Two of the three major monotheistic religions today are Judaism and Christianity. Upon taking a closer look at these western religions one can’t help but notice a common thread running through all three. The ideas of “one omniscient God” (hence monotheism) and “final judgment”, resulting in spending an eternity in heaven or hell, are ever present. How do these largely practiced belief systems have so much in common? Who is responsible for creating the basic ideology of millions of believers today? The answer to these questions may lie in a man who lived nearly twenty-six hundred to possibly three and a half thousand years ago.
Zoroastrians are the followers of the Achaemenian prophet or priest Zarathustra (or Zoroaster as the Greeks called him). (For clarification, I will use present day Iran in place of the Achaemenian Empire). Due to invasions of Iran and the destruction of their libraries, there are no sources to pinpoint the time frame of Zoroaster’s life. According to documents that survived the eradications, Zoroaster “…flourished 258 before Alexander…” Alexander the Great sacked the Iranian capitol in 330 BC, dating the prophet’s birth circa 628 BC, while some scholars estimate his life around 1400 BC. Where Zoroaster was born and lived is almost as uncertain as when he lived. Arab scripts state that “…Zaratusht arose from Ragh…” which researchers have concluded as Rhages, or present day Tehran Iran. The area in which he lived had an economy based on “animal husbandry”. Nomads who frequently raided those people were viewed by Zoroaster as of order and called them “followers of the lie”. So begins the basis of Zoroaster’s theology.
To understand the overwhelming effect Zoroastrianism had on the people of the ancient Middle East, one must take a look at their belief system. Iran, as well as the entire Middle East, was a land where many pagan gods and goddesses were being “born”. During the time of Zoroaster, Mithra was one prominent religion practiced by the Iranians. Those who were followers of Mithra (as well as other religions) would sacrifice animals to pay homage to their gods.
It wasn’t uncommon for worshippers to consume narcotics and intoxicating beverages called Haoma (Zaehner 38). This is a one reason why Zoroaster revolted against Mithra and other Iranian religions before him. Zoroaster had received a vision from Ahura Mazda, the Wise Lord, who appointed him to teach the truth. Initially Zoroaster did not try to overthrow current religions, yet placed Ahura Mazda as the “Head God”.
Through his attempts to slowly reform ancient Iranian religion, Zoroaster was opposed in his monotheistic teachings and principles by religious authorities in the area that he preached. His enemies were the established civil and religious heads who wanted no part in the undoing of the ancient national religions, which had strong ties in the existing social and economic structures. Zoroaster testifies: “Where and which part of land shall I go succeed? They keep me away from the family and the tribe. The community that I wish to join does not gratify me, nor do the deceitful tyrants of the land. How shall I gratify you, O Ahura Mazda?” (Clark 3) It can be deduced that he was persecuted by religious and civil leaders and in turn escaped his homeland. Researchers indicate that Zoroaster appealed to one of the great leaders of his time called King Vishtaspa (the great grandson of Xerxes of Greece) (Princeton 83). The king along with a few others, (who included some family), became followers and began spreading the word of Zoroastrianism.
The basis of Zoroaster’s teachings seems to revolve around the idea that all events in the world are based on cause and effect. He has based his teachings on three principles: good reflection, good word and good behavior. Zoroaster believed that all the motives of human beings are based on action and reaction. Therefore, if human beings act favorably, they will in turn receive favorable actions and vice versa. Zoroaster’s god was not a god who was neither a bribe taker nor a dealer. Ahura Mazda, as told by Zoroaster, did not need to be flattered by his creatures in ritualistic sacrifices (Zaehner 85); neither did he need to be bought with bribes of expensive offerings. (Wadia 53-56) The god of Zoroaster is a god of justice, kindness and truthfulness. Ahura Mazda, in turn, guides his people to practice the same principles, because no man is more worthy than the other. That is why Zoroaster has based his theology on good reflection, good word and good deed.
Contrary to some religions practiced at that time, Zoroastrians are not predetermined in their fate to either eternal happiness or everlasting damnation.According to the Avesta (Zoroasterian scripture) everybody has the liberty to choose the ‘right’ or ‘wrong’. This idea of free will may have taken root in the home community of Zoroaster as described in the Gathas (Zoroastrian hymns). The Gathas tells the story of a peaceful pastoral and cattle breeding society (presumably Zoroaster’s), which was constantly raided by fierce nomadic tribes. The latter Zoroaster constantly refers to as dregvants (the followers of the Lie) where as his own people are the ashavants (the followers of Truth). (Zaehner 34) “Zoroastrianism proposes an ethical dualism, implying a radical choice made between good and evil, exemplified by these two spirits…” (dreg and asha) (Clark 9) Yet not only does Zoroaster present an ethical dualism, but also a religious one as well.
