Judaism and the religions of Iran

Devadatta

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Many people believe that certain aspects of Jewish tradition were fairly late developments and were borrowed from or heavily influenced by Iranian religion, especially Zoroastrianism. I'm referring of course to ideas of heaven and hell, demons and angels, ressurection of the dead, last judgement - i.e., eschatological and apocalyptic thought in general.

To what extent do you think this is true? Or is this simply incorrect?
 
Devadatta,

I think there has been some influence but some of the concepts to which you refer are not Jewish, primarily hell. Other concepts are of minimal importance to contemporary Judaism e.g. demons which even in the Talmud seem to be one explanation among many for certain types of events. To say that there has been no influence however, I think is wrong. I think it is due to the influence of Zoroastrianism and perhaps other religions that angels and the like developed into individual personalities.
 
Devadatta,

I think there has been some influence but some of the concepts to which you refer are not Jewish, primarily hell. Other concepts are of minimal importance to contemporary Judaism e.g. demons which even in the Talmud seem to be one explanation among many for certain types of events. To say that there has been no influence however, I think is wrong. I think it is due to the influence of Zoroastrianism and perhaps other religions that angels and the like developed into individual personalities.


Hi Dauer. I have heard that modern mainstream Judaism in general tends away from these elements. What it be fair to say that this stuff had some importance in early phases? Say following the Babylonian exile throught at least to the beginning of the common era? Everyone's heard of the Essenes of course, and the formative influence their sort of theology had on Christianity. Were these elements sort of shunted into kabbalah and mystical traditions as Rabbinical Judaism developed?
 
Deva,

I haven't really read up on it enough to say. From what I have seen, it seems like early on there were some folk beliefs that were more popular but were not taken by the majority. There was, for example, astrology. As an example of demons, there's a discussion about leaving one's tefillin in the window of an outhouse and how they disappear. The opinion of one person is that demons that are around there steal the tefillin. Another opinion is, a bit more rationally, that they get stolen.

Some of those types of ideas eventually do get grouped more with mysticism but I don't know at what point in time that happened. Rationalism in Judaism goes back pretty far, but then so does mysticism.
 
.Some of those types of ideas eventually do get grouped more with mysticism but I don't know at what point in time that happened. Rationalism in Judaism goes back pretty far, but then so does mysticism.


Thanks Dauer. But leaving aside the more tangential superstitious or mystical beliefs, there are the more important ideas about the afterlife and especially the resurrection of the dead.

The afterlife I understand doesn't get near the attention it does in Christianity and is not dogmatised but left more or less to individual and sect opinion. (Advantage: Judaism!) Nevertheless, the ideas are there, and the question is whether they are late additions. I know that in the torah you find references to the patriarchs "being gathered to their people", but I guess like many I find this fairly thin evidence for any serious belief in the afterlife.

On the other hand, belief in bodily resurrection is one of Rambam's 13 articles of faith and I understand it is still today the default position of Judaism. Do you think belief in the resurrection really was there near the beginning, or again is this an example of Iranian influence?

One other less serious question: I've seen some people assimilate "Pharisee" with "Parsee", claiming that opponents like the Sadducees used it as a term of derision pointing to the Pharisees’ belief in bodily resurrection. No doubt this is too much fun to be true. Although, one has to wonder consider how little is know outside the Christian writings about what role the Pharisees really played.


No doubt this is stuff you and BB have heard a hundred times before, so thanks for your patience.
 
Devadatta,

When you say near the beginning, it really depends on what you mean by that. I think of the beginning of rabbinic judaism as the beginning. I don't think we can really pick a point in history to call the beginning of Judaism unless it's arbitrary because I see it forming and evolving, and continuing to evolve for that matter.

In the Torah I don't personally see any clear evidence for an afterlife. In Nach there is some suggestion (e.g. Saul summoning Samuel) but the concept seems a bit different than the one that exists today. Resurrection of the dead is suggested in Nach as well. But the subject doesn't get a fuller treatment until later on.

One other less serious question: I've seen some people assimilate "Pharisee" with "Parsee", claiming that opponents like the Sadducees used it as a term of derision pointing to the Pharisees’ belief in bodily resurrection. No doubt this is too much fun to be true. Although, one has to wonder consider how little is know outside the Christian writings about what role the Pharisees really played.

