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Was Resurrection a Zoroastrian Idea?

I have been arguing that at some point before the middle of the second century BCE, Jewish thinkers developed the idea that death was not the end of the story, that people did not simply end up in the netherworld of Sheol for all eternity, a place of no pleasure, pain, excitement, or even worship of Yahweh.  Instead, at the end of the age, God would raise people from the dead, and the faithful would be rewarded with eternal bliss.

There is a lot to say about the idea of resurrection as it developed in Judaism and then, especially, in Christianity.  But first I have to address the question of origins.  Where did the idea come from?

I was always taught what I imagine every critical biblical scholar for the past century was taught, that the idea of resurrection came into Judaism from the Persian religion known as Zoroastrianism.  In fact, several readers of the blog have asked me just this question (or made just this assertion), about Zoroastrianism as the source of the idea.  The logic is as follows:

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(a) There was nothing in the Jewish tradition that would lead someone to think that resurrection of the body was a possibility, since Israelites had always held to the idea of an eternal Sheol;

(b) Resurrection was, however, part and parcel of ancient Zoroastrian thought, which was avidly dualistic in its thinking, with the forces of good and evil waging massive cosmic battles that would come to a climax at the end of time and all who had sided with good would be rewarded by being given new life at a resurrection of the dead;

(c) Israel had been for a time subject to the Persian Empire, for about two centuries, from 538 – 323BCE, that is, from the time Persia defeated the Babylonians and took over their territory up to the time of the conquests of Alexander the Great in the fourth century.

(d) Therefore it makes best sense, by this logic, to think that Jews got the idea of a future resurrection from the Persians.  Hey, they had to get it from somewhere, right?

That, as I have said, is what we were all taught and it’s what I thought (and taught) until about, well, six months ago.   As a preliminary to a couple of more detailed comments, let me make two general points.

The first involves a problem I’ve thought about for a long time: Our tendency to think that every idea has an external “source” just can’t be right (in bald terms), as if every idea has to start somewhere else other than where we find it.  That is to say, suppose we argue that resurrection came to the Jews from the Persians.  OK, then, where did the Persians get it?  Suppose they got it from the X’s.  Then where did the X’s get it?  From the Y’s?  Where did the Y’s get it? From the Z’s?  Where did….   As you can see, it’s an eternal regress.  Someone, at some time, in some place, comes up with a new idea.  And so it’s actually not necessarily the case that Jews got the idea from anywhere.  In theory, some Jewish someone could have made it up!

My second comment is the realization that I had six months ago, when thinking about such things in reference to Jews getting the idea of resurrection from Perians.  The dates don’t work.   Israel was subject to Persia from the late 6th to the late 4th century BCE.  Do we see any evidence of a belief in resurrection in Jewish texts from that period?  Well, actually, no we don’t.  When do we see such a belief?  Starting in the Maccabean period a full century and a half after Israel was controlled by the Persians.   If the Jews had been having extensive contacts with Persians (and presumably their religion) in the 160s, it would make sense that they borrowed their idea of resurrection.  But in fact the influence at the time, and for a long time before, was entirely Greek.  And Greeks did not have any notion of a future resurrection of the dead.  Quite the contrary, when (later) Greeks heard of such an idea they consistently and roundly mocked it as a piece of hilarious nonsense.

So the idea that the idea came into Israel from somewhere else is certainly possible.  But there doesn’t seem to be much evidence of it.

And there are even bigger problems.  It turns out we don’t actually know much about Zoroastrianism during the period we are interested in (say, 200 BCE to 200 CE).  That’s because we have lousy sources of information.  I first discovered this by reading one of the most learned discussions of the afterlife in Jewish and Christian traditions, by Dutch historian Jan Bremmer (his book:  The Rise and Fall of the Afterlife [New York: Routledge, 2002]).

Bremmer points out that our oldest manuscript of the Zoroastrian texts in question, the Avestas, dates from 1288 CE, and all the surviving manuscripts appear to go back to a copy that had been produced in the 9th or 10th century CE.  Since the Zoroastrian tradition was living and constantly changing over time, there is no assurance that the teachings of the later Avestan manuscripts were ancient.  Moreover, there is only one reference in all the oldest forms of the Avestan writings to the glories of a later life, and this reference doesn’t say anything about a future day of judgment (as in Jewish apocalyptic thought).

