zō’ rō ăs’ trĭ ən īzm. The dominant religion of Persia for more than a millennium preceding the Mohammedan invasion (636), founded on the teachings of the prophet Zarathustra. (Zoroaster is the corrupt Greek form of the Iranian Zarathustra.) The historical personality is practically lost in the legendary promulgations of the followers. Although disputed, the most logical date of his birth is about the sixth or fifth century b.c. in Iran. At the age of thirty or a little later, Zarathustra had a life-changing religious experience in which he met Ahura-Mazda (“the Wise Lord”). This experience plus other revelations led him to become the prophet of a new, purified religion. Tradition says this new prophet was successful in converting King Vishtaspa, the ruler of E Iran, and found a powerful protector of the faith in Vishtaspa's son, Darius the Great. Zarathustra died at age seventy-seven.

He taught a new ethical religion that was firmly rooted in the old Iranian folk-religion. He bitterly attacked the cult of the gods of popular religion and promoted the worship of the one Spirit, Ahura-Mazda (later called Ormazd). The good man joined the battle against Angra Mainyu (later called Ahriman), the chief agent of evil, in preparation for the final judgment involving the resurrection of the dead and the confinement of the wicked to the regions of torment. Each individual was to be judged according to his deeds. It is thought that this eschatology came to influence Jewish eschatology through exilic contact with the Persians. The scriptures, the Avesta, became the bases for the cultus which was administered by the priestly class known as the Magi. A major part of the worship is centered around the fire altar.

Zoroastrianism became the spawning grounds for other religions such as Mithraism* and Manichaeism,* but it came to a sudden end in Persia with the seventh-century Muslim conquest. It survives now in a small Parsi community in India located chiefly in and around Bombay. The followers have emphasized education and, therefore, hold many of the influential positions in Bombay.

J.H. Moulton, Early Zoroastrianism (1913); M.N. Dhalls, Zoroastrian Civilization (1922) and History of Zoroastrianism (1938); E. Herzfeld, Zoroaster and His World (2 vols., 1947); J.J. Modi, Religious Ceremonies and Customs of the Parsis (2nd ed., 1954).

The religious concept taught by the Iranian sage, Zarathustra, and more properly known as Mazdaism. The early history of the movement is obscure and no firm historical or chronological information is extant. It is likely that Zarathustra lived in the 6th cent. b.c., and may have been born and raised in NW Iran, migrating to the more southerly center of the country about 300 years before the Alexandrian invasion. He preached the worship of the high god, Ahura Mazda as the true and unique deity and encouraged his followers to seek goodness through ethical actions and good works. Undoubtedly there were political and economic factors involved with the feudalistic organization of the ancient pantheistic religion. The concept of Zarathustra never totally escaped the older ideas but was much more mystical and theoretical. Most of what is known of his teaching is derived from much later sources and traditions. His teachings were embodied in the elaborate versified songs of the Avestan Gāthās which were set down in written form sometime in the Sassanid era c. 4th cent., a.d. These songs contain personal reflections upon the joys and frustrations of Zarathustra’s career, which finally triumphed when his daughter Pouruchistā married the vizier of the ruler Vishtaspā. The basic motive of Mazdaism is an unrelieved dualism in which Virtue, Love, Life and Light are represented by Ahura Mazda who is eternally opposed by Wickedness, Hate, Death and Darkness represented by the arch demon Angra Mainyav. The whole of the universe and its innumerable aspects is divided between these two cosmic forces. A vast hierarchy of spirits and demiurges were proposed by the later Zoroastrian philosophers who sought to a large degree to unite the conceptions of Zarathustra with the ancient religion. The eclectic result with incrustations of myth, legend and ritual is in effect the Zoroastrian religion. It is still practiced in its Parsee form in India and includes all the ancient customs, the sacred and unquenchable fire, the elaborate mystical temple rituals and the exposure of dead bodies on the dakhma “towers of silence.” The lit. of Zoroastrianism is extensive and includes primarily the Avesta and many subsidiary texts in Pahlavi. Much of the thrust of Zoroastrianism passed into Gnosticism, Mithraism and Pers. Islam.


C. Bartholomae, Die Gathas des Avesta (1905); H. S. Nyberg, Die Religionen des alten Iran (1938); E. Herzfeld, Zoroaster and His World (1947); J. Duchesne-Guillemin, La religion de l’Iran ancien (1962); Ed. J. Rypka, History of Iranian Literature (1968).

