The Circle of Ancient Iranian Studies
Book 2. How Persia Created Judaism
Persians' Religious Policy
Respecting Gods of Vassals
All of the imperial powers that the Iranians met had a powerful national god. In Urartu—Khaldi, in Assyria—Assur, in Babylon—Marduk, in Elam—Humban. As Mary Boyce puts it: “This was the time of ethnic faiths, when every people honoured their own gods”. Maybe it was a reason that the Achaemenids adopted Zoroastrianism. It meant that generally an imperial state like Assyria would respect the gods of vassal states—the gods the vassal called upon as its witnesses to the vassalage treaty. The suzerain would make votive offerings to the gods of a subject people as a sign of good-will, most notably if they had surrendered rather than resisted.
Such “respect” did not mean that the imperial power would not impose its own gods on to people of countries it annexed into the empire rather than ruled as a colony, nor did it mean that the imperial power would not use diplomatic, cultural and propaganda campaigns to influence the attitudes of conquered or subject peoples in the colonies. They fully realized how much better it was to promote a sympathetic party in a nation than to batter it head-on with armies. Such methods were necessarily subtle because they would obviously not work if people realized they were being manipulated. These great conquering powers were not unsubtle—subtle enough to fool Jews and Christian scholars for millennia!
Western historians, especially Biblicists, persuade themselves that ruthless soldiers like the leaders of these imperial nations became pussy-cats when it came to religion. Out of pure kindness, they rebuilt temples, restored gods that had been suppressed, and returned plundered divine images stolen centuries before to the renovated temples. All in the hope the people would be grateful. It just does not hack. They knew human nature was more perverse than that. They did it, but the god restored and the ritual presented as proper were what suited the conquerors! And it is most unlikely that the restored priesthood were independent. They were agents of the conqueror.
Proof that the Persians were not tolerant in general is their treatment of their near neighbours, the friendly Elamites, non-Iranians who eventually were attacked for not worshipping Ahuramazda, and were punished severely for “hostility”. The Persians doubtless reached a point where they questioned the Elamites adherance to daeva gods, the people having been closely linked for a long time, but whatever the cause it shows that Persians were interested in other people taking up the worship of Ahuramazda.
A further example that Persians had no excessive respect for other people’s religions is given by Xerxes, who took over the kingdom when his father died in 486 BC. He had been satrap of Babylonia for ten years but, on accession, had to put down rebellions in Egypt, then one in his former satrapy of Babylonia. He put them down with ruthlessness and no religious niceties. In Babylonia he destroyed the temple at Esagila that Cyrus had endowed, and even destroyed the statue of Marduk! It had been the centre of the official religion and therefore of religious and state ceremonial, so it was a punishing blow.
Some scholars see in the action a new policy of intolerance, but the intolerance was of ingratitude or ineptitude by priests who had been granted favoured positions to make sure such rebellions never happened. Tolerance was always shown towards those who co-operated but not towards those who caused trouble. There was no change in policy because Xerxes otherwise continued to favour temples and priesthoods that remained loyal and did their job of keeping people obedient. Herodotus confirms this, saying that when Xerxes marched through Greece, he allowed the destruction of the temples of those who were hostile but respected those of people who submitted.
Destruction of temples is recorded only as a punitive measure after political provocation.
Darius Re-Writes History
The propagandizing inclination of the Persian rulers is well illustrated by Darius, who claims he defeated an impersonator of Cambyses’ brother to take the throne. The tale does not hold water. It is propaganda to cover his own murder of his cousin. The whole tale is written for everyone to read on the great monumant he erected at Behistun. It was also circulated widely in the regions.
Cambyses’ popular brother seems to have instituted a coup in his brother’s absence in Egypt, but Darius thought he was the better man, if coups were the order of the day, and so it proved. To cover his crime, Darius said Cambyses had murdered his brother before he left for Egypt, and that the uprising was led by an imposter, a magian called Bardiya (Greek, Smerdis) who looked like the dead prince and so pretended to be him, yet the imposter would have had to have fooled close family and courtiers. It is impossible. The man was who he claimed to be, and was really killed by Darius.
Cambyses therefore was blackened as a fratricide while Darius became a hero for righting an awful wrong. Boyce draws the parallel of the propagandists of Henry VII blackening the character of Richard III so successfully (with the help of Shakespeare) that the calumny has only recently been exposed. At Behistun, Darius followed the convention used by the Assyrians of attributing his success to the main god, here Ahuramazda, whose symbol floats above the scene, because the god recognized the victor as true and just—the upholder of Asha, righteousness. The example is clearly one of rationalization of the outcome. Darius had schemed and murdered, but for the greater good, it was necessary and right. His success proved that Ahuramazda approved. In the Zoroastrian scheme, misdeeds could be atoned for by a greater weight of good deeds, so Darius would escape with his soul in the balmy place by living righteously for the rest of his life.
Darius had six princes helping him in his plot and he set up them all as special advisers with great privileges. This by accident, or more likely intent, matched the six Amesha Spentas of Ahuramazda, showing again that the Shahanshah was the reflexion of God on earth. The kings from Darius were depicted on royal tombs supported by these six nobles, three on each side, and slightly to the back but looking toward the king.
