The ancient Persians had a significant impact upon some of the core myths that underscore Judaism and Christianity. Among other things, Judaism and Christianity owe thanks to the Persian priests of Zoroaster for the light versus darkness motif, the belief in an impending apocalypse, and the messianic dogma. But above all, both Jews and Christians should thank Persia for the Devil himself. I think it’s fair to say that had they not adopted this fictitious character from the Persians, they might not have succeeded with such ease in persuading and maintaining their frightened and superstitious flocks.
The religion of Zoroaster, or Zarathustra, received its name from a Magian Priest by the name of Zoroaster (Greek)/Zarathustra (Persian), who was a loyal servant of the “one true” Persian God Ahura Mazda, or Ormuzd. Ormuzd was commonly referred to as the “The Holy Spirit” in the pre-Christian portions of the Avesta.(1) This religion began to flourish toward the end of the second millennium BCE, and its primary corpus of holy texts are known as the Zend Avesta.(2) These ancient scriptures contain a number of the superstitious seeds that were eventually sown into the soil of both the Jewish and Christian religions. Such parallels have led the learned Rabbis responsible for compiling the Jewish Encyclopedia to make mention of their closeness to the two later Abrahamic religions, saying:
Most scholars, Jewish as well as non-Jewish, are of the opinion that Judaism was strongly influenced by Zoroastrianism in views relating to angelology and demonology, and probably also in the doctrine of the resurrection, as well as in eschatological ideas in general, and also that the monotheistic conception of Yhwh may have been quickened and strengthened by being opposed to the dualism or quasi-monotheism of the Persians. (3)
The Harper-Collins Bible Dictionary is in agreement with the scholarly consensus on this issue:
It is during the late postexilic period (after ca 200 B.C.) and in the intertestamental literature that one first finds the development of the idea of Satan that is assumed in the NT writings. Probably under the influence of Persian ideology, there developed in Hebrew thought the idea of a dualism rampant in the created order—a du- alism of good versus evil. There existed already the idea that God had a heavenly host, a group of messengers to carry out his work and orders. The Persians also believed in a ruler over the powers of evil, who had many servants in this realm known as demons. The Hebrews could easily understand and assimilate such thinking into their already existing ideas, but they had not yet developed any idea of a major being as a leader of the forces of evil.(4)
Prior to the Persian invasion of Babylon, the religion of Judaism believed that their chief God was responsible for all that happened in the universe. Both good and evil were the manifestations of their God.
This is reflected in the book of Isaiah, in which the anonymous author writes:
I form the light, and create darkness: I make peace, and create evil: I the LORD do all these things. Isaiah 45:7
The author of Isaiah possibly wrote this verse in order to achieve two ends. Firstly, the verse appears to be a soft polemic against the dualistic Persian theology, which posited an evil counterpart to a good god, a notion still foreign to the Israelites at the time, and secondly, as a warning to the Israelites not to fall into the Persian heresy of believing in a counterpart to their god.(5) Thus, the author of the book of Isaiah has Yahweh taking direct responsibility for both good and evil, leaving no room for the existence of a devil. In the sixth century BCE, Cyrus the Great of Persia invaded Babylon whilst the Jews were living in exile amongst the Babylonians.(6) The story goes, that Cyrus the Great freed the Jews from their Babylonian captors and sponsored the building of the Second Temple at Jerusalem (See Ezra 1-5), although a number of historians question this biblical version of history due to a lack of extra-biblical evidence.
Sacchi discusses Cyrus’ role as the great liberator, saying:
For Cyrus this approach also had a precise political value, that of exploiting the dissatisfaction of the peoples who had lived under Babylonian rule.
