The Origins of Christianity
by Revilo P. Oliver
Professor of the Classics, Retired; University of Illinois, Urbana
WITH SO MUCH of a prolegomenon, and with an iteration of the proviso that we are trying only to summarize the bare essentials of a subject that is almost infinitely complex, we may turn to Christianity, which, as everyone should know, was not an Aryan religion. It may be succinctly described as a Judaized form of Zoroastrianism. That relationship, indeed, is acknowledged in the Christian gospels which state that Zoroastrian priests (Magi) were present at the nativity of Jesus, some of which specifically ascribe their coming to a prophecy made by Zoroaster.* As we shall show below, however, there was a third major source of Christian doctrine, which we may identify as Buddhism. We shall therefore notice, as concisely as possible, the three principal constituents of the religious amalgam.
Since the term ‘Magian’ is best reserved for a group of related religions and the culture they represent, I shall use ‘Zoroastrianism’ to designate the specific religion, also called Mazdaism, that was traditionally founded by a Saviour, to whom I shall refer by the familiar form of his name, derived from Greek references to him, Zoroaster, although his name in Persian was something like Zarathustra (Zaraüstra, Zaratüstra, Zaratost, Zaradost, Zarahust, Zardust, etc).1 The name may not be Indo-European; scholars who think it must be have proposed various etymologies, most of which posit that the man’s name had something to do with camels.
Some scholars have held that no such man ever existed, that he is merely a mythical figure to whose name were attached religious pronouncements and marvellous tales invented by successive generations of holy men.2 They are right in that no individual could ever have done and said a tenth of what tradition ascribes to Zoroaster, but the same could be said of Gautama, Vaddhamana, Jesus, Mahomet, and other founders of new religions who, it is generally agreed, were historical figures, although their personalities and careers have been all but totally obliterated by the jungles of myth and superstition that have grown over their graves. Furthermore, as many scholars have judiciously remarked, the existence of Zoroaster is virtually guaranteed by the gathas, crude hymns and purportedly inspired utterances, attributed to him in the extant Avesta.3 As the case was neatly stated by Professor K. F. Geldner, the Zoroaster who speaks in the gathas "is the exact opposite of the miraculous personage of later legend ... He ... had to face, not merely all forms of outward opposition and the unbelief and lukewarmness of his adherents, but also the inward misgivings of his own heart as to the truth and final victory of his cause. At one time hope, at another despair. .. here a firm faith in the speedy coming of the kingdom of heaven, there the thought of taking refuge by flight – such is the range of the emotions which find their immediate expression in these hymns." It is inconceivable that theologians would or could forge such a document as a proof of the glorious triumph of a Son of God who delivered the world from infinite evil and whose divinely contrived nativity had been attended by all the miracles that Saviours customarily perform at birth. The gathas must represent, at least approximately, texts that were already fairly well known before the holy men undertook to elaborate the religion for the stupefaction of their customers.
We need not hesitate therefore to believe that there was a man whose name was something like Zarathustra, that he propounded a drastically new religion, which he claimed had been divinely revealed to him, and that most of the gathas bear a fairly close relation to what he actually said. He was therefore the inventor of the basic structure of Zoroastrianism, which is all that will concern us here, and naturally was not responsible for the innumerable surcharges and embellishments that were added by the theological ingenuity of the Magi.
There is doubt about the date at which the founder of the religion lived. The priestly traditions that credit him with a fantastic antiquity are, of course, to be disregarded. A recent scholar, Dr. Mary Boyce, following Eduard Meyer and others, would place him between 1300 and 1000 B.C. on the basis of tenuously hypothetical determinations of the probable date of the pastoral society that seems implied in some of the gathas, the putative date of a conjectural schism in the Vedic cults, and a late genealogy of Zoroaster that need mean no more than the genealogies in the "New Testament." The only secure historical evidence shows only that Zoroaster began to propagate his religion at some time before Cyrus the Great conquered Media in 550 B.C. or soon thereafter. A much earlier date would make it extremely unlikely that the utterances of Zoroaster could have been committed to writing and would have been preserved with some approximation to accuracy. In all probability, the dates for Zoroaster’s life, c. 628 to c. 551 B.C., accepted by a majority of modern scholars, are at least approximately correct.
With the exception of the Jews’ claim that Zoroaster was a Jew,4 all traditions agree that he was an Aryan. His mother is most commonly described as a Mede, and her husband is sometimes said to have been of the same nationality; but an extraordinary number of places are identified as the site of his birth and childhood. Almost all of them are cities or districts in ancient Media, Atropatene, or Bactria (approximately the parts of modern Iran that lie south and west of the Caspian Sea or the northeast corner of Afghanistan with the Soviet territory immediately north of it).
Needless to say, Zoroaster, as is de rigeur for all Saviours, was born of a virgin who had been fecundated by a supreme god, who sent an emanation of himself (hvareno) to impregnate her, much as Yahweh despatched the Holy Ghost to carry out his philoprogenitive wishes in the "New Testament." His wondrous nativity was preceded, accompanied, and followed by the miracles that are customary in such cases.5 He did, however, distinguish himself from other Saviours by one act: as soon as he emerged from his mother’s body and dazzled bystanders with the effulgent light of his divine ancestry, he laughed loudly, thus signifying that life is good and should be enjoyed.
According to tradition, Zoroaster, despite numerous and various persecutions and temptations by the indefatigable powers of evil, remained at home, wherever that was, until he was twenty, when he bade farewell to his parents and either became a vagabond or retired into a desert to think things over for ten years. One morning, when he was thirty, he went at dawn into a river to bathe and fetch fresh water for a matutinal cup of haoma. As he emerged, he was accosted by the archangel Vohu Manah ("Good Intentions"), who conducted his soul into the presence of Ahura Mazda, the supreme god. Enthroned in glory and attended by the six archangels who are his principal lieutenants, Ahura Mazda revealed to Zoroaster the True Religion and ordered him to save mankind from perdition by preaching it to all the world.
The foregoing, which is supported by references in the gathas, must be the account of his Revelation and Ministry that Zoroaster gave to his converts, and there are obviously only three possible explanations, viz.:1. He did in fact converse with Ahura Mazda, by whom he was instructed in the True Religion, which you and I must profess, if we are not to be damned to eternal torment.The first of these explanations will seem cogent only to Parsees, so we are left with the other two. Whichever of the alternatives we choose, Zoroastrianism is equally spurious. Whether it was the product of temporary insanity or of cunning artifice, the religion, no matter how numerous its adherents and great its influence, can have been nothing more than an epidemic delusion and another example of human credulity.
