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Zoroastrianism & Christianity

By Jeff Howell

In the Gospel of Matthew’s account of the birth of Jesus, the writer records, “After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea . . . Magi from the East came to Jerusalem and asked, ‘Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star in the east and have come to worship him.’” Later the text says that when the Magi found the infant Jesus, “they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold and of incense and of myrrh.” 1
    Most people in America, even non-Christians, are somewhat familiar with this scene. The portrayal of the Magi or Wise Men surrounding the baby Jesus adorns many church fronts during the Christmas season. Yet most people have no idea concerning the importance of these Wise Men. Most Christians, Catholic or Protestant, do not know that the religion of these men from the east provided the Christian religion with many of it’s doctrinal truths and icons.
    This essay looks at the Iranian religion of Zoroastrianism and its effects on pre-exilic and post-exilic Judaism. The intermingling of these two monotheistic faiths eventually gave rise to the largest monotheistic religion in the world, Christianity. This paper approaches this topic with the presupposition that human religion is adaptive and evolutionary. As adherents of one religion or ideology encounter those of other faiths, as well as new political, social, or philosophical realities, changes will occur. This paper proposes that while the people of Israel lived under the domination of the Babylonian and then the Persian empires, their society and their religion underwent changes. Over time, as Jews encountered the religion of Zoroastrianism, the faith of their Persian masters which contained many similarities with Judaism, many of these Jews adopted and adapted Zoroastrian tenets in order to make their religion suit their present needs. Over the centuries following the exile, a new branch of Jewish theology arose, which in turn gave rise to Christianity.2
   As one popular religious writer recently put it:

Now I could see the flame of Zoroaster burning behind some of the most familiar icons in Western faith-good and evil, heaven and hell-and I could see its tensions flickering in the shadows of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam . . . Zoroastrianism, I was beginning to think, may be the first light unto the nations, a religion so tiny that its contributions to Western religion have long since been consumed by other traditions, their origins long since forgotten.

