The Persians who freed the Jews from exile were Zoroastrians. The Persians instilled their own priestly elites to re-establish the kingdom of Judah. These Persian elites who settled in the renewed “Judah” called themselves “Judaites” or “Jews”, and crafted a religion mixed with the old Yahwist/Elohist religion of the “Israelites”/Hebrews with Zoroastrian monotheism and thus the most recognizable iteration of Judaism was born.
Angels, heaven and hell, demons, the eternal battle between agents of good and agents of evil is the Zoroastrian influence on the Judaite/Israelite religion. The earliest Israelite texts shows a polytheistic religion that is very monistic – god creates both good and evil, and is not a god of benevolence in some eternal struggle against the forces of evil.
Zarathustra (Greek Zoroaster): legendary religious teacher from Bactria, founder of Zoroastrianism.
Hardly anything is known about Zarathustra’s life. For example, it is uncertain when he lived. The ancient Greeks speculated that he lived six thousand years before the philosopher Plato and several scholars have argued for a date at the beginning of the sixth century BCE. Other scholars accept that Zarathustra is the author of the Gâthâ’s (a part of the holy book of the Zoroastrians, the Avesta), which they date, on linguistic grounds, in the fourteenth or thirteenth century BCE.
It is also unclear where Zarathustra was born and where he spent the first half of his life. Every tribe that converted to Zoroastrianism made up legends about the prophet’s life, and nearly all of them claimed that the great teacher was “one of them”. On linguistic grounds, we may argue that author of the Gâthâ’s belonged to a tribe that lived in the eastern part of Iran, in Afghanistan or Turkmenistan. This fits neatly with a tradition that connects Zarathustra with the ancient country named Bactria and a cypress at Kâshmar (below), but it hardly proves Zarathustra’s Bactrian origins.
The Gâthâ’s are not a great help either. They contain some personal information, but are hardly the stuff that biographies are made of. The Denkard, a late Avestic text, contains a summary of an older biography. It contains many legends and the reliability seems not very great. The following reconstruction of Zarathustra’s life is, therefore, not to be taken as the very truth.
Zarathustra was born in Bactria (or Aria) as the son of a not very powerful nobleman named Purushaspa and a woman named Dughdhova. Zarathustra was the third of five brothers. He became a priest and seems to have showed a remarkable care for humans and cattle. The family is often called Spitama, which is a honorary title meaning ‘most beneficient’, but was later taken for a family name.
Zarathustra’s life changed when the god Ahuramazda granted him a vision. A spirit named Good Thought appeared and ordered Zarathustra to oppose the bloody sacrifices of the traditional Iranian cults and to give aid to the poor. In one of his own compositions, Zarathustra says:
Thee I conceived as holy, O Ahuramazda, when thy Good Thought appeared to me and asked me: ‘Who art thou? And whose is thine allegiance?’ […]
Then I answered: ‘Zarathustra am I; to the false believers a forthright enemy, but to the righteous a mighty help and joy. […]
Thee I conceived as holy, O Ahuramazda, when thy Good Thought appeared to me. […] A difficult thing it seemed to me, to spread thy faith among men, to do that which Thou didst say was best.
Zarathustra started to preach that there was a supreme god, the “wise lord” Ahuramazda, who had created the world, mankind and all good things in it through his holy spirit, Spenta Mainyu. The rest of the universe was created by six other spirits, the Amesha Spentas (‘holy immortals’). However, the order of this sevenfold creation was threatened by The Lie; good and evil spirits were fighting and mankind had to support the good spirits in order to speed up the inevitable victory of the good.