King and God
The winged figure of Ahuramazda does not represent the god, but his grace or blessing, responsible for wealth and success. The figure in the winged ring often looks like a miniature of the king, often wearing the same kind of crown as Darius on his monuments, though sometimes it has an Assyrian crown. In the Avesta, god’s grace is called “khvarenah” (Median, farnah) and manifests itself as a falcon, just as Horus, also represented by a winged disc did in Egypt. The word for the sun, “hvar”, can be seen in khvarenah so presumably it was the benign warmth of the sun (showing perhaps the origins of the Iranians in colder climates).
When the sun makes his light shine… the invisible yazatas stand ready… They gather up that kvarenah, they store up that kvarenah, they distribute that kvarenah over the Ahura-created earth to prosper the world as Asha. (Y 6:1)
The sun is providing divine grace that the yazatas distribute. The figure on the disc might be the king rather than the god, thus symbolising the earthly manifestation of the god, or that, at any rate, is what Darius wanted to remind his subjects of. The Assyrian king had the title, “the sun god of the whole of mankind”, and Darius wanted to propagate the same idea. Of course, we have no idea now whether even the Persian people understood these symbols as the god, the king, the god’s fravashi or kvarenah or soul, and indeed these concepts seem to mingle to a degree even in the Avesta. Legally, the divine Ahuramazda could not be pictured, so if the image was not the king it had to be a representation of the grace of the god, but that could be pictured as the king! Simple folk and children might have seen it as god, but the magi would have known it was a symbol of one of his attributes. It is shown offering or accepting the divine ring, the bond or promise of god.
Plutarch says the Persian king by custom was “the image of God and preserver of all things”.
Prophecy as Propaganda
Evidence that the Persians were great propagandists, and used prophecy for propaganda purposes, comes from an oracle delivered to Nabonidus of Babylon about 553 BC. Cyrus had ruled about five years, and the discovery of the oracle shows that in the eight years from his accession to the time when he defeated Astyages the Mede, he was carefully preparing the ground for it. The oracle prophesied that in three years time the gods of Babylon would cause Cyrus to rise against the Medes and take them into bondage. Conceivably this oracle could have been propaganda after the event pandering to the Babylonians via their gods, and doubtless the Persians did this too, but scholars are sure this oracle preceded the event, so its aim was to predispose the Babylonian king to favour Cyrus in his uprising against the Medes. Nabonidus would have been glad to see the power of the Medes weakened, and would have been inclined anyway to favour the rebels, but Cyrus was making sure. Boyce comments:
It suggests that there were skilful Persian propagandists at work among the priests of Babylon, who had convinced them of the success of Cyrus’s planned uprising.
In other respects Cyrus prepared the ground too—by marrying into the Median royal family, Mandana, daughter of Astyages, by promoting Zoroastrianism, the religion of the Medes when Astyages might have favoured the older Iranian gods, and generally selling himsef to Median nobles as a man worth supporting, because many Medes were glad to accept his leadership.
The question that this use of prophecy to influence events raises is whether the prophets of the Jewish scriptures served the same role. Boyce accepts that similar religious propaganda appears in the bible and she cites Isaiah 40-48. Yehouah picked Cyrus (Isa 44:27-45:4,13) and the Chaldaeans and Babylonians are punished (43:14;47:14). In reality, they were not because they surrendered with no trouble. It was also not true that Cyrus conquered Egypt and Nubia (Isa 45:14). That Cyrus was called the messiah (God’s anointed) even though, as a gentile, he could not have been descended from David according to the myth, shows both that this was a newly coined word and that the legend of king David had not yet arisen so that the messiah was not yet associated with David. The passage was written by a Persian propagandist.
Though Cyrus is depicted as messiah, and historical errors occur, it does not necessarily mean that Cyrus had prepared the ground in advance, as he did with Nabonidus. He might have done, true, but the legend might with more likelihood have been built up later, when Babylon had been punished for its own rebellions and Egypt had long been conquered by Cambyses. The myth of the search for Cyrus’s decree looks as though it was invented for propaganda purposes at exactly this time. It was found! The same ploy was used regarding Deuteronomy, but they pretended the discovery of it was before the Babylonian conquest!
Boyce goes on to say:
To this striking usage, Second Isaiah joins startlingly original theological utterances… markedly Zoroastrian in charcter.
Plainly they were not original in Iran but Boyce means they were in scriptural terms. This originality in Judaism is what makes Isaiah such a notable prophet for Jews and Christians.
Since Genesis and the Psalms are later than second Isaiah, the idea of Yehouah as the creator appears here in the bible for the first time too. It is a main theme of Isaiah 40-48 even though it is not directly relevant to the objective of assuring the Jews of deliverance by Cyrus as the agent of Yehouah. The implied power of the god as the creator would help assure the Jews that the prophecies would be upheld, but the extent to which the prophet dwells on the creation story shows it was not familiar to the audience. It was a new and unrecognized message to the “returners”.
The fact that he claims it is old (Isa 40:12;28) is a familiar theme of this type of propaganda. The people were being “returned” to a land that they had never known, and were being told legends they had never heard but had to accept were those of their ancestors who had been unjustly deported. So, the stories had to be presented as the ancient legacy of the people. Morton Smith sees second Isaiah as drawing on a specific Gatha of the Avesta. Yasna 44 is the source.
