1 The Problem of ‘Ha-Satan’
How many references to ‘The Devil’ or ‘Satan’, or any of the other well-known aliases of ‘The Prince of Darkness’ are there in the Old Testament? Tens? Hundreds? Thousands? To most Christian readers, I suspect, it will probably come as something of a surprise to discover that, in the New English Bible’s translation of the OT at least, the answer is just two; and even one of these – that in the Book of Job – might well be considered not to count, in that it is not original to Judaism.
I say this because there are at least two earlier versions of the Job story originating from ancient Mesopotamia. The earliest of these, called ‘A man and his God’, was discovered by Samuel Noah Krame in 1953, and is one of the few extant texts written in Sumerian, the earliest known language. As such, it is thought to date from around 1700 BC. The second is the ‘Ludlul bēl nēmeqi’ – ‘I Will Praise the Lord of Wisdom’ – also known as The Poem of the Righteous Sufferer. Written in Akkadian during the reign of the Kassite king, Nazi-Maruttaš (ca. 1307–1282 BC), it was composed by a high ranking court official called Šubši-mašrâ-Šakkan, and is a series of meditations on the subject of suffering which quite clearly prefigure a number of Job’s dialogues.
If the Book of Job is thus something of a foreign import, to be viewed slightly differently from the other books of the Old Testament, this therefore leaves us with just one reference requiring further scrutiny, a fact which, in itself, ought to make us slightly suspicious. For a solitary reference in a collection of writings totalling nearly six-hundred thousand words is already, by definition, anomalous. Even more significantly, the passage in which it occurs – the First Book of Chronicles, 21:1 – reveals a number of further peculiarities.
The first of these relates to the content of the passage itself. For it states that ‘Satan, setting himself against Israel, incited David to count the people’ – i.e. carry out a census. Nowhere is it explained, however, why this was considered such a wicked thing to do, thus raising the question as to whether there might not have been more involved in the ‘politics’ of this action than is here revealed. What makes the passage seem really odd, however, is the fact that this singular introduction of a supernatural being to explain David’s supposedly aberrant behaviour comes without any form of contextual preamble. Unlike in the Book of Job, for instance, where Satan makes a wager with God that, by stripping Job of all his good fortune and subjecting him to a series of ever more devastating hardships, he can induce him to curse God to his face, in I Chronicles no such ‘back story’ is provided. As a consequence, there is nothing to explain who this ‘Satan’ is, what he had against Israel, or why he should have chosen to intervene in this way. He is just named, cited as the cause of David’s implied temporary insanity, and then forgotten, never to be mentioned again.
Of course, one possible explanation for this is that the author simply regarded the back story as so well known and understood that no further elucidation was necessary. The fact, however, that the story doesn’t appear anywhere else – or anywhere at all – in what might otherwise be regarded as a fairly comprehensive compendium of Jewish writings makes this somewhat hard to believe. It also makes one suspect that there is something else going on here. As, indeed, is the case.
To understand what this is, however, we need to go back to the original Hebrew text and look more closely at the use of the word השָׂטָן (ha-satan), which, in apparent contradiction to my opening proposition, appears quite frequently in the TaNaKh, though – crucially – without it being translated as ‘Satan’ anywhere else in the NEB.
This is because its original meaning was merely that of an ‘adversary’ or ‘opponent’. In I Kings 5:18 and 11:14, 23, 25, for instance, it is simply applied to an enemy in war. From this it’s meaning then seems to have developed to include the concept of a traitor in battle (I Samuel 24:4), from which it was then used to denote any antagonist who uses trickery to gain an advantage. In Numbers 22:32, for instance, it is actually applied to the angel of God who stands in the road blocking the way to Balaam’s ass, while remaining invisible to Balaam himself. Before the angel finally reveals himself, Balaam, as result, beats the poor animal three times, from which he – Balaam – is supposed to learn some sort of lesson – possibly about the callousness of tricking someone into unfairly beating their donkey, though I doubt whether that’s actually it.
Elsewhere, ha-satan is also used to denote an accuser in a court of law, particularly one who bears false witness. In Psalms 109:6, for instance, the Psalmist describes how his enemies conspired against him, saying: ‘Put up some rascal to denounce him, an accuser (ha-satan) to stand at his side’. In none of these contexts, however, is ha-satan actually translated as ‘Satan’. And the question one has to ask, therefore, is why the term should have been translated in this way in I Chronicles 21:1.
Unfortunately, the proximate answer to this question is somewhat less dramatic – and certainly less helpful – than my build-up to it might lead one to anticipate. For the most likely explanation is quite simply that, apart from the Book of Job, I Chronicles is the only place where the word ‘satan’ appears without the definite article ‘ha’, thus suggesting that a proper noun or name might well be the most appropriate translation.
This, however, is not the whole story. For if the presence or otherwise of an article is the determining factor in how a word should be translated, one cannot ignore the possibility that its absence might simply be the result of a drafting error by the original author, or an oversight by a subsequent copyist, especially in a case such as this in which there is only one instance of the term being used without an article and multiple instances where an article is present. The fact that so many translators have chosen to translate it as a proper noun in this one instance would therefore seem to indicate that other factors have to be involved.
One such would appear to be the fact that, everywhere else where the term is found, the article accompanying it is the definite article. This has allowed some writers to suggest that ‘Ha-Satan’, capitalised as ‘The Adversary’, or ‘The Accuser’, in some abstract, universal sense, is either a precursor of the named entity we have all come to know and love or simply another form of alias. It would also suggest that in translating ha satan as ‘an accuser’ in Psalm 109, the NEB is technically in error. The fact is, however, that Hebrew doesn’t actually have an indefinite article. In fact, it is a deficiency which gives most Jews something of problem when they first learn English, giving rise to a very distinctive Hebrew/English mistake which can probably be best illustrated by that strangely amusing question, ‘And do you have the daughter?’
