In Christmas manger scenes, the magi are side characters, seemingly no more important than the donkey. It is time to change that friends. “Magi” are Zoroastrian priests and, truly, perhaps half the world walks around with Zoroastrian ideas without knowing what a “Zoroastrian” is. And the Zoroastrians did indeed bring gifts from the east, just not the ones you think. Instead of gold, frankincense and myrrh, Zoroastrians brought ideas that via Judaism, Christianity and Islam, have reshaped our world. This is a story for the ages: about the drama of human history, how time progresses, how the world becomes just, Freddie Mercury, and a song you’ve heard a thousand times but maybe never understood. Get a coffee and pull up a chair!
Who is Zoroaster? And Why Does He Matter?
Zoroaster is a man of mystery. We know little about him except that he lived more than 2500 years ago and started a religion unlike any before and which eventually became the religion of Persia. Zoroaster was more innovative than Steve Jobs and left a much bigger footprint. His curriculum vitae is below. Feel free to compare with your own:
- Monotheism: At his time, from Egypt through the Middle East (including Israel) and on to India, religions varied but they all believed there were many deities. Zoroaster argued that ultimately, there is one god named Ahura Mazda. As for evil, that too had a singular source, Angra Mainyu, meaning Zoroaster also introduces the devil.
- Ethical Religion: Religions focused on gaining practical benefits. Life is hard and it was harder then. So, religion focused on transactional favours with deities who gave aid. Pray to this god for rain. Sacrifice this goat for fertility. But moral behaviour was not central and some (like Indra in India) were fairly immoral. You honoured them too to stay on their good side. But Zoroaster’s god demanded moral behaviour and not mere praise. “Good thoughts, good words, and good deeds” was the new religion’s mantra. In the movie Bohemian Rhapsody, you can hear Freddie Mercury (a modern Zoroastrian!) recalling these words his father taught him.
- Linear Time: We take for granted that time progresses. But this is novel! For most of human history, progress was not evident. Things stayed the same. Time was circular like the rising and setting sun, the cycle of the seasons. Zoroaster said no. Time was linear, created by God and would one day wind up in a great “apocalypse,” giving us a new concept for endless movie and book plots. This view included us in a great cosmic drama as, at the end of time, God would fight and defeat the great evil figure. And we had a part to play: our moral deeds aided God in his inevitable victory. The story of human life is now a moral battle and cosmically important!
- An Afterlife: From Egypt to India, the afterlife was seen as bleak. In Israel, you went to Sheol, the underworld, which is not a punishment (since all went there) and not the tortures of hell but the Bible makes clear it is not a good place (see Eccles. 9:4 or Job 14:10-12). It’s a shadow world. Hence, in the Hebrew Bible (or Old Testament) neither Moses nor Abraham are promised a heavenly afterlife. That idea did not exist yet. So, how can God reward loyal servants if this life is the best? Well…with long lives. Thus, in the Hebrew Bible, key figures live to be 120 or, in the case of Noah, 950 years. Without healthcare or yoga! In the Christian New Testament, the reward becomes the afterlife and so long lifespans disappear. That shift begins when Zoroaster teaches that all will be judged after death. You would cross the Bridge of the Requiter over a fiery pit. If you were good, the bridge was wide and the crossing easy. If you were evil, it would flip on its side and become like a razor’s edge (see the book by Somerset Maugham). The universe now had a sense of justice!
- A Messiah: Zoroaster taught that the end times would be preceded by the arrival of a messiah figure. Eventually, this became three messiahs. But the idea of a future saviour appears here.
Isn’t this All Jewish?
But didn’t the Jews introduce these ideas to humanity? Well, not really. At the time of Moses or even David, Jews do not have these notions. But about 2600 years ago, Jews were held captive for 50 years by the Babylonian empire before a Zoroastrian and Persian king, Cyrus, freed them. This engagement with Zoroastrians changed Judaism. Previously, Jews practiced monolatry, which means worshipping one god but believing other gods exist (note the word’s similarity to idolatry). Hence, the Ten Commandments begin “You shall have no other gods before me.” (Charlton Heston confirms this memorably here). But notice: not there are no other gods; rather do not worship them. Indeed, Psalm 82 opens by declaring “Yahweh sits in the divine council. Amidst the gods, he holds judgement.” There are many other passages. But living beside the new Persian empire, ideas migrated and new passages were added including the opening line, “In the beginning, God created the earth and heavens.” With this, Yahweh becomes the only god, creator of the universe.
Similarly, only after this Zoroastrian presence does the devil enter Judaism. Within a few centuries, some Jews (not all!) embrace the radical new idea of an afterlife and resurrection. This notion appears in just a single book in the “Old Testament,” the book of Daniel, as the afterlife idea arrives late in Judaism. The apocalypse idea too, spreads from Zoroastrianism. And of course, the messiah idea. Some Jews came to expect two messiahs. Some think just one. The Essenes, a Jewish sect, think their leader (the Teacher) is the messiah. But this other tiny sect thinks the messiah is Jesus of Nazareth and the world changed forever.
So, you see those magi deserve some respect. Don’t skip them folks! They’re not just props! And please get them in front of the donkey.
Now about that song…
The Best 90 Seconds of Music Ever!
Zoroaster is such an innovator, a pivot point in our history, that Nietschze wrote about him and Richard Strauss conducted this absolutely transcendent bit of music you have all heard titled Also Sprach Zarathustra (Thus spake Zoroaster). But listen to it anew today. Notice the beginning with nothing but a low murmur. Nothing is happening. Time moves as it always has…constant….maybe dull? Then, a sound. One clear trumpet, different from everything before. You can’t ignore it, it is so clear, so compelling. You can guess who the trumpet is. And after? The tumultuous, triumphant symphony of sound as Zoroaster’s ideas surge and crash upon us, changing human history. Visually, the dawn of a new age, the light in the darkness.
Thus spoke Zoroaster! So listen to that song. See those wisemen. And never doubt how our beliefs can change what we see and who we are.