After some detailed comments, Bremmer concludes:  “There … is little reason to derive Jewish ideas about resurrection from Persian sources.  Their origin(s) may well lie in intra-Jewish developments” (p. 59).

In other words, the Jews who first pronounced the idea, during the Maccabean period, may have come up with it themselves.   This appears to be the newer consensus on the matter, as seen in a more recent work on the afterlife by a New Testament scholar Outi Lehtipuu who in her book, The Afterlife Imagery in Luke’s Story of the Rich Man and Lazarus (Brill: Leiden, 2007; p. 124), makes the same basic point.

I will need to do more work on the matter before coming to a final conclusion.  My next step, when I have the time to do so (I’m reading other things just now), will be to read the following two articles, which I cite in case any of you is inclined to pursue the matter:

James Barr, “The Question of Religious Influence: The Case of Zoroastrianism, Judaism, and        Christianity” JAAR 53 (1985).

G.  Widengren, “Leitende Ideen und Quellen der iranischen Apocalypyptik.” In Hellmholm, ed.,      Apocalypticism in the Mediterranean World and the Near East (Tübingen, 1983) 77-162.

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  1. Avatar
    Rogers  September 13, 2017

    So by further extension does that imply that there’s not really much influence from Zoroastrianism on Judaism period?

    I certainly see a lot of things written here and there that assert a connective tissue – chiefly citing that period of Persian dominance as how and when it would have happened. I suppose the other major themes of influence that are pointed to are the dualism and the cosmic struggle between good and evil. That all does seem to resemble Jewish apocalyptic views. Maybe that has been the power of the argument – that there is an aggregate of attributes that seem similar between the two religions and not just one thing, such as a view of the afterlife.

    Now one item that is a curiosity to me are the Three Magi in the Matthew gospel – is this perhaps a mentioning of Persian Zoroastrian Magicians?

    Why would that show up in New Testament era writings? Has anyone else ever found it interesting (and puzzling) that three [Persian] holy men magicians are depicted as coming to seek out and glorify a new King of the Jewish people? Jesus the apocalyptic messiah being endorsed by purveyors of another apocalyptic religion…seems like an interesting correlation to me.

    • Bart
      Bart  September 14, 2017

      YEs, my sense is that Zoroastrianism did not much affect Judaism — or if it did, we have little evidence of it.

      • Avatar
        Freedom880  April 17, 2020

        I agree that evidence of Persia influencing our Bible is scant, especially for a Textual Critic. Our oldest copies of the Persian Avesta and Gathas are only about a thousand years old.

        Yet, less than a century ago, the Masoretic was our oldest Old Testament (only about a thousand years old). Then, in 1947 – the ancient Dead Sea Scrolls.

        Scholars of ancient Persia seek a similar find but have lacked the traditional grants enjoyed by OT digs. Besides, early Christianity was keen to destroy any Roman-era documents relating to the Mithra Religion – a Persian sect which in so many ways resembled Early Christianity, allegedly down to a sort of Eucharist (according to some Early Fathers of the Christian Church).

        The Mithra mythos was allegedly known by field soldiers for the Persian Empire (500 BCE), the Greek Empire (300 BCE) and the Roman Empire (100 BCE; we have found Mithra caves as far East as China and as far West as Ireland). The Pharisees were evidently closer to the Mithra mythos than to the Sadducees (ACTS 23:6-11). But of course, all this needs to be confirmed by Textual Criticism.

  2. Avatar
    Marko071291  September 11, 2018

    Bart, Have you read D. O. Endsjo, ‘Greek Resurrection Beliefs and the Success of Christianity’? I just started, but it seems to me that Endsjo wants to argue that the idea of the resurrection of body wasn’t so strange for an average greek in the time Christianity started.

