“There is no nation, no community, without its stories. Children are brought up on fairy tales, cults and religions depend upon them for moral instruction: they are used for entertainment and for training. They are usually catalogued as myths, as humorous tales, as semi-historical fact, and so on, in accordance with what people believe to be their origin and function.
“But what a story can be used for is often what it was originally intended to be used for. The fables of all nations provide a really remarkable example of this, because, if you can understand them at a technical level, they provide the most striking evidence of the persistence of a consistent teaching, preserved sometimes through mere repetition, yet handed down and prized simply because they give a stimulus to the imagination or entertainment for the people at large.” — Idries Shah “The Teaching Story: Observations of the Folklore of our ‘Modern’ Thought”
Axial sages (900–200 BCE approx.) sought a cure for the spiritual malaise they experienced around them. Today our creative and intellectual energy focuses on science and technology, while our emotions tend to direct our spiritual quest, if there is one. As a result, our society has made breakthroughs in science and technology, but we are vulnerable to indoctrination rather than spiritual growth. Often we tend to believe and follow what we are told by the conventions of our upbringing. A close look at how our religious traditions evolved will help us understand how we arrived at our contemporary religious beliefs and the rituals that accompany them. This is a fascinating story and one that will help us understand the forces that shape human thought and appreciate our mind’s great potential for change and development.
Many stories repeated throughout human history were originally created to contain deeper levels of meaning that would foster an intuitive perception in those that studied them. As an example, Maimonides (Moses Ben Maimon, 12th Century, Cordoba), one of the most celebrated Rabbis, wrote the following about Genesis in The Guide for the Perplexed:
“We must not understand, or take in a literal sense, what is written in the book on the Creation, nor form of it the same ideas which are participated by the generality of mankind. Otherwise our ancient sages would not have so much recommended to us, to hide the real meaning of it, and not to lift the allegorical veil, which covers the truth contained there. When taken in its literal sense, the work gives the most absurd and most extravagant ideas of the Deity. ‘Whosoever should divine its true meaning ought to take great care in not divulging it.’ This is a maxim repeated to us by all our sages, principally concerning the understanding of the work of the six days.”
Because of their entertainment and social value, the longevity of these stories was assured; they would spread across continents, absorbed and adopted by people ‘as their own’; be modified by enculturation and time. Some became emblematic of different peoples at different points in history.
They were never to be understood as literally true, but as instruments of learning, through which individual communities experienced identity and connectedness; while, at the same time, containing universal understandings of human nature and evolution.
Unsurprisingly then, the Jewish oral tradition in its earliest times included stories absorbed and adapted from the whole region. As early as 725 BCE, the Israelites were conquered by Shalmaneser of Assyria. Many Jews were taken into exile in Assyria, while foreigners from Babylon, Persia and surrounding areas were brought to Israel to replace them. The first of the three writers of the Pentateuch (the “five books” being: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy) began at about this time to weave legends from Babylon, the Persian Empire and other places into biblical accounts of the Creation and the Deluge.
George Smith, the original discoverer in 1876 and translator of the Babylonian epic Enûma Elišh, regarded the events of creation in the Enûma Elišh as being directly comparable to that of Genesis. In 1942, another scholar, Alexander Heidel, in The Babylonian Genesis: The Story of Creation compared the Babylonian creation stories with those contained in Genesis. Heidel insisted that the Biblical Genesis account was unique. Today most scholars agree that although there are significant differences, there are enough similarities in these accounts to indicate that the creation story in the biblical Genesis draws upon a common cultural legacy.
- The Enûma Elišh: Tablets have been found dating from the 7th century BCE but the story is generally thought to have an earlier origin dating as far back as the 18th to 16th centuries BCE.
- Atrahasis Epic: ca 1640 BCE
- Epic of Gilgamesh: Sumerian version, 2150–2000 BCE. The most complete Akkadian version, 1300–1000 BCE
- Saga of “Izdubar” (Gilgamesh)
- Adapa and the South Wind: Likely earliest known: 14th century BCE
The Meeting of Minds: Two Great Empires
From 668-627 BCE in the time of Ašhurbanipal and the Neo-Babylonian Dynasty and again in the Early Persian period of Cyrus the Great, Marduk was the chief god of Babylon. Because they opposed the oppressive measures of Nabonidus, the last Neo-Babylonian king, the priests of Marduk facilitated the peaceful occupation of Babylon by Cyrus.
With Cyrus and the Persians came the teachings of Zoroaster, which claimed Ahura Mazda as the Supreme True God. These two ways of understanding the universe and our place in it would influence Judeo-Christian thought from its first recorded beginnings to the present day.
In 612 BCE these ancient Persians, known as Medians, joined with the Babylonians to defeat the Assyrian Empire. As a consequence, both established their respective authority in the region for about sixty years.
Keep in mind that these early Empires were concerned with expanding power and prosperity, not with retaining their own religious thought as opposed to anyone else’s.
