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Zoroastrianism and Judaism: The Genesis of Comparative Beliefs of two Great Faiths

Comparative Religion

Ervard Dr. Jehan Bagli



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Zoroastrianism and Judaism have ties that were knotted many centuries before Christianity appeared on the religious stage of this planet. The Zoroastrian way of life has markedly influenced the early Hebrew religious fabric. Just how did this come about both at the social and doctrinal level is a subject worth exploring and understanding.

The Achaemenian King most intimately associated with these events is Cyrus, the Great, a worshipper of Zoroaster's-God Ahura Mazda who became the King of Anshan in 558 B.C. and was heralded as the founder of the Achaemenian Empire. In this era Babylon was ruled by a tyrant named Nabonidus. He oppressed Babylonians in general and held the 'people of Israel' as captives in his land, in particular. Historical evidence suggests that learned and skilled Persian agents. must have infiltnated Babylon to convince the Marduk (God of Babylonia) Priesthood and the people of Israel, that their only salvation was to allow the take over of Babylon by Cyrus.

Scholars suggest that the result of the work by Persian agents was clearly reflected in Cyrus's Proclamation that appeared as an oracle from the Gods of Babylonia empowering him to set Babylon free. A striking parallel to this is noticeable in the prophecies found in the Book of Jind Isaiah. The similarity of the two accounts clearly suggests that the prophet Isaiah was perhaps the first Jew to learn about Cyrus and Zoroastrianism from the Persian Magis. An example of these two parallels is given below:

Cyrus’ Proclamation portrays Marduk saying, "He (Marduk) scanned and looked (through) all the countries, searching for a righteous ruler.. he pronounced the name of Cyrus, King of Anshan. . .to become the ruler of all the world. Marduk the great Lord, a protector of his people beheld with pleasure his (Cyrus') good deeds and ordered him to march against the City of Babylon". Morton Smith, Jour. of Amer. Ori. Soc. 1963, 83, 415.

The verses of the IInd Isaiah reflects a strikingly parallel calling to Cyrus from the Hebrew God Jehovah (Yahweh).

"The one saying of Cyrus, He is my shepherd and all that I delight in he wi1l completely carry out.' Even in (my) saying of Jerusalem, 'She will be rebuilt and the temple.....foundation laid" (verse 44.28).

"This is what Jehovah has said to his anointed One, to Cyrus whose right hand I have taken hold of to subdue before him Nations..." (verse 45.1)

"I myself have roused up someone in righteousness, He is the one that will build my city and those of mine in exile he will let go, not for a price nor for bribery. (verse 45.13).

It is apparent from the above quotes that the Zoroastrian King Cyrus was called upon from two varied sources to perform a common duty. As expressed by Morton Smith (loc. cit), "To the Judeans they represented Cyrus, as chosen of Yahweh to unite Babylon and restore Israel; to the Babylonian Priesthood they represented him as chosen of Marduk to free Babylon from the tyranny of Nobonidus". It is interesting to note that utterance of IInd Isaiah speaks of violence in the takeover of Babylon (Isaiah 45.2). In contrast, the prophecy of Marduk Priesthood speaks of a totally non-violent entry in Babylon (Morton Smith loc. cit). Facts of history do record that Cyrus made a bloodless coup of Babylon. Professor Boyce notes that "the Verses of IInd Isaiah are remarkable in that in them alone, out of all the Old Testament, the term 'Messiah' in the sense of an anointed deliverer of the Jewish nation is used of foreigner, a non-Jew (Cyrus)", (History of Zoroastrianism. Vol. II, p. 44).

The evidence of the contact of the IInd Isaiah with a Persian (Zoroastrian) source is further augmented by the presence of various theological expressions in this scripture not frequently noted in Hebrew literature. Not only are these utterances foreign to the Hebrew tradition but they also bear a marked resemblance to the character of the Zoroastrian tradition. Concerning these similarities Smith remarks that it is rarely possible to establish the absolute genesis of a theological idea. However, the author adds, "What can be seen clearly is the way in which certain ideas formerly sporadic and unimportant suddenly finds frequent expression and are made central concern of important work" (loc. cit. p. 418). A case in point is the notion that 'Yahweh created the world'. In traditional Hebrew literature this plays no conspicuous role. The insistence of Isaiah to utter this concept repeatedly led Morton Smith to conclude that this was a result of an outside influence, on the traditional Judaism. This she describes by saying, "...the fact that Isaiah got his political program from Persian propaganda of Cyrus, makes it plausible to look for the source of this influence in Persian (Zoroastrian) material...".

Yasna 44 of GATHA USHTAVAITI - a passage often used by some of the scholars to support the notion, omnipotence of Ahura Mazda - consist of a series of profound questions by prophet Zoroaster to Ahura Mazda. The obvious answer to these may be formulated as "I am" or "I do" from the Wise Lord, Ahura Mazda. One finds a striking resemblance both in the style and in the substance of cosmological account of IInd Isaiah in verses 40 and 45, with those of Yasna 44. To quote but one such example, we read in Yasna 44.5:

"This I ask Thee. Tell me truly which craftsman created the luminous bodies and the dark spaces? Which craftsman created both sleep and activity?..." S. Insler, Gatha of Zarathushtra p. 67.

The above passage parallels remarkably well with verse 45.7 of IInd Isaiah which says: "Forming light and creating darkness, making peace and creating calamity, I Jehovah am doing all these things." Takino into consideration the historic time slot, a strong case for the influence of Zoroaster's teaching on the thinking of Isaiah, can be made.