  3. Avatar
    Michele  January 11, 2019

    Dr Ehrman,
    you wrote “Bremmer points out that our oldest manuscript of the Zoroastrian texts in question, the Avestas, dates from 1288 CE, and all the surviving manuscripts appear to go back to a copy that had been produced in the 9th or 10th century CE”.
    This is true, but the scholarly consensus is that the surviving texts of the Avesta, as they exist today, derive from a single master copy produced by collation and recension in the Sasanian Empire (224–651 CE). That master copy, now lost, is known as the ‘Sassanian archetype’. Bremmer himself writes “Avestan texts wandered gradually from (most likely) eastern Iran to the southwest, where they were finally fixed in writing by The Sassanian kings, a process perhaps already begun in the first centuries of the Christian era under the Arsacids” (page 47 of The Rise And Fall Of The Afterlife”
    What do you think about?

    Thank you very much,

    Michele Fornelli

    • Bart
      Bart  January 13, 2019

      It’s a very complicated field of study. But even if the texts date from, say 300 CE, that is still well over 500 years after the idea of resurrection first appeared in Judaism.

      • Avatar
        Michele  January 13, 2019

        Let’s say that it’s a bit like the same speech of the apocalyptic influences: although the Persians had similar ideas of resurrection well before the Jews, it’s more correct to believe that each of these thoughts was emerged on their own, instead of thinking that every idea is necessarily influenced by others. I mean, it’s also true for people’s ideas nowadays. Not always two people with the same opinions must necessarily have influenced each other. It is simply easier and more seductive to think that this is so, seeing correlations everywhere to justify everything.

        • Bart
          Bart  January 14, 2019

          It’s not clear that the Persians did have similar ideas of resurrection before the Jews. That’s the issue involved with dating the texts. (I used to think they did, now I’m not convinced.)

          • Avatar
            Michele  January 14, 2019

            However, it seems obvious to me from your reasoning, which I fully agree, that even if the belief had been the same (and the Persians before the Jews), the idea of ​​a possible influence remains unlikely, right?

            Thank you,

            Michele Fornelli

          • Bart
            Bart  January 15, 2019

            I think it’s a bit unlikely, but not at all impossible.

  4. Avatar
    Michele  January 15, 2019

    Let’s say that the reason why Mary Boyce and Hinnels argue that the ideas reported in the 300 CE Avestan text, date back to the BCE, is because the language in which they are written is very old and was no longer used in the CE, so they deduce that it was handed down orally from the BCE to the CE’s centuries in which the texts were written. I guess from your previous answer that now many scholars, experts in the field, are questioning this vision, is that so?

    Thank you again for your kindness,

    Michele Fornelli

  5. Avatar
    Freedom880  January 22, 2020

    I’m still impressed by a few historical factors. What we know about Zoroaster’s religion overwhelms the textual dating of the Avesta — we have ancient evidence that:

    1. The Zoroaster religion believed in One God (Ahura Mazda) and One Devil (Ahriman).
    2. The Farsee priests practiced a primitive form of demonology (e.g. exorcism) and angelology.
    3. Thus, the notion of heaven and hell seems undeniably implicit in what the ancients knew about Farsees.

    Did the Zoroaster religion have a precedent? Darmestater (cf. Max Muller) said yes. The name of the Persian god, “Ahura,” was a variant of “Assur” which was the name of the chief god of the more ancient “Assyria.”

    The Persian culture imitated the older Assyrian culture in almost everything — architecture, music, dance, costume, theater, mythology — everything except the language. Assyrians had a Semitic language, while the Persians retained their Indo-European language. (Just as Rome copied Greece in everything but retained Latin.)

    Still — we seek in vain for evidence of Dualism in Assyria.

    The Dualism of Persia speaks loudest about a Heaven/Hell Dualism, complete with angels and demons.

    It seems to me incorrect to trace an Enemy of God to Judaism during the Greek age, when the Persians had a clear Enemy of God before the Babylonian age.

    The claim that the “Pharisee” sect of Judaism arose only after the “Farsee” civilization had restored the Temple in Jerusalem still seems to me to hold some weight.
    Zoroaster was clearly prior to Daniel in the concept of a God and an Enemy of God.

