WHERE IT ALL BEGAN (Part V)
BELIEFS SHARED BY RELIGIONS
Sometimes it hurts when we think we know something thoroughly, only to find out later we didn’t know the whole story. That’s called “learning.” This can be said of the average Christian’s knowledge about events that impacted Christianity that are not contained in the Bible. Very few know that many of the tenets and teachings in Christian thought were also expressed in other writings and religions, some even before Moses and Jesus gave their revelations.
One of the most critical periods in the history of Judah was when King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon destroyed Jerusalem and carried off its treasures along with its brightest and most skilled craftsmen, among whom were Daniel and three of his friends, Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah. And it was soon afterward that the Medes and Persians under the leadership of King Cyrus eclipsed the Babylonians to become the strongest and greatest empire at that time in 539-538 B.C.
Among the names that followed the rise of the Persian (now Iran) empire, was that of King Darius in 521 B.C. He became known as Darius the Great. We find Darius first mentioned in Ezra 4:5. Back in Jerusalem the returning Jews from exile tried to rebuild the altar of the Temple but they were interfered with by hostile adversaries who had taken over after the Jews left. Even when they tried to rebuild the walls and the Temple itself, they pleaded for help, but it wasn’t until the sixth year of Darius’ reign that they were finally able to rebuild the Temple by the authority of a letter from King Darius.
Darius thought of himself as the greatest king of all time. As a matter of fact, Darius had a monument carved on Mount Behistun, and etched this monument he introduced himself as “Darius, the great king, king of kings.” But that is not the only place we find this title. In Ezekiel 27:7, this is how Nebuchadnezzar was referred to, “This is what the Sovereign Lord says: From the north I will bring King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon against Tyre. He is king of kings.” Even Daniel (2:37) addressed Nebuchadnezzar the same way, “Your Majesty, you are the king of kings.” Then in Ezra 2:12 we see a letter from King Artaxerxes sent to Ezra the priest with the following salutation, “From Artaxerxes, the king of kings.”
Darius expected the best from his warriors as well as everyone else who served in his kingdom. As a matter of fact, in his “Histories,” Herodotus, (born 484 BC in Halicarnassus, a Greek city in southwest Asia Minor that was then under Persian rule, a Greek author who authored the first great narrative of history produced in the ancient world, referred to the ancient postal courier service of the Persian Empire this way: “It is said that as many days as there are in the whole journey, so many are the men and horses that stand along the road, each horse and man at the interval of a day’s journey; and these are stayed neither by snow nor rain nor heat nor darkness from accomplishing their appointed course with all speed.” This has been erroneously attributed to the US Postal Service which has no such motto.
But on the same Mount Behistun monument, Darius also wrote the following inscription: “Whosoever shall worship Ahura Mazda (the Zoroastrian god of goodness), divine blessing will be upon him, both while living and after he is dead.” So we see what influence this king of kings had on the world at that time, especially the captives from Jerusalem and Judah. But who was this Ahura Mazda? In the name itself, Ahura – means Being or Light Mazda – means Mind or Wisdom describes the divine being that Darius and the whole Persian empire worshipped?
History records that Zarathustra (also known as Zoroaster) was the first prophet of Ahura Mazda, and founded the religion we called Zoroastrianism. Zarathustra gave three commandments to his followers to enable them to lead perfect lives and work for their own salvation. First was humata (good thought), then hukhta (good word), and then havarshta (good deeds). Zarathustra believed that good thoughts are very important in one’s spiritual journey, because all else comes out of ordinary thoughts. Without good thoughts, there cannot be progress on the spiritual path. Without good thoughts one cannot subject oneself to Divine will and become qualified to receive blessings. The apostle Paul concurred with this thinking when he wrote to the Christians in Philippi (Phil. 4:8), “Brothers and sisters, continue to think about what is good and worthy of praise. Think about what is true and honorable and right and pure and beautiful and respected.” But thinking good thoughts alone is not sufficient. One must have the courage to speak the Truth all the times. One must be truthful to oneself and to others. There is no place for hypocrisy or duplicity in the life a of a true believer. Again, the apostle Paul supported the truth being told regardless of the consequences. In his writing to the Christians in Rome, he indicted those in the past who knew the truth about God, but failed to pass it on because it conflicted with their own ideas. Paul accused them by saying (Rom. 1:25), “They traded the truth about God for a lie. So they worshiped and served the things God created instead of the Creator Himself, who is worthy of eternal praise!”
