In the history of religion, few names are so unknown, yet so immensely important, as the prophet Zoroaster (known as Zarathustra in Persian). In the once formidable ancient empire of Persia, the teachings of this ancient prophet laid the foundations for a religious community that would influence much of the modern world, and live on in a small, thriving community, today known as Parsis, or Zoroastrians.
For anyone unfamiliar with the religion of Zoroastrianism (which should perhaps more rightly be called Zarathustrianism), it is one of the world’s oldest monotheistic religions and was founded sometime between 1500 and 500 BC. Its core tenets involve spiritual dualism or a constant battle between good and evil. This dualism is realized through the spirit of Ahura Mazda, the supreme god, and Angra Mainya, the spirit of evil. The religion has quite a developed angelology, and higher beings, messianic figures, eternal life, and free will to choose between good and evil all play heavily into their beliefs.
The core beliefs of dualism and guardian angels found in Zoroastrianism may not seem to be influencing the daily lives of modern people at surface-level, but look deeper and an impressive chain of influence unfolds. While the first Abrahamic religion of Judaism was likely founded separately from Zoroastrianism, there is a rich history of influence, which has often been credited with certain changes found in the so-called “intertestamental period” (a period in Protestant Christian understanding between the writing of the Old Testament, and the New Testament).
Around 550 BC, the Jewish people were prisoners of the Babylonian Empire, a period which is commonly known as the Babylonian Captivity. Under the reign of the Persian king, Cyrus the Great released the Jewish people and allowed them to return to their homeland. While it is unlikely that the Persian religion was forced on the people of Judah at the time, it seems that certain aspects of their beliefs may have influenced the Jewish people significantly, as is evidenced by changing beliefs between the Old and New Testaments. In the Old Testament, for instance, the belief in angels was not very developed, with only brief mentions of the Angel of God, and groups of angels making an occasional appearance. The descriptions of these angels and active roles in the lives of Biblical figures change in the later writings of the Old Testament, and the New Testament. Many religious scholars have attributed this change to the highly developed angelology found in Zoroastrianism.
The case of angelology is just one example in which it seems that Zoroastrianism influenced its Abrahamic cousins. There is a long list of proposed influences, many of which can be found at the links below, which are quite plausible. Briefly, many religious scholars believe that the teachings of Zoroaster influenced the idea of Satan (or Iblis in Islam), the concept of free will in moral decision making, the idea of a savior or messiah, and the concept of resurrection from the dead for all who believe.
It’s important to note here, that I’m not trying to undermine the legitimacy of Christianity, Islam, or Judaism. I’m simply trying to outline the possible influences which Zarathustra may have had on the modern world, many of which come through the form of teachings within these religions.
It may also be interesting to note that the fourth Abrahamic religion, Baha’i, considers Zarathustra to be a prophet (or a manifestation of god), and accepts the influence of Zoroastrianism on other religions as part of their own history.
This post does not at all summarize the influences of Zoroastrianism on the modern world, but simply begins to brush the surface of this influence. It may require a second post sometime in the future to deal with it more fully. For now, I would be happy to hear comments on the thoughts here and discuss anything relevant and respectful on the blog. Thanks for reading, and don’t forget to check out the much more detailed accounts of the topic below.
See this interesting article from the Journal of the American Academy of Religion for more details on the influence of Zoroastrianism on western religions.