Iranian Religions: Zoroastrianism
Influence of Zarathushtrian faith on the Abrahamic
faiths of Judaism, Christianity and Islam
By Kayomarsh P. Mehta
Zarathushtrianism (also known as Zoroastrianism) is one of the oldest monotheistic religions. First taught among nomads on the Asian steppes, Zarathushtrianism was the state religion of the three great Persian empires, Achaemenian, Arsacid and Sassanian. The Persian Empire extended from India to the Mediterranean. Because of its lofty character, it had a remarkable influence on other world faiths: to the east on Northern Buddhism, to the west on Later Judaism, Christianity and Islam. The date of Prophet Asho Zarathushtra (Zoroaster) varies from 1700 BC to as far back as 4000 B.C. according to some Greek authors. The date of Asho Zarathushtra is not as important as the date with the teachings of Asho Zarathushtra. What Asho Zarathushtra taught is perhaps the very oldest and surely the most accurate code of ethics for man. It might indeed be said that Zarathushtra was the discoverer, or at least the uncoverer, of individual morals.
Belief in an all Wise, all Powerful and Eternal God - Ahura Mazda, (Ahura meaning the Creator and Mazda meaning Infinite Wisdom) laid the foundation for all religious faiths. Asho Zarathushtra was the first to teach the doctrines of an Eternal soul, Equality of men and women, Freedom of Choice (to be able to choose between good and evil), Individual Judgment, Heaven and Hell, Resurrection, the Last Judgment (Renovation) and the coming of a Savior. These doctrines were to become familiar articles of faith to much of mankind, through borrowings by the Abrahamic faiths of Judaism, Christianity and Islam.
The Jews were in captivity in Babylonia. The great Persian Emperor Cyrus liberated the Jews from their captivity in about 550B.C. History records that he made no attempt to impose his Zarthushtrian religion on his subjects. He allowed the Jews to follow their own religion and assisted them in rebuilding the Temple of Solomon in Jerusalem. His inscriptions bear witness to the fact that he encouraged each of his subjects to live a good life according to their own tenets.
“This was only one of the many liberal acts recorded of Cyrus, but it was of particular moment for the religious history of mankind; for the Jews entertained warm feelings thereafter for the Persians, and this made them more receptive to Zarathushtrian influence”. From Zarathushtrians-Their Religious Beliefs and practices by Dr. Mary Boyce.
The Hebrew scriptures pay tribute to the sterling merit of Asho Zarathushtra’s rule of conduct, when they speak of the law of the Medes and the Persians as one “which altereth not.” The Jews regarded Cyrus as a messiah, and therefore one who acted in Yahweh’s name and authority. Yahweh is quoted as “Cyrus will bring forth justice to the nations,….He will not fail….. till he has established justice in the earth.” Isaiah 42-1,4.
The Jews were intimately connected with their Persian Zarathushtrian conquerors, both socially and culturally. From the times of the Pharaohs of Egypt down to our times, no people had treated them so well as the Persian Zarathushtrians. What the Persian Zarathushtrians did for the Jews is unique in the annals of mankind. The treatment of this kind was therefore all the more bound to lead the Jews to study the institutions, laws and faith of their conquerors. The claim is therefore for a very great and completely surrounding, enveloping and supervening influence of the Zarathushtrian Monotheism, Angelology, Immortality, Soteriology, Judgment, Resurrection, Millen Heaven and Recompense upon the same of the Jews developing during the post captivity period in Babylon.
The Jews found many congenial elements and similar ideas in their faith. Both had many common beliefs such as belief in one God, coming of a Messiah and a strict code of behavior and ethics. The Jews had progressed much in their ethical and spiritual conceptions after their release from the Babylonian captivity. This progress happened to be for the most part in just those doctrines which were commonly held by millions of Zarathushtis among who they lived. Perhaps the foremost among these is the belief in Future Life. Those portions of the Old Testament which were written before the Exile scarcely mention it. They knew no reward for their deeds other than what they found on this earth. Their hopes were centered on this world and prosperity in this life.
The Exile, however, made a great difference in the Jewish thinking in this regard, for it is during this period and thereafter that we find for the first time in their recorded history the expression of hope in the other world. There is an entirely new note struck in the words such as these in the later Isaiah:
“Let thy dead live, let thy dead body arise; Awake and sing, ye that dwell in the dust; for thy dew is the dew of the heroes, and the earth shall cast forth the shades.” Canon Cheyne, a great Old Testament scholar in his book The Origin of the Psalter mentions: “The threefold division of sins into those of thought, word and deed in Ps. XVII 3-5 is thoroughly Zarathushtrian. …A knowledge of this great religion is necessary to the full equipment of an Old Testament scholar,….. …had it (Judaism) not come into contact with Zarathushtrianism, Israel would historically speaking have struggled in vain to satisfy its greatest religious aspirations.”
Also, in Daniel:
“And many of them that sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt.” Even after the Exile this lesson about the Immortality of the Soul was not assimilated by all Jews, notably by the Sadducees. But, the people who professed this new doctrine were called the Pharisees, meaning Persians. Zarathushtrian influence on the Dead Sea Scrolls has been unanimously accepted by historians.