The wise men, or Magi, from the east, came not only to see the Messiah of the Jews, but the possible World Redeemer (Saoshyant) of Zoroastrianism. Ironically, the Magi came to see the center of Christendom their own theology had created.
    To understand how Zoroastrianism infiltrated Judaism, and thus later Christianity, the person and religion of Zoroaster must first be illuminated. Zoroastrianism is the religion of Zoroaster or Zarathustra. Zoroaster is the Greek form of Zarathustra which meant, “he who can manage camels.” Zoroaster lived on the central Asian steppes of Iran at the beginning of the Iron Age in Iran, somewhere between 1400 and 1000 B.C.E.4
Iran, during this period, was connected to Vedic India. Vedic theology centered around polytheism. It viewed the gods as benevolent cosmic beings and focused on the universal principle of Asha “that which ought to be.” The adherents believed that the gods formed the world in seven stages (sky, water, earth, plants, animals, man, and fire). Fire stood as the vital life force which gives warmth and existence to all.5  
    The Iron Age brought the iron war chariots to the Iranian steppes, and allowed roving bands of warriors to create havoc and mayhem. These chaotic times caused a young priest named Zoroaster to contemplate on good and evil and the purpose of life. While going through a religious ceremony down by a river, Zoroaster beheld a shining entity named Vohu Manah (Good Purpose). This being led Zoroaster into the presence of the supreme being, Ahura Mazda (Wise Lord), and other radiant personages. Ahura Mazda instructed the young priest to move away from polytheism and into the way of righteousness. Zoroaster became convinced that this being was “uncreated God, existing eternally, and Creator of all else that is good, including all other beneficent divinities.”6
    Ahura Mazda’s revelation imparted to Zoroaster consists of seventeen hymns known as Gathas. The entire collection of Zoroastrian teachings is called the Avesta. Besides the Gathas, the Avesta consists of other teachings inspired by Zoroaster’s teachings. The Gathas are included in the liturgy know as the Yasnas (act of worship). In these Yasnas, Zoroaster reveals that Ahura Mazda and the Amesha Spentas “holy immortals,” which included Spenta Mainyu (Good or Holy Spirit), Vohu Manah( Good Purpose), along with lesser deities, Yazatas, formed a seven-fold creation consisting of sky, water, earth, vegetation, animals, mankind, and mind. It is through the Amesha Spentas that Ahura Mazda approaches man. This God led Zoroaster to proclaim that whoever gives heed to the message of Ahura Mazda and obeys him will attain immortality. Through the aid of these divinities, man can help usher in Frasho-Kereti (the restoration-making wonderful). The key doctrine for Zoroastrianism is that people are to be concerned about good words, deeds, and thoughts.7
    With a good God, why does evil seem to flourish? Zoroaster came to understand that another uncreated force is active in the world, totally bent on evil and resistance to Ahura Mazda. Angra Mainyu (Hostile or Evil Spirit), also known as Ahriman.8  
    Whereas Ahura Mazda is dedicated to the good (asha), Ahriman is dedicated to the druj (falsehood or lie). Like Ahura Mazda, Ahriman possesses a hierarchy of evil forces that do his bidding and try to corrupt mankind and creation.9  
    It needs to be noted in this brief sketch that Zoroastrianism contains two key doctrines that set it apart from the religions of its day and also sets the standard for later monotheistic religions. One, Zoroastrianism emphasizes the equality of men and women. Anyone, big or small, rich or poor, could possess salvation if they obeyed Ahura Mazda and sought to live an ethical life. Two, the dualism of good and evil forces, light and dark, angels and devils, represented a radical departure from the prevalent monism and cyclical order of the world found in the surrounding religions. This would later bear even more fruit in Judaism and Christianity. 10  
Anyone versed in the New Testament would easily recognize the core of Zoroastrian doctrine. After his revelation from Ahura Mazda, Zoroaster proclaimed his new faith to his countrymen. He declared that Ahriman corrupted the creation of Ahura Mazda, and enticed men to believe lies. Thus, the good world is mixed with evil. Man has to join the Amesha Spentas through good works, good thoughts, and good words. Although eternal like Ahura Mazda, Ahriman is ignorant and destined to defeat. Upon the death of the individual, their life is judged. The totality of their good and bad deeds are weighed. Each person must cross the bridge of chinvat, the bridge of separation. If one’s good deeds outweigh the bad, the bridge widens and the individual crosses into Paradise, where Ahura Mazda dwells. If the totality of one’s life results in evil being prevalent, then the bridge narrows to a razor’s edge, and the miscreant plunges into hell, a place of darkness, torment, smoke, and misery. Ahriman rules this wasteland of misery. If one’s good and bad remain equal, one goes to a gray existence, experiencing neither joy nor sorrow.11 
    While Ahriman corrupted the creation of Ahura Mazda, it is Ahura Mazda who possesses the final word. Hinted at in the Gathas, later Zoroastrian doctrine developed the idea of the Saoshyant (one who brings benefit/world savior). Over the final three millennia, three Saoshyants would be sent, each one born of a virgin. The virgin would bathe in a sacred lake where Zoroaster’s seed had been hidden. The final Saoshyant would come at the end of time and lead the righteous against Ahriman and his minions. Evil will be conquered and the Saoshyant will usher Renovation (Frasho-Kereti). Ahura Mazda’s creation will be restored.12