2. He had delusions, either from an overheated imagination or after imbibing haoma, i.e., an hallucinatory drug prepared by crushing and dissolving in water the active ingredients of the sacred mushroom, Amanita muscaria.6
3. He deliberately devised a fiction to impose on the credulous – an odd procedure for a man who professed that his Mission in life was to combat Deceit. Whether he contrived the fraud to dignify a moral code that had caught his fancy or to exalt himself above ordinary men, is a secondary question of no great importance.
It is a distressing fact, however, that many of our contemporaries, including some who have learned the techniques of scholarship, have been so habituated by Christianity and its derivatives to the kind of irrationality that George Orwell calls "doublethink" that they will argue that what is false is true. Persons in whom religiosity is stronger than reason will opt for the theory that Zoroaster was "sincere," i.e., that he was a madman who could not distinguish between his hallucinations and reality, and they will then assure you that the crazy man proclaimed "spiritual truths" of "surpassingly great value" for the "salvation" of the whole world or, at least, "all mankind." This strange but common phenomenon is a fact with which all students of religion or society today must reckon, however the aberration may be explained in terms of psychology or psychopathology.
Zoroaster, after receiving his revelation and commission from God, wandered from place to place throughout the Middle East, preaching the Gospel to whomsoever he could induce to listen to him, for ten years, naturally encountering the persecutions and temptations that are obligatory of all first-class Saviours; but although he was advised on six separate occasions by one of the six archangels in turn, he did not succeed in making a single convert. At the end of the ten years, however, he, having apparently wandered back to his homeland, wherever that was, met his first cousin in a forest wilderness and persuaded that man to become his first disciple and the "leader of all mankind" to the Truth.
Encouraged by his first success and a fresh consultation with Ahura Mazda, Zoroaster, now accompanied by his faithful acolyte, preached the Gospel fruitlessly for two more years, roaming from place to place, until they came into Bactria. There his sermons incensed the local "pagans," servants of the Evil One, whom he floored in a debate, whereupon they slandered him, accusing him of the thirty-three mortal sins and planting proofs of his iniquity that were discovered when his luggage was searched. He was accordingly arrested and thrown into prison, where he suffered hunger, thirst, and assorted torments for a long time, until he performed a miracle, healing the king’s favorite horse of a supernatural disease. Released and accorded royal favor, he set to work to save the soul of the legendary or unidentifiable king of Bactria, Vistaspa, and after two years of persuasion brought the king to the point at which he admitted the truth of Zoroaster’s revelation but insisted that his sins were too numerous to be forgiven by God. Zoroaster then performed a miracle that sounds authentic: he gave the king a big slug of haoma and put him into a trance during which the monarch beheld the glory of God and all the wonders of Heaven.7 When he recovered consciousness, Vistaspa had Faith.
According to one version, Vistaspa, having seen the Light, proceeded to save the souls of his subjects by giving them a choice between becoming righteous and becoming corpses. He then mobilized his army and embarked on a Holy War to give neighboring peoples the same freedom of choice.
In the meantime, it would seem, Zoroaster performed another miracle. He ascended to the summit of a mountain, where the powers of evil, in a last desperate effort, rained down fire that enveloped the peak in flames and liquefied the rocks, but naturally left the Saviour unscathed, so that he strolled down from the burning mountain and taught the True Religion to the assembled tribe of Magi, who thenceforth became its apostles and priests.8 Thus launched at last, the new religion spread quickly throughout the territories that were to become the Persian Empire.
It is a general rule that Saviours should disdain females,9 but Zoroaster was an exception, as befits one who, by his laughter at birth, affirmed that life is worth living. As soon as he had established himself at the court of King Vistaspa, he married, but, being given to moderation, he contented himself with three wives, of whom the third, Hvovi, was the daughter of the King’s Prime Minister.10 By his several wives, he had sons and daughters, whose careers are reported at length in the legends. What is even more unusual, he by an odd relationship with Hvovi, engendered a son who has not yet been born, but whose birth, according to one chronology, may be expected around A.D. 2341.11 Most Saviours, after they have ascended to Heaven, either personally return to earth in glory to complete their work or have themselves reincarnated in a new body, but here also Zoroaster showed a certain originality. Having fulfilled his mission on earth and attained eternal beatitude, he will have no need to interrupt his celestial bliss and undertake a new mission, since he, so to speak, presciently planted while on earth the seed from which, in the fullness of time, will come his son and successor, the Saosyant (Sosan), who will definitively deliver the world from evil, resurrect the dead, preside at the Last Judgement, and then abolish space and time to inaugurate an era of perfect, unchanging happiness for his True Believers. As Zoroaster is the son of Ahura Mazda, so will his son become the last Saviour.
Zoroaster flourished until he attained the age of seventy-seven years and forty days, when he was slain by one of the votaries of the false religion he had come to supplant. When dying, he forgave his assassin, as etiquette requires Saviours to do.
So much for the legends. Historically, Cyrus the Great probably became a Zoroastrian at some time in his career, for at his death Zoroastrianism was the official religion of his capital city and, probably, of his empire, and the Magi had attained the monopoly of religion that is always the first goal of godly ambition. If the dates I have accepted for Zoroaster are correct, the new religion, once launched, must have spread with the rapidity of a pestilence, but that is not astonishing, if one perpends the novelty of Zoroaster’s invention and the various elements in it, which we shall examine later, that aroused enthusiasm in very large segments of the subject population of the multi-racial Persian Empire. What is more remarkable is the anomalous but indubitable fact that the innovation, although alien to the native tendencies of the Aryan mentality, became, as did Christianity much later, an Aryan religion in the sense that it was accepted by Aryans.12 It was considered to be, and probably was, the characteristic and only proper religion of the Persians and other Aryans of the ruling race.
It is at this stage that we begin to receive independent information from the Greek writers whose interest in, and observations of, Zoroastrian cults extended over seven centuries.13 Information from sources earlier than the third century B.C. is especially valuable as confirming or supplementing what we can infer from Zoroastrian sources about the religion under the Persian Empire. It must be used with discretion, however, for the Greeks were confronted by a kind of religion that the Aryan mind does not find congenial and has difficulty in understanding, although it evidently can accept such alien beliefs when they are imposed on it by circumstances.14 Furthermore, when the Greeks report matters beyond their own observation of the cult’s ceremonies, they were largely dependent on what the Magi told them or translated for them from their sacred books in Aramaic. And the Magi with whom a Greek was most likely to come into contact were missionaries who were peddling their Gospel in and near the Greek cities in Ionia and elsewhere that were subject to Persian dominion or on the borders of the Empire.
