The Bible & the Z Revolution, Part I

Relief of Farvahar at Persepolis

“Brilliant things–not weeping–will be the reward of those who reach the Truthful One.”

–from the Gathas

Not much is known about Zoroaster, the man who founded Zoroastrianism, the world’s first monotheistic religion (that is, if you don’t count Akhenaten’s short-lived revolution). Apparently, he was a priest, born in northeastern Iran or adjoining Afghanistan; the year of his birth, however, is uncertain, with dates ranging from the mid-2nd millenium B.C. to the 6th century B.C. The religion he was raised in was traditional Persian polytheism, which worshipped daevas, supernatural beings or gods, and focused on animal sacrifice and the use of haoma, an intoxicant meant to induce visions. At 30, Zoroaster received a vision from Ahura Mazda, the supreme god, and, rejecting the old religion and its daevas, he began to preach his belief in a single, transcendent god.

Zoroaster did not meet with much success at first, but eventually converted a king in Bactria. He lived into his 70s, and after his death, his faith gradually spread westward throughout Iran. (It should be noted here that Zoroastrianism is dualistic–that is, its supreme god, Ahura Mazda, is constantly struggling against an evil god, Angra Mainyu.)

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Why should Zoroastrianism matter to us? The answer lies in the transformation that overtook the Middle East between about 850 and 540 B.C. At the start of this period, ancient Mesopotamian culture, the roots of which stretched back to Sumer and the Epic of Gilgamesh in the mid-4th millennium, was still in place; by the period’s close, this culture had been swept away, and the entire region was ruled by the Persians under a monarchy that grew steadily more Zoroastrian. The religion founded by Zoroaster in a remote area of Iran had provided much of the spiritual drive behind the sack of Nineveh in 612 B.C. and enabled, through the Persian King Cyrus II, the rebuilding of the Temple in Jerusalem. This profound cultural shift could be called the Z Revolution.

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How did this happen? The history of the Assyrian Empire can provide some answers.

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The Assyrians have not been fondly remembered–the conquerors of the Kingdom of Israel, the creators of the most fearsome war machine the world had known up to that time, the beseigers of Jerusalem, the destroyers of the ancient Egyptian state–they recorded their victories and methods in explicit terms and graphic images on the walls of their imperial palaces. But we should remember that the ferocity of the Assyrian drive for domination really only characterized its House of Sargon, the last four emperors–Sargon II, Sennacherib, Esarhaddon, and Ashurbanipal. Before that time, Assyria preferred to rule indirectly, though a web of client states that received military protection and preferential economic treatment in exchange for tribute. What triggered the change to a policy of annexation and cultural integration?

My short answer: the beginnings of the Z Revolution. Around 850 B.C., the Persians emerge for the first time in the historical record. The Assyrian monarch Shalmanesar III encountered them during a campaign in the north, when they had occupied the southeastern shore of Lake Urmia, the large saltwater lake in the far northwest of present-day Iran. He extracted a pledge of tribute from them, but little else. But then Shalmanesar III was a monarch of the old school.

The Persians themselves are an Indo-European people who had migrated from Central Asia into Iran during the preceding centuries. It seems likely that they were converted to Zoroastrianism during this migration–indeed, may still have been in the process when Shalmanesar encountered them. And make no mistake; the monotheistic basis of their new religion, especially with its emphasis on the struggle between good and evil, represented a direct challenge to the ancient polytheism of the Assyrians. And the Persians were not the only people dabbling with new religious conceptions.

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Enter the Israelites. Too famous to require much introduction, the Israelites were already living a lifestyle different from their neighbors when they entered Canaan. Archaeology confirms one dietary practice: there are no pork bones at ancient Israelite sites. Whereas other cultures deified pigs and gave them an important role in their mythologies, Israelites banned this important food source from their diet. Something seems to have been distinctive about these people from an early date.

The Patriarchs and their descendents also had a history of wandering–first from Mesopotamia into Canaan, and later back from Egypt during the Exodus. And they were literate, using a variant of the new alphabetic script to record their stories.

When did they begin setting down the materials that later became the Hebrew Bible? About the same time that Shalmanessar encountered the Persians–860 B.C. That is when the Elohist began writing. And who was he? Stay tuned for more answers…    RT

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Part II, Bible & the Z Revolution is here.

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Images: 1) Relief of Farvahar at Persepolis, Roodiparse, WikiCmns, Public Domain. 2) Map of Assyrian Empire (dark green, earlier extent; light green, later extent), Ningyou, WikiCmns, Public Domain.

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  1. August 12, 2011 at 11:26 pm

    Really interesting! The corollary for me between monotheism and domination, violence and a lack of tolerance for other ways of being is a very striking theme here echoed in other areas of history. Brings to mind a line from Life of Pi, something along the lines of fewer gods, more violence. A few things seem possible: if there is only one god, then there is no room for other gods and similarly other ways of being or similarly, if all are trained to look to one god, it is much easier to set up society with a similar single head of state, the people are already mentally trained to accept it. If on the other hand we saw many gods with room for acceptance of foreign gods in foreign lands, it seems that the mind is already trained to a non-linear system of beliefs that could easily carry over into expression and structure of government and culture. My mind is teeming, can’t wait to read more!

    • August 14, 2011 at 3:42 am

      Isthmus: Thanks for your thoughtful note and encouragement. Your questions make me pause & wonder about the moralities of polytheism and monotheism. It’s important to remember that in many Sumerian texts, the gods created people to be their slaves–to relieve them of the burden of agricultural work and to feed them. This belief was so enduring that early Muslims recorded the difficulty of convincing people that God did not want them to feed him.

      And there were other problems with pre-biblical religion: human sacrifice was widely practiced and superstition/magical practices created constant anxiety for entire societies.

      One way to look at the biblical message is: 1) people are not slaves; 2) human sacrifice and murder are wrong; 3) the world generates no magical/divine powers; and 4) God loves us and wants us to be happy.

      But problems have developed, the notions that 1) the world is a mere object to exploited–or worse, a prison to be escaped; 2) women are inferior to men and do not deserve the same rights as men enjoy; and 3) violence/hatred in the name of justice is acceptable. While monotheism has been used to combat all of these deeply rooted cultural attitudes, it unfortunately has also been used at times to sanction them.

      Love is the supression of the murder impulse. The Goddess is reemerging because we hunger for the beauty and nuturing she provides, but we should never forget how fierce God or the Goddess can be in dealing with perceived threats to their physical and spiritual children. Love and respect should be the goals of any legitimate belief system. RT

  1. August 21, 2011 at 2:57 am
  2. August 22, 2011 at 5:24 pm

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