In Yasna 44, Zoroaster asks Ahuramazda questions to which the god replies simply such as “I am” or “I do”. Isaiah only differs in that the talking is done by Yehouah rather than the prophet.
Tell me truly Lord, who in the beginning, at the creation was the father of Justice? (GY 44.3.1-2)
Rain justice you heavens… this I, Yehouah, have created. (Isa 45:8)
Who established the course of the sun and the stars? Through whom does the moon wax and wane? (GY 44.3.3-5)
Lift up your eyes to the heavens. Consider who created it all, led out the host one by one. (Isa 40:26)
What craftsman made light and darkness? (GY 45:5.1-3)
I am Yehouah. There is no other. I make the light. I create darkness. (Isa 45:7)
The passages in Isaiah are not merely translations of the Avesta but their relationship is too close to be coincidence. Someone has paraphrased the content of the Yasna for a different audience and purpose. Ahuramazda is the Zoroastrian creator, this being his main title, and this title is being given to the local Ahuramazda—God of the Heavens, identified with the Greek Zeus, just as Yehouah was.
The prophets Haggai and Zechariah began to urge the building of a temple in Jerusalem in the “second year of Darius”. We get the biblical story of the Edict of Cyrus being sought and found in Egbatana (Hamadan). It sounds like typical Persian cunning—an application of their popular technique of finding ancient documents that upheld their foreign policy. Whether the edict was original or not, it suited Darius to find it and uphold it. Ezra 5.1-6.10 explains that the priests were to be rewarded for offering sacrifices and praying for the life of the king and his sons. As Boyce rightly observes, “the king’s generosity had an obvious political ingredient”. Ezra 6:14-15 says the task was completed in four years. As for generosity, the cost was initially from tribute raised, a loss-leader, so to speak because when the tradition of obligatory sacrifice and tithes had been accepted, the temple became self-supporting, and indeed the centre for collecting tribute.
Religion as Propaganda
The cosmological teachings of Anaximander of Miletus show marked Zoroastrian influence, according to M L West (Early Greek Philosophy and the Orient, Oxford 1974). Anaximander lived just before Cyrus conquered Ionia, but Persian magi seem to have been propagandising before—the priests to the shrine of Apollo at Magnesia on the Meander welcomed the Persians and Cyrus rewarded the inhabitants of the town with tax breaks and freedom from forced labour. Boyce speaks of the “widespread activities of of Cyrus’s agents” who were “gifted as well as bold men”.
Strabo records a tradition that the temple of Zela in Pontus was set up for thanksgiving during Cyrus’s war against Lydia. Originally it was an artificial mount surrounded by a wall, typical of the sort of high open space favoured by Zoroastrians for worship. From then on, for a thousand years, Zoroastrian temples existed in Asia Minor.
After securing the east in several years of campaigning, during which his agents prepared the ground in Babylonia, raising dissention among the priests of Marduk who had been slighted by Nabonidus, who favoured the god Sin, Cyrus moved against Babylon. The whole of Chaldaea surrendered with little resistance! Syria, Palestine to the Brook of Egypt, and Elam all fell simultaeously as vassals of Babylonia.
In 1879 AD, a cylinder was found in Akkadian script, the usual writing of Babylonia, with 45 lines of an edict of Cyrus. The initial lines berate Nabonidus, but are incomplete. They speak of a weakling, dishonour, enmity, stopping the daily offering, presumably to Marduk, and instead offered daily hostility, all the dwelling places had become ruins and the people of Sumer and Akkad were like corpses.
He brought all of his people to ruin through servitude without rest. Because of their complaints, the lords of the gods became furiously angry and left their land. The gods, who dwelt among them, left their homes, in anger over his bringing into Babylon.
It seems Marduk took pity on his people and searched everywhere in all lands…
…for a righteous prince, after his own heart, whom he took by the hand. He called Cyrus, king of Anshan, by name. He appointed him to lordship over the whole world… Marduk, the great lord, looked joyously on the caring for his people, on his pious works and his righteous heart. To his city, Babylon, he caused him to go. He made him take the road to Babylon, going as a friend and companion at his side. His numerous troops, in unknown numbers, like the waters of a river, marched armed at his side. Without battle and conflict, he permitted him to enter Babylon. He spared his city, Babylon, a calamity. Nabonidus, the king, who did not fear him, he delivered into his hand. All the people of Babylon, Sumer, and Akkad, princes and governors, fell down before him and kissed his feet. They rejoiced in his sovereignty. Their faces shone. The lord, who by his power brings the dead to life, who amid destruction and injury had protected them, they joyously blessed him, honouring his name.I am Cyrus, king of the world, the great king, the powerful king, king of Babylon… Eternal seed of royalty whose rule Bel and Nabu love, in whose administration they rejoice in their heart. When I made my triumphal entrance into Babylon, I took up my lordly residence in the royal palace with joy and rejoicing. Marduk, the great lord, moved the noble heart of the residents of Babylon to me, while I gave daily attention to his worship. My numerous troops marched peacefully into Babylon. In all Sumer and Akkad I permitted no enemy to enter. The needs of Babylon and of all its cities I gladly attended to… and the shameful yoke was removed from them. Their dwellings, which had fallen, I restored. I cleared out their ruins.
