Episode 82: Zoroastrianism

Learn the basic tenets and early history of Zoroastrianism, one of the most important and widespread religions in the ancient world, and possibly earth’s oldest living monotheism.

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The History and Theological Fundamentals of Zoroastrianism

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Hello, and welcome to Literature and History. Episode 82: Zoroastrianism. This episode will cover the basic tenets and ancient history of Zoroastrianism, an ancient Persian religion still practiced in Western India, Iran, and scattered communities predominantly situated in North America and Europe. Zoroastrianism has been one of the most consequential and far-reaching theologies on Earth, notwithstanding the fact that so few of us know anything about it. To start our story for the day, then, let’s picture the city of Jerusalem.

The Dome of the Rock, the heart of the Old City of Jerusalem, sits atop Temple Mount, a place with a nearly 3,000-year-long recorded history. Temple Mount is the site of Judaism’s First and Second Temples, where in apocryphal writings, Adam was created, and in canonical writings Abraham was told to sacrifice his son.1 It is the site where the prophet Muhammad is said to have ascended to the afterlife from the rock at the temple’s heart. A quarter mile to the west of the Dome of the Rock is the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, where, also according to tradition, Christ was crucified, buried, and resurrected. These two sites form one of earth’s most popular places for tourism and pilgrimages – ground zero for some of our most sacred narratives.

Mount Khajeh

A ways away from Jerusalem, 1,530 miles to the east – almost exactly due east as the crow flies, there is another religious site – one known to locals of that part of Iran as a nice place for a picnic or day trip, but broadly forgotten by the world at large. A squat basalt outcrop rises up from the beige colored earth, home to weathered stone structures that have been eroded by thousands of years of exposure to the elements. During part of the year, seasonal rains make the rugged promontory an island, surrounded by shallow, muddy water that in ancient times was a lake. This site, called Mount Khajeh, is today most famous for being the traditional tomb of a minor figure from Islamic history – a distant successor of Muhammad’s revered son-in-law Ali, certainly one the prophet’s exalted descendants, but not one of sufficient consequence to attract very many annual visitors. At the extreme eastern end of Iran, close to the border with Afghanistan, the region is hot, dry, and sparsely populated, revealing few traces of just how consequential a place it once was. At the far end of a dirt road, the Mount Khajeh complex backs up to a sea of open desert, laced with the remnants of ancient watersheds and cut in places with the tracks of four by fours. And while Mount Khajeh is a third string Islamic pilgrimage site, it was at one point, by millions of citizens of ancient empires, thought to be the place where the savior of the world would defeat evil forever, and make the earth perfect and uncontaminated.2

Mount Khajeh has a history that is older than Christianity and Islam. In the late 2000s BCE, a branch of the Indo-European immigrants had come down into the territory of Afghanistan, and forked off into two. One of the two groups, the Indo-Aryan language group, ventured east beyond the Hindu Kush and into the Indus river valley and beyond, settling there. The other, which eventually blossomed into the Iranian language family, settled in Eastern Iran, beyond the watershed of the mountains of Afghanistan. This second language group, by the 1500s BCE, was using a language we call Old Avestan, which would later become New Avestan, and then Old Persian, and then Middle Persian, and then New Persian, over the course of several Iranian civilizations – the earliest Persians, and then the Achaemenids, the Parthians, and the Sasanians. For a thousand years and more, these civilizations practiced Zoroastrianism, an ethical monotheism whose central tenet was that good thoughts, words, and deeds were the key to acting in concert with the beneficent creator of the universe and securing a blessed afterlife. And if the Abrahamic religions represented so magnificently in the Old City of Jerusalem form a triptych – Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, then Zoroastrianism is the often unacknowledged fourth, and leftmost panel. The fact that the once sacred site of Mount Khajeh rests, largely ignored, in the east of modern day Iran, far from the well-trod visitor’s centers and tourist kiosks around the Dome of the Rock, symbolizes the extent to which this fourth great monotheism has been folded away, and passed over in silence.

We meet Zoroastrianism’s early centuries in various ancient sources – some of them quite earnest in their desire to understand the religion – Herodotus, Strabo, Plutarch, and Xenophon – a set of ethnographers whose pluralistic societies equipped them reasonably well for comparative theology. But we are now also at a point at which we don’t have to learn about Zoroastrianism quite so much by second hand. Translations of the much of the vast Zoroastrian corpus are now available to us, stretching from the Gathas of perhaps the Late Bronze Age all the way down to works of sacred Zoroastrian history drafted in the 800s CE and beyond. And while Ancient Iran has never yielded as many texts as we’d like it to, archaeology has slowly wrung out a steady stream of administrative tablets – most notably a stockpile of material from Persepolis, dated to the middle of the reign of Darius I, the fourth king of the Achaemenid Empire and certainly one of the most important. These tablets give us a wealth of internally produced information about this juncture of Persian history – that century between 550 and 450 BCE, giving us a window into the ancient world of Achaemenid Zoroastrianism.

The Challenges of Understanding Zoroastrianism

For many reasons, Zoroastrianism is a challenging subject for a newcomer. Throughout ancient history, Zoroastrianism is a moving target, evolving from century to century and continually revising itself in an immense body of texts that span as many as two thousand years, from the Late Bronze Age Gathas to a cosmology and retrospective compendium written during the 800s CE, and beyond. To use a simple comparison, the Zoroastrian corpus of sacred writings looks like what would happen if took the Bible, multiplied its length fourfold, and set its composition over a period of 2,000 years rather than 1,000, with a core group of Psalms appearing first and a fusillade of prophetic, historical, poetic, wisdom, and cosmological texts appearing on the historical record in a generally ambiguous timeframe, with no central Rabbinical or Catholic organization jumping in during Late Antiquity and sanctifying a definitive canon out of all of it.


A painted head of Zarathustra, made of alabaster and clay, found in Tajikistan and dating from the Greco-Bactrian kingdom of the 3rd-2nd centuries BCE. Zoroastrianism’s range and influence were both enormous.

Speaking of the Zoroastrian canon, you are listening to a podcast about books, and so I want to take a little more time to explain Zoroastrian scriptures upfront – namely, their language and timeframe. Zoroastrian scriptures come to us mainly in four different languages. These are Old Avestan, Young Avestan, and then Old Persian and Middle Persian. The heart of the Zoroastrian scriptures – the rough equivalent of a Zoroastrian Pentateuch or Gospels, although Psalms would be a better analogy – anyway, the heart of the Zoroastrian scriptures comes down to us in a unique language called Old Avestan, which can be philologically dated to the end of the 1,000s BCE. Then, there are Young Avestan scriptures, a much more expansive body of writings from very roughly 1,000 to 600 BCE. Following these are Old Persian inscriptions from the Achaemenid period, these mainly from the 500s down to the 300s BCE, often brief writings, but very useful in that they show the religion cut into the rocks of the Ancient Near East at several definitive junctures. Finally, in the Common Era, we have Middle Persian texts, dating from 300-1,000 CE. That’s for bodies of texts in four different languages, stretching across 2,000 years, as I described earlier. Where Zoroastrian scriptures get especially tricky, though, is that those earliest texts in Old Avestan and Young Avestan – everything before 600 BCE, in other words, circulated orally, and orally only, for a long time, to our knowledge. In Zoroastrian communities from the 200s to the 500s CE, for reasons we’ll get into later, there was finally a general effort made to write down sacred scriptures. But by this juncture, Zoroastrianism had been a living religion for about a thousand years, the Old and Young Avestan languages of its older scriptures were no longer used, and we don’t know very much about how oral transmission worked in ancient Iran – in other words whether there was a concerted attention to memorizing chapter and verse perfectly, or whether communicating the gist of each scripture was sufficient. To add another layer of complexity still, a number of Zoroastrian sacred narratives weren’t ever put into writing until far later – the 800s CE. With Zoroastrian sacred writings, then, we always face a problem of chronology, and this is another challenge for a newcomer to this theology.

Bodleian J2 fol 175 Y 28 1

The Avestan language was finally rendered into a phonetic alphabet during the Sasanian period, but Avestan scriptures had been in oral circulation for centuries prior to this period.

There are other challenges still beside these. Scholarship on Zoroastrianism – even scholarship produced for the layperson, uses a wide variety of unfamiliar terminology. The religion’s core concepts are often left untranslated because certain Zoroastrian ideas can’t be readily replicated in English. And while Zoroastrianism probably did have a profound influence on Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, this influence was not a one way street. The Persian world was always connected to those of Greece and Rome, and for that matter, India. Between the Iranian homeland and mainland Greece lay the operational centers of Judaism, Christianity, and both halves of the Roman Empire, and as the various empires of Ancient Iran expanded and contracted, they engulfed cultural seedbeds like Canaan, Egypt, Anatolia, and Armenia, disseminating the varying phases of Zoroastrianism but also sopping up the theologies of former foes and colonized subjects. There is a great temptation, when studying these ancient religions, to proclaim that X came from Y or W came from Z, in particular, when we map out ideological parallels between Christianity, Second Temple Judaism, and Zoroastrianism. But the only thing we can say with real confidence is that those who wrote and copied the early scriptures of these religions were often neighbors living beneath alien imperial regimes together, and thus that is no surprise that we find commonalities between the religious texts that they wrote.

In the remainder of this program, we’ll go into a lot of detail about Zoroastrian history – namely the history of the three ancient empires associated with the religion. But before we do that, we need to simply get an idea of Zoroastrianism’s main doctrines. Over the course of its long lifespan, Zoroastrianism changed and evolved. The religion of the Achaemenid Emperor Darius, time stamped in a rock carving along the Khurasan Road between Mesopotamia and the Iranian Plateau and dated to roughly 500 BCE, likely had some variations from the Zoroastrianism of Sasanian emperors of the 300s and 400s CE, just as the religion of a Levite priest of 600 BCE was a rather different thing than the religion of a rabbi of 300 CE. But there are nonetheless some standard elements to Zoroastrianism that should be put front and center in any introduction to the religion. So, let’s begin by covering the basic tenets of Zoroastrian theology. [music]

Ahura Mazda, Vertical Dualism, and Angra Mainyu

Zoroastrians believe in a single god – god called Ahura Mazda, ahura meaning “lord,” and mazda meaning “wise.” If the earliest scriptures of Zoroastrianism – the Gathas – can accurately be dated to the period between 1,500 and 1,000 BCE using philology and references to burial practices that are corroborated by archaeology, then Zoroastrianism is likely earth’s oldest living monotheism.3 From the very beginning, Ahura Mazda had less moral ambiguity than the Old Testament God, as cruel and temperamental as he is sagacious and kindly depending on which chapter and verse of the Hebrew Bible you’re reading. Ahura Mazda, by contrast, is unfailingly good, a champion of a central force called asha, translated as “truth,” “righteousness,” “order,” and “right working.”

Iranian - Cylinder Seal - Walters 42775

An Achaemenid-period cylinder seal. Kings fight monstrous figures to either side of the seal, at the center of which is Ahura Mazda with the winged disk of the fravashi overhead.

While Ahura Mazda is unflaggingly good in Zoroastrianism, the world itself is a mixed place, neither good nor evil. The role of the Zoroastrian believer is to pursue that same force championed by Ahura Mazda – the force of asha, through the three-fold path of asha. The three-fold path of asha includes humata, or good thoughts, huxta, or good words, and huvarshta, or good deeds. Through good thoughts, words, and deeds, the Zoroastrian practitioner pursues the path of truth, order, and righteousness while on earth. Zoroastrians also teach the importance of charity, and of a concept called ashem vohu, or the pursuit of asha for its own sake, rather than any ultimate reward. The goal of the Zoroastrian adherent is to become what’s called an ashavan, or a master of asha – a master of the cosmic harmony that pervades existence at all levels.

That’s Zoroastrianism at its simplest level – Ahura Mazda is its deity, asha, or truth, order, and righteousness are what characterize Ahura Mazda and his agenda, and becoming an ashavan, through a three-fold path of conduct, is the goal of the Zoroastrian believer. Let’s go a little deeper, and talk about one of the more important and influential aspects of Zoroastrianism in theological history.

