ZOROASTER AND THE BIRTH OF AN APOCALYPTIC FAITH
by R.D. Brinsmead
Norman Cohn has written such an excellent Afterword at the end of his equally excellent book, that I will quote it in full:
“This book is concerned with a major turning-point in the history of human consciousness: it tries to describe how the destiny of the world and of human being came to be imagined in a new way, and how these new expectations began to spread abroad. A brief recapitulation of the main argument may not come amiss.
Until around 1500 BC peoples as diverse as Egyptians, Sumerians, Babylonians, Indo-Iranians and their Indian and Iranian descendents, Canaanites, pre-exilic Israelites were all agreed that in the beginning the world had been organised, set in order, by a god or by several gods, and that in essentials it was immutable. For each people, security – meaning fertility of the land, victory in war, stable social relations sanctioned by custom and law – was the outward and visible sign that a divinely ordained order did indeed exist.
However, that order was never untroubled, it was always threatened by evil, destructive forces – sometimes identified as flood or drought, famine or plague, inertia or death itself – but sometimes also as hostile peoples or tyrannical conquerors. In the combat myth, in its various formulations, the conflict between universal order and the forces that threatened and invaded and impaired it – between cosmos and chaos – was given symbolic expression. A young hero god, or divine warrior, was charged by the gods with the task of keeping the forces of chaos at bay; and in return he was awarded kingship over the world.
Some time between 1500 and 1200 BC Zoroaster broke out of that static yet anxious world-view. He did so by reinterpreting, radically, the Iranian version of the combat myth. In Zoroaster’s view that world was not static, nor would it always be troubled. Even now the world was moving, through incessant conflict, towards a conflictless state. The time would come when, in a prodigious final battle, the supreme god and his supernatural allies would defeat the forces of chaos and their human allies and eliminate them once and for all. From then on the divinely appointed order would obtain absolutely: physical distress and want would be unknown, no enemy would threaten, within the community of the saved there would be absolute unanimity; in a word, the world would be for ever untroubled, and secure.
Unheard of before Zoroaster, that expectation deeply influenced certain Jewish groups – as witness some of the apocalypses and some of the writings found at Qumran. Above all, it influenced the Jesus sect, with incalculable consequences.
In this book the story is carried only to the close of the first century AD – but the story itself has continued down the ages. And what a story it has become! Much theological speculation; innumerable millenarian movements, including those now flourishing so vigorously in the United Sates; even the appeal once exercised by Marxist-Lenin ideology – all this belongs to it. Nor is there any reason to think that the story is nearing its end. The tradition whose origins are studied in this book is still alive and potent. Who can tell what fantasies, religious or secular, it may generate in the unforeseeable future?”
Zarathrustra – the first prophet of an apocalyptic faith
Zarathrustra (or Zoroaster as the Greeks called him) was born somewhere around 1500 BCE. He was reputed to have been miraculously born in answer to the prayers of a holy man and his equally holy wife. The evil spirit and seducer called Angra Mainyu who from the beginning was believed to be the enemy and man, was said to have fled in terror at Zarathrustra’s birth, only to return later to unsuccessfully tempt the man of God with the promise of rulership over the kingdoms of this world.
At the age of seven Zoroaster began his training under priestly care, and at the age of 15 (the age when manhood began in his culture) he became a priest in his ancient Iranian faith. At 20 years of age, Zoroaster began a period of wandering in search of the Truth. When he was 30 years of age, he went down into the waters of a river to draw water for a religious ceremony, and as he was coming up out of the water, he encountered a shining Being on the banks of the river. This supernatural Being conducted Zoroaster into the very presence of Ahura Mazda, the eternal Creator. This was the first of a number of times that Zoroaster was to commune with Ahura Mazda in vision.
By these prophetic experiences, Zoroaster came to embrace and teach a worldview that in his age was entirely revolutionary. Its main features were as follows:
There are two primal, antagonistic spirits of the Cosmos. On the one hand there is the spirit of Ahura Mazda the Creator – the source of the order (asha) of truth, justice and all that is good. On the other hand there is a hostile spirit, an adversary, a counter-creator who is hostile to all that is good. His name is Angra Mainyu. This mythical figure is much the same as what the Devil or Satan came to be in the Christian religion.
Ahura Mazda created man in the environment of a perfect world, knowing full-well that Angra Mainyu would seduce humanity and bring decay and death into this perfect world. Ahura Mazda’s plan, however, was to use the creation of man as a means to entrap his great adversary. Despite Angra Mainyu’s apparent success in corrupting God’s creation, Ahura Mazda’s plan was to use humanity as his ally to finally defeat the enemy of all that is good. What all this meant was that this world was to be seen as the battleground between good and evil.
