By Mary Jane Chaignot

Categories: The Bible


Apparently King Cyrus of Persia was a follower of Zoroastrianism. Yet we hear nothing about that in the Bible. What was Zoroastrianism?


Zoroastrianism is the name of a religion founded by Zarathustra, a prophet from Persia. The Greek rendering of his name is Zoroaster, hence the name of the religion. Scholars are not certain when he lived on earth. Most think it was around 1500-1000 BCE, which would place him in the time of Moses/David. Some, however, think Zoroastrianism had its beginnings as early as 6000 BCE, and Zoroaster simply revived a faith that had been practiced thousands of years earlier. This could pre-date Abraham. Most agree that the latest it began would have been around 600 BCE. Regardless of its beginnings, Zoroastrianism was the state religion of Persia until the Islamic wars of the 7th century CE, lasting a good 1000 years. After that, the number of participants began to dwindle, but readers might be interested to know that present-day adherents still number in the tens of thousands. It is most prevalent in India.

There are many legends about Zoroaster. One is that his birth was predicted and he was supposedly born in Northeast Iran or Southwest Afghanistan. This would have been the "Bronze Age" when people worshipped many gods, mostly through animal sacrifice or intoxicants. When he was thirty, he had a divine vision of God during a purification rite. As a result, he tried to change everything about his life. He was not a follower of the religious culture that worshipped multiple gods. He felt that the wealthy controlled the people through prescribed worship, rituals, and ceremonies. He also had some rather negative things to say about the various gods that people were worshipping. His mantra was "good thoughts, good words, and good deeds." Needless to say, his ideas were not readily accepted – especially by those in power.

After a dozen years of trying to get people to change their religious views, he left his home and moved to Bactria. The king and queen of Bactria overheard him having a heated debate with the religious authorities. They were so impressed by Zoroaster, that they made Zoroastrianism the official religion in their land. From then on his religion spread like wildfire throughout the region. He supposedly died around 70 years of age.

By the time of Cyrus, King of Persia, Zoroastrianism was a well-established religion. Some of its tenets seem strikingly similar to those of Christianity and Judaism. It is monotheistic. There are stories of a virgin birth, a son of God, a resurrection, angels and demons – even a savior. The question then becomes "who borrowed from whom?" Scholars have lively discussions about that, but since no one knows for sure when Zoroaster lived, they're all pretty speculative.

The bottom line is that many Jews stayed in the Persian Empire even after they were allowed to return to Jerusalem. And scholars know that Judaism changed a lot after the exile. Did these changes occur from the convergence of the two religions or the fact of the exile? It is probably a bit of both. Both religions had a strong oral tradition and it is reasonable to assume that stories were shared about God, creation, good and evil, judgment, and the end of the world.

The Judeo-Christian tradition has the Bible; Zoroastrianism has the Avesta. Like the Bible, this is a collection of sacred texts that have been redacted over time. These are comprised of three types: hymns, prayers, and ritual instructions. Most of the texts can be dated back to 648-330 BCE, though scholars are convinced they were probably transmitted orally for centuries before they were written down. As more ancient texts are discovered and interpreted, it is likely that interest in Zoroastrianism will continue.

One thing is certain: the composition by Richard Strauss, Sprach Zarathustra [Thus spake Zarathustra], featured in the opening scene of the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey, has forever memorialized this Persian prophet named Zarathustra (Zoroaster, in Greek).

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