James Patrick Holding, writing for the Tekton Apologetics Ministries, has got guts, I’ll give him that. He takes on the evidence linking Zoroastrianism to the Pharisees, and tries to discredit it. His approach boils down to trying to manufacture some doubt about the timing, and who borrowed from whom, and he leaves out some very significant factors, but I think it’s still a brave effort on his part. He begins by admitting that there is some grounds for the connection.
I have chosen the title “close but no cigar” for this essay because of all the figures chosen by mythicists so far that I have looked at, old Zoro comes in closest to fitting their bill. Some of the things listed above are actually true and confirmed by scholarly literature — and a couple of them come from sources that Zoroastrian scholars suggest go back to a source predating Christianity.
He goes on to suggest that this connection is overstated, like “claiming a ‘100% increase’ in a salary that went from one dollar a year to two dollars,” but I think we’ll see that there’s a lot more to it than that.
Holding’s next argument is to try and shed some
light doubt on the timing of Zoroaster’s life.
I usually start these by saying a little about the subjects themselves. A key issue seems to be, “When did Zoroaster actually live?” Interestingly enough there has even been a few “Zoroaster-mythers” who said (as Bultmann said of Jesus!) “nothing can be said” of the historical Zoroaster [Rose.IZ, 15]. J. M. Robertson, who also stumped for a mythical Jesus and a mythical Buddha, took up the Zoroaster-myth (to which a Zoroastrian scholar responded, “I have myself indeed divined and published the argument by which Mr. Robertson’s successors fifty years hence will irrefutably prove him a myth”) [Wat.Z, 11]. One Zoroastrian scholar did go along with the idea eventually, but died before he could justify his position. At any rate, most of the sources I consulted prefer a date around 600 B.C., though one scholar has suggested a date as early as 1700 BC [Yam.PB, 414].
The scholarship Holding is referring to dates back to the 1800’s. More recent studies of early Iran have come to somewhat different conclusions.
Plausible arguments place him anywhere from the 13th century BCE to just before the rise of the Achaemenid empire under Cyrus II the Great (q.v.) in the mid-6th century BCE, with the majority of scholars seeming to favor dates around 1000 BCE, which would place him as a contemporary, at least, of the later Vedic poets (see, e.g., Boyce, 1975-82, I, pp. 190-91; Duchesne-Guillemin, pp. 135-38; Gnoli, 1980, pp. 159-79; Henning; Hertel; Herzfeld; Jackson, 1896; Klima, 1959; Shahbazi, 1977 and 2002). [Emphasis mine]
1000 BC is plenty early enough to have a well-established Zoroastrian religion by the time the first Jewish exiles showed up in that part of the world in the early sixth century.
Our main source for details on Zoro is the Avesta, a collection of sacred texts which was put in writing between 346-360 AD [Herz.ZW, 774] and of which we have manuscript copies only as early as the 13th century [Wat.Z, 56 — and note to conspiracy theorists: blame Alexander the Great and the Muslims for the destruction of Zoroastrian literature]. Some of the material probably comes from a time before the Christian era, but most of this is reckoned to be hymns and some basic information [Rose.IZ, 17] that was part of the oral tradition. The rest seems likely to have been added later, and for good reason, as Rose notes [ibid., 27]:
The incorporation of certain motifs into the Zoroastrian tradition in the ninth century CE could indicate the conscious attempt of the priesthood to exalt their prophet in the eyes of the faithful who may have been tempted to turn to other religions.
In other words, if we see a “Jesus-like” story in these texts, especially this late, we have a right to suspect borrowing — but in exactly the opposite way that Acharya supposes!
Does Persia have anything to do with Jerusalem? Zoro’s faith had an idea that sounds like, and probably is, bodily resurrection, though it is most clear only in AD-dated Z texts. Did the Jews “steal” this idea while under the thumb of the Persians? There is no direct evidence either way; the Persians may have got the ideas from the Jews, and from Ezekiel or Daniel.
Let me just note in passing that the hymns of Zoroaster are the prophet’s revelations, and not just some inconsequential singalong, as Holding seems to imply. But I want to focus on the main thrust of Holding’s argument above. Isn’t it marvelous? He realizes he cannot credibly deny the link between Judeo-Christianity and Zoroastrianism, so he tries to create some doubt about the dates and then accuses the Zoroastrians of stealing from the Jews and/or Christians! Gotta hand it to him, that is one clever ploy.
