Paganism’s Gift to Us
Richard W. Coffen | 23 December 2019 |
Friedrich Nietzsche wrote the book Thus Spake Zarathustra. (The grecianized form of Zarathustra is Zoroaster.) Rather than report a history of Zoroaster and the religion bearing his name, Zoroastrianism, the book presented Nietzsche’s atheism, quite contrary to Zoroaster’s beliefs.
Zoroaster was a contemporary of Daniel, assuming he lived from 628 to 551 B.C. Our Sabbath school lessons for the final quarter of this year have reviewed events detailed in the books of Ezra and Nehemiah. The kings mentioned in these accounts were adherents of Zoroastrianism.
It’s generally recognized that Zoroaster influenced the religion of the Judahites who continued residing in the general area once ruled by Nebuchadnezzar but now under the sway of Persian kings, Cyrus (590-530 B.C.), Cambyses (529-522 B.C.), Darius I (522-486 B.C.), and Artaxerxes I (465-424 B.C.). It’s recognized that Zoroastrianism has influenced both Judaism and Christianity.
This essay will enumerate some of the influences that Zoroastrianism has had on Seventh-day Adventism, which, of course, in turn is indebted to Judaism and other Christian religions.
The Judeo-Christian Physical Debt to Zoroastrianism
This architectural reliance forms the focus of the Ezra-Nehemiah corpus. Nebuchadnezzar, neo-Chaldean ruler, sacked both Jerusalem and its Temple. We can assume that not only did Solomon’s wisdom attract attention in the political world of 970/960-930/920 B.C., but also that the stunning temple constructed under his sponsorship drew special admiration.
Yet from Nebuchadnezzar’s destruction of the First Temple in 586 B.C. to the beginning of the new regime of Persian rulers, that spectacular place of devotion to YHWH lay in ruins. As soon as Cyrus had conquered the neo-Babylonian empire (539/538 B.C.), he issued an edict (Ezra 1:1ff) that the Judahite POWs (1) could be repatriated and (2) could reconstruct their place of sacrifice (Ezra 1:2, 3, 5).
Such a policy wasn’t unique for the Judahites, soon to become known as “Jews.” The general practice of Zoroastrian monarchs was (1) to return POWs to their homelands and (2) to underwrite the expenses of rebuilding their places of worship. My Sabbath school teacher refers to this Persian attitude as “syncretism.” Maybe that’s too negative a term. It appears, though, that Zoroastrian kings wanted to coddle the favor of as many deities as they could, even though technically they, as Zoroastrians, weren’t polytheists. Why not cover one’s bases! In current lingo, they were ecumenical!
The Second Temple hardly compared favorably with the spectacular First Temple! Some of the old-timers wailed at its dedication (Ezra 10:1). However, it would not always pale in comparison with Solomon’s Temple. God’s message to the returned POWs, according to Haggai, looked (1) backward (to what he had done for them in the past) and (2) forward (to what he would do for them in the future).
“Yet now take courage, O Zerubbabel . . . ; take courage, O Joshua, son of Jehozadak, the high priest; take courage, all you people of the land, says the Lord; . . . I am with you, . . . according to the promise that I made you when you came out of Egypt. My spirit abides among you. . . . I will shake all the nations, so that the treasure of all nations shall come, and I will fill this house with splendor, says the Lord of hosts. The silver is mine, and the gold is mine. . . . The latter splendor of this house shall be greater than the former . . . ; and in this place I will give prosperity, says the Lord of hosts” (Haggai 2:5, 7-9, NRSV).
The Hebrew word (chemdâ) rendered “desire” in the King James Version means “wealth” and is translated in many, if not most, versions as “treasure(s)”. “All of the derivatives of ḥmd refer to outward appearance. . . . With some emphasis on the value of the object.”
Because YHWH owns all mineral resources, he’d shake down the nations, and their holdings of gold and silver would fall from their coffers and into the newly constructed temple. Benefiting from such largesse, the Second Temple, which so disheartened the returned exiles, would end up being more glorious than the First Temple! Herod’s generous investment of funding and prodigious renovation and refurbishment of the Temple did indeed make it much larger and more spectacular than the First Temple. Furthermore, from a Christian perspective, Jesus added to its sanctity by his presence when he worshiped there.
It took more than 20 years and the authorization of several Zoroastrian rulers before construction of the Second Temple reached completion (c. 539 B.C. to 516 B.C.). Then, about 520 more years elapsed between Cyrus’ decree and the onset of Herod’s initiative. As the first-century Jews and Christians worshiped and offered sacrifices in Herod’s Temple, they owed a debt of gratitude to Zoroastrianism!
The Judeo-Christian Theological Debt to Zoroastrianism
Arguably, an important theological contribution Zoroastrianism made to our Judeo-Christian theology is the fundamental distinction between a good, benevolent deity and a destructive, malevolent person. For millennia, authors of the Old Testament attributed all that happens—good and bad—to YHWH.
