The Origins of Christianity, part 9
by Revilo P. Oliver
WITH SO MUCH of a prolegomenon, and with an iteration of the proviso that we are trying only to summarize the bare essentials of a subject that is almost infinitely complex, we may turn to Christianity, which, as everyone should know, was not an Aryan religion. It may be succinctly described as a Judaized form of Zoroastrianism. That relationship, indeed, is acknowledged in the Christian gospels which state that Zoroastrian priests (Magi) were present at the nativity of Jesus, some of which specifically ascribe their coming to a prophecy made by Zoroaster.* As we shall show below, however, there was a third major source of Christian doctrine, which we may identify as Buddhism. We shall therefore notice, as concisely as possible, the three principal constituents of the religious amalgam.
Since the term ‘Magian’ is best reserved for a group of related religions and the culture they represent, I shall use ‘Zoroastrianism’ to designate the specific religion, also called Mazdaism, that was traditionally founded by a Saviour, to whom I shall refer by the familiar form of his name, derived from Greek references to him, Zoroaster, although his name in Persian was something like Zarathustra (Zaraüstra, Zaratüstra, Zaratost, Zaradost, Zarahust, Zardust, etc.).(1) The name may not be Indo-European; scholars who think it must be have proposed various etymologies, most of which posit that the man’s name had something to do with camels.
Some scholars have held that no such man ever existed, that he is merely a mythical figure to whose name were attached religious pronouncements and marvellous tales invented by successive generations of holy men.(2) They are right in that no individual could ever have done and said a tenth of what tradition ascribes to Zoroaster, but the same could be said of Gautama, Vaddhamana, Jesus, Mahomet, and other founders of new religions who, it is generally agreed, were historical figures, although their personalities and careers have been all but totally obliterated by the jungles of myth and superstition that have grown over their graves. Furthermore, as many scholars have judiciously remarked, the existence of Zoroaster is virtually guaranteed by the gathas, crude hymns and purportedly inspired utterances, attributed to him in the extant Avesta.(3) As the case was neatly stated by Professor K.F. Geldner, the Zoroaster who speaks in the gathas “is the exact opposite of the miraculous personage of later legend … He … had to face, not merely all forms of outward opposition and the unbelief and lukewarmness of his adherents, but also the inward misgivings of his own heart as to the truth and final victory of his cause. At one time hope, at another despair… here a firm faith in the speedy coming of the kingdom of heaven, there the thought of taking refuge by flight – such is the range of the emotions which find their immediate expression in these hymns.” It is inconceivable that theologians would or could forge such a document as a proof of the glorious triumph of a Son of God who delivered the world from infinite evil and whose divinely contrived nativity had been attended by all the miracles that Saviours customarily perform at birth. The gathas must represent, at least approximately, texts that were already fairly well known before the holy men undertook to elaborate the religion for the stupefaction of their customers.
We need not hesitate therefore to believe that there was a man whose name was something like Zarathustra, that he propounded a drastically new religion, which he claimed had been divinely revealed to him, and that most of the gathas bear a fairly close relation to what he actually said. He was therefore the inventor of the basic structure of Zoroastrianism, which is all that will concern us here, and naturally was not responsible for the innumerable surcharges and embellishments that were added by the theological ingenuity of the Magi.
There is doubt about the date at which the founder of the religion lived. The priestly traditions that credit him with a fantastic antiquity are, of course, to be disregarded. A recent scholar, Dr. Mary Boyce, following Eduard Meyer and others, would place him between 1300 and 1000 B.C. on the basis of tenuously hypothetical determinations of the probable date of the pastoral society that seems implied in some of the gathas, the putative date of a conjectural schism in the Vedic cults, and a late genealogy of Zoroaster that need mean no more than the genealogies in the “New Testament.” The only secure historical evidence shows only that Zoroaster began to propagate his religion at some time before Cyrus the Great conquered Media in 550 B.C. or soon thereafter. A much earlier date would make it extremely unlikely that the utterances of Zoroaster could have been committed to writing and would have been preserved with some approximation to accuracy. In all probability, the dates for Zoroaster’s life, c. 628 to c. 551 B.C., accepted by a majority of modern scholars, are at least approximately correct.