This cosmic drama will be concluded with a general resurrection (both good and evil) and a final judgment. All mankind will be resurrected from the dead. Harkening back to the Iranian trial by ordeal of molten metal, the righteous and the wicked will walk through a river of molten metal. For the righteous, this ordeal will feel like a bath in warm milk. For the wicked, this river of judgment will feel like burning lava. This river will wash hell thoroughly. Ahriman and his hierarchy of spiritual forces will be destroyed. There is still hope for the unrighteous. Hell, in the Zoroastrian view, is not eternal. The wicked are cleansed by this ordeal, not annihilated. Thus, for even wicked mankind, hell and final judgment are corrective. In the end, all creation will be united with the ultimate source of good, Ahura Mazda.13
    One can quickly see the parallels between Zoroastrianism and Christianity. A brief catalog of shared concepts includes: a belief in God and Satan, a belief in angels and demons, a belief in heaven and hell, a belief in individual judgment at death, a belief in physical resurrection and the coming of a redeemer figure, and a belief that the world will culminate in a final battle between good and evil.14
This begs the question, if Christianity has been deeply influenced by the faith of Zoroaster, whence did this information come? The answer lies in the seed-bed of Christianity, Judaism.
    Zoroastrianism remained primarily an Iranian faith for several centuries after its founding. The religion of Zoroaster “entered history under the Achaemenids, who ruled the Persian Empire (550-331 B.C.E.).15
The Persians and the people of Israel mingled during this period. A calamity struck northern Israel in 722 B.C.E. through the onslaught of the Assyrian Empire, based in Mesopotamia. Ten of the twelve tribes of Israel disappeared from the “promised land” when the Assyrians deported and scattered these conquered peoples. The Babylonians overthrew the Assyrian hegemony a little more than a century later. The Babylonians then set their sights on the remaining southern tribes (Judah and Benjamin). These tribes proved no match for these invaders. The Babylonians removed to Babylon the last vestiges of the nation of Israel through three deportation between 606 and 586 B.C.E. In anger over Jewish resistance, the Babylonians destroyed the city of Jerusalem and the sacred temple of Solomon. Eventually the Jews found new masters when the Persian Empire, under Cyrus, conquered the Babylonians by 550. The Achaemenid kings practiced the religion of Zoroastrianism.
    The Achaemenid kings were devoted to their religion, and left behind monuments proclaiming their allegiance to Ahura Mazda (also called Ormazd). Archaeologist Henry Rawlinson found evidence of the Persian attachment to Zoroastrianism on the trilingual inscription of Behisitun in 1835. Darius, the king who followed Cyrus, inscribed on a massive cliff face, “By the grace of Ormazd (another name for Ahura Mazda) I hold this empire . . . By the grace of Ormazd I am King . . . Ormazd brought help to me . . . I prayed to Ormazd . . . May Ormazd be a friend to thee.” 16
While the Persian rulers worshiped Ahura Mazda and later some other deities, they practiced religious toleration. The Jews were allowed to practice their religion. Like Zoroastrianism, Judaism recognized revelation from a great prophet, Moses, and emphasized moral behavior. Yet, new political, social, religious realities moved many of the Jewish nation to revamp their faith and praxis. John Bright, a student of the preeminent archaeologist and scholar, William F. Albright, commented on the effect this new arena of politics, culture, and religion, had on Jews in exile. He suggested that the exile forced Jews to question whether or not their God, Yahweh, was the source of their trials. Was Yahweh adequate enough to answer their questions? Did the exile somehow fit into “his” plans? Bright noted, “As horizons thus widened, faith required some bolder, more universal restatement if it was to prove adequate.”17
    To understand how much Zoroastrianism came to overshadow Judaism and seep into Jewish thinking, one must first possess an overview of pre-exilic Judaism.
    The religion of Israel before the exile period possessed a very different outlook than the one that emerged after the return. Based on the Torah, and the history books such as Joshua and Samuel, ancient Judaism held a Mesopotamian view of the afterlife.18   
    Sheol served as the abode for all the dead, and it was a dark and murky existence. The adherent to the law of Moses did not focus much on the existence of an immortal soul or a heaven. For a Jew who lived during the time of David and Solomon (tenth and eleventh century’s B.C.E.), death was the end. Angels sometimes appeared in the early biblical narratives, but they always played a secondary role to Yahweh. These references may have been later redactions. Some have even suggested that many Jews were henotheists, with Yahweh being the chief of all the gods. Many Jews did look for the coming of the Messiah, but this figure would only usher in a political kingdom. He was not a player on the cosmic scale. 19
    To further clarify the point, a few passages from the scriptures of this period need to be quoted. In reference to the patriarch Abraham’s death, Genesis 25:8 says, “Abraham breathed his last and died in a good old age, an old man full of years, and was gathered to his people.” The focus for the Jew or Israelite was now, not an elaborate afterlife. 20 Other biblical writers of the Old Testament period echoed the same sentiments. The Psalmist advises in Psalm 146:4-5, “Do not put your trust in princes, in mortals, in whom there is no help. When their breath departs, they return to the earth; on that very day their plans perish.” Long suffering Job cries out in his misery that whereas trees are cut down but put forth new life, not so for man.
But mortals die, and are laid low; humans expire, and where are they? As waters fail from a lake, and a river wastes away and dries up, so mortals lie down and do not rise again; until the heavens are no more, they will not awake or to be roused out of their sleep. Oh that you would hide me in Sheol, that you would conceal me until your wrath is passed. (Job 14:10-13) 21  

