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The Mask of Zoro(aster)?| Old Testament Copying? Series 3

Derek Caldwell

This is part 3 of the Old Testament Copying series. You can read part 1 here and part 2 here.

Lastly, one claim gaining some online popularity is that Judaism as a whole was influenced by Zoroastrianism (for a look at the claims that Zoroastrianism influenced Christianity in particular, please see our article on the historicity of Jesus). As we have already seen, God had revealed truths about Himself to the Israelites, and these truths were many times framed in opposition to the beliefs of surrounding areas’ mythologies. Therefore, what must be understood up front is that the idea of Israel borrowing religious beliefs antithetical to their own would have been unconscionable to them. This sort of syncretism is always condemned in no uncertain terms in the Hebrew scriptures.

The Persian influence of Zoroastrianism on Judaism is said to touch on major doctrinal matters such as creation, judgment, resurrection, heaven, hell, Satan, and other related matters. However, major differences between their beliefs and a lack of evidence on a historical exchange of information has made discerning scholars like Edwin Yamauchi wary. To believe in a link between Judaism and Zoroastrianism, one must then presuppose “the chronological priority of the Iranian beliefs; late dates for the Old Testament texts; a close parallelism between the beliefs; and reasons for dependence.”[1] These presuppositions, though, fly in the face of the data.

Looking at some of the alleged parallels will show some of the inflated declarations of Jewish dependence on Zoroastrian belief. As Yamauchi points out, in the case of the supposed Jewish borrowing from Zoroastrian creation accounts, this depends on a minority interpretation of Isaiah 40-45 and a complete lack of concern for the Genesis account. In a similar vein, the idea that the development of Satan was based on Zoroastrian beliefs is difficult to uphold since Satan is always portrayed as subordinate to Yahweh, whereas Ohrmazd and Ahriman (the adversary of Ohrmazd, the Zoroastrian god) are equal in power.[2]

Even more important, though, is the belief that Judaism borrowed the idea of resurrection from Zoroastrianism. If this is true, then it is claimed that Judaism—and through it, Christianity—are somehow illegitimate, copycat faith traditions. Looking at all the evidence, though, leads many scholars to agree with Zaehner: “We cannot say with any certainty whether the Jews borrowed from the Zoroastrians or the Zoroastrians from the Jews or whether either in fact borrowed from the other.”[3]

If we look at the resurrection claims, we can see why Zaehner’s hesitation is warranted. The majority of scholars do not believe that a resurrection is alluded to in Zoroaster’s Gathas, the oldest and most trusted source for Zoroaster’s beliefs. The earliest attestation to a Zoroastrian belief in resurrection actually cannot be dated prior to the 4th century BC[4], roughly 200 years after the biblical book of Ezekiel, which it is said to have influenced!  Yamauchi also shows how there are fundamental differences in what these resurrections look like. “The Jewish dead,” Yamauchi writes, “who are buried, rise from the dust of the earth, whereas the Persian dead, who are exposed, must be recreated from the elements. In Zoroastrianism the resurrection is linked with the fiery ordeal and the renewal, whereas in Judaism the resurrection hope means life beyond the grave with Yahweh.”[5] Furthermore, Yamauchi adds that the doctrine of resurrection is internally consistent with the Hebrew scriptures without any need to appeal to outside sources.[6] All of this leads Walther Eichrodt to conclude: “As these differences indicate, the idea that the eschatological resurrection hope, in the form attested in the Old Testament, was influenced by Persian conceptions can be shown by any reasonable detailed comparison to be inadmissible.”[7]

Lastly, if any influence upon Israel’s beliefs did come from Zoroastrianism, then according to Hinnells (a protégé of Boyce, who thought Zoroastrianism greatly influenced the Bible), it had to fall in the intertestamental or Hellenistic period, after the Hebrew Bible had already been written. Yamauchi affirms that the case does not look good. “The argument of Iranian influence upon Judaism is undercut,” Yamauchi explains, “by the necessity of relying upon extremely late Pahlavi texts, which are our major sources for the eschatological views of Zoroastrianism.”[8] He continues, quoting Frye, “In other words, the basic Iranian sources for deriving influences are the ninth century A.D. Pahlavi books, the syncretic nature of which can easily be imagined.”[9] And lastly, Neusner states that it is what appears to be the overwhelming ignorance of Iranian religious belief: “If we must make premature hypotheses, let me here hypothecate that Iranian ‘influences’ on the culture and religion of Babylonian Jewry and all the more so of Palestinian Jewry, have been for the most part exaggerated and overrated. Examining just what the Talmudic rabbis actually knew about Iranian culture, we can hardly be impressed by their depth of knowledge.”[10]

In the end, then, I think we can safely assert that the Old Testament, while being conversant in and with the ideas and cultures of its day, has a completely original synthesis of ideas concerning God, creation, humanity, sin, and salvation. Where it does engage with other cultures and religions, it does not do so uncritically. Rather, it holds them up to the light of Yahweh and finds them wanting, and the point of Yahweh’s interaction with Israel was to give Himself to the nations and invite them to fullness and flourishing.[11]

Photo: Gustave Dore (1832-1883), “The Destruction of Leviathan,” no date

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[1] Edwin M. Yamauchi, Persia and the Bible (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1996), 459.

[2] Ibid., 459-60.

[3] Ibid., 461

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid., 464-65.

[9] Ibid., 465.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Genesis 12:1-3; Isaiah 42:1-7; Matthew 12:17-21.