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Judaism in Persia’s Shadow [i] - authored by Jon L. Berquist [ii]
















It was always drilled into me that the Zarathushti religion has had a significant impact on many other religions. Amongst others, I recall a Mr. Keki Chinoy who would sit, with snuff box at hand and handlebar moustache well waxed, on the verandah of the local gymkhana and make proclamations: one of which was that “even if the Zarathushti faith itself died out, it would still live on through many others.” (Most of his other proclamations, usually made over a club sandwich and glass of shandy, were of the more colorful but less accurate variety. But let that not detract from his one valid observation.)

Time was when I sought to understand the religion’s historic significance more than its spiritual essence. Uncomfortably locked out of the collective religious consciousness for the first time when I came to the US, I needed reinforcement. I needed to be told, and I needed the tools with which to tell others that my religion was epic, pioneering and monumental. For a while I cruised public libraries solo with my notebook in hand. Copious notes of obscure facts gave me ammunition that I hurled at startled Christians, Jews, Moslems, Buddhists, Bahais, Rastafarians, Taoists, and Scientologists to show them the stuff my religion was really made of. So it was with a sense of deja vu and some smugness that I picked up Jon Berquist’s book, Judaism in Persia’s Shadow [Fortress Press]. Though some never admit it, and some no doubt never feel it, in many Parsi hearts lurks a silent competitiveness with the Jewish faith. Under contest is the prize for which one is really the world’s oldest revealed religion; and, it is a contest we Parsis usually lose. But being No. 2, we try harder, and so I read keenly how the two faiths had acted upon, and with, each other.

Berquist’s book is written to answer a simple question “ how did the absorption of Judah (which the Persians called Yehud) into the Persian Empire affected its ideology, self-understanding and religion? The book is an investigation into the way the Achaemenian Empire of Cyrus the Great influenced and changed Judaism, It focuses on the secular influences administrative, legal, military and social structures brought by Cyrus and his successors. Post-Persian Judah. Painting a vivid picture of the years from 539 BCE, when Judah first came under the rule of Cyrus the Great, to around 333 BCE when the Persian Empire fell to Alexander, Berquist takes us on a journey that unravels life just before and under the Achaemenians.

The book begins with a simple premise that society shapes people, and people create literature. As society changes, so does literature. The drive for his book, says Berquist, came from the radical change Judaic texts underwent between 539 BCE and 333 BCE when Judah was part of the Persian Empire. The most important difference is the element of universalism in the post-Persian texts, Berquist explained. Earlier Judaism was quite particularistic in many ways but the later writing is more embracing of differences. More significantly, says Berquist, post-Persian Judaic writings reject idolatry and embrace a monotheistic, priestly form of Yahwism for the first time. In his precise but uninspiring chronicling of Judah, Berquist tells of how the Babylonians enslaved the Jews in 625 BCE and how Cyrus the Great freed them and returned them to their lands in 539 BCE. Under the Babylonians, Berquist writes, “the removal (through death or deportation) of the upper strata of Jerusalemite and Judaic society devastated Jewish life. In 539 BCE, the return of the Jews to Judah and the re-building of their temples that Cyrus funded and oversaw resulted in a regeneration of the Jewish faith.”  “I found a richness in Persian Yehud that bedazzled me.” Berquist writes. “he Persian Empire produced a pluralistic context in which Jerusalem survived, grew and flourished, and the faith of Yahweh was never the same, in any of its expressions.”

Most significantly, we are told, Cyrus and subsequent Persian Emperors allowed the many faiths under their control to flourish and they themselves praised the beneficence of gods as diverse as Yahweh, Marduk and others. Of course, as predictable in a book about Persians and Jews, the protagonists from these two races generally come off looking like valiant, gallant and wise servants of God trying to build a noble society in His real, intended way, while the Babylonians and Assyrians are mostly feckless, brutal wannabes whose vision of life is woefully misguided. Even as Berquist chronicles Cyrus’ munificence succinctly, his explanation for why Cyrus acted as he did is incomplete. In a section entitled Cyrus Interests,  he offers up ease of administration, economic astuteness, the difficulty in maintaining a large empire, and a desire to focus on conquest, as the primary reasons for Cyrus’ managerial philosophy.  Of the later king, Darius, he writes that “he was a monotheist, possibly along the lines of Zoroaster, but that for political reasons he maintained a pluralistic polytheistic empire.”  Berquist fails to conceive, however, that Cyrus and Darius progressive ideas might have stemmed from their own religious beliefs, which might have shaped their actions as much, if not more, than practical considerations. Though he himself, in later passages, talks of how the Persians introduced the element of universality into Jewish writing, he fails to see Cyrus’ and Darius’ actions as a manifestation of the universal ideal inherent in the religion of Zarathushtra.

Liberty to grow. Berquist also forms the interesting thesis that under secular Achaemenian rule Judaism was free to flourish without political constraints for the first time in its history. According to him, the Persian Empire created controlled environments in which independent yet related cultures could grow. By researching and investigating the administrative, military and social aspects of how Persia governed its new colony, Yehud, he explains how it left an enduring impact on the two key religions, Judaism and Christianity, that grew from there. The separation of church and state allowed religious thoughts to thrive without imperial interference and under the Achaemenians Judaic writing became highly diverse and pluralistic. The canon of the Torah as well as other canonical scriptures developed, setting the stage for formative Judaism. Set off by a more pluralistic and universalist thinking, diverse views of Yahwehism flourished. Monotheism and the rejection of idol worship crept into Judaic consciousness. The role of the temple and the priesthood changed significantly and along Persian (Zoroastrian?) lines.

Both formative Judaism and nascent Christianity developed within the context of a society and a religion that had been shaped by the Persian Empire, is his conclusion towards the end of the book. 

[i] This book review originally appeared in the FEZANA journal of Winter 2004, and was posted on vohuman.org on June 28, 2005 courtesy of the reviewer, Mr. Jehangir Pocha and the editor of FEZANA journal Mrs. Roshan Rivetna.   The book was published by Fortress Press in 1995, ISBN 0800628454.

[ii] As of the decade of 1990s Jon L. Berquist was an academic editor at Chalice Press and the author of numerous books, including Judaism in Persia’s Shadow: A Social and Historical Approach and Incarnation.