Pre-exile Jews may have desired for life after death, but their scriptures point out that most did not hold to this view.
    So why after generations of not looking for an afterlife, and not looking at life as a dualism of good verses evil did many Jewish writers, Old Testament and the Inter-testamental period, alter their out look? Many scholars, surveyed for this study, argued that the catalyst for change in Judaism came when the Jews encountered Zoroastrianism while subjects of the Persian empire. In his study, Zoroastrianism and Judaism, George William Carter surmised, “During all these years in which Judaism was gradually assuming form the most intelligent and active members of the Jewish race were brought into continued contact with the dominant peoples of the age (Mordecai, Daniel, Esther, Nehemiah).” Carter further pointed out that Jewish habits were influenced by their new environment, “it would have been strange indeed if their religion had been unaffected.” While not directly transferring Zoroastrian beliefs into their own, Carter proposed that “Jews took general conceptions form the Persians and molded them in accordance with their own habits of mind.”22 
    Others have offered, “There is plenty of evidence that the post-Exilic religious development of the Hebrews was affected by the teaching of Zoroaster,” 23 and that concerning the similar ideas between Zoroaster and later Jewish writers, “the ideas were indigenous to is hardly conceivable that some of the characteristic ideas and practices in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam came into being without Zoroastrian influence.” 24 
    What kinds of teachings show up in later Old Testament and Inter-testamental writings? The length constraints of this paper prevent a detailed analysis, but several definitive examples will be given to show the change in Judaism influenced by Zoroastrianism. One example can be found in the writings of II Isaiah (Isaiah 40-66). Isaiah must have been alive sometime after the ascent of Persia. The Jews welcomed the overthrow of the Babylonians and looked with approval on the religious tolerance practiced by Cyrus and the later Achaemenid rulers. Cyrus allowed the Jews to return to Jerusalem to rebuild the temple. II Isaiah goes so far to as to call Cyrus his Messiah or “Anointed One” (Isaiah 45:1, 13). Cyrus would be one who would establish justice and righteousness. One scholar who looked at Yasna 44 and several sections of Isaiah (40, 44, 45) found striking parallels concerning the cosmology of Ahura Mazda and Yahweh. Both passages ask a series of questions like “Who created the heavens?” In the Yasna, the answer is Ahura Mazda. In the Isaiah passages, the answer is Yahweh. Both are portrayed as the universal creator of all men. He concluded that Second Isaiah relied on the Zoroastrian Yasna as a textual source. 25
    Concerning these references in Second Isaiah, preeminent Zoroastrian scholar Mary Boyce concluded, “The parallels with Zoroastrian doctrine and scripture are so striking that these verses have been taken to represent the first imprint of that influence which Zoroastrianism was to exert so powerfully on post-exilic Judaism. 26
    It is during the Inter-testament period (400-1 B.C.E.) where the infiltration of Zoroastrian doctrines are clearly seen. The book of Daniel bears all the marks of Zoroastrian influence. Most scholars believe that Daniel wrote this work during the Maccabean revolt against the Seleucid ruler Antiochus IV around 168 B.C.E. Antiochus IV sought to force the Jews to deny their religious practices, and his atrocities culminated in the sacrifice of a pig on the altar in the Temple. Daniel places the revelations in the context of several Persian Kings (Cyrus and Darius are included). Yet there is no mistake he is referring to Antiochus. Daniel calls Antiochus IV “the abomination of desolation” (Daniel 9:27). Daniel takes several Zoroastrian doctrines and places them in a Jewish context. He looks to the coming of the Anointed One, one “like a Son of Man” who will come as a cosmic ruler and overcome evil (7:14-15, 9:26). Christians see this as Jesus Christ. In Zoroastrian’s scheme, this is the final Saoshyant (world redeemer). Daniel employs the dualism of the forces of good against evil, and even gives names to two of the “good” angels of Yahweh, Michael and Gabriel (9:21, 12:1). Is this not an obvious borrowing from the naming of the forces of Ahura Mazda and Ahriman? Whereas Jews before the exile viewed death as the end, and if there was an afterlife, it was a murky existence of shadows, Daniel says there will be a restoration and a physical resurrection at the end. Those who are righteous will experience eternal life, those who have lived lives of evil will experience everlasting shame and contempt (12:1-2). From books like these, it becomes clear that Zoroastrian’s shadow falls heavily on later Jewish writers.
    In the deuterocanonical books, also called the Apocrypha, 27 Zoroastrianism also leaves its mark. These books were written between the fourth and first centuries B.C.E. 28   
    For example, in the book 2 Maccabees 7:9, those that defend the holy law of God, even to the point of death, can expect resurrection. Later, in 12:44-45, prayers and atonement for the dead are made so that they would experience the resurrection. In 14:46, a Jew named Razi dies as a religious martyr in the face of overwhelming numbers of unbelievers. In a sign of reproach, while wounded and dying, he hurls his intestines at his enemies and asks God to give him back his entrails when he is restored and resurrected.