The presence of a definite article in Hebrew, therefore, no more means that it should be translated as a definite article English that the absence of an article means that the term in question should be translated as a name or proper noun. In fact, the absence of an article more often than not means that an indefinite article is required in an English translation, as Robert Young clearly understood in his Literal Translation of the Bible, published in 1862, where he translated the line from I Chronicles as: ‘And there standeth up an adversary against Israel…’
Given that all Hebrew scholars and linguists are perfectly well aware of the basics of Hebrew grammar, the question one really has to ask, therefore, is why Robert Young should have been alone – as far as know – in taking this literal and far more accurate approach. And the only answer I think one can give is that, for those of us brought up in the Christian tradition, there is an implicit assumption that we all make. It is that:
Ø because the figure of Satan, with all his trappings and connotations, is something that has come to us through the Christian tradition,
Ø and because the Christian tradition has its roots in biblical Judaism,
Ø the Christian concept of the Devil, as the personification of an evil force at work in the universe, must also have had its origin in those biblical roots.
The fact is, however, that if we take the Book of Job and I Chronicles out of the equation, there is absolutely no evidence for this, or that biblical Judaism had any such concept.
But what about the temptation of Eve in the Garden of Eden, you ask? Isn’t that an absolutely perfect example of just the kind of concept in question?
I’m afraid not! For what this question, itself, almost perfectly illustrates is exactly the problem I’m trying to highlight: that after two thousand years of cultural reinterpretation and embellishment, it is now almost impossible for those of us brought up in this culture to read any of the more well-known texts of the Old Testament without reading into them elements of Christian iconology. In the case of Adam and Eve, for instance, it is now hugely difficult for us to approach the story at all except through the prism of Milton’s ‘Paradise Lost’, where, indeed, it is Satan who disguises himself as a serpent in order to seduce Eve into eating the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge. If we turn to the Book of Genesis itself, however (Genesis 3:1-15), we discover that the snake is just a snake. In fact, as punishment for its wickedness, God even condemns the poor creature to crawl upon its belly and eat dust ‘for all the days of its life’, thus not only making it perfectly clear that a powerful, super-natural being it is not, but raising the question as to whether, prior to its wanton act of leading Eve astray, this particular member of the suborder Serpentes actually had legs, thus technically making it a lizard.
Nor is the Devil the only element within Christian iconology we assume to be present, but discover to be missing from biblical Judaism. With no concept of the lord of the underworld as such, it probably won’t come as a much of shock to learn that the Old Testament contains absolutely no mention of Hell. What might come as slightly more of a surprise, however, is the fact that it also has very little to say about Heaven, and virtually no concept at all of a heavenly afterlife.
True, there is the םשמיה שמי (shamayi h'shamayim) or ‘heaven of heavens’, as described in the Second Book of Enoch, where God and his angels are believed to reside. This, however, is not a place where the faithful and deserving go after death. In fact, there is only one record of a human being ever being taken there. This was Elijah, who, in the Second Book of Kings 2:11, is described as being whisked off to heaven in a fiery chariot, there to sit at the right hand of God. Everyone else had to wait for the End of Days, when they would be bodily resurrected from the grave to face the Day of Judgement. Even then, however, it is not absolutely clear what was to happen to them. According to the Book of Daniel (12:2), ‘of those who sleep in the dust of the earth,’ some ‘shall awake to everlasting life, some to shame and everlasting contempt.’ It is not said, however, whether the latter group would be alive to experience this everlasting contempt, or where the everlasting life of the former group would take place. There is certainly no sense that it would be in shamayi h'shamayim with God, or that those suffering the everlasting contempt would be sent to place far nastier.
In many ways, in fact, one might say that, in this respect, biblical Judaism was not very well thought through. In terms of its theological cosmology, there are holes all over the place. What one has to remember, however, is that, during its biblical period, Judaism was still very much what one might call a ‘primitive’ religion, in that its god, Yahweh, was not yet ‘God’ in any universal sense, but rather the god of a specific people – the twelve tribes of Israel – while its scriptures were merely this people’s accumulated History, Law and Literature. It is, however, this very parochial, small-scale and rather intimate relationship between the children of Israel and their god – as expressed in their scriptures – that makes Judaism the religion it is, providing it with its own unique and distinctive cosmological paradigm, which is very different from that of Christianity.
At the centre of this purely Jewish view of the universe is the concept of the covenant, a contractual agreement between Yahweh and his people, in which the children of Israel agreed to obey the laws handed down to them by Moses, in exchange for their god’s care and protection. It is this that gives Judaism its uniquely ‘legalistic’ quality and explains why, for instance, the Hebrew verb ‘to pray’, פּליל (hitpallel), also means ‘to seek a judgment for oneself’ or ‘to plead’ in a court of law. It also explains why the ‘Day of Judgment’ is so central to Jewish eschatology. For it is the day on which the Jewish people’s adherence to the covenant – both individually and collectively – is to be reviewed and judgement passed.
What is also very important in this context is the nature of the God doing the judging. For it was never even imagined that, when the Day of Judgement arrived, Yahweh would be anything other than a strict interpreter of the law. As Adam and Eve found out in the Garden of Eden, for instance, the fact that one may have been tempted or seduced by a third party could not be used as an excuse for disobedience. The very nature of the covenant, entered into willingly and knowingly on both sides, presupposed free will. The wrong-doer was therefore responsible for his own actions, and could not blame anyone else, least of all some metaphysical being from a shadow realm.
