Zoroastrianism, once the dominant religion of Ancient Persia, has been all but wiped off the face of the planet today. In a world of seven billion people, roughly 150,000 Zoroastrians make up less than one-percent of one-percent of the global population. Of those few remaining, the plurality (70,000) live in India and are known as Parsis. The Parsis left Persia in the 900s, hoping to find a more welcoming place to practice their religion. Seems their homeland had become less hospitable after the Muslim conquests of the 600s.
Though today the Zoroastrian religion is on the fringe of the fringe of world religions, many religious scholars are convinced that the faith heavily influenced at least three of the world’s current major religions: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.
If you’ve read the Old Testament of the Bible, you know that there are some views of God presented that strike the modern reader as a bit bizarre: God is portrayed quite anthropomorphically– an angry little mountain god really in some passages. And he is jealous of his chosen people– jealous that they will choose OTHER gods over him. I am not alone in my opinion that the Ancient Hebrews at this point in their story were not monotheists at all. Yahweh was just one of many gods from which a people could appeal to for divine patronage.
But in the 500s BC, many of the conquered inhabitants of Judah were exiled to Babylonia, where they remained for decades– until they (or really, mostly their grandchildren by this point) were allowed to return home under the reign of the Persian king Cyrus The Great in 537 BC. Some believe that it was during this time, the Babylonian Captivity, that the Ancient Hebrews became deeply influenced by the Zoroastrian religion of Ancient Persia, especially the Zoroastrian belief in the existence of one supreme deity. On the other hand, I wouldn’t read too much into this, for the Zoroastrians apparently personified many of their one Supreme God’s attributes and enemies into other quite deity-like (deity-light?) entities.
There are other aspects of Zoroastrianism that seem strangely familiar to those of us familiar with the three religions of “The Peoples Of The Book” (Jews, Christians, Muslims). The Zoroastrians encountered by the Jews in Babylonia would have believed, for instance, (as they do now) that the world is a battle ground between the forces of Good and Evil. The forces of Evil are captained by an evil spirit that is somewhat reminiscent of Satan or Iblis or the Devil in other religions.
The Zoroastrians also believe that a trinity of Saviors will be born who will lead the righteous to final victory over the forces of evil. Interestingly, many religious scholars believe that the messianic passages of the Book Of Isaiah were written during the time of the Babylonian Captivity, when the Exile Prophets of Judaism would have come into contact with the Zoroastrian worldview.
Another similarity between ancient Zoroastrianism and modern religions Of The Book is the idea that at The End Of The World, after the forces of the Saviors have led Goodness to sweet victory over Evil, the dead will rise and people will live together in harmony.
Zoroastrians of Ancient Persia furthermore believed that humans possess Free Will to choose between Good or Evil.
There are also Guardian Angels of a sort in Zoroastrianism. These are known as the Fravashi. Every human being is born with a Fravahi to help him tell right from wrong. I’ll speak a bit more about the Fravashi in my post on Zoroastrian mythology. The supreme god of the Zoroastrians, Ahura Mazda, also sent into the world the Spirit Of Truth to guide the Fravashi and help in the battle against Evil. Zoroastrian scholar Paula R. Hartz likened this spirit to the Holy Spirit of Christianity.
There are, however, significant differences between Zoroastrianism and modern Religions Of The Book.
Zoroastrians, unlike Christians, do NOT believe people are born with original sin. Instead, people are born pure, but are tainted by the evil they come in contact with in the world.
Also, again unlike Christianity, a believer can NOT be saved by Faith alone; it takes good works and the active following of Zoroastrian precepts to be in good graces in Zoroastrianism. Relatedly, Zoroastrians are NOT undeserving creatures saved merely by God’s abundant Grace— a Zoroastrian can fully earn his own place in the happy after-life simply by following the Zoroastrian creed.
Zoroastrians also did NOT make sacrificial offerings of animals to their god. Thus, there has always been a special relationship imagined between Zoroaster (the prophet of Zoroastrianism) and animals. Perhaps the animal-friendly reputation of Zoroaster might be compared to that of Saint Francis in the Catholic-Christian religion. Many consider Zoroaster to be the FIRST prophet.
And then there’s this thorny issue: I think most philosophers of the Religions Of The Book would say that, ultimately, God is responsible for all that happens in His Creation– including Evil. There are different justifications offered as to WHY God allows Evil to exist, but most agree that God could kick Evil to the curb if He really wanted to.
Zoroastrians, contrariwise, believe that Ahura Mazda, their supreme deity, is NOT responsible for Evil, and that instead, Evil is the work of the evil spirit– Angra Mainyu, “The Lie”– the captain of the world’s evil forces I mentioned earlier, possibly the forerunner of Satan.
Other posts by Hammering Shield on Zoroastrianism: