Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Thus Spake Zarathustra--- the Dying Out of a Monotheistic Religion

There is a very interesting article in this morning's N.Y. Times which talks about the dwindling numbers of members of the religion known as Zoroastrianism (Zoroaster being the Greek version of the name Zarathustra). This is a religion which may go back almost a thousand years before the birth of Jesus, and originated in Persia, modern day Iran, but its devotees largely immigrated to Bombay (Mumbai) in India when they were persecuted and executed during the original Islamic revolution at the beginning of the Middle Ages. Yes, there are some adherents in the U.S. and the U.K. and Australia, but only a few.

What is especially interesting about this religion is that it is monotheistic and involves a belief in free will. Here is a brief excerpt from the article--- "The very tenets of Zoroastrianism could be feeding its demise, many adherents said in interviews. Zoroastrians believe in free will, so in matters of religion they do not believe in compulsion. They do not proselytize. They can pray at home instead of going to a temple. While there are priests, there is no hierarchy to set policy. And their basic doctrine is a universal ethical precept: “good thoughts, good words, good deeds.” One might have thought that a non-violent monotheistic religion that believes in free will might attract more Americans in particular.

Here is the link for the full article---

What is of interest to me is that some scholars have been suggesting for well over a hundred years that some of the beliefs of Judaism and Christianity may well derive from Zoroastrianism. Perhaps you will know Friedrich Nietzsche famous and influential book "Thus Spake Zarathustra". For all the hype however, the connections between Zoroastrianism and either Judaism or early Christianity are very tenuous at best, and don't really explain much. What is however very interesting is that this religion has all along believed women were equal with men and should be able to be fully educated and fully participate in their own religion. In other words, this religion gives the lie to the myth that monotheistic religion is always necessarily patriarchal in the sense that it sets up hierarchies that end up marginalizing women and denying them various roles in society and in their own religion. Certainly, this religion could not be accused of being secular, modern, liberal, or a host of other epithets. It is clearly an ancient religion and yet women have been allowed to play vital roles in the faith including as its priests.

For my purposes what I would like to say is four things: 1) unfortunately we do not have really ancient source documents about this religion, only those which date from after the NT era, so we are not certain what the original forms of this belief system and religion were actually like; 2) it is just possible that when exilic Jews were in Persia during the beginnings of the Persian empire they came in contact with this religion. If so, it is hard to see in what way it influenced Judaism, if at all; 3) it is quite clear that earliest Christianity, being an offshoot of early Judaism in Israel and then elsewhere in the Roman Empire owes no debt to this religion, including not in its celebration of the Lord's Supper or baptism, which are rituals which derive in part from Passover and water rituals in early Judaism; 4) monotheism was not the exclusive belief of early Jews before the turn of the era. Not only was their Zoroastrianism, there was also a period in Egyptian history when Akenaton was Pharoah that there was a belief in an abstract form of monotheism (the belief in the sun disk being the one and only deity or force ruling all)

What this suggests to me is this--- all humans are created in the image of God. It is not surprising then that various humans in various different places without influence from one another, would independently come up with the idea that there is only one God.

Think on these things.


Peter Kirk said...

There is another likely strand of influence from Zoroastrianism to Christianity. Augustine of Hippo was a Manichaean before he was a Christian, and Manichaeanism was an offshoot of Zoroastrianism. Augustine has been accused of importing his doctrines of predestination from Manichaeanism into Christianity. But then this would seem to conflict with your statement that Zoroastrians believe in free will.

Zoroastrianism may survive to some extent as folk religion under a covering of Islam. For example, a group of Indian Zoroastrians (Parsees) migrated, in the 18th century I think, to near Baku, Azerbaijan, where they built a temple over a natural gas vent which gives an eternal flame. Officially this building is now a museum, but I was told by a local resident that local people, nominally Muslim, do in fact go there regularly to pray. And Azerbaijani Muslims certainly have practices with Zoroastrian roots.

Greg said...

Good thoughts, Ben.

When it comes to the concept of One God, I am reminded of the following passage from Romans 1:

18 The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of men who suppress the truth by their wickedness, 19 since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. 20 For since the creation of the world God's invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse.