For instance, when King Saul sank into depression, it was caused by an “evil spirit from God” that descended upon him (1 Samuel 16:14; 18:10; 19:9). When David decided to take a census, it was YHWH (2 Samuel 24:1), a.k.a. “the satan,” who tempted him to do so (1 Chronicles 21:1). Later, YHWH authorized his own “lying spirit” to “inspire” false prophets of King Ahab (1 Kings 22:21ff; 2 Chronicles 18:21ff).
Not until intertestamental and New Testament times do we read about a personal Satan (proper noun), an adversary of God. It appears that Jewish thought during Persian supremacy came to adopt a form of dualism.
Zoroastrianism believes that “God cannot be responsible for evil. . . . [Both good and evil] are taken back to a first cause, God and the devil. . . . The devil . . . is responsible for all evil in the world, disease and death, anger and greed.” Zoroastrianism “believes in one god, Ahura Mazda, who is . . . The Creator of everything . . . the source of all the goodness and happiness in the world. Combating the goodness is God’s adversary, Angra Mainyu. . . . There is the cosmic dualism between God and the Angra Mainyu who is the destructive spirit that introduces the evils of death, sickness, etc into God’s pure and beautiful world. There is also a moral duality that points towards the inherent good and evil sides of a human being.”
Zoroastrian dualism posits two hostile but unequal powers—Ahura Mazda is all-powerful but Angra Mainyu isn’t and will ultimately be overcome by Ahura Mazda. “In order to vanquish Ahriman, Ormazd [Ahura Mazda] created the world as a battlefield. He knew that this fight would be limited in time.” “Good and evil fight an unequal battle in which the former is assured of triumph. God’s omnipotence is thus only temporarily limited. In this struggle all human beings must enlist because of their capacity for free choice.”
It’s reasonable to assume that Judaism and later Christianity adopted their version of dualism from Zoroastrianism. “The debt of Israel to its Eastern neighbours in religious matters is easy to demonstrate on a few precise points of minor importance but less so in other more important points, such as dualism.” “Chapters 40 through 48 of the Book of Isaiah offer striking parallels with the third and fourth verses of Gāthā 44.”
Other Christian beliefs appear to have derived from that Zoroastrian overarching concept of moral dualism. For instance: (1) followers of the good deity will attain the kingdom, (2) the divine Holy Spirit produces life, even creates humans, (3) there is a cosmic conflict between good and evil, (4) humans should pursue healthful living, (5) humans have a unity of soul and body, (6) the sacrifice of Haoma is at once god, priest, and victim, (7) although evil will be destroyed in fire, there is no eternal burning hell, and (8) there will be a final battle between good and evil, which Christians call “Armageddon.”
To be fair, there are also numerous theological emphases and perspectives that none of us share with Zoroastrianism.
Would YHWH Do That?
Would YHWH do what? Not only allow but even sanction “heathen” ideas to be incorporated into the religion he blessed? Evidence suggests that aspects of YHWH’s religion weren’t totally unique.
First, the Hebrew term transliterated as “Elohim” was the Canaanite word for the chief god of their pantheon. When the Hebrew people adopted the Canaanite language (Isaiah 19:18) upon settling in the Promised Land, they borrowed the plural term Elohim to refer generically to their God. Why a grammatically plural ending for the singular Hebrew deity? Many, if not most, modern scholars regard it as an intensification—the “highest god.”
There’s archaeological evidence that the proper name of the Hebrew deity, YHWH, originated in Syria. This extra-Hebrew usage appears to have preceded the time when God instructed his people that YHWH was his name.
Second, there’s creationism. Historical records reveal that not only were all ancient Near Eastern people god-believers but also that they uniformly believed in creationism of one sort or another. There was even an Egyptian story about the god Ptah, who spoke the cosmos into existence. Through Ptah’s tongue, the Egyptian deities were created. Additionally, “[all] cattle, all creeping things, and (everything) that lives” came into being by Ptah’s “thinking and commanding.”
Third, there were animal sacrifices. Which peoples offered animal sacrifices first is a moot question. However, early evidence for sacrificial animals seems to come from Egypt. “The oldest Egyptian burial sites containing animal remains originate from the Badari culture of Upper Egypt, which flourished between 4400 and 4000 BC.” That chronological range puts the earliest evidence for animal sacrifices, at the latest, around the time of creation proposed by Ussher’s chronology.
Literalists in biblical interpretation can take this as evidence of the alleged sacrifice(s) YHWH made in behalf of Adam and Eve so that he could tailor animal pelt clothing for them. Or, alternatively, it might take us to the time when Cain and Abel offered their sacrifices.
At a temple in Tel Megiddo, archaeologists have uncovered the remains of animal sacrifices dating back some 5,000 years.
Such evidence places the practice of offering animal sacrifices at least 1,500 years and more likely 2,900 years prior to the Mt. Sinai experience, at which time YHWH instituted formal animal sacrifice among his people, assuming that this occurred sometime around 1440 B.C.