Perhaps the most important single datum from Greek sources is the proof that in the time of the Persian Empire the Magian theologians were already at variance with each other and engaged in doctrinal disputes as each tried to twist the cult’s dogmas into the form most agreeable to his tastes and ambitions. This, to be sure, is only what we should expect, for first-rate theologians are always eager, each to sharpen his own axe and make himself a leader instead of a mere follower, a rank that only humbler and duller holy men are willing to accept. But it is good to have historical proof that everything was normal in Zoroastrianism and the doctrines known to the Greeks were diverse and disparate. We hear of a board or commission of seven Magi who were the supreme religious authorities and located in the Persian capital; it was doubtless their function to consecrate a Persian king when he succeeded to the throne and to suppress heresy. As we all know, a heresy is a theological doctrine that is denounced by theologians who call themselves ‘orthodox,’ especially when the orthodoxy of the latter is guaranteed by the police and hangmen. We do not know to what extent the credentials of orthodoxy were made available to the Zoroastrian substitute for a Papacy, and it is even possible that the power of the supreme Magi was broken when they overreached themselves.15 It is certain, however, that heresies did flourish, possibly including some important ones that we shall have to mention in a later section. It would be vain, however, and for our purposes otiose to try to reconstruct from the exiguous data the views of Zoroastrian heresiarchs, especially since we cannot be certain what dogmas had come to be accepted as orthodox.16
There is one point of some passing interest. Although it falls short of proof, the evidence strongly suggests that during the Persian Empire the Magi who were in contact with the Greeks had already deformed the name of their Saviour from something like Zarathustra to Zoroaster.17 If we could be certain of that, we could then try to estimate to what extent these missionaries (possibly heretics at the time) were already peddling astrology as a useful adjunct to their evangelism, thus anticipating their successors in the Hellenistic Age.
The scanty information that we derive from the inscriptions by Persian kings is by far our best: there can be no doubt about either its authenticity or its dates.18 We may use it to trace summarily the evolution of official Zoroastrianism in the Persian Empire, and, incidentally, to check the claim of a learned Parsee who has recently argued that "the wars of expansion waged by the Persians under the Achaemenids" should be compared to the early wars of Islam, for the Persian kings "had a divine mission to offer mankind," so that their wars "were dominated by a religious fervor that must be taken into account."19 It is quite true that the teachings of Zoroaster enjoined on the Persian monarchs an enthusiasm for Holy Wars, but they were also Aryans and not without political intelligence, so it will be well to look at the record.
Cyrus was a Zoroastrian himself and made the new faith the official religion, but he was not a fanatic. He was a statesman and not only paid off the Jews for their work of sabotage in undermining the Babylonian Empire and their treachery in opening the gates of Babylon to him, but also placated the Babylonians by honoring their god, Marduk, and probably constructing a new temple for him, and he authorized or himself founded other temples for the local gods of the many and diverse nations that he had subjected to his tolerant rule. He probably encouraged the Zoroastrian missionaries to spread the Gospel by haranguing such audiences as they could attract, but he must have thwarted the holy men’s professional eagerness to start persecuting.
He was succeeded in 530 by his son, Cambyses, whose major exploit was the conquest of Egypt. We are entitled to surmise that he was a godly man and that his piety motivated the contempt or hatred of the Egyptians’ religion that he exhibited by violating sepulchres, ordering priests to be beaten for speaking on behalf of their cult, and slaying the sacred Apis bull, which was the incarnation of the soul (or part of the soul) of Osiris. We know, however, that he did not exhibit this fanaticism throughout his rule in Egypt.20
While Cambyses was in Egypt and just before his death in 522, the Magi carried out a coup d’état by having one of their number impersonate Smerdis, the brother of Cambyses and next heir to the throne, and installing him in power. They were thus able to coöperate with Ahura Mazda and to gratify their pious itch to persecute. They destroyed the "pagan" temples that Darius, in his famous inscription at Behistan, said he had to restore, and, knowing holy men, we may assume that they also enjoyed some exhilarating killing ad maiorem gloriam Dei. It is likely that their overweening fanaticism touched off the many revolutions in the provinces that Darius says he had to suppress. In 521, the false Smerdis was assassinated by a band of conspirators led by Darius, and there followed the pogrom of Magi we mentioned earlier.21
Darius was the greatest of the Persian kings, and his reorganization of the Persian Empire still commands admiration. We may be sure that he did not try to combine fanaticism with government, and he undoubtedly kept a tight rein on the holy men. We have also the confession of his personal faith in documents of signal importance since they undoubtedly show the official doctrines of Zoroastrianism in his day. He attributes his victories and power to the One True God, Ahura Mazda (Aüramazda), who bestowed the kingdom on him, and of whom he says: "He created the earth, he created the heavens, he created mankind, and he established siyatis for mortals." (There is no precise equivalent of the Persian word, which, from its basic meaning, ‘welfare,’ had come to imply security on earth and happiness after death; ‘salvation’ or ‘way of salvation’ would do, provided we understood it to apply to both this world and heaven.) We thus have assurance that Darius put his trust in the one good god of Zoroaster’s revelation.22
Xerxes, who succeeded his father in 486, was a king more to the liking of the holy men. We do not hear of persecutions in his own realm, but we may conjecture that religion played some part in the revolts that broke out soon after his accession. He desecrated the great temple of Marduk in Babylon, slaying at least one of the priests, and carried off the huge statue of the god, which was said to be of solid gold. Historians believe that his purpose was political, to destroy the god who was traditionally the protector of Babylon and would serve as the focus of a separatist movement and revolt, but at the very least Xerxes must have had such confidence in Ahura Mazda that he feared no reprisals from the Marduk whom he contemptuously outraged and whom, as a good Zoroastrian, he should have regarded as the diabolical enemy of his own Good God. Piety could have moved him as much as political expediency, especially since the Magi at his court would have constantly reminded him of the duties of righteousness. And Xerxes has left us one eloquent witness to his religious fanaticism, the now famous inscription at Persepolis in which he prematurely boasts of his conquest of Greece and particularly of his godliness in destroying the temples on the Athenian acropolis in which the Greeks had worshipped devils, and in commanding them to worship such beings no longer. He presumably purified the polluted place, for he consecrated it to his one god, Ahura Mazda, whom he worships reverently in the confidence that the god will grant him felicity on earth and beatitude in heaven.23