Another cylinder said that Cyrus rebuilt Esagila and Ezida, respectively the temples of Marduk and Nebo at Babylon and Borsippa. A long poem apparently by a priest of Esagila praises Cyrus and curses Nabonidus. Interestingly, the Seleucid king, Antiochus I, did exactly the same as Cyrus, restoring these two temples and making sure everyone knew about it. Cyrus told these defeated people that he ruled them through the wishes of their gods. Since Cyrus plainly did not believe that these gods were legitimate, being a believer in Ahurumazda, it has to be admitted that he was simply using the foreign gods to manipulate their worshippers. The next question is: Was the restoration genuine, or did he “restore” what suited the empire. Did he restore them in their previous rites and beliefs or did he change them in the process? The Jewish scriptures should be proof enough that he changed them utterly.
Supposedly, Cyrus allowed deported people to return home as the scriptures say (Ezra 6:3-5). Several different peoples are mentioned on the cylinder seals and it is assumed that each of them would have had similar promises to those given above or in the Jewish scriptures. Frightened Biblicists attribute the whole of this Persian imperial policy to the magnanimity of the Achaemenids, with no conditions or ulterior motives. They dare not accept that religion was used for the purpose of foreign policy, to control the subject people.
In the days before mass communication, it was mass communication! Few people would not go to their temple or place of worship on the prescribed occasions and hear the words of their god read out. The strategy of the Shahanshahs was to ensure that what they heard inculcated respect for the Great King, the god that had picked him out to rule the world, and the laws that they formulated and presented to the people. To be rewarded the people must be obedient, and to pay their tithes and taxes was a duty to god. People who did this were righteous. Just in case they were not, and proving the practical nature of the whole policy of retoration, is the fact that “restored” temples in frontier territories nearly always had an attached fortress!—in Jerusalem, what eventually became the Antonia Tower.
The belief in the universal dominion of a supreme god, the idea that a local deity, let us say, Koshar of Ugarit, reigns also over Crete and Memphis, changed the formula of homage but left intact its content. A new ruler received the lordship from each universal god simultaneously, and established his relations to each god separately as before.
The Persian kings paid dutiful homage to each local god as the universal god. They had control of the land in fact through conquest, but sought to confirm it in law—the law of God, whatever name he had locally. So, their policy was to restore what had previously been national gods that approved local rulers, as a universal god that approved the Persian rulers. Obviously, this was a long-term policy. It was winning the hearts and minds, and simple people had to be treated differently from clever ones. That was the purpose of deportation. Clever people were removed from their power base and given a power base elsewhere that they held contrary to the local people and only with the support of the empire. They were made princes and priests in a strange country to control the local people on behalf of the Great Kings. They were privileged but precarious. As Mary Boyce says:
It would have been impossible for the Persians to have imposed their own religion on the numerous and diverse peoples of the ancient lands they now ruled.
Cyrus and his descendants were not so crude. They did not impose their own religion, they generously “restored” the old one, using the proven method of deportation. But curiously enough, the old one had significant features of the Persian religion once restored. Boyce knows that Cyrus was an expert propagandist and there was no better propaganda than religious propaganda. The religious right in America know it still. Even liberal Presidents of the USA have to end every speech with the mantric words, “God Bless America”.
People of religious conviction are convinced that what is good for their god is good for everyone. Doubtless Persian kings felt the same way. Cyrus and Darius were not so foolish as to try to force people to worship an unknown god, but the Jewish scriptures testify to the fact that the restored god might not have been recognizable to the local population, despite a familar name and certain traditional trappings. Pace Bickerman, they rather changed the content of the old religions towards Zoroastrianism while leaving symbols intact.
Boyce, kow-towing, it seems, to the sensibilities of Jews and Christians, claims that what influence there was was “not official proselytizing” but only individuals “speaking ardently” about their Zoroastrian faith. No doubt there were such people too, but obviously imperial policy could hardly have been openly known without being self-defeating. It is perverse to say that Cyrus’s propagandists were unofficial amateur missionaries, and, once it is accepted that they were conducting an official policy, there is no further reason to draw the line at their use of religion as propaganda.
The Same in Egypt?
Why leave out Cambyses? No reason, despite the bad press he had from the Greeks and Egyptians. They claimed he was a madman who knifed the Apis bull and had destroyed Egyptian temples. It seems not to have been true. Though his soldiers had plundered them, he had quickly taken action to stop it and “restore” them. Like his father, Cambyses was keen to use religion. He restored the priesthood of Sais, presented libations for Osiris and venerated Neith, the goddess of the city. He also claimed he was a legitimate ruler of Egypt because his mother was the daughter of the Pharaoh that Psamtik III’s father had deposed. Royal inheritance in Egypt remained in the female line until this point in history.
The well-known letter from the priests of Yeb dated about 410 BC claims the temple to Yehouah there had been established before Cambyses. It agrees that Cambyses had destroyed Egypt’s temples but had spared Yehouah’s. The priests over a hundred years later probably accepted the falsehoods of the Egyptian priests as history. After Darius had succeeded him, the Persians had no interest in countering such propaganda. Darius was the legitimate successor of Cyrus. It is easy to see why the priests of Yeb did not want to admit their foundation by Cambyses.
