Zoroastrianism, Part 2

The contributors to https://choosinghats.org/ make an apparently radical claim: People cannot know anything if God has not revealed Himself to them. Certainly then, people cannot know God without revelation. Our epistemology is revelational; we start with the presupposition that God has spoken and stay there throughout our thoughts and actions. Finite, fallible, sinful humanity can know nothing of God apart from His revealing Himself to us, hence Christian apologists who desire to move from some would-be autonomous position to the conclusion that God exists engage themselves in futility. Likewise for those who wish to prove the existence of some non-existent god like Ahura Mazda of Zoroastrianism. We therefore set forth the challenge to religious unbelievers to prove to us the existence of their gods while noting that they have not the slightest opportunity to get anywhere if they do not start from something which claims to be a revelation of their god. Framing the challenge in this way significantly narrows the field of what people may consider “competitors” by virtue of their alleged revelational epistemologies. There are few world religions that even claim to have anything like what the Bible is to Christianity. Zoroastrianism might be counted among the few, but the claim is easily shown to be incorrect.

Zoroastrianism teaches that Zarathustra received revelation from Ahura Mazda to be given to humanity. Thus, we understand the nature of the challenge to Christianity stemming from this religion. Unlike most other religions of the world, Zoroastrianism claims to have divinely inspired texts. Discrepancies between secondary literature on the subject of Zoroastrianism abound, likely due to a lack of information pertaining to the history of the religion. Zoroastrianism is often presented as having so many parallels to Judaism, Islam, and Christianity that it is considered by many to be the predecessor of the “big three”. The “many” just mentioned may especially include students sitting in history and religion classes. Special mention may be made of a messianic figure called Saoshyant, an “Armageddon-like” final battle, a bodily resurrection, a final judgment, and a heaven and hell. Again, many historians of religion believe Zoroastrianism to be the source of other religions sharing these themes. However, it should be pointed out that parallels amongst religious literature are often exaggerated and disappear upon closer inspection. In any event, parallels do not prove borrowing, and even if they did, the direction of the borrowing would not be clear. Attributing the origin of other belief systems to Zoroastrianism is a difficult move to defend as may be inferred from the aforementioned discrepancies in secondary literature stemming from a lack of knowledge regarding the religion in its historical context. Zoroastrianism is certainly not monolithic and has changed over time. Likewise there have been various sects of teaching within the religion. Zoroastrian doctrine is full of complexities, and questions about the origin of particular doctrines is extremely unclear. That is, we simply do not know enough to make judgments about when the specific doctrines listed above actually appeared in Zoroastrianism. They may very well have been borrowed from Christianity, for example.

The lack of information discussed above is apparent in current accounts concerning Zarathustra, the “prophet” of Zoroastrianism who is said to have delivered a unique revelation from Ahura Mazda to his people. Zarathustra, or “Zoroaster” in the Greek, is considered to be Ahura Mazda’s prophet. “Zara” means “yellow” and “ushtra” means “camel”, however “ushas” means light and hence later followers of the teaching of Zarathustra referred to him as the “Golden Light” or “Shining Star” rather than the earlier “yellow camel”, which would likewise have carried a sort of sacred significance because of the status of the camel in Zarathustra’s time and culture. (Camels were considered a necessary and significant part of everyday life and sacred.) Traditions concerning the life of Zarathustra are contained in the Pahlavi Denkard and the Zatspram. Both documents came into existence long after the death of Zarathustra, the former being contained in late commentaries and the latter being written in the ninth-century AD by a high priest of the religion.

Sometime between 2000 and 1500 BC mass numbers of Aryans brought their ancient polytheistic religion to present day Iran (“land of Aryans”). These religious teachings involved the worship of divine beings (daevas) and rituals, most all of which were opposed by Zarathustra, who acted as a kind of religious reformer. For a taste of what the Aryan religious practice may have been like one need only look to India, the present day home of Hinduism, a religion which was early on based largely upon Aryan religion once the Aryans moved to northern India.

