Zarathushtrian influences on Judaism & Christianity?

By Ken Niemann

Tomorrow is Zarathushtra’s Birthday. Some claim Zarathushtrian antecedents to the major doctrines of Judaism and Christianity so today might be a good day to address the topic. Below are a number of what I believe to be superficial similarities typically offered to demonstrate a Zarathrustrian influence on Judaism :

1) A supreme creator God above all other supernatural beings (bounteous immortals or angels)

2) One God being the God of all people-as opposed to a henotheistic god like Chemosh, Assher or Yahweh in pre-exhilic days.

3) Tendency to not have images in their temples (according to Herodotus)

4) One God with several aspects, one of those being the “Holy Spirit”

5) An evil “god” (Satan/Ahriman) that is the promoter of evil on earth and the enemy of the good god.

6) A fiery end of the world followed by a new world ruled by the forces of light.

7) The resurrection of the dead to be glorified or punished.

8) The prophesied coming of a saviour of all mankind, the Saoshyant.

9) The title “King of Kings”-applied to the Persian king.

10) Purity laws ala Leviticus.

11) Abolition of Homosexuality-as a means to propagate more Zoroastrians.

12) Mithras, god of light, born in a cave on Dec.25 .

13) Persian priests called “Magi”-visitors to Jesus’ birthplace said to be “Magi”.

14) “Sons of light vs. sons of darkness” as in the War Scroll of Qumran.


I do not believe such an influence took place and what similarities that do exist may well be explained by a converse influence of Judaism on Zoroastrianism which existed on a continuum of somewhat distinct eras:

1) Early Iranian Migrations- Medes and Persians were Indo Europeans tribes who migrated to the Iranian Plateau from southern Russia circa 1300BC, then into western Iran circa 1000 BC

2)Achaemenid Dynasty- 550BC under Cyrus

3)Seleucid Era- 323-247 BC

4)Parthian- 247 BC- 224 AD

5) Sasanian 224 AD – 651 AD

It is the earlier periods of Zoroastrianism that so markedly differs from Judaism. Here are quotes from top scholars in the field regarding points 1) – 4) Zoroaster’s message was not an unqualified monotheism.

“In no single coherent statement does the prophet unambiguously proclaim monotheism”- Douglas Fox

“The character of every known Old Iranian religion appears polytheistic; and no declaration of the existence of one God, and one God alone,can be found in any source, not even in the utterances of Zoroaster” – Boyce

“It is a status that falls short of absolute monotheism, yet may rightly be called ‘qualified’ monotheism , in that Zarathrustra recognizes a plurality of ‘Wise Lords’ as well as the so called Entities or aspects of Ahura Mazda’s personality”- Malandra

“ A problem facing the monotheistic interpretation of Ahuramazda is the question of the source of evil, specifically, the Evil Spirit. According to the montheistic view Ahuramazda created both Spenta Mainyu (‘the holy spirit’) and Angra Mainyu (‘the fiendish spirit’). Gnoli suggests these spirits aquired their respective character by their choice between Asha and Druj. According to Widengren, Ahura Mazda is an all powerful god who bears himself the contradiction of good and evil, as Zoroaster has combined the elements of monism and dualism.”- Yamauchi

Regarding the above Fox says “This form of Zoroastrianism, then, hardly escapes imputing evil ultimately to God himself, and in a way in whhich the Bible avoids”.

“Associated with Ahuramazda were six Amesha Spentas or Bountiful Immortals who are conceived as semi-personal manifestations of the supreme god: Asha = Righteousness, Vohu Manah = Good Mind, Khshathra = Power, Armaiti = Suitable Disposition, Haurvatat = Health, Ameretat = Immortality. These appear to be personified abstractions. But they were more than abstractions because they were venerated by Zoroaster. The concept of Immortals is one of the most important and original doctrines of Zoroaster….Each of the Immortals is asssociated with some aspect of creation: Vohu Manah with animals, Asha with fire, Khshathra with metals, Armaiti with earth, Haurvatat with water, Ameretat with plants. In later times the Amesha Spentas were transformed into male and females deities. Armaiti became the spouse of Ahuramazda. The Parsis now regard the Immortals as archangels.”- Yamauchi

“Many leading scholars believe Zoroaster taught not a monotheism but a dualism with two uncreated spirits, a Good Spirit (that is, God) and an Evil Spirit”- Yamauchi

Key text: Yasna 30.3 “Now these two spirits, which are twins,revealed themselves first in a vision”- Yamauchi

“together with Ahuramazda in the beginning, and likewise uncreated was another being who was opposed to him, the Hostile Spirit, Angra Mainyu”- Boyce

“In the dualistic view God is wholly good while all evil comes from the Evil Spirit. But God is not all powerful. Only with the help of men who choose his side will God triumph over the Evil One in the end.” – Yamauchi

“Is it not men who, by choosing in sufficient numbers one of these gods in a way that gives him soveriegnty, actually save their god?”- Fox

“”yes, I shall speak of the two fundamental spirits of existence, of which the virtuous one would have spoken to the evil one” -Yasna 45.2

Finally, the dualistic doctines of the Zoroastrians is attested in the Peri Philosophias of Aristotle ( fourth century BC).