Xerxes’ untimely vaunt must have seemed ironic after the supposedly subjugated Greeks inflicted two disastrous defeats on him, and the collapse of his great plan to conquer all Europe must have shaken his faith as well as that of many other Persians. Ahura Mazda hadn’t helped the righteous! Nevertheless the theology of Darius and Xerxes seems to have undergone no significant change before the death of Darius II (the king who shrewdly intervened in the Peloponnesian War) in 405,24 but his son, Artaxerxes II (the king of the Anabasis, once known to every schoolboy), attests a remarkable change in theology: he worships a Trinity. The tendency to tripartite thinking that Dumézil identifies as distinctively Aryan may have had some influence, but it is clear that at least two of the pre-Zoroastrian gods refused to be permanently suppressed in the minds of their "converted" votaries. Artaxerxes prays to Ahura Mazda, Anahita (the Virgin, an-ahita, ‘undefiled’), and Mithra. The exact relationship of Ahura Mazda to his virginal consort is uncertain; it is not inconceivable that she was regarded as the Virgin Mother of Mithra at this time, having conceived miraculously, as mothers of gods usually do, and moreover, having like Mary in the Christian tale, given birth to a child even more miraculously and without rupture of her hymen,25 or, alternatively and more plausibly, having the power to renew her virginity by bathing in magical water.26 According to Berosus, Artaxerxes II not only introduced the worship of Anahita but also, by an equally daring innovation, set up statues of his gods, obviously in defiance of Zoroaster’s explicit command that God was to be thought of aniconically and represented only by the flames of a sacred fire. The king’s theology was unquestionably orthodox during his lifetime, since his army remained loyal, but it must have dismayed many, perhaps a majority, of the True Believers, and have excited furious controversies and intrigues among the Magi, but of those religious tempests we have, so far as I know, no record at all. It is doubtless significant that the king’s son, Artaxerxes III, expelled Anahita and worshipped only Ahura Mazda and Mithra,27 but we have no means of knowing exactly what it signifies.
The innovations of Artaxerxes II foreshadow the later evolution of the Zoroastrian cults. Poor Anahita was paradoxically identified with a Babylonian goddess and became Anaitis, whose attributes were the very antithesis of virginity. Mithra, a solar deity, is the son of Ahura Mazda, however he was engendered, and, as the sun moves between the earth and the vault of the sky, so was he the intermediary between mortals and his more inaccessible Father; he, moreover, had been born on earth with a miraculous nativity first witnessed by the shepherds who reappear in the Christian legend, and on the day that the Christians, after long debate, finally selected as the birthday of their Saviour. And, as happened in Christianity, the Son eventually, for all practical purposes, replaced his aloof Father, producing the late derivative of Zoroastrianism that long competed with Christianity in the dying Roman Empire.NOTES:*. Zoroaster was doubtless named in all versions of the story about Herod and the Magi, but the reference was attenuated in the version of the Gospel of Matthew that the Fathers of the Church decided to include in their anthology when they put their "New Testament" together near the end of the Fourth Century. In the present version, the Magi are made to say (2.5) that the christ they are seeking will be born "in Bethlehem of Judaea, for thus it is written by the prophet." The Prophet, of course, is Zoroaster, whose name is retained in other gospels, e.g., in an Euangelium Infantiae which says (6), "Magi came from the East to Jerusalem in conformity with the prophecy of Zoroaster, and they had with them gifts, gold, frankincense, and myrrh, and they worshipped him [the infant Jesus]." The intention, of course, was to represent Jesus as the Saviour (Saošyant) whom Zoroaster expected to be his eventual successor. The christian form of the prophecy is doubtless preserved in the writings of Salomon, Bishop of Basra, and Theodore bar Konai: Zoroaster said to his favorite disciples "At the end of time and at the final dissolution, a child shall be conceived in the womb of a virgin... They will take him and crucify him upon a tree, and heaven and earth shall sit in mourning for his sake... He will come [again] with the armies of light, and be borne aloft on white clouds.... He shall descend from my family, for I am he and he is I: he is in me and I am in him." The prophecy thus put into the mouth of Zoroaster originally referred to his son, to be born of a virgin in the miraculous way I shall mention below, which could not be fitted to a story that placed the birth in Judaea. - The text of the Euangelium Infantiae I mentioned above may be found in the Codex Apocryphus Novi Testamenti edited by loannes Carolus Tbilo (Lipsiae, 1832), Vol. I, p. 71. This is one of the gospels that records the first miracle (omitting the famous one listed in the Gospels of James) of Jesus: when a mad youth tried to steal one of Jesus’s diapers, which had been washed and were hanging on a clothes-line, contact with the cloth, which was, of course, imbued with mana, drove the demons from his body and he became sane. An ‘apocryphal’ gospel is one that the Fathers of the Church excluded from their collection when they finally agreed on the contents of the "New Testament."
1. In what follows, I shall give the exact form of proper names at their first occurrence and thereafter dispense with diacritics, which I necessarily retain on words printed in italics. In transliterating Old Persian, Avestan, and Pahlavi, I use the old system that was once standard. The more modern transliterations, found in recent studies (e.g., the ones by Mary Boyce and Marijan Molé that I cite below), are more accurate but involve the use of special types that would needlessly exasperate the printer of this book.
2. For a convenient conspectus of conjectures about Zoroaster and the time at which he lived, see the relevant chapters in A. Christensen’s Die Iranier (München, 1933 = Handbuch der Altertumswissenschaft, Abteilung III, Teil 1, Band 3, Abschnitt 3, Leiferung 1). Naturally, it does not cover more recent studies, notably the ones by Molé and Miss Boyce that I shall have to mention below.
