I thought I'd do a bit of reading about the Manichees, a religion that once rivaled Christianity and, like Christianity, in the 5th, 6th and 7th centuries could be found from Western Europe to China. Founded by the prophet Mani in 242 CE was a dualistic religion which continued in China and Central Asia long after it had disappeared from Europe and the Middle East. St Augustine was a Manichee before he converted to Christianity and maybe brought with him a bit of Manichee baggage re the body and sex in his novel doctrines on Original Sin, which have become very much part of Western Christianity.
Mani the prophet came from the Persian Empire, then in the early days of the Sassanid dynasty. I had always thought Mani was a Zoroastrian but it seems there's a likelihood he wasn't. He was from what is now Iraq, then part of the Sassanian Empire. He is variously described as Mandaean or belonging to an obscure and now extinct Christian sect, the Elchasaites. Mani at first found favour with the Sassanian rulers but incurred the enmity of the Zoroastrian establishment and was forced into temporary exile in Central Asia and, after returning from exile, finally either died in prison or was executed. In the centuries that followed both Manichees and Christians were periodically persecuted by the Persian state and both Manichees and Christians engaged in polemic against Zoroastrianism (as well as against each other).
But in my reading I got somewhat distracted by material on Zoroastrianism itself, and in particular the form of the religion known as Zurvanism. Zurvan means time. In contemporary Zoroastrianism and in the hymns of the prophet the model of the deity is a sort of dualist one. God is known as Ahura Mazda, the Wise Lord, whom Zoroaster addresses as the Lifegiver. Ahura Mazda is all-good, the Creator of the universe and lover of humanity. In opposition to Ahura Mazda is Angra Mainyu (in Middle Persian, Ahriman), the destructive spirit, who works to corrupt creation and destroy humanity. Ahura Mazda is greater than Angra Mainyu and will eventually triumph in a final culmination and judgment which will involve the fulfilment of creation, something like the Christian Kingdom of God. In fact, Christianity, Islam and Judaism derive a number of their core beliefs, including resurrection, from the Zoroastrian religion. Zoroaster even taught of the coming of a messiah figure, the Saoshyant a descendant of the prophet, who would herald the last days. The scholarly consensus is that Zoroaster lived some 3500 years ago.
From the biblical literature it's clear that Persian religion had a big influence on the texts included in the Old Testament. There are parallels between Zoroastrian religious laws and the laws of Moses (including the Leviticus bans on anal sex between men). Fire is important in Persian religion and bibical theophanies are often associated with fire, most famously the Burning Bush. Cyrus the Great, who founded the first (Achamaenian) Persian Empire in the 6th century BCE, conquering Babylon approximately 540BCE. In the biblical texts, it's Cyrus who authorises the return of Jewish exiles to Jerusalem and the book of Isaiah hails Cyrus as anointed by God, messiah. The rebuilding of the Temple in Jerusalem is portrayed as a Persian supported initiative in Ezra-Nehemiah. Some scholars have argued that the rebuilt Temple was designed to serve Persian and that the cult practiced there was a Zoroastrian shaped implantation designed to support the Persian state in the territory of Judah/Yehud. I don't have too much of a problem with that although I would argue for a more complex approach recognising multiple agency rather than a simple top down initiative. I would base that on firstly the widespread nature of Judaism in the ancient world and the fact that, whatever it's Zoroastrian (and Mesopotamian) influences, the Jewish religious world clearly comes from older Canaanite/Levantine roots. It is a remaking of the old religious world under the impression of the new dominant one. Analogous processes can be seen in modern colonial experiences. I think the origins of Judaism lie in the crises of Empire (Assyria, Babylon, Persia) in the ancient Middle East and the need to remake what had once been local royal cults when local kings are no more.
But back to Zoroaster and Zurvanism. As I said Zurvan means time. Zurvanism postulated that before/above Ahura Mazda and Angra Mainyu was Zurvan, the primal and distant god. Zurvan conceived Ahura Mazda and Angra Mainyu together; they are twins of equal status. Here is Robert Zaehner's account of the Zurvanite myth:
When nothing existed at all, neither heaven nor earth, the great god Zurvan alone existed, whose name means 'fate' or 'fortune'. He offered sacrifice for a thousand years that perchance he might have a son who should be called Ohrmazd and who would create heaven and earth. At the end of this period of a thousand years he began to ponder and said to himself: 'What use is this sacrifice that I am offering, and will I really have a son called Ohrmazd, or am I taking all this trouble in vain?' And no sooner had this thought occured to him then both Ohrmazd and Ahriman were conceived -Ohrmazd because of the sacrifice he had offered, and Ahriman because of his doubt. When he realized that there were two sons in the womb, he made a vow saying: 'Whichever of the two shall come to me first, him will I make king.' Ohrmazd was apprised of his father's thought and revealed it to Ahriman. When Ahriman heard this, he ripped the womb open, emerged, and advanced towards his father. Zurvan, seeing him, asked him: 'Who art thou?' And he replied: 'I am thy son, Ohrmazd.' And Zurvan said: 'My son is light and fragrant, but thou art dark and stinking.' And he wept most bitterly. And as they were talking together, Ohrmazd was born in his turn, light and fragrant; and Zurvan, seeing him, knew that it was his son Ohrmazd for whom he had offered sacrifice. Talking the barsom twigs he held in his hands with which he had been sacrificing, he gave them to Ohrmazd and said: 'Up till now it is I who have offered thee sacrifice; from now on shalt thou sacrifice to me.' But even as Zurvan handed the sacrificial twigs to Ohrmazd, Ahriman drew near and said to him :'Didst thou not vow that whichever of the sons should come to thee first, to him wouldst thou give the kingdom?' And Zurvan said to him: 'O false and wicked one, the kingdom shall be granted thee for nine thousand years, but Ohrmazd have I made a king above thee, and after nine thousand years he will reign and will do everything according to his good pleasure.' And Ohrmazd created the heavens and the earth and all things that are beautifull and good; but Ahriman created the demons and all that is evil and perverse. Ohrmazd created riches, Ahriman poverty.