Regarding points 6-8: Zoroaster spoke of a judgement by molten metal whereby it was poured on the accused person. As developed by Bundahishn [ one of the 55 Pahlavi texts of the 9th & 10nth centuries], the final restoration will be introduced by a fiery ordeal: “ Then the divine Airyaman and fire will melt all the metal in the hills and mountains and will cause all the souls, both righteous and wicked to go through an ordeal by fire and molton metal for their purification”. Yamamuchi (1990) responds “….but this this judgement by fire is an expression of Yahweh’s wrath, and differs from the purifying fire of the Iranian ordeal as demonstrated in a thorough study by of the subject by Rudolf Mayer” [R. Mayer, Die Biblishe Vorstellung vom Welten Brand (Bonn: Orientalisches Seminar der Universitat Bonn, 1956)] Given that the Isaianic apocalypse should be dated no later than the sixth century BC, Hanson notes “But the important fact is that already at the end of the sixth century, the basic schema of apocalyptic eschcatology has evolved in Israel and that the whole development is perfectly comprehensible within the history of Israel’s own community and cult. Hasty recourse to late Persian influence is therefore unnecessary and unjustifiable in the search for the origins of the basic eschatology of Jewish apocalyptic.”

Also, Zoroaster’s paradise includes sex without procreation unlike the Judeo-Christian view. The concept of a resurrection does not appear in the Gathas but in the Avestas (425 BC). Konig did the definitive study on the topic and concluded that the earliest attestation of Zoroastrian belief in a ressurection cannot be dated before the fourth century BC. Eichrodt concludes “ As these differences indicate, the idea that the eschatological ressurection hope, in the form of the Old Testament, was influenced by Persian conceptions can be shown by any reasonably detailed comparison to be in admissible”. It should be pointed out that the wish of immortality is common to all men everywhere- all of us , no matter what century we live in, would like to overcome death.

Regrading 8) “The word saoshyant is sometimes translated “savior” but this is no savior from sin and guilt. The word is a future active participle from the verb “to benefit” and means “he who will bring benefit” that is, a benefactor. In the Gathas it is used three times in the singular. Some believe Zoroaster was obliquely refering to himself by this term…..The doctrine of a future redeemer who will drive out the Lie from the world of truth is developed in the Yashts (circa 420 BC). The still later Pahlavi texts teach the future coming of three world saviors born of the seed of Zoroaster perserved in a lake in eastern Iran. These saviors would smite demons, ressurect the dead, and bring about the ressurection of the primeval paradise. Boyce offers the unprovable suggestion that this later doctrine had it’s origins in the Achaemenian period.” (Yamauchi) “Zoroaster did not give himself out to be the redeemer. When his prayers call the redeemer who is to renew existence, he means the prince who shall accept his doctrine and realize the Dominion of Righteousness and Good Mind. He even allows the role of redeemer to any man, provided he practices righteousness” (Duchesne-Guillemin) Thus, the soteriology of Zoroaster looks like the following: Zoroaster taught that man would be judged by whether his good deeds outweighed his evil deeds. According to Zoroaster himself “salvation depended on works alone, and there could be no intervention, whether compassionate or capricious, by an omnipotent being to alter their consequence.” Not only do men save themselves by their good deeds, but in effect they save Ahuramazda as well.

Later Zoroastrianism developed rites of repentance and Boyce herself says “None of these activites can be logically reconciled with Zoroaster’s fundamental teaching that each man must achieve his own salvation, and that the only way to do so is through good thoughts, words, and acts”. Contrast this with Paul’s assertion that all our good works are as dung.

