Zoroastrianism: The Forgotten Source
Zoroastrianism: The Forgotten Source
Stephen Van Eck
The composition _Also_Sprach_Sarathustra_ by Richard
Strauss featured in _2001_ is a piece of powerful drama,
rich in majesty, awe-inspiring, and devastatingly portentous.
It is an appropriate memorial to the Persian prophet Zarathustra,
whom the Greeks called Zoroaster.
Zarathustra's influence on Judeo-Christianity and all of western
civilization is little known but should not be underestimated.
His life and words changed the nature of civilization in the west,
setting it on a course that departed from the static cultures
of the ancient Middle East. Without his impact, Judaism would
be unrecognizable, and Christianity would probably have never
Western civilization owes mainly to Zarathustra its fundamental
concept of linear time, as opposed to the cyclical and essentially
static concept of ancient times. This concept, which was implicit
in Zarathustra's doctrines, makes the notion of progress, reform,
and improvement possible. Until that time, ancient civilizations,
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 have been a deviation from and diminution of the
ideal. Zarathustra gave Persian (and through it, Greek) thought
a teleological dimension, with a purpose and 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 individual Man as well. This essential dualism
was adopted by the Jews, who only after exposure to Zoroastrianism
incorporated a demonology and angelology into 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 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 (Ahura Mazda) in the
7th century B. C., but after his death, the earlier Aryan polytheism
reemerged. Many other features of his theology, however, have
endured to the present time, through the religions that eventually
The Babylonian captivity of the 6th century B. C. 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 ([ref001]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 religion
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 ([ref002]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 note the similarity between
the names _Pharisee_ and _Farsi_ or _Parsee_, the
Persians from whom the doctrine of resurrection was borrowed.
In addition to incorporating the doctrines of resurrection and
judgment, exposure to Zoroastrianism substantially altered Jewish
Messianism as well. Zarathustra predicted the imminent arrival
of a World Savior (Saoshyant), who would be born of a virgin and
who would lead humanity in the final battle against Evil. Jewish
Messianism grafted these conceptions onto their preexisting expectations
of a Davidic king who would redeem the Jewish nation from foreign
It was at this time, as a response to their captivity, that the
era of apocalyptic literature commenced in Judaism, based on Babylonian
models and patterned after their symbology. This was to have a
strong influence on later Christian thinking. With the key elements
of resurrection, judgment, reward or punishment, a Savior, apocalyptism,
and ultimate destruction of the forces of Evil, it can be concluded
that Jewish and Christian eschatology is Zoroastrian from start
The similarities don't end with eschatology either. A lot of
the tradition and sacramental ritual of Christianity, particularly
Catholicism, traces back to Zoroastrian precursors. The Zoroastrian
faithful would mark their foreheads with ash before approaching
the sacred fire, a gesture that resembles 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. Zoroastrians also had a Eucharistic
ritual, the Haoma ritual, in which the god Haoma, or rather his
presence, was sacrificed in a plant. The worshipers would drink
the juice in expectation of eventual immortality. Finally, Zoroastrians
celebrated All Souls' Day, reflecting, like the Catholics, a belief
in intercession 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 appropriated by the
church to be that of their Christ, whose actual date of birth
is unknown and undocumented.
Christianity may also have borrowed the story of the temptation
in the desert, since an earlier legend placed Zarathustra himself
in that situation. The principal demon (Ahriman) promised Zarathustra
earthly power if he would forsake the worship of the supreme God.
Ahriman, like Satan when tempting Jesus, failed.
A final interesting parallel is the three days that Jesus spent
in the grave. This concept may have been derived from a Zoroastrian
belief that the soul remains in the body for three days before
departing. Three days would have established death yet left his
soul in a position to reanimate 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 wasn't. Their Messianic expectations, which
preceded any foreign influence, 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 rewards and punishments
of either Heaven or 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
"Let us worship Zarathustra,
Just the way we used ta.
I'm a Zarathustra boosta--
He's good enough for me."
(Joseph Campbell, with a tongue-in-cheek parody.)
(Stephen Van Eck, Route One, Box 62, Rushville, PA 18839-9702.)