That Cambyses, a man with a dishonourable reputation, had set up their own temple was denied by their claiming the temple to Yehouah had preceded his campaign and victory. Cambyses had intended to conquer Ethiopia but had failed. He will have left Jewish troops there to guard the border because Egyptians were unreliable, having just been defeated and resentful, and that will be when the Yeb temple was set up (524 BC). Since this is before the Jewish temple at Jerusalem had been established, and long before Ezra, the Jews of Yeb worshipped something closer to the original Canaanite Yehouah and his family.
Darius sent his Egyptian collaborator, Udja-Hor-Resenet to Egypt to “restore” the “Houses of Life” attached to the temples where the holy books, inscriptions and precedents were kept, and theology and medicine were studied. The layman who had a problem would come here for priestly advice. There was an important house of life at Edfu, a great temple dedicated to Horus. Edfu, from the Ptolemaic period that followed the Persian period, is the best preserved temple in all of Egypt, as it was covered in sand until recent times.
On one of the walls of the temple is engraved a list of the sacred books kept there. Along with the books on rules of the temple, inventories of the temple holdings, and religious calendars, there were numerous books on magic:
The Book of Appeasing Sekhmet, The Book of Magical Protection of the King in His Palace, Spell for Warding Off the Evil Eye, The Book of Repelling Crocodiles, The Book of Knowledge of the Secrets of the Laboratory, The Book of Knowing the Secret Forms of the God.
At the top of the hierarchy of priests was the high-priest, the sem priest, or “First Prophet of the God”. One of the titles of the priest Nebseni in the Book of the Dead is “president of the secrets of the temple”. He was a learned man, an elder of the temple, an accomplished administrator and politician. As in Judaism, only priests of the highest rank were permitted to enter each temple’s holy of holies and care for the “oracle”.
Bob Brier in Ancient Egyptian Magic tells us that a function of the priests was caring for the cult statues of the gods. Oracles were so called because they would nod their heads in answer to questions, and even talk. No one knows how this was done. Priests, called by the Greeks Stolists, offered the god food several times a day, clothed him in the morning and sealed the chamber in the evening.
The priests would interpret dreams, supply incantations, prayers, magic spells, amulets, charms, or love potions, dispense cures for illnesses, and counteract malevolent influences. The books were for priests, and were kept from the few laymen who could read, using hieroglyphs as a secret code long after they had ceased to be generally used, having been replaced by hieratic and demotic—just as the Christian priests wrote only in Latin to keep their knowledge from the uneducated. Why should the Persian king have been interested in Egyptian medicine, law or theology? In restoring these schools and libraries he had carte blanche to change what was written down to whatever suited him. Doubtless during the restoration, the priests will have found invaluable lost books! Should there be any doubt he also commanded that Egyptian law should be recorded. Egyptologists seem not often to consider whether the papyri they find are pseudepigraphs written by the Persians to further their own policies.
Historians must ask themselves whether this was pure altruism, kindness and concern for an alien culture or whether here was a chance to strengthen Persian rule through the religious base. We find Egyptian inscriptians that, just as the scriptures say that Yehouah put Cyrus in charge of the world, Ra made Darius king of Egypt. To curry favour with the priests, Darius restored to them the revenues that Cambyses had imposed upon them. He built a large new temple to Amun-Ra, the Egyptian god closest in nature to Ahuramazda, at the oasis of el-Khargeh, and signs of a widespread influence in such matter are found elsewhere. He also supported the cult of the Apis Bull. Finally, a letter to his Egyptian satrap tells him to intervene in the appointment of high priests, proving what ought to be obvious, that great emperors like Darius could not avoid interfering in hugely influential positions like the priesthood. It is plainly imperative that the holders of the posts most influential upon the views of the people had to be the king’s men.
Darius is properly Darayavahu. Yavahu is uncommonly like Yehouah (YHWH), and must have sounded similar. Vahu is the Iranian god of the wind, that became, like the Hebrew, to mean breath and so life, so Yavahu literally means the same as YHWH. Scholars admit the etymology of “DR” (“ZR”) is puzzling. Literally, “zara” refers to the action of sowing seed in the fields (Gen 26:12; Isa 37:30), and seems to be a Semitic root. So, Zara in Hebrew is seed. Yet it is used in different senses either through metaphor or through the introduction of the same word with a new usage.
It means “progeny” as a metaphor of seed—so by a remarkable coincidence, Darayavahu can be read in Hebrew meaning “seed (progeny) of Yehouah”, “seed of the living god”. Indeed it is virtually the same as Israel (seed, progeny of El) except that the general word for god, El, has been replaced by the specific Yehouah.
Curiously, zara denotes Yehouah’s establishing Israel in the land of Palestine in a future day in an interpretation of Israel (Jezreel) as suggested above.
And they shall hear Jezreel. And I will sow (ZR) her unto me in the earth; and I will have mercy upon her that had not obtained mercy; and I will say to them which were not my people, Thou art my people; and they shall say, Thou art my God. (Hosea 2:22-23)
Those returning under Darius could have been encouraged to read Israel as code for Darius, then it reads: “And they shall hear Darius…” And what is he doing? Adopting a people who are not his own people!
Oddly enough, sowing is scattering seed. These people that have been sown in the earth can just as easily be scattered. So it is also used in almost an opposite sense too, making it ideal as a poetic word that can be positive or negative according to the response of the people. Just the intention of the Persians. It is not surprising, then, that it is popular in “late” (post-exilic) works such as Hosea, Isaiah, Psalms, Job and Proverbs.