With the exception of the Jews’ claim that Zoroaster was a Jew,(4) all traditions agree that he was an Aryan. His mother is most commonly described as a Mede, and her husband is sometimes said to have been of the same nationality; but an extraordinary number of places are identified as the site of his birth and childhood. Almost all of them are cities or districts in ancient Media, Atropatene, or Bactria (approximately the parts of modern Iran that lie south and west of the Caspian Sea or the northeast corner of Afghanistan with the Soviet territory immediately north of it).
Needless to say, Zoroaster, as is de rigeur for all Saviours, was born of a virgin who had been fecundated by a supreme god, who sent an emanation of himself (hvareno) to impregnate her, much as Yahweh despatched the Holy Ghost to carry out his philoprogenitive wishes in the “New Testament.” His wondrous nativity was preceded, accompanied, and followed by the miracles that are customary in such cases.(5) He did, however, distinguish himself from other Saviours by one act: As soon as he emerged from his mother’s body and dazzled bystanders with the effulgent light of his divine ancestry, he laughed loudly, thus signifying that life is good and should be enjoyed.
According to tradition, Zoroaster, despite numerous and various persecutions and temptations by the indefatigable powers of evil, remained at home, wherever that was, until he was twenty, when he bade farewell to his parents and either became a vagabond or retired into a desert to think things over for ten years. One morning, when he was thirty, he went at dawn into a river to bathe and fetch fresh water for a matutinal cup of haoma. As he emerged, he was accosted by the archangel Vohu Manah (“Good Intentions”), who conducted his soul into the presence of Ahura Mazda, the supreme god. Enthroned in glory and attended by the six archangels who are his principal lieutenants, Ahura Mazda revealed to Zoroaster the True Religion and ordered him to save mankind from perdition by preaching it to all the world.
The foregoing, which is supported by references in the gathas, must be the account of his Revelation and Ministry that Zoroaster gave to his converts, and there are obviously only three possible explanations, viz.:
1. He did in fact converse with Ahura Mazda, by whom he was instructed in the True Religion, which you and I must profess, if we are not to be damned to eternal torment.
2. He had delusions, either from an overheated imagination or after imbibing haoma, i.e., an hallucinatory drug prepared by crushing and dissolving in water the active ingredients of the sacred mushroom, Amanita muscaria.(6)
3. He deliberately devised a fiction to impose on the credulous – an odd procedure for a man who professed that his Mission in life was to combat Deceit. Whether he contrived the fraud to dignify a moral code that had caught his fancy or to exalt himself above ordinary men, is a secondary question of no great importance.
The first of these explanations will seem cogent only to Parsees, so we are left with the other two. Whichever of the alternatives we choose, Zoroastrianism is equally spurious. Whether it was the product of temporary insanity or of cunning artifice, the religion, no matter how numerous its adherents and great its influence, can have been nothing more than an epidemic delusion and another example of human credulity.
It is a distressing fact, however, that many of our contemporaries, including some who have learned the techniques of scholarship, have been so habituated by Christianity and its derivatives to the kind of irrationality that George Orwell calls “doublethink” that they will argue that what is false is true. Persons in whom religiosity is stronger than reason will opt for the theory that Zoroaster was “sincere,” i.e., that he was a madman who could not distinguish between his hallucinations and reality, and they will then assure you that the crazy man proclaimed “spiritual truths” of “surpassingly great value” for the “salvation” of the whole world or, at least, “all mankind.” This strange but common phenomenon is a fact with which all students of religion or society today must reckon, however the aberration may be explained in terms of psychology or psychopathology.
