Moses and Zarathustra: Long Lost Brothers

Christianity and Islam are the most wide spread and influential monotheistic religions in the world today by any measure, and both sprung from and were heavily influenced by the monotheistic religions, and metaphysical and philosophical systems, that preceded them most notably Judaism, but Zoroastrianism as a close and far less recognizable second.  These influences are evident by the effective incorporation of Judaic mythology and tradition into the Bible and Christian tradition, the explicit references to the Jesus and the Abrahamic roots of Islam in the Qur’an, and less explicitly to the incorporation of many of the themes and divine principles of Zoroastrianism into Christianity.  But to fully understand the process by which these monotheistic faiths became so widely adopted, and monotheism became almost synonymous with civilization, one must look into ancient times and analyze the underlying historical socio-political forces that were at play while these faiths and religious systems evolved.

Judaism has its roots deep in ancient history, and in many respects represents one of the oldest and most well documented ancient monotheistic traditions.  Some of the historical narrative of the Old Testament can be placed well back into the second millennium BCE judging by the historical evidence from within the Old Testament itself as well as archeological evidence independent of the scripture.  The Jewish tradition was born out of the eastern Mediterranean and shows marked Sumerian and Babylonian influence, this can be seen most predominantly in the mythology and historical narrative of Genesis whose creation and flood stories share many common attributes with its Sumer-Babylonian neighbors.

Judaism today, and from its outset upon its founding by Moses, teaches that there is only one God and no other God is to be worshipped other than He, namely Yahweh.  The Jewish mode of worship, its religious practices and ritual, and even its ethical and moral precepts, are based upon both an oral and a written tradition as encapsulated in what they call the Torah, the sum total of which is said to have been handed down by Yahweh to Moses directly and are captured in the Books of Moses, or the first 5 Books of the Old Testament of the Christian canon, which encapsulate the heart of the Torah in the Jewish faith.

As far as when Moses might have lived, if you use the events in the Books of Moses themselves and marry the timeline therein to archeological and other historical evidence which more narrowly identifies the timeframe of the Egyptian and Babylonian Pharaohs and Kings for example, you end up with a mid-15th century BCE date give or take for the Exodus, which puts Moses’s life and works somewhere in the middle of the first millennium BCE if we presume he is an actual historical figure which is probably not that far fetched a far as Charlie could gather.

But the oldest extant documents of the Jewish faith however, date from the Hellenistic period some 1000 years or so after Moses supposedly lived, so we’re looking at roughly one thousand years or so of oral tradition before the scripture is actually written down and such writing survives down to us directly.  This extant literature include Hebrew and Aramaic papyri with biblical fragments such as the Dead Sea Scrolls, and then literature in Greek such as the Septuagint which was compiled in the late 3rd to middle 2nd century BCE or so.

The written tradition of the Jewish faith is centered around the Tanakh, which is the name in Judaism given to the canon of the Hebrew Bible, along with the Talmud, which consists of the commentary of thousands of Jewish Rabbis compiled over centuries on topics ranging from law, ethics and customs, theology and philosophy, as well as history and mythology, and provides the basis for Jewish law.  According to the Talmud, much of the contents of the Tanakh were compiled by the Men of the Great Assembly by 450 BCE or so, although this date is disputed among modern scholars, most of whom believe that the canonization of the Tanakh as it stands today wasn’t finalized until the 2nd century BCE.[1]

The Tanakh is broken down into three sections, almost all of which are included in the Christian canon as part of the Old Testament: the Torah, or “teaching”, the Nevi’im or “prophets”, and the Ketuvim or “writings”.  The Torah represents the heart of the Jewish written tradition and is loosely translated into English sometimes as “law”.  The Torah consists of the Five Books of Moses, i.e. Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy.  These five books are also sometimes referred to as the Pentateuch, which means “five books” in Greek.  The Torah tells the story of the history of the Jewish faith from the origin of the universe to the subsequent early generations of mankind, along with the detailed account of the life of Moses and his leading of the Jews out of Egypt back to their homeland in Israel.  It is in this part of the Torah that we find the story of Moses and the Ten Commandments, within which the Jews (and related Abrahamic religions which stem from it) are bound to worship Yahweh as the one and only God, are prevented from worshipping idols, etc.

The Nevi’im, or “Prophets”, consists of eight books and cover the history of the Jewish people from the time Jews enter the land of Israel until the time of Babylonian captivity under the prophet Judah in the early 6th century BCE.  Books of the Nevi’im include Joshua, Judges, Samuel I & II, Kings I & II, Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel.  The Ketuvim, or “Writings”, sometimes referred to by the Greek name Hagiographa, consists of eleven books which include the Book of Psalms, Proverbs, Job, Ecclesiastes, Daniela and Chronicles among others.