Performance of good deeds is equally important in the teaching of Zarathustra. The supreme power of God – Ahura Mazda, is made only available to those who engage in good actions. Such good actions are only found in one’s service to mankind. Once more the apostle Paul echoes this same thought in writing to the believers in Ephesus (4:31-32), “Get rid of all bitterness, rage, anger, harsh words, and slander, as well as all types of evil behavior. Instead, be kind to each other, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, just as God through Christ has forgiven you.” Does this mean that Paul borrowed from the writings of Zarathustra? No! It was a truth that God communicated to His creation from the beginning. We see this same concept expressed throughout Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, and the Apostle James emphasized the need for service by saying that faith without works is dead. The rabbis who wrote the Babylonian Talmud during this time, were also influenced by these concepts, and carried them back to Judah when they returned from exile.
The believers in Zoroastrianism would also say a chant that served as their confession of faith. By saying this prayer over and over again they believed they could drive away all forces of darkness both within and without. The first line says, “…just as a king is powerful, so will a great human soul be powerful because of his belief in God.” The second line says, “…the blessings of God are those who work for the Lord of Life.” That God bestows blessings on those who think good thoughts and do good deeds according to the divine will of God. The third line says, “…the Supreme power of God is bestowed upon him who considers himself a helper of the meek and lowly.” There is little doubt that both Jesus and the apostle Paul would endorse these sayings, but with the qualifier that they not be considered as a way to earn one’s own salvation. No wonder when Jesus came He ran into this Pharisaical attitude of good deeds as a way of earning God’s blessings and becoming eligible for His favor. But when Jesus told them eternal life could not be merited this way, it caused strife and they became angry. Jesus told them that salvation is a gift, it’s not earned; it is only made possible by God’s grace, not man’s efforts.
But the main core of Zarathustra’s teaching was monotheistic dogma that God the Creator, is one God. Everything emanates from Him and in the end all goes back to Him. There is no other God above Him. He is a Spirit and He alone should be worshipped. This is the same thing Jesus told the woman at Jacob’s well in Samaria, “For God is Spirit, so those who worship Him must worship in spirit and in truth.” Although God is Spirit, according to Zarathustra He has six ways through which mankind is allowed to approach Him.
The first is hope – as in “expectation.” Nothing is done by chance, all events are already preordained as part of God’s divine scheme of things. He continuously manifests Himself through divine will, according to the divine law. When a human being submits himself to the divine will and follows the divine laws, he is following the path that leads to spiritual growth.
The second is wisdom, that is received through unconditional love and which sustains and supports mankind in times of difficulties and leads people on their path to God. Wisdom comes from having a pure mind which is the basis for further spiritual growth.
The third is self-control. Every believer can realize this power and see it in action when they are guided by discipline and a good mind.
The fourth is devotion. It represents faith and single-minded allegiance to God. It is a special part of those who are twice-born; those who have been given secrets of a true spiritual life.
The fifth is holiness. This is perfection personified. It represents all that is perfect, beautiful and harmonious in the creation of God.
The sixth is eternal life. This allows the believer to overcome all fear of death. It is found in the tree of life and the tree of immortality found in heaven.
These, says Zarathustra, constitute what he called the “Seven-fold Lord of the Universe.” When we read Revelation 1:12-20 we find an astounding comparison. According to Zarathustra, when we cultivate, nurture and practice these six virtues we will be able to clearly see the path of salvation out in front of us.
