Zarathustra: the man and his influence

by frankbeswick

The ancient Iranian prophet has had a profound influence on world religion

Zarathustra, also known as Zoroaster, was an Iranian religious figure of uncertain date who was the inspiration behind the Zoroastrian faith, also known in its refuge India as Parseeism, the religion of the Persians. While his own faith is now a small minority religion followed by peaceloving and devout adherents, it now is found in western India, eastern Iran and among exiles, who have fled pressures in their native Iran.But the faith has made significant contributions to the Judaeo-Christian religious tradition.

Picture of a Zoroastrian priest courtesy of marzban

Who was Zarathustra?

Most people know of the name Zarathustra only from Nietzsche's work, Thus spake Zarathustra, penned in the nineteenth century. Nietzsche believed that Judaeo-Christian  morality and indeed religious morality in general was for slaves, unlike the morality that he extolled,  the lifestyle of the hero, the great man whose greatness enabled him to transcend good and evil. [Note, ladies great man. Women, he thought, did not qualify.] Yet even more than Moses, Nietzsche blamed Zarathustra for the key tenet of religious  morality, the idea that life was a battle between good and evil;and in this respect Nietzsche was probably right.  

So who was Zarathustra? Estimates of his dates vary, ranging from 2000 to 600 BCE, but recent research has placed him about 1200, an intermediate date that is probably right. He was a priest of the ancient Iranian religion, and a peace-loving man who detested the wandering Aryan tribes who blighted the lives of the peaceable agriculturalists with whom he identified. These people worshipped the devas, especially Indra, while despising as lower deities the Ahuras [asuras] of the peoples that they dominated. Zarathustra staked his flag for the ahuras, despising the devas, and it is likely that from him we get the word devil.It is notable that Hindus still worship devas and relegate asuras to the nether realms

Zarathustra's religious experience came in a moment when he was gazing into a fire. He believed that addressing him through the flames was Ahura Mazda, the deity of light, truth and goodness. Mazda wanted to commission Zarathustra and his followers to work for his cause, promoting light, truth and goodness against the power of his arch-foe, Angrya Manyu, sometimes known as Ahriman. Ahriman was the force of evil in the world fighting against Mazda, and his technique was to use Druj, the lie. The religious experience in the fire has uncanny similarities to Moses' experience of the burning bush, which may have occurred two or three hundred years earlier. But since then the Zoroastrians have revered fire as sacred and so never cremate their dead, as death pollutes the sacred element. There is a Zoroastrian temple in Eastern Iran where a sacred flame has been burning since time immemorial as part of Zoroastrian worship.  

Later Zoroastrian thought was to associate Mazda with seven assistants, the Amesa Spentas, the Bounteous Immortals, beings of archangelic status, one of whom was Mithras, whose cult was popular among Roman soldiers, and another of whom is still honoured now by the persecuted Yazidis of Iraq, who know him  as the Peacock Angel.   

It was the followers of Zarathustra who first realized that there would be a final battle between good and evil when the forces of goodness would be led by a saoshyant [saviour] when Ahriman would be defeated. They also believed that there would be a resurrection of the righteous dead to a paradisal condition.  

You will notice that these ideas seem familiar, and they are. But the dispute is whether  Zoroastrianism influenced Judaism or vice versa.There is no doubt that the two religions were in contact for many hundreds of years, so some interchange of ideas is likely. 


Ancient Judaism

Some people err by thinking that an understanding of ancient Judaism enables one to understand the Jewish faith as it is today, for the intellectual ferment that is Judaism has undergone much evolution in the faith's long history. 

The early Hebrews had little developed concept of an afterlife, for texts prior to the exile of 587 BCE speak of those in the drear underworld of Sheol, whereas others speak of sleeping with one's fathers. Only Elijah and Enoch were thought to have been taken to Heaven, a special privilege. In the prexilic period there was no concept of resurrection or of a reward after death. All rewards and punishments were believed to be in this life only, so no one lived in fear of going to Hell. 

It is also worth noting that the early Hebrews  had a concept of evil spirits, but no concept of a leading evil spirit known as Satan, Lucifer or anything else. The snake in the garden of Eden only came to be identified as Satan by later religious thinkers, for at the time of writing it was a metaphor for pagan wisdom as opposed to the wisdom of the true God.The devil's name Beelzebul meant Lord of the Flies, and was a scornful term for pagan deities rather than for Satan, who is first mentioned in the book of Job, which is post-exilic. The similarities between Satan and Ahriman are clear. It is worth noting that the belief that Mazda and Ahriman are equally powerful did not arise with Zarathustra but developed later on as the heresy of Zurvanism and was probably inspired by the dualistic Manichaean faith in the early Christian period. For Zarathustra Ahriman was not a deity equal to Mazda. 

While the Hebrews were a people of law, they did not think of life as a conflict between the forces of truth and lies, good and evil, light and darkness, as the Zoroastrians did.

Furthermore, the early Hebrew concept of angels was unclear. The early texts speak of the angel of Yahweh [God] so it apppears that they thought that an angel was a visible manifestation of the deity. Yet there is some idea of a heavenly court, so it seems that the early Hebrews had some concept of angelic beings who assist God. Only later on did the belief in angelic beings develop into its present form, and in this drew the Hebrew faith closer to the Zoroastrian world-view. 