The Tanakh and Talmud were mostly written in Biblical Hebrew, although some parts written in Aramaic, a closely related Semitic language.  Ancient Hebrew and Aramaic (as well as Arabic) are in the Afro-Asiatic/Semitic family of languages, a distinct branch of the language tree from the Indo-European languages from which Sanskrit, Greek, Latin and most modern European languages descend, the branch which includes English of course.  Ancient Hebrew and Aramaic were written in an alphabet system that was closely related and derived from the Phoenician alphabet system which is also the parent alphabet for the Greek, Arabic, and Latin/Roman alphabets.  The lineage of these different ancient languages and their corresponding alphabets is important because it implies that direct translations of some ancient Hebrew words are not found or are lost in translation in modern European languages[2].

Note that alphabets, i.e. the systems of writing used to represent spoken words or concepts, are correspondents to the spoken word, i.e. the letters grouped into words and in turn sentences collectively represent words that are strung together in some fashion that convey meaning.  In other words a spoken language and its alphabet are related but not necessarily equivalent, which is why it’s impossible for example to know exactly how some ancient dialects and languages were pronounced even if the written language survives down to us[3].

Furthermore the development of alphabet based language systems in general, a development of the second millennium BCE or so, represents a major evolution in the history of mankind, reflecting man’s ability to codify and document much more abstract and complex concepts than previous generations that had yet to invent alphabet based writing systems, and allowing for a much more accurate transcription and communication of ideas.  Contrast today’s, or even Ancient Greek or Latin, alphabet systems/languages with the first writing systems that mankind developed – for example cuneiform (circa 4th millennium BCE) which was the form of writing used by the ancient Sumer-Babylon peoples, or the somewhat later (circa 3rd millennium BCE) Egyptian hieroglyphs, both systems of writing which were not (at least initially) alphabets per se, but were “idea” or “picture” based writing systems consisting of what linguists call logograms, aka ideograms or pictograms, where each symbol represented a specific concept or idea.  Philosophers like Plato and Aristotle that lived prior to the invention of alphabets, or prior to the invention of writing itself for that matter, did not have the luxury of being able to communicate sophisticated ideas outside of oral traditions, mouth to mouth so to speak.

Note that oral communication in and of itself does not distinguish mankind from the rest of the life on the planet, for example whales or apes can communicate with each other orally and have even been shown to have different “dialects” that vary between geographic regions and specific names, or sounds, for individuals.  In many respects, what distinguishes mankind from the rest of the species on Earth is writing, a development which supports the systematic construction of ideas and concepts that in turn allowed mankind to flourish, and ultimately dominate, life on Earth.  Prior to the development of writing however, for tens of thousands of years at least, mankind (homo sapiens) leveraged the same tools as many of the other species on the planet for communication, namely oral communication and the creation of sound vibrations to communicate ideas between individuals.  Hence the sacred perspective mankind had on almost all ancient language and forms of writing – the Sanskrit of the Indo-Aryans, the Hebrew of the Jews, and even the hieroglyphs of the Egyptians, they all believed that language and writing itself was wrapped up in and fundamentally related to the divine, as they perceived the whole world really at least as far as Charlie could tell.

As an example of how a word, a concept, can be disfigured and lose its fullness and richness of meaning as it moves through successive languages and centuries and the underlying socio-political and theological context is lost, let’s look at how the Hebrew word Torah, which carries so much significance in the Jewish community, has come to be more understood as law or custom rather than the full revealed and complete theological and spiritual framework that it implied to its ancient ancestors.  The word “Torah” in Hebrew is derived from a root that means to “guide” or “teach”, so a good translation for the word directly into English might be “teaching”, “doctrine”, or “instruction”.  But in the Greek Septuagint which was transcribed in the first or second century BC in old Koine Greek, the Hebrew torah was translated to the Greek nomos, which loosely translated to English is “law” or “custom” but in practice actually had a much more complex and rich meaning in the ancient Greek civilization from which the word emerged.

