“You know the Jews only got their belief in a fiery hell from the Zoroastrians in Babylon, right?”
This argument from my atheistic aunt was a new one for me. We had traveled to the Philly area to celebrate my engagement, when one morning my aunt opened up an apologetics conversation by asking me if I believed there would be free will in heaven. Somehow the conversation had veered into the territory of Zoroastrianism, which my aunt was putting forward as a point to undermine the authority of the Scriptures. After all, if central ideas like the nature of life after death had been borrowed from other religions, this would cast serious doubt on the Bible’s authority as God’s true revelation.
I chewed on her claim and considered how to respond.
“Well, I don’t know a lot about Zoroastrianism. But I don’t think you should say that there was no concept of a fiery judgment until after the exile. The ending of Isaiah (66:24) speaks of the wicked being judged by a fire that will never be quenched. And he predated the exile by a generation or so.”
That conversation may have been the first time I heard the argument that Judaism (and Christianity through it) borrowed heavily from Zoroastrianism. But it certainly wasn’t the last. This position is held as fact by many scholars, and even shows up in some pretty good Christian textbooks and resources. In addition, Zoroastrianism is enjoying a quiet revival in Central Asia and also has some good PR in the West with claims of being “The first monotheistic religion” and the first to teach a final judgment and resurrection.
So, how should Christians respond to the claim that much of our doctrine has been borrowed from the teachings of Zarathustra/Zoroaster, the ancient prophet who founded Zoroastrianism?
First, it helps to have a basic understanding of the history of this religion. Because that story alone leaves a lot to be desired in terms of statements of historical certainty. As best we can tell, Zarathustra was an influential religious teacher sometime around 1,200 BC to 500 BC who sought to reform the polytheism of ancient Persia into something approaching monotheism. But even here, we should be cautious calling calling it monotheism, since early Zoroastrianism teaches a temporary dualism, where even though there was only one God (Ahura Mazda), now there is a second, his evil enemy (Angra Mainyu), who is a god that must be battled both in creation and in the souls of humans. But later, when Zoroastrianism was codified and organized under the Sassanians in the AD 200s, its sacred text, the Avesta, presents an eternal dualism, or even an eternal tri-theism. Even Mithra, the God of war from the Persian pantheon who became so popular among the Roman legions, is thrown into the mix. The goal of the religion remains the same, to help Ahura Mazda, the god of light, overcome the darkness through good thoughts, good words, and good deeds. But the nature of Ahura Mazda as the one true God is not even settled within the history and texts of Zoroastrianism itself. And even if it were, Moses predates Zarathustra by 400 years, at least. So, the claim that Jewish monotheism was borrowed from Zoroastrianism? It doesn’t hold water.
How about the claims that the concepts of a fiery hell and resurrection were borrowed? Here there a couple of big problems, as I see it. First, the later possible dates for Zarathustra’s life could place him as a contemporary of Daniel, Ezekiel, and the other writers of the exile period. A number of scholars maintain that Zarathustra was active during the lifetime of Cyrus the great. So, when the concept of resurrection shows up in Ezekiel and Daniel (Ez 37, Dan 12), why should the assumption be that they borrowed from the Zoroastrians they encountered in Babylon and Susa, when it’s just as likely that Zarathustra borrowed from them? Don’t forget what an influential figure Daniel was for decades in both the Babylonian and the Persian empires. He was not only prime minister, political second-in-command, but also head of the wise men of Babylon – essentially the priestly class. It’s not an unreasonable theory to propose that it is Daniel who is influencing the religion of the Persian empire, and not the other way around.
Further, how do you establish what Zoroastrianism was actually teaching during the time of the exile when its sacred texts were not collected and compiled until 700 years later, during the first generation of the Sassanian empire in the 200s? This is the seriousness of the problem if Zarathustra was a contemporary of Daniel. But if he lived much earlier, say around 1,200 BC, then that makes for a period of 1,400 years between the life of Zarathustra and the compilation of his book of teachings, the Avesta. That would be like the Qur’an only being compiled today, when Muhammad lived and taught in the 600s. Given these huge periods of time, it seems like quite the stretch to read things in the Avesta and to say with confidence that these were indeed the teachings of Zarathustra, therefore they predate the biblical authors, therefore they must be the source for Jewish doctrine. Given this murkiness of the history of Zarathustra and Zoroastrianism, it seems that scholars are not really holding this ancient Persian religion to the same level of skepticism and criticism which they apply to Judaism and Christianity.
Ah, but you can’t find resurrection anywhere earlier than Ezekiel and Daniel, can you? Well, Jesus did, in the Torah, in Exodus 3:6. “And as for the resurrection of the dead, have you not read what was said to you by God: ‘I am the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’? He is not God of the dead, but of the living” (Matthew 22:31–33). And if we turn to Isaiah, once again we see this supposedly borrowed concept being taught a generation before the exile, “Your dead shall live; their bodies shall rise. You who dwell in the dust, awake and sing for joy! For your dew is a dew of light, and the earth will give birth to the dead” (Isaiah 26:19). For more evidence of resurrection in the Old Testament, check out this great article by Mitch Chase.
Over the years, I have heard these claims of borrowing from Zoroastrianism coming from my relatives, from Christian scholars, from online documentaries, and from Central Asian Zoroastrians trying to return to their roots. But when I dig around in the actual history of Zoroastrianism, of its founder and its beliefs, it doesn’t seem like these claims are coming from an examination of Zoroastrianism itself. Rather, it feels like some scholar made these claims once, everyone believed him, and now it’s just a big echo chamber where all accept these ideas as fact without knowing where they came from and if they were indeed sound in the first place.
Keep an eye out for Zoroastrianism in your evangelistic or apologetic conversations, and even in your resources. It tends to show up more than you might expect, claiming some pretty big things without the historical warrant to do so. A basic understanding of the story of Zoroastrianism – and how much really is debatable – can help provide a surprising answer, and get the conversation back on more profitable ground.