Nor did Yahweh need any help enforcing his law and carrying out his just punishments. Through his army of angels, particularly the Archangel Michael, he was quite capable of dispensing justice without calling upon some infernal gaoler to do his dirty work for him. If Judaism lacked the concept of a Devil in this form, therefore, it wasn’t because it was somehow ‘lacking’ or incomplete. Judaic theological cosmology may have been full of holes; but this was one of them. If it lacked a concept of the Devil, it was simply because it didn’t need one.
2 Zoroastrianism & The Achaemenid Empire
As with all empirical questions, of course, one cannot ultimately prove a negative. I cannot therefore ‘prove’ that biblical Judaism did not possess a concept of the Prince of Darkness of the kind that has come down to us via Christianity, or that Christianity did not inherit this concept from this particular strand in its ancestry. What I hope I have done in the preceding section, however, is provide the reader with enough reason to at least entertain the possibility that our Christian image of the Devil may have originated from some other source, and to consider in particular – as the title of this essay will have already suggested – that this source may have been Zoroastrianism.
Before I attempt to explain how this ancient Persian religion could have had even the remotest influence over the formation of early Christian belief, however, some background information might be helpful.
For many centuries – most of history, in fact – Zoroaster was thought to have lived some time during the early 6th century BCE. For this was the date at which Zoroastrian priests in Babylon arrived after the death of Alexander the Great in 323 BCE, when his eventual successor in the east, Seleucus, declared a new era in Persian history, which he called the ‘Age of Alexander’. Being somewhat unhappy with this foreign and imposed designation, the Zoroastrian priesthood consequently attempted to define an ‘Age of Zoroaster’, based on their founder’s date of birth, which, using astrological data, they calculated to have been ‘258 years before [the conquest of their land by] Alexander’.
This ‘traditional date’ was generally accepted right up until the late 19th century when linguists such as Arthur Christensen began questioning its plausibility based on the similarities they noted between Old Avestan – the language in which the Zoroastrian scriptures known as the Avesta were written – and the Sanskrit of the Rig-Veda. So close are the two languages, in fact, that it is now generally accepted that the two documents could not have been written more than a few centuries apart. Given that the Rig-Veda was written some time between 1700 and 1100 BCE, and given also that at least two of the Avestan scriptures – the Yasna Haptanghaiti and the Gathas – are believed to have been written by Zoroaster, himself, this therefore means that the Zoroastrian priesthood were at least four centuries out in their estimation of their founder’s nativity. In fact, based on some of the autobiographical passages in the Gathas, it is now generally believed that its author was almost certainly born some time during the 10th or 11th centuries BCE, and that he very probably lived somewhere in the Caucasus, in modern day Azerbaijan or Turkmenistan.
More important than his life and times, however, is the fact that, against considerable opposition – as he tells us in the Gathas – he actually restructured his own native religion, reorganising its pantheon of gods on the basis of a new cosmological paradigm: one based on the principles of a fundamental dualism – between darkness and light, truth and falsehood, order and chaos – through which phenomenal reality – the world as we experience it – is thought to obtain its distinctive form.
At the centre of this dualistic universe is the God of Light – the uncreated Creator – Ahura-Mazda. Not himself immanent in the world, his effects are felt through his Spenta Mainyu – ‘Bounteous Immortals’ – each of which represents one aspect of his Creation (Yasna 45.2). In accordance with Zoroastrianism’s basic dualistic principle, however, these positive forces in the universe are then offset by daevas or ‘Destructive Spirits’ (Yasna 32.3), chief among which is Angra Mainyu, or Ahriman (Yasna 32.5).
Bust of Ahriman attributed to Rudolf Steiner
As Ahura-Mazda is only capable of creating ‘good’, it is this Ahriman who is responsible for bringing all the evil into the world, including – among other things – winter, death, plagues, women’s menstrual cycles, and peacocks – a typical example of his devilry. It is also Ahriman who seduces mankind to choosing evil ways or achistem manah, literally ‘worst thinking’ (Yasna 32.3), and who, having captured their souls, then presides over their punishment in hell, where he and his fellow daemons subject them to the torture of eternal fire (Yasna 30.4).
In short, where the ha-satan of the Old Testament had very few of the attributes and virtually none of the functions of the Devil of Christianity, Ahriman has them all.
Of course, the fact that Ahriman fits the profile doesn’t mean that he was actually the precursor or model for Christianity’s own Devil. For that to follow, not only would one have to show that early Christians were generally familiar with Zoroastrian cosmology, one would also have to explain how or why they should have been so heavily influenced by it.
Neither of these requirements, however, is actually all that difficult to demonstrate. For throughout most of the second half of the 1st millennium BCE, Zoroastrianism was more or less the official religion of a Persian Empire which stretched from the Hindu Kush in the east to the Mediterranean in the west, and which encompassed the whole of the fertile crescent from the Persian Gulf back round to the Red Sea, taking in all of Israel along the way.
A brief history of how this came about goes something like this.
After King Solomon’s death in 931 BCE, the United Monarchy of his father, David, was divided into the southern Kingdom of Judah, ruled by Solomon’s eldest surviving son, Reheboam, and the northern Kingdom of Israel, ruled by the latter’s younger brother, Jeroboam. This northern kingdom, which included Galilee, survived until about 720 BCE, when – along with most of the rest of the region, including some parts of Egypt, but excluding the Kingdom of Judah – it was conquered by the Assyrians, and subsumed into the then Assyrian Empire.
In 612 BCE, the Assyrians were in turn conquered by the Babylonians, whose king, Nebuchadnezzar II, further extended this empire by conquering Phoenicia, Cyprus, parts of Asia Minor and, of course, Judah, taking a large section of its population into captivity.