In following this ideology, and in order to confirm the role of sovereign/liberator from the Babylonian yoke which the Persian propaganda had spread, Cyrus gave back the sacred images taken away from many peoples and carried off to Babylon. He also allowed the return to their homeland of those who had been forcibly expatriated. But Nabonidus remains the reference point, and the peoples mentioned are all Mesopotamian; no mention is made of the Jews, or of any other Western People. A list of ‘liberated’ peoples has survived in the so-called ‘Cylinder of Cyrus.’ This has led to some doubt concerning the historicity of the Edict of Cyrus in favor of the Jews. In effect, it is probable that such an edict was never issued: Jewish tradition itself seems to indicate that the first return of exiles came about only with the rise of Darius I to the throne (521 BCE). (7)
Despite the historical problems associated with the biblical narrative of Cyrus’ liberation of the Jews, this alleged event has been used to mark the beginning of what is known in Jewish history as the Second Temple Era – which lasted until the war with Rome in 70CE. (8) It was during this era that the Jewish religion split into various sects as a result of the foreign influence involved in the construction of the temple at Jerusalem, which many Jews saw as nullifying its legitimacy, and due to the various political struggles between the former rulers of Judea, who were usurped when Persia took control.(9) From this point on, deep divisions between the Pharisees and the Sadducees began to foment and new Jewish sects, such as the Messianic Jews, the Theraputae and the Essenes, arose. Amongst all of this theological chaos, more and more Persian beliefs crept into the core of what was previously a religion inspired predominantly by the Egyptians and the Mesopotamians. The most fundamental addition to the Jewish religion was the Persian-styled devil, known in the more ancient Persian religion as ‘Ahriman.’
The Harper-Collins Bible Dictionary’ supports this idea, stating:
The figure of Satan is found in only three places in the OT, and all of these are postexilic in date (i.e., after 538 B.C.): Job 1-2; Zech. 3:1-2; and 1 Chron. 21:1. (10)
The Devil has never managed to achieve a unique character or identity within either the Jewish or Christian religions, and thus has been known by many names and occupied many forms, none of which represent a single definable character. The Hebrew word, ‘ha satan’(הַשָׂטָן) or satan, as it is transliterated in English, was not originally a name, but a verb meaning ‘to accuse,’ or ‘to oppose’, and was used in its common noun form by “David” in 2 Samuel (19:22), in which he was alleged to have described the sons of Zeruiah as ‘satans’ (adversaries) unto him. It also appears in verb form in various other places throughout the Old Testament (see Numbers 22:22, 1 Samuel 29:4 and Psalms 109:6). Satan is a word which pre-existed the Devil in the Hebrew holy books, however, when he was introduced into the religion it was chosen as one of the most appropriate epithets to apply to his Zoroastrian character.
Another name for the Devil is ‘Lucifer’, and it means ‘light bearer.’(11) Astronomically, it has been said to represent the planet Venus, as Venus is the brightest star in the morning before the sun has fully risen and obliterated it from the sky. (12) In a misinterpreted passage from chapter 14 of the book of Isaiah, describing the King of Babylon, the name ‘Lucifer,’ which derives its current form from the Latin ‘Lucem/Lux Ferer’, was incorrectly applied to the Devil.
Some of the confusion surrounding this misinterpreted passages from Isaiah arose due to the fact that the king of Babylon was described as having “falling from heaven” and many theologians misunderstood the use of the word ‘heaven’ to mean the “literal” heaven, rather than its obvious figurative application. The king of Babylon enjoyed success on a grand scale, success which brought with it pleasure, wealth, dominion, abundance, and as a result, he became arrogant and so the heaven we was said to be falling from was his luxurious lifestyle. Much like the way we use the term heaven to describe a taste, a feeling, or a state of being.
To refute any apology to the contrary, the Lucifer of Isaiah was described as having been:
- The king of Babylon (Isaiah 14:4),
- Who ruled nations with aggression (Isaiah 14:6), as the king of one of the largest empires did, also;
- Who other defeated kings will say; “you have become weak like us,” (Isaiah 14:10), and;
- Who would not let his captives (the exiled Jews) go home (Isaiah 14:17), but most importantly,
- Was a man (Isaiah 14:16).
It is obvious that this Lucifer (‘shining one’) was the king of Babylon, but beliefs require a minimal amount of fuel and a maximum amount of propagation to catch on and spread, as has been the case in this instance.