Rabbinic Judaism is generally understood to be the heir to the pharisees. There is, iirc, only one place that uses that word specifically but I think that looking at the roots of rabbinic judaism is coming more into touch with pharisaic religion. I don't think Christian writings are a very good source because of their heavy use of polemic and the environment in which they were written.

I'm not one to say there wasn't influence but I would suggest it may not all be Iranian. I think there's a good deal of greek influence on rabbinic judaism. I also tend to view the origin of Judaism as a syncretism between two different types of religions: one agrarian and one shepherding.
 
Devadatta,

When you say near the beginning, it really depends on what you mean by that. I think of the beginning of rabbinic judaism as the beginning. I don't think we can really pick a point in history to call the beginning of Judaism unless it's arbitrary because I see it forming and evolving, and continuing to evolve for that matter.

In the Torah I don't personally see any clear evidence for an afterlife. In Nach there is some suggestion (e.g. Saul summoning Samuel) but the concept seems a bit different than the one that exists today. Resurrection of the dead is suggested in Nach as well. But the subject doesn't get a fuller treatment until later on.



Rabbinic Judaism is generally understood to be the heir to the pharisees. There is, iirc, only one place that uses that word specifically but I think that looking at the roots of rabbinic judaism is coming more into touch with pharisaic religion. I don't think Christian writings are a very good source because of their heavy use of polemic and the environment in which they were written.

I'm not one to say there wasn't influence but I would suggest it may not all be Iranian. I think there's a good deal of greek influence on rabbinic judaism. I also tend to view the origin of Judaism as a syncretism between two different types of religions: one agrarian and one shepherding.


Hi again. When I said near the beginning of course I was talking about well before CE, at least back to the Babylonian captivity, which I understand by all accounts represented a decisive turn in the history of the tradition. But I agree that when you take an evolutionary view of things, it’s hard to point to precise dates.

As for the Greeks, certainly we are all aware of the inescapable influence of Hellenism, and what I think of as a reciprocal relationship between Hellenized Jews and Judaized (if that’s a word) Greeks. And certainly Greek rationality must have had a huge impact. One can talk about the mystery religions too, but then lots of people question the purely Greek origins of those traditions.

But what I’m curious about here – broadly speaking, eschatology, the afterlife – I think most would associate with Iranian religion and its characteristically sharp ethical and cosmic dualism. Zoroastrianism and Manicheaism are only two of most famous examples. There seems to be a distinctive mentality that we can chart historically, the way we can chart distinctly Chinese, Indian or Greek ways of thinking. It wouldn’t do to be overly simplistic about this, but I think it’s fair to say that particular ways of thinking take on recognizable shapes.

Why am I curious about this? I’m definitely not looking for an argument. It’s only that this kind of thinking, especially apocalyptic thinking and various flavors of Manicheaism have shaped so much of Western history, for good and for ill.

Specifically, for me the Iranian influence helps explain how ethnic Jewish monotheism was transmuted into the ideological monotheism of institutional Christianity and Islam. It seems to me that this whole stream of Iranian religion perhaps played a larger role than is generally admitted. And it makes sense to me, as we search for ways to tame the abuses and mitigate the dangers of absolutist ideology, that we develop a deeper understanding of its precise origins.
 
Devadatta said:
The afterlife I understand doesn't get near the attention it does in Christianity and is not dogmatised but left more or less to individual and sect opinion. (Advantage: Judaism!) Nevertheless, the ideas are there, and the question is whether they are late additions. I know that in the torah you find references to the patriarchs "being gathered to their people", but I guess like many I find this fairly thin evidence for any serious belief in the afterlife.
hmm. well, given that the egyptians, greeks and romans all had fairly interesting and detailed views on the afterlife and that we had contact with all of them fairly early on in our development, i don't think it's unreasonable to expect some quite developed ideas out there, even if, as you already pointed out, they're not so much at front-of-mind, as they were in, say, egyptian or mesopotamian culture.

On the other hand, belief in bodily resurrection is one of Rambam's 13 articles of faith and I understand it is still today the default position of Judaism. Do you think belief in the resurrection really was there near the beginning, or again is this an example of Iranian influence?
i think you can get it from other places than the iranians, but i don't see why not. it's an interesting piece of work for someone.

One other less serious question: I've seen some people assimilate "Pharisee" with "Parsee", claiming that opponents like the Sadducees used it as a term of derision pointing to the Pharisees’ belief in bodily resurrection. No doubt this is too much fun to be true. Although, one has to wonder consider how little is know outside the Christian writings about what role the Pharisees really played.
first i've heard of it, but you never know.