The translation of torah to nomos, and in turn to the its Latin successor lex, which has a much more direct association with what we consider “law”, has historically given rise to the notion that Torah signifies or emphasizes laws or customs rather than the implying the complete historical and socio-religious narrative captured in the scripture of the Jewish faith, i.e. “teaching”.  A Greek Orphic hymn to the god Nomos illustrates its depth of meaning of this concept to the Ancient Greeks, at least to those who used the word to translate the Hebrew torah in the few centuries before Christ, which gives the reader perhaps a more broad understanding of what Torah really signifies in Hebrew:

“The holy king of gods and men I call, heavenly Nomos, the righteous seal of all: the seal which stamps whatever the earth contains, and all concealed within the liquid plains: stable, and starry, of harmonious frame, preserving laws eternally the same. Thy all-composing power in heaven appears, connects its frame, and props the starry spheres; and unjust envy shakes with dreadful sound, tossed by thy arm in giddy whirls around. ‘Tis thine the life of mortals to defend, and crown existence with a blessed end; for thy command alone, of all that lives, order and rule to every dwelling goes. Ever observant of the upright mind, and of just actions the companion kind. Foe to the lawless, with avenging ire, their steps involving in destruction dire. Come, blest, abundant power, whom all reverse, by all desired, with favouring mind draw near; give me through life on thee to fix my sight, and never forsake the equal paths of right.”[4]

So the Greek nomos, at the time that the Hebrew Old Testament was transcribed into Greek, is akin to the maat of the Egyptians, the personification of which becomes the Greek god Nomos in the Orphic tradition.  Having said that, given how steeped in tradition and custom the Jewish faith is, still following today in many respects the ways and customs of the ancient Judaic hunter/gatherers that made it down through the Books of Moses to subsequent generations, one can see why an association with Torah and “law” could have developed over the centuries and stuck, but the true meaning of the word and its relation to the Jewish faith in general is best understood when looking more closely at its etymology.  Words and ideas lead to understanding, or misunderstanding as the case may be.

Getting back to the history and evolution of Judaism though, given the dating of written Torah toward the end of the first millennium BCE at the earliest, and scholars best guesses as to when Moses actually lived, what Charlie recognized that we were left with, is at least a thousand years or so before the teachings of Moses were actually transcribed to paper, leaving plenty of room for doubt and question as to whether or not a) Moses was the author of the Books attributed to him, or b) what the actual socio-political factors were that drove its adoption and prevalence among the Jewish people for a thousand years after Moses died and handed over the care for the Jewish people (and state) to his successor Joshua.  Ancient oral traditions were powerful no doubt, but how much was lost or transformed within these 1000 years before the Jewish canon was transcribed by the Men of the Great Council in the 5th century BCE and the centuries thereafter?  This oral tradition problem, or prophetic separation if Charlie could coin a term, existed in almost all religious systems, at least the ones that are most commonly practiced today.  Even the Qur’an was not written down by Mohammed himself, implying that even if we leave aside the problems of language and socio-political interpretation of the text, we’re still left with some level of prophetic separation, the time period and possible miscommunication of ideas between what the prophet actually said, or communicated, and what was actually written down, or transcribed.  This is reflected in the Islamic tradition by for example slightly different versions of the Qur’an that have persisted down to present day.

As far as authorship goes for the Pentateuch itself, it is very much debated by modern scholars and theologians as to whether or not it can be established that Moses was in fact the true author, although the fact that the five books provide a consistent and cohesive narrative would seem to indicate that there was a single author or editor who compiled at least these 5 books.  Furthermore, there are plenty of references in the Books of Moses themselves, as well as throughout the rest of the Old Testament and even in the New Testament, that indicate that Moses is in fact the author in question, but identifying whether or not this individual was in fact the historical Moses or some other later individual who later wrote down the narrative remains a matter of speculation, Charlie landing on the side of the latter which would be consistent with most other ancient religious traditions where various written texts were compiled under the name of some historical prophet at some later date – the Vyasa of the Vedic tradition, Zarathustra of the Avestan lore, and even Orpheus being examples of such transcription.[5]

The core of the Jewish faith and tradition however rests in the Torah, and from the Jewish vantage point its author, at least the first five books, is Moses.  The Moses to whom Yahweh revealed his message to directly, which was captured in the Torah, in both written and oral form, and passed down through the ages via the Rabbinic scholars and teachers into present day.  According to the Jewish tradition, the contents of the Torah were “revealed” to Moses by Yahweh himself, in the very same way the Zoroastrian, Christian and Islamic faiths had at their core the belief that their scripture was revealed by the one true God of their respective faiths through their respective prophets – Zarathustra, Jesus and Mohammed respectively[6].

But with Moses and Judaism, as was the case in each of these other ancient monotheistic traditions, the prophet taught the message of the one true God to students and followers, their people, and then generations after these teachings were transcribed from the oral tradition into written form in order to unite its people, each revealed tradition transcribed in the language that was prevalent in the civilizations within which the religions flourished.  For the Jews it was Ancient Hebrew, for the Zoroastrians it was Old Avestan, for the Christians it was Greek and then Latin, for the Muslims it was Arabic and Atenism it was hieroglyphs.  The language within which each of these ancient religious frameworks was documented reflected and mirrored the civilization within which they took root, each civilization unique in its own way and this uniqueness was reflected in the prevalent language and form of writing which was most common place, for language and civilization evolved together no doubt.  But the development of these religious systems, when looked at from the perspective of the context of the civilization from within which they emerged, along with the canonization of the scripture itself, shared the same basic evolutionary structure.  Atenism is perhaps the lone exception but you could argue that even this tradition had a prophet, the Pharaoh himself who was a representation of Aten in human form and therefore the “scripture” and writing surrounding the faith, given that hieroglyphs themselves were viewed as a divine manifestation as well, could be looked at as “revealed”.