Modern apologists have twisted these passages in every conceivable manner to try and claim that it is a double entendre for both the Devil and the king of Babylon, however as seen above, the term was only referring to the man himself. The association between Lucifer and Satan was made by Christians who errantly interpreted “Luke” 10:18 (I saw Satan fall from heaven like lightning), to be a reference to “Isaiah’s” Lucifer. (13)
The epithet Lucifer is translated from the Hebrew ‘Helel’ (הילל) ‘shining one’ or ‘Ben Shachar’ (‘Day Star,’ ‘Bringer of Light’ or ‘Sun of the Morning’). (14) It is interesting to note that Jesus was also called Lucifer in (2 Peter 1:19 and Rev. 22:16). So if Lucifer is the Devil’s name, then one would have to admit that Jesus is the Devil. It serves as a somewhat humorous yet fortuitous irony that more people have killed and been killed in Jesus’/Lucifer’s name than almost any other name in history.
Another name for the Devil within the Judeo-Christian belief system is ‘Beelzebub’. The word Beelzebub stems from the Hebrew Ba’al-Zebub. In English, Ba’al-Zebub means ‘Lord of the Flies,’ (15) and it is the first part of this name which is of interest to scholars of comparative mythology. The name Ba’al, which could be etymologically rooted in the name of the ancient Babylonian Sun-god ‘Bel’. Yet, in its present form, Ba’al represents the later Phoenician and Canaanite God, Ba’al, who guest stars in the Hebrew holy books on numerous occasions (See Numbers 22:41, Judges 2:13: the husband of the goddess Asherah (16), 6:25, 28, 30-32, 1Kings 16:31 etc.). Ba’al was incorporated into the Hebrew language and came to have a variety of meanings, including; ‘Lord’, ‘Master’, ‘Husband’ and ‘Possessor.’ (17)
The conflicting characterizations attributed to the Devil within the religious literature of the Jews, along with the verse found in Isaiah 45:7 (God alone is responsible for good and evil), seems to indicate that the Devil had been a relatively more recent interpolation by Jewish mythographers, who grafted him into the existing scriptures, thereby creating a situation in which this fictitious character has been ascribed multiple names and titles. Further, as mentioned, the very form/being of the Devil has been the subject of much confusion. Many Christians and Jews try to suggest that the serpent in the Garden of Eden was the Devil, but the description of the serpent contradicts this notion.
Once again, the ‘Harper-Collins Bible Dictionary’ informs us that:
It should be noted that “the serpent” of Genesis 3 is never in the OT identified as Satan. (18)
The serpent is described as one of the “beasts of the field”, and after tempting Eve to eat the forbidden, ethics-infused fruit from the Tree of Knowledge, the serpent is punished by God in the following manner:
And the LORD God said unto the serpent, Because thou hast done this, thou art cursed above all cattle, and above every beast of the field; upon thy belly shalt thou go, and dust shalt thou eat all the days of thy life. And I will put enmity between thee and the woman, and between thy seed and her seed; it shall bruise thy head, and thou shalt bruise his heel. Genesis 3:14-15
One does not need to be a theologian to understand what the author was talking about in this passage. The serpent was a cunning beast of the field, who, prior to his indiscretion, had legs and spoke. This alleged description of the Devil as being a beast of the field contradicts the portrayal of him given in the book of Job, in which he (Satan) is counted amongst the sons of God (See Job 1:6).
Regarding Satan’s role in the book of Job, the Harper-Collins Bible Dictionary says:
In the first two instances (Job 1-2; Zech. 3:1-2), Satan is depicted as a member of God’s court whose basic duty it was to “accuse” human beings before God. He is clearly not at this point an enemy of God and the leader of the demonic forces of evil, as he becomes later. (19)
The motif of the serpent tempting the female of the first primordial couple can also be traced to the more ancient Persian mythology. On this matter, T.W Doane says:
To continue the Persian legend; we will now show that according to it, after the Creation man was tempted, and fell. Kalisch and Bishop Colenso tell us of the Persian legend that the first couple lived originally in purity and innocence.
