Iranian influence on Judaism
The question of Iranian influence is of some importance for understanding the development of the Hebrew Bible, the history of Second Temple Judaism, and the emergence of the genre known today as the apocalypse. Understanding the origins of ideas is of interest on its own; however, the ability to pinpoint influence more specifically offers evidence for dating changes in religious thought, as well as enabling a better understanding of the ways imported ideas were adapted by Judaism. Thus, understanding how ideas parallel other systems, were borrowed from them, and adapted for a new religion improves the contextual understanding of a religion and its texts, in our case Second Temple Judaism, the Hebrew Bible, and the Dead Sea Scrolls.
See Also: Persepolis and Jerusalem (T&T Clark Intl, 2012)
By Jason M Silverman
Trinity College Dublin
There are striking differences between the religious ideas found in the majority of the texts from ancient Israel and those which became common in its two main inheritors, Rabbinic Judaism and Early Christianity. Many of these new ideas can also be found in a religion known as Zoroastrianism, an ancient Iranian religion. From the time in the 18th century that western scholarship first accessed the religious texts of the Zoroastrians, known mistakenly at that time as Zend-Avesta, various scholars have attempted to account for these changes through appeal to Iranian influence on Judaism.1 Although none of these efforts were ever wholly successful, the idea has persisted as an under-explored possibility.
The entire area of Iranian influence has been beset by severe problems in method.2 The most glaring issue was the racist, anti-Semitic overtone which permeated much scholarship in the early 20th century. Many rightly shied away from claims that superior Aryan religion inevitably impacted on inferior Semitic peoples. But even studies which did not partake of this disturbing line of argumentation were often limited in their scope. They failed to take into account issues of context, transmission, or even what the word influence means. Flustered by lack of progress, many gave up on the subject.
The question of Iranian influence is of some importance for understanding the development of the Hebrew Bible, the history of Second Temple Judaism, and the emergence of the genre known today as the apocalypse.3 Understanding the origins of ideas is of interest on its own; however, the ability to pinpoint influence more specifically offers evidence for dating changes in religious thought, as well as enabling a better understanding of the ways imported ideas were adapted by Judaism. Thus, understanding how ideas parallel other systems, were borrowed from them, and adapted for a new religion improves the contextual understanding of a religion and its texts, in our case Second Temple Judaism, the Hebrew Bible, and the Dead Sea Scrolls.
Scholarship is now in an excellent position to reassess the question of Iranian influence. Since the last major studies were conducted, several germane developments have occurred. First, the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered and have recently been published in their entirety. These texts provide a large new body of comparable materials in Hebrew and Aramaic, including entirely new writings as well as the more familiar biblical ones. Second, the study of pre-Islamic Iran has advanced considerably, both in the study of the known religious texts as well as in the first two Iranian empires, the Achaemenid and Parthian. Lastly, the Persian period (c. 539331 BCE for Palestine) has increasingly come to be recognized as a very important, formative period for Judaism and its texts, replacing the previous view which held the period was a marginal dark age, a footnote to be merely glossed over between the fall of Jerusalem in 597 and the Antiochean crisis.
Before Iranian influence can be discussed, one needs to understand what influence means in this context.4 An unfortunate lack of precision in the use of this word and in studies seeking it has plagued the topic in the past. The best way to understand influence is to see it as one part of normal human existence. Humans attempt to understand the world around them, and as they interact with fellow human beings, they adapt and change their opinions and ideas. People may change their opinions slowly or quickly, slightly or drastically, consciously or unconsciously. This process is continual and inevitable. Influence simply refers to changes in thought or action which are due to interaction with other peoples, religions, and cultures. In our case, influence means changes which occurred among Judaeans because of interactions with people and ideas from Iran. These changes can take a wide variety of forms, from adopted ideas to borrowed texts, but they do not need to happen consciously or at one single point in time; they are simply one aspect of humans living in society. In more technical language, influence is a comparative perspective on hermeneutics.
Achaemenid Empire as context
All humans live in a historical context, and it follows from this that all traditions also exist and develop in a particular time and place. Understanding this context is important for understanding traditions and the texts which they create. The most important context for understanding Iranian influence on Second Temple Judaism is the first Iranian empire, known as the Achaemenid Empire. From Cyrus the Greats rapid conquests from a small vassal kingdom starting around 550 BCE to Darius IIIs murder in 330 BCE, the Achaemenid Empire ruled a massive territory in which all Judean and Israelite populations lived. At its greatest extent, the empire stretched from Ionia and Ethiopia in the west and Afghanistan and the Indus River in the east. The Persian dynasty, first the Teispid and then the Achaemenid, held this vast empire together for over 200 years. Iranian colonists and administrators were checkered throughout the subject lands. The first forms of Iranian influence should be sought in this long period.