In His creation, the existence of God is obvious. But you have to look further in that same chapter:

21 For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened. 22 Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools 23 and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like mortal man and birds and animals and reptiles.

Multitheism is a creation of mankind born out of his abandonment of God.

C. Stirling Bartholomew said...

"it is quite clear that earliest Christianity, being an offshoot of early Judaism in Israel and then elsewhere in the Roman Empire owes no debt to this religion ... "

I totally agree.

Peter Kirk said:

"Augustine has been accused of importing his doctrines of predestination from Manichaeanism into Christianity. But then this would seem to conflict with your statement that Zoroastrians believe in free will."

Hi Peter, its been a while. Augustine appears to have imported his his doctrine of predestination from some other source, Peter, Paul or John :-)

I am glad to see the Zoroastrianism thing in relationship to the NT is now discredited.

Anonymous said...

Only one problem in your theory of different and distinct origins of monotheism... read Sigmund Freud's "Moses and Montheism". Then research the origins of Pythagorean and Platonic thought.

It all came out of the Nile Valley. All of it.

Ben Witherington said...

First of all to Peter,the only thing Manicheanism really seems to have in common with Zoroastrianism is the dualism between good and evil. Manicheanism like Gnosticism also affirmed a cosmological and anthropoligical dualism--- matter is tainted, spirit is good. This is different from the Jewish and Christian ideas which say the world and its inhabitants were created good by a good God but is fallen, but is redeemable.

As for Farmer John, historically you are quite wrong. The earliest of the ANE relgions we know about do not come from the Nile valley at all, and certainly the Israelite religion does not.

As for the rise of the concept of 'the Satan' (Ha Satan), this is too big a subject to address in this format. I would however distinguish between the developing awareness of the existence of the powers of darkness in Israelite religion and the modern concept that suggests that its all just an idea which developed over time and can be treated in a religionsgechichteliche or history of religions kind of way. This whole approach denies the reality of the entity that the terms are using to describe.


Grumpy Old Man said...

Isaiah 45:7-- "I form the light, and create darkness: I make peace, and create evil: I the LORD do all these things."

It seems to me this verse is a protest aganst Zoroastrian dualism--the Lord created all things, rather than the good God creating good and the evil God creating evil.

What saith the Bible scholar?

Ben Witherington said...

Actually the Hebrew doesn't say God created evil, and darkness here does not mean evil. In fact, evil is not a created thing at all-- it is a cancer on the good a parasite on the body.


byron smith said...

Ben, what then is your take on ra`, which God claims to 'create' in this verse?

byron smith said...

PS I am not sure that Nietzsche's Zarathustra owes a great deal to Zoroastrianism. He picked Zoroaster/Zarathustra to be his mouthpiece since he believed the prophet to have been the first to 'invent' the concepts 'good and evil' and so thought it was appropriate that he would also be the first to move beyond them.

Ben Witherington said...

Ra is not the same thing as raka. The problem is of course that there are no vowels in the unpointed Hebrew text, so we are not sure exactly what the word does mean, but we know what it doesn't mean :)

Camassia said...

What about the changes in the concept of the afterlife? In the Old Testament the dead all wind up in a shadowy Sheol. By the time of early Christianity, we have a fully developed theory of heaven and hell, which Zoroastrianism shares. Is that purely coincidental, or is there some relationship there?

Ben Witherington said...

Long before there was a Zoroastrian religion, Jews already had the concept of notable patriarchs being taken up into the presence of God, not being sent to Sheol-- the story of Enoch and Elijah make this clear, as do the later legendary stories about the ascension of Moses. It is certainly true however, as Dan. 12.1-2 shows that the concept of bodily resurrection as the final form of the afterlife does not arise in Israel before the exilic period so far as we can tell. Before then there is the dominant concept of Sheol. What we do not find in the exilic literature such as Ezekiel, Daniel, or Zechariah is evidence of any profound thinking about heaven and hell. Therefore, I see no evidence of Zoroastrian influence at all on this literature in that regard. It is when we get to the parables of Enoch that we see rampant otherworldly material. In other words, it is in the stream of apocalyptic Judaism that we begin to hear about otherworldly journeys to heaven and hell in some detail.

