Christian Origins

The Influence of Persian Religion on Christianity

Ancient Persian religion (also known as Zoroastrianism) is of vast importance to the study of Christian origins. However, it seems that the general public is not very familiar with the striking similarities between Zoroastrian and Christian religious ideas. My focus in this article will not be on borrowing, but on possible ideological influence. There is no need to prove direct textual borrowing in order to prove influence. They are different questions. Influence can occur over time in a variety of situations, not limited to specific textual parallels. 1

There is a lot to explore, and Persian religion is a complex subject to study. One difficulty is the fact that unlike Christianity and Judaism, Zoroastrianism is lacking in terms of ancient manuscripts. Persian religious traditions were transmitted orally for a very long time before they began to be written down between the 6th and 9th centuries CE. The late dating of the texts we have necessitates external corroboration. Thankfully, we have invaluable sources such as the ancient Greek historians Herodotus (ca. 484–425 BCE) and Plutarch (ca. 45–120 CE) as well as ancient archaeological finds that attest to the antiquity of Zoroastrian ideas.

Despite the textual difficulties, Zoroastrianism is believed to be a very old religion. Older than Christianity, and possibly older than Judaism. Linguistic similarities with the Sanskrit of the Hindu Rig Veda suggest that the Gathas (a collection of Zoroastrian hymns) date to the mid-second millennium BCE; but this is not a consensus among scholars. 2 Our earliest archaeological and textual evidence of the influence of these ideas comes from around the mid-first millenium BCE. Historians believe that Zoroastrianism was the dominant pre-Islamic religion in Persia.

We have strong precedent for believing that Judaism was influenced ideologically by the Persians, as demonstrated by Jason M. Silverman in his book Persepolis and Jerusalem, Iranian Influence on the Apocalyptic Hermeneutic. He writes regarding the interaction between the two cultures:

“There were many opportunities for Judaeans and other Yahwists to come in contact with Iranian peoples, within Israel and in the diaspora…Given the number of potential historical contexts in which Judaean-Iranian interaction was possible, complete segregation of the two peoples would require remarkable proof.” 1

Among the many points of contact was the Babylonian exile, which most students of the Bible would be well aware of. According to the biblical accounts, the Judaean exile lasted seventy years, enough to produce roughly three generations of natives to Babylonia, which came under Persian control before the end of the exile.  Silverman wrote about the Iranian presence there:

“Nebuchadnezzar deported Judean exiles to the region of Nippur, on the Chebar Canal (Tel Abib; Ezek 1:1, 3; 3:15; 10:15, 20, 22). From the conquest of Cyrus, or at the latest, Darius I, Nippur also housed estates of Persian nobles and Iranian colonies.” 1

The Old Testament contains stories of Jews who rose to prominence among the Persian nobility during this time period. These tales include characters such as Daniel and his friends Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego (Jews given Persian names) as they held onto their Jewish faith despite persecution. Daniel and Mordecai became trusted advisors of Achaemenid kings; and Esther even became Artaxerxes’ queen according to these accounts. Whether these stories are fictional or not is irrelevant to this discussion. What they most clearly display is that the Jewish people viewed Persia as highly significant in their history. The Persian king Cyrus was even portrayed as a savior-esque character and praised in some passages of the OT after he allowed the Jews to return to Israel.

Aside from the explicit presence of Persia in the Bible, one can also find Persian loanwords. Some examples that found their way into Hebrew are ganzak, Rab-mag, achashdarpan, appeden, and dath. A much more significant loanword is paradeisos (paradise). The translators of the Septaugint (Greek Old Testament) often used it to translate the Hebrew gan (garden). 3 This word is also the one used by Jesus on the cross when addressing the criminal being crucified with him in Luke 23:43. It appears to have been used as a synonym for a heavenly realm, as can be seen in it’s other two appearances in 2 Cor. 12:4  and Rev. 2:7.

The Influence of Zoroastrian Ideas

The evolution of Jewish religious thought after the Babylonian exile cannot be underestimated. The theological changes are too often ignored by theologians who appeal to ‘progressive revelation’ to explain away the stark differences between the two testaments of the Bible. However, the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls between 1947 and 1956 cast new light upon the intertestamental period in Judaism. A much more linear progression of ideas can be seen when factoring pre-Christian Jewish literature into the development of Second Temple Judaism and it’s offshoot, Christianity. This literature shows significant integration of Persian eschatology in particular, which later carried over into Christianity.

Spiritual Dualism

Satan and Angels/Demons in Early Judaism

The presence of Satan in the Old Testament is not what one would expect. The Hebrew word satan generically meant “adversary”. This is clear from an examination of all of the occurrences of the word in the OT, which anyone could see here: http://biblehub.com/hebrew/strongs_7854.htm. It was not a proper name, despite the fact that Bible translators arbitrarily capitalize the name when it fits the common perception of the infamous ‘fallen angel’. For example, in Numbers 22:22 “the angel of the Lord” was a satan to Balaam. Certainly no one believes “the angel of the Lord” became the evil being Satan, or that He was possessed by a force of evil. This being was doing God’s will by stopping, and opposing Balaam. The translators recognize this and translate the word as “adversary” here.