    Another example is found in Wisdom of Solomon. Chapter 3 details eternal hope for the righteous and judgment for the wicked. The writer says in 3:2, the wicked think the righteous have died, but their souls are in the hands of God. Their ultimate hope is the promise of immortality. Also, in the Book of Tobit, set during the period of the Assyrian captivity, more references to angelic beings (good and evil) are made. Tobit is aided by the angel Raphael against the wicked demon Asmodeus (3:17, also 5:4) In 12:8, 15, Raphael warns Tobit and his son to do good and avoid evil. Raphael states that his authority comes from the fact that he is one seven angels who stands before Yahweh. Do not forget that Zoroastrianism says that there is a hierarchy of good and evil angelic beings that aid Ahura Mazda. Whereas the canonical book of Ecclesiastes states that death is all one can expect,29  the Wisdom of Solomon argues pointedly that those that think death is the end deceive themselves (2:1-22). This author writes with holy expectation, “for God created us for incorruption, and made us in the image of his own eternity, but through the devil’s envy entered the world, and those who belong to his company experience it. But the souls of the righteous are in the hands of God, and no torment will ever touch them” (2:23-3:1).
    The most clear presentation of doctrines that bore the mark of Zoroaster, came in the writings of the Qumram Community, popularly known as the Essenes. This group, located primarily near the Dead Sea, existed between 200 B.C.E. and the destruction of the Herodian Temple in 70 C.E. The Dead Sea scrolls, as their writings came to be known, were discovered in caves around the the ruins of Qumram. In his English translation of these sacred writings, G. Vermes noted that the Inter-testamental period was a time of spiritual ferment that “culminated in a thorough examination and reinterpretation of the fundamentals of the Jewish faith.” 30 
Vermes pointed out that these religious zealots considered themselves the true Israel and adherents “were expected to become proficient in the knowledge of the ‘two spirits’ in which all men ‘walk’, the spirits of truth and falsehood, and learn how to discriminate between them.” The Essenes were to be able to “recognize a ‘son of light’ or potential ‘son of light’, and how to distinguish a ‘son of Darkness’ belonging to the lot of Belial” (another name for the Devil). 31  
    Thus in the writings of the Essenes, all the doctrines of Zoroaster appear, and are now considered basic to Judaism and having no precursor except the revelation of God. In the Community Rule, the adherents are taught that God appointed a Prince of Light and an Angel of Darkness. Man had to choose who to follow. Judgment was based on one’s choice. In other compositions like the “War Rule,” the “Damascus Rule,” and the “Curses of Satan and his lot,” the full gamut of Zoroastrian apocalyptic doctrines are explored. These writings announce the coming of Messiah(s), an end time battle, the destruction of Satan and his followers, and final judgment. 32 
    There were those in this period who maintained traditional Judaism, and rejected the fantastic apocalyptic doctrines. 33 
These would be represented in the New Testament as the Sadducees “who say there is no resurrection” (Matthew 22:23, Luke 20:27). Yet, these apocalyptic doctrines found root in many hearts. The forerunners of the New Testament Pharisees and the followers of Jesus held dear the doctrines of a dualistic battle between God and Satan, the existence of angels and demons, the coming of a Messiah, a general resurrection and final judgment, and a glorious millennial age of peace. These doctrines, first preached by Zoroaster, over a millennium before the New Testament era, would eventually be found in the sacred writings of the early Christian writers.
    From the evidence surveyed, it becomes clear that a connection exists between Zoroastrianism and Judaism. This begs the question, with Jewish communities scattered from eastern Iran to the Egyptian port of Alexandria, how were these doctrines spread from Persia back to Palestine? In two separate articles, Richard Foltz proposed that these ideas were spread by Zoroastrian and Jewish traders along the Silk Route, a key trade route that stretched from the Mediterranean to China. Many Jews lived in Persia and a large community resided in Babylon. Post-exilic Jews in Persian lands took up commerce and maintained trade networks with relatives or fellow countrymen in Judea and other parts of the empire. Thus, ideas and influences picked by Jews in one area could be easily transmitted to another. Foltz remarked, “It is beginning in the Persian period that a number of Iranian beliefs and concepts appear to have worked their way into the religious tradition of the Judeans, a tradition that would later evolve into Judaism.” Foltz further argued that it was no coincidence that Jewish apocalyptic literature, like Daniel and Ezekiel, evolved in a Babylonian and Persian context. 34
    All that remains in this analysis is to show early biblical Christianity and its reliance on post-exilic and Inter-testamental ideas, which in turn evolved as Zoroastrian ideas penetrated Judaism during the exile. For our purposes, it will be sufficient to look at a few selected passages from the Gospels, the writings of Paul, and the book of Revelation. To give one Gospel example, the account of Matthew demonstrates (however unknowingly) the reach of Zoroastrianism into the life and teaching of Jesus of Nazareth. In Matthew 1:21, an angel (named Gabriel in Luke’s account) tells the Nazarene carpenter, Joseph, that Mary, his virgin bride-to-be, is with child, and would give birth to one who would “save his people from their sins.” 35  
    Early on, the virgin born, world redeemer (Saoshyant) theme is echoed. Obviously, Christianity differs from Zoroastrianism in that Christians believe that Jesus died as a substitute for their sins. Zoroastrianism does contain such a teaching, but the point is that Christians, and earlier Jews, borrowed concepts from Zoroastrianism and shaped them to fit their needs.
    Throughout the chapters of Matthew, echoes of Zoroastrian doctrine can be seen. In chapter two, the Magi (Zoroastrian priests) appear in order to pay homage. Once again, an angel appears to Joseph and Mary and warns them to flee to Egypt to escape being murdered by Herod the Great. This bloodthirsty tyrant would suffer no rivals to the throne. Unbeknownst to Herod, this baby would serve as the ruler of the cosmos, not just of Israel. Chapter three gives the account of John the Baptist of the baptizing of Jesus. Just as Spenta Mainyu (the good or holy spirit) is the servant of Ahura Mazda, the Holy Spirit descends from heaven and anoints Jesus for his mission.