Zoroaster, after receiving his revelation and commission from God, wandered from place to place throughout the Middle East, preaching the Gospel to whomsoever he could induce to listen to him, for ten years, naturally encountering the persecutions and temptations that are obligatory of all first-class Saviours; but although he was advised on six separate occasions by one of the six archangels in turn, he did not succeed in making a single convert. At the end of the ten years, however, he, having apparently wandered back to his homeland, wherever that was, met his first cousin in a forest wilderness and persuaded that man to become his first disciple and the “leader of all mankind” to the Truth.
Encouraged by his first success and a fresh consultation with Ahura Mazda, Zoroaster, now accompanied by his faithful acolyte, preached the Gospel fruitlessly for two more years, roaming from place to place, until they came into Bactria. There his sermons incensed the local “pagans,” servants of the Evil One, whom he floored in a debate, whereupon they slandered him, accusing him of the thirty-three mortal sins and planting proofs of his iniquity that were discovered when his luggage was searched. He was accordingly arrested and thrown into prison, where he suffered hunger, thirst, and assorted torments for a long time, until he performed a miracle, healing the king’s favorite horse of a supernatural disease. Released and accorded royal favor, he set to work to save the soul of the legendary or unidentifiable king of Bactria, Vistaspa, and after two years of persuasion brought the king to the point at which he admitted the truth of Zoroaster’s revelation but insisted that his sins were too numerous to be forgiven by God. Zoroaster then performed a miracle that sounds authentic: He gave the king a big slug of haoma and put him into a trance during which the monarch beheld the glory of God and all the wonders of Heaven.(7) When he recovered consciousness, Vistaspa had Faith.
According to one version, Vistaspa, having seen the Light, proceeded to save the souls of his subjects by giving them a choice between becoming righteous and becoming corpses. He then mobilized his army and embarked on a Holy War to give neighboring peoples the same freedom of choice.
In the meantime, it would seem, Zoroaster performed another miracle. He ascended to the summit of a mountain, where the powers of evil, in a last desperate effort, rained down fire that enveloped the peak in flames and liquefied the rocks, but naturally left the Saviour unscathed, so that he strolled down from the burning mountain and taught the True Religion to the assembled tribe of Magi, who thenceforth became its apostles and priests.(8) Thus launched at last, the new religion spread quickly throughout the territories that were to become the Persian Empire.
* Zoroaster was doubtless named in all versions of the story about Herod and the Magi, but the reference was attenuated in the version of the Gospel of Matthew that the Fathers of the Church decided to include in their anthology when they put their “New Testament” together near the end of the Fourth Century. In the present version, the Magi are made to say (2.5) that the christ they are seeking will be born “in Bethlehem of Judaea, for thus it is written by the prophet.” The Prophet, of course, is Zoroaster, whose name is retained in other gospels, e.g., in an Euangelium Infantiae which says (6), “Magi came from the East to Jerusalem in conformity with the prophecy of Zoroaster, and they had with them gifts, gold, frankincense, and myrrh, and they worshipped him [the infant Jesus].” The intention, of course, was to represent Jesus as the Saviour (Saošyant) whom Zoroaster expected to be his eventual successor. The Christian form of the prophecy is doubtless preserved in the writings of Salomon, Bishop of Basra, and Theodore bar Konai: Zoroaster said to his favorite disciples “At the end of time and at the final dissolution, a child shall be conceived in the womb of a virgin… They will take him and crucify him upon a tree, and heaven and earth shall sit in mourning for his sake… He will come [again] with the armies of light, and be borne aloft on white clouds…. He shall descend from my family, for I am he and he is I: he is in me and I am in him.” The prophecy thus put into the mouth of Zoroaster originally referred to his son, to be born of a virgin in the miraculous way I shall mention below, which could not be fitted to a story that placed the birth in Judaea. The text of the Euangelium Infantiae I mentioned above may be found in the Codex Apocryphus Novi Testamenti edited by loannes Carolus Tbilo (Lipsiae, 1832), Vol. I, p. 71. This is one of the gospels that records the first miracle (omitting the famous one listed in the Gospels of James) of Jesus: When a mad youth tried to steal one of Jesus’s diapers, which had been washed and were hanging on a clothes-line, contact with the cloth, which was, of course, imbued with mana, drove the demons from his body and he became sane. An ‘apocryphal’ gospel is one that the Fathers of the Church excluded from their collection when they finally agreed on the contents of the “New Testament.”