So with the Jewish monotheistic tradition then, we see some outside influences on the scripture itself from Sumerian, Babylonian and other Canaanite mythos, but the faith, as with all of the Abrahamic traditions, is centered around the belief in the direct revelation of the Word of God to its prophet, Moses, and the subsequent transmission and codification of this revelation to its people.  But what should not be lost, and is true most certainly for Christianity and Islam as well, is that the canonization and standardization of the faith and its practices down through the centuries after the passing of its prophet, was intended to unite its people, and somewhat distinctly for the Jews, to legitimize and establish their ancestral homeland in Israel.

With the roots and evolution of Judaism explored, Charlie moved somewhat further East and somewhat further back in time to the Iranian people from Ancient Persia to see what monotheistic traditions became prevalent during the same time period in ancient history, roughly 2nd and first millennium BCE, some 1500 years before Christianity and the Roman Empire spread throughout the Mediterranean and Middle East.  To this end, we see evidence of the prevalence of a faith that later came to be known as Zoroastrianism, a term which was a Greek transliteration of the name of the prophet to which the teaching is attributed, i.e. Zarathustra who was called Zoroaster in Greek.  Zarathustra is to the Zoroastrians what Moses is to the Jews, and the divine revelations which provide the basis of the religion, as described in the Gathas ord Old Avestan hymns which are attributed to him, ultimately define the faith.  In Zoroastrianism, not only do we find very strong corollaries to Judeo-Christian themes and motifs, but also strong similarities to Greek theology and philosophy, as well as very clear Indo-Aryan Vedic similarities which of course provide the basis for Hinduism and Buddhism.

The earliest evidence of Zoroastrianism from the historical and archeological records can be found in not only the extant writings and inscriptions from the ancient Persians, but also from the ancient Greeks as well, which clearly had close ties with their Persians to the East (hostile or otherwise) and can be seen as indirect sources of the nature of the Persian people and their underlying faith, which by the time of the Achaemenid Empire (c. 550-330 BCE) appears to be almost exclusively Zoroastrian.

We see references to the grace and protection of Ahura Mazda, the one and true God of the Zoroastrian faith, by several of the extant inscriptions from Kings of the ancient Persian/Achaemenid Empire, an empire whose influence held sway over much of the Middle and Near East from the middle of the 6th century BCE to the latter part of the 4th century BCE.  References to Ahura Mazda are found from inscriptions from the era of Darius the Great (c. 550-486 BCE)[7], the infamous Xerxes who succeeded Darius (519-465 BCE), and then even in from the 11th king of the Achaemenid Empire Artaxerxes III (c 425-338 BCE).  We also see references to the Zoroastrian faith in the ancient Greek historical literature, starting with references to the Persian peoples and customs in Herodotus’s Histories (c. 484-425 BCE), an excerpt from the writings of Alcibiades written sometime after 374 BCE, a citation from Theopompus (c. 380–315 BCE), and even a reference to the Zoroastrian faith and its parallels to the Greek pantheon by Aristotle in his first book of On Philosophy.[8]

All of these references point to the existence and prevalence of the worship of a god the Persians called Ahura Mazda (translated into English from the older Pahlavi script as Ohrmazd) throughout the area of Persian (Iranian) influence from the 6th century BCE onwards, a god who the Greeks associated with Zeus (Horomazes or Oromasdes in Greek), whose evil counterpart Anra Mainyu (or Ahriman in the older Pahlavi script and Areimanus in Greek) Aristotle equates with Hades, the existence of a prophet that the Greeks called Zoroaster from which the faith emerged or at least was inspired, and whose faith was taught and practiced by a priestly class that the Greeks referred to as the magi, a word that came to be associated with astrology and magic in general (from which the English word “magic” derives), and whose usage can be found even into the New Testament:

After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi [wise men] from the east came to Jerusalem and asked, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.”[9]

