Zoroastrianism in Second Temple Judaism and the Christian Satan

Born in 1962, in the Bible Belt, I was raised in a Christian home by liberal-minded parents. My father was a Church of Christ preacher. My maternal grandfather was also a Church of Christ preacher. Both my father and my mother were trained in biblical studies at Freed-Hardeman University, a private liberal arts university associated with the churches of Christ located in Henderson, Tennessee. My father had two ministries, the first in Roger Springs (Hardeman County), Tennessee, and then in Sharpsville, Tennessee, in Rutherford County (where I spent most of my formative years). My father was also a sociologist (not an uncommon trajectory for evangelical Christians). Theological arguments, and their social implications, were commonplace growing up. I knew about Thomas Altizer long before most kids do (if ever).

My parents kept a good library; the most important books for me growing up were the collection Great Books of the Western World (where I found Hegel and Marx), the World Book Encyclopedia, Bulfinch’s Mythology, and, of course, The Holy Bible, the King James version. When I finally got serious about college, in 1988, I spent hours in the Andrew L. Todd library underground at Middle Tennessee State University studying E. A. Wallis Budge’s translations of Egyptian mortuary texts (where I learned about the great architect of the universe, the artisan, the demiurge, Ptah, and immediately knew him as Yahweh). I also got lost in the Oxford Annotated Bible (where I first learned about the Nephilim, rendered “giants in the earth” in my King James version of Genesis). And through all of this, as a devout atheist, I have been arguing about religion and its negation.

So when I signed up to teach sociology of religion at the university where I am a tenured faculty member (I hold a master’s and a PhD in sociology), I could boast of no small measure of competence in religious studies. However, as they say, you never really know a subject until you teach it, and preparing lectures for this past semester taught me a lot about the subject. I could have used a textbook and canned lectures to save time (it is sometimes tempting given our heavy load at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay), but I took this as an opportunity to integrate what I knew about religion and sociology in the scope of a fourteen week semester and calibrated to the level of a smart undergraduate sociology class.

I lectured on the following subjects: “The Politics of Science and Religion” (value neutrality and objectivity, critical theory, sociological method, science and humanism), “The Hermeneutics of Suspicion” (Ricoeur, Marx, Freud, and Nietzsche), Peter Berger and The Sacred Canopy (social constructionism, phenomenology), “Eminence, Transcendence, and the Death of God” (19th century liberal Christianity, the Niebuhrs and neo-orthodoxy, Tillich and Altizer and dialectical Christianity), “Materialism and Realism” (Hegel, Feuerbach, Marx, Durkheim, and Simmel), “Max Weber and the Badges of Protestantism” (Calvinism, capitalism, bureaucracy, irrationalism), “The Legacy of Judaism” (Weber’s Ancient Judaism and Marx on the Jewish question), “The Overthrow of Mother-Right” (Marx, Engels, and Morgan, class and patriarchy), “The First Murder” (Cain and Abel, legal theory and state development), “Demons and Sin (Catholicism, demonology, antisemitism, heterosexism, and misogyny), “The Travails of Gilgamesh” (the flood myth and state development in Mesopotamia), “The Churching of America” (Finke and Stark’s thesis), “Syncretism (the social evolution of Judaism, Sumerian, Egyptian, and Canaanite influences), “The Story of the Torah” (documentary hypothesis and criticism, political sociology of Israel), “More Syncretism” (The Social Evolution of Christianity, Zoroastrianism, Hellenistic mystery cults), and “The Secular Revolution” (Christian Smith’s edited volume).

I can see ways to be more efficient next time around in order to cover more material. I will do more on human prehistory and proto-religion. Although I dealt with the subject of Islam quite a bit, the subject deserves a dedicated lecture, so that is in the future plan, as well. But the area about which I most want to expand is the influence of Achaemenid hegemony and Zoroastrianism on Second Temple Judaism. The more the class worked through the historical comparison of Christian and Zoroastrian mythologies, the more Christianity looked like Zoroastrianism adapted for a Jewish audience. I realized there were questions about this that I needed to answer for myself before pushing the comparison too far. For example, when exactly did this happen? Did it happen in the first century CE or before that? And so I had to balance bringing the semester to a close (teaching four classes), while continuing to develop my understanding of the history of the Achaemenid period and its legacy.

What inspires this blog entry is a Facebook discussion about the influence of Zoroastrianism on Christianity on my time-line. It was trigged by a video I shared, which I share below, in which Michael Skobac, a rabbi with the Rabbinical Council of America, argues that Satan is a blessing in Judaism and that, crucially, the Satan of Christianity is not the Satan of Talmudic Judaism.

