ZOROASTRIANISM, JUDAISM, AND
Zoroastrianism, Judaism, and Christianity share so many features that it seems that there must be a connection between them. There is a great deal of Zoroastrian influence in both Judaism and Christianity.
In 586 BCE, the forces of the Babylonian Empire conquered the Jews, destroying their Temple and carrying off a proportion of the Jewish population into exile. It was during the end of the Exile, among the Jews now living in the Persian Empire, that the first
significant contact was made between the Jewish and Iranian cultures. And it is evident in the Bible that Jewish thinking changed after the Exile. During the Exile, Jews had to change not only how they worshipped, since they no longer had their temple or the animal sacrifices which had been at the center of their faith, but also how they thought about God. The Jewish concept of God as their tribal protector, who would save them from being conquered or exiled, had to undergo revision.
Both factors are present, inspiring the changes in post-exilic Judaism: not only the Jews thinking new thoughts about God and humanity, but also contact with the Zoroastrian religion of the Persian Empire. Most of Zoroastrianism, known and practiced among the people, existed in oral tradition: through word of mouth, not by the study of written scriptures. This oral tradition included stories about God, the Creation, the ethical and cosmic conflict of Good and Evil, the divine Judgment and the end of the world. The tradition would also include the well-known Zoroastrian symbolism of fire, light and darkness, as well as stories and prayers about the yazatas or intermediate spiritual beings and the Prophet Zarathushtra. These are all elements of what might be called classic Zoroastrianism.
This is how the Jews encountered Zoroastrianism – in private dialogues and political and civic experience, rather than in formal religious studies. And as the Jewish religion was re-made after the catastrophe of the Exile, these Zoroastrian teachings began to filter into the Jewish religious culture.
The monotheists of Zarathushtra were able to incorporate the veneration of subordinate divinities into their worship, as long as these subordinates were recognized as creations of the One God and not gods in their own right. The Jews would recognize angels as semi-divine intermediaries, but would not go so far as the Zoroastrians in honoring those intermediaries with hymns of praise such as the Yashts.
One of the most important differences between Jewish monotheism and Zoroastrian monotheism is that Jews recognize the one God as the source of both good and evil, light and darkness, while Zoroastrians, during all the phases of their long theological history, think of God only as the source of Good, with Evil as a separate principle. There is a famous passage in Second Isaiah, composed during or after the Exile, which is sometimes cited as a Jewish rebuke to the Zoroastrian idea of a dualistic God: I form the light, and create darkness: I make peace, and create evil: I the Lord do all these things. (Isaiah 45:7) This passage, which is a major source for Jewish speculation on the source of good and evil in the world, denies the Zoroastrian idea of a God who is the source only of good and favorable things.
The philosophical minds of the two cultures may indeed have recognized each other as fellow monotheists, but this central Jewish doctrine is one which was not learned from the Zoroastrians. It grew from the original monotheistic revelation attributed to Moses, just as Zoroastrian monotheism grew from the revelation of Zarathushtra. These were two parallel journeys towards understanding of one God.
There are other developments, however, in the Jewish faith which are much more easily connected with Zoroastrian ideas. One of the most visible changes after the Exile is the emergence of a Jewish idea of Heaven, Hell, and the afterlife. Before the Exile and Persian contact, Jews believed that the souls of the dead went to a dull, Hades-like place called Sheol. After the Exile, the idea of a moralized afterlife, with heavenly rewards for the good and hellish punishment for the evil, appear in Judaism. One of the words for heaven in the Bible is Paradise – and this word, from the ancient Iranian words pairi-daeza, enclosed garden, is one of the very few definite Persian loan-words in the Bible. This moral view of the afterlife is characteristic of Zarathushtrian teaching from its very beginning in the Gathas.
It is also thought that the Jewish idea of a coming Savior, or Messiah, was influenced by Zoroastrian messianism. Already in the book of Second Isaiah, possibly written during the Exile, the prophet speaks of a Savior who would come to rescue the Jewish people: a benefactor, anointed by God to fulfill his role. In many verses, he identifies Cyrus the liberator as that Messiah. The growth of messianic ideas is parallel in both Jewish and Iranian thought. But as both Persian and Jewish savior-mythology evolve, the Saoshyant – and the Messiah – take on a special, individual, almost divine quality which will be very important in the birth of Christianity.