The Book of EZRA, believed to have been written ca. 460 B.C. starts by relating the decree of Cyrus (EZRA 1.1, 1.2). It began by saying, that Yahweh, the God had commissioned Cyrus to build him a house in Jerusalem. History records that the task was yet unfinished at that time. We read in verses 5.1 and 6.14, 15 of the Book of EZRA, request by prophets, Haggai and Zachariah to the Jews to build the 'House of Yahweh'. It is believed that after a search in the Royal records, Darius, then the ruling Zoroastrian monarch of Persia, complied to fulfill the decree of Cyrus. In the Hebrew scripture EZRA records this event (verse 6.15) by saying, 'And they completed this House (of Jehovah) by the third day of the lunar month of Adar - that is in the sixth year of the reign of Darius the King. It must be mentioned at this point, that Darius - the Zoroastrian ruler in aiding the Jews apparently gained two major concessions:

1) The loyalty and gratitude of his Jewish subjects, and
2) A safe passage to Egypt, since Palestine is strategically located on the road between Persia and Egypt.

Over half a century later we arrive at the Achaemenian King Artaxerxes whose name also appears in Hebrew scriptures of EZRA (verses 7.7, 7.12). Artaxerxes followed the tradition of benevolence towards the Jews as set by his ancestors. He appointed NEHEMIAH one of his loyal servants to govern Jerusalem. We are told NEHEMIAH, who followed the Zoroastrian purity code rigidly, was responsible for the transition of the Jewish purity code, that solely concerned the cultic matters, to the purity in the individual's daily life, The purity laws, as observed by Prof. Boyce, were no longer restricted to the Temple, but had to be exercised in 'the fields, the kitchen, the bed and the street (History of Zoroastrianism Vol. II, p. 190).

The works of 'EZRA the scribe' - knowledgeable in the law of the God of Heaven (EZRA 7.12) and in the law of Moses (EZRA 7.6) - are primarily responsible for the parallels in the beliefs between Zoroastrianisni and Judaism. EZRA was commissioned by emperor Artaxerxes to go to Jerusalem and to investigate the law of their God. The letter giving that decree is preserved in the Book of EZRA (7.11, -14), which says, "And this is a copy of the letter that King Artaxerxes gave to EZRA, by me an order has been put through that everyone in my land of the people of Israel and their priest and levites that is willing to go to Jerusalem with you, should go. In as much as from before the King and his seven counselors (an order) was sent to investigate concerning Judah, and Jerusalem in the law of your God..."

The 'seven counselors' referred to in the letter above reflects the Zoroastrian Doctrine of Heptad. The monarch in those days commanded the degree of respect on earth as the Creator in Heavens. The King then was the earthly reflection of Ahura Mazda. He thus constituted ‘the seven’ with his counsellors as the ‘The Heptad’ constituted by Ahura Mazda and the Amesha Spenta (Boyce, History of Zoroastrianism, Vol. II, p. 94).

Of the first five books.of the old Testaments known as the PENTATEUCH, the post-exilic accounts are largely in 'Priestly code'. Prophet EZRA is associated with these accounts by modern scholars. The 'Holiness Code' of the Book of Leviticus and the first chapter of the Book of Genesis are attributed to these writings. They show profound Zoroastrian influences.

It is important to note that the GENESIS account of the cosmogony in Chapter I is markedly different from the story of the Garden of Eden In Chapter II. The account of the first chapter bears marked resemblance to the Zoroastrian description. We read in Genesis,

"In the beginning God created heaven and earth... Let light come to be... and God began calling the light Day but the darkness he called Night" (verse 1.3-5). This is followed by creation account of the other elements culminating in (verse 1.26-28) the creation of humans. The stark similarity of the above account to that of Zoroastrianism could be expected. The reason being, that by this time, knowledge of Zoroastrianism had become known to clergy and theologians of other faiths in that part of the world.

The influence of Zoroastrianism on the eschatological aspect of Judaism is also noticeable in the post-exilic scriptures. In the early Hebrew writing joy in the hereafter was at best vaguely expressed. For the first time in IInd Isaiah one sees expressions as follows:

"Your dead ones will live.. they will rise up. Awake and cry out joyfully....The earth will bring those long dead to birth again" (verse 26.19).

These expressions are clear overtones of the Zoroastrian revelations in this area. As concluded by Prof. Boyce, ".. it is difficult not to concede to Zoroastrianism both priority and influence; the more especially since elements cf Zoroaster's teaching can be traced far back in the ancient Indo-Iranian religious traditions, whereas those of Jewish apocalyptic first appear after the time of contact with the Persian faith".

Finally, the concept of Zoroaster, of the 'Limited Time'; at the end of which 'evil' will be totally eradicated and the true kingdom of Ahura Mazda will prevail on this earth, is wholly unique to his faith. Even this concept appears to have permeated in the writings of IInd Isaiah where we read,

"He will actually swallow up death forever and the Lord Jehovah will certainly wipe the tears from all faces" Verse 25.8

It is indeed interesting to note that in the above passage the Lord Jehovah takes the supreme responsibility of wiping out the evil. He is thus held accepted as Omnipotent. This aspect of Judaism is, according to some scholars, at variance with Zoroastrianism, where they claim the Omnipotence of Ahura Mazda only at the time of FRASHO KERETI (period of eternal bliss).

From the above it clearly appears that IInd Isaiah was.the first Jew who had heard of Zoroaster's teachings. The influence of Zoroastrianism thus spread over the people who were ruled by Zoroastrian Monarchs.. These emperors were not only dedicated believers in the teachings of Zarathosht but also were committed to spread those teachings across their vast Empire.