There is only one force in the universe, Skobac argues, and that is Yahweh. Yahweh is the sole source of good and bad. Judaism is thus monotheistic (I hasten to add, at least after the Torah). We’re put through trials on earth because of the capitalist principle of earning our place in the world to come. In other words, God created us, but he believes we will not appreciate heaven if we don’t work for it. God made us unappreciative of things we do not work for, thus he made us born to toil. Satan’s role is to be the obstacle we have to get over to secure a spot in heaven. In contrast, Christianity is a dualistic religion, like Zoroastrianism, and the Christian Satan represents enmity to God.

It was noted by a friend that the Jewish notion of Satan as a blessing is used by Christians to justify their antisemitism – to paint Jews as satanic. My response was that this is indeed what the Tanakh (the Old Testament for Christians) says. I then explained that Christianity developed from a Jewish sect under the influence of Zoroastrianism. Second Temple Judaism had to contend with the influence of Zoroastrianism the moment it fell upon Jewish ears, I noted. I argued that Jesus is a Jewish Saoshyant, a divine savior being in Zoroastrianism sent to do battle with Angra Mainyu’s dragon Zahhāk at the end-times, a battle the forces of good win just before resurrecting all of the souls of the faithful, to make the world perfect and ascend with him to be with the god Ahura Mazda in heaven. The implication I meant to leave is this: instead of supposing Jews are Satanic, perhaps Christians should consider how Satan’s character was transformed under the influence of another religious tradition.

This led to a claim by a teacher of religious studies that the Satan I was identifying was an invention of the Middle Ages, not a figure in early Christianity. That Satan was different, he asserted. The implication is that medieval Christian ideologues concocted the modern version of Satan. For example, some contemporary observers blame it on liberties Dante took in The Inferno. One can hear these arguments in the History Channel program True Monsters: The Origin and Evolution of Satan. Here’s the trailer:

But what about the fact that Satan I identify is also in Islam? To be sure, the archangel Iblis is not the Satan who challenges God’s throne, but he is the Satan whom God banishes from heaven for refusing to prostrate himself before Adam, thus disdaining humanity – which, as we will see, is a narrative originating in Second Temple Judaism and Christian apocrypha. Moreover, Al-Shaitan (Satan) and the shayatin (fallen angels or demons) are clearly evil entities in the Islamic tradition, the Arabic root of the terms meaning “astray” (in contrast to “accuser” or “adversary” from the Hebrew root of the term). The Islamic Satan was well before the medieval moment. More to the point, I argue, I can show that the modern Satan is found in Christianity from its beginnings and that the dualism of Zoroastrianism is implicated in this development.

Before getting that that, I need to point out that this claim made in the above trailer, namely that hell is never mentioned in the Bible, is deceptive. Consider the name “Gehenna,” often translated as hell in rabbinic literature, and Christian and Islamic scripture (it is rendered “Jahannam” in Islam), which refers to final destination for sinners. Gehenna is a reference to an actual place (the Valley of Hinnom), a place known in the Old Testament for its child sacrifices to the Canaanite god Molech. Over time, it became a metaphor for the place sinner would perpetually burn in the afterlife. Consider when in Matthew 5:21-22 it is written, “You have heard that it was said to an older generation, ‘Do not murder,’ and ‘whoever murders will be subjected to judgment.’ But I say to you that anyone who is angry with a brother will be subjected to judgment. And whoever insults a brother will be brought before the council, and whoever says ‘Fool’ will be sent to fiery hell.” The word for hell is here is “Gehenna.” Matthew uses Gehenna several other times, in the same way, as does Mark (who describes it as the “unquenchable fire”) and Luke. Is this not the hell Christian children are taught to fear? It’s an act of deception to deny this. In the Hebrew bible, when people die, their souls survive and enter a shadow world, Sheol, from which they can communicate with the living. They become ghosts. Thus Sheol (as well as Hades) is the Jewish place or state of the dead, another dimension or the grave. Later Jewish mythology evolved to include the notion that there will come a future time when the righteous will be resurrected, but this is not original to the ancient religion. But does perhaps explain the bone collections, the stone ossuary, that keeps surviving matter for its ghostly owners.