A moment ago, I said that to Zoroastrians, the physical world is neither good nor evil, but an admixture of both. This seems like common sense. But a whole host of ideologies from the ancient world begged to differ. Platonists, early Christians, and later Gnostics and Manichaeans all concurred that the material world was false and debased, and only the spiritual world was true and good. You have heard of dualism before, I suspect, but there are some different kinds of dualism in philosophy and theology, and we need to get them on our desk and differentiate them for a moment here. First, there is mind-body dualism – the ever-popular idea that the mind is a lucent and timeless thing imprisoned in a physical body. Second, and relatedly, there is material-spiritual dualism, or the notion that an extrasensory and usually superior realm of eternal constants and often divine beings floats over the rocks and trees of the physical world. These first two sorts of dualisms are called “horizontal dualisms” – in other words that spiritual or mental stuff is superior to and higher than material stuff. The term “horizontal dualism” means there’s a horizontal line between lower matter and higher spirit, a view of reality once again endorsed by Plato, and various theological and philosophical successors who believe that a shiny realm of spirits and absolute reality hovers over the dumpy world of grass and valleys and hills. That’s horizontal dualism. But Zoroastrian dualism is different than this. Zoroastrian dualism is what we call “vertical dualism.” In vertical dualism, a y-axis or vertical line divides both the spiritual and the material realms. On one side of this vertically cleaved dualism is Ahura Mazda, the goodly proponent of asha. On the other side of this vertically cleaved dualism is someone else – a figure whom you must know about to understand Zoroastrianism.

His name is Angra Mainyu, and he is the source of all destructiveness, falsehood, deceit, chaos, and decay. Just as Ahura Mazda works through the beneficent force of asha, Angra Mainyu works through the destructive force of druj. In the vertical dualism of Zoroastrian theology, then, Angra Mainyu is the nemesis of Ahura Mazda, both in the spiritual world and in the material world. The conflict between these two is the central crux of the existence of the Zoroastrian cosmos, and its conclusion, about which Zoroastrians have very specific prophecies, will mark the end of time.

In Zoroastrianism, then, wise, beneficent, generative Ahura Mazda stands against deceitful, destructive Angra Mainyu. The Zoroastrian believer must seek out the pursuit of asha through a three-fold path in spite of the constant presence of druj, or unwise choices, lies, and destructive acts. Subsequently, in Zoroastrianism, the issue of free will is real and pressing – everyone living constantly faces forked paths, down one of which lies asha and Ahura Mazda, down the other of which lies druj and Angra Mainyu. This is the main theological apparatus of Zoroastrianism, which surely feels familiar to those of us brought up amidst the norms of the Abrahamic religions. So, we’ve covered the deity and the central vertical dualism of Zoroastrianism. Now, let’s talk about the Zoroastrian soul, or more specifically, what Zoroastrians have to say about the way that each individual comes into existence, leads a life on earth, and then journeys to an afterlife. [music]

The Daena, Fravashi, and Urvan

A moment ago, we covered the core of Zoroastrian ethics – that Ahura Mazda works through asha, or the force of truth, righteousness and order, and that the goal of the Zoroastrian believer is to do the same, becoming in the process what is called an ashavan. This is indeed the heart of each Zoroastrian’s spiritual goal, but it’s a bit more complicated than that.

Each Zoroastrian believer has something called a daena, a sort of spiritual conscience that is the lump sum of one’s moral actions. This daena can be fortified or enfeebled by one’s deeds on earth. The daena is part of what each individual accrues during her years alive in the world. And in order to understand how Zoroastrians have traditionally conceived of human existence on earth, we need to introduce a couple of new concepts central to Zoroastrian selfhood.


A beautiful fravashi on a building in Yazd, Iran. Photo by Babak Farrokhi.

There is a symbol in Zoroastrianism – the most famous symbol – a winged disc with a bearded, upright figure at the top. This symbol is printed on the cover of this particular episode, and found throughout the Achaemenid capital of Persepolis and elsewhere in the worship centers of ancient Persian empires, not to mention modern Zoroastrian temples. While the meaning of the symbol has likely changed over time, it is the equivalent of Christianity’s cross, and it is called the fravashi, or, in Middle Persian, farvahar. The fravashi, put simply, is the higher, more celestial part of the Zoroastrian self.

Now when we talk about higher and lower selves, our temptation is to imagine the horizontal dualism that dates back to at least Plato – that a sparkly overworld of souls and spirits shimmers over the rusty dumpster of embodied material existence. This is not the way Zoroastrians have thought about the world and human roles in it. The fravashi – or that winged disc so central to Zoroastrian art, is the highest spiritual component of each individual, bearing a direct connection to Ahura Mazda. And the fravashi, at the moment of birth, is separated from the soul, or urvan, of each person. The urvan, or selfhood separated from Ahura Mazda, is sent down to earth in with the aim of acquiring experiences and delights, all the while being obligated to follow the three fold path of asha. While the soul, or urvan, is present on earth, it can look up to its celestial epitome, or its fravashi – again, that winged disc so common to Zoroastrian artwork – for inspiration, and the fravashi of its clan, and four days after death, the urvan and fravashi are united.

Before we talk about the Zoroastrian afterlife, we should make some subtle clarifications. The soul’s journey to the earth in Zoroastrianism is not an exile to a punishing proving ground. Zoroastrians, unlike various monastic subsets of, say, Early Christianity, do not endorse asceticism, because they do not believe the material world is intrinsically evil or secondary to a greater spiritual one. In Zoroastrianism, the material world, like the spiritual world, is full of both good and evil, and thus the urvan, or the soul on earth, is supposed to choose and relish earth’s goodnesses and joys, and not just fast and meditate. In Christianity, the winks into existence as a person comes to life on earth, and then travels to the afterlife at the time of death. In contrast, with Zoroastrianism, the fravashi exists before life, divides during life, and is united after life, carrying with it information about embodied existence, like a space station dispatching a scouting craft to earth, reuniting with that craft some time later, and sharing information about what was discovered down on the planet.

Thus, the doctrines of Zoroastrian selfhood exhibit minor but intriguing differences from those of Christian selfhood. But the doctrines of the Zoroastrian afterlife are far more conventional. Ancient Egyptian religion, Plato’s Republic, Christianity, Islam, and Zoroastrianism all have the same story of the afterlife – there is a waiting period, then a divine test to gauge the moral worth of the subject, and then a journey to either a reward or a punishment. In the Egyptian Book of the Dead, the heart of the individual is placed in a set of scales and weighed against the feather of ma’at, or universal order, and either devoured by a monster or sent to the celestial field of reeds depending on the outcome. Both Christianity and Islam have something similar, though their stories are largely extra-scriptural, with Christianity’s Saint Peter evaluating the goodness of believers at the gates of heaven, and Islam’s twin angels Raqib and Atid inscribing each believer’s actions in their Book of Deeds, later to be used to judge souls after death. Zoroastrianism, in lockstep with all these other narratives, tells the following story.

Drawing of the Eastern Wall of the Sogdian Wirkak’s Sarcophagus

A line drawing from a Sogdian sarcophagus showing the Chinvat Bridge. Luke 16:25-6 seems to refer to crossing a span in the afterlife.

Four days after death, when the Zoroastrian urvan, or lower soul, returns to the company of its celestial fravashi, or higher soul, and moreover the light of Ahura Mazda, the Zoroastrian self is compelled to cross a bridge in the afterlife. If the lump sum of her deeds are good, this bridge, called the Chinvat Bridge, is broad and easy to traverse, she is greeted by a beautiful and sweet smelling maiden, and taken to a place called the House of Song, which, as with most depictions of a blessed afterlife, is filled with light, plentitude, pleasure, and holiness – a place where, in the words of one Zoroastrian text, the blessed will enjoy “the most agreeable of eatables, that which is the mid-spring butter. . .so that he may rest his soul. . .and seat him on that all-embellished throne.”4 If, on the other hand, the lump sum of a Zoroastrian believer’s deeds are bad, the Chinvat Bridge is dizzyingly narrow, and she is greeted by a stinking hag, who takes her to a place called the House of Lies, which, as with most depictions of a cursed afterlife, is dark, smelly, cacophonous, and burning hot and freezing cold in different areas. That same Zoroastrian text describes the House of Lies as “a place where, as to cold, it is such as that of the coldest frozen snow. There is a place where, as to heat, it is such as that of the hottest and most blazing fire. There is a place where noxious creatures are gnawing them, just as a dog does the bones. There is a place where, as to stench, it is such that they stagger about and fall down. And the darkness is always such-like as though it is possible for them to seize upon it with the hand.”5 There is a middle ground called hamistagan, an equivalent of Purgatory, where Zoroastrians whose good deeds balance their evil deeds have to wait until the end of days. And speaking of the end of days, let’s talk about that for a moment. We’ve covered the vertical dualism at the heart of Zoroastrianism – that cosmic opposition between good, truthful, generative Ahura Mazda, and evil, deceptive, destructive Angra Mainyu. And we’ve talked about what happens to Zoroastrians who pursue asha, or righteousness, and those who pursue druj, or wickedness. This central theological and ethical system was attached to a cosmogonical and eschatological one – fancy sounding words if you haven’t heard them, but basically, a grander narrative that had to do with the beginning and ending of existence. Let’s go over Zoroastrian cosmogony, or creation, and Zoroastrian eschatology, or the end of days. [music]

Zoroastrian Cosmogony and Eschatology

By the 800s CE, Zoroastrianism had a pretty thoroughly constructed narrative of universal creation and destruction. In this story, the universe lasts 12,000 years. The first 6,000 were a long period of creation by Ahura Mazda. At year 6,000, the evil Angra Mainyu burst into the created world and the great battle between good and evil began. In year 8,970, the prophet Zarathustra was born, known as Zoroaster in Greek, Zaradosht in Persian, and Zaratosht in Gujarti, being the figure for whom Zoroastrianism gets its name. There is little consensus on Zarathustra’s actual vintage, and we’ll talk about him a bit more later, so let’s move forward with the broader Zoroastrian story of the universe. Following the birth and ministry of the Zoroastrian prophet Zarathustra around 9000, a period of piety and goodness flowered, but this period slowly fell into moral squalor, and the dark forces of Angra Mainyu gained ground.

The next part of the story necessitates us introducing a couple of new Zoroastrian concepts. The tail end of Zoroastrian cosmic history culminates in an increasingly intense conflict between good and evil. At the end of this battle is an event called the frashokereti. This, to translate it crudely, is judgment day. During frashokereti, Ahura Mazda will restore and redeem the world to its original and pure state, melting the earth with a purifying molten metal. To the good, the river of metal will be as pleasant as warm milk, while the wicked, along with the dark god Angra Mainyu, will be incinerated.6 Thereafter, the world will be at one with the goodness and righteousness of Ahura Mazda. A special figure is associated with the coming of the frashokereti, or the last judgment, and this figure is called the saoshyant. At some moments of Zoroastrianism there are multiple saoshyants at multiple moments in history, but their role is the same. The divine saoshyant is born to a virgin mother, and his role is to begin the frashokereti at a critical moment in the war between good and evil, ending the last judgment with a symbolic, final sacrifice of a bull alongside Ahura Mazda, a sacrifice that thereafter makes all people immortal and exempts them from human needs. This is the abridged story of Zoroastrian creation and judgment, a story, like so many Zoroastrian doctrines, not set down extensively until the 800s CE, notwithstanding the fact that the religion had been around for at least 1,400 years by this juncture.

So that’s a brisk summary of what Zoroastrian scriptures say about the beginning and ending of the universe. When you read scholarly books on Zoroastrianism, authors are very cautious about laying out the religion’s tenets in the way I’ve just done. The reason is that like any world religion, Zoroastrianism has been in a state of constant evolution, and a typical history of Zoroastrianism often sets tendrils of text next to archaeological record and philological study, demonstrating the evolution of the faith piecemeal through various scraps of material evidence. While this presentation works in book length studies like the ones used while researching this episode, I realize that many of us don’t readily know our Achaemenids from our Parthians and Sasanians, and so laying out very basic doctrines that seem to have been constant over time seems to me to be the best bet for our present purposes. There is, however, one evolutionary difference in Zoroastrianism that I feel is too important to pass over before we actually start getting into the mechanics of this religion’s history and how it may have woven together with its sister monotheisms. And that difference has to do with Zoroastrianism’s deity.

Anahita vessel, 300-500 CE, Sasanian, Cleveland Museum of Art

A Sasanian period vessel with the yazata Anahita. Photo by Wmpearl.