Having noted this it is perhaps hardly surprising that the same letters signify divine help, rescue or even salvation. In Ugaritic, DR (ZR) means “rescue” or “save”, appearing in personal names analogous to Joshua (Jesus), Hadididri (Hadad saves), Asarya (Yehouah saves), Isra (Salvation). Similarly ZR in the bible is used with the divine name (either El or Yah) to form Jewish proper names: Azarel, Azriel, Azariah and Ezra, but the “salvation” is downgraded to “help” in most translations. Merely to pray for “help” to a mighty god seems modest, unless it leads to salvation.
In the scriptures, the salvation is often from enemies in battle. Egypt will not “save” Judah and the prophet condemns reliance on it (Isa 30:7; 31:3). Chronicles, books usually put in the same school as Ezra and Nehemiah, is particularly emphatic of divine saving help. The Psalms too. Divine help to save the nation of Israel is a common theme in Isaiah (41:10, 13, 14; 44:2; 49:8; 59:7, 9)—through God’s aid, Israel will overcome her foes. Psalms makes it clear that the help is salvific, not merely assistance:
But the salvation of the righteous is of the Lord: he is their strength in the time of trouble. And the Lord shall help them, and deliver them: he shall deliver them from the wicked, and save them, because they trust in him.
The parallels in these verses show that the help given is salvific. This was the intention of the Persian kings when they “restored” the gods and temples of their subjects. They wanted it to seem like a salvation and in their propaganda depicted it in no uncertain way as such. If the people, though, were ungrateful, the tables would turn.
It seems most unlikely that Darius would not have used the coincidence of the sound of his name in his propaganda to the worshippers of Yehouah, that the Persians were building up as loyal subjects in Palestine. Darius sent another batch of “returners”, possibly writing the prophetic pseudepigraph Hosea and parts of Isaiah, both of which mean “salvation”.
Nehemiah and Ezra
Artaxerxes succeeded his father aged 18 when his father was murdered in a palace coup in 465 BC. In 458 BC, he abandoned Elamite as the language of the official records and introduced Aramaic. Doubtless the traditional Elamite scribes had been prepared for the change but more Persian scribes were being trained, initially in priestcraft, then specialising as scribes. These were all hereditary professions.
Under Artaxerxes, Megabyzes (Megabyxos, Bagabukhsha) was satrap of Abarnahara. he was a descendant of one of Darius’s six nobles and was married to the sister of Artaxerxes. He shielded the Athenians whom he had fought and defeated in Egypt, until he was ordered by the queen mother Amestris, to kill them. Feeling dishonoured to have to break his word, he rebelled, twice defeating the king’s forces until they came to a truce (c 450 BC).
In 444 BC, Artaxerxes sent Nehemiah to Jerusalem, instructed to bring the people into the fold of worship of Yehouah, a universal god of heaven. Morton Smith wrote:
He secured to the religion that double character—local as well as universal—which was to endure…
Boyce immediately notes that “Zoroastrianism itself had long had this double character”.
Nehemiah was the “cupbearer” to Artaxerxes (Neh 2:1). Since Artaxerxes, as a devout Zoroastrian, could not have touched let alone drunk from a ritually unclean cup, Nehemiah must himself have been a Zoroastrian. Pollution in the Zoroastrian scheme was the result of the Evil Spirit who caused “dust, stench, blight, disease, decay and death”. Devout people were obliged to stay clear of these noxious things to protect themselves as Ahuramazda’s good creation. The king particularly required this protection, and we can be sure that his servants had a duty to keep him pure.
The Zoroastrian priests had instituted a rigourous cleanliness code to protect the devout. Indeed, cupbearer to the king would hardly have been a menial position and Nehemiah must have been a Zoroastrian priest, not a mere servant. Nor would a mere servant have been sent to a colony with such an important position and task. Nehemiah introduced these same purity codes to the Jews, and devout ones live by them still, though they do not understand the reason for them. The point here is that Nehemiah could not have been a Jew himself, if he was the royal cupbearer, unless the religion of the Jews was Mazdayasnism by another name.
Ezra was sent too in 458 BC or 398 BC, from the bible which says year seven of the king, but there were two kings called Artaxerxes. Some think the number is corrupt and should be 37, making the year 428 BC, allowing for an apparently close association with Nehemiah. Or was it year seven of Darius II (417 BC), the name of the king having been mistaken from an association with Nehemiah?
He was the “scribe of the law of the God of Heaven”. For the Persians the god of heaven was Ahuramazda, but the title was interpreted to mean Yehouah. His duty was to write out god’s law to a people who supposedly had an extensive law of their own god. Ezra 7:11-26 reads out a copy of the letter that the king Artaxerxes gave him explaining the authority for his position. The letter emphasizes that people go only by their own free will, a statement that implies that it is not normally the case. One is led to ask why this case should be different.