3. The gathas form twenty-seven (Nos. 28-54) of the seventy-two chapters or sections of the Yasna, which is the first of the five parts into which the extant Avesta is divided. The language of most of the gathas differs markedly from, and is presumably more archaic than, the language, now called Avestan, of the rest of Avesta, which does not even purport to be the work of Zoroaster and is obviously the work of generations of theologians who were industriously entrenching themselves in a monopoly of the new religion. Since Zoroaster betrays his emotions in some of the gathas but alludes to very few facts, we have to depend on the rest of the Avesta for the traditions about his life. Avestan became a dead language long before the final recension of the text in the time of Chosroes I, so the meaning of the Avestan text was expounded in commentaries written in Pahlavi, and an enormous bulk of theological writing was produced thereafter in that language. Most of it was destroyed by the Moslems when they conquered Persia, but what remains is enough to daunt any man by both its bulk and the theological unreason it naturally displays. Selections from it are quoted by Molé. I do not pretend to have read more than samplings of this trash. The translation of the Avesta that I have used is by James Darmesteter, Le Zend-Avesta (3 vols., Paris, 1892-93).
Avestan (to say nothing of Pahlavi!) is a crude language in comparison with Sanskrit or even Old Persian. It may be significant that the Zoroastrian scriptures known to the Greeks were written in Aramaic, which was then the sacred language of the Magi, although they used Greek in intercourse with more civilized people. Aramaic must also have been the language of the Magi in the time of the Persian Empire, since Old Persian, the native language of the ruling Aryans, was not widely understood, while the Persians themselves used as the language of administration Aramaic, the Semitic dialect that was generally known throughout their empire and used internationally beyond their borders. Aramaic could have been the language of the Magi’s ceremonies and sermons even to Persians. The Avesta (the title may not be Indo-European) may therefore have been translated from Aramaic into a decadent form of Persian, so that Avestan, which does resemble in many ways the corrupt Persian of the last days of the Empire, may be a late, not an early, dialect. I should consider the evidence for a Semitic original conclusive but for the apparent authenticity of the gathas, which seem to represent what Zoroaster said. That is an obstacle, but not an insurmountable one. It is quite likely that many of the statements attributed to Jesus in the "New Testament" were actually made by a man of that name, but no one would believe that he spoke in Greek to the Jewish rabble. For our purposes here, I am content to leave the question open.
4. The Jews claimed that Zoroaster was a Jew and wrote in Hebrew; see the texts cited and quoted by J. Bidez & F. Cumont, Les Mages hellenisés (Paris, 1973 = 1938), Vol. I, p. 50, nn. 3,4, and Vol. II, pp. 103-104, 129, 131. It is entirely conceivable that Zoroaster really was a Jew, whose true name was Baruch; that he was born in the colony of Jews which, according to Jewish tradition (Reg. IV [= Kings II], 17.6 & 18.1), had been planted in Media; and that, as Jews so often do, he masqueraded as a white man to start a disruptive religious agitation and exploit the credulity of the goyim. Furthermore, as we remarked earlier, the Magi claimed to be a tribe of incomparably holy people in Media, and there are some indications that they were racially distinct from the Persians, i.e., were not Aryans. The racial arrogance, even greater than that of the Hindu Brahmans, also sounds Jewish in their insistence that their godly ichor was transmitted through females (hence their famous dogma of xvaetvadatha, which I shall mention later), but chronology favors the view that the Jews took over and adapted devices which had been so successful and lucrative for the Magi. The Magi could have been Jews, and that would explain a great deal! But there is no substantive proof that they were, and since deceit and forgery are simply normal racial habits of the Jews, it is safest to assume that their claim that Zoroaster belonged to their race was just another example of their policy of filching any esteemed historical or mythical figure that would enhance their own claims to racial superiority. There are innumerable instances of this Jewish custom, but one of the most impudent may be found in Maccab., I.12.19-23, a forged letter, purportedly from a King of Sparta, who had consulted his historical archives and discovered – oh, joy! – that the Spartans were descendants of Abraham and therefore blood brothers of the sacred race of Jews in Jerusalem. The first two of the four books of "Maccabees" are included in many Christian Bibles as "apocrypha," as though they could be more apocryphal (in the common sense of that word) than the rest of the collection.
5. Most of the miracles were taken over by the Christians in one or another of their many gospels, although not necessarily all in gospels that were included in the Fathers’ anthology. One that has some slight theological significance appears in most of the versions of the Gospel of James (who was Jesus’s brother and should have known!): when Jesus was born, time stopped for a while and everything on earth was temporarily petrified, as in many fairy stories, such as the one of the Sleeping Beauty; the sun was motionless and birds flying high in the air were frozen in place and did not move; the hands of men who were carrying food to their mouths or raising a staff to strike stopped midway in the intended act, etc. Then time started again. Given the Zoroastrian doctrine of time, which the Christians echoed only in a few phrases they did not try to understand, the borrowing of the idea in that popular gospel is significant. A common version of the Gospel of James is translated into English in Excluded Books of the New Testament, translated by Lord Bishop J. B. Lightfoot et al., (London, s.a. [1926?]).
6. See above, p. 52.
7. Zoroaster is commonly said to have spiked the haoma with mang, which was probably hashish. It would have prolonged the intoxication and further stimulated the imagination of the drugged man. Of such are the wonders of Heaven.
8. It is noteworthy that the word for Magus (magu),was never used by Zoroaster and is said not to occur in any part of the Avesta. He does use the word maga, which has flustered linguists who want to identify it, but was, in all probability, a neologism that Zoroaster coined to express the holiness of his new religion. (If he had in mind the Vedic term maghá, ‘gift,’ he intended his coinage to express something like the Christian ‘gift of the Holy Spirit’ or ‘gift of God,’ i.e., Salvation.) What is clear is that a man or woman who has been Saved is a magavan, and since Zoroaster invented a religion of spiritual egalitarianism, every magavan, regardless of race, sex, or social status, is the religious equal of every other. The term, therefore, cannot possibly be the equivalent of Magus, a professional holy man with hereditary superiority to ordinary mortals. The only terms for persons with religious function are (1) zaotar, which is usually held to be the equivalent of the Vedic hótr, who, as we observed in the first part of this essay, must originally have been the head of a household in his capacity as the family’s priest; and (2) athravan, a word which was probably thought of as meaning ‘fire-kindler,’ even though linguists assure us that it could not be derived from atar, ‘fire.’ (Although linguists assure us it hadn’t ought to, the Vedic word átharvan, however perversely, did designate the man who had care of the fire on the altar and, perhaps, the soma.) Zoroaster (assuming gatha 42 is his) uses the word athravan to designate the missionaries who are to carry his Gospel to all the world. It could be argued, therefore, that he did not envisage a professional priesthood, but, whether he intended it or not, his religion inevitably required the services of specialists, experts in righteousness, who knew exactly what Ahura Mazda wanted of every individual in every circumstance of his mortal life.
