Razib Khan One-stop-shopping for all of my content

March 29, 2018

Abraham on the shoulders of Zoroaster (and others)

Filed under: History,Zoroastrianism — Razib Khan @ 7:54 pm

Yesterday on Twitter I made a quip about “linear Western models of time.” A friend pointed out that that was actually “Judeo-Christian.” I was going to agree…but then I realized something: I vaguely recalled that eschatology and millenarianism were things that some have hypothesized came into Judaism from Zoroastrianism.

The historical context is straightforward. The Babylonians took the Jews to Mesopotamia, where they were strongly influenced by the local cultures. Mesopotamia for most of the period before the Islamic conquest was dominated by Iranian polities, the Achaemenids, Parthians, and Sassanids. Though the non-Iranian populace of Mesopotamia never took to Zoroastrianism, which was considered somewhat the ethnic religion of Iranian peoples,* it has hard to imagine they were not influenced by the religion.

Early Islamic chronicles describe a religious culture in Mesopotamia in the early centuries after Muhammad that would be both familiar and alien. The familiar aspect would be the dominance of various forms of Christianity and Judaism among the Semitic speaking population. The form of Judaism which came to be dominant by the medieval period was strongly influenced by Jewish thinkers in late antique Mesopotamia, who operated with a certain freedom that Jews under Christian rule did not have. Though Christians in Mesopotamia tended to be Oriental Orthodox, whether it be what we would today term Jacobite or the Church of the East, they were Christian.

But the exotic aspect is that many other religious groups, inflected with Zoroastrian and pagan beliefs, were also present. The pagans of Harran persisted down to the Islamic period because of the protection that they had received from the Persian emperors during the Byzantine period. Though groups like Mandeans and Yazidis seems exotic to us today, they were probably part of the bubbling matrix of beliefs which produced novel religious movements rather regularly (ghulat Shia sects like the Alawites probably have laundered some of these old beliefs into modern outwardly Muslim groups).

Manicheanism, for example, seems to have emerged at this intersection of religions. The prophet himself was from a heterodox (from our perspective) Christian background, but his new religion integrated aspects of Christianity, Zoroastrianism, and Buddhism, as well as agnosticism which seems to have channeled Neoplatonic conceptions of the corruption of this world.

The important point here is that this was not a unique confluence of events. Centuries before the Roman Empire, exiled Judaeans were in contact with Zoroastrians in Mesopotamia. The dislocation probably helped force their shift away from belief in a geographically delimited tribal god, local to Palestine, toward a more mature monotheism. But they were also introduced to new ideas which seem to be derived from Zoroastrianism: angels, the prominent role of Satan as God’s foil, an elaborated heaven, and eschatology, seem to be derived from the milieu of Zoroastrian influenced culture.

But were they? One of the major themes, perhaps the most interesting one, in The Shape of Ancient Thought: Comparative Studies in Greek and Indian Philosophies, are the common Mesopotamian motifs which seem to pervade the West Eurasian oikoumene, from Europe to South Asia.

Perhaps the Zoroastrian influence on the Abrahamic religions is less about the creative genius of the Iranian peoples as they impinged upon the older civilizations of West Asia, as it is about their absorption and synthesis of far older motifs?

Again, this sort of synthesis, cooption, and appropriation should be unsurprising. The more and more I’ve dug into the early history of Islam, the more I’ve come to the conclusion that subjugated Iran & Turan held captive the uncouth Arab and brought the arts to the rustic desert nomads! Actually, that appropriation of a classicist jibe misleads as to my view of the early Arab conquerors of Persia. I suspect they were primarily civilized peoples on the margins of the Persian and Roman world, not raw Bedouins. But, many of the aspects of Islam that we think of as constitutive to the religion probably only dates to the Abbasid period and later, when Iranians of Zoroastrian, Christian, and Buddhist background dominated the culture (e.g, the emphasis messianism in Shia Islam probably is accentuated by Zoroastrian influences, while Sunni Islam’s focus on learning of the ulema in a formal sense may be modeled on Central Asian Buddhist monastic forms).

Ultimately the reason I’ve brought this up is that many things that we in the modern world find beautiful or good are said to be contingent on the nature of Christianity, and Christianity is contingent on Jewish thought. Quite often this is false. I used to watch Bible documentaries where David Wolpe was a frequent guest. Wolpe was wont to say that the genius of the Jews was the invention of ethical monotheism. If I had to bet I think this is just wrong. My own suspicion is that on the probability the Jewish shift toward ethical monotheism in their conception of their tribal religion was given a strong push sufficiently, if not necessarily, by the widespread currency of proto-Zoroastrian ideas in Persian Babylon (and later Ctesiphon).

The idea of linear time is often connected liberal individualism and the possibility of progress. The caricature is that the “Judeo-Christian tradition invented progress,” ergo, liberalism, science, etc. This sort of reductive causal model has always struck me as implausible, in part because most of the people (thought not all!) who make this assertion know very little outside of our their own tradition, so they are easily impressed by its uniqueness due to its singular hold on their imagination.

I’m not presupposing here that Zoroastrianism was a necessary condition for the emergence of many traits unique to Judaism. It seems likely that something like ethical monotheism was going to be “invented” somewhere (note that millenarianism seems to have developed in China independently before the first “Western” influences, such as Buddhism and Manichaeanism).

This speaks to the thesis of whether history is driven by unique ideas, or structural forces. They aren’t exclusive, nor are they unrelated. Peter Turchin and others have suggested that ethical metaphysical/religious systems were nearly inevitable with the maturing of large multi-ethnic imperial polities. I believe that evolutionary psychology allows us to understand why those ethical systems were broadly similar in the generalities. The human quest for cosmic justice is just an elaboration of our intuitions about fair-play in a Paleolithic tribal band.

* Zoroastrianism was more successful in the Caucasus, probably because Caucasian elites were integrated into the military elite of the Iranian states.

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