Abraham on the shoulders of Zoroaster (and others)

Yesterday on Twitter I made a quip about “linear Western models of time.” A friend pointed out that that was actually “Judeo-Christian.” I was going to agree…but then I realized something: I vaguely recalled that eschatology and millenarianism were things that some have hypothesized came into Judaism from Zoroastrianism.

The historical context is straightforward. The Babylonians took the Jews to Mesopotamia, where they were strongly influenced by the local cultures. Mesopotamia for most of the period before the Islamic conquest was dominated by Iranian polities, the Achaemenids, Parthians, and Sassanids. Though the non-Iranian populace of Mesopotamia never took to Zoroastrianism, which was considered somewhat the ethnic religion of Iranian peoples,* it has hard to imagine they were not influenced by the religion.

Early Islamic chronicles describe a religious culture in Mesopotamia in the early centuries after Muhammad that would be both familiar and alien. The familiar aspect would be the dominance of various forms of Christianity and Judaism among the Semitic speaking population. The form of Judaism which came to be dominant by the medieval period was strongly influenced by Jewish thinkers in late antique Mesopotamia, who operated with a certain freedom that Jews under Christian rule did not have. Though Christians in Mesopotamia tended to be Oriental Orthodox, whether it be what we would today term Jacobite or the Church of the East, they were Christian.

But the exotic aspect is that many other religious groups, inflected with Zoroastrian and pagan beliefs, were also present. The pagans of Harran persisted down to the Islamic period because of the protection that they had received from the Persian emperors during the Byzantine period. Though groups like Mandeans and Yazidis seems exotic to us today, they were probably part of the bubbling matrix of beliefs which produced novel religious movements rather regularly (ghulat Shia sects like the Alawites probably have laundered some of these old beliefs into modern outwardly Muslim groups).

Manicheanism, for example, seems to have emerged at this intersection of religions. The prophet himself was from a heterodox (from our perspective) Christian background, but his new religion integrated aspects of Christianity, Zoroastrianism, and Buddhism, as well as agnosticism which seems to have channeled Neoplatonic conceptions of the corruption of this world.

The important point here is that this was not a unique confluence of events. Centuries before the Roman Empire, exiled Judaeans were in contact with Zoroastrians in Mesopotamia. The dislocation probably helped force their shift away from belief in a geographically delimited tribal god, local to Palestine, toward a more mature monotheism. But they were also introduced to new ideas which seem to be derived from Zoroastrianism: angels, the prominent role of Satan as God’s foil, an elaborated heaven, and eschatology, seem to be derived from the milieu of Zoroastrian influenced culture.

But were they? One of the major themes, perhaps the most interesting one, in The Shape of Ancient Thought: Comparative Studies in Greek and Indian Philosophies, are the common Mesopotamian motifs which seem to pervade the West Eurasian oikoumene, from Europe to South Asia.

Perhaps the Zoroastrian influence on the Abrahamic religions is less about the creative genius of the Iranian peoples as they impinged upon the older civilizations of West Asia, as it is about their absorption and synthesis of far older motifs?

Again, this sort of synthesis, cooption, and appropriation should be unsurprising. The more and more I’ve dug into the early history of Islam, the more I’ve come to the conclusion that subjugated Iran & Turan held captive the uncouth Arab and brought the arts to the rustic desert nomads! Actually, that appropriation of a classicist jibe misleads as to my view of the early Arab conquerors of Persia. I suspect they were primarily civilized peoples on the margins of the Persian and Roman world, not raw Bedouins. But, many of the aspects of Islam that we think of as constitutive to the religion probably only dates to the Abbasid period and later, when Iranians of Zoroastrian, Christian, and Buddhist background dominated the culture (e.g, the emphasis messianism in Shia Islam probably is accentuated by Zoroastrian influences, while Sunni Islam’s focus on learning of the ulema in a formal sense may be modeled on Central Asian Buddhist monastic forms).

Ultimately the reason I’ve brought this up is that many things that we in the modern world find beautiful or good are said to be contingent on the nature of Christianity, and Christianity is contingent on Jewish thought. Quite often this is false. I used to watch Bible documentaries where David Wolpe was a frequent guest. Wolpe was wont to say that the genius of the Jews was the invention of ethical monotheism. If I had to bet I think this is just wrong. My own suspicion is that on the probability the Jewish shift toward ethical monotheism in their conception of their tribal religion was given a strong push sufficiently, if not necessarily, by the widespread currency of proto-Zoroastrian ideas in Persian Babylon (and later Ctesiphon).

The idea of linear time is often connected liberal individualism and the possibility of progress. The caricature is that the “Judeo-Christian tradition invented progress,” ergo, liberalism, science, etc. This sort of reductive causal model has always struck me as implausible, in part because most of the people (thought not all!) who make this assertion know very little outside of our their own tradition, so they are easily impressed by its uniqueness due to its singular hold on their imagination.

I’m not presupposing here that Zoroastrianism was a necessary condition for the emergence of many traits unique to Judaism. It seems likely that something like ethical monotheism was going to be “invented” somewhere (note that millenarianism seems to have developed in China independently before the first “Western” influences, such as Buddhism and Manichaeanism).

This speaks to the thesis of whether history is driven by unique ideas, or structural forces. They aren’t exclusive, nor are they unrelated. Peter Turchin and others have suggested that ethical metaphysical/religious systems were nearly inevitable with the maturing of large multi-ethnic imperial polities. I believe that evolutionary psychology allows us to understand why those ethical systems were broadly similar in the generalities. The human quest for cosmic justice is just an elaboration of our intuitions about fair-play in a Paleolithic tribal band.