9. Jesus cannot be considered an exception, for the Gospel of Peter, which represents him as travelling with Mary Magdalene as one of his disciples, and the Gospel of Philip, which says that his male disciples were jealous of his passion for her, were rejected by the Christian sect that the Fathers of the Church made victorious over all the others. If we now had the whole of the Gospel of Philip, we would probably find that it followed the tradition that Mary Magdalene was the concubine (or, with Salome, one of the concubines) who accompanied him on his evangelical peregrinations and whom he was wont to kiss and fondle in public. That tradition sent the Fathers into a tizzy at the thought of it, and they also excised, at a fairly early date, the homosexual episode in the Gospel of Mark that they did include in their anthology. They made of their Jesus an ascetic who condemns sex and despises women, even his Virgin Mother, whom he contemptuously addresses as "woman" and informs that he will have nothing to do with her.
10. This is undoubtedly the original story and could even be authentic insofar as it describes Zoroaster’s marriages. I insist on its significance: the later tradition credits him with having married his seven sisters and the sister-daughter that his mother conceived by him. That was undoubtedly invented by the Magi to support their dogma of xvaetvadatha and their own peculiar tastes. The legitimacy of marriage between brother and sister is necessarily recognized by all religions which, like the Zoroastrian and Christian, teach that all human beings are the descendants of an original man and woman. Christian theologians worm their way out of the obvious implications of the myth of Adam and Eve, but Zoroastrian theologians logically accept the myth that the first pair were Masi and Masanl, who were twins. (Feminists should note that the first Lady of the world was not an afterthought, hurriedly manufactured from a spare rib, but, as is proper in an egalitarian religion, was her husband’s twin sister and came into the world, at the same instant, as his equal.) Whether Zoroaster thought of the logic of that myth (or even knew of it), I do not know. It is possible, of course, that he did not marry a sister because all of his were back home (wherever that was), but the point is, that, according to the early tradition, he did not. What seems peculiar in the theology of the Magi is the doctrine that a man acquires a big hunk of religious merit by having sexual intercourse with his mother. They undoubtedly invented the dogma of xvaetvadatha to justify the marriages with sisters, mothers, and daughters by which they preserved the divine ichor of their holy race from all danger of genetic pollution. And I am quite sure that they also, and for the same reason, amplified the cosmological myth by inventing Gayomart, whose elder sister conceived him by her father and in turn conceived by him the twins, who then peopled the world. I therefore regard strophes 3 to 6 of gatha 73 as a priestly forgery. I am not in the least interested in vindicating Zoroaster’s morality; I merely call attention to a neat example of the methods by which Salvation-hucksters manipulate their customers.
11. When Zoroaster was engaged in coitus with Hvovi, he had an orgasm extra vaginam, and his semen was taken by waiting angels (fravasis) to Lake Kayansih, where it is being guarded by angels (according to one count, 99,999 of them) until the appointed day, still far in the future, when an unsuspecting virgin will bathe in the lake, be impregnated by the semen, and (to her astonishment) bear the new Saviour. If you doubt this fact, you have only to go to Lake Kayansih (if you can locate it), and you will see the fecundating essence glowing in the depths of the lake like three lamps. It is like three lamps because it is divine, but the Magian theologians later elaborated the myth to give Zoroaster three sons (by as many virgin baigneuses); they will successively be Saviours at intervals of ten thousand or eleven thousand years. When one reads the gathas, one has the impression that Zoroaster expected the Last Judgement in the near future, though not necessarily in the lifetime of his disciples, but, unlike the Jesus in the "New Testament," he was not so rash as to set a time limit for the occurrence of the eschatological Big Bang and thus leave to his professional successors the embarrassing task of inventing an explanation for the untoward delay of the scheduled event. The only plausible explanation, of course, was the well-known myth of the Wandering Jew, who, it should be noted, considerately appeared in Europe to reassure True Believers eighteen times between 1575 and 1830 and even visited Salt Lake City in 1868. The legend was much improved by the invention of a Wandering Jewess, which, I believe, is to be credited to Eugene Suë in his Le Juif errant, of which the prologue is worth reading.
12. In this sense, of course, Buddhism could be called a Mongolian religion since it was accepted by the Chinese and Tibetans and indeed flourished among them after it had vanished from the land of its birth.
13. The sources besides Herodotus were partly collected by A. V. Williams Jackson in his Zoroaster (New York, 1901), which is still useful, and more thoroughly by Bidez and Cumont in Les Mages hellenisés, which I cited in note 5 above, and in which texts are accompanied by invaluable critical notes. I need not remark that what counts is not the date of a given writer but the date of his source, assuming that we can rely on him to have reported it accurately.
14. For example, Greek sources as early as Aristotle and probably as early as Xanthus, who was not much later than Herodotus, report a Magian claim that Zoroaster lived six thousand years or more before their time. We may be virtually certain that what the Magi claimed was the doctrine, of which we know from late Zoroastrian books, that the soul of Zoroaster was created by Ahura Mazda in heaven at a date equivalent to 6630 B.C., but was, so to speak, kept in storage in heaven for six thousand years before it was sent to earth and became incarnate in the body of Zoroaster, the Saviour of mankind. (Cf. note 17 infra.) To the Greek mind, the notion of souls created by gods and kept in cold storage for millennia was absurd, so the Greeks naturally interpreted the Magi’s pronouncements as meaning that Zoroaster had been born on earth at the specified time, for a claim to such enormous antiquity seemed less incredible. The well-known Egyptologist, E. A. Wallis Budge, in The Gods of the Egyptians (London, 1904; available in a Dover reprint), observes, in his preface to Volume I: "The only beliefs of the Egyptian religion which the educated Greek or Roman truly understood were those which characterized the various forms of Aryan religion, namely the polytheistic and solar... For all the religious ceremonies and observances which presupposed a belief in the resurrection of the dead and in everlasting life ... he had no regard whatsoever. The evidence on the subject now available indicates that he was racially incapable of appreciating the importance of such beliefs to those who held them, and that although ... he was ready to tolerate, and even, for state purposes, to adopt them, it was impossible for him to absorb them into his life." Budge italicized the crucial word in a statement that I regard as unexceptionable insofar as it describes the innate quality of what is, in Haas’s terminology, the philosophical mentality. Our minds can contemplate the existence of several supernatural beings as the causes of unexplained phenomena, but they instinctively reject the irrational mysticism that one god controls elements that are at war among themselves, or can perform miracles, such as the resurrection of a putrified body, that are patently impossible. Ours, however, is also a mentality that accepts facts, however unpleasant, and it must be remembered that our ancestors accepted Christianity because they had been made to believe that its holy books were records of historical facts, of events that had actually occurred and which therefore proved the existence of a god, a terrible god, in whom they were obliged to believe, despite their instinctive aversion. And it may be doubted whether any Aryan understood that Magian religion in the way its founders intended: he read into it terms that were comprehensible to him. At the limit, Christians always had recourse to the theologians’ favorite gambit, – that what was unreasonable and incomprehensible was therefore too profound for the weak minds of mortals, whom their creator did not intend to be rational anyway. That notion is always manna from heaven to persons who have not learned to control their emotions or are adverse from exercising brain tissue unnecessarily.
