The Persian Package

The Persian Package July 31, 2015

I have posted frequently about the major change that occurs within Judaism in the two centuries or so before the time of Christ: the major growth of belief in angels, Satan, a Last Judgment, the Messiah (or messiahs) and generally a strongly Dualist world-view. These are all ideas that we see well represented in the Dead Sea Scrolls, and of course, they provide the matrix of early Christianity.

Often, this package of beliefs is attributed to Persian and Zoroastrian influence, but I have argued against this view, and the more I look at the question, the stronger the opposing arguments become. I have been thinking of this recently as I re-read some sections of an older book, W. D. Davies and Louis Finkelstein, eds., The Cambridge History of Judaism Volume 1: Introduction: The Persian Period (Cambridge University Press, 1984), especially Mary Boyce, “Persian religion in the Achemenid age,” 279-307; and Shaul Shaked, “Iranian influence on Judaism,” 308-325.

The main argument is one of chronology. Palestine was under Persian rule from the late sixth century BC through the time of Alexander the Great in the 330s. Yet the alleged Persian Package, so to speak, does not appear in Jewish sources until the mid-second century, and then heavily concentrated in certain works. Shaked notes the strongly Dualistic themes present in “the Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs, the Manual of Discipline of Qumran, and the Judeo-Christian Didache.” He continues,

the specific Iranian religious themes encountered in the Jewish books discussed above tend to be concentrated in a number of compositions, such as the Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs (particularly Levi, Dan, Naphtali, Asher and Benjamin), 2 Enoch (Slavonic Enoch), and the Manual of Discipline, while other books seem to share certain ideas ultimately derived from Iran in a secondary manner.

As I read his list, the major period of borrowing looks like it might be as late as the first century AD, and it is curious to see the Didache (c. 100AD) included here.

The close parallels and borrowings, such as they are, look distinctly patchy. Influences are there: witness the demonic Aesma, who becomes Aesma-Deva, who appears as Asmodeus in the Book of Tobit. But that is different from borrowing an entirely new view of cosmic Good and Evil.

The other serious flaw is in defining and dating the Persian ideas themselves. A century ago, scholars thought they had an excellent idea of what Zoroastrian beliefs looked like during Achaemenid times. More recently, we see that most aspects of this, including the core Dualist theme, are really developed in the Sassanian era, from the third century AD onwards. Based on the chronology alone, you could even argue that hardcore Dualism actually emerges in the Jewish and Christian worlds, and then shapes the Zoroastrian beliefs of later imperial Persia. (I don’t suggest that sequence of influences, but just point to the chronological anomaly). During the era of Persian rule over Palestine, the dynasty’s official religion certainly included veneration of the main Zoroastrian deity, Ahura Mazda, but there is next to no evidence of the later theological trappings.

In this context, Mary Boyce analyzes the famous account of Persian beliefs and culture by the Greek traveler and historian Herodotus, writing about 430 BC. Herodotus’s account is deeply flawed and contains numerous errors and romantic myths. Yet it has the immense advantage of being strictly contemporary, and it was written moreover at a time when the Persians were definitely ruling Palestine. And if he is not entirely making up his account, he at least knows something through extensive travels and conversations. Also, while not unprejudiced towards the Persian invader, he often draws comparisons that are favorable to Persians rather than his own Greek people.

The most striking point about Herodotus’s account is what it omits. We would not for a second get a clue about any Dualist ideas, or any aspect of the “Persian Package” we see later at Qumran and elsewhere. Not a word about Dualism, or the Last Judgment, or any kind of Satanic figure, nor a messiah. As we always say, absence of evidence is not evidence of absence, but even if those ideas were present in any form, clearly they were not in the foreground of belief.

Reading Herodotus, in fact, the picture we get is of something more like Indian Vedic religion, which makes complete sense in that Zoroastrianism stems from that common Indo-Iranian origin. It is clearly a faith of sacrifices and libations, a point reinforced by many stories dating from Xerxes’s invasion of Greece.

Herodotus says for instance that the Persians

have no images of the gods, no temples nor altars, and consider the use of them a sign of folly. This comes, I think, from their not believing the gods to have the same nature with men, as the Greeks imagine. Their wont, however, is to ascend the summits of the loftiest mountains, and there to offer sacrifice to Zeus, which is the name they give to the whole circuit of the firmament. They likewise offer to the sun and moon, to the earth, to fire, to water, and to the winds. These are the only gods whose worship has come down to them from ancient times. At a later period they began the worship of Urania, which they borrowed from the Arabians and Assyrians. Mylitta is the name by which the Assyrians know this goddess, whom the Arabians call Alitta, and the Persians Mitra. To these gods the Persians offer sacrifice in the following manner: they raise no altar, light no fire, pour no libations; there is no sound of the flute, no putting on of chaplets, no consecrated barley-cake; but the man who wishes to sacrifice brings his victim to a spot of ground which is pure from pollution, and there calls upon the name of the god to whom he intends to offer. … He cuts the victim in pieces, and having boiled the flesh, he lays it out upon the tenderest herbage that he can find, trefoil especially. When all is ready, one of the Magi comes forward and chants a hymn, which they say recounts the origin of the gods. It is not lawful to offer sacrifice unless there is a Magus present. After waiting a short time the sacrificer carries the flesh of the victim away with him, and makes whatever use of it he may please.

He also knows something of the Zoroastrian abhorrence of burying the dead, and the practice of exposing corpses.

The only hint we get of later ideas is the stress on lying (pseudesthai) as an ultimate evil: “The most disgraceful thing in the world, they think, is to tell a lie.” As I have described, later Jewish and Christian thought made the Devil a Liar and the father of Lies.

More grounds to be cautious about simple claims that those Persian contacts transformed Jewish faith, and laid the foundations of Christianity.


On sources, William W. Malandra has an excellent essay in the Encyclopedia Iranica. See also Mary Boyce, ed., Textual sources for the study of Zoroastrianism (University of Chicago Press, 1990); Jenny Rose, Zoroastrianism: An Introduction (London : I. B. Tauris, 2011). Shaul Shaked also edited the collection Irano-Judaica: Studies Relating To Jewish Contacts With Persian Culture Throughout The Ages (Jerusalem: Ben-Zvi Institute for the Study of Jewish Communities in the East, 1982).

A terrific recent book considers Jewish responses to Zoroastrianism, as reflected in the Talmud, but it focuses entirely on the post-third century AD era – see Shai Secunda, The Iranian Talmud: Reading the Bavli in its Sasanian Context (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2014).


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