“… the ancient religions including Judaism prior to Ezra and Nehemiah were not dogmatic and intolerant to other beliefs. In the ancient Near Eastern religions there is a complete absence of the concept of false faith or of heresy. Nor does there seem to be any notion of racial hatred or any feeling of any form of superiority of one people over another.” (From Foundation for the Advancement of Sephardic Studies and Culture.)
Babylon, Zoroaster and Greece Influence Jewish Thought
In 597 BCE this same Nebuchadnezzar, son of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba, violently ransacked Judah and took the young king Jehoiachin and 8,000 of his people. These were only the most prominent citizens of Judah: professionals, priests, craftsmen, and the wealthy. The “people of the land” (am-hares ) were allowed to stay behind. Once these first Jews arrived in Babylon, religious life, formerly focused on Temple ritual and festivals, had to change. Here their thinking became monotheistic and Axial.
Ernst Von Bunsen says in Keys of St. Peter, “It was during the Captivity that idolatry ceased among the Israelites.” In Bible Myths, and their Parallels in other Religions, Thomas William Doane writes that before that they “revered and worshipped a Bull called Apis, just as the ancient Egyptians did. They worshiped the sun, the moon, the stars and all the host of heaven. They worshiped fire, and kept it burning on an altar, just as did the Persians and other nations. They worshiped stones, revered an oak tree, and ‘bowed down’ to images. They worshiped a ‘Queen of Heaven’ called the goddess Astarte or Mylitta, and ‘burned incense’ to her. They worshiped Baal, Moloch and Chemosh, and offered up human sacrifices to them, after which in some instances, they ate the victim.”
“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 [the part of theology concerned with death, judgment and destiny] in general, and also that the monotheistic conception of Yahweh may have been quickened and strengthened by being opposed to the dualism or quasi-monotheism of the Persians.” (Jewish Encyclopedia)
Both share the doctrines of a regenerate world, a perfect kingdom, the coming of a Messiah, The Resurrection of the Dead, and The Life Everlasting.
The six days of Creation in Genesis find a parallel in the six periods of Creation described in the Zoroastrian scriptures.
Humankind, according to each religion, is descended from a single couple: The Original Couple. Mashya (man) and Mashyana are the Iranian Adam (man) and Eve. According to the Persian Avesta, the first couple lived originally in purity and innocence, until an evil demon came to them in the form of a serpent, sent by Ahriman, the prince of devils, and gave them the fruit from a tree, which promised immortality. They ate, and as a consequence forfeited eternal happiness and for the first time felt envy, hatred, discord and rebellion.
John Fiske says in Myths and Myth-Makers, “The story of the Serpent in Eden is an Aryan story in every particular. The notion of Satan as the author of evil appears only in the later books, composed after the Jews had come into close contact with Persian ideas.”
In the Bible a deluge destroys all people except Noah, a single righteous individual, and his family; in the Avesta a winter depopulates the earth except in the Vara (“enclosure”) of the blessed Yima. In each case the earth is peopled anew with the best two of every kind, and is afterward divided into three realms. The three sons of Yima’s successor Thraetaona, named Erij (Avesta, “Airya”), Selm (Avesta, “Sairima”), and Tur (Avesta, “Tura”), are the inheritors in the Persian account; Shem, Ham, and Japheth, in the Semitic story.
Jews who were taken captive by the Babylonian and Edomite armies were sold as slaves, some to Greeks who took them to “the Islands of the Sea” where Greek legends became familiar and were absorbed. The idea of an Eden, where everything was originally perfect, can be found in a number of early traditions. In Ancient Greece men originally led an idyllic life; they “lived like Gods” according to the poet Hesiod. But trouble came in the form of inquisitiveness when Epimetheus received a gift from Zeus in the form of Pandora, a beautiful maiden bearing a lidded vase that should not have been opened. Once it was, everything negative escaped.
Stories and storytelling were pivotal to life in the ancient world. Elements and selected ideas within stories were adopted and adapted as deemed necessary, and would again, be transformed from their original setting to serve another time and place.
Stories these Jewish scholars collected were reassuringly familiar and still emotionally satisfying when woven by scribes and scholars into a tapestry of myth and historical fact. The Greek historian Diodorus Siculus (1 BCE) refers to the story of the expulsion of foreigners from Egypt, and to Moses as “a wise and valiant leader” who led the Jews into Palestine. But the writer of the biblical ‘history’ was also evidently quite familiar with the legend of the Sun-god Bacchus. Bacchus had two mothers, one by nature and one by adoption; so had Moses. The infant Moses, by the command of the Pharaoh, was put into a basket made of bulrushes and cast into the Nile; the infant Bacchus, by the command of the King of Thebes, was put in a chest and thrown into the Nile. Both Bacchus and Moses have a rod with which to perform miracles; both use it to draw water from a rock; both can transform it into a serpent; both divide waters; both men were called the “Law-giver” and their laws were written on two tablets of stone.
