I have recently had some doubts in my faith. I am worried about the many similarities between Christianity and Zoroastrianism. I have already read your posts on the subject, but I have also seen how the major scholars of this religion like Mary Boyce unanimously believe that Zoroaster lived in 1200 BC. I am attaching a PDF of a well-known scholar who speaks of the Zoroastrian idea of the Sayosant, the son of a virgin who becomes pregnant by bathing in the lake where the seed of Zoroaster is kept.
Rennie Zoroastrianism The Sayosant in Zoroastrian’ eschatology is supposedly the one who judges the living and the dead on the day of judgment. And according to these prominent scholars, this belief in the Sayosant is from the 4th century BC. I’d like to know what you think about this.
There have been many claims that Christian and Jewish writers borrowed from Zoroastrian sources. Nearly all of these claims I have read fall into the category of junk scholarship, which is really not scholarship at all. These irresponsible pseudo-scholars have claimed all kinds of parallels between Zoroastrian ideas of a “Messiah” which are not supported at all by any kind of careful analysis of texts and of dates. However, I will have to say that the article you have read is serious scholarship. These authors make only limited claims. Whether these claims are proved or even strongly supported by the balance of the data is debatable, but I will give credit to the authors that they acknowledge that their conclusions are tentative and that they limit their claims of borrowing to ones which have at least some basis in reasonable conclusion from the evidence. So, I congratulate the author, Bryan Rennie for doing a good job of shedding scholarly light on a topic which needs this kind of treatment.
Rennie makes two claims which I want to discuss:
1. His principle claim, which he goes into quite a bit of detail about, is that the idea of apocalyptic eschatology (the idea of a final resurrection and judgment to those who do not know such fancy vocabulary) was borrowed by late Judaism and Christianity from Zoroastrianism.
2. He makes a secondary claim which he backs up with much less evidence (but then it is only a secondary claim) that the idea of a personal evil one–Satan–was also borrowed by Christians and later Jews from Zoroastrianism and that the idea of a personal savior in Christianity was also borrowed from the Zoroastrian Saosiant.
First of all, let us discuss the dates of writing of the Avesta and the Gathas–the principle scripture of this religion. The oldest texts we have of these writings comes from the fourteenth century AD. The author proposes that some of the oral tradition behind the Gathas may go back as far as 1000 BC, but his evidence for this is from quotes during the Greek period, around 300-400 BC and from Latin sources much later, as well as from linguistic style of some of the oral tradition. We do not know when Zarathustra, the supposed founder of this religion lived or even if he lived at all. However, let us concede that it is somewhat likely that there was an actual person Zarathustra who did live somewhere around 1000 BC plus or minus three hundred years or so and that there was oral tradition about him and saying attributed to him or to his followers from before 500 BC.
Let me propose an analogy. We cannot use the analogy between Jesus and Zarathustra because there is almost no similarity of evidence. We know when Jesus was born, when he died, how he died, the name of his mother and adoptive father, as well as three of his siblings and dozens of his friends. We do not know where Zarathustra lived or when he lived, or the names of his close associates. In fact, whether his existence is historical at all is debatable. So, my analogy for Zarathustra is Abraham. We know where he lived, unlike Zarathustra, but the dates of his life is plus or minus about two hundred years and the direct, written evidence of him as a historical figure is very limited. However, the oral tradition which found its way into Genesis about Abraham has strong evidence of ties to Mesopotamia around 1800 BC. The oldest copies of the text comes from about 250 BC, which is about as long after the events as the oldest manuscripts of Zoroastrianism from the original events.
To some extent, some of this is not relevant to the question of borrowing, but the fact is that we simply do not know what the content of this religion was at all before about 400 or perhaps 500 BC, which makes claims of borrowing by Judaism tenuous at best. The question of who borrowed from whom or whether borrowing really did in fact occur will remain debatable in scholarly circles.
But let me burrow just a bit into the claim of Jewish or Christian borrowing of the idea of final resurrection and judgment from Zoroastrianism. The evidence, as I see it, is that these ideas in Judaism predate not only the earliest quotes we have from the Zoroastrian scriptures (around 400 BC) but predate the life of Zoroaster himself (assuming that he did actually live, which is still in doubt).
For example Psalm 16:10 is a prophecy about the Messiah in which David says of the Messiah: “You will not abandon me to the grave, nor will you let your Holy One see decay.” This is from about 1000 BC, which is several centuries before there was any significant contact between Persian and Jewish peoples, and hundreds of years before there is even the slightest evidence of a messianic concept in Zorastrianism or even that the religion existed! David speaks many times about life after death in a place called Sheol. He also talks multiple times about being forgiven and not being judged. The author also mentions Ezekiel who prophesied again and again about a final kingdom of resurrected people, not only in Ezekiel 37, as mentioned by Rennie, but also in Ezekiel 34, 36, 39,43 and 47. Imagery from the Garden of Eden as a picture of the afterlife with God is used in Ezekiel 47:1-12. This prophecy comes from about 588 BC, which is long before there was any significant interaction between Persians and Jews, and also long before we have any direct evidence of any kind of eschatological expectation in Zoroastrian texts.