It was not John Milton in his great epic called Paradise Lost, nor Ellen White in her Great Controversy Between Christ and Satan, nor even St. John the Divine’s Book of Revelation that first depicted this cosmic conflict between good and evil. Long before Moses or post-Exilic Judaism, and longer still before the Christian Book of Revelation came to be written, the Iranian prophet Zoroaster had essentially outlined the great cosmic war between God and the one whom Christians call Satan.
Zoroaster succeeded in transforming the old combat myth of the Egyptians, Sumerians, Babylonians, Indo-Iranians, Canaanites and even the pre-Exilic Israelites into an apocalyptic faith. Zoroaster was the first to conceive that history was to have a definitive end. There would be a climatic battle between the sons of Light and the sons of Darkness, Truth and Error, Good and Evil. There would be a general resurrection of all who have lived upon the earth. There would be a Last Judgment, following which Angra Mainyu, his demon hordes and all humans who have followed his evil ways will be punished and finally annihilated (a second death) by a stupendous supernatural fire.
Following this there will be a “making wonderful” moment when the world will be miraculously transformed once again into that perfect world that existed in the beginning of history. The “saved” human race will then live forever in happy families (but without children) in a corporeal or physical existence in the restored Paradise (the Persian word for garden) on this earth.
‘The idea that the present world is destined to end in a Last Judgment and to be replaced by a new, incorruptible world – that was wholly new…The ultimate origin of the notion that time will have an end does indeed lie in the visionary experiences of the Iranian prophet Zoroaster.” Cohn, p. 231
“Zoroaster was the first to teach the doctrine of an individual judgment, Heaven and Hell, the future resurrection of the body, the general Last Judgment and life everlasting on earth for reunited soul and body.” (Mary Boyce)
Boyce says that Zoroaster was the founder of the oldest creedal religion, and one that has been more influential than any other. This Iranian prophet preceded Buddha, Moses, Jesus or Mohammed. “Zoroastrianism itself is the oldest of the dogmatic, proselytizing world religions.” (Boyce, p. 99)
Norman Cohn is no doubt correct when he says that the only Old Testament book that comes anywhere near Zoroaster’s apocalyptic vision of the end of history is the book of Daniel. This was a very late book and the last to be included in the Old Testament canon. Daniel was an apocalyptic book written after the Jews had lived for two hundred years under the friendly rule of the Achaemenian (Persian) Empire. During that period, leading Jewish thinkers drank deeply at the fountain of the Zoroastrian religious tradition. Significantly, the post-Exilic Biblical writers had no scathing comments to make about the Persian divinities as they did in respect to the Babylonian, Canaanite or Assyrian divinities. A large section of Daniel (chapters 2-7) was written in Aramaic, the universal language of the Achaemenian Empire- much as Koine Greek became the universal language in Greco-Roman times. Daniel’s account of the great image with head of gold, breast and arms of silver, belly and thighs of brass, legs of iron and feet of iron and clay (Daniel 2) was taken straight out of a Zoroastrian teaching of a symbolic tree made of gold, silver, bronze, iron and a final mixture of iron and clay. Many key words throughout the book of Daniel have a Zoroastrian origin. Above all, scholars generally recognize that the last Judgment of Daniel 7 and its teaching of a bodily resurrection of all mankind in Daniel 12 show the unmistakeable influence of the Zoroastrian faith.
Complementing this teaching of the Last Judgment and the resurrection of the body and the “making wonderful” of the restored Paradise on earth, Zoroaster had a clear teaching of “the intermediate state” between the moment of an individual’s death and the general resurrection. Upon death, the soul of the departed was depicted as crossing a narrow bridge. Those weighed down by more bad deeds than good deeds would fall into the abyss of hell where they would suffer preliminary punishment as they awaited the Final Judgment and resurrection of the body. Conversely, the souls of those whose good deeds outweighed their evil deeds would enter the bliss of an intermediate state in the presence of God. Martin Luther was reputed to have quipped, “It would be a foolish soul who wanted to have his body back.” Zoroaster, however, had a different view of the body. He taught that the happiness of the soul could not be complete until it was re-united with its body. This teaching sprang from Zoroaster’s understanding that there was first a spiritual creation followed by its being completed in the creation of a material or physical form. It was a teaching that gave Zoroastrianism a high view along with a deep appreciation of the physical environment, including the importance of the human body.
