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
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