In fact, the idea of resurrection goes back to the time of Abraham himself, which is many centuries before Zarathustra supposedly lived. In the story of Abraham offering Isaac as a sacrifice (Genesis 22), only to receive him back, figuratively, on the third day (Hebrews 11:18), we have a prefiguring of the death and resurrection of Jesus.
And then there is Daniel 12:3-5 from about 538 BC and Zechariah 14:3-11, both of which have very clear eschatological ideas of a future judgment and resurrection. Both of these are from the very earliest time of known contact between Persian and Jewish culture.
I could give many more references to apocalyptic/eschatological ideas which pervade the Old Testament from a period either before Zoroastrianism even existed, or certainly before we have evidence of the Gathas or Avesta having been written or before it is reasonable to assume that Persian religious ideas could have influenced Jewish religious thinking. Hopefully, these will suffice for now.
What is the most reasonable conclusion on balance between the three possibilities 1. Jewish ideas of a final resurrection of a saving Messiah influenced nascent Zoroastrian ideas of the same. 2. Zoroastrian eschatological thinking influenced Jewish and Christian writers or 3. The ideas both percolated up independently in the two different cultures. Given the evidence, the most likely of the three is the first–that Judaism influenced later Zoroastrian thinking, to eventually end up in its scriptures, which remained unwritten before about 300 BC. The second most likely, but with a much lower probability, given that we have no credible evidence is the second possibility. Of course, it is also possible that the traditions developed completely independently.
Let me put one more though out there for you. This is the idea of inspiration. Is there even the slightest external evidence that the Gathas or the Avesta are inspired by a supernatural source of truth? The simple answer is no. Would anyone even dare to compare the evidence for inspiration of the Old and the New Testament to that for the inspiration of the Zoroastrian scriptures? Here is where the vastly superior amount of information we have about Jesus compared to the semi-mythical Zarathustra comes into play. We have clearly messianic prophecies of a coming Messiah which were fulfilled in spectacular and specific detail in the life of Jesus which really makes all discussion of Jewish or Christian “borrowing” from Zoroastrianism moot. According to Psalm 22, written 1000 years before Christ, and several centuries before any Zoroastrian scripture was written down which tells us that the Messiah would be crucified by piercing of hand and feet. We have it on good authority from Roman (Tacitus) and Jewish (Josephus) that this is in fact how Jesus died. We have the prophecy from about 730 BC in Isaiah 53 that the Messiah would be pierced, despised and rejected and that he would give his live as an atonement for sin. Will anyone with a straight face claim that Isaiah borrowed this idea from some sort of Zoroastrian influence? There is also the betrayal for 30 pieces of silver and the use of that money to buy the Potter’s field in Zechariah 11:10-13, and the birth of Messiah in Bethlehem from the eighth century BC prophet Micah (Micah 5:2). Even in that very scripture, we see in Micah 5:3 the idea that the Messiah will bring about a resurrection of God’s people–an eschatology. Daniel tells us in Daniel 9:24-26 that Messiah will come to Jerusalem in about the year we know of as AD 30 to offer himself to atone for sins. This is insurmountable evidence, not only that the Bible writers did not borrow their eschatology from Zoroastrianism, but that they “borrowed” them by inspiration from the same God who brought these events to fruition.
I could continue on for dozens of pages, relating to you the evidence that both the Old and the New Testaments are divinely inspired. God did not borrow his truth from dualistic fire-worshipping Persian priests. The very idea of this is nonsensical, given the evidence.
Getting back to the paper by Brian Rennie, I believe that his effort at applying careful reasoned scholarship to the question of who borrowed from whom is to be commended. If we remove the evidence for inspiration of the Bible from the question, given the lack of information we have about the history of the Zoroastrian scriptures, his thesis is worth checking into. The jury among scholars of religion who do not believe in God may be still out on this one, but I believe that both the historical evidence leans very strongly against Rennie’s conclusion and the evidence for the inspiration of the Bible makes it completely untenable.
One more thing, and that is about the idea of a virgin birth of a Savior, which the author Rennie proposes may have been borrowed, not by the Jews, but by the Christians. Rennie mentions nothing about “the Sayosant, son of a virgin who becomes pregnant by bathing in the lake where the seed of Zoroaster is kept” but he does refer to the idea of a virgin birth. Here, Rennie is careful to note that this idea appears to have entered Zoroastrianism no earlier than about 300 BC, or possibly even later. We can cherry-pick all Zoroastrian ideas to point out this supposed parallel if we like, but the parallel is not all that strong, to be honest. If a woman were to bathe in a lake which has diluted the sperm of Zoroaster and subsequently became pregnant, I suppose this would be a miraculous birth. But what is the evidence that this actually happened? Who is this Sayosant character? Did Zarathustra even believe in this idea?
The situation with the virgin birth of Jesus is something completely different. We know when the event happened and where it happened. We have the word of a woman of very high character–Mary–to support it. We have people who knew her and who knew Jesus who taught this while Mary was still alive and could have cleared up the misunderstanding if it were not true. The idea that the apostles who knew Jesus himself and who were willing to die because they were completely convinced of the deity of Christ making up a total lie about a woman who was still alive is ludicrous. That they would have perpetrated such a conspiracy to create such a lie simply in an attempt to make their religion similar to Zoroastrianism is not believable. I believe that we can dismiss this idea out of hand.