    I note that the concept of exorcism appears nowhere in the Old Testament, but upsurges quickly in the Gospel of Mark.
    Matthew seems to make a direct connection with Persia and the three “Magi”, insofar as Persian priests were also called Magi. Matthew also recognizes a sojourn into Egypt, where most ancient practices such as exorcism were still current.

    I still feel the Zoroaster precedence of Heaven/Hell merits further exploration.

  6. Avatar
    Freedom880  April 15, 2020

    Surely the Persians were not monotheists, but dualists. We have this from very ancient sources. Freud showed, by contrast, that the ancient Egyptians (specifically the reign of Pharaoh Ihkn-Aton, ca. 1300 BCE) were the first to propose a monotheism, with a specific ban on idolatry (cf. Freud, “Moses and Monotheism,” 1939).

    Back to Persia. Anders Hulgard, “Persian Apocalypticism” (1998) offers so much detail on the topic, that a revisit seems inevitable. Your new book, Dr. Ehrman, namely, “Heaven and Hell” (2020), does allude to Hulgard; very briefly.

    If the Jewish religion entered a discourse on Heaven vs. Hell only after the Greek conquest, then it seems we are justified in pursuing the question — where did the Greeks get the idea? Because, the Persian Empire immediately preceded the Greek Empire for two centuries, with multiple wars.

    Now, insofar as the Persians had a dualistic religion, where the two basic forces of the Cosmos are one God and one Devil; then the concept of Heaven vs. Hell is obviously implied. Isn’t that much obvious?

    • Bart
      Bart  April 17, 2020

      The Greek ideas were around before the Persian conquest. Various cultures, of course, have dualistic views, as these seem to make inherent sense to people who experience both good and bad.

      • Avatar
        Freedom880  April 22, 2020

        Certainly the ideas of good and bad are prehistoric, and so a basic dualism is likely prehistoric as well. Yet this question about Zarathustra doctrines of heaven and hell is more specific. Persians had One Supreme God (Ahuramazda) and One Supreme Devil (Ahriman). They were hostile opposites. God had angels as servants. The Devil had demons as servants.

        This was something new in antiquity, according to some historians. Other polytheisms were less dualist — for example, Greece had one Supreme God (Zeus) but no Supreme Devil. Such polytheism was typical in the most ancient Egypt, Assyria and Babylon as well.

        Persia’s formal dualism in theology, with God and angels on one side (heaven) and the Devil and demons on the other side (hell), seems to merit our attention in this thread. Granted, the Greeks had ideas of heaven and hell — yet Greece was in continual contact with Persia (commerce and wars) even before Persia ruled the world.

        Dr. Ehrman, you say that in the past you recognized Persian Dualism as a source of Jewish dualism (2nd Temple Pharisee). What convinced you in the past?

  7. Avatar
    Freedom880  April 18, 2020

    Dr. Ehrman,

    You deny that the Bible consigns immortal souls to burn in eternal Hellfire. Jesus said that the fires of Hell don’t go out (Mark 9:47-48) but Jesus said nothing of human souls sentenced to reside there *eternally*. Even the Book of Revelation did not envision *human* souls consigned there eternally.

    Among Jehovah’s Witnesses the denial of Hell has been famous since the 19th century. Yet the JW’s were content to say that the doctrine was “pagan” and then just drop the topic. I prefer much more digging.

    Persian Apocalyptic literature reveals a doctrine of Hellfire, yet it describes a Last Judgment that sentences the most wicked souls to Hellfire — *for only three days*. The *eternal* aspect of souls in Hellfire may turn out to be a much later political idea.

    In “Heaven and Hell” chapter 7 (pp. 128-138) you find a Hellfire doctrine in 4 Maccabees, dating from the Jewish revolt against Greece (as well as in 4 Ezra, which probably hails after 70 CE). Are we to dismiss Persia? Were Socrates and Plato really the first? Is that what today’s Textual Criticism suggests?

    • Bart
      Bart  April 19, 2020

      Sorry — I’m not sure what you’re asking. Textual criticism is the field that studies how to figure out what an author originally wrote when we don’t have his original manuscript.

      4 Maccabees was actually written much later than that (many centuries after Plato), and in my book I definitely do not say Plato was the first to come up with the idea.

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