Perpetual happiness was promised them by the Creator if they persevered in their virtue. But an evil demon came to them in the form of a serpent, sent by Ahriman, the prince of devils, and gave them fruit of a wonderful tree, which imparted immortality.
Evil inclinations then entered their hearts, and all their moral excellence was destroyed. Consequently they fell, and forfeited the eternal happiness for which they were destined. They killed beasts, and clothed themselves in their skins. (20)
In addition, Sunderland supports the Persian origin of the Devil, saying:
Even if we admit that the serpent in the Genesis paradise story ought to be identified with Satan, we have here no exception, for it should be borne in mind that the Book of Genesis was probably not completed before about the beginning of the fifth century before Christ, a century after the Captivity closed. Satan appears in the Books of Job, Zechariah, and Chronicles; but these are all late writings. Belief in the existence of such a bad being the foe of God, the accuser of the good, the tempter of men to evil seems to have come into Judaism from the religion of the Persians, through contact with that people during or after the Exile. (21)
Sunderland adds to the weight of this argument by highlighting the discrepancy between the accounts of David being tempted to take a census given in 2 Samuel and 1 Chronicles. Within both books, David is tempted to take a census of his people – the only difference is that in 2 Samuel it is God who tempts him to do so and in 1 Chronicles it is Satan.
In the appearance of this new belief we find an instructive explanation of that strange contradiction which appears between the two accounts of the numbering of Israel found in the Books of Samuel and Chronicles.
The record in Samuel tells us that it was the Lord who tempted David to do the numbering; that in Chronicles says it was Satan. The explanation is evidently this:
Samuel is the older book by two or three centuries. At the time it was written the belief in such a being as Satan was unknown, and evil, as well as good, was referred to God as its author. But by the time Chronicles was compiled, belief in Satan had come in, and he, not God, was now held to be the instigator of evil. Hence an event which in the earlier book was naturally ascribed to God, was now as naturally ascribed to Satan. (22)
This contradiction is irreconcilable until one realizes that the Jews probably adopted their Devil from the Persians and so, evil acts which were once attributed to Yahweh were now being rewritten and passed off as the Devil’s handiwork.
If we also keep in mind Isaiah 45:7, this theology discrepancy becomes explicable and the contradiction is exposed for what it probably is; a change in the theology of the Jews, influenced by the dualistic Persian religion at the time of the Persian’s conquest of Babylon in around 539 BCE. Thus, it is a near certainty that Judaism inherited the Devil from the Persian Zoroastrians and the Christians, in turn, inherited their Devil from the Jews.
Finally, there was a related concept that the Christians seemed to have directly inherited from the Persians, and this was the concept of the anti-Christ. The Anti-Christ as described in the Zoroastrian texts is literally called, the Anti-Mithras, Mithras being the sun god and son of the supreme God of the Persians, Ahura-Mazda.
From the ancient Zoroastrian Scriptures, we read:
Backward flies the arrow which the anti-Mithras shoots on account of the wealth of bad unpoetic thoughts which the anti-Mithras performs. Even when he shoots it well, even when it reaches the body, even then it does not harm him on account of the wealth of bad unpoetic thoughts which the anti-Mithras performs. Yasht 10:20-21
So, what is the truth about the Devil, other than he doesn’t exist and has been used as a kind of stick to enforce the gullible masses’ mindless adherence to absurdity? The truth is, he is a re-scripted mythical character, adopted by the Jews of the Persian Period, passed onto Christians and fed into young and trusting minds as a bogeyman that will torture you if you dare not submit to the religion of Christianity. I’ll conclude this debunking with a passage from Thomas Paine’s inspired work, The Age of Reason:
The Christian Mythologists, after having confined Satan in a pit, were obliged to let him out again to bring on the sequel of the fable. He is then introduced into the Garden of Eden, in the shape of a snake or a serpent, and in that shape he enters into familiar conversation with Eve, who is no way surprised to hear a snake talk; and the issue of this tete-a-tete is that he persuades her to eat an apple, and the eating of that apple damns all mankind. After giving Satan this triumph over the whole creation, one would have supposed that the Church Mythologists would have been kind enough to send him back again to the pit; or, if they had not done this, that they would have put a mountain upon him (for they say that their faith can remove a mountain), or have put him under a mountain, as the former mythologists had done, to prevent his getting again among the women and doing more mischief. But instead of this they leave him at large, without even obliging him to give his parole- the secret of which is, that they could not do without him…(23)
- Joseph McCabe. ‘The Sources of the Morality of the Gospels.’Watts & Co. (1914). p. 60.