Fourth, Scripture asserts that Moses received the blueprint (Hebrew: tabnȋt = plan, blueprint; Greek: typos = model, likeness; root = image struck on a coin or impress made by a seal in clay) for the tabernacle (Exodus 25:9; Hebrews 8:5). This structure, of course, was later reconfigured into the First and Second Temples. Despite claims in both testaments, the revealed “blueprint” shared the common floor plans of other temples and sanctuaries constructed in the ancient Near East, as Michael B. Hundley has graphically illustrated. Just as we have little problem identifying a church building by its architecture, so ancient Near Easterners could instantly recognize a structure as a place of sacrifice.
Fifth, recall Balaam’s donkey who saw what Balaam did not and was even able to speak (Numbers 22:23, 27, 28)! In the New Testament, Zoroastrian magi came to honor the baby Jesus (Matthew 2:1). Elsewhere, demons identified Jesus as “son of God” (Matthew 8:29). Similarly, a pagan Roman centurion did the same (Matthew 27:54). Jesus insisted that God could bring praises even from lisping toddlers and non-lingual babies at the breast (Matthew 21:16), or, more startling, from inanimate rocks (Luke 19:40)!
If God could use such diverse methods to provide revelations, it shouldn’t surprise us if he also could use Zoroaster to inform Judeo-Christian theology.
- Https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thus_Spoke_Zarathustra. ↑
- Geoffrey Parrinder, editor, World Religions: From Ancient History to the Present, p. 177. ↑
- David J. Shepherd and Christopher J. H. Wright, The Two Horizons Old Testament Commentary, Ezra and Nehemiah, p. 2. David J. Shepherd and Christopher J. H. Wright, The Two Horizons Old Testament Commentary, Ezra and Nehemiah, p. 2. ↑
- Https://www.britannica.com/topic/Zoroastrianism; https://www.britannica.com/topic/Zoroastrianism/Beliefs-and-mythology. ↑
- The Anchor Bible Dictionary, vol. VI, Tomoo Ishida, “Solomon,” p. 105. ↑
- Siegfried H. Horn, editor, Seventh-day Adventist Bible Dictionary, revised edition, “Temple,” p. 1099. ↑
- Bible texts credited to NRSV are from the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible, copyright © 1989 by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the U.S.A. Used by permission. ↑
- For example: The Complete Jewish Bible, Christian Standard Version (2017), Holman Christian Standard Bible, The New American Bible, New English Translation, New Jerusalem Bible, New Living Translation, New Revised Standard Version, Revised Standard Version. ↑
- Willem A. VanGemeren, New International Dictionary of Old Testament Theology & Exegesis, vol. 2, p. 168. ↑
- That Jesus was the “object” which the King James Version of Haggai 2:8 calls “the desire of all nations” is a repurposing of what the original message referred to. In today’s hermeneutical language, this practice is known as eisegesis. ↑
- Yes, Christians worshiped and offered sacrifices in the Temple—even as late as A.D. 59—more than 30 years after the Crucifixion. See Acts 2:46, 3:1ff; 5:25, 42; and 21:26. ↑
- The definite article did not precede names in Hebrew. ↑
- Geoffrey Parrinder, editor, World Religions From Ancient History to the Present, p. 179. ↑
- Https://www.commisceo-global.com/blog/a-brief-introduction-to-zoroastrianism. ↑
- Ibid. ↑
- Https://www.britannica.com/topic/Zoroastrianism/Beliefs-and-mythology. ↑
- Https://www.britannica.com/topic/Zoroastrianism. ↑
- Ibid. ↑
- Https://www.britannica.com/topic/Zoroastrianism/Beliefs-and-mythology. ↑
- Op. Cit., World Religions, p. 178. ↑
- Ibid. ↑
- Ibid. p. 180. ↑
- Ibid. ↑
- Ibid. ↑
- Ibid. p. 181. ↑
- Ibid. ↑
- Ibid. ↑
- Anchor Bible Dictionary, vol. 4, “Names of God in the OT,” p. 1006. ↑
- David Noel Freedman, editor, The Anchor Bible Dictionary, “Yahweh,” vol. 6, p. 1012. ↑
- Https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ptah; David Noel Freedman, editor, Eerdmans Dictionary of the Bible, “Yahweh,” p. 1402. ↑
- James B. Pritchard, editor, The Ancient Near East, vol. I, p. 1. ↑
- Https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Animal_sacrifice#Prehistory. ↑
- Https://www.haaretz.com/archaeology/.premium-animal-sacrifice-at-5-000y-old-temple-1.5309685. ↑
- R. Laird Harris, Gleason L. Archer, Jr., and Bruce K. Waltke, editors, Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament, vol. 1, pp. 117, 118. ↑
- Moisés Silva, editor, New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology and Exegesis, vol. 4, pp. 505ff. ↑
- Michael B. Hundley, Gods in Dwellings: Temples and Divine Presence in the Ancient Near East. ↑
- That the “wise men from the east” were Zoroastrians is a possibility among other options, such as astrologers. Raymond E. Brown, The Birth of the Messiah, p. 167. See also Silva, vol. 3, p. 198. ↑
Richard W. Coffen is a retired vice president of editorial services at Review and Herald Publishing Association, and writes from Green Valley, Arizona.