Previous scholarship has been sidetracked from the importance of this imperial system as context. This is because the most obvious parallels with the Jewish and Christian apocalypses appear in the sacred texts of the Zoroastrians, an ancient Iranian religion. The main bodies of texts are the Avesta and commentaries in the language known as Pahlavi or Middle Persian. These texts are difficult and problematic for comparative use since the documents currently known to scholarship are from late in the reign of the last Iranian empire before the Arab invasion (known as the Sassanian Empire). Because the religion found in these texts cannot be assumed to have remained unchanged in the millennium between the Achaemenid Empire and the fall of the Sassanian Empire, much discussion has been concerned with how accurately these texts reflect earlier religion. While these texts are important, such a narrow focus has caused other evidence to be ignored.
When the focus changes to Iranian religion and the Achaemenid Empire, Zoroastrianism becomes only one relevant aspect among others. The name Iran refers to a group of peoples and lands with related languages and traditions, an area broader than the current state of Iran.5 Sources for the culture, politics, and religion of Iran are much broader than the Zoroastrian religious texts. These include the administrative dockets known as the Persepolis tablets, various Greek and Latin authors, and a wide array of archaeological sourcesa convenient sample of sources on the empire has been collected recently by Kuhrt.6 By taking the Achaemenid Empire as the primary context for investigating Iranian influence, a rich trove of materials becomes available. Relevant subjects in this context extend beyond merely what moderns would consider religious, including politics, culture, and science.
Nature of Communication
It is perhaps not surprising in a field centered on the study of a collection of written texts (the Bible) that researchers sometimes assume that all ideas that appear in that collection come from other texts. This assumption can lead to real interpretative difficulties, but it also ignores the many ways in which humans communicate and share concepts. The realm of spoken communication is very important for Iranian influence on Judaism (as it is for the origins of the Hebrew Bible).7
When investigating influence, one needs to take into account the ways ideas travel in a world run primarily through spoken language. The search for quotations and direct borrowings from other texts has dominated past research. The direct use of earlier textswhile importantis not the only nor even the most important way in which ideas could be transmitted between peoples and even authors. More nuanced ways of looking for influence are needed. The key, as noted above, is to look for interpretive changes in texts. Once these are identified, one can ask whether or not said changes relate to the cultural milieu of the time, one of which was the Achaemenid Empire.
Attention to the spoken word is especially important in the context of the Persians. As far as it is known today, the Persians and some Iranians more generally preferred to pass down religious and cultural traditions through speech rather than through texts.8 A method which limited Iranian influence to direct quotations from texts would miss out on this dynamic. Of course, spoken words are not preserved to history, but the study of art, architecture, and administrative texts can shed some light on this lost aspect of the Achaemenid culture.
Specific Instances of Iranian Influence
Much work remains to be done to assess how important Iranian influence was for Judaism and for the development of the apocalypses. Specific instances need to be identified and then considered within a broader context which considers the historical contexts described above: the history of the Achaemenid Empire, the shifts in communication strategies (i.e., development of written texts), and the internal developments in Judaean and Israelite communities.
It bears repeating that the kinds of influence will vary in different instances. In some cases, Iranian texts may have been borrowed and adapted for new Judaean texts. In other cases, existing Judaean concepts may have been reinterpreted in line with Iranian ideas. In still others, Iranian ideas may have been rejected and argued against, perhaps being inverted as a rhetorical strategy. Further, there remains the possibility that biblical texts became re-interpreted after they were written by Jewish and Christian communities, using ideas ultimately derived from Iran.
Current space does not allow for the full elaboration of details, but a summary of four proposed instances of influence of varying types should demonstrate the viability of this new perspective.9
As pointed out by Greenberg,10 the Vision of the Valley of Bones in Ezekiel 37 presents an interesting interpretive conundrum: while modern scholars nearly unanimously agree that the passage speaks of national restoration, early Jewish and Christian exegesis interpreted the passage as a justification for the idea of bodily resurrection. This difference suggests a change within some Judaean circles between the writing of Ezekiel 37 and the later interpretersthe idea of resurrection became known and accepted, and this idea was then seen to be taught by a literal reading of the Ezekielian text. The mural of this passage found in the Dura Europos synagogue demonstrates that some Jews felt that this literal interpretation of Ezek 37 was slightly too similar to Zoroastrian ideas of resurrection for comfortthe painting altered the bones to body parts.11 The muralist was quite correct, as a number of features resemble Iranian ideas concerning the experience after death. The presence of these (likely fortuitous) parallels can be seen to have offered a way for Judaeans to have interpreted the new idea of bodily resurrection as already inherent in their own traditions. When the inheritors of Ezekiel were exposed to such ideas, they already had a way to fit them into their worldview. Thus, a shift from a metaphorical to a literal interpretation of the oracle would have both coincided with and facilitated interaction with Iranian ideas about the afterlife, in this case, bodily resurrection.