Ben Witherington said...

Well Mr. Evolutionist welcome to the discussion:

You seem to have misunderstood various things. Firstly, there was certainly no concept of a virginal conception found in extra Biblical literature before the time of Christ. About this you are simply wrong--- I don't what you've been reading, but you need to find better historical sources.

Secondly, it is one thing to talk about the development of someone's understanding of a reality another thing to talk about progressive revelation, and still another thing to talk about an 'evolving' of a concept.

Strictly speaking, concepts are not alive, and so they can't evolve. Its not really helpful to even use the term when we are talking about ideas, because it conjures up the image of some kind of evolutionary upward spiral. Ideas don't work that way.

Neither God nor Satan evolve in the Scriptures. What develops over time is God reveals more and more of the truth, and people gradually understand more and more of it-- a very different matter than the evolution of things that are viewed as mere concepts.

Let's take a concrete illustration. Sub atomic particles exist in the atom. Say for example quarks. Now, I've never seen a quark, never felt one etc. None of my sensory perceptions have encountered a quark. They are simply too small. But lo and behold they exist. It required an electron microscope for empirical evidence to be produced demonstrating this. As time has gone on, more has been revealed by scientists about quarks, and gradually my understanding of this part of reality has increased.

Its the same with our understanding of the living God or of Satan for that matter, and it has nothing to do with evolution, it has to do with the gradual and progressive unveiling of the truth.

Ben W.

David Johnson said...

"One might have thought that a non-violent monotheistic religion that believes in free will might attract more Americans in particular."

"Non-violent monotheistic religion"? Americans? As a Christian, I hate to say it, but "non-violent" can hardly apply to most American Christians: just being a Christian (particularly an evangelical Christian) adds greatly to the possibility that a person 1.) supported the invasion of Iraq, 2.) continues to support the use of military force in that country, and 3.) insists that the United States must never allow the nation-state of Israel or the Jews to retreat from the area of Jerusalem (the last because of a dubious interpretation of Romans 11 and Revelation).

The sad fact is that in all of these situations, being an atheist or irreligious has increased the likelihood that a person will reject the use of military force. That is saddening to me, because Jesus was one of the clearest and most consistent opponents of violence and war the world has ever seen.

Shawna Atteberry said...

Dr. Witherington, I wanted to let you know that I linked to this post and your wonderful post on the character of God on my website:

Paddy O said...

"That is saddening to me, because Jesus was one of the clearest and most consistent opponents of violence and war the world has ever seen."

Well, he did have quite a soft spot in his heart for King David, so maybe wasn't too clear on the overall subject, though quite clear on the idea of using violence to attain religious success.

I'm curious, Dr. Witherington, that you didn't note the suggestion that the wise men who visited Jesus were Zoroastrianist priests, and thus possibly connecting Jesus to not only the fulfilment of Judaism but also Zoroastrianism. This is certainly conjecture, but an interesting conjecture.

I also wonder if Zoroastrianism might have had more influence on Muhammad, and with him Islam, than on Christianity. Given the region of influence and the nature Islam. This influence then would make it more directly "competitive" once Islam took root, thus instigating more persecution.

The link you posted doesn't work by the by, for me at least. It needs a .html on the end.

Ben Witherington said...

The wise men were sages, who tended to work in palaces for royal families. Sages are not priests, though they were on occasion astrologists. Zoroastrian priests were not astrologers, they offered sacrifices in the fire temples.

C. Stirling Bartholomew said...

There are different sorts of dualism. The gospel of John, the Apocalypse of John, and the First Epistle of John are all similar in one respect, they give evidence of an author who thought in terms of binary pairs in opposition. I am not talking about Ferdinand de Saussure :-)

How does the dualism of "John" (ignoring authorship issues) differ from the dualism of Zoroastrianism? It might be easier to ask in what way if any are the similar? Certainly "John" didn't consider darkness and light to be equal in power and in some sort of eternal tension. Perhaps that is not a feature of Zoroastrianism, but didn't it include a notion of an uncreated principle of evil in opposition to an uncreated principle of good?

