The Influence of Zoroastrianism on Jewish Thought in Jesus’ Time

In my first semester of college (1969) I wrote a term paper on Zoroastrianism. That paper affected my fundamentalist understanding of Satan and hell, though it did not come to fruition until several years later. It was clear to me from writing the paper that there were similarities between Jewish and Zoroastrian belief, but I was not yet aware that they came from Zoroastrianism.

The Jews in the Land of Zoroaster

Zoroaster

Calamity fell on the southern kingdom of Judah in 586 BC when the Babylonians conquered the Jews, and the leaders and upper classes were taken captive to Babylon. This is known as the Babylonian captivity and is mentioned in several Old Testament books. It was a really bad time for the Jews.

However, the Babylonians, themselves, were conquered by the Persians some 45 years later under Cyrus the Great in 539 BC (remember that BC dates run backward), and the Persians were much kinder to the Jews than the Babylonians had been. In fact, Cyrus allowed the Jews to return to Judea shortly after that and even helped rebuild their temple in Jerusalem. As the Jews returned home they brought back with them something new—aspects of Zoroastrian religious thought.

The idea that Zoroastrianism influenced Judaism is rather standard. I don’t know why we don’t hear about it more unless, perhaps, it is because it is so difficult to trace the actual transitions.

A Significant Commonality Between Judaism and Zoroastrianism

There was already one huge similarity between Judaism and Zoroastrianism. Neither the Zoroastrians nor the Jews were polytheistic as most other religions were; both featured a single god rather than many gods. But Zoroastrianism also had a powerful opponent to their God, Ahura Mazda, called Angra Mainyu. Zoroastrianism was, in fact, a dualism though it anticipated Ahura Mazda’s ultimate victory over a defeated Angra Mainyu.

So Ahura Mazda was the creator god and, in the cosmic battle between Ahura Mazda and Angra Mainyu (each with a hierarchy of angels loyal to them), Ahura Mazda would defeat Angra Mainyu. Does this sound familiar?

There was nothing like this in Jewish thought before the captivity, but we see beginnings of such thought soon afterward. And in the New Testament we find a fully developed personality of ‘Satan’ as God’s opponent—with his own angels. This was a new thing! It did not exist before.

The Jewish Understanding of ‘Satan’ in the earlier Old Testament Expands

In Zoroastrian thought, the evil Angra Mainyu did not operate alone but was followed by a host of demons. The demons had names and were organized into a hierarchy. In the same way, Ahura Mazda had a following of six archangels along with lower angels. Does this sound familiar? This affected the way some Jews understood references to the satan of the Old Testament. Satan, or the devil, was no longer simply ‘the satan’, adversary, but a powerful foe of God with his own hierarchy of demons.

Jewish writers went back into the Old Testament and found unrelated ‘clues’ which they pulled together to create a scenario of Satan being an angel of God who rebelled and became a fallen angel, taking a large host of other fallen angels (now demons) with him. They also identified Satan and fallen demons retroactively with two references in Genesis—the serpent in the Garden (Genesis 3) and the children of God who had sexual relations with the daughters of men (Genesis 6).

None of this existed before. The earlier Old Testament mentions angels but they were only messengers and not the concept of angels that developed later.

Zoroastrianism Influences Jewish Ideas of Judgment and Hell

According to Zoroastrianism, individuals are subject to judgment after death. This occurs when they cross Chinvat bridge. If they are deemed acceptable, the bridge is wide and allows them easy passage to the other side. However, if they are unacceptable the bridge becomes razor thin and they fall into hell below. Evangelical graphics of a bridge shaped like a cross granting secure passage over hell to the other side have always reminded me of Chinvat bridge.

This Zoroastrian hell is a place of terrible, unimaginable torment and tortures but not necessarily of fire, though molten metal, cauldrons, and ovens are mentioned. It is inhabited by demons and is so dark that one can see nothing at all. One is forced to consume vile, foul food, and there is a constant horrid, revolting stench. This is not somewhere you want to go. But, though it is a horrid place, this hell was not thought to be eternal but only preliminary to a coming final judgment.

The Old Testament has no concept of such a place of punishment after death. It did not exist before the time of the Jews in Persia, though it IS found in Jewish thought of Jesus’ time. However, the Jewish concept of Zoroastrian hell seems to have added fire to the punishment.

Jesus and Hellfire

I don’t think Jesus embraced the idea of punishment in hell fire as a reality. However, Jesus did use all sorts of techniques and literary devices to grab the attention of his hearers, which included popular imagery that circulated within the culture of his day. Apocalyptic and end-time scenarios derived from Zoroastrian thought were part of that mix. We discussed that earlier in Sheep, Goats, and Abraham’s Bosom.

Last time I asked you to consider four elements of Jewish thought that did not exist before. These are what we discussed today.