The famous oracle against Gog from Magog in Ezek 3839 offers a very different kind of interaction. Rather than viewing this text as a recycled version of a foe from the north tradition, it is possible to read it as a re-construal of the Medo-Lydian War of 590585 BCE.12 The passages technical language of sacrifice and strange Hebrew constructions find parallels in language concerning the role of Mithra, a Median god of the contract and its defense through warfare. The language of Ezekiel is ironic, and this leads to the possibility that the author has utilized and inverted Median rhetoric as part of an argument for the inevitability of restoration. If true, this would represent influence through the borrowing of rhetoric for subversive purposes. While the borrowing would have been intended to counter Iranian claims, the borrowing itself still would become a part of the Jewish tradition and have had lasting impact.
The four metallic empires in Dan 4 (and 7) have long been suspected of being derived from a Persian source. This effort has never been fully successful since the only direct Iranian comparison is a 9th-century text known as the Commentary to the Hymn to Wahman (Zand-ī Wahman Yashn). However, the lateness of the manuscript has distracted scholarship from taking seriously the obvious evolution of the document. When this history is investigated and taken seriously, a relationship between the two texts must be posited. They share the fourfold scheme: a declining order of metals with a mixed metal last, an overall eschatological and theological interpretation, a fictive chronological situation relative to the vision itself, and the revelatory context. Since the metallic details find explanation in the Iranian system and not in Daniel, the borrowing must have been by Daniel. This vision would then represent a borrowing of the more traditional understanding. However, an additional aspect of this must be taken into account. By borrowing a vision with an implied eschatology, the borrowerperhaps unwittinglyalso borrowed a new interpretation of the prophetic catchphrase in the latter days. This new interpretation would prove very significant for the later Danielic tradition.
Finally, a brief look at the complex traditions associated with Enoch in the Book of Watchers will demonstrate another, more nuanced form of influence. The character of Asael, one of the fallen Watchers in the book, is an amalgam of many different sources. He is associated with a negative myth of the origin of human culture, with a critique of violence, sexual transgression, and with being bound until the final judgment. His parallels to the Greek myth of Prometheus have been overstated, and just as well he can be compared to myths around several Iranian characters associated with the origins of culture. However, more important are his similarities with a demonic creature known as Ai Dahāka. Ai Dahāka is an evil Iranian dragon-king with a taste for blood who was bound under a mountain until the final judgment. This myth developed over time in Iran but is intricately bound up with the eschatological system found there. Asael also shows similarities with old Canaanite-Ugaritic myths of Baals fight against the dragon. In this instance, it can be argued that the interpretative schema surrounding Ai Dahāka facilitated Judean re-appropriation and reinterpretation of the old, polytheistic dragon combat known in Canaan. Understood as such, it represents the interaction of two influences, with the Iranian sources playing an important function as catalyst and in forming interpretative principles.
Jewish Apocalyptic Traditions
The above considerations have a considerable impact on the ways the development of the apocalypses is understood. Iranian influence on the apocalypses has long been suspected but it typically assumed to have happened in the Hellenistic period, perhaps through Greek mediation. This perspective begs the question of the method for influence and implies a priori that it could not have been direct or important. A focus on the Achaemenid period challenges the assumption that whatever influence transpired was so lateindeed, the earlier re-dating of the Book of Watchers in light of the Dead Sea Scrolls suggests that the matrices which created the apocalypses were earlier, perhaps considerably so. Furthermore, care needs to be taken; influences may not be in the lists of parallels so commonly cited (angelology, demonology, resurrection), but in patterns of thinking. If indeed it was new patterns of thinking which served as one of the aspects in the formation of the apocalypses and their related traditions, then there is no reason why influence may not have originally happened in communities not typically associated with the apocalypses.
This is an exciting time for the study of the relationships between early Jewish traditions and Iranian traditions. Expect an increasing number of studies which take more serious account of the Persian period, the Persian Empire, and the various forms of Iranian ideas. The issue of Iranian influence can yet in no way be said to have been proved or disproved. However profound or minor any specific instances of influence are found to be, this field promises to offer new insight on two hundred years once considered unimportantand thus on the subsequent Hellenistic and Roman periods and their apocalyptic groups, the Jesus movement, and the early Rabbinic movement.
1 For overviews on early research, see Mark J. Dresden, Survey of the History of Iranian Studies, Iranistik: Literatur, Handbuch der Orientalistik I.IV.2.1 (Leiden: Brill, 1968), 171173; Mary Boyce, A History of Zoroastrianism: The Early Period, vol. I, Handbuch der Orientalistik VIII.1.2.2A.1 (Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1975), ixxii; Jes P. Asmussen, Die Verkündigung Zarathustras im Lichte der Religionsgeschichte, Temenos 6 (1970): 2224; Jacques Duchesne-Guillemin, The Western Response to Zoroaster, Ratanbai Katrak Lectures (Oxford: Clarendon, 1958), 8687.
