Friday, April 14, 2006

Iran, Easter, and Alternate History

This is what it's all about, folks. For the benefit of my non-Christian friends, Christianity is not about the cargo cult of Christmas, nor does it have anything to do with hard-boiled eggs, rabbits, or jelly beans. The Messiah did not come to Earth to bring candy and toys for good little goys, nor did He come here to deliver some mushy and vaguely touchy-feely message about holding hands with your neighbor and singing Kumbayah. These four days, beginning Thursday and continuing through Sunday, are when we remember that the Word became Flesh to deliver the good news about eternal life, and His final lesson was expressed by His suffering the absolute worst that this world has to offer, and yet rising above it.

The Resurrection is critical. Without the Resurrection, there is no Christianity.

But enough sermonizing. I'm going to be pretty busy for the next few days, so here's the idea I want to leave you to think about:

Beginning in 597 BC (the whole process actually took about 16 years) the Babylonians under King Nebuchadnezzar II leveled Jerusalem and took the surviving population back to Babylon (present-day Iraq) as slaves. When the Persians (present-day Iranians) under Cyrus the Great conquered the Babylonians in 537 BC, they freed the Hebrews and allowed them to return to Palestine, and about 40,000 chose to do so. This period, called the Babylonian Captivity, is when the Hebrew script replaced the earlier Israelite script, the Torah became codified, and Judaism became the religion we recognize today.

Now, while the Persian Empire was officially polytheistic, one of the reasons why Cyrus freed the Hebrews and sent them back to rebuild the Temple in Jerusalem is that he was a Zoroastrian, and Zoroastrianism bears strong resemblances to Judaism. Both are monotheistic religions that worship a single Creator; both see this world as a battleground between the forces of good and evil where mortals have free will and will be judged in the afterlife based on the choices they've made in this life; and both await the coming of a living Messiah (to the Zoroastrians, Saoshyant) who will bring about the final victory of good, the end of history, and an eternal kingdom of peace and happiness. Sound familiar?

Fast-foward 57 years. In 480 BC Cyrus's grandson, Xerxes I, led the Persian army and navy into the disastrous Battle of Salamis. While the Persians outnumbered the Greeks by a factor of better than three-to-one, the Greeks outsmarted the Persians, avoiding a land battle and luring them into a naval battle in a narrow straight where their superior numbers could not be brought to bear. The slaughter of the Persians was terrible, and Salamis became the high-water mark of their empire, after which they became familiar with retreat. A century and a half later it was the Greek, Alexander the Great, who conquered the Persian Empire, finished off what was left of Cyrus's dynasty, and burned the sacred scrolls of the Zoroastrians.

Historians generally consider Salamis to be one of the key turning points in the history of western civilization, as after this battle the Greek city-states were free to develop their own cultures, which led to Athenian democracy, the Roman Republic, and -- well, we don't know the end of the story of western civilization yet. But what if...

What if the Persians had won the Battle of Salamis? What if the Greek city-states had been conquered and Athenian democracy strangled in the cradle? What if Jesus of Nazareth had been born, not in a troublesome backwater of the Roman Empire, but in a peacable satrapy of the Persian Empire, where the Hebrews were respected citizens and the religion of the emperors was eagerly awaiting the arrival of Saoshyant?

There. That is an alternate history idea that should keep your head spinning for a few days!