Zoroastrianism, for much of its history, might be called a busy monotheism. I haven’t mentioned this, but just as Christianity’s god has three aspects – the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Zoroastrianism’s Ahura Mazda has seven manifestations, or spentas – seven entities that emanate from Ahura Mazda. For the sake of thoroughness, here they are: Spenta Mainyu, or the generative spirit; Ameretat, or immortality; Vohu Manah, or good purpose; Xshathra Vaira or good rule; Armaiti, or right mindedness; Asha, or order and truth; and Haurvatat, or wholeness and health. These seven spirits or manifestations of Ahura Mazda are joined by an unnumbered quantity of what Zoroastrians call yazatas, some of whom became very important in Zoroastrian history. yazata means “worthy of worship,” and the yazatas can be thought of as angels who embody various positive characteristics. The yazata Airyaman, for instance, is the quintessence of friendship. During certain periods of Zoroastrian history, certain yazatas, again, sort of like Zoroastrian angels, came into particular prominence. One yazata called Anahita became associated with childbirth, fertility, and gentle waters, receiving particular attention during the late Achaemenid period. Another, called Mithra, associated with divine contracts, was a major presence in certain Zoroastrian texts, and he later went on to become a prominent presence in the cult religions of Rome, though Roman Mithras in 100 CE bears little resemblance to the Zoroastrian Mithra of five centuries prior.

As we look at this crowded population of divine and semidivine beings, some of whom were the recipients of prayers and offerings, we begin to see that Zoroastrianism did have other divine beings than Ahura Mazda himself. Additionally, the presence of Ahura Mazda’s nemesis Angra Mainyu in broader populace of spentas and yazatas adds yet another figure still to the bustling upper tiers of the Zoroastrian universe. During the Sasanian period of Zoroastrian history – in other words from 224 until about 650 CE, Zoroastrianism edged even further into polytheistic territory. During this period, what’s called Zurvan Zoroastrianism called into prominence. In mainline Zoroastrianism, Ahura Mazda is the ascendant god, he creates the universe and his forces stand against those of the evil and destructive Angra Mainyu. But in Zurvan Zoroastrianism, an older, transcendent deity called Zurvan had sired twins – twins equal in power but opposite in spiritual essence – these twins being Ahura Mazda and Angra Mainyu, who fought as direct adversaries for the fate of the universe. If mainline Zoroastrianism is monotheism with a little asterisk, then Zurvan Zoroastrianism edges close indeed to polytheism.

Let’s set aside Zurvan Zoroastrianism, though, and return to the mainline Zoroastrianism still practiced today. This religion, with all of its divine beings, indeed might exhibit tendencies in a direction away from monotheism. But by including Angra Mainyu, Zoroastrians, from the beginning, never had to deal with what theologians call theodicy, or the problem of evil. Simply put, if destructive and deceptive Angra Mainyu is the provenance of all evil in the world, then Ahura Mazda really is pure and undiluted good, and following the three-fold Zoroastrian path of asha on earth really is the right way to combat this evil. There was no need for Zoroastrians to write a Book of Job or a 2 Esdras to try and explain why existence is sometimes so tough and unjust – the answer lay right in the core of Zoroastrianism’s theological and ethical framework, along with an impetus to step in while alive on earth and be a part of the solution, and not the problem.

So that takes us through some Zoroastrian concepts at a high level. Now, I think we should hear how some of these ideas are actually written out in the Zoroastrian Avesta. Earlier in this program, I described the tricky chronology of the oldest Zoroastrian writings – namely how they circulated in oral tradition for as long as a thousand years prior to being set down. However difficult it is to pin down their origin point, though, the Old Avestan parts of the Zoroastrian scriptures are the textual heart of the religion. They are associated with the prophet Zoroaster himself, and his disciples. Zoroaster, whom we have mostly ignored thus far, is for practicing Zoroastrians today and has been all Zoroastrians back to time immemorial understood as the founder of the religion. So let’s talk about the Zoroastrian prophet, and the works he may have produced. [music]

Zarathustra and the Gathas

There is little scholarly consensus as to when the prophet Zarathustra, or Zoroaster, lived. Some, using analysis of the Old Avestan language in the parts of the Zoroastrian scriptures allegedly written by Zarathustra himself, together with archaeology and the descriptions of burial practices of Late Bronze Age Iran, propose that Zarathustra lived in the 1,000s BCE. Others, using different but equally persuasive evidence, argue that he lived during the early Achaemenid period, or the 600s and 500s BCE. The fact that we know so little about Zarathustra himself typifies the mystery surrounding early Zoroastrianism and the textual conundrums I described earlier – the Old Avestan language of its earliest scriptures suggests a composition date between 1,500 and 1,000 BCE, but this was an oral culture. The Avestan alphabet wasn’t developed for an astoundingly long time. Thus, the oldest parts of the Zoroastrian corpus, the ritual poems called the Gathas, said to have been written by Zarathustra himself, together with another seven hymns called the Yasna Haptanghaiti, were all likely in circulation, in oral tradition, for at least 800 years before they were set down.

However these ancient Zoroastrian scriptures may have changed over this long period of oral transmission, we should hear some quotes from them, starting at the beginning. The very first of the Zoroastrian Gathas opens as follows, with the Prophet Zarathustra as the presumptive speaker:
To the utmost of my ability, will I teach men to seek Asha. . .(And this will I do) / With outstretched hands; and by reverent prayer for support, O [Ahura Mazda] / I will entreat, as the first blessing of the [your manifestations] – that all (my) actions, (may be performed) with (the aid of) Asha / (That I may receive) the understanding of [your manifestation of good disposition], and that I may thus satisfy the Soul of. . .(creation).7
The first surviving Gathas are ebullient with a sense of awe of the goodness of creation – creation of the manifold physical world and the bounteousness of Ahura Mazda himself. And in what is possibly the earliest surviving description of good and evil in human history, the middle of the first Gatha describes how

At the beginning both these Mentalities became conscious of each other, / The one being a Mentality better in thought, and word, and deed, the (other Mentality who is) bad. / Now let the just (man) discriminate between these two, and choose the benevolent one, not the bad one. . . .The [one who chose evil] chose between these twin-Mentalities, the one who perpetuated the worst (deeds), / But he who (was inspired) by the most Bountiful Mentality that is clothed upon by the adamantine stone-quarried heavens as a garment, / And he who cheerfully satisfied Ahura Mazda. . .with sincere deeds, chose Asha. (30.3,5)
Again, right there we may just have earth’s first articulation of vertical dualism, written in the Bronze Age Iranian language of Old Avestan, in a book now known to only a tiny minority of academics and believers. And if the Gathas of Zarathustra are quick to articulate the central split between Ahura Mazda and Angra Mainyu, they’re nearly as speedy in explaining the implications of choosing either good or evil. Keeping in mind that druj is the spirit of evil just as asha is the spirit of good, let’s hear an excerpt from the fourth and fifth Zoroastrian Gathas:
Thus the spirit of the Druj destroys the genuine (reward) of the straight (path); / And his soul trembles at the Bridge of Sifting which will make manifest (his deeds). . .And through his deeds, and (through whose evil words of their) tongue, the Druj have perished from the path of Asha. [And on the contrary the fifth and last Gatha attests that] The best riches that have been heard of are those of Zarathushtra / Since (the mindful lord) AHURA Mazdah grants to him by Asha. . .For all eternity (1) felicities, (2) a good life, and (3) (the conversion of) those who deceived him” (51.13, 53.1)
So the Gathas, again the earliest sacred writings of Zoroastrianism, though to have been composed by the prophet Zarathustra himself, articulate the main ideological framework of the religion – that good and evil exist, that one must choose correctly, and that there are posthumous rewards and punishments for one’s choices. While the Ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead’s most iconic image may be the heart of the deceased weighed in scales balanced with the feather of ma’at, Zoroastrianism adds to this system its vertical dualism – the Zoroastrian soul isn’t judged based on its pursuit of asha alone, but based on its pursuit of asha against the malicious presence of druj.

The Gathas – including these passages you’ve just heard, continue to be recited by Zoroastrian communities today. But pressing questions about the Gathas continue to puzzle all of us with an interest in Zoroastrianism – questions about the vintage of their composition, and their authorship. We know well enough that fictitious authorship attributions were common in the Ancient Near East – the Song of Solomon was in all likelihood not written by Solomon, just the piles of pseudepigraphal Christian and Jewish writings of the early Roman Empire claimed to have been authored by ancient patriarchs. The same thing might be true with the oldest parts of the Zoroastrian canon, which are alternately dated to the Achaemenid period, or six to eight centuries before. One matter of a little bit more certainty, though, is that the language of their composition was quite old by the time they were set down – the Old Avestan language having fallen far out of popular use by the time Zoroastrianism’s sacred writings were actually physically recorded.

So, thus far in this program, we’ve discussed the superstructure of Zoroastrian ideology – the opposed pair Ahura Mazda and Angra Mainyu. We’ve discussed Zoroastrian ethics, and the journey of the Zoroastrian soul, and Zoroastrian apocalypticism. We’ve heard some Zoroastrian ideas in the pages of the Gathas, and learned a bit about Zarathustra himself. What we haven’t done much is to discuss the long history of this religion, a subject that we should turn to now. [music]

The Old Avestan Language and Geography of the Gathas

Let’s talk for a moment about the most ancient roots of the people who would eventually become Zoroastrians. Linguistic comparisons between the earliest portions of the Avesta, and the Sanskrit Rig Veda suggest a contemporaneous production in the mid 1000s BCE. By this point – say, 1,500 BCE, to throw a number out there – the Iranian and Indo-Aryan language groups had already diverged. The first Iranian settlers probably arrived in the northeast of present day Iran at the end of the third millennium BCE. Several Young Avestan texts may offer ancestral memories of this migration, although they were written down 1,500 years after the migration took place.8 The Iranian language family includes Sogdian, Bactrian, and later Pashto, which tentatively suggests the presence of Iranian migration to eastern, rather than western Iran, in the late 2,000s BCE. In the Zoroastrian Avesta, Eastern Iran is understood as the axis of the world and a paradise on earth, notwithstanding its long winters. We are told in a Young Avestan text of the Iranian heartland that “Ten winter-months are there, two summer months.”9 Elsewhere, the beauties and bounty of this region of Iran are extolled. A hymn written to the Zoroastrian yazata, or angel, Mithra, discusses the glories of Zoroastrianism’s early home:
Mithra. . .Who, as the first heavenly yazata, rises. . .before the sun, the immortal, with swift steeds, who first, with golden form, seizes the fair summits, then surrounds the whole [countryside], the most profitable. Where Rulers, excellent, order round about the lands, where mountains, great with much fodder, abounding in water, afford wells for cattle, where [there] are canals deep full of water, where flowing waters, broad with water, hurry [everywhere]. The dwelling-place of the cattle, the dwelling of the cattle, Mithra, the health-bringing goes around.10
As is evident here, Avestan language scriptures are filled with the references to pastoralism, livestock, and herdsmen. The same text again emphasizes the angel Mithra’s association with cattle: “Bright are the ways of Mithra, by which he goes towards the country, when, wishing well, he turns its plains and vales to pasture grounds. . .And then cattle and males come to graze, as many as he wants.”11 The stewardship of livestock, as is the case in the Bible, is a metaphor in the sacred writings of Zoroastrianism, although in a slightly different way. Specifically, part of the Zoroastrian believer’s mission on earth is the stewardship of the natural world – even daily practices of food and drink and navigating one’s way through local ecosystems was part of the pursuit of asha and the greater battle between orderly creation and disorderly destruction. This emphasis on living symbiotically on Earth is one of Zoroastrianism’s significant differences from horizontal dualist systems which decree the physical world merely a vale of tears to be endured. In Zoroastrianism, earthly existence is an experiential gift, and an opportunity to live harmoniously and productively among the miracles of creation, rather than a penitence to suffer prior to the pleasures of the afterlife. Thus, the beauties of earth are often extolled in Zoroastrian scriptures, as when a Young Avestan text describes how Ahura Mazda created, “trees, all, of all kinds. These I cause to be rained down from thence, I who am Ahura-Mazda. . .As food for the pure man, as fodder for the cow created by the good. . .The corn may men eat, the pastures are for the cow created by the good.”12 Cows are everywhere in the Avesta, from the very first of the Gathas, a synecdoche for the world, in the sense that just as people care for their cattle, which Ahura Mazda beneficently created, people must be the caretakers of the world.13

The earliest Zoroastrian texts show ideas present in the Bronze Age writings of ancient India and Egypt. All three traditions record a belief divine order governing the universe – in the Old Indic tradition this is Ṛta, and Old Avestan it is asha, both being comparable to ancient Egyptian ma’at. But to turn more specifically to Old Avestan and Old Indic, as Old Avestan and Old Indic scriptures were produced in different geographical locales and cultural traditions, following the split between these two language groups over the 1,000s BCE, theological differences began emerging. Initially both religious traditions wrote about the kavi, or “inspired poet.” In Old Indic texts, divine vision is granted broadly to a group called rishis, or sages – never named or chronologically pinpointed, but always inspired. In Old Avestan scriptures, on the other hand, it is Zarathustra, and no one else. Where Old Avestan scriptures are ideologically the most unique are their early, and pronounced vertical dualism – their categorical separation between a universal order and a separate group of entities working on behalf of chaos and falsehood; between asha and druj.14

