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   Print Edition: 1990-2002


Zoroastrianism: The Forgotten Source
by Stephen Van Eck


1994 / July-August



The composition Also Sprach Sarathustra by Richard Strauss featured in 2001 is a piece of powerful drama, rich in majesty, awe-inspiring, and devastatingly portentous. It is an appropriate memorial to the Persian prophet Zarathustra, whom the Greeks called Zoroaster.

Zarathustra's influence on Judeo-Christianity and all of western civilization is little known but should not be underestimated. His life and words changed the nature of civilization in the west, setting it on a course that departed from the static cultures of the ancient Middle East. Without his impact, Judaism would be unrecognizable, and Christianity would probably have never existed.

Western civilization owes mainly to Zarathustra its fundamental concept of linear time, as opposed to the cyclical and essentially static concept of ancient times. This concept, which was implicit in Zarathustra's doctrines, makes the notion of progress, reform, and improvement possible. Until that time, ancient civilizations, particularly Egyptian, were profoundly conservative, believing that the ideal order had been handed down to them by the gods in some mythical Golden Age. Their task was to adhere to the established traditions as closely as possible. To reform or modify them in any way would have been a deviation from and diminution of the ideal. Zarathustra gave Persian (and through it, Greek) thought a teleological dimension, with a purpose and goal to history. All people, he declared, were participants in a supernatural battle between Good and Evil, the battleground for which was the Earth, and the very body of individual Man as well. This essential dualism was adopted by the Jews, who only after exposure to Zoroastrianism incorporated a demonology and angelology into their religion. Retroactively, what was only a snake in the Genesis tale came to be irrevocably associated with the Devil, and belief in demonic possession came to be a cultural obsession, as amply reflected in the Gospels.

Zarathustra claimed special divine revelation and had attempted to establish the worship of one supreme God (Ahura Mazda) in the 7th century B. C., but after his death, the earlier Aryan polytheism reemerged. Many other features of his theology, however, have endured to the present time, through the religions that eventually superseded it.

The Babylonian captivity of the 6th century B. C. transformed Judaism in a profound way, exposing the Jews to Zoroastrianism, which was virtually the state religion of Babylon at the time. Until then, the Jewish conception of the afterlife was vague. A shadowy existence in Sheol, the underworld, land of the dead (not to be confused with Hell) was all they had to look forward to. Zarathustra, however, had preached the bodily resurrection of the dead, who would face a last judgment (both individual and general) to determine their ultimate fate in the next life: either Paradise or torment. Daniel was the first Jewish prophet to refer to resurrection, judgment, and reward or punishment (12:2 ), and insofar as he was an advisor to King Darius (erroneously referred to as a Mede), he was in a position to know the religion thoroughly.

The new doctrine of resurrection was not universally accepted by the Jews and remained a point of contention for centuries until its ultimate acceptance. The Gospels (Matthew 22:23 ) record that the dispute was still going on during the time of Christ, with the Sadducees denying and the Pharisees affirming it. It may be a mere coincidence, but note the similarity between the names Pharisee and Farsi or Parsee, the Persians from whom the doctrine of resurrection was borrowed. In addition to incorporating the doctrines of resurrection and judgment, exposure to Zoroastrianism substantially altered Jewish Messianism as well. Zarathustra predicted the imminent arrival of a World Savior (Saoshyant), who would be born of a virgin and who would lead humanity in the final battle against Evil. Jewish Messianism grafted these conceptions onto their preexisting expectations of a Davidic king who would redeem the Jewish nation from foreign oppression.

It was at this time, as a response to their captivity, that the era of apocalyptic literature commenced in Judaism, based on Babylonian models and patterned after their symbology. This was to have a strong influence on later Christian thinking. With the key elements of resurrection, judgment, reward or punishment, a Savior, apocalyptism, and ultimate destruction of the forces of Evil, it can be concluded that Jewish and Christian eschatology is Zoroastrian from start to finish.

The similarities don't end with eschatology either. A lot of the tradition and sacramental ritual of Christianity, particularly Catholicism, traces back to Zoroastrian precursors. The Zoroastrian faithful would mark their foreheads with ash before approaching the sacred fire, a gesture that resembles Ash Wednesday tradition. Part of their purification before participating in ritual was the confession of sins, categorized (as Catholics do) as consisting of thought, word, or deed. Zoroastrians also had a Eucharistic ritual, the Haoma ritual, in which the god Haoma, or rather his presence, was sacrificed in a plant. The worshipers would drink the juice in expectation of eventual immortality. Finally, Zoroastrians celebrated All Souls' Day, reflecting, like the Catholics, a belief in intercession by and for the dead. We should also note that the story of the Magi, who were said to have visited the newborn Jesus, resembles an earlier story of Magi who looked for a star foretelling the birth of a Savior, in this case Mithras. Magi were not kings but Zoroastrian astrologers, and the birthday of Mithras on December 25th was deliberately appropriated by the church to be that of their Christ, whose actual date of birth is unknown and undocumented.

Christianity may also have borrowed the story of the temptation in the desert, since an earlier legend placed Zarathustra himself in that situation. The principal demon (Ahriman) promised Zarathustra earthly power if he would forsake the worship of the supreme God. Ahriman, like Satan when tempting Jesus, failed.

A final interesting parallel is the three days that Jesus spent in the grave. This concept may have been derived from a Zoroastrian belief that the soul remains in the body for three days before departing. Three days would have established death yet left his soul in a position to reanimate his body. As a Messiah, Jesus functioned purely along Zoroastrian lines. While purportedly of the Davidic line, he offered only redemption from sin, rather than national salvation for the Jews. He was a world savior rather than a Jewish Messiah. Jews did not recognize him as their Messiah, and in a real sense he wasn't. Their Messianic expectations, which preceded any foreign influence, went unfulfilled; in fact, their nation was ultimately destroyed. Neither did Jesus effect a final triumph over Evil. This has been reserved for a second coming in conjunction with the last judgment and the rewards and punishments of either Heaven or Hell.

Although Zoroastrianism is almost extinct today, it lives on in its spiritual descendants. Zarathustra, a prophet beyond any in the Old Testament, still speaks today, unrecognized by his children.

"Let us worship Zarathustra,
Just the way we used ta.
I'm a Zarathustra boosta--
He's good enough for me."

(Joseph Campbell, with a tongue-in-cheek parody.)


(Stephen Van Eck, Route One, Box 62, Rushville, PA 18839-9702.)
 



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