Although Zoroastrianism was a confessional faith which faithfully preserved the original tradition with little change, there was some development of its theology subsequent to Zoroaster’s time. One of these developments was in the matter of the ultimate fate of those who fell off the bridge into the punishments of hell. Zoroaster had originally taught that these lost souls would eventually be annihilated in the final punishment of a merciful “second death.” (As if to anticipate the teaching of some Christian sects like the Seventh-day Adventists) But later Zoroastrian theologians began to conceive that even these fallen souls will have their evil purged from their nature so that they will join the host of redeemed humanity. Because they too are God’s children they will eventually realize the intended destiny of all who share in God’s nature. In this respect the Zoroastrians anticipated the “universalism” of Origen and a minority of Christian thinkers down through the ages who have taught that all of humanity will eventually be saved.
Moral Code and Ethics
The moral code and ethical ideals of Zoroaster were equal, if not superior in some respects, to the law of Moses. Zoroaster’s moral teachings are so excellent that they deserve to be placed alongside the writings of the great Hebrew prophets.
The law of Ahura Mazda enjoined an order consisting of good thoughts, good words, and good deeds. Love of neighbour demanded no less than this. Diligence was everywhere commended, and sloth in every place condemned. Love of neighbour demanded that the “sons of light” would refrain from slander, infidelity in marriage and non-payment of debts. Care and kindness toward others is enjoined under all circumstances.
Zoroastrianism had a higher view of women than the law of Moses in that it leaned more towards treating women as equals.
Other standout features of the Zoroastrianism
* There was a great emphasis on hygiene that included water purity, body cleanliness and a separation from the contamination of dead bodies – all of which finds a counterpart in the law of Moses which came after Zoroaster.
* Zoroastrian ethics demanded a duty of care and kindness toward animals that is quite astonishing. Zoroaster taught that even animals have souls which would rise up on the Day of Judgment to accuse those who had in any way neglected or had been unkind and uncaring toward them. On the other hand, every small deed of kindness – to a dog, a goat or a cow – would not go unnoticed or unrewarded. While Zoroaster did not go as far as enjoining vegetarianism, he taught that no animal life should be sacrificed, even when hunting, apart from human necessity, and always with prayer and respect for the life of the beast. Hunting for pleasure was strictly forbidden. If the life of an animal was to be taken for human needs, it was to be done respectfully and reverently. A portion of the meat was given to the officiating priests, and no meat was eaten apart from reverence for the life that was sacrificed. In this matter of care and kindness toward animals, Zoroaster appears to express an even higher or more advanced state of human consciousness than is generally found in the Judeo/Christian tradition, with the possible exception of some of the sayings of Jesus.
* Zoroaster was vehemently opposed to religious fasting. In his view, fasting would weaken rather than strengthen the body that was needed to serve humanity as required by Ahura Mazda. The only kind of “fasting” that Ahura Mazda wants from his worshippers is not to abstain from food but to abstain from any an evil thought, word or action. This kind of religious outlook appeared to be entirely new in that age. Yet a Hebrew prophet who lived under Achaemenian rule was also scornful of religious fasting. He declared that the only kind of fasting that was pleasing to God was a genuine love for humanity expressed in feeding the hungry, clothing the naked and providing shelter for the homeless (Isaiah 58). It is hard to avoid the conclusion that this passage from Deutero-Isaiah has not lifted this kind of teaching from the prophet Zoroaster.
* The reason that the Zoroastrian faith was not written up until the 6th Century CE is that the old Zoroastrians believed that writing was an invention of the devil. The Zoroastrian priests rejected writing as an unfit medium to record the holy words of the faith. In this, they perhaps expressed the beginnings of an insight that was later taken up and developed by the author of the fourth Gospel of the New Testament. This author teaches that the Word of God cannot be contained in any written book, but can only be incarnated in a human life. (See John 1) St. Paul too contends that a living faith in the new age of the Spirit transcends the lifeless texuality of any written document (Galations 3 and 4; 2 Corinthians 3: Romans 7).
* Zoroastrians held to some quaint myths that were integral to their culture. Fire was a sacred symbol/sacrament of the divine presence. The evil one had corrupted fire by creating smoke. Smoke was associated with the demonic. Frogs were evil and were created by the evil one. So were lizards, snakes, scorpions and other repugnant creatures. This helps to illuminate some passages in the NT Apocalypse that uses frogs, scorpions and smoke as portents of evil – another indication of the Zoroastrian influences on Christian literature.
There are other features of Zoroaster’s teaching that are a precursor of Judeo/Christian scripture. Notably:
* Zoroaster taught that there were 6 periods in the creation of the world – stage 1, the creation of the heavenly firmament, stage 2, the appearance of water, stage 3, the formation of the earth, stage 5, the creation of plants, stage 5, the creation of animals, and stage 6, the creation of man.