1. In what follows, I shall give the exact form of proper names at their first occurrence and thereafter dispense with diacritics, which I necessarily retain on words printed in italics. In transliterating Old Persian, Avestan, and Pahlavi, I use the old system that was once standard. The more modern transliterations, found in recent studies (e.g., the ones by Mary Boyce and Marijan Molé that I cite below), are more accurate but involve the use of special types that would needlessly exasperate the printer of this book.
2. For a convenient conspectus of conjectures about Zoroaster and the time at which he lived, see the relevant chapters in A. Christensen’s Die Iranier (München, 1933 = Handbuch der Altertumswissenschaft, Abteilung III, Teil 1, Band 3, Abschnitt 3, Leiferung 1). Naturally, it does not cover more recent studies, notably the ones by Molé and Miss Boyce that I shall have to mention below.
3. The gathas form twenty-seven (Nos. 28-54) of the seventy-two chapters or sections of the Yasna, which is the first of the five parts into which the extant Avesta is divided. The language of most of the gathas differs markedly from, and is presumably more archaic than, the language, now called Avestan, of the rest of Avesta, which does not even purport to be the work of Zoroaster and is obviously the work of generations of theologians who were industriously entrenching themselves in a monopoly of the new religion. Since Zoroaster betrays his emotions in some of the gathas but alludes to very few facts, we have to depend on the rest of the Avesta for the traditions about his life. Avestan became a dead language long before the final recension of the text in the time of Chosroes I, so the meaning of the Avestan text was expounded in commentaries written in Pahlavi, and an enormous bulk of theological writing was produced thereafter in that language. Most of it was destroyed by the Moslems when they conquered Persia, but what remains is enough to daunt any man by both its bulk and the theological unreason it naturally displays. Selections from it are quoted by Molé. I do not pretend to have read more than samplings of this trash. The translation of the Avesta that I have used is by James Darmesteter, Le Zend-Avesta (3 vols., Paris, 1892-93).
Avestan (to say nothing of Pahlavi!) is a crude language in comparison with Sanskrit or even Old Persian. It may be significant that the Zoroastrian scriptures known to the Greeks were written in Aramaic, which was then the sacred language of the Magi, although they used Greek in intercourse with more civilized people. Aramaic must also have been the language of the Magi in the time of the Persian Empire, since Old Persian, the native language of the ruling Aryans, was not widely understood, while the Persians themselves used as the language of administration Aramaic, the Semitic dialect that was generally known throughout their empire and used internationally beyond their borders. Aramaic could have been the language of the Magi’s ceremonies and sermons even to Persians. The Avesta (the title may not be Indo-European) may therefore have been translated from Aramaic into a decadent form of Persian, so that Avestan, which does resemble in many ways the corrupt Persian of the last days of the Empire, may be a late, not an early, dialect. I should consider the evidence for a Semitic original conclusive but for the apparent authenticity of the gathas, which seem to represent what Zoroaster said. That is an obstacle, but not an insurmountable one. It is quite likely that many of the statements attributed to Jesus in the “New Testament” were actually made by a man of that name, but no one would believe that he spoke in Greek to the Jewish rabble. For our purposes here, I am content to leave the question open.