Zurvanism is described as a Zoroastrian heresy. All the details of it come from non-Zoroastrian sources. Zurvanism became prominent in Persia in the Sassanian period during the 1st Christian millennium but it seems to have first appeared in the later Achamaenian period before Alexander the Great. There is no record of an old Persian deity named Zurvan and Zoroastrianism absorbed all the old Persian deities giving them the status of Yazatas, worshipful ones, somewhat analogous to angels in Christianity. There is a similar primal Greek deity named Chronos (not to be confused with the father of Zeus) and some have argued a Greek provenance for Zurvan. Others have argued for an Indian provenance and there doesn't seem to be any sort of consensus.
But reading the account, I had little alarm bells ringing in the back of my mind saying that I recognised a pattern here. I had to think for a while and then it occurred to me, the pattern had to do with the Day of Atonement rituals in Leviticus 16. Now this will probably strike many as quite outrageous and out there but I'm going to indulge myself and play with it anyway. The Zurvanite pattern of one plus two is the pattern of key animals employed in the DoA ritual i.e. two goats and a bull. Summarising, two goats are brought to the High Priest in the Temple and lots are cast over them, in the standard translations to determine which is for Yahweh and which for Azazel (also rendered scapegoat but I'll stick with the name here). The one for Yahweh is then slaughtered and the blood collected. The High Priest then takes the blood of the goat and the blood of a bull, slaughtered before the selection of the goats, into the Holy of Holies. The blood of both bull and goat are sprinkled there and then the High Priest comes out and smears the combined blood of bull and goat on the altar. The High Priest then confesses the sins of the people over the goat for Azazel which is then sent out into the wilderness.
Now Margaret Barker has argued that instead of translating to read 'for Yahweh/Azazel' the text can also be translated to 'as Yahweh/Azazel'. In other words the two goats represent Yahweh and Azazel. Azazel in this reading means Fierce God or the Ferocity of El. The blood of the Yahweh goat represents Yahweh's divine life force which is used to atone or heal the universe, represented by the Temple, of all the ills and corruption that had accrued over the previous year. Those ills are placed on the Azazel goat which is cast out into the wilderness. I have argued that in this reading the bull represents the Semitic high god, old Father El (one of whose titles was the Great Bull El), and recalls a time, before Yahweh worship began, when El alone healed the universe with his divine life force. Like all the old deities of the Heavenly Host, Yahweh and Azazel are sons of El, making them brothers. That the two goats representing them are only distinguished by the casting of lots implies a particularly close affinity between the two, one that could also be represented by twinship.
I was struck by the parallel between El, Yahweh and Azazel on the one hand and Zurvan, Ahura Mazda and Angra Mainyu on the other. There is in fact a strong resemblance between Azazel and Angra Mainyu, Yahweh and Ahura Mazda. Apart from Greek and Indian provenances for Zurvan, I also noted that some had suggested a Chaldean/Mesopotamian/Semitic provenance. From Nebuchadnezzar to the 1950s Mesopotamia/Iraq has been an important Jewish centre; for many centuries in Roman/Byzantine/Islamic periods it was the key cultural and religious centre for Judaism. So here is my outrageous suggestion. What if the Zurvanite heresy derived from early ancient Judaism itself, a Judaism which, ironically, had already been strongly influenced, if not partly shaped and even fostered, by the 'orthodox' Zoroastrian religious state itself?
It's only a hypothetical but one that appeals to me. I like it for the interconnections as much as for the irony and the apparent wildness. The irony is further heightened in that Zurvanism apparently became the orthodox form of Zoroastrianism in Persia for many centuries. So maybe it's time that Christians, and Jews and Muslims too, recognise that they are as much children of Zoroaster as they are children of Abraham. I am an advocate for an expanded and ecumenical Bible. Perhaps it's time, also, that Bibles include, maybe as a preface, at least the hymns of Zoroaster, in recognition of that lineage.
If you want to read them there are some in fairly accessible translation here. And if you want to explore the rich religious history of Persia/Iran there is a wealth of material here.