* A personalized adversary to God—Satan
* A hierarchy of angels that followed either God or Satan
* A time of judgment after death
* A place of punishment after death

I doubt that the Jews of Jesus’ day absorbed these ideas by reading actual Zoroastrian literature. Next time we will discuss an intermediate influence.

In this series: Zorastrianism, the Book of Enoch, and Eternal Fire:

Sheep, Goats, and the Bosom of Abraham
What Did Jesus Mean by the ‘Eternal Fire Prepared for the Devil and His Angels’?
The Influence of Zoroastrianism on Jewish Thought in Jesus’ Time
The Origin of Satan and His Demons in the Book of Enoch
Judgment and Punishment in the Book of Enoch

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49 Responses to The Influence of Zoroastrianism on Jewish Thought in Jesus’ Time

  1. Paz says:

    Thank you Tim for a very interesting article! It certainly does make one wonder why the creator God would allow a fully personalised being to exist as “powerful” as Satan not only as His opponent but a being so capable of such harm as to trying to stop humans ( God’s children) from seeking to know God and reach out to His goodness and LOVE, when we already have our human nature as vulnerable as it is and as difficult enough as it is, for humans to overcome “sin in the flesh”.

    Liked by 2 people

    • jesuswithoutbaggage says:

      Paz, I really like your point that “we already have our human nature as vulnerable as it is and as difficult enough as it is.” I agree! With our own human nature who needs Satan?

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      • Dennis Wade says:

        Isn’t it an accepted theory in psychology that we often project qualities we don’t like or can’t accept in ourselves onto others?
        Satan is most likely an attempt on our part to avoid facing responsibility for our darker qualities. We’re not to blame: we were manipulated by a dark power stronger than us!

        Liked by 1 person

        • jesuswithoutbaggage says:

          Good point, Dennis. I can see that happening.

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        • Patricia Bennett says:

          This is exactly what I believe is occurring. We all know a right from wrong in whatever society in which we are raised. In some societies things we would consider wrong, such as plural marriage or beating a spouse, having slaves are considered religiously right and normal. Every major religion holds the same concept that they are it and in the end everyone will accept their belief system. All cannot be right so tis my thought that indeed we know right from wrong so its we who choose no one else. Our failure to accept our responsibility for our behavior is our issue not the devils. I would think we’ve grown enough in consciousness by now to understand “The devil made me do it.” just doesn’t hold water any more. Just my musings.

          Liked by 1 person

          • jesuswithoutbaggage says:

            Patricia, I really like your comment that, “Our failure to accept our responsibility for our behavior is our issue not the devils.” I totally agree!

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    • Chas says:

      Paz, Since God is all powerful, it would have required Him to create Satan as a deliberate action. Why would He do such a thing?

      Liked by 1 person

      • jesuswithoutbaggage says:

        Good point, Chas.

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      • Paz says:

        Hi Chas, I agree!

        Liked by 1 person

      • Lisa says:

        Chas, you make an excellent point. The Bible describes God as being “Alpha and Omega” beginning and end, creation and destruction. Everything in nature, in the universe, is created and destroyed eventually. Satan then would be a necessary evil to balance the creative/good forces. if God sent a force of pure love (Jesus), he must also send a force of pure destruction (Satan) to keep the world in perfect balance. At least that’s my theory. 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

        • Chas says:

          Lisa, my comment was intended to show that Satan could not exist. Destruction is within everything that is separated from God. Ultimately it is destruction, and its consequences, that cause all suffering. However, it has been necessary for the universe to be separated from God in order to bring forth beings who can enjoy relationship with Him/Her. This will be creation through the use of destruction, without God destroying anything.

          Liked by 1 person

          • Paz says:

            Chas, I think your comment is really interesting.
            So just a thought in response to your comment (s) … Is it possible that in this complexity of good and evil (opposites), in His own (Godly) way, time and righteousness, that God will somehow find the right mechanisms by which to continue on in the process of completing His work, as in the beginning (and in the end) so that His creation may ultimately be fully transformed and find union with God. (?)

            Liked by 1 person

          • Chas says:

            Paz, because of His infinite wisdom and understanding, God has designed the universe to achieve His ends, and He has foreseen the process and conclusion from the beginning. It is all designed and manipulated to minimize suffering during the process.

            Liked by 1 person

          • Paz says:

            Thanks Chas, I understand your comment better now.
            I have these two passages in my mind which will hopefully also add to further clarify mine 🙂
            I John 1:5 ” The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”
            2 Corinthians 12:9 ” My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.”

            Liked by 1 person

  2. Chas says:

    Tim, I am not clear where the book of Job stands in this chronology. It shows a satan who can only do what God allows him to do, but who seems to have power over the winds and disease.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Chris Chapman says:

    Love this .. had done some research myself recently on cultural borrowing and what you shared was a reinforcement of what I’d found..I also found a similar thing going on with regard to the story of Lucifer and the fallen angel theory.. it’s somewhat like a story of the Canaanites and the lesser god who tried to usurp El.. interesting..