In the late Old Testament and intertestamental period (between late sixth century BC and the first century AD), Jews came under the influence of Persian culture (when Persia conquered the Babylonians in 536 BC) and were influenced by Zoroastrianism, which conceived of the universe – and the soul – as containing opposing forces of good and evil, or cosmic/moral dualism. The evil force opposed God’s creative force, polluting/corrupting God’s pure creative work, hence aging, sickness, etc. There are two paths you can go by in the long run, the righteous path, which is the road to heaven and happiness everlasting, and the wicked path, which leads to wretchedness and eternal torment in hell.  I will argue that under Zoroastrian influence, Jewish cults emerged that reconceptualized Satan as the personification of evil. Satan is no longer tempting man as God’s prosecutor to test for loyalty (as we see in Job, one of the Bible’s oldest myths), but enticing man to sin for his own sake. He becomes the corrupter of men’s souls. In the emerging version of Jewish cosmology, God (and his angels) and Satan (and his demons) become independent forces, locked in a struggle for cosmic power. Christian mythology takes this further: Satan, an archangel who sits at God’s right hand, is depicted as rebelling against God in the celestial realm. God casts Satan out of Heaven. Satan falls towards Earth (though its unclear whether all the way). Jesus, another of God’s archangels, is sent from Heaven, eventually depicted as God incarnate, representing along the way the fulfillment of a revised Jewish prophecy, repurposed to wash away the stain of sin with his purifying blood magic (more on this in a future essay).

The idea of choice, of free will, so central to Zoroastrianism (one must choose to be good, as the priest in A Clockwork Orange insists upon seeing the horrific fruits of the Ludovico technique showcased), is incorporated into Christian doctrine, producing a more agency-driven religious feel in the context of a personal salvation cult, a popular mode of religious desire associated with the rise of cosmopolitanism; a person accepts Jesus as his personal savior, honoring the sacrifice Jesus made, in order to be welcomed into paradise, now removed from earth to heaven. Jesus, one of many savior deities, thus represents a composite myth, and is subsequently historicized (or euhemerized) via the Gospels, written in the late first and second century AD (again, more on this in a future essay).

Returning to the Facebook thread, the religious studies teacher rejected the claim of dualism in Christianity, and did so on the grounds that, in the end, good prevails over evil (at least that’s the forecast). On that reasoning, I countered, Zoroastrianism is not dualistic, either, since Frashegird (the Final Renovation) brings the defeat of Angra Mainyu, the Zoroastrian evil spirit. If Zoroastrianism isn’t dualistic, then what is? (Manichaeism, perhaps? But that is also derived from Zoroastrian writings!) Moreover, if there was no dualism, then what is there to defeat? Is this self-defeat? Then what how will a crooked world be made straight again? Sauron represented a genuine threat to Middle Earth, no? His defeat returned the king (Aragorn) to the throne of his ancestors. In Judaism there is no Armageddon; the Jews need to come back to God to enjoy the rebirth of their kingdom. There is clearly a contrast.

At this point the “Day of the Lord” in the Book of Joel was injected into the discussion to suggest that Jesus was the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy, not a Zoroastrian twist. But Joel is almost certainly post-exilic, produced around the same time as Ezra and Isiah, and that this supports my point upon reflection. We see in it the “prophecy” of Cyrus the Great, the captor of Judah, the “God who is in Jerusalem,” he who walks the path of Ahura Mazda, who “shew wonders in the heavens and in the earth, blood, and fire, and pillars of smoke” (Joel 2:30). Again, this was the Achaemenid period, the time of Persian hegemony, that spread to the known world what we today call Zoroastrianism (as well as the Aramaic language) to Jerusalem. A human being – Cyrus – was a messiah! A god only in metaphor! Moreover, Yahweh is the Hebrew god of war, the “god who makes armies” (rendered “Lord” in translation). In Hebrew usage, the Day of the Lord refers to the day of great war, the appearance of great armies. Cyrus is thus the messiah who brings about Yahweh’s kingdom, which in the way the Jews work mythology is a terrestrial situation that embodies spiritual energies, not an other worldly kingdom – if we remain true to the ancient Hebrew tradition. This is not Armageddon.

What is more, if the religious studies teacher was indeed suggesting that the early Christians manufactured the Jesus myth from Old Testament prophecy, isn’t that what Paul admits to doing? The righteous Jewish kingdom in the Tanakh, the earthly regime to come, becomes a supernatural event for Christians. The great terrestrial armies are for the Christians the supernatural armies of Armageddon, led by the great red dragon. Of course Joel, already corrupted by Zoroastrian ideas, could be made to serve Christian purposes. But only crudely, as New Testament scholar Bart Ehrman points out; Paul and his fellow cult members are plainly wrong abut the prophecy. Maybe Ehrman doesn’t dwell as much into Jewish angelology/demonology as he should, or he puts it aside as most modern Jews do as so much spookiness. At any rate, the Christians appropriated verse and concept. Much in the New Testament is greatly embellished and repurposed retellings of the myths of the Tanakh.