As Charlie dug into the tradition surrounding Zoroastrianism, he found that the written tradition, at least the documents that survive down to us, didn’t come until much later, and came down to us through a fairly circuitous and perilous journey that has unfortunately left most of the literature buried in the tombs of history.  What does survive down to us has come through several different transcription efforts across many centuries leaving us today with copies of manuscripts that were most likely originally written down in the 4th or 5th centuries CE, but themselves are from no earlier than the 14th century CE.  Only the material written in the Avestan script, a derivative of Pahlavi designed specifically to transcribe the Avestan language, is considered part of the Avesta proper, and of that literature some is written in Old or “Gathic” Avestan, taking its name from the Gathas which form the core part of the Yasnas and which are the only part of the Avesta that is attributed directly to Zarathustra himself, and then the rest in Younger Avestan which is a derivative of the Old Avestan language.[10]

One of the things that stood out for Charlie as he tried to unravel this mystery of Zoroastrianism, and its historical and theological relationship to Judaism and in turn Christianity which was readily apparent, was how important it clearly was to these ancient Zoroastrian scribes and priests to preserve the exact pronunciation of words and hymns within the context of the rituals which it describes.  This importance is reflected in the fact that they, albeit not until the first few centuries CE, created of a specific script designed just for this purpose, namely Avestan which was a derivative of the more popular Pahlavi script.  This was indicative of the long held tradition that the exact pronunciation and annunciation and ordering of words and hymns was required to correctly perform the prescribed Zoroastrian rituals and prayers, deviation from which would leave the rituals bereft of potency.  The same characteristics could be found in ancient Egypt along with the Indo-Aryan peoples as reflected in the Vedas, and to a lesser extent the Greeks.

The Rig Veda, the oldest surviving example of Vedic Sanskrit, is very linguistically similar to its Indo-Iranian counterpart to the West, namely Gathic or Old Avestan.  Not only do the two languages share many of the same words and terms, but the hymns and rituals which are described in the two texts share many of the same attributes and patterns speaking to a very close relationship between the two peoples that were the authors and preservers of these ancient traditions.  The oldest representatives of the two languages survive down to us under two different writing systems, the Vedic Sanskrit surviving in its oldest form in Brahmi script which was used from the 3rd century BCE to the 5th century CE, and the Avesta in Avestan which was used from around 400–1000 CE and as already noted was specifically designed for the purpose of codifying Zoroastrian lore and practice.  The different alphabets/writing systems are related however, Avestan being derived from Pahlavi which derives from Aramaic script, and Brahmi which is a derivation from Aramaic as well.  This allows for patterns and word/pronunciation similarities to be drawn between the two languages even though neither of which is spoken today.

From a socio-cultural and even theological perspective, Charlie found it intriguing to be able to see the relationship in language, in speech, of these ancient tongues, which effectively gives us a window into the theological or religious world of the Near and Far East (modern day Iran and India) in the second millennium BCE which is the date typically given to the Avestan and Vedic Sanskrit languages (not the texts but the languages themselves).  Compare the Avestan word yasna which has a direct correlate in Sanskrit yajna for example, both of which denote a sacred, ritualized practice of chanting or hymns (associated with mantra in the Vedic tradition) that in many cases also involved some form of animal sacrifice or some other oblation in their respective religious traditions (like soma for example), and both terms form a core part of the respective traditions, so much so in the Zoroastrian tradition that a core part of the Avestan literature bears its name, i.e. the Yasna.

For example the Sanskrit word soma, used to describe a plant or drink substance (which from Charlie’s perspective must have been hallucinogenic or mind altering in some way) that is a core part of many of the rituals described in the Rig Veda and which there is a direct counterpart in the Avestan, i.e. haoma which means basically the same thing and is of similar import.[11]

Furthermore, Charlie found it interesting that the Greek word for hymn or song, ymnos, which was clearly very prevalent and important in the ancient Hellenistic world, as illustrated in the widespread and well documented traditions of Homer, Hesiod, and Orpheus, means almost the same thing as its counterparts to the East – yasna to the Indo-Iranians and yajna to the Indo-Aryans – except in the Greek context it is somewhat devoid of the of the notion of ritual or sacrifice.  This led Charlie to a conclude that perhaps a) the Greek ymnos could be and probably was a direct derivative from these two relatively more ancient religious systems to the East, and spoke to the close ties, cultural borrowing in fact, of these cultures from a religious and theological perspective, and b) that perhaps our understanding of the Greek poetic tradition, which was steeped in this idea of ymnos, was inadequate to some degree.  Perhaps the Greek poetic tradition, the very same one that the Socratic philosophical tradition sat in contrast to and to some extent rose up against, was steeped in ritual and chanting and the production of hypnotic/ecstatic type states by the following of the rituals and practices that were very similar to those described in the Rig-Veda and the Avesta.  This was speculation to some degree no doubt, but Charlie could see the purpose, underlying meaning, of the existing Vedic (now Hindu) ritualistic practices that have survived down to us today in some form, as well as the corresponding rituals in the Zoroastrian tradition which still survive, which ultimately are designed for communion with the divine, or some specific aspect of the divine that the particular yajna or yasna was designed for.

