Western Thought influenced by Zoroastrianism

By Stephen Van Eck

Former title, "The Forgotten Source".

"Also Sprach Zarathustra" - This composition by Richard Strauss, featured in "2001", is a piece of powerful drama: rich in majesty, awe-inspiring, and with devastating portent. It is an appropriate memorial to the Persian prophet Zarathustra, whom the Greeks called Zoroaster.

Zarathustra's influence upon Judeo-Christianity and all of Western Civilization is little told, but should not be underestimated. His life and words changed the course of Western Civilization, setting it on a course that departed from the static cultures of the ancient Middle East. Without his impact, Judaism would be hard to recognize, and both Christianity and Islam would probably never have existed.

It is largely to Zarathustra that Western Civilization owes its fundamental concept of linear time, as opposed to the cyclic and essentially static conceptions of ancient times. This concept, which was implicit in Zarathustra's doctrines, makes the notion of progress, reform, and advancement possible.

Ancient civilizations to that time, 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 be a deviation from and diminution of the ideal.

Zarathusta gave Persian (and through them, Greek) thought a teleological dimension, with a purpose and a 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 the individual man as well.

This essential dualism was adopted by the Jews, who only after exposure to Zoroastrianism incorporated both a demonology and an angelology to 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 eventually 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 (Athura Mazda) in the 7th Century B.C., but after his death the earlier Aryan polytheism re-emerged. But many other features of his theology endured to the present time, through the religions that superseded it.

The Babylonian Captivity of the 6th Century BC 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 state 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 notice the similarity between the names "Pharisee" and "Farsi" or "Parsee", the Persians from whom the doctrine of resurrection was borrowed.

Exposure to Zoroastrianism substantially altered Jewish Messianism as well. Zarathustra predicted the imminent coming of a World Savior (Saoshant), who would be born of a virgin, and who would lead humanity in the final battle against Evil.

Jewish Messianism incorporated these conceptions with their pre-existing expectations of a Davidic King who would redeem the Jewish nation from foreign oppression.

It was at this time, in response to their captivity, that the era of apocalyptic literature commenced in Judaism, based on Babylonian models and incorporating their symbolism. This was to have a strong influence on later Christian thinking/superstition.

But with the key elements of resurrection, judgment, reward or punishment, a Savior, apocalyptical belief, and the ultimate destruction of the forces of Evil, it can be concluded that Jewish and Christian eschatology is Zoroastrian from start to finish.

Not just eschatology, either. Much of the tradition and sacramental ritual of Christianity, particularly Catholicism, traces back to Zoroastrian precursors. Zoroastrian faithful would mark their foreheads with ash before approaching the sacred fire, a gesture that resembles the 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. Zoroastrianism also has a eucharistic ritual, the haoma ritual, in which  the god Haoma was sacrificed (or rather, his presence in a plant).

The worshippers would drink the juice in expectation of  eventual immortality. Finally, Zoroastrians observed All Soul's Day, like the Catholics reflecting a belief in intercession both 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 borrowed by the Church to be that of their Christ, whose actual date of birth is undocumented and unknown.

They may also have borrowed the story of the temptation in the desert, since an earlier legend places Zarathustra himself in the same situation. The principal demon (Ahriman) promised Zarathustra earthly power if he would forsake the worship of the One Supreme God. Ahriman, like Satan, failed.

For a final interesting parallel, the three days that Jesus was said to have been in the grave may have been due to the Zoroastriann belief that the soul remains in the body for three days before departing. Three days would establish that he was dead, yet leave his soul in a position to re-animate 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 was not.

Their Messianic expectations, those which originated prior to the captivity, 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 reward of Heaven or the punishment of 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.

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