* The first man was called Yima. He was a Hebrew Adam and Noah all rolled into one person. Like the man in the Genesis story, Yima was told to cultivate the earth and is given dominion over it. Later he was told to build an enclosure to preserve the best animals and plants from coming destructive weather events. This clearly finds its echo in the Biblical story of Noah and the Ark. Yima became a powerful ruler under the blessing of Ahura Mazda, but then Angra Mainyu seduced him to become first proud and then disobedient. This was all part of the great contest between good and evil that was destined to be fought out on this earth. As we have already pointed out, we encounter this theme of the great cosmic war in the last book of the New Testament (The Apocalypse of St. John) and in the later writings of John Milton (Paradise Lost) and Ellen G. White (The Great Controversy Between Christ and Satan).
A Cosmic Saviour
At first Zoroaster hoped that he would live to see the “making wonderful” event at the end of history – just as St. Paul at first expected to be alive to see what the first Christians called the Parousia event. In other words, early Zoroastrianism was imbued with the sense of “immediacy” and “imminence” – always the mark of a genuine apocalyptic faith. For the most part, Zoroastrianism managed to retain this sense of the imminence of the end-time, or at least they were able to rationalize the delay of the apocalyptic event just at the early Christians managed to rationalize why their Messiah had not returned. When Zoroaster sensed that he was not going to live to see the “making wonderful” event of the end-time, he prophesied that Ahura Mazda would raise up someone like himself to lead humanity into the final battle between good and evil. A parallel story appears in Hebrew scripture when Moses, about to die, tells his people that God would send Israel a prophet like himself. (Deuteronomy 18:15)
Out of this hope that another Zoroaster-like prophet would arrive in the last days, Zoroastrians developed a belief in the coming of a cosmic Saviour called the Saoshyant – “the one who brings benefit.” According to this belief, he would lead humanity into the last battle against evil, using supernatural weaponry not unlike the warrior Messiah in the Apocalypse of St. John.
When Zoroaster died, it was believed that the seed from his sperm was buried in Lake Kasaoya (in Iran, of course) where it was guarded by 999,000 departed righteous souls. In the fullness of time, after conditions on earth would seriously deteriorate, a chosen virgin would go down to this lake to bathe and become pregnant with Zoroaster’s seed. Although the child would be fully human – the fruit of a union of both male and female – he would be endowed with supernatural powers and weaponry for the great final battle. In this sense also he would be a cosmic Messiah figure rather than a mere national Messiah of Jewish expectations.
Perhaps it is significant that Paul of Tarsus (a city renown for being a centre of the Zoroastrian religion) elevated Jesus Christ above the status of a mere Jewish Messiah to become a cosmic Messiah of Zoroastrian proportions. The same thing could be said about the Apocalypse of St. John. It borrowed heavily from the Old Testament book of Daniel – which in turn borrowed heavily from the Zoroastrian faith. The reason why St. Paul was so successful in promoting a world-wide faith (whereas those who remained Jewish Christians were not) is because his Christ figure was not just a Jewish Messiah, but a cosmic messiah who fulfilled both Jewish and Iranian hopes. More than this, the Christ of St. Paul was a Messiah figure who fulfilled the hopes associated with all the dying and rising divinities of the ancient world. As Joseph Campbell puts it, “We discover in Egypt the mythology of the slain and resurrected Osiris; in Mesopotamia Tammuz; in Syria, Adonis; and in Greece, Dionysos: all of which furnished models for the early Christians [led by St. Paul] for their representations of Christ.” (Myths to Live
By, p. 10).
Being the first apocalyptic faith, Zoroastrianism provided the archetypal model or paradigm for Apocalyptic Judaism and Apocalyptic Christianity. Zoroaster lives on in many aspects of Western Christianity. It even lives on in secular movement that have sprung up from the soil of Western Christianity. As Cohn says at the end of his book, Zorastrianism “is still alive and potent. Who can tell what fantasies, religious or secular, it may generate in the unforeseeable future.”
There is one intriguing thing that needs to be said about Zoroaster’s apocalyptic combat myth.
When it was taken up into Judaism and then Christianity it became (to use a phrase taken from Joseph Campbell) “one of the most brutal war mythologies of all time.” In Apocalyptic Judaism and Apocalyptic Christianity this old Zoroastrian battle between “the sons of light” and “the sons of darkness” came to be expressed by demonizing the differing “others” who were deemed to be on the wrong side of the spiritual conflict. Carried to its bitter end, this apocalyptic zeal for God led to an appalling amount of internecine strife, persecution of heretics and outright bloodshed.
It does not appear, however, that this kind of religious aggression toward the differing “others” was a feature of the Zoroastrian faith. The Achaemenian Empire (whose rulers were Zoroastrians) were generally tolerant of the indigenous religions within their Empire. Cyrus the Great and his successors were very supportive of the Jews rebuilding their temple in Jerusalem.