The conquests of Alexander of Macedon in the fourth century BCE created the first global culture in which people, goods, and ideas could circulate from southern Europe, through the Middle East, all the way to Iran and India, and vice versa. It was in this cosmopolitan, Hellenistic world that Jews and Persians had further contact, and the Zoroastrian influence on Judaism became much stronger. This influence is clearly visible in the later Jewish writings such as the Book of Daniel and the books of the Maccabees, which were written in the second century BCE.
The Iranian influence continues to be evident in Jewish writings from what is known as the inter-testamental period, that is, after the last canonical book of the Old Testament and before Christianity and the composition of the New Testament. This covers an era between about 150 BCE to 100 CE. These Jewish inter-testamental writings describe a complicated hierarchy of angelic beings, in an echo of the Zoroastrian concept of the holy court of the Yazatas. The Jewish idea of seven chief archangels probably has its inspiration in the seven Amesha Spentas, the highest guardian spirits of Zoroastrian belief. Jews had their own ideas of angels long before they encountered Zoroastrianism; angels were nameless, impersonal representatives of God’s message and action. But after the Exile, Jewish angels gain names and personalities, and also are spoken of as guardians of various natural phenomena, just like the Zoroastrian yazatas. The Jewish and Christian idea of a personal guardian angel may also have been inspired by the Zoroastrian figure of the fravashi, the divine guardian-spirit of each individual human being.
Zoroastrian influence on Judaism is also evident in the evolution of Jewish ideas about good, evil, and the End of Time. The original statement of the famous Zoroastrian dualism of good and evil is found in the Gathas, where Zarathushtra describes the two conflicting principles of good and evil in what might be called psychological, or ethical terms. Human beings are faced with the existence of good and evil within themselves – he describes these principles as the beneficent and the hostile spirits – and everyone must make the choice for Good in order to follow God’s will.
However, by the Hellenistic era, Zoroastrianism had already developed its doctrine of cosmic dualism – the idea that the entire Universe is a battlefield between the One Good God, Ahura Mazda, and the separate Spirit of Evil, Ahriman. This view of dualism is a symbolic transformation, and an expansion, of the more psychologically based teaching of Zarathushtra that good and evil are ethical choices and states of mind. Both cosmic and ethical dualism coexist in Zoroastrian thought throughout the long history of the faith; their history is not one of a pristine idea of ethical dualism which is supplanted or corrupted by the idea of cosmic dualism. And reflections of both types of dualism are found in Jewish thinking. The Biblical book of Deuteronomy, like the other early books of the Old Testament, was re-edited and possibly even re-written during and after the Exile. An important passage in Deuteronomy 30:15 shows a Jewish version of ethical dualism:
See, today I set before you life and prosperity, death and disaster. If you obey the commandments of YHVH your God that I enjoin on you today, if you love YHVH your God and follow His ways, if you keep His commandments, His laws, His customs, you will live and increase, and YHVH your God will bless you in the land which you are entering to make your own. But if your heart strays, if you refuse to listen, if you let yourself be drawn into worshipping other gods and serving them, I tell you today, you will most certainly perish….I set before you life or death, blessing or
curse. Choose life, then, so that you and your descendants may live….
(Deuteronomy 31:15-19, Jewish Bible Translation)
But despite these Jewish reflections of ethical dualism, it is the doctrine of cosmic dualism, with its mythological and symbolic content, that most influenced the later Jewish thinkers. Even before the Exile, under the threat of destruction by foreign empires, Jewish prophets were moving toward a vision of not only political, but cosmic war and catastrophe. This type of prophecy, after the Exile, evolved into apocalyptic, which comes from the Greek word apokalypsis which means revelation. This is a form of religious storytelling, poetry, and preaching which uses a high level of mythological symbolism to describe not only a cosmic battle between the forces of Good and Evil, but also a schedule for the coming End of Time.
It is very evident to see that even though the original text of the Gathas was most probably inaccessible to the Jews, the teachings of Zarathushtra were part of the religious culture of the Persian people among whom many Jews lived. Zoroastrianism, from the beginning, has taught that time and God’s creation has a beginning, a middle, and an end-time in which all souls will be judged. This is the basis of what the Christian belief is based upon and it is easy to draw the conclusion that Zoroastrianism had a great influence on Christianity and on the Bible.