- Peter Clark. Zoroastrianism: ‘An Introduction to An Ancient Faith.’Sussex Academic Press. (1998). p. 19. Within the Zend Avesta library are numerous books. Some of which are as follows; The Gathas, Yasna, Visperad Vendidad. Khordeh & Avesta, which contain the Yashts and the Siroza. The rest of the materials from the Avesta are called “Avestan fragments.” Also, later redacted material includes; the Denkard, Bundahishn, Menog-i Khrad, Selections of Zadspram, Jamasp Namag, Epistles of Manucher, Rivayats, Dadestan-i-Denig, and Arda Viraf Namag.
- Paul. J. Achtemeier. ‘Harper-Collins Bible Dictionary,’Revised Edition. Harper Collins, (1989). p. 975.
- Oded Lipschitz & Joseph Blenkinsopp. ‘Judah and the Judeans in the Neo-Babylonian Period.’Eisenbraus. (2003). p. 271; John Barton and John Muddiman. ‘The Oxford Bible Commentary.’ Oxford University Press. (2001). p. 309.
- Paolo Sacchi. ‘The History of the Second Temple Period.’T&T Clark International. (2000). Pp. 58-59
- Ibid. p. 302.
- Ibid. p. 211; Jeff S. Anderson. ‘The Internal Diversification of Second Temple Judaism: An Introduction to Second Temple Judaism.’University Press of America. (2002). pp. 23-34.
- Paul. J. Achtemeier. ‘Harper-Collins Bible Dictionary,’Revised Edition. Harper Collins, (1989). p. 974.
- Ibid. p. 628.
- J.P. Douglas, Merrill C. Tenney & Moises Silva.‘Zondervan Illustrated Bible Dictionary.’ Zondervan. (2011). p. 863; http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?term=lucifer
- John Barton and John Muddiman. ‘The Oxford Bible Commentary.’Oxford University Press. (2001). p. 248; Paul. J. Achtemeier. ‘Harper-Collins Bible Dictionary,’ Revised Edition. Harper Collins, (1989). p. 94
- The Canaanite god Ba’al was described in Judges 2:19 as the “husband” of the goddess Asherah. This is significant as Zeev Herzog, Ze’ev Meshel and other archaeologists have discovered that the ancient Israelite’s primary god Yahweh, was commonly worshipped alongside his consort, the Canaanite goddess Asherah, both being seen as the father and mother of heaven ruling equally together. This fact is evidenced by various eighth century B.C.E reliefs, statuets and inscriptions that depict and describe YHVH and ASHERAH as being a couple. (see discovery at Kuntillet Ajrud and Khirbet el-Kom). This fact further explains why Yahweh is directly referred to as a Ba’al at Isaiah 54:5: For your maker (Yahweh) is your Ba’al (Lord/Master).
- Paul. J. Achtemeier. Harper-Collins Bible Dictionary, Revised Edition. Harper Collins, (1989). p. 94.
- Ibid. p. 975.
- T.W Doane. ‘Bible Myths and Their Parallels in Other Religions.’The Commonwealth Company. (1882). p. 8.
- Jabez Thomas Sunderland. ‘The Origin and Character of the Bible and its place among sacred books.’The Beacon Press, (1924). Pp. 246-247.
- Ibid. p. 247.
- Philip S. Foner, PhD. ‘The Complete Writings of Thomas Paine.’The Citadel Press. (1945). p. 470.