As far as Charlie could gather, and based upon his own personal experience, these rituals were designed to produce higher states of consciousness, to commune with the divine spirit in some form or another, as clearly indicated by the association of specific hymns (yajna in Sanskrit and yasna in Avestan) with specific Gods or Goddesses.  Couple this with the importance of adherence to the exact pronunciation and wording of the hymns themselves, along with the following of the exact steps of a given ritual and/or prayer which may involve some sort of food or animal type of offering (soma for example) and what you have is that throughout Ancient Greece and the and all the way to the Far East was a common practice of ritual that were designed to yield a specific state of consciousness.  The same tradition could be found in Egypt as well (more on that later).

Ceremony was probably the best English word Charlie could come up with to translate this idea, except this don’t imply the clear objective of communion with the divine which seemed to be so very evident in these ancient traditions, traditions which not only had detailed rituals which were described, canonized and passed down via oral tradition over the course of many centuries, millennia in fact, but also had detailed cosmologies which outlined the specific context within which the specific aspect of the divine which was the object of these rituals was to be viewed in the total cosmic order of the universe, an order to which the individual participant, mankind itself even, was being identified with in the act of ritual itself.

Accounts of modern scholars date the contents of the Avesta as indicative of hunter/gatherer and nomadic societies that are consistent with archaeological findings in Near East at the turn of the first millennium BCE, centuries before the Persian Imperial period and at least a thousand years before the language was written down.  The oldest portion of the Avesta is the Gathas, which are ascribed as divine revelations of the prophet Zarathustra himself, in much the same way as the Pentateuch is ascribed to Moses.

The Gathas describe a society of consisting of priests and herdsmen/farmers, a nomadic culture with tribal structures organized at most as small kingdoms.  This contrasts sharply with the view of Zoroaster having lived in an empire, at which time society is attested to have had a tripartite structure with the addition of a solider and warring class to the priests and nomad/farmers, providing evidence for the origins the Zoroastrian scriptures dating back into the 2nd millennium BCE prior to the imperial age of the Persians despite this society having the first known reference to Zoroastrian faith.

What we know about Zarathustra himself is known through the Zoroastrian texts themselves and through no other source other than brief references by later historians.  What we can gather from these texts is Zarathustra, if he actually existed, was in all likelihood born in Northeast Iran or Southwest Afghanistan into a Bronze Age culture marked with polytheistic religious beliefs as were common in those ancient times, a culture that included rituals of animal sacrifice and the use of hallucinogenics for spiritual awakening, the latter practice of which could be considered similar in many respect to shamanic rituals of the Native American populations of more modern times which we may be more familiar (shamanism), and is the same type of pre-urban, hunter-gatherer societies and practices that are described in the earliest parts of the Vedas, texts which are identified with the Indus valley region which is just East of Ancient Persia (modern Iran).

What is clear from the ancient texts is that Zarathustra to some extent rejected the religion of the Bronze Age Iranians with their many gods and oppressive class structure, marking a fairly significant divergence from the standard practices and social structure of his time and providing the foundations of perhaps the first truly monotheistic faith, unifying the various notions of divinity found within this pantheistic tradition into one all-encompassing deity or principle which came to be known as Ahura Mazda, or Ohrmazd in Old Avestan .  So although a precise date of the founding of Zoroastrianism and its original prophet Zarathustra is uncertain, as well as of course is whether or not he actually existed as an historical figure, Old Avestan’s close ties with Vedic Sanskrit combined with the life and times that are described within the oldest Zoroastrian liturgy mapped with archeological evidence put the date of the origins of the oldest parts of the Avesta somewhere between 1500-1100 BCE.

Other notable Zoroastrian texts which were written from the 9th to the 12th centuries CE in Middle Persian written in Pahlavi are the Dēnkard or “Acts of Religion” which is a compendium of Zoroastrian beliefs and customs including an historical narrative of the Avesta itself,  the Bundahishn or “Primordial Creation” which contains a detailed account of Zoroastrian cosmology, the Mainog-i-Khirad or “Spirit of Wisdom”, a religious conference on questions of faith, and the Arda Viraf Namak (“Book of Arda Viraf”), which is especially important for its views on death, salvation and life in the hereafter.  Each of these texts albeit written after the advent and widespread adoption of Christianity and Islam, still preserve much of the still existent and practicing lore of Zoroastrianism, small pockets of which again still exist today.  