As I mentioned earlier, the history of the earliest Zoroastrians is difficult to pin down, as the Medes and other cultures of ancient Iran did not have a written language to transmit their history to posterity. But the three main empires of Ancient Iran did, and it is with these that we can begin to pick up the story of Zoroastrian history in more detail. The names of Iran’s ancient empires are familiar to students of Jewish, Greek, and Roman history in a secondary sort of way. As for the Achaemenid Empire, in power from about 550-330 BCE, we tend to remember they liberated the Jewish nobility from Babylon and by all accounts administrated a religiously tolerant and economically prosperous empire, that they fought the Greeks in the early 400s, and that Alexander of Macedon ended Achaemenid rule over the Ancient Near East and Central Asia in the late 330s BCE. As for the Parthians, the second great ancient Iranian empire, the Parthians were in power from the 240s BCE until 224 CE. The Parthians controlled a somewhat smaller territory than the Achaemenids at their summit. The Parthians initially flummoxed the Romans with their mounted archery, did everyone the favor of killing the triumvir Crassus, and partnered with Chinese traders to help get silk and other goods into the mansions of rich Romans. And moving onto the Sasanians, this third major ancient Iranian empire ruled from 224 CE until the 650s CE. The Sasanians fought often with the Romans during the chaotic Roman third century, capturing the Roman emperor Valerian, and later enjoying long periods of prosperity, during which Zoroastrianism reached the summit of its influence. Prolonged wars with the Byzantines in the west weakened the Sasanian Empire just as Islam was born as a religion, and beginning in the 630s, an unexpected invasion from the Rashidun Caliphate to the south ended the Sasanian Empire within a couple of decades. That’s a lot of information, obviously, but if we can just keep in mind the Achaemenids, from 550-330 BCE, the Parthians, from 240 BCE-224 CE, and then the Sasanians, from 224 to the 650s CE, we’ll have a decent framework for understanding how Zoroastrian history is laced through the tale of these three empires, the Achaemenids, Parthians, and Sasanians, conveniently in alphabetical order that represents their chronology. So let’s begin with the Achaemenids. [music]

Zoroastrianism During the Achaemenid Period

Darius I the Great's inscription

The Behistun relief, the Rosetta Stone of Mesopotamia, and many other Achaemenid inscriptions, tell us much about Achaemenid Zoroastrianism. Photo by Aryobarzan.

A variety of evidence indicates that the Zoroastrian religion was practiced at different levels of Achaemenid society – that first great Persian Empire that thrived between 550 and 330 BCE. The earliest Old Persian inscriptions were set down around 521 BCE. Names of Achaemenid leaders and their children in these inscriptions often have ties to the older Zoroastrian Gathas – names like Vishtaspa, Atossa, Darius, Artaxerxes, and Mithredath.15 Old Persian inscriptions, especially those related to King Darius, understand the world as being imperiled by an evil being that will be defeated only by Ahura Mazda. The most famous Old Persian inscription – the relief at Behistun, 50 feet high and 80 feet wide, emphasizes that Ahura Mazda backs the Achaemenid Emperor Darius’ rule, that worship of Ahura Mazda will result in blessings, that justice must be done to the rich as well as the poor, and that Darius himself has treated his subjects equally. Following Darius’ famous tenure on the throne, at the Achaemenid center of Persepolis, Darius’ son Xerxes had a relief carved emphasizing that righteous worldly conduct led to ascension to the realm of Ahura Mazda. We know with certainty, then, that the ideology we encountered a moment ago in the Old Avestan language Gathas was the religion of the Achaemenid rulers, and that Cyrus, Darius, Xerxes, and other famous Achaemenid Persian kings were motivated by a sense of religious manifest destiny, being in their minds the champions of the righteous, orderly, and just Ahura Mazda against the chaos of his nemesis Angra Mainyu.

Zoroastrians during the Achaemenid period seem to have often worshipped outside. Archaeology at Pasargadae, the Achaemenid leader Cyrus’ capital from 559-530 BCE, revealed two large plinths designed to hold fire, presumably for public religious rituals. At Persepolis, Cyrus’ ceremonial capital, stone tablets were unearthed that frequently mentioned something called atarvakhsha, or “guardians of fire,” suggesting that fire was a part of Zoroastrian liturgy at this juncture. And while aspects of Zoroastrian theology continually evolved in the history of Ancient Iran, throughout the Achaemeneid and Parthian periods, fire worship continued to be at the heart of Zoroastrianism. Keeping fires ablaze for a long period of time seems to have been an ancient practice, and later, during the Parthian period, we begin to have evidence in eastern Iranian archaeological sites for buildings specifically constructed to preserve continuous blazes. Theologically, to the Zoroastrian imagination, fire and water were both sacred – some of the very last things to be created by Ahura Mazda, and because fire had to remain ritually pure, cremation was an anathema in the ancient Zoroastrian religion – we’ll get into that a bit more later.

As the lifespan of the Achaemenid Empire lengthened, more evidence begins to suggest that early Zoroastrians valorized not just Ahura Mazda and his seven aspects, but also those beings called the yazatas – the angels, or divine beings worthy of worship, though not to be imagined as gods themselves. The most famous of these, Anahita and Mithra, were promoted by the Achaemenid Emperor Artaxerxes II, who ruled from 405-359 BCE. A hodgepodge of statuary and texts demonstrate the growing pervasiveness of Anahita and more particularly Mithra after the late Achaemenid period. Anahita, a female angel associated with water, rivers, fertility, and childbirth, became increasingly popular in Zoroastrianism following the later Achaemenid period. The yazata or angel Mithra, whom the Romans later coopted as Mithras, was another angel, associated with judgment and the guardianship of livestock. While the yazata Mithra would eventually become pervasive in the Roman world, Anahita, again a female angel who emerges in the Persian archaeological record around the time Plato was at work in the early 300s BCE – Anahita’s worship shows the extent to which the polytheistic substrate into which Zoroastrianism emerged during the Achaemenid period was ready to hybridize with the eastern religion. Anahita’s iconography sometimes shows similarities with the Mesopotamian Ishtar, and at other times with Cybele or Greek deities like Aphrodite. Anahita was still a prominent figure ages later, in the middle part of the 200s CE – the early Sasanian king Shapur I named his daughter Adur-Anahid, and late into the Sasanian period, Anahita was associated with royal investiture, often appearing on stone carvings honoring the ascensions of kings.

Generally speaking, the archaeological records of Zoroastrianism throughout the Achaemenid Empire do not conclusively suggest a tightly codified pantheon of deities or ritual practices. The religion’s functionaries, if we can trust Achaemenid period Greek chroniclers like Herodotus and Xenophon, were called magi. These figures, famously, show up in the Book of Matthew (2:7-12) as emissaries of Herod who are sent to find Jesus, but they notice special astrological signs at the scene of the infant’s nativity, give him gifts, and leave him at peace, having been told in a dream not to return to Herod and reveal Christ’s location to the persecuting king. It’s important to pause for a moment and consider how this passage in Matthew, like other passages in the books of Ezra (1.3-4, 3.7, 6.8) and 2 Chronicles (36.20-3), have only good things to say about Zoroastrians and Persians more generally. This textual evidence, together with a lack of any records of uprisings and ethnic conflicts in the province of Yehud during the Achaemenid period, speak highly of the first Zoroastrian regime’s capacity to rule gently over even very independently minded internal colonies, like Second Temple Judah.16 But to turn more specifically to the religious functionaries in Matthew – these Zoroastrian magi, they seem to have been part of a well-attested group of Zoroastrian priests, who dated back to the 500s BCE, who were responsible for ritual offerings, the interpretation of dreams, and foretelling the future.17

ZoroastrianPriest Banier1741b

An eighteenth-century French illustration of the headwear of Zoroastrian priests.

Among their many duties, these magi were responsible for libation offerings – as I said a moment ago, according to texts from various eras of Zoroastrian history, water was an important part of the religion’s rituals. A record of an important Zoroastrian libation offering survives today. The Greek historian Herodotus (7.54) tells us that before the Achaemenid king Xerxes I crossed the Hellespont to invade the Greek world, Xerxes poured water from a golden chalice into the ocean, praying for success in his impending campaign and facing the sun. Magi are part of Zoroastrian iconography, not only performing ritual libations involving water and milk, but also being the guardians of fire, wearing special coverings over their mouths so their breath does not pollute the sacred flame.

Since the magi are widely reported during the Achaemenid period and afterward, it is possible that they were also those who had the Old Avestan religious scriptures memorized and passed them down from generation to generation. Zoroastrian priests would have also legislated or been involved with an unusual but widely documented burial practice – that of leaving the dead exposed – exposed even on stone or rock promontories, so that the remains of the dead did not pollute earth, water, or fire. A Young Avestan text tells us that a dead body must be placed “far from fire. . .far from water. . .far from the pure men. . .Thirty paces from the fire, thirty paces from the water. . .and thirty paces from the pure men.”18 Corruption, after all, in the Zoroastrian imagination, was part of the destructive force of druj, associated with the dark forces of Angra Mainyu, and isolating it and preventing its spread was one of the many things the practicing Zoroastrian could do to enable the proliferation of asha, on earth against its opposite. The most ancient Zoroastrians seem to have set their dead on rocky promontories so that carrion birds could devour decomposing bodies. Later, though, a special place was prepared for the dead to be laid out – a place in English known as a tower of silence, and in Zoroastrianism as a dakhma. Just because the process for dealing with dead bodies is unique in Zoroastrianism, and such an archaeologically prominent feature of Zoroastrian communities, let’s hear with the Zoroastrian scriptures have to say about the burial of the dead on dakhma – again raised stone platforms on which carrion birds are supposed to devour dead bodies.

A text called the Vendidad, a sort of ecclesiastical code for Zoroastrianism which is in places a bit like Leviticus, composed in the Young Avestan language some time between 1,000 and 500 BCE, states the rules for what to do with the deceased.19 Ahura Mazda proclaims in this text that the relatives of the dead
shall let the lifeless body lie there, for two nights, or for three nights, or a month long, until the birds begin to fly, the plants to grow, the hidden floods to flow, and the wind to dry up the earth. / And as soon as the birds begin to fly, the plants to grow, the hidden floods to flow, and the wind to dry up the earth, then the worshippers of Mazda shall lay down the dead (on the Dakhma), his eyes toward the sun. / If the worshippers of Mazda have not, within a year, laid down the dead (on the Dakhma), his eyes toward the sun, thou shalt prescribe for that trespass the same penalty as for the murder of one of the faithful; until the corpse has been rained on, until the Dakhma has been rained on, until the unclean remains have been rained on, until the birds have eaten up the corpse.20

Doodentoren van de Zoroastriërs

A 1906 Dutch illustration of a Zoroastrian tower of silence. Isolated and built into promontories, these unique structures are a famous part of Zoroastrian archaeological history.

Zoroastrians, as we see in that passage, have historically practiced exposure of the dead, the technical term for which is “excarnation,” because it keeps fire and earth pure of the corruption associated with decomposing corpses. The Greek historian Herodotus, alive between roughly the 480s and 420s BCE, is the most important contemporary chronicler of Achaemenid Persia whose works have survived. And Herodotus attested that excarnation was indeed practiced, writing, “It is said that the body of a male Persian is never buried, until it has been torn either by a dog or a bird of prey.”21 It was an unusual practice in the ancient world, and thus it attracted attention by outsiders who were curious about Zoroastrianism. Let’s talk about those outsiders for a moment – folks living in the 400s and 300s BCE who encountered Zoroastrianism under the Achaemenids and wrote about it.

The Greeks who encountered Achaemenid Persians during the 400s BCE, some of whom fought in the Greco-Persian Wars, left behind a lot of writings about the easterners, sometimes, like Herodotus, chronicling their unfamiliar cultural practices. In addition to writing about Zoroastrian outdoor burials, the Greek historian described how Zoroastrianism’s open air religious rites and lack of anthropomorphic iconography set Zoroastrians apart from westerners in the Mediterranean.22 We noted earlier that in Old Testament literature like Ezra and 2 Chronicles, the Achaemenids – especially their founder Cyrus the Great, are given quite a positive report card, notwithstanding the fact that the Achaemenids controlled Jerusalem for the two centuries between 530 and 330. Just as ancient Jewish writers had fairly positive things to say about the Achaemenids, ancient Greek writers did as well. With the exception of a widely pejorative attitude toward Xerxes the Great, who ruled from 486-465 BCE, ancient Greeks writing about Achaemenid Persia are largely respectful toward, and fascinated by the foreigners from the east.