At this point, in fact, both Judaism as a religion and Hebrew as a language could easily have disappeared. The only reason they didn’t was that in 539 BCE the Babylonians were themselves conquered by the Achaemenid Persian Empire, whose king, Cyrus the Great, agreed to allow all those Jews who so desired – an estimated 40,000 – to return home.
What you have to remember, however, is that freedom didn’t mean independence. Cyrus the Great didn’t actually give these former exiles their homeland back. That didn’t happen for another 380 years. At this point, the kingdoms of both Judah and Israel had ceased to exist, becoming satrapies of the Persian Empire. All Cyrus allowed was the relocation of a small number of people within the borders of this empire.
This, however, was an important change in policy, in that it probably did more than anything else to facilitate the spread of the Achaemenid’s two most significant cultural contributions to world history.
The first of these was their language: Aramaic. The Assyrians and the Babylonians spoke Sumerian and Akkadian, neither of which spread much beyond the Tigris and Euphrates, due, in no small part, to their policy of taking conquered populations back into slavery in Mesopotamia. Archaeological excavations in Galilee, for instance, have revealed that, as a result of the Assyrian invasion, habitation in whole swathes of towns and villages simply ceased at the end of the 8th century BCE. By leaving populations in place, and installing military and civilian administrations over them, speaking a language the locals then had to learn, the Achaemenids, in contrast, effectively created the first ever international or global language.
According to Ehsan Yarshater (Encyclopaedia Iranica p.47), the Achaemenid Empire of the 5th century BCE had a population of around 50 million people: 44% of the population of the entire planet. By 326, when it was conquered by Alexander, the archaeological record would suggest that just about all of them spoke Aramaic. Even the languages of those nominally impendent kingdoms on the empire’s periphery, such as Nabataea and Palmyra, were really only local dialects of this regional lingua franca. And even after the Alexandrian conquest, when Koine Greek gradually became the international language of government and trade, Aramaic remained the native language of most ordinary people. As is now fairly well known, of course, it was the language spoken by Jesus and his disciples.
It even had an effect on Hebrew and Jewish scriptural writing. Despite the fact that, for most Jews, preserving their national identity was about preserving their religion, language and scriptures, large parts of the books of Ezra and Daniel, for instance, were written in Aramaic (Ezra 4:8–6:18 and 7:12–26; and Daniel 2:4b–7:28), and even in those parts where the language employed is Hebrew, the text was still written using Imperial Aramaic Script (IAS) rather than the far more difficult to read Hebrew Biblical Script. In fact, from the 5th century BCE onwards, until the emergence of Hebrew Square Script in the 3rd century BCE, nearly all Jewish scriptural writing, whether written in Hebrew or Aramaic, was rendered in IAS.
Given the depth and extent of this linguistic cultural influence, it is hard to believe, therefore, that the Achaemenid’s second great cultural export, their religion, did not have a similar impact.
Not that the Achaemenids ever purposely tried to force their religion on anyone. In Jerusalem, in fact, they even helped the Jews rebuild the Temple. It is very difficult, however, to prevent two cultures which occupy the same geographical space from leaching into one another; and for the last few decades, the extent to which changes in Judaism during the Second Temple Period may have been the result of Zoroastrian influence has been the subject of much detailed and heated debate. The problem is that without the kind of first-hand documentation and personal correspondence to which one would refer if researching such changes in more recent times, it is very difficult, on the basis of textual analysis alone, to say what was fostered from without and what developed organically as part of Judaism’s own maturing process.
A slightly better way of gauging the spread and influence of Zoroastrianism in the Achaemenid world, therefore, is to look at population changes in the region, especially in those areas, such as Galilee, where successive waves of invasion and colonisation produced the greatest levels of social upheaval. In fact, due to its many deprivations, Galilee is one of the most fruitful and interesting cases to study. For having been conquered and largely depopulated by the Assyrians at the end of the 8th century BCE, one of the biggest unanswered questions in the region’s history is just who, during the next six hundred years, the native inhabitants of the area actually were. For they certainly weren’t Jews.
We know this because, in 103 BCE, the Hasmonean king, Aristobulus I, instituted a campaign to colonise the then newly recaptured province with Jewish settlers, and to forcibly convert the existing population (cf. Josephus Antiquities of the Jews 13.318ff).
To understand how this came about, however, a little more background history may be useful, starting with the death of Alexander in 323 BCE, after which the land of Israel was initially allocated to one of his generals, Ptolemy, then satrap of Egypt, whose successors, forming a new dynasty of Pharaohs, adopted a somewhat laisser faire policy towards their north eastern province, allowing the inhabitants to do more or less what they liked as long as the taxes continued to arrive on time. The language of government naturally shifted from Aramaic to Koine Greek, and with an influx of Greeks, Macedonians and Hellenised Phoenicians along the Mediterranean coast, some cities, such as Gaza, Ascalon (Ashkelon) and Joppa (Jaffa), were significantly expanded and, in some cases, renamed. But away from the coastal plain very little else changed and cultural life in Jerusalem, in particular, went on very much as before.
In 198 BCE, however, all this changed when the province was seized by the Seleucid Empire under Antiochus III, a descendant of another of Alexander’s generals, Seleucus, who, as mentioned earlier, had eventually claimed for himself most of the former Achaemenid Empire.
Unlike the Ptolomies, the Seleucid kings had a far less laid back attitude to their vassal provinces. Far from ‘going native’, as it could well be argued the Ptolomies did, they maintained an aggressively Hellenistic cultural policy based on the martial values of their Macedonian ancestry. This policy they very quickly extended to their latest acquisition. In Jerusalem, for instance, bath houses and wrestling schools were built, and Jewish youths encouraged to participate in athletic games, in a deliberate and undisguised strategy of rapid Hellenisation. The result, somewhat inevitably, was a rebellion led by three brothers from the House of Hasmon – Judah, Jonathan, and Simon – known to history as the Maccabees, from the Aramaic word, ‘maqqaba’, meaning ‘hammer’.
