How Zoroastrianism shaped the Judeo-Christian concept of God
Despite the fact that there have been thousands of diverse belief systems throughout the history of mankind, the common theme that has united civilizations is the unceasing desire of humans to understand the meaning and origin of life on Earth. One of the most fascinating aspects of the faith phenomenon is that many religious themes of ancient civilizations, some which never had contact with one another, have so much in common.
For example, the modern day Christian may be surprised to learn that the flood story of Genesis is not the only narrative of such an event. Aside from the three Abrahamic religions (Christianity, Judaism and Islam), the ancient Sumerians of Mesopotamia (1), the Aborigines of Australia, and the Chinese among others passed down oral traditions of a worldwide flood.
Among the most striking parallels between two ancient world religions is the theology of ancient Zoroastrianism compared to that of the Abrahamic religions that thrive across the world today.
Based on archaelogical discoveries, the Zoroastrian religion, rooted in ancient Indo-Iranian culture of the Middle East, is estimated to be approximately 3300 to 3400 years old, roughly the same age as Judaism. Despite the differences between Zoroastrianism and Judaism, there are many parallels too striking to ignore. Like early Zoroastrianism, religious worship of the ancient Israelites was originally not monotheistic but rather overwhelmingly henotheistic before the time of Moses (2).
Both Zoroastrianism and Judaism believed in one dominant deity, but many followers of the two faiths tolerated the worship of smaller, tribal gods for a long period of time. These tribal gods were often bloodthirsty gods whose role was to uphold the survival of their people (3).
As the Bible narrative unfolds, the depiction of the God of Israel gradually and perhaps inconsistently in parts evolves from a God of anger and vengeance who orders the massacre of entire peoples to a compassionate father of His people in the later prophetic books which serve as a bridge between Judaism and Christianity (4). The geographical and societal relationship between Zoroastrianism and Judaism could be used to explain this transformation.
In both Eastern world religions, God is regarded as the beginning and the end, the “light” versus the “darkness”, and the eternal and omnipotent creator of mankind. Zoroastrians believe that life is a constant battle been good and evil, and because they believe their God, Ahura-Mazda, is a perfect, rational, and all-knowing God, they believe that He has an adversary: an evil spirit, Angra Mainyu (Ahriman in Persian), who is responsible for sin, illness, death, and all that is chaos. Zoroastrians believe that at the end of time Ahura-Mazda will defeat the spirit of evil and humanity will be resurrected after a final judgment of the souls (5).
In order to better understand the parallelism between Zoroastrianism and Judaism, it is perhaps best to first analyze the atmosphere of the time and the location in which these two Eastern religions evolved. Zoroastrianism found its popularity in the expansion of the Persian Empire which reached its height around the sixth century BCE. The Persians were ethnically derived from a group of Aryan people who settled in Iran and maintained a cultural identity similar to the Vedic Aryans of India. The teachings of the Persian’s native prophet, Zarathustra, were made the official religion of the Persian empire under the reign of Darius the Great, also known as the “king of kings.” Much of the existent hymns and teachings of Zarathustra are found in the Avesta.
Little is known about the prophet Zarathustra’s life, however the archaic language in which his hymns are transcribed implies that he lived sometime between 1000 and 1200 BCE. Zarathustra is believed to have belonged to the priestly class, similar to the Brahmin of India that performed fire sacrifices. At the time of Zarathustra, many Persians worshipped a variety of deities which included three supreme gods, each of the three baring the title “Athura” which means “Lord” (perhaps a predessor to Christianity's belief in the Holy Trinity). What distinguished the prophet Zarathustra’s teachings from others of his time was that he taught that one of the three deities “Ahura-Mazda”, or Lord Wisdom, was the uncreated, all powerful deity and only God of the universe. Zarathustra preached that Ahura-Mazda was the source of all goodness in the universe and deserved the highest form of worship. Zarathustra believed that Ahura-Mazda had created a variety of lesser spirits (yazatas) that also deserved devotion, to help him. However, he taught that all of the Iranian’s traditional daevas (lesser gods) were demons created by Angra Mainyu (an uncreated “Hostile Spirit”) whose existence was the source of death and destruction in creation.
Similar to the beliefs of Christianity, Zoroastrianism taught that all humans are called to take part in the divine battle against Angra Mainyu. Comparable to the Judeo-Christian concept of Satan, Angra Mainyu is eternal like Ahura-Mazda but is not his equal and despite the Hostile Spirit’s ability to lead humans astray from the righteous path, he will eventually be defeated (The Human Record, 76) .
Many scholars believe that Judaism’s beliefs in regard to angels and demons, Heaven and Hell, and the resurrection of the body after death were influenced in part by the ancient Israelites’ encounters with the flourishing Persian culture in the Middle East, particularly during and after the Exile period of the Bible. There is evidence that interaction occurred between these two belief systems during that time period, and Jewish exposure to Persian culture could account for changes in Yahweh’s depiction as the Old Testament progresses. While modern Zoroastrianism differs in some aspects to mainstream Judaism, the Persian Empire’s acceptance of diverse religions and apocalyptic spiritualism could easily have paved the way for later sects among Judaism and Zoroastrianism, particularly those that would later embrace Jesus Christ as the Messiah. Even in the Gospel of Matthew, it was three Magi (Zoroastrian priests) who followed the star that guided them to Jesus Christ where they bow down and worship him (6).