Detailed Discussion




1. Influence on Occident

2. Popular Judaism

3. Possible Theological Influence

4. Angelology and Demonology

5. Eschatology

6. Messiah

7. Ethics

8. Summary


I. History


The sacred book of the Persians, the Avesta, is a work of which only a small part has survived. Tradition tells that the Avestan manuscripts have suffered one partial and two total destructions (at the hands of Turanians, Macedonians, and Mohammedans, respectively), and what remains seems to be based on a collection of passages derived from oral tradition and arranged for liturgical purposes at the time of the first Sassanians (after 226 AD). None the less, a portion (the Gathas) of the present work certainly contains material from Zoroaster himself and much of the remainder of the Avesta is pre-Christian, although some portions are later. Outside of the Avesta there is an extensive literature written in Pahlavi. Most of this in its final form belongs to the 9th Christian century, or to an even later date, but in it there is embodied much very early matter. Unfortunately criticism of these sources is as yet in a very embryonic condition. The Greek historians, especially Plutarch and Strabo, are naturally of great importance, but the chief Greek work (that of Theopompus) is lost.

For a general account of Zoroastrianism, see PERSIAN RELIGION.

II. Relation to Israel

1. Influence on Occident

Zoroastrianism was an active, missionary religion that has exerted a profound influence on the world’s thought, all the more because in the West (at any rate) Ahura Mazda was not at all a jealous god, and Mazdeism was always quite ready to enter into syncretism with other systems. But this syncretistic tendency makes the task of the historian very delicate. None of the three great streams that swept from Persia over the West--Mithraism, Gnosticism, and Manicheism--contained much more than a Mazdean nucleus, and the extrication of Mazdean from other (especially older Magian and Babylonian) elements is frequently impossible. Yet the motive force came from Zoroaster, and long before the Christian era "Magi" were everywhere (as early as 139 BC they were expelled from Rome; compare RAB-MAG; BRANCH). Often, doubtless, charlatans, they none the less brought teachings that effected a far-reaching modification of popular views and produced an influence on so basic a writer as Plato himself.

2. Popular Judaism

Within the period 538-332 BC (that Cyrus was a Zoroastrian seems now established) Israel was under the rule of Mazdeans, and Mazdean influence on at least the popular conceptions was inevitable. It appears clearly in such works as Tobit (Expository Times, XI, 257 ff), and Hystaspis (GJV, edition 4, III, 592-95), in many Talmudic passages (ZDMG, XXI, 552-91), certain customs of the Essenes, various anti-demoniac charms (see Exorcism; Sorcery), and, perhaps, in the feast of Purim. And the stress laid on the prophetic ability of the Magi in Mt 2:1-12 is certainly not without significance. But the important question is the existence or extent of Mazdean influence on the formal Jewish religion.

3. Possible Theological Influence

As a matter of fact, after Israel’s contact with Persia the following elements, all known to Mazdeism, appear, and apparently for the first time:

  1. a formal angelology, with six (or seven) archangels at the head of the developed hierarchy;
  2. these angels not mere companions of God but His intermediaries, established (often) over special domains;
  3. in the philosophical religion, a corresponding doctrine of hypostases;
  4. as a result, a remoter conception of God;
  5. a developed demonology;
  6. the conception of a supreme head (Satan) over the powers of evil;
  7. the doctrine of immortality;
  8. rewards or punishments for the soul immediately after death;
  9. a schematic eschatology especially as regards chronological systems;
  10. a superhuman Messiah;
  11. bodily resurrection;
  12. a rationalized, legalistic conception of God’s moral demands.

4. Angelology and Demonology

In this list Mazdean influence may be taken as certain in points (1), (2), (5), (6). Of course belief in angels and (still more) in demons had always existed in Israel, and a tendency to classification is a natural product of increased culture. But the thoroughness and rapidity of the process and the general acceptance of its principles show something more than cultural growth (compare the influence of pseudo-Dionysius on Christianity). In particular, the doctrine of patrons (angelic or demoniac) seems to find no expression in the pre-exilic religion. Nor was the incorporation into a single being, not only of phases, but of the whole power of evil, a necessary growth from the earlier religion; the contrast between 2Sa 24:1 and 1Ch 21:1 shows a sharp alteration in viewpoint. On the other hand, the dualism that Ahriman was to explain produced no effect on Israel, and God remained the Creator of all things, even of Satan. See Satan; Antichrist. (3) presents a problem that still needs proper analysis. The Zoroastrian abstractions may well have stimulated Jewish speculation. But the influence of Greek thought can certainly not be ignored, and a rationalizing process applied to the angelelegy would account for the purely Jewish growth of the concepts. (4) is bound up to some degree with the above, and presents the most unpleasant feature of the later Judaism. Sharply counter to prophetic and pre-prophetic teaching, it was modified by the still later Talmudism. Its inconsistency with the teaching of Christ needs no comment. In part, however, it may well have been due to the general "transcendentalizing" tendencies of the intermediate period.