4. The Jews claimed that Zoroaster was a Jew and wrote in Hebrew; see the texts cited and quoted by J. Bidez & F. Cumont, Les Mages Hellenisés (Paris, 1973 = 1938), Vol. I, p. 50, nn. 3,4, and Vol. II, pp. 103-104, 129, 131. It is entirely conceivable that Zoroaster really was a Jew, whose true name was Baruch; that he was born in the colony of Jews which, according to Jewish tradition (Reg. IV [= Kings II], 17.6 & 18.1), had been planted in Media; and that, as Jews so often do, he masqueraded as a White man to start a disruptive religious agitation and exploit the credulity of the goyim. Furthermore, as we remarked earlier, the Magi claimed to be a tribe of incomparably holy people in Media, and there are some indications that they were racially distinct from the Persians, i.e., were not Aryans. The racial arrogance, even greater than that of the Hindu Brahmans, also sounds Jewish in their insistence that their godly ichor was transmitted through females (hence their famous dogma of xvaetvadatha, which I shall mention later), but chronology favors the view that the Jews took over and adapted devices which had been so successful and lucrative for the Magi. The Magi could have been Jews, and that would explain a great deal! But there is no substantive proof that they were, and since deceit and forgery are simply normal racial habits of the Jews, it is safest to assume that their claim that Zoroaster belonged to their race was just another example of their policy of filching any esteemed historical or mythical figure that would enhance their own claims to racial superiority. There are innumerable instances of this Jewish custom, but one of the most impudent may be found in Maccab., I.12.19-23, a forged letter, purportedly from a King of Sparta, who had consulted his historical archives and discovered – oh, joy! – that the Spartans were descendants of Abraham and therefore blood brothers of the sacred race of Jews in Jerusalem. The first two of the four books of “Maccabees” are included in many Christian Bibles as “apocrypha,” as though they could be more apocryphal (in the common sense of that word) than the rest of the collection.
5. Most of the miracles were taken over by the Christians in one or another of their many gospels, although not necessarily all in gospels that were included in the Fathers’ anthology. One that has some slight theological significance appears in most of the versions of the Gospel of James (who was Jesus’s brother and should have known!): when Jesus was born, time stopped for a while and everything on Earth was temporarily petrified, as in many fairy stories, such as the one of the Sleeping Beauty; the Sun was motionless and birds flying high in the air were frozen in place and did not move; the hands of men who were carrying food to their mouths or raising a staff to strike stopped midway in the intended act, etc. Then time started again. Given the Zoroastrian doctrine of time, which the Christians echoed only in a few phrases they did not try to understand, the borrowing of the idea in that popular gospel is significant. A common version of the Gospel of James is translated into English in Excluded Books of the New Testament, translated by Lord Bishop J.B. Lightfoot et al., (London, s.a. [1926?]).
6. See above, p. 52.
7. Zoroaster is commonly said to have spiked the haoma with mang, which was probably hashish. It would have prolonged the intoxication and further stimulated the imagination of the drugged man. Of such are the wonders of Heaven.
8. It is noteworthy that the word for Magus (magu),was never used by Zoroaster and is said not to occur in any part of the Avesta. He does use the word maga, which has flustered linguists who want to identify it, but was, in all probability, a neologism that Zoroaster coined to express the holiness of his new religion. (If he had in mind the Vedic term maghá, ‘gift,’ he intended his coinage to express something like the Christian ‘gift of the Holy Spirit’ or ‘gift of God,’ i.e., Salvation.) What is clear is that a man or woman who has been Saved is a magavan, and since Zoroaster invented a religion of spiritual egalitarianism, every magavan, regardless of race, sex, or social status, is the religious equal of every other. The term, therefore, cannot possibly be the equivalent of Magus, a professional holy man with hereditary superiority to ordinary mortals. The only terms for persons with religious function are (1) zaotar, which is usually held to be the equivalent of the Vedic hótr, who, as we observed in the first part of this essay, must originally have been the head of a household in his capacity as the family’s priest; and (2) athravan, a word which was probably thought of as meaning ‘fire-kindler,’ even though linguists assure us that it could not be derived from atar, ‘fire.’ (Although linguists assure us it hadn’t ought to, the Vedic word átharvan, however perversely, did designate the man who had care of the fire on the altar and, perhaps, the soma.) Zoroaster (assuming gatha 42 is his) uses the word athravan to designate the missionaries who are to carry his Gospel to all the world. It could be argued, therefore, that he did not envisage a professional priesthood, but, whether he intended it or not, his religion inevitably required the services of specialists, experts in righteousness, who knew exactly what Ahura Mazda wanted of every individual in every circumstance of his mortal life.
To be continued
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