For instance, the Greek playwright Aeschylus, whose brother was killed at the Battle of Marathon in 490 BCE, wrote a play called The Persians, set in the Persian capital of Susa – incidentally the oldest surviving play in human history. The Persians is a tragedy, and while it pinpoints Xerxes’ bloated hubris as the reason for his defeat at the battle of Salamis just after 480, Aeschylus’ play The Persians is respectful and deferential toward Xerxes’ father Darius I. Aeschylus’ chorus, made up of old Persian men, actually eulogizes the earlier emperor Darius. They say,
[T]hou, blessed king
Equal to God. . .
Loved is the man, loved his tomb
Hiding his loving ways. . .
Never by war wasted his men,
Never infatuate,
Called a God in wisdom,
God in wisdom he was,
Ruled his people well. (636-7,49-50,52-6)23
Aeschylus here, startlingly, eulogizes the foreign leader responsible for the invasion that killed his brother in 490, in what’s often understood as a genuine display of cultural respect for Achaemenid leadership. And though Aeschylus’ attitude toward Darius’ son Xerxes was far more ambivalent, Greek writers seemed to share a deep appreciation toward the early architects of the Achaemenid Empire. While Aeschylus went on record with respect for Darius in 472 BCE, a hundred years later, around 370 BCE, the mercenary general turned historian Xenophon eulogized Cyrus the Great, that expansionist Persian emperor about whom everyone, astoundingly, had only good things to say. Xenophon writes of Cyrus, “Many were the gifts bestowed on him, for many and diverse reasons; no one man, perhaps, ever received more; no one, certainly, was ever more ready to bestow them upon others. . .for myself, and from all that I can hear, I should be disposed to say that no one, Greek or barbarian, was ever so beloved.”24 The Achaemenids may have flooded into the eastern Mediterranean rim and gobbled up territories in Anatolia and beyond that had traditionally been ruled by Aegean cultures. But emperors like Cyrus and Darius, even to people who fought them, seemed exalted in their farsightedness and clemency. Zoroastrianism, whose early scriptures envision a universal good and evil that transcend race, creed, and geography, was a cornerstone of these emperors’ worldview. [music]

Zoroastrianism During the Parthian Period

The Achemenids were in decline in the 350s and 340s for a number of reasons. Religious toleration and clemency could not halt an economic pattern that plagued many ancient empires – that once an initial period of expansion halted and cash flow from foreign booty dried up, there remained a large military and bureaucracy to bankroll for new generations of emperors who lacked the pillage economies of their forefathers. Further, a period of unstable Achaemenid leadership in the 330s nearly coincided with Alexander of Macedon’s invasion, beginning in 334. While Greek texts give Alexander of Macedon the epithet of “the Great,” Zoroastrian texts call him gizistag, or “the accursed.” During the period of Alexander’s successor kingdoms, several generations of Iranians were ruled over by a foreign Seleucid regime – the Seleucids being the Greco-Syrian kingdom anchored in Antioch. Throughout the sizable Seleucid Empire, Greek cultural influences become apparent in the archaeological record as the 300s stretch into the 200s. Nonetheless in the southwest of Iran – the old Achaemenid heartland – traditional Zoroastrian iconography continues uninterrupted through this period, even though this was technically Greek-ruled territory. The eastern portions of the Seleucid Empire, less than a century after Alexander’s invasions, were proving too vast and diverse to be manageable to a foreign regime, and in the 240s, indigenous Persian rule began to reassert itself. By 247, the second and most long-lived of the ancient Iranian empires, the Parthians, had pushed Macedonian leadership out of much of the previously Achaemenid territory. The Parthians, once again, would hold sway from the 240s BCE until the 220s CE, and under their sway, Zoroastrianism would continue to develop and find new adherents.

During the period of the Parthian Empire, or the five centuries between 247 BCE to 224 CE, Zoroastrianism was at the heart of a vast territory that, at its greatest extent, encompassed modern day Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Turkmenistan, Kuwait, and parts of Syria and Saudi Arabia. Zoroastrianism under the Parthians seems to have faced more of a threat of cultural dissolution than during the Achaemenid Empire, in no small part because of the ever-growing diversity of the Parthian homeland. When the Mauryan king Ashoka, who ruled nearly all of modern day India in the middle part of the 200s, died in 232 BCE, Buddhism was already a major presence in the eastern Parthian Empire. A hodgepodge of Greek, Buddhist, and Zoroastrian practices flourished in the east – practices that interpenetrated with one another more and more due to trade. By the late 100s BCE, under the Parthian King Mithridates II, trade routes opened between the central part of modern day Iran and China, with the nobility of the Mediterranean being one of the main customer bases for the East.

Silver coins of Vologases I Iran, Parthian, AD 55-6 In the Zoroastrian tradition holy texts were scattered as a result of Alexander of Macedon's conquest of the Persian Empire in 330 BC. These were gatheres together by Vologases I (Wa

Vologases I (ruled 51-78), one of the more famous kings of the Parthian Empire, sought to gather and distribute Avestan langauge scriptures throughout the empire in manuscript copies. Photo by Akhenatenator.

Throughout the first century BCE, as Republican Rome began to shudder and come apart, Zoroastrian practices continued amidst the syncretic religious activity of the greater Parthian Empire. In a text called the Denkard, written during the 900s CE, a chronicler looks back to the reign of a Parthian Emperor called Vologases I, who’d been at the center of a war with Rome during the later years of Nero, or 58-63 CE. The text recalls how during these tumultuous years, “The. . .government got the Avesta and its commentary which from its (original) pure (and sound) condition had been, owing to the devastation and harm (inflicted by) Alexander and his general of the plundering. . .army, separated into parts and scattered about, to be copied out. . .and the writings subsequently obtained in the city were ordered to be preserved and copies of them to be made out for other cities.”25 This is an important morsel of historical information, as it emphasizes that it was during the tenure of the Parthian Emperor Vologases I, on the throne from 51-78 CE, that a large part of the Zoroastrian scriptures were finally set down. In general, this emperor Vologases I’s reign was characterized by resurgent nativism and a pushback against Hellenism, and both the war with Rome and the governmental effort to collect, warehouse, and disseminate the Avesta demonstrate this moment in the Parthian Empire’s history. These same years enveloped the writing of much of the New Testament, along with the First Jewish-Roman War, and so 51-78 CE were very pivotal years indeed in theological history.

In getting the Avestan corpus together and distributing it, Vologases and his clergy were hardly plugging a sinking ship. The Greek geographer Strabo, writing around the time of Christ and the halfway point of Parthian history, describes key aspects of Zoroastrian worship as alive and well in the couple of generations before Vologases. Strabo, describing the practices of Zoroastrian worship that generally tended to strike foreigners, writes,
The Persians do not erect statues nor altars, but, considering the heaven as Jupiter, sacrifice on a high place. . .They sacrifice, having offered up prayers, in a place free from impurities, and present the victim crowned. . .it is to fire and water especially that they offer sacrifice. They throw upon the fire dry wood without the bark, and place fat over it; they then pour oil upon it, and light it below; they do not blow the flame with their breath, but fan it.26
As always, the lack of anthropomorphic iconography that filled every portico and entryway of Greece and Rome struck Zoroastrianism’s western observers, as did the religion’s reverence toward fire. As the final century BCE gave way to the first century CE, and Rome put its boot down in Syria and modern day Israel, establishing an overland connection between African and Eurasian trade, Parthians and Jews, who had already been next door neighbors since the Babylonian Captivity, found themselves brought closer than ever by the greedy polytheists from the west, their armies, and their dicey provincial governments.

Well, we’ve covered quite a bit of history so far, so let’s pause for a moment before moving forward any further. It is, I think, easy to feel lost when you first encounter Zoroastrianism. Its theological framework feels familiar those of the Abrahamic religions, but has some very important differences. Its specialized vocabulary requires some extra concentration. And its history, and textual history each begin in a fogbank before the inscriptions of the 500s BCE, after which time Zoroastrian history is woven together with the imperial history of the Achaemenids, the Parthians, and Sasanians – three immense and rather different ancient Persian Empires. To zoom out for a moment, though, and speak very plainly, maybe the most important thing to take away from this program thus far is simply the fact that Zoroastrianism was a massive, intercontinental religion long before the arrival of Christianity. It’s particularly important that we don’t think of Zoroastrians as akin to ancient Celtic druids or regional cult worshippers of Phrygian Attis, for instance, not to say that these smaller groups had no bearing on posterity. Unlike druids or regional cults, though, Zoroastrian religion was on the scale of continents, and millennia, rather than provinces, and centuries. As the empires of its practitioners swelled and receded and swelled again, it had the opportunity to wash together with ideologies from the Mediterranean to the west and China and India to the east. But gradually, perhaps taking a nod from Christianity, Zoroastrianism began to be a bit more self conscious about its status among the religions around it. This self-consciousness, during the Sasanian period of 224-651 CE, led Zoroastrianism to becoming more institutionalized, and more devoted to formally setting down into manuscripts some of the texts that we’ve heard today. So let’s talk about Sasanian Zoroastrianism, the Sasanian Empire being the third and final of the Ancient Iranian empires we’ll go through today. [music]

Zoroastrianism During the Sasanian Period

The first textual records of the name Iran comes from the Sasanian period, when it had become known as Eranshahr – the realm of the Iranians. From 224-651 CE, the Sasanians controlled a giant region in the Ancient Near East, up until the Muslim conquest of Persian territories, which began in the 630s. And while the early Sasanians, like their Parthian predecessors, had to deal with skirmishes with the Roman west, they faced a new cultural presence from the west, too. Christianity was expanding at a blinding rate during the third century, anchoring itself into the Mediterranean rim as Rome fumbled through dozens of emperors in half a century between the 230s and 280s. By the 400s, Constantinople was the Christianity’s eastern power base, a seemingly unconquerable city right on the Sasanians’ western frontier, and Christian communities grew throughout modern day Iran and beyond during late antiquity, resulting in bishoprics at the old Achemenid cities of Ctesiphon and Gundeshapur, the cultural and intellectual heart of the Sasanian Empire. Additionally, Jewish and Manichaean communities also sprung up throughout the Sasanian Empire, especially at moments when the newly Christian Roman regime pushed them out. Judaism, Christianity, and its Gnostic and Manichaean offshoots were new cultural presences in the old Iranian heartland. As scholar Jenny Rose writes,
Questions relating to the superiority of one belief system over another were now added to those ultimate questions about the origins, purpose and meaning of life. The challenge of the religious. . .‘Other’ led to. . .organizational and restructuring in terms of the development of both clerical and ritual institutions, as well as institutional defense mechanisms. As the [Sasanian] dynasty progressed, the Zoroastrian priesthood expanded its authority and prestige, and endowed fire temples became wealthy and powerful places. Increasing control by the priesthood is reflected in attempts to eliminate religious heterodoxy, and to combat proselytism from other faiths.27
The presence of doctrinally codified alternate religions, then, gave Zoroastrian religious officials a new incentive to write down, standardize, and disseminate the Sasanian Zoroastrian religion. Even the first Sasanian king, Ardashir I, realized that aggregating the Zoroastrian corpus would be necessary for the religion’s transmission to posterity in a genuine form. Just as his Parthian predecessor Vologoses I had collected texts during around the time of the Emperors Claudius and Nero from about 50-70 CE, Ardashir I sought to get the Avestan writings together with all the scholarship available on them. A later chronicle of Zoroastrian history tells us that Ardashir I, who ruled from 224-242 CE, “got [an educated priest] devoting his attention to [collecting the Avesta, and] made one harmonious work after comparison with other writings. And [the priest] entrusted [others] with the work of making other copies of it. And (the king) also ordered that other writings relating to the Mazda-worshipping faith which might be obtained after him and of which no information or clue was to be had then should be preserved in the same way.”28 This same text tells us that Shapur I, who ruled form about 240-72 CE, continued to back the collection of writings sacred to Zoroastrianism, but also a wide body of scientific and philosophical texts with concerns beyond theology.