On a contemporary note, why is it in vogue to use dualism as negative epitaph? For several decades including quite recently I have heard evangelicals using dualism as an abusive word. When a evangelical feminist NT scholar pulled this one on me recently I told her she was paying me a complement and asked her to take close a look at the words of Jesus in the Gospel of John. The really bad word is monist. Thanks to Peter Jones (Westminster Seminary Calif.) we know that monism is the key principle that unites all forms of neo-paganism.

Anyway, Thank you Dr. Witherington. Zoroastrianism is an intriguing topic.

C. Stirling Bartholomew said...


"monism is the key principle that unites all forms of neo-paganism"

This is to strong, I am certain we could find some form of neo-paganism which does not conform to this rule.

Paddy O said...

I apologize then for my sloppy parlance when it comes to recently obscure religions.

Ben Witherington said...

In regard to Akenaten, there is room for debate on this matter, but in fact this man was killed for his religion. Now it is unlikely that this would have happened if he had simply been promoting henotheism. There was always room in that polytheistic culture for one more God. There was even room for exalting 'the most high God' over other deities. It happened regularly . There was not room for exclusive monotheism, and I think that is what Akenaten was advocating and it got him killed.


yuckabuck said...

There is much more evidence for ancient monotheism than just the incident of Akenaten. Check out the missionary classic "Eternity in Their Hearts" by Don Richardson.

In addition to describing many animistic cultures that described themselves as having started with monotheism, Richardson also gives a short history of the debate over the evolution of religion. Specifically, the anthropological theory that monotheism was a later "evolutionary" offspring from animism and polytheism had already been disprooved by the time Wellhausen included it in his documentary theory of the Pentateuch (the famous J E D P sources so ubiquitous in Old Testament studies).

Doc said...

Dr Witherington:

You wrote

"It is not surprising then that various humans in various different places without influence from one another, would independently come up with the idea that there is only one God."

It's odd that you would say, "Come up with the idea." Doesn't this assume discontinuity of monotheism from absolutely all of Noah's descendants? Why couldn't Zoroastrianism be a corruption of the truth (a pre-existing monotheism) rather than an imperfect innovation? Why not take the tack that the "monotheisms" in various parts of the world have a common past in Noah's family, and that monotheism (in varying degrees of corruption) would have been maintained even by some at Babel and then scattered to the four corners of the earth after the confusion of tongues?

Or (serious question) is this too literal an interpretation of the Bible for someone at Asbury?


DLW said...

I read up about Zoroastrianism a while back and it seems to be a 6th ctry BCE religion that came into being with the Persian Empire and later reworked its older indo-iranian texts.

Interestingly, it seems Zoroastrianism's tolerance is what permitted the Jews to return from exile to Israel.

I think the extensive scholarship on Zoroastrianism and Judaism shows there was influence, but not the direction of such influence. The wrong claims to be of greater antiquity than the available evidence shows, goes against Zoroastrianism being the influencer, IMO.

I also think it is interesting that Akhenaton became Pharaoh and made monotheistic reforms not long after the establishment of Israel according to the earlier and more biblically-supported timeline.

Methinks, this could reflect the impact of God's powerplay against Egypt and in setting up Israel. It also may have provided much needed political cover for the early nation of Israel.

I think large amount of Archaelogical evidence is consistent with the biblical story of the nation of Israel being salt and light before the world, particularly during its time in exile in Babylon, when their faith was renewed...

Unknown said...

Yes, The Zoroastrians did free the Jews,Cyrus the Great was known as "the Anointed One" in the Bible after he freed the Jews from Babylon.....

The similarity between Zoroastrianism and Islam is the number and timing of prayers...

In Islam, praying 5 times a day and the timing of the the 5 prayers is exactly same....

In Zoroastrianism they are called the 5 'Gahs'...they are Havan, Ushain, Uzirin, Aiwisruthimi and Rapithwan.