Crucially, then, and this is so often missed, “messiah” doesn’t mean the same thing in Judaism that is means in Christianity. Messiah in Christianity is used in the sense of the Zoroastrian Saoshyant – born of a virgin, no less! The messiah becomes a savior deity in Christianity. For Jews, the messiah is a future terrestrial king (of the Davidic line of course, which is why the New Testament invents a terrestrial genealogy for Jesus). This is why Ehrman says Jesus is not the fulfillment of prophecy (to his credit, despite being rough on mythicists, Ehrman doesn’t believe in prophecy). For Ehrman, the early Christians manufactures the son of God from scripture and did so in stages clearly evidenced in the order of Gospels. But I now contend they did so from a Zoroastrian-inspired Judaism that developed in the Second Temple period!

I wrote the foregoing to provide context for the reader. I felt it necessary to state the problem this blog is addressing. Rather than add to the thread on that Facebook post, or start a new one there, I am moving my argument here to a broader audience. The balance of the essay will build on a video of a superb symposium at the University of California, San Diego, held on March 3, 2014. I summarize the points of two of the speakers and weave in other material. What it shows is the claim that Satan is an invention of the Middle Ages cannot in any reasonable fashion be sustained. The modern Satan is an invention of the ancient world, not of the Middle Ages. It will also show the powerful influence Zoroastrianism had on Second Temple Judaism and Christianity.

Jenny Rose’s presentation is useful for understanding Zoroastrianism and its influence on late ancient Judaism by providing crucial context. I focus mostly on the next speaker, but the reader will profit from Rose’s work, and I will have something more to say about her work later on.

Before I get to the next speaker’s remarks, I want to note Bryan Rennie study of the Book of Daniel, scripture based on Jewish writings in the Aramaic language, finding it to be produced during the period of Iranian-born Seleucid king Antiochus Epiphanies (or Epimanes for those who despised him), originally Mithridates, who lived between 215-164 BCE. You may ask why many Jews were speaking Aramaic at this time. This was a consequence of Achaemenid hegemony, the Persian empire guided by what we today called Zoroastrianism, which assumed control over Palestine in 539 BCE and ruled there for the next two hundred years. The Achaemenid moment pushed Aramaic into the near east. Aramaic represented a revolution in written language, replacing cuneiform, with its hundreds of letters, with an alphabet of 22 characters. Aramaic is ancestral to Hebrew, Syriac, and Arabic alphabets and largely supplanted Hebrew during Achaemenid hegemony. Alexander the Great brought an end to Achaemenid rule in 332 BCE and Jews were Hellenized as a result. Daniel’s story was in Aramaic with Greek language interpolations.

There is a lot of reasons for Rennie’s dating of Daniel, not least of which is that the on-going historical events about which Daniel is most accurate. His understanding of the period in which he has been traditionally located is faulty. In this sense, Daniel is an attempt to fake prophecy, with Aramaic-language folk tales interpolated with supernatural claims. Moreover, Daniel’s near-term predictions are wrong. But more important to my interests is that Daniel is reflective of a genre of Apocalyptic, which was at the time a new literary genre that intensifies during the period of crisis and persecution under Antiochus. Rennie finds that the few examples of Apocalyptic in the Tanakh are all late. Daniel’s Apocalyptic is rather Zoroastrian (see Chapter 12, for example). Rennie further concludes that the popularity of Apocalyptic in early Christian writings indicates that the genre was a relatively new and popular literary form around the time when Jesus (who spoke Aramaic) is said to have existed and in which Saul of Tarsus (the Christian figure Paul, who almost certainly did actually exist), a Hellenized Jew, would have been intimately familiar, given that he was educated at the school of Gamaliel. Not incidentally, Hellenistic Judaism, following the manner of Zoroastrianism, spoke of Wisdom as if of an independent entity. Moreover, at the same time that Apocalyptic was shaping early Christian theology, Gnostics were preaching a dualism in which a messiah brought to humanity knowledge of its divine origins.

Rose is followed by Dayna Kalleres, who discusses Second Temple Judaic literature and its focus on a devil character, an evil spirit, and his minions, angels who fall away from God and become demons. This new theology is under construction during what we call the intertestamental period, the period between the Torah and the Gospels, emerging in a period in which Zoroastrian influence is at its peak in the world. The figure that emerges is Satan and it is here we find my argument verified. Through lies, deceptions, and sections, Satan leads humans into evil acts, not in the manner that the Jewish Satan, God’s prosecutor, tests Job for God’s sake, a myth in which God has to give Satan permission to act, but on the contrary in an independent effort to thwart God’s order, operating beyond God’s will. The influence of Zoroastrianism is evidenced by the fact that, in the temple literature, free will is emphasized. This is the spirit that is carried over into the Christian literature, specifically that individuals make a choice to be seduced, allowing themselves to be deceived, and a God who allows them to stray. The goal of the evil force is to get man to turn away from God. Again, this is Satan as enmity to God. This is not the ancient Jewish Satan, the blessing, but a different Satan, Satan the curse.

