The Circle of Ancient Iranian Studies
Iranian Religions: Zoroastrianism
Zoroastrianism in Early Jewish and Greek Sources
By Dr Oric Basirov
Paper 14 - 17 March 1999
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 OLD TESTAMENT, DEUTERO-ISAIAH (*1)
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
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".
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
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.
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
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
ZOROASTRIAN ELEMENTS IN EARLY GREEK PHILOSOPHY (*2)
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.
IONIAN PHILOSOPHERS OF THE EARLY PERSIAN PERIOD (550-480 BC)
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
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
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.
*1 Smith, M., "II Isaiah
and the Persians", Journal of the American Oriental Society 83, (1963),
*2 West, M.L., "Early Greek Philosophy and the
Orient", Oxford, (1971).
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