The Newsletter of the Northwest Branch of the Theosophical Society
April 2014 – Vol. 17 Issue 2
Why does Easter fall on different dates and sometimes in different months? Here begins a fascinating story. For its first three centuries Christianity was expressed in a variety of ways with doctrines differing on the most fundamental issues. A major crisis arose in 196 over when to celebrate Easter; the controversy had been going on before and would continue for centuries. This and other important differences were officially aired at the first of three synods held at Antioch from 264 to 269, part of an effort to establish an organized religion, with a theology, dogmas, festivals, and canon – the New Testament would not be officially recognized until 405.
At Antioch Bishop Paul of Samosata raised the most significant issue by denying the divinity of Christ. It is startling today, but for three centuries no one really knew who Jesus was, when and where he was born, or what happened after he died. This Bishop was on firm ground when making his declaration, stating that Jesus was called "Son of God" merely on account of his holiness and good deeds. The apostle Paul wrote to the Romans (1:3-4) that Jesus "was made of the seed of David according to the flesh; and declared to be the Son of God with power, according to the spirit of holiness, by the resurrection from the dead." Many early Christians believed that Jesus and God were not one, though they believed Jesus was a great spiritual teacher. This opinion has continued up to the present day. So, how did the view of Jesus being one and the same as God become the dogma of Christianity?
By the fourth century Christians had been arguing everywhere over the fundamentals of their faith. It became so bitter that the pagans used it against them publicly. Religion was part of Greek and Roman politics, and though Christianity was not a dominant religion, the Roman Emperor Constantine wanted to unite his empire by stopping these bitter arguments in the West and Asia Minor. The teaching that Jesus was made godlike but not begotten as God centered at that time around a man named Arius. Following an exchange of condemnations in 323-324 between the Arians and other ecclesiastics, Constantine summoned the first ecumenical (general church) Council of Nicaea in 325, to settle what he termed "a fight over trifling and foolish verbal differences."
This is significant, since Constantine was neither a full member of the Church nor an official, yet he called the first Church Council and the bishops obeyed. He clearly had no grasp of the importance of the issue. While Arius was backed by seventeen Bishops at Nicaea, the majority did not agree. He was exiled, his books and those of his followers burned. Constantine declared Jesus and God to be one. Arguments surrounding Jesus lasted for over a century. Some councils reversed the Nicaean verdict. A constant was the underlying political pressure and sometimes brutal threats of various Emperors to force the Church to that ruler's point of view. It was not until 449 at the Council of Ephesus, a singularly violent gathering, that binding support of the Nicene Creed was achieved.
The other great struggle at Nicaea was to decide when to celebrate Easter. The decision was made to link the event with the equinox, in part for popular reasons, i.e., to gain more adherents. The Jewish holy days were not only based upon a lunar calendar but also associated with the equinoxes and the solstices, as were most significant pagan events. To avoid Easter coinciding with the Passover celebration, the present complicated dating system was instituted.
Why were astronomical events, virgin births, and resurrection so important? Virgin births and resurrections are found universally and powerfully suggest a message of deep significance and common truth abiding in many traditions, as Joseph Campbell shows in The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Virgin births seem to occur everywhere "under a variety of guises." One example is the virgin birth of Adonis, resurrected after being killed by a wild boar. He was revered as a dying-and-rising god by the Phoenicians, and Athenians held a midsummer festival representing his death and resurrection. The Aztecs and Mayans told of the god-man Quetzalcoatl. Not only did he have a virgin birth, the religion built around him used the cross as a symbol. Like Jesus, Quetzalcoatl said he would return to claim his earthly kingdom. Resurrection stories are also common. The Canaanites had Baal, sacred teacher and Lord of the Universe, killed by monsters and resurrected to eternal life. In Egypt, virgin-born Osiris was murdered by his brother and then rose from the dead with the help of Isis, his wife. In Scandinavia, Odin recalls his own crucifixion from which he rose from the dead. Certainly these stories of virgin birth, death, and resurrection describe a universal process. Hidden in them are suggestions of events of initiation directly related to the solstices and the equinoxes. In these events all life – terrestrial and cosmic – is linked together. If the initiate is successful, the inner God is resurrected from the outer and “dead” lesser self. This is what is meant by being born again – truly a virgin birth.
