The Iranian Impact on Judaism

excerpted from N. F. Gier, Theology Bluebook, Chapter 12

    Zoroastrian influences on late Judaism was pervasive, profound, and continues with us today.1 The traditional claim that the Jews learned monotheism from the Zoroastrians during the Babylonian captivity can be disputed by the fact that by that time Zoroaster's strict monotheism had been compromised by polytheistic practices. The famous inscriptions of Darius, although mentioning the supreme God Ahura Mazda on almost every line, nonetheless refer twice to “other gods which are.”2 

    It was not so much monotheism that the exilic Jews learned from the Persians as it was universalism, the belief that one God rules universally and will save not only the Jews but all those who turn to God.  This universalism does not appear explicitly until Second Isaiah, which by all scholarly accounts except some fundamentalists, was written during and after the Babylonian exile.  The Babylonian captivity was a great blow to many Jews, because they were taken out of Yahweh's divine jurisdiction.  Early Hebrews believed that their prayers could not be answered in a foreign land.  The sophisticated angelology of late books like Daniel has its source in Zoroastrianism.3  The angels of the early Hebrew books were disguises of Yahweh or one of his subordinate deities.  The idea of separate angels appears only after contact with Zoroastrianism.

The central ideas of heaven and a fiery hell appear to come directly from the Israelite contact with Iranian religion.  Pre-exilic books are explicit in their notions the afterlife:  there is none to speak of. The early Hebrew concept is that all of us are made from the dust and all of us return to the dust. There is a shadowy existence in Sheol, but the beings there are so insignificant that Yahweh does not know them. The evangelical writer John Pelt reminds us that “the inhabitants of Sheol are never called souls (nephesh).”4

The claims about an advanced eschatology in the psalms cannot be supported.  The judgment of the wicked in Ps. 1 may be due again to Persian influences, as most scholars date the writing of this psalm after the exile.  But even if it is pre-exilic – Dahood has established enough Ugaritic parallels to make this a possibility – there is no explicit mention of a Last Judgment or an end of the world.  The punishment of the wicked could just as well be worldly as other-worldly.  This interpretation is certainly to be preferred given the general context of early Hebrew thought. 

The fiery judgment and immortality mentioned in Ps. 21:9-10 has also been used to support the idea of an advanced eschatology in the psalms.  Mitchell Dahood helps interpret these passages correctly.  The Canaanite parallels show that God makes the king, not any other human, immortal.  Furthermore, those who are burned are the king's foes, not all the wicked; and the burning furnace is probably the mouth of Yahweh and not any burning Hell.5

Some say that the Hebrew ge-hinnom is fiery hell independent of Persian influences.  But all references to ge-hinnom refer explicitly to a definite geographic place, the valley of Hinnom outside Jerusalem.  The only eschatological implications we can find are in Jer. 7:31ff, where Jeremiah predicts that the Lord will destroy the place and it will be used for the disposal of dead bodies.  This is obviously not the place of fiery torment of the New Testament gehenna, which was definitely influenced by Zoroastrian eschatology.  Even an evangelical scholar admits that gehenna a place of eternal torment is a late concept, probably first century B.C.E.6

Saosyant, a savior born from Zoroaster's seed, will come and the dead shall be resurrected, body and soul.  As the final accounting is made, husband is set against wife and brother against brother as the righteous and the damned are pointed out by the divine judge Saosyant.  Personal and individual immortality is offered to the righteous; and, as a final fire melts away the world and the damned, a kingdom of God is established for a thousand years.7 The word paradis is Persian in origin and the concept spread to all Near Eastern religions in that form.  “Eden” not “Paradise” is mentioned in Genesis, and paradise as an abode of light does not appear in Jewish literature until late books such as Enoch and the Psalm of Solomon.

