iberia and Armenia.  Among these men is a king named Gudaphar which is, at least, connected to the Gondaphares line.

The Magi Princely son is named Austazp which is rendered Gusnasp by Theodorus bar Koni.  Amazingly enough, there is a King by that name and he and is people have connections to the Gondapharian dynasty.  But he didn’t reign in India.

The Kushan Empire had done major damage to the kingdom Gondaphares left his descendants about 79 AD.  Northern India had been taken from his current successor, Pacores, and most of what was left of that empire was driven deeper south.  However, there were holding further north that stayed intact but were separated from their southern brothers.

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Mazandaran is the mountainous region north of Tehran and the ancient city of Ray!

Gusnasp reigned in the land called Mazandaran which included parts of the kingdoms of Tabaristan and Padashkhwargar.  It was from these lands that Artaban V drew troops to meet Ardashir on the day he fell.  The people of Mazandaran were a rugged, independent people and are know to have held off the Islamic invasion longer than most of their neighbors.  They were known to be available and able warriors and were called upon almost like mercenaries.  After the failure of Artaban V to stop the agression of Ardashir, Gusnasp was recorded via a letter to the Sassanian King weighing his options.

In the end, Gusnasp and his people agreed to turn on the Parthians and become a Sassanian vassal state, therefore keeping control of their lands and staving off an obviously tragic war.

 

The first Christian Church in…INDIA?

On the east coast of India near Piravom, there stands a church called St. Mary’s Jacobite Syrian Cathedral.  But it also has gone by another name:  Rajakkalude Pally (“Holy Magi church”)

This obviously got my attention.  Being so far from the area where Christianity spread first (far from places like Antioch and Ephesus and the sort), it struck me odd when I heard it claimed, by legend, to be the first Christian church in the world!

This church is a part of the Malankara tradition which originated when the Saint Thomas Christians had their first contact with Portuguese Catholic missionaries.  The Saint Thomas Christians had been worshiping, untouched by the power of Rome, for centuries.  But they practiced things the Pope called blasphemy, like married clergy.  The persecution that spawned from that sent many looking for a place to worship as they were taught. This tradition resisted the Catholic pressure and sided with Syric tradition.

They still practice a Holy Mass daily officiated by three clergy (“Vishudha Moonninmel Kurbana”) and there is a mention in the Wiki page of an ‘astrological competence’ there.  All of this sounds oddly familiar, right?  One of the major exports of Piravom was spices for many years.

It is seen in the History of St. Thomas (Page. 15; Suriyani Sabha, Kaniyanparambil Kurian Corepiscopa) that the ‘Megusans’(MAGI), who made offerings to Infant Jesus had been sanctified as Christians in India by St. Thomas, when St. Thomas was in missionary works in Kerala. -Wikipedia

 

There are Magi and there are magi…

I thought it would be important, as a matter of clarity, to state an unsaid fact: there have been millions of Magi on the face of the planet and still are many.

Stating the word Magi, I realize that it means MANY different things.

Of course, we begin with the Persian prophet, Zoroaster, who first postulated the catechism for the Zoroastrian faith.  It was this belief system that had holy men who called themselves Magi.

But, I’m beginning to learn that things took many twists and turns through out the centuries.  And these twists and turns usually center around political power aka ‘who’s in charge’.

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DARIUS THE GREAT

As early as Old Testament times, there were struggles between the political powers and the holy men that the people revered.  King Darius is enveloped in one such struggle for power.  Without getting into too much detail right now, suffice to say that the position of MAGI has been more about social and political standing than anything sacred.

My second point would be that what Zoroaster began may have nothing to do with the various renditions of the faith throughout the ages.  As with the Hebrews of old and the Catholic faith in the more current era, Zoroastrianism became a rather syncretistic  faith.   In explanation, this means that the Magi allowed various elements of pagan religions to make their way into their once monotheistic faith.  Mithraism is just one of the powerful religions of the middle east that sank its teeth into the dogma of the Magi.  In other words, there were those who followed Zoroaster’s original religion and there were others that practiced a more popular version that made the people and the kings happy.  Sound familiar?

SO, just because they were Magi or from Magian stock doesn’t mean they had anything to do with the Magi who visited the Christ child.  In fact, besides three instances I know of (the Godaphares of India, the Baux family of France and King Bazen of Ethiopia), there are no real bloodline connections to the original nativity visitors.

However, I am convinced that the King/Magi son list from the REVELATION OF THE MAGI, although it concerns kings from 3rd Century Parthia, is connected in some way with those men who worshiped at Jesus feet.

For the most part, following these Parthian Kings, I have found many of the first Christian influences of their regions.  Once again, this may have had as much to do with the influence of Rome and their new state supported religion than anything akin to spiritual matters.  But some of the first Christian martyrs of the Persian, Iberian, Indian and Armenian realms came from these bloodlines.  So we cannot dismiss the possibility that some of these individuals (some of which became saints in the Eastern churches on level with Apostles) were sincere followers of Christ.

(Modern day Zoroastrians practicing in Iran and India)

But, let me be clear.  Even though these connections are my focus, I still love studying the history of the migration of the Persian people of Magian descent no matter their religious affiliations.

So…let’s continue!

Artaban V and his Jewish connection?

We have previously touched upon the story of the 4th Magi, Artaban, and his sharing a name with the last king of Parthia, Artabanus V.  But, recently, I ran into something that I can only explain as strange.

There are plenty of connections between Parthians, Persians and the Jewish people.  But all other connections seem normal than a mention of Artaban and his relationship to a Jew named Rav.

Only preserved in the Palestinian Talmud is the story of the Parthian king and a high ranking teacher in the Palestinian Jewry.  Rav (175–247) , also known as Abba Arikha, was the founder of the Talmudic center at Sura.  He and Artaban exchanged gifts at one time.  The Parthian king sent a priceless pearl.  Rav sent back a Mezuzah.

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A mezuzah (Hebrew: מְזוּזָה‎‎ “doorpost”; plural: מְזוּזוֹתmezuzot) is a piece of parchment (often contained in a decorative case) inscribed with specified Hebrew verses from the Torah (Deuteronomy 6:4-9 and 11:13-21).

When asked why he returned an everyday item in exchange for the priceless pearl, Rav simply replied,

Your possessions and my possessions together do not equal the value of this. Moreover, you sent me something that I must guard; but I sent you something that will watch over you when you sleep, as it is written ‘When you walk it will lead you, when you lie down it will watch over you’”

Oddly enough, the Palestinian Talmud says that there was more between them than gifts and respect.  It is stated that he aided the Parthian ruler with protection via ‘magic’.  This bond stayed to the end as Artaban V fell to Ardishir, the Sussanian usurper.  Rav exclaimed that the ‘bond is snapped’.

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The exilarch reminisced during the rise of the Sassanian Empire of a “rabbinic ‘Nostalgia'” for the era of the Arsacid kings that ended with Artaban.  And there is no explanation given in the Palestinian Talmud of why the Rabbi’s magic failed Arataban. What is clear is that Rav was deeply touched by the Parthians death and the fall of his families’ empire and that the Rabbi doesn’t seem to have reached out to Ardishir, the Sassanian ruler.