Not all of the Sasanian attempts to solidify Zoroastrianism were as benign as collecting texts, though. The Sasanian King Shapur II, who ruled for an astonishing seven decades between 309 and 379, fought wars with Arabs and Romans, and as Christianity began to become the dominant religion of the Roman Empire, Shapur II treated his Christian subjects with increasing harshness. Raising taxes on them initially, eventually Shapur II executed subjects who refused to convert to Zoroastrianism. And two early Sasanian kings, Ardashir I and Shapur I, used iconography on coinage that officially linked the each king’s reign with the sacred fire of Zoroastrianism. By the late 400s, we begin to have doctrinal compositions written by Zoroastrians against aspects of Christian teaching. An important Zoroastrian minister named Mihr Narseh, in 449, wrote that it was ridiculous that an ascendant God brought both good as well as evil, as Christianity taught – the Sasanian Zoroastrians, after all, taught that good and evil came from two central, oppositional deities. Mihr Narseh also took issue with the notion that a god could become incarnated in human form and then die. In turn, Christians of the 400s CE decreed that the Zoroastrian worship of water and fire was idolatrous, and that their practice of exposing the dead to the elements was barbaric. Armenia was in particular a flashpoint in the confrontation between Zoroastrians and Christians, as it had long been a middle ground between Rome and the empires of Iran. As the 400s led into the 500s, Middle Persian language writings that still survive continue the trend of polemic theology that began in the previous century. Zoroastrian theologians began to differentiate those from the Iranian religion from those of other faiths, and disparage those who had left the Zoroastrian religion as ahlomog, or heretics.

ZoroastrianPriest Banier1741a

The Zoroastrian clergy grew in size and hierarchical organization during the Sasanian period, in part due to pressure from the growing presence of Christianity in the empire. The illustration is from an 18th-century French book.

Throughout the Sasanian period, fire temples – often large ones, increasingly served as centers of Zoroastrian faith, and many archaeological remnants of large stone bowls for fire date to the Sasanian period. During this period, Sasanian Zoroastrian priests became increasingly powerful, mirroring the growth of the power of Catholic clergy at the same time. A priest named Kerdir, whose career spanned much of the 200s CE, shows up widely in Sasanian inscriptions, which describe him driving out evil and oppositional forces and destroying the abodes of false deities, a reference scholars think might be to Buddhist and Hindu temples in the eastern part of the empire.29 By the end of the 200s, this same priest had worked to scrub the empire of Jews, Christians, Manichaeans, Buddhists and Hindus, although just as with Rome’s treatment of early Christians, the religious tolerance of the Sasanian Empire waxed and waned throughout its four centuries of existence. Across the 200s, as the high priest Kerdir came into prominence, new terms emerged in the Middle Persian language of the Sasanian Empire to describe its high ranking religious functionaries – the mowbed, or “chief priest;” the aiwenbed or “master of ceremony;” and the dastwar-i den agah, or “high-ranking theologian.”30 High priests grew ever more important, and by the 400s, they were the ones who crowned new kings. Again fascinatingly, it was during this same timeframe – the 200s through the 400s, in other words, that the Catholic clergy began to consolidate into a hierarchy with bishops, some more equal than others, at the top. It was also during this same timeframe that Christianity went from being a minority religion to a much more powerful ones, with Catholic bishops, like their Zoroastrian mowbed counterparts to the east, being involved in coronation ceremonies and politics more generally.

As the Sasanian Empire stretched into the late 500s, and then 600s, it had to come to terms with the fact that Christianity was entrenched in the east. Some of its late monarchs, like Khosrow I, opposed Christian Byzantine rule and gave refuge to pagan Greek philosophers made homeless by Justinian’s closure of the Neoplatonic academy in Athens in 529. Others, like Khosrow II, were less opposed to Christianity. Khosrow II ruled from 591-628, and according to the Shahnameh, Iran’s epic poem, Khosrow II’s favorite wife was a Christian named Shirin. Khosrow II’s daughter Buran, a clement ruler known for forgiving debts, also secured a peace treaty with the Byzantine Emperor Heraclius after a long war. And is with this war – the Byzantine-Sasanian War of 602-628, that we’ll conclude our quick history of Zoroastrianism under the Sasanian Empire.

The Byzantine-Sasanian war raged on for almost 30 years. The militaries and economies of the Byzantines and the Sasanians were exhausted by it. And in the 630s, had things gone differently, the Sasanians and Byzantines might have gone back to their ancestral territories to lick their wounds and rebuild their fortifications and economies. Armies of the Ancient Mediterranean and Iranian steppe had been clashing swords for 1100 years, and the Persian heartland had remained the Persian heartland, and the Mediterranean had remained the Mediterranean. But just as migratory groups had avalanched down into the Western Roman Empire beginning in the 300s, in the 600s, the Sasanians very quickly became acquainted with some new kids on the block. These were the armies of the Rashidun Caliphate. In the early 630s – in fact, that very same summer that Muhammad died in 632 on Temple Mount in Jerusalem, the first Muslim raiders entered the war-battered Sasanian Empire. By the 650s, the Sasanian Empire had been subsumed by the first Caliphate of Islam. Eranshahr, or Iran, would spend most of the rest of its history under the sway of a religion that was born seven hundred miles away, across the Persian Gulf, its Zoroastrian past increasingly fading into twilight.

The first Caliphates, the largest theocracies in history up to that point, and more generally some of the first, were not especially harsh with Zoroastrians. Under the Umayyads, Zoroastrians were dimmis, or protected people living under Muslim rule. They had to pay a special tax, but were not singled out for persecution. But under the long Abbasid Caliphate, which lasted from 750-1258 CE, Zoroastrians were dealt with in increasingly harsh ways, and eventually inheritance and slavery laws were adjusted in ways that severely disadvantaged non-Muslims. For one, only Muslims could own Muslim slaves, making it such that if a Zoroastrian’s slave converted to Islam, the slave was instantly free. Further, if any heathen member of a heathen family converted to Islam, that family member instantly inherited all of his family’s property. These regulations gave a major economic incentive to convert to Islam to safeguard one’s slaves and family wealth, and thus during the centuries after fall of the Sasanian Empire, a population called the Parsees, or Persians, migrated to Gujarat, the westernmost state of India, where to this day they make up the world’s largest population of Zoroastrian believers. [music]

Zoroastrianism’s Impact on Second Temple Judaism

So that is an introduction to Zoroastrianism and its ancient history. Thus far in this program, I’ve treated Zoroastrianism more or less in and unto itself, making occasional comparisons between Zoroastrian ideas and those of the Abrahamic religions, but generally, I hope, introducing Zoroastrianism on its own terms. As things stand today, we usually meet Zoroastrianism bundled together with its sister monotheisms, and often with sensational claims that aren’t soundly supported by textual history, philology or archaeology – for instance, that Jesus Christ is a literary analog of the Zoroastrian Saoshyant, or that the frashokereti is where Armageddon comes for, or even that Zoroastrianism is definitively Earth’s oldest monotheism. These statements certainly make good click bait, but with the uncertainty we have about the vintage of various Zoroastrian texts, we can’t make them with any confidence. Further, the enterprise of searching for the first monotheism, or the first dark nemesis deity, or the first savior figure is as silly as searching for the first scarf, or first pair of earmuffs. We fashion warm garments because when it’s cold, they work, and we generate ideologies with certain configurations because they help us get along as individuals and communities, and our shared cultural history is not one connected timeline, but many disconnected ones, with a lot of things appearing simultaneously in different places. Zoroastrianism, then, isn’t important because it is some prime wellspring of all subsequent Eurasian theology, though for all we know it might have been. Zoroastrianism is important because it’s a long, colorful chapter of humanity’s theological history that most of us, for various reasons, aren’t taught in schools.

Nonetheless, it is still interesting and valuable to consider how Zoroastrianism might have impacted Jewish and Christian ideology in the long run. Prior to Christianity, Judaism and Zoroastrianism flourished side by side in the Eastern Mediterranean for five hundred years, and so it seems preposterous to think that they didn’t impact one another at all. To consider how this impact happened, let’s get the entire bookcase of works we’ve considered in Literature and History thus far in our imaginations. This book case has included a lot of theological material. On it, below the first shelf of Bronze Age religious texts, we have the Old Testament, Old Testament apocrypha, Homeric Hymns, some Orphic tablets, records of Pythagorean ideology, records of the cults of Isis, Eleusis, Cybele, and later Mithras, Plato’s theological corpus and some stoic and epicurean writings on the divine, perhaps ten thousand pages of Greek and Latin literature, the Dead Sea Scrolls, New Testament, and some New Testament apocrypha. In this and the next two episodes, we will set some of the Zoroastrian Avesta, the Gnostic Nag Hammadi Library, and some surviving Manichaean scriptures on our bookcase, too. Looking at all of this material together, which is a pretty sturdy mass of empirical data, we can make some very general observations the religions of antiquity. And in this program on the Zoroastrian Avesta and the next two on Gnosticism and Manichaeism, we will begin to observe some differences between what tends to show up in theological writings from the Aegean and Central Mediterranean to the west, and then what tends to show up in theological writings from the Levant and Mesopotamia to the east, leading up to the rise of the Sasanian Empire in 224 CE.

Michelangelo Buonarroti - Jugement dernier

Michelangelo’s Last Judgment (1541). The combative armageddon of Revelation and presence of Satan as an independent cosmic force both suggest Zoroastrian roots somewhere along the way.

As an example, apocalypticism isn’t an idea you encounter very often in Greco-Roman texts. Ancient Greeks and Romans did write about history somewhat pessimistically as a multi-phase endeavor, with an age of gold degenerating into an age of silver and then bronze, and so on – every single Latin poet seems to tell this story. Zoroastrians, incidentally, did so too at one point – we have a Young Avestan text about a tree, “On which there were four branches: one of gold, one of silver, one of steel, and one of mixed iron,” this tree being a metaphor for the ever-declining history of the Zoroastrian world.31 Everyone and their mother seemed to adore this metaphor in the ancient world – gold, silver, bronze, blah blah blah. Anyway, while Ancient Greece and Rome shared this degenerative view of history, they did not, like the Zoroastrians, Jews, and Christians, write apocalyptic literature in which the world would be destroyed and remade, and they would be delivered from their tribulations. Everyone, from the Book of Daniel to Horace and Catullus to Hesiod, was talking about human history using a metaphor involving increasingly crappier metals. But only some regions were concertedly proclaiming that the world was going to end, and these regions, before Christianity showed up, tended to speak Hebrew, Aramaic, Syriac, and Parthian, rather than Greek or Latin.

As another example, evil is also not something you find in Greek and Latin writings prior to Christianity. Ovid’s Metamorphoses, with its hundreds of stories, never describes an anti-Zeus. There are doubtless some frightful figures in Greek mythology – among them Eris, Nemesis, the Furies, the Hecatoncheires and Tiphoios. But these entities serve specific explanatory and ethical purposes and they do not, like Angra Mainyu and Satan, stand in opposition to a singular beneficent god, cleaving heaven and earth into a pitched contest between good and evil. Similarly, the Hebrew Bible, while it describes wickedness in terms of infidelity and apostasy to Yahweh, does not have an anti-Yahweh. In the Old Testament, wickedness comes either from the apostasy of the Israelites themselves, or the predations of foreign invaders – never from some primeval dark god. As we’ve discussed before, Christian readings of Satan in the Old Testament, though broadly known, are later interpretations, unsupported by the language of the Hebrew Bible. Because of all of this, then, and because we know from Achaemenid period rock inscriptions that Zoroastrians did have their light and dark deities Ahura Mazda and Angra Mainyu by about 500 BCE, I think there’s a fairly good chance that the ideas of good and evil as we know them today have some Zoroastrian roots, wherever these roots themselves came from.

There is a third and final element of Zoroastrianism shared by the world of Early Christianity. This third element is angels, and to a lesser extent, demons. The Zoroastrian god Ahura Mazda has seven spentas, or aspects, and unnumbered yazatas, or angels worthy of reverence, beings that rose and fell in esteem as the long history of Zoroastrianism moved forward. These names of these divine beings appear all over the Avesta, and in the names of Zoroastrian kings and royal families. Ancient Greek and Latin theology, not being monotheistic, has no angels. There are divine cupbearers and messengers here and there, and countless nymphs, and certainly swarms of half-human, half-divine figures. But Greco-Roman religion never talks about Zeus’ angels, or Hades’ demons. In Greek and Latin texts, we meet warehouses full of divine beings, but they are all, generally, free agents in the great polytheistic opera of what the Roman historian Plutarch once called the Ancient Mediterranean’s “well-mixed bowl of myths.”32 In the Old Testament, there are occasional mentions of angels of the lord carrying out this and that function – sometimes battlefield champions for the Israelites, and sometimes messengers. But in later Second Temple Judaism and Early Christianity – especially as we’ll see in the next two programs on Gnosticism and Manichaeism, there are armadas of angels, millions of angels, and even hundreds of billions of angels in some texts.