The monotheistic basis of Zoroaster’s teaching appears to be dualistic. Ahura Mazda appears to have an opposing (evil) force. Contrary, Zoroaster taught that in the beginning there was a meeting of two spirits, who were free to choose “life or not life.” This original choice gave birth to a good (Spenta Mainyu) and an evil (Angra Mainyu) principle. Monotheism, however, prevails over ethical and religious dualism because Ahura Mazda is actually comprised of both spirits, who were divided into the two opposed principles through their own choice and decision pitted in an eternal struggle. (Clark 6-10)
At the beginning of time, the world was divided into the dominion of the good and of the evil. Between these, each man is bound to decide. From man’s freedom of decision he alone is responsible for his fate. Through his good deeds, the righteous person earns an everlasting reward. He who opts for evil is condemned by Ahura Mazda and must expect to descend to the Christian concept of hell. Ahura Mazda is said to eventually vanquish the spirit of evil. This is done in similar fashion as the Christian religion, were there is a final internal confrontation where the good spirit, Spent a Mainyu, destroys the evil spirit. Zoroaster’s monotheistic solution had replaced the idea of dualism. (Zaehner 54-57)
Not many stories have been recorded about teachings that Zoroaster supplied to his followers. Zoroastrianism had eventually grown popular among the Iranian people but had still received opposition from other religious heads. Several attempts were made by opposing religions to uproot the new theology. Some religious leaders tried to discredit the Zoroastrians by accusing them of being “fire worshippers”. Zoroaster didn’t believe in anthropomorphism, so he chose to symbolize his god with fire. Zoroaster considered “light” and “fire” to be the cleanest phenomona in the earth therefore he chose them to be the symbol of Ahur Mazda. Unfortunately, some people out of wickedness or mere misunderstanding regarded Zoroastrianism as a fire-worshipping religion. The accusations not only damaged the theological basis, but also put holes in followers faith. Even today the followers of Zoroaster are ridiculed as “fire worshipers”. (Waida 47, Clark 93)
Zoroaster’s death appears to be as sketchy as his birth. Currently there are several possible accounts of the prophets death. Two are relatively similar in effect, but vary in minuet detail. One account states that he was murdered by a rival priest while attending to his regular rituals. The other recorded possibility is that Zoroaster was slain along with other priests by the rival priests (Kavis) during a raid on a Zoroastrian sanctuary. Not all texts make a claim for a violent death. One researcher reports that Zoroasters departureto the best existence, when seventy-seven years had elapsed onwards from his birth. (Clark 24)
Bartering for gaining power through the name of God and sacrificing of animals, where both large sources of income for other religious leaders. Zarathustras three principles of good reflection, good words, and good deed; lead to eternal life. Therefore, there was no need for religious leaders to assume the role of mediator between God and people like other religions. Zarathustra beliefs even deprived the clergies from temples that they had built. As these priests were deprived of their followers and money they developed animosity toward Zoroasterianism. After Zoroasters death, priests of other religions incorperated Ahur Mazda to their own religions in hopes of winning Zoroasters people and money.In this manner the religion of Mithra became so popular in Iran that even King Xerxes (of Greece) was worshiping Mithra next to Ahur Mazda. A century later, improper behavior on the part of Alexander of Macedonia resulted in ordering his army to set fire to libraries of Iran. The destruction of didactic literature is why history in that area is so ambiguous. Due to continued persecution and undo hardships, Zoroastrians were scattered throughout the Middle East. Zoroasters philosophy was transferred person to person and has caused many alterations that may not be inline with true Zoroastrianism.
What direct effects Zoroastrianism had on later Judaeo-Christian religions cannot be said for certain. “Zoroaster’s doctrine of rewards and punishments, of an eternal bliss and an eternity of woe allotted to good and evil men in another life beyond the grave is so strikingly similar to (Judeo-Christian) teaching that we cannot fail to ask whether here at least there is not a direct influence at work. …For the similarities are so great and the historical context so neatly apposite that it would be carrying skepticism altogether too far to refuse to draw the obvious conclusion.” (Zaehner 57) Since Zoroastrianism was developed somewhere between 100 – 900 years before Judaism and Jews had direct interaction with Iranians, it can be concluded that Iranians influenced the Jews, especially in the ways of religion.It can be said then that Zoroastrianism was the basis for Christianity as well as Judaism, since Judaism held the founding principles for Christianity.