Kalleres charts the path of this figure we know as the devil, who goes under many names, identified in the Testament of the Twelve Patriarchs as Beliar or Belial, in Jubilees as Mastema, a personification of the Hebrew word mastemah (which means persecution and enmity), the Enochic collection (the Book of the Watchers), and the Dead Sea Scrolls, where Mastema is identified as the angel of disaster and the father of evil. The Dead Sea Scrolls are especially remarkable in their dualism, for example with its sons and daughters of light and sons and daughters or darkness. As Kalleres points out, this being is also identified as Satan in this literature. The basic story is a familiar one to Christianity: a divine being (Satan) is ejected from heaven, either for challenging God or refusing to bow down before man, taking with him an army of fallen angels that become an army of demons, the Spirits of Beliar. The being is explicitly referred to in this literature as the devil and the dragon. This is the dragon of Revelations. 

The Second Temple literature reinterprets the Torah in terms of this emerging demonology, for example, riffing on the passage from Genesis, Chapter 6 concerning the Nephilim, interpreting this way: the Sons of God’s (identified as the Watchers), i.e. divine beings or angels, during the period of giants, come to earth (suggesting they are fallen), have sex with the daughters of men, give birth to wicked men or demons (which are given names by Jewish demonologists), and teach women the ways of the law, herbs, makeup, and magic. You know the rest: Yahweh becomes angry and floods the world, choosing Noah, a righteously man, to reestablish natural history (this part plagiarized from the Sumerian/Babylonian flood epic the Travails of Gilgamesh). Thus this ancient story is recast as the fall-in-action behind which lurks Satan, the master of disaster and lies. The Second Temple writers do the same to Genesis, Chapter 3, in which the serpent that deceives Eve is none other than Satan, giving the story a decidedly Zoroastrian cast (when Angra Mainyu enters the world at its creation and corrupts mankind), and thoroughly reconceptualizing Judaism. Eve then deceives Adam who willingly gives into seduction, putting free will central to the story. This is the origin of evil in the world, and Yahweh gives mankind over to it, ultimately leading to the great flood. (I always preferred Erich Fromm’s take on the story: this was when human freedom entered the world. Thank God for women!)

So, we see Second Temple Judaism taking great liberties with the ancient fables of the Jewish people. Is it any wonder that the writings of this period are downplayed or largely abandoned by modern Judaism? But that Jewish demonology, while marginal, or at least not explicit, in Judaism, becomes central to Christianity. The Satan we recognize today is completely recognizable in the Second Temple literature before Christianity. Satan takes on an evil role from the beginning of the Christian faith, since he has already been transformed by Second Temple Judaism. Underlying this is Zoroastrianism. The core idea in Zoroastrianism – that there are two spirits: The spirit of light and truth, and the spirit of darkness and deception – is the core of the Judaism we find in the Dead Sea Scrolls. The devil is the Great Deceiver, the Great Liar. How can a person push back against this evil? More Zoroastrianism here, as well: the path against evil is dedication to the path of wisdom, to the path of light. This is the path of Ahura Mazda, the wise, but not all powerful, god who leaves it to human beings to make their choice of paths, but punishes them on the afterlife for stepping off the right one. And this god requires human agency to defeat evil in the end. Thus the duty of every righteous person who loves Ahura Mazda – who loves light and wisdom – is to resist the lie. Rose speaks eloquently to this spirit.

In the final analysis, Christianity is a continuation of a particular Jewish tradition, which mainstream Judaism rejects or diminishes. Kalleres argues that this theology is entirely taken up by the Jewish sect that becomes Christianity. Humans turned away from God, and thus God did not just leave them in misery, but abandoned them to the spirit of darkness. And so Judaism, which focuses on the fortunes and fates of humans in the material world, is transformed into a mythology that focuses on man’s fortunes and fates in the world to come. And the whole thing is punctuated by Apocalyptic style. Armageddon, the battle with the great red dragon, the resurrection of the righteous, the great renovation, is Zoroastrian eschatology.

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Andrew Austin

Andrew Austin is on the faculty of Democracy and Justice Studies and Sociology at the University of Wisconsin—Green Bay. He has published numerous articles, essays, and reviews in books, encyclopedia, journals, and newspapers.

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