    Chapter four details Jesus being led into the wilderness by the Holy Spirit in order to be tempted by the Devil. Jesus must make a choice between following God in obedience (good thoughts, good deeds, good words) or following Satan. Jesus, as the Messiah, succeeds. Skipping ahead to Matthew 16:13-23, the disciples of Jesus come to realize he is the Messiah. Peter declares that Jesus is “the Messiah, the Son of the living God” (16:16). Then upon hearing of Jesus’s upcoming death at the hands of the religious leadership, Peter rebukes Jesus and says that he would not die. Jesus points again to the dualistic battle that fills the cosmos. He reprimands Peter and says “Get behind me, Satan! Your are a stumbling block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but human (meaning wicked) things.”
    In Matthew 22:23-33, Jesus is challenged by the Sadducees who represented classic Judaism. They rejected angels and the resurrection, they asked Jesus a riddle concerning a woman who married seven times and was widowed seven times. In the resurrection, who could claim her as a wife? Jesus rebukes the Sadducees for not knowing the scriptures or God’s power. He refers to Moses and the burning bush episode in Exodus 3, where God says that he IS (present tense) the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Jesus says God is God of the living, not of the dead (22:32).
    A final passage 36 that will be addressed concerns the trial of Jesus in Matthew 26. The religious leadership brings Jesus up on charges and demands him to reveal if he is the Messiah. He responds by quoting Daniel 7:13, a passage that states that a cosmic redeemer will come and rule the world. The text of Matthew reads, “From now on you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of Power and coming on the clouds of heaven” (Matthew 26:64). This sends the religious leadership into a mad frenzy, and Jesus is eventually handed over to the Roman governor, Pontius Pilate, for crucifixion. All through Matthew, Jesus makes it clear that the world is in a cosmic struggle between God and the Devil, He is the Messiah/Redeemer, He will judge all men, and He will usher in a time of renewal and resurrection; all foundation stones of Zoroastrian belief. Early Christians (as well as the Essenes) built their theology on a foundation of popular Jewish theology, both of which harken back to Persia and Zoroaster. 37
    Christianity was taken out of its Jewish context by Paul of Tarsus, and spread throughout the Roman world. A former Pharisee (a Jewish sect that believed in angels and the resurrection, Acts 22:6-10), Paul wrote and preached that Jesus is the resurrected cosmic savior who will resurrect and judge all men (1 Thessalonians 4:15-17; 2 Thessalonians 1:7-10; 1 Corinthians 15:51-52; 2 Timothy 4:1). He claims that Satan (Paul called him “the ruler of the power of the air” in Ephesians 2:2) will rise up against God and lead one last great apostasy, but Satan and his followers will be destroyed in the second coming of Jesus (2 Thessalonians 2:1-10). Paul, while in captivity, stressed in Philippians 1:23 that he desired to die and go be with Christ, thus death is not the end. In all of this, Paul builds on a long Jewish tradition that reaches all the way back to the teachings of Zoroaster.
    Finally, we must take a brief look at the book of Revelation (Greek, “apocalypse”). Scholars dispute over the time this book was written, some favoring an earlier period near the time of Nero, while other favor a late date, close to the end of the first century C.E. Either way, both are in agreement concerning the nature of the book. Revelation is much like Daniel, an apocalyptic book, it looks to the culmination of God’s plans, the end of time as we know it, the end of a sin stained universe. The writer John sees a vision of God in chapter 4. God is covered in effulgent glory and surrounded by a host of angelic beings who continually praise him and do his bidding. The Lamb (the glorified Jesus) unleashes his wrath on the sinful world, all the while calling for people to repent and turn to him and righteousness (chapter 6). The following chapters contain a litany of miraculous signs, the rise of the anti-Christ (the son of Satan), and righteous suffering. By the end of the book (chapters 19 and 20), Jesus commences the final battle between he and his followers and Satan and his minions. The heavenly host defeats Satan, and God casts Satan and his hordes into an eternal, fiery pit. In chapters 21 and 22, God restores the universe and rejoices with his people, who in turn bask in his glory. In 21:3b-4, the poignant words are uttered, “and God himself will be with them; he will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying will be no more, for the first things have passed away. And the one who was seated on the throne said, ‘See, I am making all things new.’” The promise given to these suffering Christians in the first century C.E. owes much of its impetus to a suffering priest who lived in Iran a millennium before.
    Is this all just a historical exercise, or are there some conclusions that can be drawn from this study of Zoroastrianism? The evidence makes it abundantly clear that the three major monotheistic religions (Judaism, Christianity, Islam 38 owe much of its existence to a common source. Thus, should not unity (where it can be found) be stressed more than division. Is it not senseless to shun or persecute others whose traditions may be different in the face of the reality that all of these traditions have evolved and adapted over time from common backgrounds? This study has made it obvious that while doctrinal difficulties may never be resolved among these three faiths, respect and tolerance needs to be practiced. Like Cain and Abel, all three are sons of the same father. While the world now views Zoroastrianism as a small minor religion, existing in isolated pockets in Iran and India, its flame ignited the spark of the Judeo-Christian faith and ethic that shaped western civilization.