    Liked by 1 person

    • jesuswithoutbaggage says:

      Chris. Ah! It is connected! We will discuss the story of Satan and fallen angels next time!

      Like

  4. ancadudar says:

    Tim,

    Revelations does say that some will sin while Satan is bound for 1,000 years. Yes, I believe that Revelations is something that probably already happened and is just coded language, but it does show that people sin and do evil without a “Satan” influence. There is an Old Testament verse also that speak of a new world where all things are restored and the one who sins will die at 100 years old, again that person sins of their own accord without a Satan influence.

    But, what do we do with the reference to Jesus casting out demons? Also, the serpent in Genesis, what do we do with that and the promise given to Eve that her seed (a reference to the Messiah) will crush the head of the serpent? I realize that the second creation story may have been made up and not factual, but the story does imply, and seeks to teach in principle, a real living advisory that the Messiah would come to conquer, so what do we do with it? Jesus also said that this world belongs to Satan as the prince of the air. There are also references to principalities in the unseen realm. 2 Corinthians 4:4 says Satan, who is the God of this world… Matthew records Jesus as being tempted by the Devil in the wilderness. I’m not sure what to do with all of these passages that give a real identity to an evil being, as if it’s an actual person, not just allegory. What are your suggestions? Paul also mentioned handing someone over to Satan because he had sexual relations with his mother, I believe it was in 1 Corinthians.

    As a side note, I’m reading a book now by David A. DeSilva that goes through the epistle of Revelations as being an event that already happened and shows all of the symbolic meanings having connections to actual physical artifacts in the Roman Empire that existed at the time the letter was given to the seven Churches. This does imply then perhaps that Satan and his angles were already thrown in the lake of fire, thus pointing to the possibility that even the Prophet John who wrote this letter may not have believed in a literal “Satan” if this Satan can be destroyed in allegory.

    Liked by 2 people

    • jesuswithoutbaggage says:

      Anca, you ask a lot of good questions! Fortunately, I have already written articles on some of them–not to say that those articles are the last word on anything.

      On Jesus casting out demons: https://jesuswithoutbaggage.wordpress.com/2018/06/25/did-jesus-send-demons-into-a-herd-of-pigs/

      On the serpent in the garden: https://jesuswithoutbaggage.wordpress.com/2013/10/15/what-about-the-serpent-in-eden/

      On the temptation in the wilderness: https://jesuswithoutbaggage.wordpress.com/2017/04/17/did-satan-really-tempt-jesus-in-the-desert-or-is-there-another-explanation/

      If you choose to read these let me know what you think.

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    • Chas says:

      How many people have spent their lives waiting for the millennium to come? They would have to wait longer than eternity, since Revelation is written by men alone.

      Liked by 1 person

      • jesuswithoutbaggage says:

        Chas, my dad (a minister) spent most of his life looking for the rapture. Sometimes he would go outside at night and look to the east to possibly catch a glimpse of Jesus coming back. Dad has been gone for a few years now and still no rapture.

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      • ancadudar says:

        Chas ,

        “How many people have spent their lives waiting for the millennium to come? They would have to wait longer than eternity since Revelation is written by men alone.”

        I think this is why some Christians are so mean too! They believe we will all just fly out of here leaving everyone else behind to suffer. They don’t take care of the earth we have now or try to bring healing to injustices because they think everything will just burn anyway.

        “Revelation is written by men alone”
        Interesting because the Church almost did not include Revelations in the canon. If it was believed to be for the end times and truly inspired, why did they debate even putting it in? That and its rival and competition was an older version of the “Apocalypse of Peter” which was used in most churches for at least a hundred years in place of Revelations!

        The “Apocalypse of Peter” says that women who braid their hair will be hanged from their hair and nailed to a wall in hell! As a woman, I’m so freaking glad they ended up not including it in our canon! The fundi’s would have had a hoot with that one, ha ha..

        When you say that Revelations is written by man alone, do you believe it was just made up?

        Liked by 3 people

        • Chas says:

          ancadudar, God must have had His purposes for allowing Revelation to be chosen as part of the canon of scripture, even if we can’t figure what those might have been.