Although not the eldest of the three, early leadership of the rebellion fell to Judah, a military commander of considerable talent, who, for six years, mounted an extremely successful guerrilla campaign, liberating Jerusalem and most of Judah, before finally being cornered and killed at the battle of Elasa.
Leadership then passed to his brother, Jonathan, who, in addition to continuing his brother’s guerrilla tactics, also set about forging a number of regional alliances. These included both the Egyptian Pharaoh, Ptolemy VI, and a rival claimant to the Seleucid throne, Alexander Balas, who, in 150 BCE, finally defeated the then king, Demetrius II and, in return for Jonathan’s support, granted the Kingdom of Judah its independence.
Not that freedom came without strings, especially as, by then, the Seleucid Empire was itself coming under pressure from a new enemy in the east, the Parthians. In 130 BCE, as a result, the next Seleucid king, Antiochus VII, once again invaded Judah, laid siege to Jerusalem and, in return for allow the newly created Jewish kingdom its continued independence, demanded that Jonathan’s successor, Simon’s son Hyrcanus, provide him with money and troops to help fight the Parthians on his eastern border.
Unfortunately for Antiochus this campaign was not a success. In 128 BCE, the joint Seleucid/Jewish army was defeated and Antiochus killed. As the Seleucid Empire then slowly began to disintegrate, however, Hyrcanus took the opportunity this presented to effectively rebuild much of David’s old United Monarchy. Over the next twenty-five years he retook, first, Samaria in the north, Perea in the east and Idumaea in the south. Then in 103 BCE, the year of his death, he finally retook Galilee.
The problem was that, given how few Jews now lived in these territories, regaining the lands which once made up David’s United Monarchy was a lot easier than building a new Jewish Kingdom out of them. Hence Aristobulus’ campaign of colonisation and conversion, which each successive Hasmonean king then continued. For colonising an area four times the size of the Kingdom of Judah, using settlers taken from this one tiny region, was bound to be a lengthy undertaking. As a consequence, even by the beginning of the 1st century CE – when the Romans, having toppled the Hasmoneans, decided to break up the kingdom once more, dividing it between three of the four surviving sons of their initial place-man, Herod I – Jews still only constituted about half of the Galilean population.
We know this because when Herod Antipas, Herod’s third eldest surviving son, was appointed Tetrarch of Galilee and Perea, he decided to build a new provincial capital for himself at the site of a number of hot springs in the south-west corner of the Sea of Galilee. Unfortunately, the site chosen also contained a cemetery which had to be removed (cf. Josephus Antiquities of the Jews 18.2.3). The leaders of the Jewish religious establishment in Jerusalem therefore declared it ritually unclean, with the result that, initially at least, the vast majority of Jews refused to go anywhere near it. In order to populate his new city, Herod therefore decided to forcibly relocate non-Jewish Galileans from other towns and cities under his jurisdiction, causing widespread rioting in the process. The fact that he was able to do this, however, attests to the size of the non-Jewish or Gentile population in the province at that time.
The question one has to ask, therefore, is who these non-Jews were, and what religion they practiced?
Interestingly, most commentators over the last few years have tended to assume that they were mostly Hellenes of one type or another: Greek or Phoenician merchants; or migrants from the Ptolemaic period. Not only were these later tranches of immigration largely confined to the coast, however, not being the result of any conquest or catastrophic event elsewhere, they tended to be of low intensity. Even more significantly, most Hellenic immigrants spoke Koine Greek. In contrast, not only do we know that most Galileans spoke Aramaic, we know that they spoke a very distinctive dialect (cf. Stanley E. Porter Diglossia and other topics in New Testament linguistics; Harold W. Hoehner Herod Antipas; George Howard Hebrew Gospel of Matthew) – one which, like Nabataean, was almost a different language – suggesting not only that the population that spoke this dialkect had been settled in the area for quite some time – probably centuries – but that it had also been relatively isolated. This therefore rules out the possibility that these Aramaic-speaking Galileans were actually just Hasmonean settlers from Judah, and leaves us with just one remaining option: that they were the descendants of the population which settled or developed there during the Achaemenid period. This being the case, therefore, it is almost inconceivable that some of them weren’t Zoroastrians.
3 The Role of Zoroastrianism in the Formation and Spread of Christianity
So what am I saying? That Christianity was influenced by Zoroastrianism as a direct result of contact between Jesus and his Zoroastrian neighbours in Galilee? No, certainly not. For if that had been the case, it would have been apparent in his teachings. And it is not. What one can say, however, is that a large proportion of those teachings are almost certainly best understood as a response to the historical context in which he was born and grew up. For the one thing of which we can be absolutely certain is that Hasmonean colonisation of Galilee during the previous hundred years or so would not have been easy or painless process for either the settlers or the indigenous population, and would certainly have left its mark.
To the indigenous population, the newcomers – having taken their land and built their own separate communities – would have almost certainly been seen as overbearing conquerors; while to the settlers, the hostile stares and ever more resentful responses of the natives would have simply hardened their resolve. For in addition to the promise of land – the standard inducement to get people to relocate – many of these pioneering Jewish colonists of the 1st century BCE would have been motivated by a religious and patriotic zeal to reclaim and rebuild the land first promised to them by God. In many ways, in fact, the process of colonisation would have been very similar to the Jewish settlement that is taking place today in the occupied territories of the West Bank.