Some regard the work of Boyce (which views a postive influence of Zoroastrianism on Judaism) as being definitive. However: “Her work has been undermined by her own students. Hinnels, for example, concludes “The period of influence is placed much later than that assumed by most scholars. The detailed parallels appear during the Parthian (circa 250 BC) and not during the Achaemenid period.” Yamauchi says “Against the majority of Zoroastrian scholars, Boyce has almost single- handedly emphasized the continuity between Zoroaster’s teachings and the later Zoroastrian practices and doctrines…..Boyce holds that theological utterances, which survive only in the works complied in the sasanian period go back essentially to Zoroaster….despite the lack of any explicit evidence from the Seleucid- Parthian period, Boyce maintains Zoroastrian orthodoxy preceeded the Sasanian era.” Gnoli agrees: “ The idea that the Zoroastrian religion was handed down through the centuries in a fairly compact manner from its pre Achaemenian origins down to the Sasanians and afterwards, without being substantially affected by profound and radical changes, seems to me to be historically untenable”. Zaehner follows suit: “ We cannot say with any certainty whether the Jews borrowed from the Zoroastrians or the Zoroastrians from the Jews, or whether in fact either borrowed from the other”. Boyce’s camp then is being challenged on several grounds: the late date for the Old Testament texts, a close parallelism between the beliefs, chronological prioity of Iranian beliefs, and reasons for dependence.

Barr, in a careful study of the post exilic books of Daniel, Esther, Ezra, and Nehemiah demonstrates that any words borrowed from Persians related to court ceremony and administration- not about religious matters. He also notes that the Elephantine Papyri also indicate little influence of Persian religion.

Interestingly, Zoroaster was profoundly against animal sacrifice and incest was considered honorable. Some Zoroastrians married even their mothers.

With regards to Mithra, it is said:

“He emerged from a rock, carrying a knife and torch and wearing a phrygian cap. He then battled first with the sun and the primeval bull, thought to be the first act of creation. Mithra slew the bull, which then became the ground of life for the human race.” -Chishti

This differs significantly from the biblical account….Geisler also adds that Chishti’s (who’s a muslim) description of this religion are baseless. In fact he gives no references for the similarities he alleges.

Nash’s “ Chrsitianity in the Hellenistic World” is also a good source on this topic. He argues that Mithra did not have a bodily ressurection and he did not act as a savior to his followers in the same way Jesus did. He just helped them in their fight against evil, then led them through 7 spheres of seven planets to their final blessed destination. ( There was a heavy astrological influence.)

The Roman world was not influenced by this cult at the inception of Christianity. The first reference we find to it is in 67 ad where some pirates were supposed to practice it. The ruins of Pompeii, destroyed by mount Vesuvius in 79 ad, are devoid of any references to Mithraism. Yamauchi, a premier scholar on mithraism, “considers groundless the case for for any significant Mithriac influence on Roman society….until the end of the first century”. Further, it was the Syrian versions of this cult that finally did make it into the Roman world and attempts to read facets of this later development back into the Iranian version are highly questioned by scholars.

More on the Mystery religions since it comes up so frequently:

“ For a number of years now, the concensus among biblical scholars has been that earlier proponents of a primitive Christian dependence on the mystery religions got the better of their debate. Younger scholars now returning from doctoral studies in Germany report that, over there at least, the question of a mystery influence on the New Testament is a dead issue. Once again, however, we find that news like this has been slow to reach American scholars in fields other than biblical studies.” (Nash, 1984)

Historian of philosophy Gordon Clark also agrees: “Such premises are not so much bad scholarship as prejudiced irresponsibility”.

The mystery religions of Osiris, Mithra etc. have some common threads that are distinctly counter christian. They are typically appeals to emotion unlike the doctrinally substantive beliefs of Chrsitianity and center around the annual vegetational cycle and seasonal death and rebirth. They little use for doctrines and correct belief and as Aristotle pointed out “…are not intended to learn anything but to suffer something and thus be made worthy”. It was not until about 100 AD that we see a move towards a celestial bliss rather than existence in Hades. It was not until the third century AD that the language of the mystery cults appears in Christian writings as this was the time the church began more systemmatic approaches to its doctrine and was defending against heresies.

Parenthetically, the O.T. has a recurring theme of God mocking false gods. Note that many of the plagues are thought to mock an Egyptian god:

Nile turned to Blood: Khnum- guardian of the Nile, Hapi- spirit of the Nile, Osiris-Nile was a bloodstream

Frogs: Heqt- form of frog and God of “resurrection”
Plague on cattle: Hathor- mother goddess in the form of a cow, Apis- form of a bull and godd of fertility, Mnevis- sacred bull of Heliopolis

Boils: Imhotep- god of medicine
Hail: Seth- protector of crops
Darkness: Against the sun gods of Re, Aten, Atum, Horus

Death of Firstborn: Osiris- the giver of life.