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Iranian Religions: Zoroastrianism

Zoroastrianism in Early Jewish and Greek Sources


By Dr Oric Basirov

Paper 14 - 17 March 1999



INTRODUCTION Throughout these lectures we have discussed a selection of archaeological material supporting the arrival of the eastern faith to Western Iran. These were mainly zoomorphic and other prehistoric bronze finds from Luristan, theophoric names recorded in Old Persian inscriptions and Greek writings, the religious implications of the imperial proclamations recorded in Behistun, Nagsh-i Rustam, and other inscriptions, and the Zoroastrian iconography evidenced in the Achaemenian artistic repertoire, such as the fire-altars and the Baresman.


All these archaeological evidence come from the Median and Persian homelands in modern Iran. There are also other relevant archaeological material which have come to light outside these homelands, mainly in the western satrapies of the Achaemenian Empire, especially those from Mesopotamia and Asia Minor.


We have also examined the main literally evidence concerning the Iranian faith; these were the Zoroastrian religious litergy and classical, Christian and Islamic records. There are, however, two bodies of written evidence, which have not yet been covered, the Old Testament and early Greek literature. This lecture will examine a selection of such evidence. 



The book of the prophet Isaiah in the Old Testament contains several anachronistic references. This fact suggests that it must have been composed in at least two different historical periods, and, it is generally accepted, by no less than two different authors. These two sources, and their respective dates, are attributed, firstly, to the prophet Isaiah himself, who is supposed to have lived in the 8th century BC, and secondly, to an anonymous poet-prophet during the Babylonian Captivity. This second composition, which contains chapters 40-55, is marked in the Bible by the Greek prefix, "deutero-", meaning "second", and referred to as Deutero-Isaiah, or Second Isaiah, and abbreviated to "II Is".


Many verses from chapters 40-48 of Second Isaiah concerns with the Medes and Persians, the Babylonian Captivity of the Jews, and their deliverance from the Captivity by Cyrus the Great. These verses, moreover, contain striking testimony to the religious import from the great Iranian faith into Judaism.  


ZOROASTRIAN SAOSHYANT AND JEWISH MESSIAH In chapters 44 & 45, Yahweh, the great Jewish god, addresses Cyrus the great personally with the following words:


I say to Cyrus, "You shall be my shepherd to carry out all my purpose, so that Jerusalem may be rebuilt and the foundation of the temple may be laid". (44.28)


Thus says the Lord to Cyrus his anointed, Cyrus whom he has taken by the hand to subdue nations before him, and undo the might of the kings, before whom gates shall be opened and no doors shut: (45.1)


I will go before you and level the swelling hills; I will break down the gates of bronze and hack through iron bars. (45.2)


I will give you treasures from dark vaults, hoarded in secret places, that you may know that I am the Lord, Israel's God who calls you by name. (45.3)


For the sake of Jacob my servant and Israel my chosen I have called you by name and given your title, though you have not known me. (45.4)


Further, Yahweh proclaims through his prophet to the Jews:

I alone have roused this man (Cyrus) in righteousness, and I will smooth his path before him; he shall rebuilt my city and let my exiles go free. (45.13)


Thus the unknown author of Second Isaiah speaks joyfully to his fellow captive Jews that the deliverance shall come to them through Cyrus, whom Yahweh has appointed as his Messiah. It is remarkable indeed, that in Second Isaiah, alone out of all the Old Testament, the term "messiah", in the sense of an anointed deliverer of the Jews, is used for a non-Jew, in fact for a Zoroastrian. The fact that the earliest reference to a messianic deliverer in any religion is the Zoroastrian term "Saoshyant", provides a reasonable basis for an argument that the adoption of such concept by the Jews may have been directly influenced by their coming into contact with the Zoroastrians in the West.


Second Isaiah contains other startlingly original theological statements, which seem to have been new and unfamiliar to the Jews, but remarkably Zoroastrian in character.  


CREATION OF THE WORLD Any Hebrew literature which can be dated conclusively to a period before the time of Second Isaiah, lacks in any significant reference to Jewish cosmogony. Such absence is particularly conspicuous in respect of the belief, that it was Yahweh who created the world. Then suddenly it becomes one of the principal themes of Second Isaiah, chapters 40-48. This phenomenon gains further credence from the fact that cosmogony was not the primary purpose of the composition of Second Isaiah. This work, as it is well known, was intended to prepare the Jews for their imminent deliverance, by the ordained agent of Yahweh, Cyrus the great. It would have been enough for the author to emphasise that Yahweh possessed adequate power to materialise the promised deliverance. There was hardly any need for the cosmological framework within which the impending deliverance is announced.


These two concepts, that is to say, the coming of the Saviour, and the creation of the world by a single supreme deity, are principal canons of Zoroastrianism, the prominence of which can be traced to the prophet himself. The resolution with which the author of Second Isaiah returns to these thoroughly Zoroastrian concepts, again and again, indicates that he expected them to be unfamiliar to the Jews, and not readily accepted, or even understood by them. One can make a reasonable assumption that, under the influence of the Iranian faith, it was deemed necessary by the Jewish author to place these two doctrines, side-by-side, at the forefront of his book.