Specifically, for me the Iranian influence helps explain how ethnic Jewish monotheism was transmuted into the ideological monotheism of institutional Christianity and Islam. It seems to me that this whole stream of Iranian religion perhaps played a larger role than is generally admitted. And it makes sense to me, as we search for ways to tame the abuses and mitigate the dangers of absolutist ideology, that we develop a deeper understanding of its precise origins.
hmm. i was always given to understand that zoroastrian influence was more to be found in areas such as demonology than in something like the afterlife. it is hard to see how the iranian worldviews specifically would have been in a position to really influence judaism if it wasn't already showing up in, say, the books of daniel or esther.

b'shalom

bananabrain
 
hmm. i was always given to understand that zoroastrian influence was more to be found in areas such as demonology than in something like the afterlife. it is hard to see how the iranian worldviews specifically would have been in a position to really influence judaism if it wasn't already showing up in, say, the books of daniel or esther.

b'shalom

bananabrain


Tracing these influences is probably a fool’s errand – hence, my interest. I mean it’s the whole impossible question of the mythological/philosophical soups the Hebrew/Jewish tradition passed through as it elaborated its foundational texts. Depending on the dating you accept, that’s close to 1,800? years before we even get to rabbinical Judaism, all the while passing through the sub-soups of Mesopotamia, Canaan, Egypt, Assyria, Babylon, Persia, the Hellenistic age, the Romans, etc. I can’t see how anyone one will ever get a definitive handle on all that.

So pressures if not influences must have come from all directions, but the importance of the Iranian/Persian tradition I think is that it bears almost a point by point resemblance to the Judeo-Christian, at least when it comes to the big questions of ethical/cosmic dualism, linear time, eschatology, etc. – and you know the detailed list no doubt better than I do. Some refer to the “Irano-Semitic” tradition, which makes sense when you consider that outside this broad tradition there really is no “monotheistic” God in a strict sense of the term.

From what little I’ve learned of prevailing opinion out there, the main problem in untangling all this is as usual the destruction of primary texts; most of the early gathas of the Avesta have been lost. As far as the West is concerned, what little remained wasn’t even rediscovered until the 18th century. That means a lot of details of eschatology, redeemer figures, etc., come from rather late sources, and so can easily be seen as influence running the other way. And then there is the fact that Zoroastrianism was nearly wiped off the face of the Earth by Islam. (I wonder: which side was Ahura Mazda and which side Angra Mainu?) So the ancient footprint of Iran was nearly washed away, as far as the dominant cultures were concerned, even though the consensus seems to be that this footprint was laid down at least as early as the earliest strata of the Abrahamic tradition.

Again, you know this stuff far more intimately than I do, but it’s pretty clear that Jews were in the neighborhood of Zoroastrian thought through significant and formative periods of time. Many point to the Babylonian captivity, well before the first recensions of the Tanakh. They point out the drastically changed historical conditions of post-exilic compared to pre-exilic Jews, the development of eschatological thought between the exile and the beginning of the Common Era, and the likelihood that much of the resemblance between the two traditions stems from an influx of Iranian influence. The very late Book of Daniel, as you mentioned, is widely considered one of the first fully apocalyptic works in the canon. There are other examples in the Jewish apocrypha, I understand.

Anyway, by the time we get to the Pharisees, the Essenes, John the Baptist, Yeshua and the original televangelist, Paul of Tarsus, and the (comic) Book of Revelation, the end is certainly near, or at least the rapture. After that, we get new generations of Iranian dualism, especially Manicheaism, with adherents like St. Augustine. (Unfortunately for Christianity his conversion was never quite complete.)

I guess the question is whether all this would have occurred anyway without the essential input of those wild-eyed Iranians. Would all of this have bubbled up spontaneously out of the flowing waters of Midrash?

And why does it matter? Well, I think a clearer understanding of anything is an end in itself. Also, many sincere Christians and Muslims would like to wean some of their co-religionists from the dark side. I think they need more than good intentions and commitments to compassion to do the job.

And then there’s just a basic fascination with what Joseph Campbell popularized as the “invisible counter-player”. Every tradition is an iceberg, nine tenths submerged. So much of what Indians call “Sanatana Dharma” comes from a deep India we can never know. The case is probably the same with monotheism. Iran is just one of the once nearly invisible players.

(Oh, yeah, there’s the latest edition of Iranian religion: Ahmadinejad, herald of the hidden imam!)
 
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