Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Zoroastrianism's Influence on Judaism, Christianity and Islam

Most people know that Pagan religions existed before Christianity and Judaism, and that many of them contained familiar themes:  an underworld, a hero/god/savior born of a virgin, powers of magical healing, and a resurrection.  For instance, we know about the vegetation god Tammuz who resurrected for six months each year.  We know about gods like Thor, who ruled a specific part of nature (God of Thunder), and we know gods and goddesses like Attis, Inanna and Osiris could have inspired the Jesus resurrection story.  But which stories are verified to have influenced Judaism and Christianity?  Were all of these similar stories just coincidence?   Although there is a very good chance these ancient religions leaked into the modern religions, and I can think of a few ancient stories that in my opinion “just had to have been the origin of stories in the Bible,” it is difficult to find when such links occurred or prove they occurred. 

But there is one religion we know directly influenced the foundations of Judaism, Christianity and Islam.  It is the ancient religion of Zoroastrianism.  We can be certain that these following themes came from Zoroastrianism:  a war in the world between good and evil, God versus Satan, a warring of the human spirit between good and evil, and the idea of one god only (monotheism), with a hierarchy of angels and archangels underneath.  Additionally, the story of the “slaughter of the innocents,” the idea of a general resurrection, the wording “a present age of darkness with a coming age of light,” and the concept of a final judgment at the end of the world with a savior who will “come very soon,” all derive from Zoroastrianism.

How did the Israelites pick up these ideas?  An exile occurred in 597 B.C.E. and continued until 538 B.C.E.  Approximately 10,000 Israelites were sent into exile to Babylon where they were surrounded by Zoroastrian beliefs, and when they returned, their own writings took a sharp turn and emphasized all of these new themes.  Nearly all religious historians are in agreement that Zoroastrianism was the reason for these beliefs in Christianity, Judaism and Islam; of course, some fundamentalist Christian scholars disagree.  

Many Pagan religions believed in an underworld, with Hades as guard to keep people from escaping.  A very few dead people negotiated with Hades to return to earth, including Tammuz and several of his dead friends.  Hades, himself, was a god who “got the short end of the stick” and had to rule the underworld when three gods, Zeus, Poseidon and Hades drew straws.  Zeus became King of the Gods, Poseidon the Ruler of the Sea, and Hades the Lord of the Underworld. 

The Israelites had a similar underworld they called Sheol, which, in early writings, was just a vague, gloomy place where everyone went when they died, like other descriptions of underworlds.  It was thought that when people were buried, they fell into the Underworld and lived underground.  Stories as far back as when Sumerians lived spoke of gods visiting the Underworld, and the Underworld and Sheol were what the early Israelites believed in until they were exiled and decided a place of punishment for sinners was more exciting.  (The Bible has mistranslations, and the word Sheol is called Hell in a lot of Bibles, whether it was the gloomy place or the punishing pit of fire.)

The book of Daniel was written after the exile to Babylon.  It has the first description of a Hell as a direct opposite to Heaven.  Anyone can see how a story would improve with an arch-enemy and wars and fear put into it!  The Israelites did not admit they had just absorbed Pagan, Zoroastrian beliefs and called all these beliefs their own.

Does anyone wonder why most of us never heard of Zoroastrianism?  Here it is, one of the oldest religions in the world, and we know nothing about it.  But, a few of us will recognize the phrase (and book) “Thus Spake Zarathustra!”  The Prophet Zarathustra (which means “shining light”) also became known as Zoroaster.  The writings of Zoroaster are in the Gathas and date to 1300 B.C.E.  Many claim the religion is much older than that, some saying it goes back to 6350 B.C.E., but the “evidence” is not of a type that can be seen, so I am going by when the words were written down, because that would be the time period Zoroaster would have lived.  At 1300 B.C.E., it still puts Zoroastrianism as one of the most ancient religions, along with Hinduism.

Let us learn exactly what Zoroastrians believe.  Our Yahweh sounds like the descriptions of the “good” Zoroastrian god, law giver and judge, Ahura Mazda.  Ahura Mazda is the supreme creator and all that is good, but he is battled by the evil Angra Mainyu (our Satan), so there is this strong duality between good and evil.  Angra Mainyu is the evil god of snakes and scorpions, and Ahura Mazda is the god of all other animals.  Zoroastrians believe in seeking good and in doing good deeds, because the more good they do, the more good will be in the world, and one day evil will be destroyed.  They believe in a warring duality both in spiritual thoughts of the body and the warring of Ahura Mazda versus Angra Mainyu in the world.  There is only one god in Zoroastrianism; it is credited as being the first monotheistic religion, but there are many angels and arch angels working under Ahura Mazda.  They believe Ahura Mazda and his son, Saoshyant (which means Savior), will judge in next world and he will bring the end of evil.  Keep in mind all of this was written before any of these ideas appeared in Judaism and before Christianity existed.

No one wants to admit that their religion evolved from earlier religions, because it would negate their religion as chosen, special - the only true and right religion, with the writers being inspired by their god.  But credit should be given where credit is due:  the prophet Zoroaster founded most of the major, underlying concepts of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. 

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