2 The standard critique of this field is James Barr, The Question of Religious Influence: the case of Zoroastrianism, Judaism, and Christianity, Journal of the American Academy of Religion 53 (1985): 201235. For a fuller discussion, see the prolegomena in Jason M. Silverman, Persepolis and Jerusalem: Iranian Influence on the Apocalyptic Hermeneutic (LHBOTS; T&T Clark, 2012). A shorter statement also appears in idem, Persian Influence on Jewish Apocalyptic, Proceedings of the Irish Biblical Association 32 (2009 ): 4952.
3 For overviews on scholarly research on the apocalypses, see Lorenzo DiTommaso, Apocalypses and Apocalypticism in Antiquity Part I, Currents in Biblical Research 5.2 (2007): 235286 and idem,. Apocalypses and Apocalypticism in Antiquity, Part II, Currents in Biblical Research 5.3 (2007): 367432. For a broader perspective, see Malcolm Bull, ed. Apocalypse Theory and the Ends of the World (Oxford: Blackwell, 1995) and John J. Collins, ed. The Encyclopedia of Apocalypticism (New York: Continuum, 2000).
4 For a fuller, more technical discussion of influence, see the prolegomena in Jason M. Silverman, Persepolis and Jerusalem: Iranian Influence on the Apocalyptic Hermeneutic (LHBOTS; T&T Clark, 2012). A slightly modified statement also appears as idem, On Cultural and Religious Influence, pages 112 in A Land Like Your Own: Traditions of Israel and Their Reception (Jason M. Silverman, ed. Eugene, OR: Pickwick, 2010).
5 The Journal of Persianate Studies defines the relevant Iranian areas and cultures as encompassing Iran, Afghanistan, Tajikistan, as well as the Caucasus, Central Asia, the Indian Subcontinent, and parts of the former Ottoman Empire.
6 See Amélie Kuhrt, The Persian Empire: a Corpus of Sources from the Achaemenid Period (London: Routledge, 2007). For a synthesis, see Pierre Briant, From Cyrus to Alexander: A History of the Persian Empire (trans. Peter T. Daniels. Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 2002). [Histoire de lEmpire perse (Paris, 1996)].
7 This study is more technically known as Oral Theory. An eminently readable discussion is Susan Niditch, Oral World and Written Word: Ancient Israelite Literature (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 1996). See also William M. Schniedewind, How the Bible Became a Book: the Textualization of Ancient Israel (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ Press, 2004); David Carr, Writing on the Tablet of the Heart: Origins of Scripture and Literature (Oxford: Oxford Univ Press, 2005); chapter three in Jason M. Silverman, Persepolis and Jerusalem: Iranian Influence on the Apocalyptic Hermeneutic (LHBOTS; T&T Clark, 2012).
8 For some discussions of this, see Mary Boyce, The Parthian gōsān and Iranian Minstrel Tradition, Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society (1957): 1045; P. Huyse, Noch einmal zu Parallelen zwischen Achaemeniden- und Sasanideninschriften, Archäologische Mitteilungen aus Iran 23 (1990): 177183; Kumiko Yamamoto, The Oral Background of Persian Epics: Storytelling and Poetry (Brill Studies in Middle Eastern Literatures 26; Leiden: Brill, 2003); Prods Oktor Skjærvø, The Importance of Orality for the Study of Old Iranian Literature and Myth, Nāme-ye Irān Bāstān 5.1-2 (2005- 2006): 931.
9 For the analysis of Ezekiel 37, Ezekiel 3839, Daniel 2, and aspects of the Book of Watchers, the reader is referred to my forthcoming study, Persepolis and Jerusalem: Iranian Influence on the Apocalyptic Hermeneutic (LHBOTS, T&T Clark, 2012). For details in the Book of Heavenly Luminaries, the reader is referred to my paper, Iranian Details in the Book of Heavenly Luminaries (1 Enoch 7282).
10 Moshe Greenberg, Ezekiel 2137, AB 22A (New York: Doubleday, 1997), 749751.
11 Noticed and argued by Bernhard Lang, Street Theatre, Raising the Dead and the Zoroastrian Connection in Ezekiel's Prophecy, Ezekiel and His Book: Textual and Literary Criticism and their Interrelation. Edited by J. Lust. Bibliotheca Ephemeridum Theologicarium Lovaniensium LXXIV (Leuven: Leuven Univerity Press, 1986), 297316.
12 Suggested in English in I. Diakonoff, Media, The Cambridge History of Iran (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ Press, 1985), 2:126. Further publications in Russian are mentioned (although dismissed) by Michael C. Astour, Ezekiels Prophecy of Gog and the Cuthean Legend of Naram-Sin. JBL 95.4 (1976): 5701.