1 Matthew 2:1-2, 11, The Holy Bible. New International Version. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 1984.

2 Mary Boyce, Zoroastrianism: Their Religious Beliefs and Practices (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1979, 1987), 1; John R. Hinnells, Persian Mythology (New York: Peter Bedrick Books, 1973, 1985), 64; Anchor Bible Dictionary, Vol. 6, s.v. “Zoroastrianism.” Many other sources consulted proposed the same conclusion.

3 Bruce Feiler, Where God Was Born: A Journey By Land to the Roots of Religion (New York: William Morrow, 2005), 293.

4 There is a competing view about the chronology of Zoroaster. This view states that Zoroaster did not appear in Iran until the seventh century B.C.E. Mary Boice and the writer in the Anchor Bible Dictionary takes the earlier view.

5 Ibid, 293; Mary Boyce, Zoroastrianism, 2; Anchor Bible Commentary, “Zoroastrianism.”  

6 Mary Boyce, Zoroastrianism, 17, 20. 

7 S. A. Nigosian, The Zoroastrian Faith: Tradition and Modern Research (Montreal, Canada.:McGill's-Queen's University Press, 1993), 91; Anchor Bible Dictionary, “Zoroastrianism,” 1170; Mary Boyce, Textual Sources for the Study of Zoroastrianism (Chicago: Univ. Of Chicago Press, 1984), 1-2. 

8 In the later Iranian language of Pahlavi, Angra Mainyu is called Ahriman. This is the name that will be used for this paper.

9 2.2.2 Verses from Yasna 30 and 2.2.3 Verses from Yasna 45, in Mary Boyce, Textual Sources for the Study of Zoroastrianism, 35-36.

10 Bruce Feiler, Where God Was Born, 286; Joseph Campbell, The Hero with a Thousand Faces (New York: Pantheon, 1949), Footnote 29, 348; Joseph Campbell, The Masks of God: Occidental Mythology (New York: Penguin, 1964), 190.

11 Mary Boyce, Zoroastrianism, 25-27. 

12 Ibid, 42; Anchor Bible Dictionary, “Zoroastrianism,” 1171; S. A. Nigosian, The Zoroastrian Faith, 93.

13 John Hinnells, Persian Mythology, 65, 70; Mary Boyce, Zoroastrianism, 28; “Zoroastrianism: A Short Overview.” Online Site. Found at

14 S. A. Nigosian, The Zoroastrian Faith, 97.

15 Anchor Bible Dictionary, “Zoroastrianism,” 1171. 

16 J. N. Fradenburgh, Living Religions: Or Great Religions of the Orient (New York: Phillips and Hunt, 1888), 374. Fradenburgh held a PhD and was a member of the American Oriental Society. 

17 John Bright, A History of Israel, 4th Ed. (Louisville, Ky: Westminster John Knox Press, 2000), 355.

18  James Tabor, “Ancient Judaism: What the Bible Says about Death, Afterlife, and the Future,” in The Jewish Roman World of Jesus. Online:

19 Ibid.

20 Genesis 25:8, The Holy Bible containing the Old and New Testaments with the Apocryphal/Deuterocanonical Books, New Revised Standard Version (New York: Oxford University Press).