Zoroastrianism’s potential influence over Judaism can be noted in several books of the Bible. Cyrus the Great was the Achaemenian King referred to in the book of Isaiah as being “anointed” by God and the “savior” of the Israelites. Cyrus the Great, who became king in 558 B.C, was a Zoroastrian ruler. It was under Cyrus the Great that the captivity of the Israelites ended. According to scripture Cyrus was directed by God to order the temple of Jerusalem to be rebuilt and allow the Jews to return to their homeland, and it was Cyrus who provided most of the funding for the reconstruction. The book of Ezra begins with this decree of Cyrus (7).
The Nehemiah of the Old Testament was also a follower of Zoroastrian purity codes and the book of Nehemiah states that it was he who was responsible for changes in the Israelite’s code. With the changes made under his guidance, purity laws were extended from being applied inside of the temple to streets and homes (8).
While there is debate over the actual identity of the Persian King Darius in the story of Daniel, King Darius- the husband of the biblical Esther- was also a devout follower of Zoroastrianism. There is speculation among biblical scholars that King Darius was actually just another name for King Cyrus, although this has not been proven. In the story of Daniel, at a young age Daniel and three other Jewish youths were captured and taken to Babylon where they were trained to be advisors in the Babylonian court (under Persian rule). King Darius admired Daniel and appointed him to a high position within the government and was going to give him an even higher position when Daniel was betrayed by jealous colleagues and thrown into the lion’s den for refusing to worship any god but Yahweh. According to scripture Daniel survives this ordeal. After the miracle in the lion’s den, Darius praises Daniel and tells him that his God has saved him. While Darius and Daniel were of different faiths, it is certainly plausible that having grown up exposed to Zoroastrian theology, Daniel along with other Israelites living under Persian rule, may have had their perception of God shaped by the culture that surrounded them.
It is not much of a stretch to believe that Judaism may have adopted some of its beliefs from Zoroastrianism, similar to how the Christian Church in its stretch across Europe during the time of Constantine absorbed some of the pagan traditions from the peoples it conquered in regards to ritualism, symbolism, etc. Many religions as they expand tend to adapt themselves to time and place. Although one could use these examples to argue that religion is a human invention and tool for political manipulation, this is not always the case. On the contrary this phenomenon among cultures could also depict the universality of belief in a higher intelligence and ever evolving search for truth among all civilizations.
(1) The Epic of Gilgamesh. Earliest Sumerian version dates back to 2150-2000 BCE.
(2) In the book of Exodus on Mt Sinai, Yahweh declares to Moses in the third commandment "you shall have no other gods before me" (implying that the Isaelites have up until this point worshipped/tolerated other gods) and while Moses is on the Mountain the Isaelites form a golden calf as an idol.
(3) Primary Sources: Genesis, Exodus, In ancient Israel the Moabites worshipped the god, Chemosh, the Edomites worshipped Qaus, “El” was the chief god of the Canaanites, El-Shaddai, which is the name identified with the Jewish God in Exodus was originally a tribal god of the Mesopatamians.
(4) For example compare the depiction of Yahweh in the book of Joshua to the depiction of God, the Father, in the Gospels. In the book of Joshua God is depicted as vengeful master, commanding the Israelites to murder innocent men, women, and children. In several parts of the New Testament Gospels (inc. John 8:55), Jesus repeatedly tells the Jews they say they know God but do not know God. Jesus’ depiction of “The Father” is a loving and merciful God, who embraces all nations and loves even sinners. In Luke 6, Jesus says “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who treat you badly…Be compassionate just as your Father is compassionate.” This is more in line with the Zoroastrian view of God.
(5) Source: “Zarathustra, Gathas” in The Human Tradition. Also “Zoroastrianism”, Encarta Encyclopedia Standard Edition, 2005.
(6) Magi: “Zoroastrian priests in ancient Media and Persia, reputed to possess supernatural powers.” (Dictionary.com)
(7) Ezra 1:1: “In the first year of Cyrus king of Persia- to fulfill the word of Yahweh spoken through Jeremiah-Yahweh roused the spirit of Cyrus king of Persia to issue a proclamation and to have it publicly displayed throughout his kingdom.”
(8) Encyclopedia Britannica Online: “Jewish leader who supervised the rebuilding of Jerusalem in the mid-5th century BC after his release from captivity by the Persian king Artaxerxes I. He also instituted extensive moral and liturgical reforms in rededicating the Jews to Yahweh.”
"Magi." Dictionary.com. 8 Mar 2009 <http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/magi?qsrc=2888>.
"Nehemiah (Jewish Leader)." Encyclopaedia Britannica Online.
8 Mar 2009 <http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/408221/Nehemiah>.
The New Jerusalem Bible. Doubleday, 1985.
Books used: Genesis, Exodus, Book of Ezra, Isaiah, Daniel, and Matthew
Overfield, The Human Record: Sources of Global History. 6. Houghton Mifflin Company, 2009.
The Avesta (and the history of Zoroaster)
Want to learn more about ancient world religions?
More by this Author
Photo Courtesy of Thiajmarie's Flickr. http://www.flickr.com/photos/smokeandmirrors/ Reason #1: Bella Swan is possibly the worst fictional "friend" imaginable, and on the rare occassions she does goes out...