I’m intrigued by Zoroastrianism. Not because I think it’s some hip alternative religion that I want to sign up for. Rather, I think it’s interesting because of the potential impact Zoroastrianism may have had on post-exilic Judaism and, by extension, Christianity.
Zoroastrianism was the religion of the Persians. After defeating the Babylonians, the Persians allowed the Jews the freedom to return to their homeland and rebuild the Temple. Second Isaiah goes so far as to call Cyrus the Great the LORD’s “Messiah” (Isa. 45:1). Matthew would later depict magi, likely Zoroastrian astrologers, as attendees at Christ’s baby shower. I don’t think it too large a stretch to assume that some segments of Judaism may have had a soft spot for their Persian liberators.
What’s interesting to me is the difference between pre-exilic Judaism and post-exilic Judaism. Many of the ideas that show up for the first time in 2nd Temple literature bear resemblance to aspects of Zoroastrian thought (eg. the resurrection of the dead, the apocalyptic destruction of evil, etc.). One has to be cautious about jumping to the conclusion that Judaism simply borrowed from Zoroastrianism. Our Zoroastrian sources are relatively late, so it’s not entirely clear what the religion looked like at the time of Persian rule. And of course one shouldn’t overlook the influence of Greek thought following years of Judean Hellenization. Nonetheless, there does appear to be a relationship of some sort between Zoroastrian thinking and some novel aspects of 2nd Temple Jewish thought.
At pages 187-189 of Thom Stark’s critique of Paul Copan, Stark has occasion to reproduce the entry for “demon” in the Dictionary of Deities and Demons in the Bible. The gist of the entry is that the exile brought about a shift in Jewish thinking from cosmic monism to cosmic dualism and that this shift is likely attributable to the influence of the thoroughly dualistic worldview of Zoroastrianism.
Pre-exilic Israelite religion, like its near eastern neighbors, was monistic in the sense that it “viewed the universe as a unified system in which each member, divine and human, had its proper domain and function above, upon, or below the earth.” There was no band of demons, led by Satan, fighting against God and seeking to undermine his purposes. Rather, God had at his disposal both benevolent spirits and spirits of calamity. The significant point is that the malevolent spirits were not fighting against God; they were doing God’s bidding.
This viewpoint is quite foreign to us, because we’re far more familiar with the dualistic worldview that emerged post-exile in which Satan and his demons are thought to be rebellious angels battling against God. But recognizing that this was not the way pre-exilic Israel thought helps to explain a number of passages that tend to bother us moderns. Among the examples cited by the Dictionary of Dieties entry are the following:
1 Samuel 16:14
Now the Spirit of the LORD departed from Saul, and a harmful spirit from the LORD tormented him.
1 Kings 22:19-23
… I saw the LORD sitting on his throne, and all the host of heaven standing beside him on his right hand and on his left; and the LORD said, ‘Who will entice Ahab, that he may go up and fall at Ramoth-gilead?’ And one said one thing, and another said another. Then a spirit came forward and stood before the LORD, saying, ‘I will entice him.’ And the LORD said to him, ‘By what means?’ And he said, ‘I will go out, and will be a lying spirit in the mouth of all his prophets.’ And he said, ‘You are to entice him, and you shall succeed; go out and do so.’ Now therefore behold, the LORD has put a lying spirit in the mouth of all these your prophets; the LORD has declared disaster for you.”
For the LORD will pass through to strike the Egyptians, and when he sees the blood on the lintel and on the two doorposts, the LORD will pass over the door and will not allow the destroyer to enter your houses to strike you.
I can’t help but think also of the portrait of Satan in the book of Job, where ha-Satan (“the Accuser” or “the Adversary”) appears in the heavenly council of Yahweh and gives a report of his activities. As a kid, I always imagined this as an incredibly tense scene in which God’s arch-nemesis boldly ventures into enemy territory. But this simply isn’t to be found in the text. As many biblical scholars have noted, the Adversary here is to be understood as part of God’s retinue – God’s prosecutor, if you will.
In the 2nd Temple period, this idea of dark powers acting at the behest of God begins to give way to the idea of evil forces struggling against God. The Dictionary of Deities explains Zoroastrian dualism and its influence on Judaism as follows:
This cosmology postulated two warring spiritual camps controlled by their leaders, the Zoroastrian God and Devil, and commanded by archangels and archdemons and their descending ranks of lesser spirits. They fought over the loyalty of humans, loyalty expressed in righteous or unrighteous behavior and eventuating in eternal life or fiery destruction. The old gods of the nations and their servant divinities, the lesser spirits of nature and cosmos, were ‘demonized,’ demoted to the class of wicked spirits, tempting humans to sin and enticing them from the true faith by the false doctrines of other religions. Eventually, however, there would be an End, a victory by God, a savior to bring the opposing powers to destruction, a Last Judgment, and a New Age. Circles within Judaism used this framework to revalue older myths and produced after the Exile the dualistic strains of Judaism visible in post-exilic and intertestamental literature and in Christianity.
[To read the entry in its entirety, click here for Stark’s review and scroll to page 187.]
In other words, once dualistic notions of a cosmic conflict between good and evil emerged, some within Judaism began to read their holy texts in this light. Satan, competing deities and other dark powers were reassigned to the evil camp. The notion of a “fall from heaven” emerged to explain (I assume) how this competing camp arose. Verses such as Isaiah 14:12, “How you have fallen from heaven, morning star, son of the dawn!”, which was originally a prophecy against the king of Babylonian, were co-opted in support of the new narrative. By the time we get to the New Testament – take the book of Revelation, for example – the dualism is fully developed and Satan is “that ancient serpent” whom God will finally destroy.
All of this does leave me wondering. Did Satan and the demons really fall from heaven or did they just get traded to the new expansion team? Or is the need for personified evil a leftover bit of ancient thinking that we no longer need? Your thoughts?
For more on this topic, I highly recommend Phil Harland’s podcast episode devoted to the issue of Zoroastrianism and its potential impact on Judaism.