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CHAT: Zoroastrian influences on Post-exilic Judaism

From:Leo Caesius <leo_caesius@...>
Date:Thursday, July 27, 2000, 18:16
    Allow me to preface this by saying that I am not a Bible Scholar, only a
scholar of Semitic languages.  I know that this may sound like something of
a cop-out, but there are many good reasons why I find discussions about the
Bible highly distasteful.
    I do, however, consider comparative religion an amateur interest of
mine.  Also, I fear that I may have been misunderstood and risk being

An outline of Zoroastrian thought might look something like this:
    A dualistic theology, involving an ongoing war between a God of Truth
(Ahura Mazda, the "Wise Lord") and a divine adversary, the Lord of Deception
and Lies (Ahriman).  In the end time, this war will be won by the forces of
Truth, and the forces of Deception will be bound in chains and cast into a
bottomless pit.
    A large inventory of angels and demons, who interfere directly with
mankind, attempting to persuade them to join one side or the other.  Man was
given the gift of free will by Ahura Mazda, so that he could choose to serve
Truth or The Lie.
    A conception of the afterlife which involves a test to determine whether
the mortal has served Truth or The Lie during his lifetime, and then either
a lake of fire or an eternity of bliss living with Ahura Mazda.
    A messianic element; the Prophet of Avesta, Zarathustra, placed his seed
in a cold lake somewhere in Iran.  Once every millennium, a virgin will
bathe in this lake and become pregnant by his seed.  The issue of her womb
will lead man to the Truth.

    This outline of Zoroastrian thought reads like a checklist of important
themes in Post-exilic Judaism.  All of these themes exist, in one form or
another, in the Judaism of the Second Temple period.  These themes were also
taken up by various Christian sects, Gnostics, Manichaeans, and Mandaeans,
to name a few groups.  I would even dare to say that these elements are not
obscure, but crucial points of agreement in the theologies of the Jews and
the Zorostrians.
     I say "points of agreement" because I believe that most of these
themes, as they existed in Judaism of the Post-exilic period, developed
naturally from pre-existing currents in Jewish theology.  It is, however,
striking that they developed to become so similar to Zoroastrian theology.
I don't believe that this could be mere coincidence.

Also sprach Steg/ Thaatiy Steg:

"Esther?  The Scroll of Esther doesn't even mention God in it, much less
Persian angelic hierarchies!  Although if Tobit and Judith are full of those
kind of influences, it explains a lot about why Judaism ended up rejecting
them, and the sages of the Talmud declared hyperbolicly that "one who makes
public readings of the Outside Books [as if they were canonical] has no
share in the World to Come"!"

        I agree, this is a very important point - as a matter of fact, when the
Jews most recently set out to canonize the sacred texts, they culled the
apocrypha from the fold.  Does anyone know when this happed?  I know that
the definitive Masoretic text, the Leningrad Codex, dates to the 10th c.
C.E.  I don't know how early the current arrangement of the Tanakh dates.
    However, just because the Masoretes decided that these texts do not
belong within the corpus of sacred texts does not necessarily mean that
these texts were not held sacred in an earlier era.  IMHO, it is a mistake
to make such an assumption.  Their presence in the Septuagint (which is the
earliest surviving compilation of sacred texts, and was indisputably
motivated by religious concerns in a Second Temple Jewish milieu) means that
they were held equal to the rest of the Law at some point by somebody (and
somebody well-placed, at that).
    In fact, texts like Esdras, Ecclesiasticus, Tobit, Susannah, and the
others were both widely circulated and highly popular.  Whereas Josephus
does not know Ezra (which made it into the most recent redaction of Jewish
scriptures) he does quote from Esdras (which made it into the Septuagint but
not the Masoretic text).

"Although, interesting from a sociological point of view, both Esther and
Mordekhai's non-Hebrew names aren't just non-Jewish, but come from Ishtar
and Marduk, Babylonian deities!  Imagine the amount of assimilation that
could lead to that - ¿ever heard of a Jew named Jesús? :-)"
   Cyrus and his followers certainly supported local traditions, and allowed
all peoples to continue worshiping the daevas in their temples ("foreign
gods," later "demons.")  Undoubtedly, Babylonian culture must have had an
amazing assimilatory force on foreigners - but despite this, the Murashu
texts are filled with tons of traditionally "Jewish" theophoric names - a
sign that many Jews, if not most, never assimilated despite taking an active
role in Babylonian society.
    I would, however, not go as far as to suggest that the
Assyrian-Babylonian element was ever very important in the formation of what
were later to become the Christians.  As I'm sure you are aware, there are
far more important influences at play there.  The Babylonians had their day
in the sun, and then lost it.

"Those bible scholars who claim that Judaism is a sect of Zoroastrianism
must have a heww of a time trying to find any kind of Z.-style dualism

    It's true that when you look at the texts canonized a millennium after
the period we are discussing, there are progressively fewer and fewer
Iranian influences.  However, if you look at the Septuagint, the scholar
suffers from no dearth of evidence regarding Iranian influence in Second
Temple Judaism.
        Furthermore, a look at non-standard denominations during this period
reveals much, much more.  The Jewish community at Nippur, for example, left
behind copious texts in the form of incantation bowls and other inscriptions
(written in a form of Aramaic virtually identical to that of the Babylonian
Talmud!).  These are rife with invocations of Persian divinities.  Or, even
better, take a look at the Essenes - e.g. "The War between the Sons of Light
and the Sons of Darkness."  I think that should be dualistic enough to
satisfy anyone!

    Listen, I'm not trying to argue that today's Jews are
crypto-Zoroastrians.  I just think that it would be misguided to ignore the
strong Iranian influences on Post-Exilic Judaism.  That these influences
were rejected in a later period, and that communities such as the Nippur
community and the Essenes "lost" in the sense that their contributions are
unrepresented in today's Jewish thought, are other issues.

    In a related issue, I agree with the good folks at Rome (Prof. Garbini
and crew) about the Hellenistic origins of Daniel; Garbini himself has a
very inciteful analysis of the Aramaic portions of Daniel, in which he
classifies them as composed in a misinformed representation of Persian
Chancery Aramaic - another of my other Hebrew Bible 'essentials'.
        Situated where I am (in a program dominated by Hebrew Bible, in the Boston
area) I am frequently evangelized by certain individuals (especially from
the infamous Boston Church of Christ) who continually expound on Daniel's
prophetic vision and how history bore him out with regard to his prophecies.
  Every time, I've tried to plea that the author of Daniel composed these
"prophecies" with *hindsight*, not *foresight*, but I've found it is nearly
impossible to mix rational discourse with articles of faith, especially in
these instances.  It is for this reason that Daniel, and discussion of the
Bible in general, leave a bad taste in my mouth.

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