Fortunately, we have the tools we need to fan away the smoke and take down the mirrors. We have the principle that the truth is consistent with itself. Are Holding’s doubts justified? Is history more consistent with the idea that the Pharisees stole their ideas from the Christians, or with the idea that the Christians got their dogma from the Zoroastrians via the Pharisees?
First of all, let’s consider what happens when an established body of religious doctrine suddenly confronts a new and different body of doctrine. History gives us many examples: Martin Luther and the Catholics, Zoroaster and the Mithraists, Pentecostalism and traditional Christianity, etc. What typically happens? Do the leaders of the existing religion meekly and silently abdicate their authority and hand their pulpits over to the newcomers, or does each group develop as a separate body, with distinct sets of leaders, followers, doctrines, and practices?
It’s pretty much universal: the new religion grows up alongside the old. One or the other may die out eventually, but there’s inevitably a period where both religions exist side-by-side, in direct dialog with one another, if not outright conflict.
If Holding’s version is correct, then, we should find one flavor of Zoroastrianism, minus the distinctly Christian elements such as monotheism, final judgment, heaven, hell, angels, demons, and so on, existing prior to the time Zoroastrianism had to seriously confront Christianity, around the 9th century AD. Then when the Christianized version of Zoroastrianism arose, we ought to see the Zoroastrian religion split into two branches: one holding on to the older beliefs of traditional Zoroastrianism, and the other accepting new “revelations” that incorporated the distinctly Christian beliefs and practices into the faith. Needless to say, nothing in the historical record suggests that such a thing ever happened, nor was there any such report from the sixth century BC, during the Jewish Exile.
The alternative is that the Jews, a tribe of defeated, exiled polytheists, were brought into contact with Mithraism and Zoroastrianism, and saw an explanation for their God’s humiliating defeat: Zoroaster’s monotheism was correct and God was punishing them for having been polytheists. Meanwhile, back in Palestine, the remaining Jews remained polytheistic (or more accurately, henotheistic), following the established priesthood. Upon the return of the exiled, monotheistic Jews from Persia, these two groups would have been in conflict, with the former exiles preaching Zoroastrian ideas like resurrection, angels, demons, heaven, hell, judgment, etc, and the non-exiles denying them.
Is history consistent with this scenario? Absolutely. The Bible itself testifies that after the return from the Exile, the Jewish religion was split into two camps: the Sadducees, followers of the priestly order of Zadok (the original Mosaic religion), and the Pharisees, who in contrast to the Sadducees preached all of the Zoroastrian ideas listed above. What’s more, the name “Pharisee” gives us some insight into their origin and nature.
The Pharisees claimed that their name came from the Hebrew word “peras,” meaning “separated,” as in “separatists”. There are a couple points to note about this attribution, however. First, “peras” does not mean “separated” in the sense of “set apart,” it means “divided, split.” It’s the word used for the name Perez (“because in his days there was a great earthquate and the earth divided“) and in the Law, for animals that “split the hoof”. If “Pharisee” came from “peras,” it wouldn’t mean “separatists” but “the Divided Ones.” But secondly and more importantly, this definition omits any mention of the fact that there’s a Hebrew (and Aramaic) word that’s very similar: “paras,” which means Persia. And the way you take a noun like “Persia” and turn it in to an adjective like “Persian” is to add the “ee” sound, in Hebrew and Aramaic: “Parasee” (or “Pharasee/Pharisee”, as the language evolved in later centuries).
So here we have a group of exiles returning from Persia, with a name that’s pretty much how you would say “Persian” in Aramaic, preaching Zoroastrian ideas in sharp contrast (not to mention conflict) with the doctrines being preached by the caretakers of the aboriginal Jewish Law of Moses. What’s more (as I recall from my Bible college days), the Pharisees and Sadducees disagreed regarding which books were Scripture: the Sadducees accepted only the Pentateuch, and all the rest were added to the Old Testament by the Persians, excuse me, I meant to say that in Aramaic, the Pharisees. Including, by the way, the book of Job.