It is why so many of 1st century Judaism’s most fanatical sects were to be found or were actually founded in Galilee. According to Epiphanius, for instance (Panarion 1:18), the area to the east and south-east of Mount Carmel was home to one of only two communities of Essenes outside of their monastery at Ir-Tzadok B’Succaca (modern day Qumran). For those unaware of their history, the Essenes were an ultra-conservative sect which believed that the Kingdom of God would be brought about as a result of a forty-year war against the Kittim – identified with the Romans – during which all the wicked of the world – namely everyone except themselves – would be put to the sword.
Another, more political and even more proactive sect, popularly known as the Zealots, was actually founded in the province. Determined to end the Roman occupation, their aim was to actually start the war the Essenes only prophesied. From 6 CE, when the Romans took over direct rule of Judah and Samaria, creating the new Roman province Judaea, until 66 CE, when they finally precipitated the Jewish Revolt, the Zealots therefore engaged in a continuous campaign of terrorist attacks against Roman installations and infrastructure, the primary purpose of which was to provoke retaliation and thus foment civil unrest.
Nor were these the most extreme of the various groupings and parties then in existence. A third sect, called the Sicarii, actually broke way from the Zealots because they regarded the latter as too soft. Named after the long, narrow-bladed knives they wielded, they specialised in political assassination, targeting both Jews who spoke out against their political agenda and Romans they regarded as too accommodating or reasonable.
Of course, the majority of these sects focused most of their attention on Jerusalem and the surrounding areas of Judaea, rather than rural Galilee. But the fact that so many of their most extreme activists, such as Judas of Galilee – leader of the Zealots – came from rural frontier territories strongly suggests that there was something about the colonists’ experience which either attracted or engendered such extremes.
We don’t know, of course, how much of this applied to Jesus’ own family, or when indeed they actually settled in Galilee. From the descriptions we have of him, however, it seems highly likely that Jesus’ cousin, John the Baptist, was an Essene – very probably from the community on Mount Carmel – and this, in itself, tells us quite a lot. We can also quite reasonably assume that Jesus’ parents were more than averagely devout. For the fact that he was able to argue scripture with the Pharisees strongly suggests that he could read, and that he had therefore very probably been educated in one of the numerous rabbinical schools which sprung up in Galilee during the 1st century CE, especially after the Roman occupation of Jerusalem.
Coming from this background, what is wholly remarkable, therefore, is that instead of following the vast majority of his neighbours and brethren along the well-trodden path of uncompromising Judaism and militant nationalism, he stood up against it, arguing that violence only breeds violence and that to regard others as of lesser value, or as sub-human, as a result of their tribal origin, creed, sex or station in life is actually to diminish ourselves. And if that wasn’t enough to have had most of his own countrymen regarding him as a traitor, he then turned on Judaism, itself, pointing out that a morality based on legalistic hair-splitting, in which a man could truthfully claim to be upholding the letter of the law while knowingly disregarding it in spirit, is a recipe for self-deception and hypocrisy. Worse still, it is to turn one’s face against God. For if you cannot be honest with yourself, how can you be honest with – let alone face – He who already knows everything about you. If one is to avoid the moral slide which inevitably accompanies such self-avoidance, the only solution, therefore, is to face the truth – no matter how uncomfortable that may be – and to accept that we are all somewhat less than we might like to think we are. For only when we see ourselves clearly, without self-deception, can we begin to transcend our human frailties, learning to understand not only ourselves but others, thereby discovering empathy and compassion and achieving some measure of that potential which, resulting from this God-given capacity to reflect and understand, makes us truly what we are: His children; each of us endowed with some part of His divine spark. If only we’d let it shine!
Of course, there will be many who will argue that this interpretation of Jesus’ essential message, influenced, as I accept it is, by 20th century existentialist philosophy, is somewhat revisionist. What’s more, they will probably reject out of hand the view that anything Jesus might have said could have been shaped by a specific historical context. Such historical relativism will no doubt strike them as a anathema. The son of God, they will say, is impervious to history. My purpose in describing the historical context in which Jesus was born and brought up, however, has less to do with its influence or otherwise on his own original thinking, than on how the world – given the way it was – was bound to receive that thinking and take it forward. For given the political circumstances of the day, its rejection by his own countrymen and co-religionists was more or less inevitable. If it was going anywhere, therefore, it was going beyond the world defined by the Judaic mindset. It was going out into the wider gentile world, where, not just in Galilee, but in Antioch, for instance, where St. Paul chose to set up his base of operations, or in Edessa in northern Syria, where St. Thomas is believed to have established his first church – or, indeed, in any major town or city throughout the middle east – the prevailing religion was still largely Zoroastrianism.
Even more importantly, it was Zoroastrians, more than the followers of any other faith, who were most prepared or predisposed to accept what the very earliest Christians had to tell them.
There were main reasons for this.
The first is that, regardless of all those ‘Bounteous Immortals’, Zoroastrianism was in many ways effectively monotheistic. For although Ahura-Mazda created this whole pantheon of minor gods in order to act upon the world, they were all emanations or expressions of a single godhead. In this respect, the Zoroastrian concept of multiplicity in a singularity prefigures the concept of the Trinity. Thus, when told that Jesus was the Son of God, a Zoroastrian would have had no difficulty with this idea, or with the nature of the relationship entailed. The only difference would have been that, when told this, he would not have thought of God in terms of the parochial, tribal god of the Jews, Yahweh, but in terms of the universal God of Light, the Uncreated Creator, Ahura-Mazda. And it is the latter which the God of Christianity consequently most resembles.