These three features – again apocalypticism, cosmic good and evil, and then angels and demons – they all seem more eastern than western as we extract them from our Literature and History bookcase and study where they show up on a map. This is not a very exciting or flashy conclusion to draw, but it is one that’s supported by the textual evidence we’ve looked at together. A question remains, though – one which I think we can do a serviceable job of answering in the remainder of this show. Apocalypticism, with its appended idea of a savior figure – these were parts of Jewish ideology dating back to the Prophet Isaiah. Cosmic good and evil, however, as well as angels and demons – they start concertedly appearing in Judaism and Christianity later, long after Achaemenids and Parthians had begun living in close proximity to Jewish people. The question I want explore is when this happened – when Satan was born in the Second Temple Jewish imagination, and when angels start exploding across the pages of Jewish texts in high numbers. By the time the New Testament was written, Satan was being flung around as though he needed no introduction, and the angels and demons and divine warfare in Revelation appear to have pervaded Jewish theology to such an extent that no one felt the need to explain why Christian apocalypticism had taken such a curious turn from Jewish apocalypticism, in which there was no last battle, no Satan, no seven angels and other things numbered seven, and no savior born of a virgin. It is possible that Zoroastrianism provided every single one of those things. Zoroastrian texts, as you hard before, describe a last battle, a dark god opposed to a light god, seven spentas, and a saoshyant born from a virgin who will superintend a last judgment. But because the chronology of these Zoroastrian texts is so uncertain, it’s equally possible that the opposite was true, and that Christianity encouraged those elements in Zoroastrianism instead. During the centuries of the Sasanian Empire, Christian religious institutions sprung up throughout Mesopotamia and beyond – even as far as the northwestern reaches of Sogdiana, where modern day Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan all come together. In both the remote reaches of the Iranian world as well as in its administrative and cultural centers in Ctesiphon and Gondeshapur, Christian bishoprics and churches accrued converts out of a broad cross section of citizens, including, obviously, a great many Zoroastrians. So we can’t imagine that no influence took place between the two groups, especially during those centuries when Christianity had hardly had any of its ecumenical councils in order to solidify its official doctrines. To return to our closing question, though – when does Satan first appear in a Hebrew text as Satan, and when do angels begin proliferating in Jewish ideology, we have a surprisingly decent answer. And this answer is around the 160s BCE. [music]

1 Enoch and Jubilees

Beneath the familiar paneling of the Hebrew, Catholic, and Protestant Bibles, there are two apocryphal books that show a hidden joist, or junction of some different ideologies in the mid-second century BCE. These books are 1 Enoch and Jubilees, and I believe they are the most important apocryphal scriptures on earth. Deep in the heart of the so-called “silence between Malachi and Matthew,” or Intertestamental Period, 1 Enoch and Jubilees are the confluence where Zoroastrianism and Judaism appear to have splashed together the most, with Christianity appearing downstream only a century or so later. 1 Enoch and Jubilees are still part of the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Bible, having survived in the Ge’ez, or Classical Ethiopian language alone for over a thousand years. 1 Enoch and Jubilees, originally written in Hebrew and then translated into Greek, were brought back into the larger world after a Scottish explorer named James Bruce happened upon an Old Ethiopic Bible in the 1770s. Before I read 1 Enoch and Jubilees, I had always wondered how Satan had scuttled into the New Testament, as an entity of darkness really has no logical place in the cosmos of an omnipotent and beneficent god. And it was only after reading a good chunk of the Zoroastrian Avesta, and then 1 Enoch and Jubilees, that I could put my finger on a few passages of texts written by one or two generations of Jewish believers during the mid-100s BCE and say, “Gotcha.”

There is far less ambiguity about the chronology of these Ethiopian Orthodox books of Second Temple Jewish literature than those of the Zoroastrian Avesta. Fragments of 1 Enoch and Jubilees were found in Hebrew in the Dead Sea Scrolls, and their language, theology, and historical references place them firmly within the literary and theological renaissance of Hasmonean Jerusalem. This renaissance produced 1 and 2 Maccabees, books which chronicled the founding of the Hasmonean dynasty, which started as a nationalist insurrection and then turned into an indigenous Jewish monarchy for about a century. The Hasmonean renaissance produced the Books of Daniel and Judith. During this renaissance, the historian Josephus tells us, the Pharisees and Sadducees appeared as opposing groups, the Pharisees populist and nativist, and the Sadducees elitist and assimilationist. And during this renaissance – the century between 160 and 60 BCE, two books, 1 Enoch and Jubilees, were written that show a long forgotten alloy of Zoroastrianism and Judaism. [music]

Samyaza, Azazel, Mastema, Satan

Figures God took Enoch

Enoch being escorted directly to heaven in an eighteenth-century Dutch book, as he is in Gen 5:24. The Enochian writings – especially 1 Enoch, have discernibly Zoroastrian features, as does the Book of Jubilees.

1 Enoch and Jubilees are long books, written for several different reasons, but they share a core narrative about a group of dark angels called the Watchers. The Watchers, appointed to watch over humanity, instead took it upon themselves to have sex with human women, producing a race of abominable giants. The evil of these angelic malefactors, or Watchers, and the marauding of their titanic offspring, in the Books of 1 Enoch and Jubilees, prompts the first apocalypse in the Bible – the one that everyone forgets about – the Biblical Flood. And in these apocryphal books of the Bible, among the dark angels who plague humanity prior to the Biblical Flood, there certain villainous leaders. In 1 Enoch, a blasphemous angel called Samyaza is the general of the malefactors, while his counterpart Azazel teaches humanity black magic and the arts of war. In 1 Enoch, Yahweh states, prior to destroying the world with the flood, “the whole earth has been defiled through the teaching of the works of Azazel: to him ascribe all the sin” (1 En 10:8).33 In Jubilees, the Satan figure is a demon lord called Mastema, who marshals the forces of corruption on earth. As Yahweh prepares to destroy and exile the armies of darkness, the demon lord Mastema pleads with Yahweh, saying, “Lord, Creator, let some of [the demons] remain before me, and let them hearken to my voice, and do all that I shall say unto them; for if some of them are not left to me, I shall not be able to execute the power of my will on the sons of men; for these are for corruption and leading astray before my judgment, for great is the wickedness of the sons of men” (Jub 10:8).34 So Yahweh and Mastema, in this apocryphal Book of Jubilees, come to an agreement – a tenth of the demon forces will remain on earth, because. . .why not? I guess. In these apocryphal books, likely products of the years between 160 and 60 BCE, we meet what we now understand as Satan for the first time – not the Hebrew term satan, which just means “adversary,” or “accuser,” but an evil deity quite like the Zoroastrian Angra Mainyu.

There are little tendrils from the story I just synthesized that probably sounded familiar. The entire Watchers story may spin off of Genesis, Chapter 6, verse 4: “The Nephilim were on earth in those days – and also afterward – when the sons of God went in to the daughters of humans, who bore children to them. These were the heroes that were of old, warriors of renown” (Gen 6:4). These two puzzling sentences briefly mention heroic demigod warriors in a fashion very familiar to students of Greek mythology – I mean Zeus and his horny compatriots in the Metamorphoses and beyond seem to do little else other than have sex with mortal women and sire demigod kids. The tale of a generation of giants stomping around the world before being dispatched is straight from Hesiod’s Theogony. But the dark angels descending and plaguing earth with sin, and the moment in 1 Enoch when God says, “the whole earth has been defiled through the teaching of the works of Azazel: to him ascribe all the sin” (1 En 10:8) – that moment feels Zoroastrian, and Christian. Evil, in the Hebrew Bible, is not a black ash that falls from corrupted deities onto humanity. Evil in the Hebrew Bible is defection, apostasy, and cultural aliens who harm the Israelites. Thus, evil deities, ones that look Zoroastrian, enter the printed works of Judaism in the century between 160 and 60 BCE. Greek additions to the Book of Esther from this later period feature a dragon of light and a dragon of dark fighting in a dream, embodiments of the story’s protagonist and antagonist, perhaps also reflecting Zoroastrian dualism.35 And the slightly earlier Book of Tobit gives us a much more concrete reference to Zoroastrian evil. This book, canonical in Catholicism, has a central antagonist named Asmodeus – at least that’s how the Hebrew or Aramaic author of Tobit rendered the name Ashema Daeva, the Zoroastrian demon of wrath.

Jewish scribes of the 200s and 100s BCE, then, had begun writing about evil in the Zoroastrian sense of the word, and at one instance of the Bible, simply used a Zoroastrian demon as a character. These centuries also show profusions of angels exploding into Jewish literature. The Book of Daniel gives us the angels Gabriel and Michael. And around the same time, in the aforementioned books of 1 Enoch and Jubilees, angels start to appear everywhere, countless beneficent deities who staff the multi-tiered visions of heaven in these books and more generally support the Jewish God. The New Testament also shows enthusiasm toward angels, with Revelation chronicling how 200,000,000 of them would be involved in laying down the law during the last judgment. But it’s actually in Gnosticism and Manichaeism, together with later Jewish writings like 2 and 3 Enoch, that angels really become the stars of the show. I think as we learn about Gnosticism and Manichaeism in the next two episodes, we’ll see that these early Christian movements, themselves definitely fusions of Christianity, Zoroastrianism, and Greek thought, were held in low esteem by certain key Christian theologians largely because they just had too many deities flying around and doing stuff.

Well, it’s easy to get lost in the subject of comparative theology, especially when dealing with apocryphal and esoteric texts, so let’s zoom out again, and consider the implications of what we’ve just gone over. In the Books of Tobit, and Daniel, and 1 Enoch and Jubilees, broadly products of the 200s and 100s BCE, we begin to see theological developments that look discernibly Zoroastrian. We see evil as an independent cosmic force. We see Hebrew-language texts, for the first time, ascribing wickedness not to the depravity of human nature or the profligacy of generations, but instead due to vast powers beyond the control of humanity. We see scores of angels soaring over heaven and earth, themselves aids and helpers against the marauding forces of darkness. We see in 1 Enoch a savior figure prophesied and called the Son of Man, the Anointed One, the savior, in an enormous heap of verses far more plentiful than the smattering of similar ones in the Book of Isaiah – verses that the authors of the New Testament knew well.36 If we bracket the Old Testament to the left and the New Testament to the right, and focus instead directly on the Second Temple Period itself, we meet a hybrid and dynamic theology, and a moment when some Zoroastrian ideas had saturated Judaism and produced a theological flowering that would soon lead to Christianity. We have to ignore the our bibles and our canons to do so, but with just a couple of apocryphal books, some Zoroastrian features of Second Temple Judaism, however they got there, aren’t too hard to find. [music]

An Assault on Persepolis

Following the Cultural Revolution of 1979, there were some sporadic efforts to destroy evidence of pre-Islamic civilization in Iran. Basing their acts of destruction and erasure on the notion of jahiliyyah, or ignorance before Islam, some of the new regime’s more powerful clerics spearheaded attempts to demolish cultural sites that attested to the splendor and power of pre-Islamic Iran – namely some of the awesome monumental constructions of the Achaemenid, Parthian, and Sasanian Empires. At a certain point soon after the Cultural Revolution, the ruins at Persepolis, the ceremonial capital of the Achaemenid Empire and Zoroastrian heartland, came under the crosshairs of the new Islamic regime. Persepolis, nestled in the interior of the beautiful province of Fars, for its great historical importance, had up to that point been one of the crown jewels of Iran. The last Shah of Iran, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, staged an enormous outdoor party there in 1971 to celebrate 2,500 years of Persian history. Persepolis, after all, had been built for giant public gatherings – for a diverse public to pass through its gates and mingle with one another among the site’s artwork and architecture. After the Cultural Revolution, though, a powerful cleric assembled a demolition crew in the nearby city of Shiraz, complete with bulldozers, and he headed northeast to pulverize the old Achaemenid complex.

This cleric was surprised at what he found when he reached the ruins of the old Achaemenid capital. Cyrus, Darius, and Xerxes were all, of course, gone, as were the great Parthian Kings and the Sasanian rulers and the countless Zoroastrian priests who had served the populace of ancient Iran. In their place were regular twentieth-century Iranian folks – hundreds of them – villagers, farmers, and others from the nearby town of Marvdasht, locked together to stop the complex at Persepolis from being destroyed, an unlikely final line of defense for ancient Persian history. Persepolis was their place, and their home, charged with a special wonder and magic. They told the zealous cleric and his demolition team that the crew would have to roll over their dead bodies if they wanted to tear down the cherished buildings and artwork of Persepolis. The cleric, and his crew, who’d sought to destroy the cultural heart of the old Achaemenid Empire were dissuaded. And soon, more patriotic Iranians, alerted to the crisis, along with the United Nations, intervened to protect the Persepolis complex, which remains one of Iran’s most visited spots today.