Job is an interesting book. Unlike the other books in the Old Testament, it mentions no persons or places or tribes or other identifying features from the history and area of ancient Israel. Christian scholars (including Holding) explain this by claiming that Job is just a very old book, and refers to events and persons from long ago, before the other Old Testament accounts. That’s a rather shaky explanation, though, because the other OT accounts go all the way back to “In the beginning God created the heavens and earth,” and because none of the other OT books ever mention any of the persons, places, tribe, or other features of Job. Think of that! For all the stories of suffering and affliction that Israel’s faithful endured, it never occurred to any of them to make a comparison to Job’s story, or to draw comfort from its message. Does that sound plausible to you?
I have a theory, and I’d like to see it investigated some day: Job is a Persian story, and refers to Persian people, places, and ideas (including the idea of resurrection). Notice, too, that when Jesus tried to argue against the Sadducees regarding the resurrection, he did not appeal to Job, even in passing (Luke 22:23-32). And even Jesus, when looking for an Old Testament verse supporting resurrection, could come no closer than “I AM THE GOD OF ABRAHAM, AND THE GOD OF ISAAC, AND THE GOD OF JACOB”. If Jesus couldn’t find a better reference than that in the Law, you and I should just give up. (Ok, go ahead and look if you want to. I already did, and there’s no mention of any Zoroastrian ideas in the books of Moses.)
Jesus’ exchange with the Sadducees is also interesting because he drives home his point by saying “God is not the God of the dead, but of the living.” God is not the God of the dead? You mean that God’s not your God any more once you die? Or does that mean that Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob are not dead? But if they’re not dead, they can’t be resurrected, so how is that an argument for resurrection?
Jesus’ argument sounds like nonsense unless you happen to remember that the Sadducees were still polytheists. The reason why Jesus’ argument impressed people so much is because in the original religion taught by Moses, Yahweh was not the god of the dead, a god named “Mot” was. Jesus’ argument still does not give any scriptural/Mosaic basis for a doctrine of resurrection, but it was a very impressive way to sneak in an insinuation that the Sadducees’ polytheism contradicted their own scriptures.
So Holding rings a tad false when he tries to argue for a separation between Judaism and Zoroastrianism
Others argue that the Jewish idea of Satan is borrowed from Zoroastrianism. But Satan appears in Job, a very early book, and is nothing like the evil Zoro god Ahriman, who is a dualistic equal to Ohrmazd the good god, rather than a subordinate. Finally, it is significant that while the OT used plenty of Persian loanwords for governmental matters, they did not use any for religion [Yam.PB, 463]. The most we find is, I am told, the name of a Persian demon in the Book of Tobit!
It’s hardly surprising that, in adopting Zoroastrian ideas as “what Moses originally meant all along,” the Pharisees would use their own names and customize the doctrines to fit their own particular theological needs. (And what’s a Persian demon doing in Jewish writings, even in Tobit?) Holding neglects to mention the fact that Satan is largely missing from the oldest parts of the OT, and is absent from the Pentateuch entirely. He’s not even in the garden of Eden! Not according to the actual text anyway. Yes, he’s not God’s equal–the Pharisees likely had had enough of henotheism–but the Scriptural record is entirely consistent with the conclusion that he’s a character who wasn’t added to the Jewish religion until the Pharisees brought him back from Persia.
The rest of the page is a list of things that Zoroastrians believe that some have suggested were added into Judaism by the Pharisees. Holding’s response to each of these can be summed up in one or two statements: either “Yeah, that’s probably right,” or “I couldn’t find a reference for this one (so it must be ok to disbelieve it).” He does give reasonable evidence against one or two trivial points, but the main contribution of Zoroastrianism (resurrection, judgment, heaven, hell, salvation, apocalypse) are all true, as even Holding admits. He still maintains, however, that skeptics have failed to prove their case, because he couldn’t find the supporting references for a list given by one scholar.
It’s pretty clear to me, however, that the Old Testament record is overwhelmingly consistent with the conclusion that the doctrinal distinctives of Pharisaism are Persian imports, even without the “cleaning up” that the later Pharisees seem to have given the original OT texts, a point that Holding does not mention, let alone address. Given that he admits the main Zoroastrian contributions are valid, and that they’re not found in early OT texts, and that there is no early Zoroastrian religion that is known to lack these things (the way they’re missing from the Law of Moses, for instance), I’d say it’s pretty conclusive that the Pharisees were just what their name suggests. Persians.