The Avesta and associated Zoroastrian literature speak of the belief in a single creator god from which the entire universe originates, Ohrmhzd or Ohrmazd or Ahura Mazda in Younger Avestan.  Ahura Mazda is described as the highest deity of worship and is the first and most frequently invoked deity in the Yasna.  Ahura Mazda is an omniscient and omnipotent benevolent god, who is viewed in the early Avestan tradition as the antithesis as well as the liberating principle set in contrast to evil who is represented by Anra Mainyu, or Ahriman in Gathic Avestan.  The word Ahura means “light” and Mazda means “wisdom”, thus Ahura Mazda is the lord of light and wisdom and he is considered to be the upholder of Asha or Arta, which corresponds to the Sanskrit rta which signifies the underlying order of the universe and society within it, or simply truth.  This same principle finds its equivalent to the Egyptians as maat and to the Greeks as nomos.

The creation mythology/cosmology as well as many core belief systems of the Zoroastrian faith as outlined in the Bundahism contain many Christian themes and parallels, and for this reason is looked on as, along with Judaism and Neo-Platonism, as one of the primary theological sources from which Christianity, and clearly Judaism, drew.  In the Zoroastrian mythos, the universe consists of opposing forces of light and darkness, good and evil, represented by Ohrmazd and Ahriman respectively, and in the beginning the two were separated by a Void, or Ether.

1. It is thus manifest, [in the good Religion]: Ohrmazd was, forever, at the highest, in the Light, [for infinite time,] owing to omniscience and goodness.

2. The Light is the place and location of Ohrmazd; there is some one who calls it ‘Endless Light’; and the omniscience and goodness are, forever, of Ohrmazd; there is someone who calls them ‘Revelation’; Revelation has the interpretation of both these; one, that of the eternal, of Infinite Time; just as were Ohrmazd, Space, Revelation, and Time of Ohrmazd; ……………… –.

3. Ahriman was, at the abysmal station, in darkness, owing to after wit and destructive desire.

4. His destructive desire is raw; and that darkness is his location; there is someone who calls it ‘Endless Darkness’.-

5. Betwixt them was Void,- there are some who call it ‘Ether’-, wherein was their joining.

6. They both have finiteness and infinity. 7. For, the utmost height is that which one calls ‘Endless Light,’- [that is, it is ‘not limited’-;] and the abysmal station is the ‘Endless Darkness’, [and that is infinity. 8. And owing to boundary, both are finite,] — that is, betwixt them is a Void, and they are not connected with each other.[12]

From Ohrmazd and Ahriman are created the first generation of gods, 6 Amahraspands or angels, as well as their 6 evil counterparts, or the forces of darkness which are called Dews or demons.  From Ohrmazd, or the eternal Light, come forth the basic building blocks of the universe, 7 in total, all created to sustain mankind.  Initially comes forth Sky, then Water, then Earth, then Tree (Plants), then Animals (with particular emphasis on the bull or cattle), then Mankind (or primordial man called Gayomard, the Persian equivalent to Adam), and then lastly Fire which was created to assist mankind.

Many of these same themes – principles of the battle between good and evil, the association of God with Light and its battle with the powers of darkness (Ahriman), the existence of angels and demons which preside over the world of mankind, the primordial man in Gayomard, are found in Christianity as well.  Also of note is that in the Younger Avesta, three divinities of the Zoroastrian pantheon are repeatedly identified as ahuric, meaning that each act together collectively to both represent and protect Asha, or the world order and divine truth which governs the universe.  These three deities are later referred to as the Ahuric triad – namely Ahura MazdaMithra and Burz – to which similarities with the Christian Holy Trinity have been drawn by later scholars looking to connect Christian theology with Zoroastrianism.  In the words of Mary Boyce, one of the most renowned Zoroastrian scholars and former Professor Emeritus of Iranian Studies at the University of London:

Zoroaster was thus the first to teach the doctrines of an individual judgment, Heaven and Hell, the future resurrection of the body, the general Last Judgment, and life everlasting for the reunited soul and body. These doctrines were to become familiar articles of faith to much of mankind, through borrowings by Judaism, Christianity and Islam; yet it is in Zoroastrianism itself that they have their fullest logical coherence….[13]

The existence of some of these precursor Christian ideas and concepts, along with the notion of last judgment, have led some scholars to draw a line directly connecting the Zoroastrian tradition with later Christian theology and although a direct correlation is hard to establish, some pattern and cultural borrowing between the two faiths is virtually impossible to rule out entirely from Charlie’s perspective at least.