The Jewish Messiah
The Messiahin of Jewish prophesy is not the unique Savior he would become for the Christians, but anyone whose service to the Jewish people is deemed great. This idea may well have come from the Gathas. Zarathustra describes a saoshyant (savior) as anyone who is a benefactor of the people.
The word “messiah” means “anointed one”, that is “anointed” by God to fulfill his role. In Second Isaiah or “Deutero-Isaiah” the prophet speaks of a Savior who would come to rescue the Jewish people. In the passage below, he identifies the Persian King, Cyrus the Liberator as that Messiah.
Isaiah 44:28 (new international version)
28 who says of Cyrus, “He is my shepherd
and will accomplish all that I please;
he will say of Jerusalem, ‘Let it be rebuilt,’
and of the temple, ‘Let its foundations be laid.’”
1 “This is what the Lord says to his anointed,
to Cyrus, whose right hand I take hold of
to subdue nations before him
and to strip kings of their armor,
to open doors before him
so that gates will not be shut:
2 I will go before you
and will level the mountains;
I will break down gates of bronze
and cut through bars of iron.
3 I will give you the treasures of darkness,
riches stored in secret places,
so that you may know that I am the Lord,
the God of Israel, who summons you by name.
4 For the sake of Jacob my servant,
of Israel my chosen,
I summon you by name
and bestow on you a title of honor,
though you do not acknowledge me.”
Isaiah’s Cyrus might well have been Cyrus the Great or Cyrus 1. In either case, a ruler of the Persian Empire, a Zoroastrian, is anointed and honored by Yahweh.
To quote the scholar, Dr. Allen P. Ross, (Univ. Cambridge) Professor of Old Testament and Hebrew at Beeson Divinity School:
“The movements of these world powers were well-known in the various courts, including Jerusalem. And the Book of Isaiah gives sufficient evidence that the prophet knew international affairs. The growth and influence of the Persian Empire was not hidden from the rest of the world; this state and its kings were not non-existent until 536 B.C. And a name ‘Cyrus’ was associated with this rising power as early as 670 – 660 B.C. or thereabouts. This was Cyrus I, the grandson of Cyrus the Great. … The royal line of which Cyrus the Great was a part was founded by Achaemenes, who ruled the Empire from 700-675 (contemporary with Isaiah). His son was Teispes (675-640); he expanded the boundaries of Parsa (Persia) as far south as Pasargadae. Because his empire was so great, he divided it between his two sons, Ariaramnes in the South and Cyrus I in the North. This division meant that there was a ruler known as Cyrus around 70 years before Israel went into captivity.” From the Introduction to the Study of the Book of Isaiah.
It was during their Exile that the Jews learned to hate idol worship and to rely on the word of the one true God. Some scholars see such passages in Isaiah as the first evidence that Yahweh has become a universal God of love: good, perfect, more remote, and identical to Ahura Mazda.
The Resurrection of the Dead and Life Everlasting
At least three other sources, scholars suggest, refer to the resurrection and are included here, though an alternative, interpretation seems equally likely:
Let favour be shewed to the wicked, yet will he not learn righteousness: in the land of uprightness will he deal unjustly, and will not behold the majesty of the Lord. (Isaiah 26:10.) Here “behold the majesty of the Lord” is as likely to refer to a state of mystical awareness than it is to resurrection.
I will ransom them from the power of the grave; I will redeem them from death: O death, I will be thy plagues; O grave, I will be thy destruction: repentance shall be hid from mine eyes. (Hosea 13:14.) Again this more likely refers to the tradition of many prophets, including Mohammad “Die before you die,” i.e. one’s lesser self has to “die” in order for the essential self to take control.
The wicked is driven away in his wickedness: but the righteous hath hope in his death. (Proverbs 14:32.) The same idea as above applies here: the late Sufi philosopher, Idries Shah, refers to the “self” which has to “die” as: “the mixture of primitive emotionality and irrelevant associations which bedevil” undeveloped man. See The Commanding Self by Idries Shah.
Thus stories were absorbed and adapted from both legend and history and new tales were created all as answers to questions and concerns that were universal to the human condition: Who are we? Why are we? How can we survive, protect and ensure the next generation? Tales of paradise and a perfect original state as alternatives to the difficult reality of everyday experiences can also be understood in this context. Prophets and storytellers solved universal problems and concerns with universal stories and their admonitions and recommendations enabled people to feel that they had more control over their lives. Today science, government and religion attempt to serve similar functions.
In this way, Zoroastrian teachings, Babylonian, Greek and other foreign myths were assimilated into Jewish history and religious culture. Their scholars sought to adjust traditional religious life and thought to a changing world, one that would confirm their status as the chosen people in a covenant with the one true God. Like the Homeric tales, these stories, whose overt purpose was to identify and inspire a people, were originally absorbed by the Jewish people as oral tradition containing fundamental truths about themselves. But, once written down, the Old Testament would be read, centuries later, as Jewish history.