The religion of ancient Persia originates from the same Aryan sources as the Vedas. Scholars have speculated that the Aryans worshipped a divine trinity which included Ahura Mazda, who became a single, supreme God of Zoroaster; Apam Napat or Ahura Vouruna, who disappeared in Zoroastrianism but became the great god Varuna of the Vedas; and Mithra, who is mentioned in the Vedas, reappears in a Zoroastrian regression to polytheism after Zoroaster's death, and is resurrected in full in the Roman religion of Mithraism. Contrary to wide‑spread conceptions, Mary Boyce has argued that there was a strong ethical dimension in this Indo-Iranian trinity from which Zoroaster drew inspiration and, for some reason, the Indian Ayrans pretty much ignored.1
W. F. Albright assesses the oral tradition that preceded Zoroaster: "Judging from linguistic and paleographic evidence, they were transmitted orally for not less than 800, and perhaps for over 1100 years."2 Gods and ritual mentioned in the Vedas and the Zoroastrian Zend‑Avesta were recorded in great detail in Hittite inscriptions dated as early as 1380 B.C.E. Zoroaster distilled from this ancient religious heritage a strongly ethical, monotheistic religion that had a great impact on the ancient Near East, including late Judaism and early Christianity.
There are a growing number of Zoroastrian scholars who contend that the commonly accepted dates for Zoroaster from the late seventh to the middle sixth centuries B.C.E. cannot possibly be correct.3 The Gathas (hymns) of Zoroaster are written in an ancient dialect (Gathic) at least as old as the Sanskrit of the Vedas. The antiquity of the language and the stylistic unity of the Gathas separate them from the rest of the Zend‑Avesta, which can be dated to the fifth and fourth centuries B.C.E.
If there were such evidence in the Pentateuch (the first five books of the Bible), then there would be something to the fundamentalist thesis that Moses wrote those books. In contrast, it is almost unanimous among scholars that Zoroaster must have written these hymns; therefore, his dates must be as old as the language itself, ca. 1000 B.C.E. There is other evidence besides the linguistic inferences. In the Gathas there is not a single reference to any central governmental power nor to any great urban centers, something one would expect if he was living during the sixth century. The geographical setting of the Gathas is definitely eastern Iran, most precisely Bactria, present day Afghanistan. There was no major movement of Iranian tribes to the West until after the ninth century.
When Cyrus the Great and then Alexander the Great after him, invaded Bactria, they found a peaceful cattle‑raising people who did not sacrifice oxen and who did not have an hereditary priesthood, two religious traditions of Western Iran. These conquerors had most likely met Zoroaster's descendents, for the Gathas are filled with criticisms of animal sacrifice, and as a priest, Zoroaster married into a warrior family. If the scholars who are pushing back Zoroaster's dates win acceptance for their views, this would constitute one of the most significant advances in recent comparative religious studies.
The following testimony indicates that Zoroaster was a religious genius even if he had lived in the sixth century.
E. W. West: "Nowhere, in this period, has there been human voice, so far as we have evidence, which uttered thoughts like these."4 George G. Cameron: “That such lofty sentiments should be expressed by a prophet whose career had ended before the middle of the sixth century is an astonishing fact of history."5 F. C. Whitley: “An examination of this teaching, and of the theological precepts it assumes, further urges the conclusion that the prophet could scarcely have lived and taught earlier than this period (sixth century). For his advanced doctrines of a righteous God, his frank admission of the problem of evil, his emphasis on moral living, and, above all, the prominence he attached to the belief in a life after death so supremely surpass even the beliefs which the Israelites held one thousand years before Christ, that, if it be conceived that Zoroaster belonged to that period, then he was one 'born out of time' and was unquestionably a prophet in advance of his age. His scientific cosmology, his orderly presentation of his material, his profound ethical and universal conception of God cannot be products of the virtually dark age of 1000 B.C.E., nor can such concepts be intelligible at a date earlier than the sixth century."6 Gherardo Gnoli, one of the leading scholars for the early dates, has a simple reply to Whitley: "This reasoning seems to be dictated by the theological judgment rather than by applying correct historical values."7
Zoroaster's teachings were widely spread. The ancient Greeks knew much about him, including the myth of his pre‑existent spiritual body.8 Some ancient authorities thought he was the teacher of Pythagoras (b. ca. 560) and present scholars find his influence in several Greek philosophers, especially Anaxagoras (b. 500).
The entire Zoroastrian canon (completed by 350 B.C.E.) was arranged according to 21 “Nasks” which were designed for easy memorization. Many of the sacred manuscripts were destroyed by troops of Alexander the Great, but the Yasna, the Yasht, the Vendida, and others survived. The Dinkard and Bundahish were attempts by post‑Christian Zoroastrians writing in the Pahlavi language to restore the entire canon from memory and from fragments of the original Nasks. The eschatology of the Bundahish, which is so much like New Testament eschatology, has been established as one of the sources of the vision of last things found in the pre‑Christian Dead Sea Scrolls.
1.Mary Boyce, Zoroastrians (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1979), pp. 8 ff.
2. William F. Albright, From the Stone Age to Christianity (New York: Doubleday, 1957), p. 359.
3. See Gherardo Gnoli, Zoroaster's Time and Homeland (Naples: Instituto Universitario Orientale, 1980); Mary Boyce, op. cit.; Mary Boyce, A History of Zoroastrianism (Leiden: Brill, 1975), Vol. 1; A. Shapur Shahbazi, “The Traditional Date of Zoroaster Explained,” Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies 40:1 (1977), pp. 25‑35; Hildegard Lewy, “The Genesis of the Faulty Persian Chronology,” Journal of the American Oriental Society 64:14 (1944).
4. E. W. West, Sacred Books of the East, ed. Max Müller (Oxford: The Claredon Press, 1880‑97), Vol. 31, p. xxiii.
5. George G. Cameron, “Zoroaster the Herdsman,” Indo‑Iranian Journal 10:14 (1967), p. 261.
6. F. C. Whitley, “The Date and Teaching of Zarathustra,” Numen 4 (1957), p. 220.
7. Gnoli, op. cit., p. 243.
8. Jack Finnegan, The Archaeology of World Religions (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1952), p. 76.