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          • newtonfinn says:

            Chas, do you really think that God and creation are linked this directly; i,e,, that God allowed Revelation to be chosen as part of the canon? I don’t share this viewpoint. I believe that the very idea of creation, which IMHO we don’t take seriously enough, implies that God lets the world, at least to some extent, out of his hands, much as a parent allows increasing independence to a child. Thus, as I see it, much of what happens in the world does not involve God pulling a string like a puppeteer. Rather, many things–indeed, most things–simply happen. Jesus, as I read him, touched on this when he accepted, without explanation, the existence of evil, saying words to the effect that it is in the nature of things that evil comes…but woe to the man by whom it comes. He seemed to indicated that there are things, even terrible things like evil, which are somehow just part of creation, and that we are to accept these things without losing faith in the goodness of the Creator. In summary, I do not conceive of God as orchestrating the development of the early church, the writing of scripture, the selection of the canon, etc. This then frees me (or deludes me, if I’m wrong) to embrace the possibility that human mistakes were made in all of these processes, which in turn helps me to understand the checkered history of the Christian faith.

            Liked by 1 person

          • jesuswithoutbaggage says:

            Excellent points, Newton!

            Like

          • Chas says:

            Newton, Yes, I do believe that God allowed Revelation to be chosen as part of the canon of scripture. If He had wished it to be omitted, He could surely have prevented it through man’s exercise of free will. God has given mankind free will to do as he/she pleases, but also exerts influence on them not to do things that would lead to suffering. Nevertheless, they may still do those things if they choose to do so. It is by that process that destruction is allowed to prevail in certain instances, in order to fulfil God’s requirement that suffering is minimised in the longer term.

            Liked by 1 person

        • Chas says:

          Anacdudar, sorry for not replying to your last paragraph above (only noticed it afterward!)Revelation was written by a man, or men, for at least two reasons: one was to provide the way for Jesus to be able to complete what the Judaic Messiah was ‘predicted’ to achieve, which the Gospel stories did not allow him to do. The second was to tie together a number of OT ‘prophecies’ in a plausible? storyline.

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  5. fiddlrts says:

    In some ways, the existence of a powerful adversary of some sort is a response to the problems created by a monotheistic system. With many gods, it is easy to explain why bad, senseless things happen to good people. With a single, all good and powerful God, you have the problem of why he lets these bad things happen. It thus seems like one of the common responses throughout monotheistic religions is to find an evil counterpart to god to explain evil. Said adversary will need to be very powerful, or he would not actually be able to accomplish evil, yet he must be less than a god, or you have polytheism. Job is obviously far more complex and nuanced than just a trite explanation of the Problem of Evil – but it is interesting that it does use the idea of an adversary. Job never is told this, of course, but for the reader, one can kind of blame the satan for Job’s suffering.

    Liked by 2 people

    • newtonfinn says:

      fiddlrts, I think you put your finger on the source of the Satan issue, which will always be with us, in some fashion, so long as we continue to have faith in an all good and loving, omnipotent God. Jesus repeatedly speaks of “the evil one,” often translated merely as “evil,” for example, in the last line of the Lord’s Prayer. There can be no true evil without personification. A tsunami can sweep away thousands of lives, but it makes little sense to call it evil. It simply is arbitrary and indifferent. Nonhuman animals cannot be evil, either, it seems, but certainly the human animal can be. And there are times when the staggering dimensions of humanity’s most evil actions, their stunning and horrifying darkness, cause at least some of us to suspect that there may indeed be a superhuman force behind them, something akin to Paul’s “powers and principalities.” I have never been able to completely rule out that possibility. If there are angels, and I believe there are, why not demons? If God exists, and I believe He does, then perhaps He had to create something like His polar opposite in order to create “space” for a world substantially independent of His infinitely intense, perfectly unified existence (I AM THAT I AM)–a world, accordingly, subject to both transcendent good and transcendent evil. Who really knows on this side of the veil?

      Liked by 1 person

      • jesuswithoutbaggage says:

        Newton, you have some great observations here as well. However, I do not believe in an evil adversary that some people think Satan to be. Personification of evil–Yes. Actual evil entity with power–I think not.

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    • jesuswithoutbaggage says:

      Fiddlrts, you make some excellent points. I think you might be on to something.

      Like

  6. Paz says:

    If we think of evil as moral, physical, it has to also include the metaphysical or that part of (evil) phenomena related to nature, space and time. I think there is much more to the “spiritual world” and how it is connected to this complex existence and the manifestations of different categories/opposite forces of good and evil, concepts which we cannot fully understand, within the bounds of our limited abilities/human nature and therefore it remains, at least for now, still part of the mystery (unknown).

    Liked by 3 people

    • jesuswithoutbaggage says:

      Good points, Paz. I think that most of what we call evil is simply human tendencies arising from fear, insecurity, greed, and the need for power. These are most likely the results of our long ages of evolution and the struggle for survival. Jesus teaches a morality that counters those impulses.

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      • Chas says:

        Tim, I very much agree with your comment. A program on TV the other evening showed a large tribe of chimpanzees driving a rival group away from the best fig tree in the area and severely beating some of them. It was easy to see how human tribalism had evolved from that foundation.

        Liked by 1 person

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