The Book of Job contains the most convincing evidence of a being named Satan, however, when one examines the full context, this satan is nothing more than a servant of God. It has been suggested by some that the Book of Job is set up like an ancient “courtroom” of sorts, with satan being the prosecutor, or adversary against Job. Certainly there is no opposition to God seen in the book. Also, the fact that he has access to Heaven seems to defeat the popular notion that he had fallen from Heaven. It is obvious that he is not only a part of the Heavenly host, but that he is on speaking terms with God.

It is widely believed that Satan was the serpent in the garden in Genesis 3:1-15, however there is no explicit evidence that this was the case. I believe the serpent most likely symbolized Baal, who was often depicted as a snake. This more accurately fits the time period and context of the Genesis account; when the Yahwist cult was seeking to diminish other competing Mediterranean gods. But regardless of what one believes about Genesis, there is no reason to presume Satan was the serpent. This interpretation came much later. The book of Revelation seems to reflect this direct identification of Satan as the serpent, although the highly symbolic imagery of that book is a whole other matter and has no bearing on what was believed during the pre-exilic period. As a matter of fact, even the books of Job and Genesis are believed by many (if not most) scholars to be post-exilic, so there is already a strong case that any semblance of a being such as Satan was post-exilic.

Early Judaism did not have a very developed angelology/demonology until after the exile. Post-exilic Jewish writings such as The Book of Enoch represent excessive interest in angels. But nothing even remotely close to that can be seen in the OT. Angels were merely messengers, as their Hebraic name suggests, who are rather uninteresting.

Demons also were practically nonexistent in the Old Testament writings. Anyone who can find a demon personified in any significant way will surprise me. I am not aware of any demon-possessions in the OT except by spirits that were sent by God, surprisingly enough. It appears that all spiritual forces belonged to Yahweh, and there was no spiritual opposition. This lack of spiritual dualism is best summarized in Isaiah 45:7, where God boldly declares:

I form light and create darkness,
    I make well-being and create calamity,
    I am the Lord, who does all these things.
(ESV)

Zoroastrian Spiritual Duality

While early Judaism was spiritually monistic, with the one sovereign power being the unrivaled Yahweh, Zoroastrianism had a dualistic view of the spiritual world. In this view, Ahura Mazda is the good deity who created the world. Angra Mainyu in contrast, is an evil being who opposes Ahura Mazda. Both have their own followers in the physical world, and the metaphysical. This includes deities of lesser power and angels/demons below them.  Both sides are to battle throughout the ages until Ahura Mazda finally defeats the powers of evil and Angra Mainyu, ushering in the age of peace and defeating death. Humans must join the fight by choosing between good and evil. They do so by choosing truth over falsehood, and light over darkness.

The figure of Angra Mainyu is believed to have influenced the Judeo-Christian conception of Satan, as Jenni Rose suggests in her book Zoroastrianism, An Introduction:

“The Septaugint translators had no conception of a wholly evil entity, and use diabolos to translate the Hebrew satan in the sense of ‘adversary’, not as the personification of an evil deity. From around the second century BCE, however, Jewish apocryphal texts such as Ascensio Isaiae and Jubilees present a world in which Satan, the ‘accuser’ of Job (1.6), has developed into the ‘prince of demons’ at the head of named rebel angels, including Belial (Hebrew, ‘worthless’,) and Mastema (Hebrew, ‘adversarial’). There appears to be an element of Zoroastrian influence in this development, since the myth of opposing forces struggling against each other until the end of time has no precedent in Jewish tradition.” 4

Zoroastrianism also had demons, which were much more fully developed as rogue spiritual forces of evil. Judaism most certainly was influenced in this regard, as the Jewish Book of Tobit (found in the Catholic Bible) contains a Persian demon Asmodeios (Greek form of Persian, Aeshma Daeva). 4

Without the intertestamental books, the contrast between the demon-void Hebrew Bible and demon-infused New Testament is too stark to be explained away. The allusions in the gospels to what can only be adequately explained as pagan demonology was one of the most significant factors in my loss of faith in the Bible. Christian demonology can be best explained as being derived from a combination of Zoroastrian, Caananite, and Greek mythologies.

Moral Dualism

Another Zoroastrian concept strongly reflected in Judaic and Christian writings is moral dualism; especially when contrasted as ‘light or darkness’, and ‘truth or falsehood’. These themes were highly important to Persian religion. Some of the intertestamental writings in the Dead Sea Scrolls, such as the War Rule and Community Rule reflect these ideas quite clearly; especially in terms of cosmic battle between the “sons of light” and “sons of darkness”. It appears that the Essene community that produced the scrolls adopted the Light/Darkness and Truth/Falsehood motifs as well as the Persian eschatology that accompanied it. 5

This dualism carried over into the New Testament, where the passages referencing light and darkness, truth and falsehood are too numerous to list. Acts 26:17-18a is a great example of this dualism:

 “I will rescue you from your people and from the Gentiles—to whom I am sending you to open their eyes so that they may turn from darkness to light and from the power of Satan to God”

Here those who come to faith in God turn from the power of Satan to God. This is a monumental shift from the monistic spiritualism of the OT. Now, humans can choose, just as in Zoroastrianism, between the power of the good entity representing light (God) or the evil entity representing darkness (Satan).