SECOND ISAIAH AND YASNA 44 The particular Gatha which provides striking parallels for Second Isaiah is Yasna 44. This Yasna is composed as a series of questions addressed by Zoroaster to Ahura Mazdah. The expected answers, although none given in Yasna 44, are either "I am" or "I do". Not only is the use of such rhetorical questions a conspicuous peculiarity of the style of Second Isaiah, but almost all the questions which make up the cosmological part of the Gathas (44.3-5) are either asked or answered in Second Isaiah, with Yahweh taking the place of Ahura Mazdah. These parallels, given the time and circumstances, cannot be logically isolated from the advent of Zoroastrianism in the West, and the imminent conquest of Babylon by a member of that faith. It is reasonable to assume that these events inspired the Jewish author of Second Isaiah to accept the Zoroastrian message of hope, and the new concept the Creator, seeing the latter naturally in his own term as Yahweh.



In the 6th and 5th centuries BC, the Greeks of the mainland were apparently more than a century behind the times in comparison with the enlightened cosmological thoughts of the Ionians. The earliest home of Greek philosophy was Miletus, the metropolis of Ionia, situated at the mouth of the river Meander. It was therefore, the edge of Asia and the westernmost provinces of the Achaemenian Empire, which was the birthplace of Greek philosophy. The rise of philosophy there has been generally attributed in the past to the stimulus of contact, through trade and travel, with Egyptian and Babylonian thoughts. More recently, however, such impetus is also credited to the Iranian influence, exerted possibly as early as the Median times. Such influence is more apparent in the early Milesian interest in cosmogony (The theory of the origin of the universe) and cosmology (Science of the universe), which as was the case with Second Isaiah, coincides with the arrival of the Zoroastrian religion, and the conquest of the West by the Iranians. These doctrines, as it is well-known, were the field of thoughts which deeply concerned Iranian priests of both the old religion and of Zoroastrianism. Moreover, the Iranian speculation on these matters were more systematic than those of the Babylonians and Egyptians. For example, the Iranian division of the physical world into seven distinct parts, created in orderly succession, appears a more potent agent than Egyptian primordial divinity of Time to stimulate early Greek concept of cosmogony.



Thales, c.585, is perhaps the first Ionian philosopher whose work bears certain elements of the Iranian faith. His novel idea of cosmology, which has survived in the works of Aristotle, states that: "the earth floats on water, water is the material cause of all things, and all things are full of god". All these accord with Zoroastrian cosmogony, where "earth rests like a great disc on water", "water is the first of six creations and essential to all things", and "the great Amesha Spentas are present in all their creations".


Anaximander, c.550, saw the origin of the world in an uncreated god coming from what he called the "Boundless". It is indeed striking that Anaximander should have thought of this at the very time when Zoroastrian priests can be held to have been present and active in Ionia. These priests would have been talking of their own religious beliefs, which included faith in one uncreated god, who dwells in Boundless Light, i.e the Avestan "Anagra Raocha".


Pythagoras of Samos, c.531, is credited with originating Orphism in the latter part of sixth century BC This practice, adopted in diverse Graeco-Oriental cults, gives place of honour to poems ascribed to the ancient Orpheus. It contains, among other ideas, salvation-beliefs and cosmogonic doctrines which are remarkably Zoroastrian in character.


Anaximenes, c.525. His cosmology sees the earth supported on air, above which float the sun, moon and stars. These luminaries do not disappear underneath the earth when they are not visible, but are hidden behind a great mountain to the north. The concept of a mountain peak causing night and day does not accord with Greek tradition. It is, however, the Mount Hara (modern Alborz) of the Avesta, which is credited with such power.


Heraclitus of Ephesus, c.500, seems to have been influenced by the Iranian religion even more strongly than his predecessors. His writings emphasise the significance fire in creation, the existence of a cosmic order (Avestan "Asha"), and the fact that god is wisdom (Ahura Mazdah means "Wise Lord). His funerary directives accord exactly with those of the Zoroastrian religion, in which he advocates exposure, and forbids burial or cremation. Exposure of the corpse was held as the most repugnant idea by the Greeks (See, e.g., Iliad, XVIII.175-185, XXII.335-350, XXIII.20-25), but a required observance in Zoroastrianism.


Heraclitus, moreover, ridiculed men who prayed to statues, with a vigour equal to that of the Jews and Muslims. Other Greeks of his time joined in this rejection, and later Herodotus (I.132) praised the Persians for not worshipping statues or having any temples.



CONCLUSION Zoroastrian influence on Ionian philosophy did not continue far into the fifth century. One obvious cause was the Persian wars and their aftermath. The most important factor, however, was the growth of Greek rationalism, and the scientific approach to their intellectual thoughts.  Nonetheless, the invasion of Greek speculation by Zoroastrian beliefs in the period between 550 to 480 BC produced a permanent enlargement of their world and made them think of infinity and spirituality. Henceforth, the Greek life was no longer bounded by womb and tomb.




*1 Smith, M., "II Isaiah and the Persians", Journal of the American Oriental Society 83, (1963), pp.415-21

*2 West, M.L., "Early Greek Philosophy and the Orient", Oxford, (1971).   





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