In the book of Tobit, we have an allusion to “Seven Spirits” – Amesha Spentas. The Seven Spirits are also mentioned in Zechariah IV,10 and this is further expanded in Rev. V, 6. The book of Genesis seems to have been influenced by the first chapter of Vendidaad. The Asmodeus (Asmodai) of the Book of Tobit is probably Aeshma-daeva of the Avesta. He was the demon of wrath and an opponent of the Amesha Spentas of the Gathas and in Tobit, he fights with the same Seven Spirits.
Various other scholars, W.R. Alger, Von Bohlen (German), Dr. Martin Haug, Rev. Dr. Lawrence Mills, W.D.Whitney, J.E.C. Schmidt, Michaelis, Doderlin, Horst & Hufnagel, Miles Dawson and many many others have testified to the fact that the change that took place in Judaism after the Exile under the influence of Zarathushtrian contact was so great as to make it a new religion almost. We see a full evidence of it in the Book of Job. The Jewish Prophets such as the second Isaiah, Daniel and the writers of many of the later Psalms, and above all Jesus Christ were in many respects nearer to Zarathushtrianism than to pre-exilic Judaism. It is through Judaism that Christianity afterwards received an important influence from Zarathushtrianism.
“So it was out of a Judaism enriched by five centuries of contact with Zarathushtrianism that Christianity arose – a new religion with roots thus in two ancient faiths, one Semitic, the other Iranian. Doctrines taught perhaps a millennium and a half earlier by Zarathushtra began in this way to reach fresh hearers; but again, as in Judaism, they lost some of the logic and coherence by their adoption into another creed; for the teachings of the Iranian prophet about Creation, Heaven and Hell and the Days of Judgment, were less intellectually coherent when part of a religion which proclaimed the existence of one Omnipotent God, whose unrestricted rule was based not on justice but on love. They continued nevertheless, even in this new setting, to exert their powerful influence on men’s strivings to be good.” Zarathushtrians by Dr. Mary Boyce.
The three Magis that came to see Christ were Zarathushtrian Priests. Zarathushtis had a belief in the coming of the savior, born of a virgin mother, at least a millennium and a half before Jesus was born. Most scholars agree that Jesus was not born on December 25, which was reckoned as the winter solstice in the Julian calendar. The Romans celebrated it very fervently as the nativity of Mithra, the Sun God that they had adopted from Iran. Mithraism was very popular among the Romans and many relics of Mithra temples found all over Europe bear testimony to it. It was a corrupted and distorted form of Zarathushtrianism. But, even in its corrupt form it stood for certain basic values such as truth, Justice, Brotherhood, Kindness and loyalty, which inspired allegiance among millions of Romans and Europeans.
Franz Cumont, a noted authority on Mithraism, writes in his book, The Mysteries of Mithra: “Never, perhaps, not even in the epoch of the Mussolman invasion, was Europe in greater danger of being Asiaticized than in the third century of our era. ….. A sudden inundation of Iranian….. conceptions swept over the Occident, …… and when the flood subsided it left behind in the consciousness of the people a deep sediment of Oriental beliefs, which have never been obliterated.”
It seems the early Christians absorbed many Mithraic traditions and festivals, but gave them a Christian interpretation and significance, such as to Christmas on December 25.
Even the main tenets of Islam which replaced Zarathushtrianism of Iran were derived ultimately from this ancient and pre historic religion, such as the belief in one supreme God, Heaven and Hell, the end of the world, Resurrection, the Day of Judgment, the five times of daily prayer, emphasis on helping the poor and the rejection of worship of images. It was through its influence on Judaism and Christianity that indirectly, if not directly, Zarathushtrianism contributed a great deal in the very making and shaping of Islam in the mind of the Prophet himself through what he borrowed from Judaism and Christianity.
A government truly worthy of the name must be in accord with religion, in perfect union with it, is a Moslem maxim. This idea did not come from a Moslem legislator but is outlined in a Pahlavi book The Dinkard. The idea of Theocracy and undoubtedly the Khilaafat thus are Zarathushtrian influences. Also, Sufism, the salt of the Islamic world is also a product of the Persian Zarathushtrian spirit. Apart from the mention of Darius and Cyrus as Zulqarnian, amongst the brotherhood of Prophets, the Koran has very little mention of the Zarathushtrian faith. It may be justified in saying that the Prophet received but little direct influence from Zarathushtrianism.
Yet the influence was more prevalent in its cultural sphere. One of the associates of Prophet Mohammed was a Zarathushtrian High priest, Dastur Dinyar. His name was later changed to Salman-al-Farsee. He was regarded by the Prophet as Ahal-al-Bait, meaning “of the family of the prophet”, that is, a member of his spiritual circle. He had widely traveled in Syria, Mesopotamia and had a profound knowledge of Judaism, Christianity besides Zarathushtrianism. It is highly probable that Prophet Mohammed was influenced by Zarathushtrianism through him.