And I, even I Artaxerxes the king, do make a decree to all the treasurers which are beyond the river, that whatsoever Ezra the priest, the scribe of the law of the God of heaven, shall require of you, it be done speedily, Unto an hundred talents of silver, and to an hundred measures of wheat, and to an hundred baths of wine, and to an hundred baths of oil, and salt without prescribing how much. Whatsoever is commanded by the God of heaven, let it be diligently done for the house of the God of heaven: for why should there be wrath against the realm of the king and his sons? Also we certify you, that touching any of the priests and Levites, singers, porters, Nethinims, or ministers of this house of God, it shall not be lawful to impose toll, tribute, or custom, upon them. And thou, Ezra, after the wisdom of thy God, that is in thine hand, set magistrates and judges, which may judge all the people that are beyond the river, all such as know the laws of thy God; and teach ye them that know them not. And whosoever will not do the law of thy God, and the law of the king, let judgment be executed speedily upon him, whether it be unto death, or to banishment, or to confiscation of goods, or to imprisonment.
The king addresses his order to “all the treasurers which are beyond the river”. Now “beyond the river” is of course the Persian province Abarnahara, the whole of the Levant beyond the Euphrates. Jews and Christians pretend it means “beyond the Jordan”, but how many rich treasurers are there in Palestine alone? The rest of it shows the king is purporting to placate the people, making sure there is no wrath against the king—it has a political purpose. But who benefits financially—the priests and temple officials who are exempt from taxes. Furthermore, Ezra was to enforce the law on “all the people that are beyond the river”, and enforce it with savage measures.
Ezra was told to teach people the law if they did not know it and he is considered to have been the instituter of the “Priestly Code” (P) of the Pentateuch. Its indebtedness to Zoroastrianism is plain but never observed upon. The “Holiness Code” of Leviticus 18 to 26 is a code of purity from pollution that again is evidently dependent on Zoroastrianism, though apologists will pretend otherwise when they are obliged to comment at all. Such a denial is “as preposterous as it is pointless”, to use West’s phrase.
Ezra also added the creation in Genesis 1:1-2:4a, the sophisticated one. Genesis 1 is strikingly Zoroastrian in two ways:
A puzzle is the absence in the Jewish scriptures of teachings of fate after death, individual judgement, heaven and hell. Death brings Sheol. Amos 9 and Psalms 139 extend Yehouah’s rule to Sheol but only in Isaiah 26:19 is there hope of a future after death, and that, as in Zoroastrianism, is resurrection not immortality as a spirit. Mary Boyce writes:
Since Zoroastrian apocalyptic finds its counterpart in Jewish and Christian eschatology, not disjointedly but as part of the same fixed scheme which is to be discerned in the Gathas, it is difficult not to concede to Zoroastrianism both priority and influence.
Quite so but Boyce inconsistently thinks the Jewish purity laws are “wholly Jewish”. The destruction of death (Isa 25:7-8) is a reflexion of the end of “limited time” in Zoroastrianism, when the evil creation is destroyed and the Evil Spirit is imprisoned forever. Judaism has Satan as an Evil Spirit, although he seems not to have an existence independent of Yehouah, and Yehouah claims to create both good and evil (Isa 45:7). Presumably Satan has his own inclination to create evil, independently of Yehouah, otherwise it is hard to see how he is such a trouble. That makes Judaism exactly equivalent to Zoroastrianism. What appear to be differences might be simply because we have two sources, neither of which is complete and both of which have had independent histories of compilation and redaction, so that they have evolved differences, but their identity at the centre is still obvious. Our knowledge of Jewish apocalyptic with the discovery and translation of the Dead Sea Scrolls shows that Judaism was much more dualistic than the scriptures suggest.
Darius II Favours Jerusalem
Achaemenian kings took foreign wives but it was not common, the main wife was not usually foreign and others would have had to have converted or at least observed the Zoroastrian purity laws. The son of a Zoroastrian was regarded as fully Zoroastrian because it was the male seed that counted, the belief being that women were merely fertile land for the man’s seed. Jewish belief was the same, which is why only a man could “beget” and why childless women in the scriptures are described as barren, like a barren field. The Achaemenid kings were pious but practical men. Their foreign marriages were likely to have been diplomatic, and not for the generality to copy.
Darius II was half Babylonian, but would not have been the heir of Artaxerxes I unless his son Xerxes II had not been immediately killed. Darius killed the assassin and took the throne. He continued the Achaemenid interest in restoring religions, but he was particularly interested in preseving temple archives, doubtless a job of some practical value. As in the case of the first Darius helping out in the “Houses of Life” in Egypt, he could alter the transcriptions to suit Persian policy, and could doubtless find the odd missing tablets. He “restored” the temple of Eanna in Uruk and installed extensive archives.
The records of the bank of Murashi cover half a century up to about 400 BC. It shows how cosmopolitan Babylonia was. It was policed by foreign garrisons stationed permanently in the country, so the Persian kings were taking no chances even in what was the centre of their empire.
Darius favoured the Jerusalem priesthood. A revealing scrap of papyrus written from Darius to Arsames, his long-serving Egyptian satrap in 419 BC, and found at Elephantine, ordered that the Jews of Elephantine must keep the Feast of Unleavened Bread for seven days. It is a surprising order for those brought up believing myth is history. Why was it necessary? These traditions were supposed to have been almost a millennium old even then. Apologists say the feast had been forbidden so it was not an order to Jews but to the satrap himself. Why then was it phrased as an order to the Jews that they must obey? The Jewish messanger was a man called Hananiah, a Babylonian name (Eanna) and the name, by another of those coincidences that litter biblical history, of the brother of Nehemiah. The Jews of Yeb were of the older polytheistic faith of the Canaanites, and it looks very much as though the priests of Jerusalem had the king’s support in bringing them into line with the practice in Jerusalem imposed by Nehemiah and Ezra.