15. I do not know what weight should be given to Ammianus Marcellinus who, reporting earlier sources that he unfortunately does not name, says that the power of the priestly oligarchy was broken by Darius after their coup d’état, by which they usurped the Persian throne, having a Magus impersonate the dead brother of Cambyses. If that is so, the heads of the priesthood could have been replaced by seven or eight more cautious holy men, or, on the other hand, the religion could have been left without authorized managers. In the absence of more information, it would be foolish even to guess.
16. For example, the dogma of the pre-existence of Zoroaster that I mentioned in note 15 flatly contradicts the gathas, which were accepted as Zoroaster’s own words, and contradicts the assumptions underlying most of the Avesta, according to which Zoroaster (even if born of a virgin, etc.) was a mortal man and discovered the Truth only when it was revealed to him by Ahura Mazda, with whom he presumably had no previous acquaintance. We may think it highly improbable that "orthodox" Zoroastrian theologians would have promulgated a doctrine so obviously contradicted by their own holy book, but we must remember that Christians, who believe all the tales about their Jesus in their "New Testament," which clearly state that, although he was a bright youngster, he didn’t get his inspiration until after he was baptized by a John "the Baptist," and that thereafter he behaved in most situations as a mortal man, are also able to believe in his pre-existence and that he was 3313% of their god. If they think at all, they must assume that the part of their god forgot the rest of himself and everything he had known from all eternity in heaven when he decided to have his conjoined Holy Ghost insert him into Mary’s womb. If orthodox Christianity can accept such a dogma without laughter, it is certainly possible that orthodox Zoroastrians had accepted a comparable negation of their own scriptures. There is simply no limit to the effrontery of theologians or to the gullibility of their sheep.
17. Linguists try hard to imagine how a Persian word like Zarathustra could have been so mispronounced or misunderstood as to be transcribed in Greek as Zwro¡srhj. The question arises only from an odd fixation among our contemporaries, who assume that holy men always mean well, despite all the evidence to the contrary. A little common sense will show us that since the Magi, probably before the fall of the Persian Empire and certainly soon thereafter, made astrology a very lucrative part of their holy business, it was obviously advantageous to them to give their Saviour a name which would suggest to persons who knew Greek that he had been a prophet of astral phenomena. A verbal change so helpful in their trade could hardly have come about by chance. According to a record preserved by Diogenes Laërtius (Pro. 6.8), the Magi claimed that Zoroaster’s name meant ‘priest of the stars’ or ‘diviner by the stars,"evidently assuming with wonted impudence that he had been named in Greek at birth. (A scholion on the pseudo-Platonic Alcibiades I (ad 121E) says they claimed ‘Zoroaster’ was the Greek translation of his Persian name.) A better explanation devised by some of the Magi is preserved in two of the earliest Christian gospels, both purportedly written by Clement, a close friend and companion of Peter, the apostle of Jesus. In the Recognitiones (4.28) Zoroaster’s name is said to mean ‘living star.’ Clement is more explicit in one of the Homilies (9-5), memoirs preserved in his correspondence with Jesus’s brother James, which is further authenticated by a prefatory letter from Peter himself; in this text, he says that the name represents Zw (sa) ro (º) £stšroj, i.e., "the living influence of the star." According to Diogenes Laërtius (ibid., 2.2), two or more great Magi who flourished before the time of Alexander the Great bore the name Astrampsychos, which was probably intended to mean ‘the living star’ or ‘incarnate star.’ This could have been originally just a variation or explanation of ‘Zoroaster.’ There is extant under this name a curious art of fortune-telling, commonly called the Sortes Astrampsychi, which should be read in the edition by Professor Gerald M. Browne, which is forthcoming from Teubner at Leipzig. The ‘oracles’ are elicited by a kind of arithmetical trickery, and I think it likely that the method goes back to the Persian Magi, although the extant versions, as Professor Browne has shown, are late and were probably concocted in Egypt, where, by the way, the name of Zoroaster was still potent in the early centuries of the present era. One of the gospels found at Chenoboskion is so arranged that the holy man using it can attribute the divine revelation to either Thoth or Zoroaster or Jesus, depending on his estimate of which is the most likely to impress his clientele. I believe this neat device was first identified by Jean Doresse in Les livres secrets des Gnostiques d’Égypt (Paris, 1958). The association of Zoroaster with the ‘living stars’ explains, of course, the tale in the "New Testament" about the star which, floating through the atmosphere, led the Magi to the marvellous Nativity at Bethlehem. Oddly enough, none of the gospels, so far as I can recall at the moment, tells us whether the obliging star returned to heaven when its mission was accomplished or simply vanished.
18. The text of the relevant inscriptions may most conveniently be consulted in Roland G. Kent’s Old Persian (Yale University, 1950).
19. Ruhi Muhsen Afnan, Zoroaster’s Influence on Anaxagoras, the Greek Tragedians, and Socrates (New York, 1969). The book is valuable as a reminder that Zoroastrianism, which is still a living faith, had the qualities that attract the masses and are requisite for a "universal" religion, but the influence of which the author speaks is largely illusory. The Greeks were naturally interested in the religion of the vast Persian Empire, with which they came into conflict many times, but ‘Medism’ is a strictly political term, which came into use when the Greek cities of Ionia tried to defend themselves diplomatically by maneuvering between the proximately dangerous power of Lydia and the more remote power of the Median kingdom. During the Persian invasions of the Greek mainland, it was applied to the Greeks who thought the might of Persia irresistible and believed that it would be prudent to come to terms with it. Even the Delphic Oracle, whose priests, like all ‘psychics,’ had to base their predictions on the best information available to them, made that mistake.