For if you convert someone from one religion to another, you do not start with a clean slate. Unless the new religion contains ideas which actually supersede and replace the old ones, the old ideas remain in place: sometimes to be built on; sometimes to be modified; but still always there. And this was particularly true in the case of the Zoroastrian theological cosmology, especially its darker side. For having been born out of Judaism, early Christianity had as little to say on this subject as Judaism itself. With nothing in early Christianity to explicitly contradict their beliefs, Zoroastrians, as a consequence, were not only free to go on thinking of God in Zoroastrian terms, they were also free to retain all their old notions of heaven and hell, life after death, and Ahriman and his daemons. Thus, when these second generation Christians, having been converted from Zoroastrianism, went forth to convert a third generation, all these ideas were still in the mix. More to the point, because this third generation were also, for the most part, former Zoroastrians, the retained Zoroastrian elements were further reinforced, in the end, one could argue, even coming to take precedence over Jesus’ own teachings.
In the past, I have sometimes heard people talking about the ideas Christianity ‘imported’ from other religions. Indeed, I have used this term myself. But in many ways it is the wrong way to think of it. Christianity didn’t ‘import’ these ideas. It assimilated them as the residue of other religions it failed or was unable to fully displace. Because it wasn’t a deliberate policy, however, and occurred almost as an unnoticed by-product of the conversion process, it was also very haphazard in the way in dealt with any inconsistencies that arose.
Take, for example, the question of life after death. In Judaism, the dead had to wait for the Day of Judgement to be resurrected. In Zoroastrianism, on the other hand, judgement was instantaneous. If you’d been wicked, Ahriman and his daemons dragged you down into the fires hell before you even knew what had happened. Conversely, if you’d been good, you suddenly found yourself in paradise, a concept derived from the Avestan word ‘pairi-daêza’, meaning ‘walled enclosure’, and more generally used to denote a walled garden. What we have, therefore, is a clear inconsistency between these two versions of what is to happen after we die. Because there was no board of control or guiding hand within early Christianity to determine how such inconsistencies were to be dealt with, however, they were simply left. Indeed, in this case, both options seemed to have been more or less equally embraced. Because the Judaic scriptures of the Old Testament were included in the Christian Bible, in one sense it could be argued that it is the Judaic version which is the official line – albeit slightly modified so that the Day of Judgement is now to coincide with the Second Coming, thus allowing Jesus, rather God, himself, to be mankind’s judge. On the other hand, I suspect that most Christians actually believe something more along the lines of the Zoroastrian version.
In fact, many of the most firmly held Christian beliefs are ‘unofficial’ in this sense, in that stemming from Zoroastrianism rather Judaism, they are not to be found in the Bible. This also includes many things about the person of Jesus, himself, and brings us to the third and most important reason why Zoroastrians were so predisposed to embrace early Christianity. For even before they heard his name, it could be argued that Zoroastrians already had the concept of Jesus. The only difference was that, for them, he took the form of one of Ahura-Mazda’s Bounteous Immortals, Mithras.
4 The Mithraic Catalyst
According to Zoroaster (Yasna 1:3 – 3:13), Ahura-Mazda initially created Mithras in order to guarantee the authority of contracts and the keeping of promises. In Avestan, the name ‘Miθpa’, ‘Mithra’, means ‘covenant’ or ‘oath’. It is one possible reason why the right-handed handshake – which, during the Roman period, was the handshake of Mithraic sectaries – also became the handshake to seal a bargain. At some point, however, Mithras’ role in popular belief became extended, so that he was no longer just the guardian of truth and honourable conduct but also the guardian of all honourable and just souls, with a mission to guide and protect them from Ahriman and his band of demons, who would otherwise seduce them from the path of righteousness and drag them down into Hell. Keeping men on the straight and narrow and therefore out of harms way, he was then also given the title of ‘Saviour’, and was even believed to go down into the underworld to rescue those of his followers wrongly taken.
At some point, as a consequence, he started being worshipped in his own right, rather than as merely an emanation of Ahura-Mazda. He also took on some of the characteristics of a more ancient calendar god: one who represented and governed the cycle of the seasons; of sowing and reaping, of the dying back of the land in winter and its rebirth in the spring. The most common later representation of him, for instance, is one in which he is depicted slaying a bull, from whose blood plants then grow. Other common Mithraic symbols are the Ouroboros, or the snake which devours its own tail, denoting eternity, and the fig tree, which loses its leaves each autumn only to have them replenished the following spring, undergoing this annual transformation while remaining essentially unchanged in itself.
As such, Mithras not only represented the cycle of the year, but continuity in change, a concept which was particularly important to the Roman army, which naturally found that a sense of belonging to something greater than themselves was not only beneficial for individual soldiers but good for esprit de corp. Translated into a military context, the idea was that while individual soldiers may die, the legion of which they were a part, its history and tradition, continued to live on, its lost members replaced in an eternal cycle of life, death and renewal. In its Roman form, as a consequence, Mithraism – as a quite separate religion from the rest Zoroastrianism – for a while became the fastest growing religion in the Roman Empire, with major centres in both Rome and Londinium.
What most forged the link with early Christianity, however, was the fact that, unique among Ahura-Mazda’s Bounteous Immortals, at some point during the 3rd century BCE, Mithras was believed to have taken human form, being born to the fertility goddess, Anahita, an immaculate virgin mother, who was said to have conceived the Saviour while swimming in the waters of Lake Hamun, in which the seed of Zoroaster, himself, is said to have been miraculously preserved – though how it got there in the first place is not actually explained.
Being born of a human father and a divine mother, and being both god and man, this therefore further enhanced his position as the representative of mankind. Able to intercede on our behalf with both his human and divine progenitors, Zoroaster and Ahura-Mazda, it was to Mithras, as a consequence, that most Zoroastrians most commonly prayed; and with this kind of relationship already established, it was therefore quite easy for them to transfer it to their new god incarnate, Jesus. Indeed, for most Zoroastrians the identification would have been both natural and immediate; and any attribute or characteristic of Mithras which Jesus didn’t originally possess, he therefore very quickly acquired.