So how do we explain the similarities betwween the later Jewish faith, which believed in angels resurrection of the dead and a war between good and evil and the Zoroastrian religion? The answer is found in the Exile.


The Significance of the Exile

In 587 King Nebachudnezzar of Babylon, the overlord of the small kingdom of Judah, deported the rebellious inhabitants of Jerusalem to Babylon,  where they worked as slaves for seventy years.You can read about this in the Book of Jeremiah. During this period the people of Judah valiantly preserved their identity and monotheistic faith, but they were in cultural contact with other religions in the ferment of ideas that was the Middle East.But after seventy years Babylon fell to the advancing Persian king Cyrus, who established the Persian Empire. Cyrus gets a good press in Scripture, as he allowed the people of Judah to return home, so a group of devout Jews set off to restore their land. Cyrus was probably a Zoroastrian. 

Judah was part of the Persian Empire, but it seems that relationships between Jews and Persian were good, as we do not hear of Jewish rebellions against Persia, and the Persians do not seem to have been harsh rulers. Moreover, the fiercely monotheistic Jews could not have failed to be aware that the religion of the Zoroastrians was very different from the pagan faith of the Canaanites, which the prophets had opposed so sternly, and that Zoroastrianism  had affinities with their own faith.  This was an occasion in which ideas could be interchanged. It cannot be insignificant that during this period of contact between Judah and Persia Jewish belief in angels developed its  form and the idea that there was a struggle between good and evil developed. Both religions developed ideas of  coming saviour, in Zoroastrianism the Soshyant and in Judaism the Messiah. The belief in the messiah is implicit in pre-exilicJewish thought, but during the post-exilic period it developed quite strongly.

That Persian influence was recognized by Jews can be seen in the name Pharisees, which means Persians. They believed in resurrection and in angels, whereas their rivals, the Sadducees did not. These pharisaic ideas were therefore recognized as being of Persian origin.  It  is worth noting that the Bible recognizes that there could be worshippers of the true God among non-Jews. For example, Abraham recognizes Melchizedek, a non-Hebrew, as a priest of God most high.Recognizing goodness in Zoroastrianism is therefore not adeparture from biblical norms. 

It is not that there was a fusion between the two faiths, there was not, and the Jews never identified Mazda with their God. The Jewish faith developed on its own inner dynamism, but the ever intellectually adventurous  Jews were capable of drawing on a range of cultural sources to develop their own corpus of religious doctrine, and it seems likely that some of these ideas  came from Persia. 

What are the implications for Christianity? The Christian faith arises from an encounter with Jesus Christ, but the concepts that Christians use to investigate and express the mystery of Christ are drawn from a  number of sources. Prime place must be given to Judaism, the sister faith of Christianity, whose pre-Christian Scriptures we value and use. We also draw on some of the concepts of Greek philosophy, such as the logos [word] doctrine in John's Gospel. Even in the early years of Christianity Christians were drawing on ideas from a range of sources. John's gospel uses the imagery of light versus darkness, an idea  deeply embedded in Middle Eastern religious thought, which gained much of its impact from its Zoroastrian origins. It is therefore not unreasonable to think that the ancient seer Zarathustra, who seems to have been  wise and good man, had an input into the rich corpus of cultural and religious concepts and imagery taken up by the Judaeo-Christian tradition.    

Updated: 04/26/2018, frankbeswick
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frankbeswick on 12/17/2019

The Zoroastrian influence was in the post-exilic period down to Alexander's conquests, about 527-333 BC.

We know not where the Holy Family lived in Egypt,but there was a large Jewish population in Alexandria, where they would have got support.

There is a legend of unproven provenance that was said to have been found in the Himis manuscript detailing Jesus' journeys in the East. But few scholars have had access to the text, so it must be treated as dubious.This story has him spending teenage years up to the age of 29 in the East.

DerdriuMarriner on 12/17/2019

frankbeswick, Thank you for the practicalities and products.
The film Bohemian Rhapsody brought in Freddie Mercury's (born Farrokh Bulsara) father Bomi Rustomji Bulsara's guideline of "Good words. Good thoughts. Good deeds." It's interesting that he was from Maharashtra, northwest Indian state that preserves the 1,300- to 2,300-year-old Ajanta Caves, seen as religious tolerance through the cooperation between Buddhists and Hindus in its construction and operation. It's likewise interesting that his son and his son's Queen-mates were all so kind-mannered and sensitive.
Do we know where the Holy Family lived in Egypt? There's the notion in some parts of India of Jesus Christ traveling throughout the ancient world, particularly between Iran and India, between the flight into, and the reappearance from, Egypt. If true, that means possibly close exposure to Ajanta, Buddhism, Hinduism, Jainism and Zoroastrianism.

frankbeswick on 05/01/2018

Yes, Religious Studies has several dimensions. To do it you must draw on theology, philosophy, history, literary techniques, languages, art,music, architecture,psychology, sociology etc.

blackspanielgallery on 04/30/2018

History has much to offer.

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