I heard that story in a podcast the first time – a BBC In Our Time segment from the summer of 2018, and the tragedy, and the heroism, and ultimate triumph of it made me cry. As we make our way through our present trio of episodes on Zoroastrianism, Gnosticism and Manichaeism, we meet a group of related religions that played a huge role in the theological history, but whose scriptures often remain difficult to access. There is an excellent HarperOne Gnostic anthology, which we’ll make extensive use of next time. But there are no comparable resources for Zoroastrianism or Manichaeism – no modern scholarly editions of the writings of these two religions, no friendly Penguin or Oxford omnibus for those of us who want a historically informed anthology of primary texts. The Zoroastrian Gathas and Yashts, though on the lips and hearts of the people who lived and worked in Persepolis thousands of years ago, and though at least some versions of them survive today in the prayer books and liturgies of modern Zoroastrian temples, still haven’t even attracted enough attention to warrant a popular academic edition in English.

It’s a shame. Friction between the Abrahamic religions has created some tough times in human history, and observing how the Avestan corpus parallels the Bible and Qur’an at so many junctures helps us understand how similar Zoroastrianism, Judaism, Christianity and Islam really are. All four are religions based on dramatic narratives – faiths that purport a beginning and an end of time, sharing the ultimate view of a judgment day that will set things right after a long period of unrighteousness. They are religions based on single gods – sometimes gods with multiple aspects and flocks of angels – but single gods nonetheless. They are religions based on exclusivity, each declaring that their own god is the correct one, and that the gods of their sister faiths are not.37 And while the oldest roots of Zoroastrianism and Judaism are lost in the shadows of Iron and Late Bronze Age oral traditions, these four religious faiths were set down in text in a period encompassing about twelve centuries. This period began with the writing of Avestan ideas in the Old Persian language, which was taking place by the 600s BCE, and the main part of Old Testament during the same period. And it ended with the composition of the Qur’an in the early 600s CE.38 Today, with these religions codified and institutionalized, it is tempting to take them at their word and believe that each blazed down from above to captivate their respective communities of believers. But even a basic summary of the pivotal juncture of each religion’s story reveals their commonalities: the prophet Zarathustra, we are told, received a revelation from Ahura Mazda; the prophet Moses received a revelation from Yahweh; the prophet Muhammad received a revelation from God; the virgin Mary received a revelation from God, and she gave birth to a divine son whose words were a revelation to the world. When we set the Gathas and Yashts, the Old Testament, the New Testament, and Qur’an together on a table, they seem not so much four different religions as they do variants of a single one – a religion in which there is one god, in which correct behavior matters, in which other religions are false, and in which the end times, sooner are later, are coming.

To return to an image from near the beginning of this episode, if Judaism, Christianity, and Islam form a triptych, Zoroastrianism is the fourth panel, as old as, or even far older than Judaism. While Ancient Egypt gets the credit for the earliest surviving mentions of posthumous judgment of the individual, it is from Zoroastrianism that we get the first surviving descriptions of good and evil – not in terms of a god and that god’s dissidents, but in terms of universal absolute forces that cut a vertical dualism through both the spiritual and material world. While the roof of the Sistine Chapel glows with figures from the Book of Genesis, the western wall – the one that holds the image of the Last Judgment – this wall would not have been painted without Zoroastrianism. Good and evil – those extrasensory moral absolutes so central to various world religions – form an implicit shorthand behind so many of the stories that we still share today. Ethereal Rivendell stands against shadowy Mordor, white-clad Luke Skywalker smacks light sabers with the cackling Emperor Palpatine, a brave and wisecracking group of Avengers join forces against the destructive Thanos, Neo and John Connor fight armies of machines, a thousand other heroes foil nefarious plots to destroy the earth and their fellow species. And behind it all, known to only a precious few, stand Ahura Mazda and Angra Mainyu, who soared to life first in the Old Avestan language of Eastern Iran, became for a time as important as Yahweh and Jesus, and then quietly, for most of the world, walked off the stage with no applause.

Moving on to Gnosticism

Well that will have to do, I suppose, for a single program introduction to Zoroastrianism. This was at one point going to be a bonus program, but the more I worked on it, the more I decided it ought to be folded into our main season on Christianity, right on the heels of the Book of Revelation, since we have some pretty good evidence that Zoroastrian ideas made their way into Second Temple Jewish books during the last two centuries leading up to Christ’s birth. What’s that? You recognize that background song? That particular tune was written by a man named Farrokh Bulsara, born to into a family of Parsi Zoroastrians on the coast of present day Tanzania. By the time Farrokh Bulsara wrote the song, however, he had immigrated to the UK, produced three albums with the band Queen, changed his name to Freddy Mercury, and become the greatest rock singer in the known universe. Neat factoid about Freddy Mercury – he was from a Zoroastrian family from Gujarat, where, as I mentioned before, the largest population of Zoroastrians still resides today, and when he passed away in 1991, a Zoroastrian priest administered his funeral service. [music stops] I’d better not quote “Bohemian Rhapsody” too much – I’ll get in trouble.

Anyway, in the next episode, we will move on to Gnosticism, and the amazing Nag Hammadi library and associated Gnostic codices. Gnosticism, appearing around 100 CE, is a far younger religious movement than Zoroastrianism, and a more manageable one. Gnostics believed, like the Zoroastrians, in scores of angels and a deity residing above the world in heaven. But unlike Zoroastrians, Gnostics held the material world to be an evil and false corruption – a thing that could be resisted and transcended by means of asceticism and the acquisition of secret knowledge, or gnosis. While there were many branches of Gnosticism, and it may not be right to even call it one thing, Gnosticism was a Christian movement instrumental to the consolidation of what later became orthodox Catholicism. To early Christian theologians like Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, and Clement of Alexandria, while they had important differences from one another, they came together in concurrence that the Gnostics were all bonkers. Maybe most famously, an early figure in the movement called Marcion declared that Yahweh was a nasty secondary deity called Yaldabaoth whose creation of the material world was an act of evil, and this idea, as striking as it sounds, played a pivotal role in Gnostic history. So join me in the next program for a whole lot of Coptic language texts discovered in Egypt in the mid-20th century, and we’ll all figure out how to transcend the compromised world of material existence, escape the horrors of Yaldabaoth and his Archons, and commune with Sophia and the Great Invisible Spirit in the heavens above. Thanks for listening to Literature and History. There’s a quiz on this program at literatureandhistory.com in your podcast app if you want to do a bit of review on Zoroastrianism and ancient Persian history. For you Patreon supporters, I’ve recorded an entire Zoroastrian Gatha from an older, out-of-copyright translation – I thought you might want to hear what one of these wonderful texts sounds like at length. For everybody, I have a song coming up if you want to hear it. If not, see you soon.

Still listening? Well, I got to thinking about ancient about ancient Persian history, and decided to write a tune about Ancient Iran’s three great empires – the Achaemenids, Parthians, and Sasanians. I figured this musical number should be undertaken in some sort of genre that was somehow inappropriate, and bluegrass was the genre that I settled on, as I had that very same day been playing some banjo. So this one’s called “Ancient Persian Bluegrass,” and I hope it can be a nice little review of the history of Ancient Iran. Thanks again for listening and caring about this material, and I, together with a lot of Gnostic angels, will see you next time.

[“Ancient Persian Bluegrass” Song]


1.^ E.g. Gen 22.2-8, 2 Chron 3:1, Ps 24:3, Is 2:3, Zech 8:3.

2.^ See Rose, Jenny. Zoroastrianism: An Introduction. I.B. Tauris, 2011. Kindle Edition, Locations 824, 2044.

3.^ Jenny Rose suggests this timeframe for the oral circulation of the Gathas and Yasna Haptanghaiti (Rose, 2011, Location 4584.

4.^ Menog-I Xrad 2.152-14. Peterson, Joseph H. Avesta.org. 08-07-19, http://www.avesta.org/mp/mx.html#chapter1.

5.^ Menog-I Xrad 7.27-31. Peterson, Joseph H. Avesta.org. 08-07-19, http://www.avesta.org/mp/mx.html#chapter6.

6.^ This was Zoroastrian doctrine from the beginning – see Gath 51.9.

7.^ Yasna 28.1-3. Printed in The Hymns of Zoroaster. Translated by Guthrie, Kenneth Sylvan. George Bell, 1914, p. 15. Further references noted parenthetically with line number.

8.^ These are the Videvdad and some Yashts. See Rose (2011), Location 459.

9.^ Vendidad 1.9. Printed Bleek, Arthur Henry. Avesta: The Religious Books of the Parsis. Stephen Austen, 1864, p. 3.

10.^ Yasht 10.4.12-15. Printed in Bleek (1864), p. 58. Bleek writes (58n) of a lengthy and unquoted section of this hymn that “This verse is important in a geographical point of view, and proves that the writer must have lived in the north-east of Erân, otherwise he could scarcely have represented all the rivers as flowing north and south.”

11.^ Yasht 10.18.112-3. Printed in The Sacred Books of the East Volume 23. Ed. Max Müller. Oxford University Press, 1883, p. 148.

12.^ Vendidad 5.59-62. Printed in Bleek (1864) p. 42.

13.^ A long and rather strange section toward the end of the apocryphal book of 1 Enoch, in which all the peoples of the earth are likened to quadrupeds vying with one another, may have roots in eastern traditions from the Zoroastrian Parthian empire and beyond. This is “The Dream Visions” (1 En 83-90).

14.^ See Rose (2011), Location 578.

15.^ Ibid, Location 922.

16.^ An exception is Jubilees, whose anti-integrationist sentiment was a part of the Pharisee sect from the second century onward.

17.^ For their vintage see Zenophon Cyropedia 8.3.11.

18.^ Vend 4.16-7. Printed in Bleek (1864) p. 69.

19.^ The timeframe here is Jenny Rose’s (2011), Location 4589.

20.^ Vend 5.3.13.

21.^ Herodotus. Histories (I). Translated by George Rawlinson and with an Introduction by George Swayne. Digireads publishing , 2016, p. 65.

22.^ Histories 1.131.

23.^ Printed in Aeschylus. Aeschylus II. Ed. David Grene and Richard Lattimore. Washington Square Press, 1973, pp. 69-70.

24.^ Anabasis 1.9.11,13. Printed in Xenophon. Anabasis (The Persian Expedition). Translated by H.G. Dakyns. Digireads, 2010. Kindle Edition, Locations 640, 53.

25.^ Denkard 4.16. Peterson, Joseph H. Avesta.org. 08-06-19, http://www.avesta.org/denkard/dk4.html.

26.^ Geography 15.3.13-14. Printed in Strabo. Delphi Complete Works of Strabo. Delphi Classics, 2016. Kindle Edition, Location 28266.

27.^ Rose (2011), Location 2094.

28.^ Denkard 4.17-18. Peterson, Joseph H. Avesta.org. 08-07-19, http://www.avesta.org/denkard/dk4.html.

29.^ Rose (2011), Location 2337.

30.^ Ibid, Location 2343.

31.^ Ibid, http://www.avesta.org/mp/vohuman.html.

32.^ Quoted in Brown, Peter. The Making of Late Antiquity. Harvard University Press, 1978, p. 7. In Plutarch’s own work on comparative mythography, he spends a bit of time with Zoroastrianism – see Plutarch. Moralia Volume V. Translated by Frank Cole Babbitt. Loeb Classical Library, HUP, 1936, p. 113.

33.^ Printed in Charles, R.H. The Book of Enoch. Oxford, 1893, p. 73.

34.^ Charles, R.H. The Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha of the Old Testament. Oxford, 1913, p. 28.

35.^ The protagonist and antagonist at this point being Mordecai and Haman, respectively. Esther (Addition A) 11:5-8. See The New Oxford Annotated Bible, ed. Michael Coogan et. all. Oxford University Press, 2010, p. 1413n.

36.^ See Charles (1893), pp 43-5 for the parallels.

37.^ Sasanian Zoroastrianism seems to have become more exclusive in response to conflicts with the Byzantine west.

38.^ Jenny Rose sets the Old Persian composition of the Avestan scriptures between 725 and 300 BCE, a period which can safely be said to encompass almost all the contents of the Hebrew Bible.