The Zoroastrian Problem: Quick Thoughts
Perhaps the greatest attempt in modern times to downplay the origins of Hebraic thought come in the form of the Zoroastrian problem, namely the theory that the Israelites developed their theology (as seen throughout the Tanach) while in captivity in Persia borrowing from Zoroastrianism, leading to the writing of the Tanach. This idea is prevalent throughout the lay world and to some extent throughout academia as well. For the Maximalist, this becomes a problem that must be resolved.
What teachings did the Jews adapt from Zoroastrianism? Some have pointed to the Zoroastrian teachings of salvation, angels, heaven and hell, the resurrection of the dead, and life everlasting (Amen?). Of course, the main similarity is that of monotheism.
Monotheism is extremely rare throughout history, and John Oswalt claims that Monotheism belongs to only one historical religion and the offshoots from that—Hebraism (2009). Avoiding Zoroastrianism for a moment, there are only a couple of points in history outside of Hebraic thought where Monotheism is cited to have appeared, such as under the Egyptian Pharaoh Akhenaten who served only one god. Of course, Akhenaten was not actually a monotheist. Instead, he was a henotheist—believing in the importance of one god (Ahuramazda) over that of the other gods. Coming back to Zoroastrianism, the religion is indeed monotheistic, but only in its present form having undergone syncretistic influence from Abrahamic religions. The question of ancient monotheism is answered negatively.
It is argued that Zoroaster himself taught monotheism, as reflected in the Gathas: “But you gods all are a manifestation of evil thinking” (Yasna 32:3; Yamauchi 1996: 437). Of course, the oldest known texts are written about a thousand years after the death of Zoroaster (Boyce 1992: 6:1168) and consists of only seventeen hymns. In fact, at the time that Zoroaster lived (dates vary, but perhaps between 1500-1000 BC), writing had yet to be discovered in Iran, the oldest known writing dating to the time of Darius, though this language was not suited to the transcription of an Indo-European language (Boyce 1992: 6:1169). Thus, assuming the veracity of the Gathas, the words were passed down from generation to generation through oral transmission. Boyce suggests that the gathas were not actually written down until ca. 5th c. AD (1992: 1169). Although monotheism may seem to have been a thought, the very uncertainty of the text negates the authenticity of the claim. Beyond this, even within the Gathas, there is no actually declaration of monotheism which is especially important in light of the polytheism of the time.
Instead of the true monotheism, the henotheism of Zoroastrianism is best described as a dualism as the Good Spirit (Ahuramazda) is placed in direct contrast to the Evil Spirit (Angra Mainyu) in Yasna 30:3, which states: “Now these two spirits, which are twins [...]” (Yamauchi 1996: 438), and in a later passage (45:2) the dualistic nature is seen once more: “Yes, I shall speak of the two fundamental spirits of existence, of which the virtuous one would have thus spoken to the evil one” (Yamauchi 1996: 439). The henotheism of Zoroastrianism stands in direct contrast to Monotheism of the Hebrew Scriptures, but there are still more contrasts. Of importance is the fact that Ahuramazda cannot defeat the Evil Spirit without the help of his worshippers, thus also negating the omnipotence of the god (Yamauchi 1996: 439).
Another of the so-called evidences that Judaism was influenced by Zoroastrianism is the similarity of the belief in resurrection. Yashts 19:11 (a part of the Younger Avesta which dates to between 521 - 331 BC) states that Ahuramazda made creatures so that they can restore the world, and when this restoration occurs “the dead will rise, when life and immortality will will come” (Yamauchi 1996: 456). While this may or may not refer to a general resurrection of the dead at the end of time, it at least shows similar wording. Thus this earliest form of resurrection theology dates to the 4th c. BC. Zoroastrian resurrection theology mainly stems from the Pahlavi, dating to around AD 224. Beyond that, the theology itself is quite different, as Zoroastrianism hopes for a resurrection in the form of a recreation of the body linked with renewal of the earth, whereas Hebraic resurrection theology maintains an actual resurrection of the physical body and life after with Yahweh (Yamauchi 1996: 461).
The many other “similarities” follow these two examples. As Zoroastrian theology in the earliest writings is extremely difficult to understand and sparse, the beliefs needed later explanations and reached their full maturity much later in history, long after the return to the Jews to Israel. Therefore, for the adaptation of the Jews from the Persians to have taken place, one must first accept a late date of the writings of the Hebrew Scriptures (typically understood to have been during the 1st-2nd c. BC, but even then, the complete theological positions of the Zoroastrians come much later.
We must therefore ask ourselves this: did the Jews borrow from the Zoroastrians or did the Zoroastrians borrow from the Jews? We know for certain that not all of the Israelites left Persia. We also know that Hebrew writings existed from the Exile onward. Perhaps the adaptation of Hebraism into Zoroastrianism is the more plausible alternative?
Boyce, M. 1992 “Zoroaster, Zoroasterianism.” Anchor Bible Dictionary Ed. by D.N.Freedman, 6 vols.
New York: Doubleday. 6:1168-1174
2009 The Bible Among the Myths. Zondervan Academic.
Yamauchi, E. 1996 Persia and the Bible. Grand Rapids: Baker.