These are the thoughts of men as their minds searched for what is true and right and pleasing to God. No wonder Jesus had to endure such harassment and opposition to His teachings because it went against this same theology embedded in the writings of the Rabbis and espoused by the scribes and Pharisees. The Jews in Persia believed that Zarathustra was Jewish. It was said that he had been taught by Jeremiah or by Baruch ben Neriah, who was a pupil of Jeremiah. Later, the Muslims in Persia would also repeat similar ideas. This indicates that even at a later stage there still existed something in Zoroastrianism that suggested Hebrew influence.
Hence, the points of resemblance between Zoroastrianism and Judaism and Christianity, are many and striking. Ahura Mazda was considered, omniscient, omnipresent, and omnipotent. He was endowed with creative power exercised through Spenta Mainyu (“Holy Spirit”), and governed the universe through the instrumentality of angels and archangels. He also had an adversary, Ahriman, whose dominion, like Satan’s, will be destroyed at the end of the world. There are striking parallels between Zoroastrianism and Christianity related to doctrines of regeneration, a divine kingdom, the coming of a Messiah, the resurrection of the dead, and the life everlasting. Both Zoroastrianism and Judaism are revealed religions: in Zoroastrianism, Ahura Mazda imparts his revelation and pronounces his commandments to Zarathustra on “the Mountain of the Two Holy Communing Ones”; in Judaism, Yahweh holds a similar communion with Moses on Mt. Sinai. These two religions agree in certain respects with regard to the six days of Creation in Genesis. Mankind, according to each religion, is descended from a single couple, with Mashya and Mashyana in Zoroastrianism being the Adam and Eve Judaism. In the Bible a deluge destroys all people except for a single righteous individual and his family; in the Avesta (Zoroastrian Bible) a winter depopulates the earth except for those kept in an enclosure. In each case, the earth is then repopulated with the best two of every kind, and is afterward divided into three realms. The three sons, Erij, Selm, and Tur in the Zoroastrian Avesta, are the same as Shem, Ham, and Japheth in the Jewish Torah.
Therefore, should we all become Zoroastrians? Absolute not! When God breathed life into Adam it was more than just making him alive, it included giving mankind a will and conscience. How else would Adam and Eve have felt guilty for what they did in eating from the tree of knowledge of good and evil? And God never stopped talking to mankind over the millennia after the flood, and as the Apostle Paul said, they saw things through a dark glass. If anything, it reveals that the truth about God was expressed in different cultures through different languages. After all, even Moses had to ask God what His name was. We have become so attuned to how things are said in our own culture that we reject anything that does not sound like our own. But it took the Light of the World Himself, Jesus Christ, to come and clear it all up, and tell us what God really wanted us to know. Paul called it a secret that was kept until being revealed through Christ. While all this self-righteousness is good and morally beneficial, it cannot cover sin and secure eternal life.
Even the Apostle Paul tells young Timothy to pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance and gentleness.” But he goes on to explain that it will all come to an end at “the appearing of our Lord Jesus Christ, which God will bring about in his own time—God, the blessed and only Ruler, the King of kings and Lord of lords, who alone is immortal and who lives in unapproachable light, whom no one has seen or can see. To him be honor and might forever. Amen” (1Tim. 6:13b-16).
That’s why Jesus came to show that only one man could perform perfectly what God demanded and then share with others what He accomplished, so that they too might live in righteousness and obtain everlasting life. No one before Him could do it, and no one after Him will God require to repeat it. When Jesus said, “It is finished!” He was talking more to His heavenly Father than to us and really meant it!
NOTE: In 1883, German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche published a book entitled ‘Also sprach Zarathustra’ translated as Thus Spake Zarathustra. For our modern readers, it could be aptly titled, “Zarathustra Also Said This.” In his book Nietzsche chronicles the fictitious travels and speeches of Zarathustra. But Nietzsche transforms Zarathustra into someone who turns traditional morality upside down. In his novel Nietzsche coins a phrase that would later appear as a headline on Time Magazine’s cover: God is dead! Also, in honor of this book, Richard Strauss wrote a symphony, Opus 30, that most people will immediately recognize by its opening crescendo.