Again, however, it would be a mistake to think of Christianity as in some sense filching or borrowing these beliefs about its founder from Zoroastrianism. For given that, from a very early stage, most Christians were non-Jews, and given that throughout most of the middle east the majority non-Jews were Zoroastrians, these new Christians were simply assimilating their old beliefs into their new religion. Take the date of Jesus’ nativity, for instance, for which no information is actually provided in the Bible. Mithras, however, was a calendar god. Following his incarnation, it was therefore quite natural for his followers to assume that his birth would have occurred at the midwinter solstice, at the beginning of the new year, which, according to the slightly faulty Julian calendar, was 25th December. As Zoroastrians both consciously and unconsciously identified Jesus with Mithras, when they converted to Christianity they quite naturally assumed, therefore, that this was also the date of Jesus’ birth. For how could it not be? And so it was.
In fact, so much of the iconology of the resultant composite figure of Iēsous Kristos is derived from Mithras in this way, that to strip away all the Mithraic layers and get back to the real historical figure of Yeshua ben Yosef, the peacemaker and Jewish moral reformer from Galilee, is quite difficult. For what you also have to remember is that this transformation actually happened rather quickly. Earlier, I talked about second and third generation converts from Zoroastrianism. But a generation in these terms, between someone first being converted to Christianity and then being sufficiently tutored in its teachings to go on and spread the word to others, might only have been two or three years. Thus, after twenty years, the fundamental concepts of Christianity would have been passed on by word of mouth through many more Zoroastrians than they were ever passed on by Jews; and with each generational transmission, the new Christian ideas assimilated from Zoroastrianism would have become more and more entrenched. The result was that by as early 61 CE, when St. Luke, a gentile from Antioch in northwest Syria, came to write his Gospel, the fusion or amalgamation of Yeshua ben Yosef with the Zoroastrian Bounteous Immortal was already more or less complete.
5 The Zoroastrian Legacy
One possible view one might be tempted to adopt at this stage, of course, is to suppose that Christianity, having assimilated Zoroastrian concepts along with Zoroastrian converts, was in some sense corrupted by these foreign ideas; and that, if one could go back and disentangle the various strands of ideas, one might be able return Christianity to a purer form. This, however, would be to assume that, in some sense, Christianity already existed prior to the marriage between its Judaic and Zoroastrian antecedents. And this, I believe, is a mistake. After all, Jesus wasn’t a Christian. He was a Jewish reformer: the leader of a small Jewish sect who wanted to take Judaism in a new direction. Even if one could fully disentangle his core or essential teachings from the larger Christian tapestry into which they have been woven over the last two thousand years, while philosophically interesting and possibly quite appealing, I doubt whether the results would be anything any Christian, today, would be able square with his or her more fundamental Christian beliefs.
It is also almost certainly the case that had Jesus’ proto-Christianity – if one can call it that – not been able to piggy-back on Zoroastrianism’s almost ubiquitous presence throughout the middle east, it would not have spread anywhere near as far and as fast as it did, and that, like Essenism and Zealotry, it too would have probably died out with the crushing of the Jewish Revolt. Thus, in a very real sense, Christianity in the 1st century CE not only owed its identity to Zoroastrianism, but its continued existence.
It is also to Zoroastrianism that Christianity has historically owed much of its power and influence in the world. For in the iconography of Ahriman and his daemons, it was from Zoroastrianism that it inherited its greatest instrument of mass control. In much of medieval Europe, for instance, the walls of churches were painted with pictures of the Devil and his minions driving poor sinners into the fires of hell with their pitch forks, the purpose of these portrayals being purely to terrify the uneducated masses into submitting to the church’s commands.
More significantly, by continuing to propagate the Zoroastrian idea of ‘evil’ as an abstract force, purposefully at work in the universe and inimical to mankind’s wellbeing, not only did Christianity acquire for itself a greater purpose – to fight this evil wherever it appeared – it arguably unleashed upon the world an evil far greater than any mankind had previously known. For once identified, the work of the Devil could be found almost anywhere, from the most innocent remark to the most innocuous transgression. And from the Spanish Inquisition to the Salem Witch Trials, there has never been any shortage of those willing, not only to drive it out, but to acquiesce in the appalling inhumanity to which this insane and unfalsifiable view of the world invariably gives rise.
Of course, that is all now behind us. In Britain, at least we are unlikely to see another woman burnt as a witch any time soon. The Zoroastrian legacy, however, with its dualistic cosmology of good and evil, is still very much with us. It is carved into the stonework of all our medieval churches and embedded forever in the iconography of most of our religious art. It is the subliminal message that consistently runs through the last two thousands of our culture. From Milton to T. S. Eliot, it infuses our most quoted poetry. It is built into the language, as part of our depth grammar. But most of all, it is at the centre of a mindset which allows us to regard those once demonised with a particular label as outside our concern or pity. We don’t, of course, call them witches any more. The most favoured term today is ‘terrorist’. But with a few contextual changes, it means more or less the same thing. It means that, motivated by pure evil, the person so labelled cannot be understood or reasoned with. Outside the scope of our human understanding – and therefore beyond the reach of our empathy – he is thus, in our eyes, essentially inhuman, and can make no claim upon our humanity. We are therefore free to imprison him without charge on an indefinite basis, subject him to torture – euphemistically renamed, of course – and ultimately murder him without the benefit of any judicial process: a fate that has befallen many more than just Osama bin Laden. Indeed, it makes one wonder what the peacemaker from Galilee would have made of it all, particularly the fact that, after two thousand years, we still haven’t learnt that by treating others as non-human, it is we who ultimately become the monsters. And it is this failure, I believe, that is the real and most enduring legacy of Zoroastrianism: that in forging Christianity as has come down to us, it effectively pushed aside or overshadowed the one teachings it had worth learning.