Zarathustra lived between 1500 and 500 BC, probably about 1200 BC in Azerbaijan province in Northwest Iran, although he may also have lived on an oasis in Eastern Iran near Afghanistan. This second possibility is brought to our attention by linguistic and archaeological evidence. The later traditions about Zarathustra’s life already mentioned claim that he began his reformation of religion when he was thirty years old after he had visions of Ahura Mazda and received the god’s message for humanity in its entirety. No one believed Zarathustra for ten years, with the exception of his cousin, who converted. At some point the supposed prophet managed to anger religious leaders enough to be thrown into prison where he somehow was able to convert King Vishtaspa, who is known as Hystaspes in Greek. This was accomplished through healing the king’s horse upon spiritual or religious conditions being fulfilled by the king. Most of what has been retold here is according to the late tradition mentioned already.

Let us not forget that the details of this alleged prophet’s life are at best exceedingly unclear. In fact, what we know the most about are the teachings he left behind (at least according to legend and tradition), which we will examine in future entries. Zarathustra primarily promoted Ahura Mazda as the supreme god and condemned all of the other deities or daevas worshipped by the Aryans and company. Likewise the people themselves were condemned along with their rituals; with the exceptions of the drinking of haoma juice and rituals involving fire. A dualism of good and evil was also given a major role in Zarathustra’s teachings.

The foundational sacred writing of Zoroastrianism is the Avesta, which as far as we can tell was comprised of roughly 22 books on history, medicine, law, and liturgy. These pieces were written in Avestan, the rare, archaic language related to Sanskrit but written in modified Pahlavi characters. This language is extremely rare…so rare in fact that the Avesta is the only example of it we have. Add to this that only a small part of this work survived; the rest is believed to have been destroyed by Alexander, a rather plausible part of Zoroastrian legend. A portion of the Avesta is called the Yasna, which contains 72 chapters of prayers and liturgy. In the middle of the Yasna is what is what is really significant for our purposes, the Gathas. Here one will find hymns written in an even older dialect of the strange Avestan language. These hymns are believed to have been written by Zarathustra himself and make up about fifty pages. There were later Zoroastrian texts written in a much more modern Persian language. One example is the Sad Dar, which means “One Hundred Doors”. It was the first Zoroastrian text known to the West through its being translated into Latin, which did not transpire until 1700 AD.

Is this really the story of a prophet of the true God? I should think not,

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nd I hope the reader would agree. The religious scholar and the historian are always running up against a thick darkness which encircles this ancient religion. Little is known about it as far as specifics go. Alleged parallels with Christianity could have been added in at virtually any time. While a divine inspiration of sorts is claimed for the Avesta, we know little to nothing about the so-called prophet who delivered this message, and worse yet, we know virtually nothing about the message itself! If Ahura Mazda exists, and if the god intended to deliver a message to all of humanity, he did a horrible job of it. There is nothing like preservation in Zoroastrianism, the texts have been destroyed with the exception of one book. Ahura Mazda is apparently incompetent. Remaining texts of the religion are commentaries and such and are not considered divinely inspired like the lost books of the Avesta. At best we possess about 50 pages of hymns written in an obscure language that may have been originally composed by an Iranian man whom we know almost nothing about!

If Ahura Mazda was the one true god, then he failed miserably in accomplishing what he set out to do, for humanity cannot know what he had to say to Zarathustra. Later interpreters and commentators are our main source of information regarding tenets of Zoroastrian belief and practice. As the series continues we will look at some of the specific teachings of Zoroastrianism and why they spell doom for the truth of this unbelieving, anti-Christian system of thought.

Scriptures of the World’s Religions
James Feiser, John Powers
McGraw Hill, New York, NY 2004

Patterns of Religion
Schmidt, Sager, Carney, Muller, Zanca, Jackson, Mayhall, Burke
Thomson Wadsworth, US, 2005


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