The root of Easter is not the story of one individual caught up in civil and religious disorder who suffered capital punishment and later rose from the dead. It is one of a universal spiritual event that results in a series of profound awakenings to a sense of cosmos in daily life. – Alan E. Donant
Recent decades have revolutionized the study of ancient South America. Indeed, this region has joined China, India, Mesopotamia, Egypt and Mesoamerica as one of the few places where civilization separately arose. The long-held theory of first human entry into the Americas from Asia by a Bering land bridge some 14,000 years ago has been revised as sites dating earlier are found. The idea that culture spread south from North America with the Clovis people is also waning. As Dr. Edwin Barnhart says, “Year by year, the list of pre-Clovis sites grows. The ones that date to around 15,000 BP [before the present] are now more readily accepted, earlier ones from 20,000 to 60,000 BP are still contested and some-times dismissed by archeologists as impossible.”
The oldest South American site whose dates are widely accepted is in southern Chile at Monte Verde cave (see map, #1). It was used for at least a thousand years by a group hunter-gatherers beginning about 15,000 BP, and their adaptation to the environment makes clear that they had already lived in the area a long time. Earlier archeologists had concentrated on the Andes and Pacific coast, but older sites are being found in the Amazon Basin, where during most of the 20th century experts dismissed the possibility of large-scale or sophisticated human habitation. At Caverna da Pedra Pintada in Brazil (#2), rock paintings date to 11,000 BP and pottery to 7500 BP, the oldest ceramics thus far in the Americas. In Guyana, pottery remains date to 6000 BP (#3); ceramics spread west through Columbia and Ecuador, reaching the Pacific coast around 4500 BP and Peru around 3800 BP. By contrast, the oldest North American pottery dates to around 4900 BP. Interestingly, below the pottery layer at Pedra Pintada, separated by a layer of sand, are the remains of a hunter-gather site dating to 11,200 BP whose finds do not correspond to Clovis artifacts.
Chronicles from the Spanish conquest tell of civilization in the Amazon basin: 16th- and 17th-century churchmen describe traveling there on broad causeways and canals among a large population. These long-dismissed reports have been borne out by landscape archeology, which revealed remains of large settlement mounds with causeways radiating to smaller satellite mounds and connected to other large settlements by wide straight causeways (the five points at #4s, e.g.). The people practiced raised-field agriculture bordered by zigzag canals filled with fish and shellfish whose waste helped fertilize the crops above. During the rainy season the flooded countryside acted as a gigantic fish farm. Evidence of soil enriched by humans is widespread in the Amazon as well.
Recent finds in areas later ruled by the Incas show their antiquity. Human cultivation of crops in Peru dates to 9200 BP, including corn cobs dating to around 6700 BP (#5), unexpectedly early since cultivation of corn in Central America dates to only 8700 BP. There is also evidence of mound building by 7500 BP and stone cities by 5000 BP. A unique feature of Peruvian cultures is their periodic interruption by natural disasters, especially extreme El Niño events. Such events in 1800 BC, 900 BC and 1100 AD led to abandonment of cities and the ruin of the irrigation systems needed to support large populations in that dry land. The effects could be long-lasting: archeological evidence for culture is virtually absent between 900 and 500 BC. This period was a watershed moment. Before this time there is no evidence of warfare or a highly stratified society. Cities were unfortified, war (vs hunting) weapons were rare, nor is there evidence for an elite living more grandly than the rest of the population. Adapting to the disasters of 900 BC, people abandoned cities to live in fortified hilltop villages, with evidence of weapon hoards, the rise of warlords and a glorification of war. This violent, hierarchical trend dominates and intensifies right up to the Spanish conquest.