Satan as the adversary or Evil One does not appear in the pre-exilic Hebrew books.  In Job, one of the very oldest books, Satan is one of the subordinate deities in God's pantheon.  Here Satan is God's agent, and God gives him permission to persecute Job.  The Zoroastrian Angra Mainyu, the Evil One, the eternal enemy of God, is the prototype for late Jewish and Christian ideas of Satan.  One scholar claims that the Jews acquired their aversion to homosexuality, not present in pre-exilic times, to the Iranian definition of the devil as a Sodomite.8

   In 1 Chron. 21:1 (a book with heavy Persian influences), the Hebrew word satan appears for the first time as a proper name without an article.  Before the exile, Satan was not a separate entity per se, but a divine function performed by the Yahweh's subordinate deities (sons of God) or by Yahweh himself.  For example, in Num.  22:22 Yahweh, in the guise of mal'ak Yahweh, is “a satan” for Balaam and his ass.  The editorial switch from God inciting David to take a census in 2 Sam 24:1, and a separate evil entity with the name “Satan” doing the same deed in 1 Chron. 21:1 is the strongest evidence that there was a radical transformation in Jewish theology.  Something must have caused this change, and religious syncretism with Persia is the probable cause.  G. Von Rad calls it a “correction due to religious scruples” and further states that “this correction would hardly have been carried out in this way if the concept of Satan had not undergone a rather decisive transformation.”9

The theory of religious influence from Persia is based not only on the generation spent in exile but the 400 years following in which the resurrected nation of Israel lived under strong Persian dominion and influence.  The chronicler made his crucial correction to 2 Sam. 24:1 about 400 B.C.E.  Persian influence increases in the later Hebrew works like Daniel and especially the intertestamental books.  Therefore Satan as a separate evil force in direct opposition to God most likely came from the explicit Zoroastrian belief in such an entity.  This concept is not consistent with pre-exilic beliefs.

   There is no question that the concept of a separate evil principle was fully developed in the Zoroastrian Gathas (ca. 1,000 B.C.E.).  The principal demon, called Druj (the Lie), is mentioned 66 times in the Gathas.  But the priestly Jews would also have been exposed to the full Avestan scripture in which Angra Mainyu is mentioned repeatedly.  His most prominent symbol is the serpent, so along with the idea of the “Lie,” we have the prototype for the serpent/tempter, in the priestly writers' garden of Genesis.10 There is no evidence that the Jews in exile brought with them any idea of Satan as a separate evil principle.

   In Zoroastrianism the supreme God, Ahura Mazda, gives all humans free-will so that they may choose between good and evil.  As we have seen, the religion of Zoroaster may have been the first to discover ethical individualism.  The first Hebrew prophet to speak unequivocally in terms of individual moral responsibility was Ezekiel, a prophet of the Babylonian exile.  Up until that time Hebrew ethics had been guided by the idea of the corporate personality – that, e.g., the sins of the fathers are visited upon the sons (Ex. 20:1-2).

    In 1 Cor. 15:42-49 Paul definitely assumes a dual-creation theory which seems to follow the outlines of Philo and the Iranians.  There is only one man (Christ) who is created in the image of God, i.e., according to the “intellectual” creation of Gen. 1:26 (à la Philo).  All the rest of us are created in the image of the “dust man,” following the material creation of Adam from the dust in Gen. 2:7.


1. R. C. Zaehner is probably the world's foremost Zoroastrian scholar and he gives the best summary of Zoroastrian influences on Judaism in The Comparison of Religions (Boston: Beacon Press, 1959), pp. 134-53. 

2. This reference to “other gods” could have just been for diplomacy's sake, just as Jephthah recognizing the authority of the gods of the Ammonites and Moabites in Judges 11. But there is no question that polytheism creeps back into later Zoroastrianism with references to other gods in the Vendidad (Fargard 19:23, 28, and 30). 

3. Albright, op. cit., p. 362. 

4. John Pelt, The Soul, the Pill, and the Fetus (New York:  Dorrance, 1973), p. 18. 

5. Dahood, Vol. 1, p. 133. 

6. The New Bible Dictionary, p. 390. Although the author does not say how late gehenna became fiery Hell, we assume that he is following standard scholarship on this issue. 

7. Yashts, pp. 220-2; 306-7; Bundahish in Sacred Books and Early Literature of the East (New York, 1917), pp. 179-184. 

8. Horn, Homo, p. 78. 

9. G. von Rad, Theologisches Wörterbuch zum Neuen Testament, Vol. 2, p. 73. 

10. See R. C. Zaehner, The Teachings of the Magi (New York: Oxford University Press, 1976), p. 47.