A sandstone stele from Aswan dated itself precisely to June 458 BC. It records that the commander of the garrison at Syene had built a place of worship. Rather than an enclosed temple it might have been an enclosed space open to the massy heavens. In 408 BC, the Jewish military governor at Elephantine, probably a grandson of the man who built or restored a temple there, the command of the Syene garrison seems to have been inherited, colluded with the priests of Khnum to cut off the water supply from the Jewish garrison, then they destroyed the temple to Yahu. The satrap was absent at the time. Subsequently, the priests wrote to the Jerusalem priesthood and to the governor of Judah, Bagoas, for help in rebuilding the temple. It seems it never was given.
The whole events look suspicious. Arsames absents himself and a Persian military governor immediately helps to destroy a Jewish temple with the aid of Egyptian priests, even though Jews are loyal allies of the Persians, and this has been a Persian outpost manned by Jewish soldiers for a century. The truth must be that this older temple at Syene, being polytheistic, was an embarrassment to Persians and Jews and had to be ended. It is always presented as caused by the jealousy of the Egyptian priests, or their annoyance that the Jews would have been sacrificing sheep when the ram was the sacred animal of Khnum. Yet it was done with the help of the local Persian governor, and under a fancied policy of religious toleration in general and admiration for the Jews. It proves that there was no religious toleration in general. Religion was a policy option, and the kings had opted to support one temple to Yehouah—at Jerusalem.
Conscious Foreign Policy
All of it shows that the Persian kings were not naïvely interested in restoring alien cultures out of some exaggerated sense of altruism to defeated people. It was a conscious foreign policy to get political control of subject people who had every reason to be resentful. It was to preserve the Persian peace, the Iranian sense of universal order.
Garbini notes that the Demotic Chronicle of Egypt, a papyrus dated in the third century BC but speaking of the sixth and fifth centuries BC, takes the same attitude of the judgement of God on Egypt as the Deuteronomic History does on the Jews. It seems unlikely that a Jewish history should have inspired an Egyptian one, but not that Persian propaganda should have been used in Egypt as well as elsewhere. If this papyrus is accurately dated to the third century then it could be an edition of an earlier Persian work. The Persians will have done in Egypt what they did in Yehud, a finding with possibly profound consequences for Egyptology.
In his Egyptian inscriptions, Darius emphasizes “maat”, the Egyptian concept closest to “Asha”. Cyrus was the Messiah, the son of God, to the Jews, and Egyptian inscriptions declared that for Atum, Darius was “his son, his steward”, and that, “his person should be remembered beside his father, Atum”. Atum-Ra became the perfect equivalent of Ahuramazda, a hidden god behind the sun, who created the cosmos to be governed by “maat”. The sun rising each morning drove away the powers of darkness, symbolic of order driving away chaos. Rebellion is chaos, a product of the Evil Spirit, while order is good, an attribute of God.
A lesser parallel with what the Persians did in Jerusalem might have come to light in Asia Minor. A monument was found in 1973 declaring that the citizens of Orna had agreed to set up a cult of the god of Caunos, a nearby town. The god was to be called “the Lord the God of Caunos”, and seemed to be a local Apollo. They had sponsored a “house” for the god and specified sacrifices and endowments. Persians did not build “houses” for their gods because they felt they had the cosmos as their home, but they were happy to build temples for foreigners because they would then assemble there and provide the opportunity to hear the law. The monument specifies divine punishments for violating “this law” included being carried off to the “Abyss”.
Plainly this was not a Zoroastrian god, but had been granted certain Zoroastrian features, including an Iranian title of unknown meaning but used of Mithras. Mithras was guardian of the first watch of the day, sunrise, and Persian places of worship came to be called “Gates of Mithras”, an expression used by the Urartians. Zoroastrian worship always had to be done before noon, and this habit perhaps predisposed non-Iranians particularly to see Mithras as the visible face of Ahuramazda. It seems to be an early example of Apollo-Mithras syncretism, which was popular in the region a hundred years later and for many centuries thereafter.
It is curious too that the god is called the god “of Caunos” in some places and the god “of Orna” in others. Apparently a unifying formula, it is reminiscent of Yehouah being the god of Israel and of Judah. The scroll scholar, A Dupont-Sommer, said it showed the Persians had an office of state for overseeing and regularizing the religious affairs of subject people:
Not to impose on them Iranian divinities and cults but to ensure good order and security in a domain which in ancient societies was politically so important and often vexed.
Dupont-Sommer is sidelined nowadays mainly because Christians do not like his ideas about the Essenes and Christianity in interpreting the scrolls, but this insight shows him to be a perceptive man. The Persians had to approve the High Priest of any cult, and we can be sure he was not appointed purely for his piety. These were political appointments, and the practice of religion was a political act. The Reverend Professor Lawrence Mills detected a ministry or religious affairs, and Professor Boyce sees a chancellery department to deal with Zoroastrian foundations from at least the fourth century BC. It is difficult to see them as separate institutions.
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