The Human Journey
Post Axial Jerusalem

Post-Axial Thought


Pages 12

From the Axial Age to Modern Western Religious Thought

According to The Jewish Encyclopedia:
Most scholars, Jewish as well as non-Jewish, are of the opinion that Judaism was strongly influenced by Zoroastrianism in views relating to angelology and demonology, and probably also in the doctrine of the resurrection, as well as in eschatological* ideas in general, and also that the monotheistic conception of Yahweh may have been quickened and strengthened by being opposed to the dualism or quasi-monotheism of the Persians.

*i.e. the part of theology concerned with death, judgment and destiny.

Resemblances between Zoroastrianism and Judaism (from the Jewish Encyclopedia):

Both are revealed religions: in the one Ahura Mazda imparts his revelation and pronounces his commandments to Zarathustra on “the Mountain of the Two Holy Communing Ones”; in the other Yahweh holds a similar communion with Moses on Mount Sinai.

Both share the doctrines of a regenerate world, a perfect kingdom, the coming of a Messiah, The Resurrection of the Dead, and The Life Everlasting.

The Magian (Magi were Zoroastrian priests) laws of purification, more particularly those practiced to remove pollution incurred through contact with dead or unclean matter, are given in the Avestan Vendïdād quite as elaborately as in the Levitical code, with which the Zoroastrian Avesta has been compared.

The six days of Creation in Genesis find a parallel in the six periods of Creation described in the Zoroastrian scriptures.

Humankind, according to each religion, is descended from a single couple: The Original Couple. Mashya (man) and Mashyana are the Iranian Adam (man) and Eve.

In the Bible a deluge destroys all people except Noah, a single righteous individual, and his family; in the Avesta a winter depopulates the earth except in the Vara (“enclosure”) of the blessed Yima. In each case the earth is peopled anew with the best two of every kind, and is afterward divided into three realms. The three sons of Yima’s successor Thraetaona, named Erij (Avesta, “Airya”), Selm (Avesta, “Sairima”), and Tur (Avesta, “Tura”), are the inheritors in the Persian account; Shem, Ham, and Japheth, in the Semitic story.

Achaemenid Empire map
Superimposed on modern borders, the Achaemenid Empire under Cyrus’s rule extended approximately from Turkey, Israel, Georgia and Arabia in the West to Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, the Indus River and Oman in the East.

“Many centuries ago wise men realised that man seeks comfort, tries to avoid what he fears will give him pain, wants attention, desires to be entertained – and gives all these things quite different names, thinking unconsciously that doing so will in some magical way banish the process and replace it by a process which is of greater ‘moral’ worth.

“These wise men, in small circles and to select numbers of students, passed on this knowledge. Their method and their opportunities were not such as to permit of public dissemination of these facts. So they built into certain cultural and traditional factors the part of the lesson which could be accepted by the people at large, as a sort of ‘Moses basket.’ The people, like the Nile, carried the basket. The people of understanding, like the Egyptian princess, could find and care for the content.”
From Knowing How to Know by Idries Shah, p. 104.

Because of the language they were written in, Jewish scholars may not have directly read the Zoroastrian scriptures, but they would certainly have come across Zoroastrianism in private dialogues and in political and civic experience.  Most of Zoroastrianism known and practiced among people at that time must have been perpetuated through word of mouth. Stories about God, the Creation, the ethical and cosmic conflict of Good and Evil, the divine Judgment and even the end of the world would have been part of this oral tradition.

painting of Pandora opening a box
John William Waterhouse: Pandora, 1896.

Jews who were taken captive by the Babylonian and Edomite armies were sold as slaves, some to Greeks who took them to “the Islands of the Sea” where Greek legends became familiar and were absorbed. The idea of an Eden, where everything was originally perfect, can be found in a number of early traditions.  In Ancient Greece men originally led an idyllic life; they “lived like Gods” according to the poet Hesiod. But trouble came in the form of inquisitiveness when Epimetheus received a gift from Zeus in the form of Pandora, a beautiful maiden bearing a lidded vase that should not have been opened. Once it was, everything negative escaped.

Stories these Jewish scholars collected were reassuringly familiar and still emotionally satisfying when woven by scribes and scholars into a tapestry of myth and historical fact. The Greek historian Diodorus Siculus (1 BCE) refers to the story of the expulsion of foreigners from Egypt, and to Moses as “a wise and valiant leader” who led the Jews into Palestine. But the writer of the biblical history was also evidently quite familiar with the legend of the Sun-god Bacchus. Bacchus had two mothers, one by nature and one by adoption; so had Moses. The infant Moses, by the command of the Pharaoh, was put into a basket made of bulrushes and cast into the Nile; the infant Bacchus, by the command of the King of Thebes, was put in a chest and thrown into the Nile. Both Bacchus and Moses have a rod with which to perform miracles; both use it to draw water from a rock; both can transform it into a serpent; both divide waters; both men were called the “Law-giver” and their laws were written on two tablets of stone.

Dionysus/Bacchus carving on a marble sarcophagus
Dionysus (Greek) or Bacchus (Roman). Procession on a marble sarcophagus.

painting of Moses and the serpent
Moses lifts up the brass serpent, curing the Israelites
from poisonous snake bites.

Thus stories were absorbed and adapted from both legend and history and new tales were created all in answers to questions and concerns that were universal to the human condition: Who are we? Why are we? How can we survive, protect and ensure the next generation? Tales of paradise and a perfect original state as alternatives to the difficult reality of everyday experiences can also be understood in this context. Prophets and storytellers solved universal problems and concerns with universal stories and their admonitions and recommendations enabled people to feel that they had more control over their lives.  Today science, government and religion attempt to serve similar functions.

In this way, Zoroastrian teachings, Babylonian, Greek and other foreign myths were assimilated into Jewish history and religious culture. Their scholars sought to adjust traditional religious life and thought to a changing world, one that would confirm their status as the chosen people in a covenant with the one true God. Like the Homeric tales, these stories, whose overt purpose was to identify and inspire a people, were originally absorbed by the Jewish people as oral tradition containing fundamental truths about themselves. But, once written down, the Old Testament would be read, centuries later, as Jewish history.