21 Psalm 146:4-5, Job 14:10-13, The Holy Bible, New Revised Standard Version

22 George William Carter, Zoroastrianism and Judaism, 38, 64. 

23 James Henry Breasted, The Dawn of Conscience (New York: Scribner's, 1939), 346.

24 S. A. Nigosian, The Zoroastrian Faith, 97. Other sources that make this point: Rustom Masani, Zoroastrianism: The Religion of the Good Life (New York: MacMillan Co., 1968), 18-19; John Bowker, God: A Brief History (New York: DK Publishing, 2002), 196; A.V. Williams Jackson, Zoroaster: The Prophet of Ancient Iran (London: MacMillan Co., 1888), 142, and Zoroastrian Studies: The Iranian Religion and Various Monographs (New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 1928), 3-4, 206; John Bright, A History of Israel, 448, 450; Michael Grant. The History of Ancient Israel (New York: Scribner's, 1984), 214, 219; Frederick J. Murphy, The Religious World of Jesus: An Introduction to Second Temple Judaism (Nashville; Abingdon Press, 1991), 166;

25 Morton Smith, “II Isaiah and the Persians” Journal of the American Oriental Society, 83, No. 4 (September-December, 1963), 415-421.

26 Mary Boyce, Zoroastrianism, 52.

27 All references from the Apocrypha come from The Holy Bible, New Revised Version.  

28 Anchor Bible Dictionary, Vol 1, s.v. “Apocrypha.” 

29 Most scholars are convinced that this book was written in the third century B.C.E. See Anchor Bible Dictionary, Vol. 2, s.v. “Ecclesiastes.” The author's outlook came in line with much of the pre-exilic view of life.

30 G. Vermes, Dead Sea Scrolls in English, 3rd Ed. (New York, Penguin, 1987), xvi. 

31 Ibid, 3.

32 Ibid, a sample of these can found on pages 52-54, 64-66, 86, 105, 118-119, 122, 161, 300-301. 

33 See the Wisdom of Jesus, Son of Sirach 10:11, 14:11-19, 38:16-23. 

34 Richard Foltz, “Judaism and the Silk Route,” The History Teacher, 32, no. 1 (November, 1998), 10-12; “The Role of Central Asian Peoples in the Spread of World Religions,” Paper presented at Interactions: Regional Studies, Global Processes, and Historical Analysis” Library of Congress, Washington D.C., February 28-March 3, 2001, Online document,,interactions/foltz.html. Richard Foltz works at the University of Florida.

35 All New Testament references are from The Holy Bible, New Revised Standard Version

36 We could also refer to Matthew 25:31-46 where Jesus talks of the final judgment where he will separate the sheep (those that follow him) and the goats (those that do not). He will reward the righteous with everlasting life and the unrighteous with everlasting punishment.

37 Richard Hooker, “Early Christian Backgrounds,” World Civilizations, Online Site, Richard Hooker is in the History Department at Washington State University.

38 Brevity prevented a detailed analysis of the connection between Islam and Zoroastrianism. Yet, the parallels are clear. Islam ties itself to the earlier monotheistic faiths of Judaism and Christianity. The Qu'ran places Islam as the pinnacle of God's revelation (revealed to Muhammad) that started through prophets like Adam, Abraham, and Jesus. Islam borrows many of its doctrines (choosing good or evil as a path, good and evil angels, final judgment, heaven and hell, etc.) from these two faiths who in turn borrowed them from Zoroastrianism.


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Campbell, Joseph. The Hero with a Thousand Faces. New York: Pantheon, 1949.  

__________. The Masks of God: Occidental Mythology. New York: Penguin, 1964.  

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Dhalla, M. N. History of Zoroastrianism. New York: Oxford, 1938. Joseph Peterson, Online edition,  

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__________. “The Role of Central Asian Peoples in the Spread of World Religions.” Paper presented at Interactions: Regional Global Processes, and History Analysis, Library of Congress, Washington D. C., February 28-March 23, 2001. Online Site. Found at (24 September 20005).  

Grant, Michael. This History of Ancient Israel. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1984.  

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Jackson, A.V. Williams. “The Moral and Ethical Teachings of the Ancient Zoroastrian Religion,” International Journal of Ethics, 7, No. 1 (October, 1896), 55-62.

__________. Zoroastrian Studies: The Iranian Religion and Various Monographs. New York: Columbia University Press, 1928.

__________. Zoroaster: The Prophet of Ancient Iran. London: MacMillian and Co., 1899.

Masani, Rustom. Zoroastrianism: The Religion of the Good Life. New York: MacMillian Co., 1968.  

Murphy, Frederick J. The Religious World of Jesus: An Introduction to Second Temple Palestinian Judaism. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1991.  

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Vermes, G. Dead Sea Scrolls in English, 3rd Ed. New York: Penguin, 1987  

Zaehner, Robert Charles. Concordant Discord: The Interdependence of Faiths Being Gifford Lectures on Natural Religion Delivered at St. Andrews in 1967-1979. Clarendon Press, 1970  

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