The Bodily Resurrection and Eschatalogical Messiah

Rose wrote about the eschatalogical expectations in Zoroastrianism:

“The name Astvat-ereta echoes the Gathic phrase astvat ashem, but is here used to signify a permanent state. His function is to destroy demons until the malice of daemas and humans is no more, and evil thoughts, words and deeds are overcome. One of the benefits the expected saoshyant will bring, then, is the end of physical destruction and decay so that the whole material existence will be ‘made indestructible’. The concept of bodily resurrection in a passage that speaks of this moment as a time when the dead will rise and be made imperishable through the reviving activity of the saoshyant (Yt 19.89)…This later development of the saoshyant as one who ushers in a time of growth and prosperity is prefigured by Yima, a character from ancient mythology who reverberates through centuries of Iranian storytelling…Yima is depicted as ruling the world in a golden era, during which there was neither heat nor cold, old age or death (Yt 19.33), and as having the power to free people and animals from death, and plants and rivers from drought (Y 9.4, 5). He also provides humans with imperishable food (Yt 15.16) and is described as the ‘good shepherd’ (Vd 2.2). ” 6

There are several things to unpack here, but first I want to point out the idea of a bodily resurrection, which is paralleled in Dan. 12:2-3 and  later Christian forms. Not surprisingly, Daniel was purportedly a member of the Persian court during the exile. Whether it was borrowed or not, influence certainly is plausible. Before Daniel, there was no known doctrine of a resurrection of the dead in Judaism. Also, the idea of dry bones may reflect the Zoroastrian practice of exposure of the dead. 7

Secondly, we can see a strong resemblance to the figure of Jesus in Paul’s writings:

“Then comes the end, when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father, after he has destroyed every ruler and every authority and power. For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death… So it is with the resurrection of the dead. What is sown is perishable, what is raised is imperishable.” (1 Cor. 15:24-26, 42) 

Both Jesus and Astvat-ereta will conquer evil spiritual forces and death (verses 24-26), then reign in perfect peace after raising the dead imperishable (verse 42).

Then we have the mythical figure of Yima, who resembles Jesus also in reigning over a age free of death, but more interestingly he “provides humans with imperishable food”, which reminds us of Jesus’ words in John 6:27: “Do not work for the food which perishes, but for the food which endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give to you”. Also, the descriptor ‘good shepherd’ is shared by both Yima and Jesus (John 10:11, 14).

These ideas certainly could’ve contributed to the eschatalogical messiah concept that began in the intertestamental period and found it’s fulfillment in Jesus; when his followers at some point perceived him as being this figure.

One of the intriguing aspects of the birth of Christ narrative is the fact that the magi or “wise men” who come to see Jesus in Matthew 2:1-12 were Zoroastrian priests. We know this because the word magi is of Persian origin, used to describe the priestly class by Herodotus. These magi are said to have seen a star and followed it, wanting to worship “the king of the Jews”. It must first of all be asked what they would have been seeking, since they were not Jewish, and would not have shared the messianic hopes; which were believed to be solely for the benefit of the Jewish people, not all nations as Christianity later taught. However, given the saoshyant traditions of Zoroastrianism, they could have been expecting a figure such as Astvat-ereta or a descendant of Zoroaster. I find it ironic that the birth of Jesus narrative includes Zoroastrian priests, since Christianity is practically a merging of Judaism and Zoroastrianism. Maybe the writer of Matthew was intending to win Persian converts through associating Jesus with their own eschatalogical hopes. This, and the rest of the birth narrative in Matthew, as well as the one in Luke are dubious historically.

As a side note, this was not the only significant Christian event Persians were said to be present at. Acts 2:9 records that Parthians and Medes were present at Pentecost.

Conclusion

These are some, but certainly not all of the connections that can be drawn between Zoroastrianism and Christianity at the time the Bible was written. As Christianity developed from the first century on, it absorbed more pagan ideas, especially of the Greek and Persian variety. I hope to revisit the subject and draw more parallels not only found in the Bible, but with the subsequent development of Christianity. Some of the conceptual parallels between the two religions that I have not yet addressed are the final battle between the forces of good and evil, Heaven and Hell, judgment day, and destruction of the world by fire.

For further reading, here is a great article by Bryan Rennie of Westminster College: http://www.westminster.edu/staff/brennie/RennieCSSR36.1.pdf


References:

1. Persepolis and Jerusalem, Iranian Influence on the Apocalyptic Hermeneutic, Jason M. Silverman, p. 76.

2. Zoroastrianism, An Introduction, Jenny Rose, p. 9.

3. Rose, p. 61.

4. Rose, p. 89.

5. Rose. p. 93.

6. Rose, p. 27-28.

7. Silverman, p. 131-135


Featured image by HORIZON via Flickr.com. Used under Creative Commons Attribution 2.5 License.

Thank you for reading. I’d love to hear from you in the comments.