Very little is known about the spread of Zoroastrianism between the time when it is believed Zarathustra actually lived sometime in the 2nd millennium BCE and the time of the advent of the Persian or Achaemenid Empire founded by Cyrus the Great in the 6th century BCE where it is clear from the archeological record that Zoroastrianism was adopted by at least the Kings of the Achaemenid empire[14], other than it clearly gained prominence in the Near East, the Greeks were exposed to it and surely were influenced by it to at least some degree, and clearly it left its mark on Judaism to at least some extent and then later Christianity, either independently or via Jewish lore as evidenced by the reference to magi in the New Testament as well as the clear Zoroastrian themes that can be seen in not only the Judeo-Christian creation mythology but also in later Christian developments of the notion of ultimate judgment/revelation as well as perhaps even the concept of the Holy Trinity.

It is fairly certain however that the Persians were exposed to some form of Judaism and vice versa however as evidenced by the Old Testament scripture that speak to the Jews being conquered by the Babylonians and their temple being destroyed (c 586 BCE) marking the period of Jewish exile, and then the return to their homeland and the rebuilding of their temple under the auspices of the Persian King Cyrus in 536 BCE[15].  So clearly the Jews and Zoroastrian/Persians had direct contact during this time period, and it’s not too large of a leap of faith to presume that some of their religious and mythological dogma was blended and coalesced between the two religious systems – Professor Lumina’s cultural borrowing at work no doubt.

By some scholars it is held that Zoroastrianism in some form or other was the state religion of the Persians during the Achaemenid Empire until the end of the 4th century BCE although this claim is debatable.  However given the references to Zoroastrianism and the magi in the Greek literature contemporaneous to the Achaemenid Empire, as well as references from the much later Denkard which references various efforts to consolidate and document Zoroastrian faith and customs, it was probably not far-fetched then, at least from Charlie’s perspective, to draw parallels between the adoption of Zoroastrianism by the Persians to facilitate the consolidation of their empire in much the same way that Judaism, Christianity and later Islam was used to consolidate and unite their respective societies/boundaries of power.


[1] There is also credible historical evidence at least that indicates that the final Jewish canon in its present day form was still as yet finalized by the first century CE, as reflected for example in the writings of Jewish historian Josephus among others, see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tanakh#History.

[2] For example the translation from the original Hebrew of the phrase “Ten Commandments” is apparently a fairly late rendition of the Hebrew which is perhaps more directly translated into English as the “ten statements” or “ten sayings”.  The statements are given in 17 verses in both Exodus (20:1-17) which tells the story of when they are initially given to Moses and then in Deuteronomy (5:4-21) where God re-states the commandments to the younger generation who are entering the Promised Land.

[3] This point becomes relevant in linguistics when for example word pronunciation becomes an important part of distinguishing and categorizing language families.

[4] Orphic Hymn 64 to Nomos (trans. Taylor) (Greek hymns C3rd B.C. to 2nd A.D.) :

[5] See http://bible.org/seriespage/introduction-pentateuch for a fairly detailed account of the scholarly debate and evidence of the authorship of the Pentateuch.

[6] Vedanta as reflected in the Upanishads and the Vedas holds the same belief, namely that the scripture was divine revelation and therefore was to be held sacred.

[7] Within the Behistun Inscription which was carved in stone on a mountain side in Western Iran.  This inscription was written in three forms of cuneiform script – Old Persian, Elamite and Babylonian (a later form of Akkadian), providing a very sound view of comparison of these three ancient languages as well as of course providing for a solid example of the cuneiform script which it was written in, effectively serving the same purpose as the famed Rosetta Stone in Egypt to the Iranian cuneiform script in the Near East.

[8] See Zoroastrianism by Mary Boyce, University of Chicago Press 1984 pgs 104-108 for a complete list of the inscriptions and the associated translated text, and the work in general as an invaluable resource for the Zoroastrian faith and liturgy as a whole.

[10] Compare the words “Ahura Mazda” and “Anra Mainyu” which are Roman renditions of the Younger Avestan tongue with “Ohrmazd” and “Ahriman” which are renderings of the Old, Gathic, Avestan.

[13] Mary Boyce, Zoroastrianism, University of Chicago Press, 1984.

[14] For a more in depth look at the role of Ahura Mazda in the reign of the Persian Empire kings see The Achaemenid Kings and the Worship of Ahura Mazda: Proto-Zoroastrianism in the Persian Empire by Avram R. Shannon; Studia Antiqua 5.2, Fall 2007

[15] See Zoroastrianism, Judaism and Christianity at http://www.pyracantha.com/Z/zjc3.html.



Categories: Ancient Civilization, Ancient Cosmology, Christianity, Mythology, Vedanta

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

1 reply

  1. This inutodrces a pleasingly rational point of view.

    Like

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