20. There is evidence, collected by Georges Posener, La première domination perse en Égypte (Cairo, 1936), that Cambyses during part of his reign conciliated the Egyptians by treating their deities respectfully, but it is uncertain whether he concealed his fanaticism until after his conquest was completed or abated it after he began to suffer military reverses in his efforts to conquer adjacent lands that were defended by natural barriers.
21. Supra, p. 49.
22. Some scholars are misled by the fact that Darius refers to Ahura Mazda as mathista baganam in several inscriptions and late in the long one at Behistan (§62) acknowledges help from aniyaha bagaha; they assume that baga means ‘god,’ so that Ahura Mazda is merely the greatest among many. Old Persian baga, Sanskrit bhaga, seems originally to have meant ‘giver of gifts, lord,’ and in both languages it was a title of respect that could be applied to a human, as well as a supernatural, superior. Given Darius’s confession of faith in Ahura Mazda as the unique creator, the most reasonable explanation is that he intended baga to be the equivalent of the Avestan word spenta, which Zoroaster used as an adjective to describe Ahura Mazda (to whom he also referred as the spenta mainyu, meaning something like ‘the bounteous lord’ or ‘the power of goodness’) and also as a designation of the six amesa spentas, the six great archangels who are emanations of Ahura Mazda, representing abstract virtues ("Truth," "Good Will," etc.).; they are really aspects of the Good God, but are also thought of as his lieutenants; it will be remembered that after Ahura Mazda revealed himself to Zoroaster, he, from time to time, sent one of his amesa spentas to advise him in the course of his missionary efforts. The word ‘archangel’ is a convenient English term for an emanation of the Zoroastrian god, although the spentas differ from the Christian archangels in that they have no will (and hence no personality) of their own, it being explicitly stated that their will is always Ahura Mazda’s, so that while spenta and baga (in my understanding of Darius’s meaning) may be used in the plural, the plural does not detract from the unity of Zoroaster’s one Good God. So far as we know, the Old Persian word may have been in general use among Zoroastrians in Darius’s time with the meaning I have suggested, and Darius, as a prudent monarch, would not have been concerned if the "Pagans" misunderstood it.
23. Xerxes does not name Athens, but his meaning is unmistakable. The Persians also piously destroyed the Greek temples at Branchidae, Naxos, Abae, and doubtless other places of which we hear nothing; and we may be sure that they spared Delphi only because the priests there had made a poor guess and had their god advise the Greeks to yield to Persian might. It is slightly amusing that before the discovery of the inscription at Persepolis, quite a few historians discounted as "probably untrue" the statements of Herodotus and Cicero that Xerxes had destroyed the temples on the Acropolis; some still question Herodotus’s report that the holy men at Xerxes’ court egged him on to the invasion, promising him the conquest and annexation of all Europe. After Xerxes had to run back to Persia, he must have wondered why his Magi had sold him such a bill of spurious goods, and he probably asked questions, but holy men can usually think of an explanation to satisfy the customer.
24. In one of his inscriptions at Susa, Darius II asks Ahura Mazda to protect him hada bagaibis; the noun is in the instrumental case, so the passage may be interpreted in conformity with what I said about the great Darius in note 22 above.
25. This is stated in all the versions of the Gospel of James, which describe more or less explicitly the proof of it in connection with the first miracle performed by the Saviour, when he was only a few minutes old. The most explicit account that I have seen is in the Genesis Mariae preserved in a Third Century papyrus now in the Bibliotheca Bodmeriana. Salome refuses to believe the midwife’s assertion that the mother is still a virgin; she thrusts her finger into Mary’s vagina and finds the hymen intact, but the vaginal membranes are so charged with divinity that her finger is set on fire and she is in great distress until she thinks of praying to Jesus’s celestial father, who obligingly sends an angel to tell her to touch the divine infant; she does so and is instantly healed. Then the Magi come in, etc. It is hard to see why the Fathers did not include this gospel or, at least, some version of the Gospel of James, of which the authority was certainly guaranteed (since the author was the younger brother of Jesus), in their "New Testament." It is one of the earliest of the gospels and was accepted by many of the Fathers before the contents of the anthology were more or less settled by Athanasius in 369 or by Damasus in 382 (whose list of the contents is probably reproduced in the Decree that was forged in the name of Gelasius sometime after 495). Although the gospels that contained the proof of Mary’s virginity post partum were excluded from the final compilation, many of the early Fathers of the Church, e.g., Didymus the Blind, Jerome, Ambrose, maintained the perpetual virginity of Mary, belief in which became an orthodox dogma in the Fifth Century. No one ever tried to explain in detail how she remained a virgin after Joseph began to have sexual intercourse with her, as is explicitly stated in Matth. 1.25, and she bore him four sons, but theologians like to have things both ways. It is astonishing that no one thought of taking a Gospel of James in which Simon appears as Mary’s stepson and her attendant at the time of the Nativity, interpolating it to make James et al. younger stepsons left at home, and then attributing the authorship to Simon, who would have had more opportunity to observe than a younger son of Mary. It would have been only reasonable to delete the line in the Gospel of Matthew and replace it with a few words stating that Joseph had the decency to respect the Wife of God. That would have settled everything nicely; but the sheer carelessness of the Fathers, evinced by so many contradictions they could have edited out of God’s Word, constantly astonishes us as we read the texts they approved.
26. This oddly anatomical conception of virginity was doubtless of Oriental origin, but there was a Greek myth, mentioned by Pausanias (II.38.2), that Juno regularly renewed her virginity by bathing in a magical fountain, and, more to the point, Aelian (N.H., XII.30) mentions a goddess who restored her virginity after every coitus by bathing in a fountain located between the upper Tigris and Euphrates in the very territory in which contemporary Zoroastrians located some of their holy places. I need not remind the reader that my suggestion about Anahita is sheer speculation.
27. An ambiguity in the cuneiform script of an inscription of Artaxerxes III at Persepolis would make it possible to argue that he regarded Father and Son as one person, thus anticipating the paradox in one of the later Christian ideas about the constitution of a Trinity, but I think this highly improbable.
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