See God; Salvation.

5. Eschatology:

It is possible, similarly, to understand the advanced Jewish eschatology as an elaboration and refinement of the genuinely prophetic Day of Yahweh concepts, without postulating foreign influence. In particular, a doctrine of immortality was inevitable in Judaism, and the Jewish premises were of a sort that made a resurrection belief necessary. The presence of similar beliefs in Mazdeism may have hastened the process and helped determine the specific form, and for certain details direct borrowing is quite likely (compare the twelve periods of world-history in Apocrypha Abraham 29; Syriac Baruch 53 ff; 2 Esdras 14). But too much stress cannot be laid on details. The extant Persian apocalypses are all very late, and literary (if not religious) influence on them from Christian and Jewish sources seems inevitable (for the Bahman Yast it is certain). Nor could the effect of the Mazdean eschatology have been very thorough. Of its two most cardinal doctrines, the Chinvat Bridge is absent from Judaism, and the molten-metal ordeal is referred to only in the vaguest terms, if at all. Indeed, the very fact that certain doctrines were identified with the "heathen" may well have deterred Jewish acceptance.

See Parousia; Resurrection.

6. Messiah

Similarly, the Messiah, as future king, was fixed in Jewish belief, and His elevation to celestial position was an inevitable step in the general refining process. The Persian Saoshyant doctrine may well have helped, and the appearance of the Messiah "from .... the sea" in 2 Esdras 13:3 certainly recalls the Mazdean appearance from a lake. But Saoshyant is not a celestial figure. He has no existence before his final appearance (or birth) and he comes from earth, not from heaven. The Jewish Son of man--Messiah--on the other hand, is a purely celestial figure and (even in 2 Esdras 13) existed from (or before) creation. The birth of Saoshyant from the seed of Zoroaster and that of the (non-celestial) Messiah from the seed of David have no connection whatever.

See Messiah; Son of man.

7. Ethics

Not much can be made of the parallel in legalism. Nearly every religion has gone through a similar legalistic state. The practical eudemonistic outlook of such works as Proverbs and Sirach (see Wisdom) doubtless have analogies in Mazdeism, and the comfortable union of religion and the good things of the present life among the Persians may well have had an effect on certain of the Jews, especially as the Persians preserved a good ethical standard. But only a part of Judaism was eudemonistic, and Mazdean and Jewish casuistry are based on entirely distinct principles.

8. Summary

Summarizing, about the most that can be asserted for Mazdean influence is that it left its mark on the angelology and demonology and that it possibly contributed certain eschatological details. Apart from this, it may well have helped determine the development of elements already present in Israel’s faith. On the common people (especially the more superstitious) its influence was considerably greater. But there is nothing in the formal theology of Judaism that can be described as "borrowed" from Mazdean teachings.

NOTE. There is almost certainly no reference to Mazdean dualism in Isa 45:7.


The Avesta is in SBE, IV, 23, 31, but the Gathas are best studied in L.H. Mills, The Gathas of Zarathushtra (1900); Pahlavi texts in SBE, V, 18, 24, 37, 47. The best presentation of Mazdeism is in Saussaye’s Lehrbuch der Religionsgeschichte, II, 162-233 (by Ed. Lehmann); compare the articles "Zoroastrianism" in Encyclopedia Biblica (Geldner and Cheyne) and HDB (J. H. Moulton, excellent); on the relation to Judaism, Stave, Uber den Einfluss des Parsismus auf das Judenthum (1898); Soderblom, La vie future d’apres le Mazdeisme (An. Mus. Guimet, 1901, needs checking); Boklen, Die Verwandtschaft der jud.-chr. mit der parsischen Eschatologie (1902, good material but very uncritical); L. H. Mills, Our Own Religion in Ancient Persia (1912, theory of parallel development; Mazdeism rather idealized); J. H. Moulton, Early Zoroastrianism (1913) and articles by T. K. Cheyne, The Expository Times, II, 202, 224, 248; and J. H. Moulton, The Expository Times, IX, 352. For details compare Clemen, Religionsgeschichtliche Erklarung des New Testament (1909, English translation, Primitive Christianity and Its non-Jewish Sources); Bousset, Religion des Judenthums (2nd edition, 1906); Offenbarung Johannis (1906); Hauptprobleme der Gnosis (1907, indispensable).