* Zoroastrianism was more successful in the Caucasus, probably because Caucasian elites were integrated into the military elite of the Iranian states.


10 thoughts on “Abraham on the shoulders of Zoroaster (and others)

  1. Well, Razib: Your intuition is probably good, but academic scholarship in Jewish studies identifies the crucial era as being later than the Achaemenid era of the Babylonian captivity. Jewish scholars are now looking at the Sasanian era:

    “The Iranian Talmud: Reading the Bavli in Its Sasanian Context (Divinations: Rereading Late Ancient Religion)” by Shai Secunda

    Shai Secunda is Jacob Neusner Associate Professor in the History and Theology of Judaism at Bard College.

    “Although the Babylonian Talmud, or Bavli, has been a text central and vital to the Jewish canon since the Middle Ages, the context in which it was produced has been poorly understood. Delving deep into Sasanian material culture and literary remains, Shai Secunda pieces together the dynamic world of late antique Iran, providing an unprecedented and accessible overview of the world that shaped the Bavli.

    “Secunda unites the fields of Talmudic scholarship with Old Iranian studies to enable a fresh look at the heterogeneous religious and ethnic communities of pre-Islamic Iran. He analyzes the intercultural dynamics between the Jews and their Persian Zoroastrian neighbors, exploring the complex processes and modes of discourse through which these groups came into contact and considering the ways in which rabbis and Zoroastrian priests perceived one another. Placing the Bavli and examples of Middle Persian literature side by side, the Zoroastrian traces in the former and the discursive and Talmudic qualities of the latter become evident. The Iranian Talmud introduces a substantial and essential shift in the field, setting the stage for further Irano-Talmudic research.”

  2. The Crucible of Faith by Philip Jenkins is a good book about how and from which contexts some religious concepts emerged in Judeo-Christian traditions. Highly recommended.

  3. The Jews were still practicing animal sacrifice in the time of Jesus. The full development of ethical monotheism among did not take place until well after the destruction of the Temple, and required the development of rabbinical Judaism in the Second Century AD.

    The idea that Satan is simply the equivalent of the Zoroastrinian Angra Mainyu raises certain problems, especially with respect to the Book of Job, where Satan’s opposition to God is more likely friendly competition than Evil vs. Good. Of course, the Old Testament is full of strange stuff.

  4. Another interesting treatment of this very issue is Cosmos, Chaos and the World to Come, by Norman Cohn. I remember reading it in grad school in the mid-90s.

  5. Don’t forget Communism and Cultural Marxism on the shoulders of Mazdakism. At least it was honest and called itself a religion.

  6. This reminds me of something I read in William McNeill’s World History, where he claims that the influence of ancient Sumer was very widespread and that some scholars think the Proto-Indo-European pantheon had Sumerian origins. I wonder if that claim is still widely accepted. It’s a few millennia older than the period you’re talking about but it relates to the same Near Eastern cultural nexus.

  7. Personally I go with the view that ethical henotheism was in fact a second millenium BCE invention of a West Semitic tribe migrating to Palestine, made possible by two thousand years of historical experience on the fringes of Mesopotamian civilization:


    Stylistically, these Patriarchal Narratives are unlike anything that came later, certainly anything in the second half of the first millennium BCE or later.

    I’m sure razib disagrees.

  8. “Judeo-Christian tradition invented progress,” ergo, liberalism, science, etc

    Also, about this bit here. Every major civilization managed to create Scholars, they were often Mathemathicians, Astronomers,Scribes or Bureaucrats. This is the first level.

    The second level was the introduction of Philosophers, Greece, the Middle East, Persia, India and China also developed their own.

    The third level, and where most stopped or failed to develop perfectly was the Natural Philosophers, starting with Medics. Persia managed to have that, after the expulsion of Greek Scholars from Byzantium, they fled there and opened Schools which would develop and kickstart a movement that would give birth to people like Avicenna – but it stopped there. In China, you had your own share of medicine developing, but filled with superstition and esotericism – but it stopped there. In Europe, when it started developing there though, there was a major difference: Guild culture. Guilds acted as Universities for such things, and when Medicine kickstarted, it opened the door to the Natural Sciences. The same happened with Engineering spreading the foundations for Physics.

    Guilds are the best. This is so true that after the forced shutdown of them, many institutions had to be born to fill the void it left, such as government regulations, trade unions, banks, stock/commodity market, universities, trade schools and cooperatives. And not a single one of these does a better job than the original.

    So, the European exceptionality was due to how it managed to Laborize and Diffuse the Sciences more effectively than others.

  9. One might acknowledge that multi-ethnic empires are primed for high-god universalism while suspecting that the contingent specifics of Christianity mattered. It’s hard to see that the Christian missionary impulse was determined, but without it there would surely have been less extensive cultural transmission from the Mediterranean to northern Europe. Where would Britain be without the Augustines and Columbas?

  10. One interesting point is that Mandaeans called all Babylonians (both Jews and Christians) – “yehutaya” (i.e. Judeans – Jews), who were their arch-nemesis.

    Did early Babylonian Christians practiced circumcision? Mandaeans were against circumcision, maybe that’s why they lumped Jews and Christians together.

    Or maybe Babylonian Jews and Christians were allies?

    But this might explain how heterodox groups had seen both Jews and Christians as a single “mainstream” body.


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