Was Jesus Just a Zoroastrian Knockoff?


This is part 4 in a 6-part series which asks if the Jesus of the Bible is the Jesus of history, and if the Jesus of history existed at all. We have also responded to comments from Bill Maher about the historicity of Jesus.

Zoroastrianism is considered by some skeptics to be the coup de gras to the originality of the Christian faith. Rather than challenging the well-attested life and resurrection of Christ outright, Zoroastrianism challenges the originality of biblical teachings in the Old and New Testaments.

The first problem with these claims goes back to the primary sources of Zoroastrianism. Edwin Yamauchi explains in his book Persia and the Bible:

The Zoroastrian texts are rather disparate and, with one exception, relatively late. They are limited and difficult sources to utilize for a reconstruction of Persian religion. Richard Frye compares an Iranologist’s task to a situation where a student of Judaism has only the Psalms, fragments of the Talmud, and later writings as sources for reconstructing the history of ancient Jewish religion.”[1]

Many of the alleged borrowings from Zoroastrianism took place prior to the New Testament era.[2] In a direct challenge to the faith, proponents of the Zoroastrian influence on Christianity state that Zoroastrianism holds the biblical origins of monotheism, sin, salvation, a redeemer, and bodily resurrection. Let us take these challenges in turn.


Monotheism was most likely not taught by Zoroastrianism. Instead, it taught either henotheism (where one god is exalted over lesser gods) or dualism. Mary Boyce, who was one of the world’s foremost experts on Zoroastrianism, explains that Zoroastrian monotheism is difficult to affirm because “the character of every known Old Iranian religion appears polytheistic; and no declaration of the existence of one God, and one God alone, can be found in any source, not even in the utterances of Zoroaster.”[3] For clarity, Zoroaster was the founder or Zoroastrianism, and he is considered a prophet of the god Ahura Mazda by modern-day Zoroastrians.  

Many experts instead believe that Zoroaster taught a form of dualism, which Willard Oxtoby defines as “a conception of the universe which postulates two ultimate principles, seen as opposed to each other and more or less evenly matched.”[4] Essentially, it is a battle between two uncreated primordial spirits, one good (God, or Ahura Mazda), and one evil (Ahriman). The Bible, however, never affirms dualism. There is good and evil, but God is unquestionably sovereign over all. God is the only uncreated being, or “maximally great being” in existence. Moreover, in Zoroastrianism, God is not omnipotent. Rather, as Yamauchi explains, “Only with the help of men who choose his side will God triumph over the Evil One in the end.”[5] Yet the Bible is clear that God does not need us (rather, we need Him!) and that He will triumph in the end, not because of us but for us.

Sin & Salvation

In opposition to the doctrine of original sin in which all of humanity inherits a sin nature from Adam, Zoroastrianism teaches that there is no inherited sin nature. A person is either just or sinful by freely choosing whether to be good or evil. If they do become evil and require salvation, then this is equally an issue of the will.

Salvation in Zoroastrianism is not a gift of God attained by grace through faith; rather, Zoroastrian salvation is entirely works-based, an idea that the New Testament strongly rejects. Zoroaster taught that salvation was completely dependent upon man’s good works outweighing his bad and, according to Boyce, “There could be no intervention, whether compassionate or capricious, by an omnipotent Being to alter their consequence.”[6] While later Zoroastrianism did begin creating and incorporating rites of repentance, these are in direct conflict with the words of Zoroaster concerning man achieving his own salvation.[7]

The word translated “redeemer” in Zoroastrian writings—Saoshyant—is not one who saves people from sin and guilt but is rather one who comes as a benefactor. Some scholars believe that saoshyant referred to Zoroaster himself or they believe that the term as used in the Gathas (the most important and authoritative Zoroastrian scriptures) refers more to future benefactors who will help Zoroaster bring final restoration in the end times (recall that Ahura Mazda will not be able to triumph over evil on his own in the end but will require the help of others).

Furthermore, as Jacques Duchesne-Guillemin explains, “Zoroaster did not give himself out to be the redeemer. When his prayers call the redeemer who is to renew existence, he means the prince who shall accept his doctrine and realize the Dominion of Righteousness and Good Mind. He even allows the role of redeemer to any man, provided he practices righteousness.”[8] This is vastly different from the foreknown, predestined, and eternal God-Man, Jesus Christ of the New Testament.


Lastly, as Yamauchi states assuredly, “There is no certain affirmation of a belief in a resurrection by Zoroaster in the Gathas.”[9] He continues, “Yashna 34.14 is sometimes cited for such a belief, but this clearly refers to bodily prosperity in this life.”[10]

The most clear references to resurrection appear in Pahlavi Bundahishn, which discuss resurrection after the appearance of the final saoshyant and the final judgment. At this time, fire will melt all metal found in the hills and mountains and purify all souls, both righteous and wicked.[11]

Yet this is barely similar to the biblical account of Christ’s Second Coming and Judgment Day, but there is another reason to be skeptical of its influence upon Christianity: the Pahlavi scriptures were not composed until the ninth and tenth centuries AD.[12] Therefore, William Malandra, an expert on ancient Iranian religion, recommends exercising caution, explaining that the Pahlavi scriptures “must be used with extreme care as evidence for the earlier forms of the religion.”[13]

But Did Zoroastrianism Influence the Old Testament?

It has been shown above that Zoroastrianism is different enough from the New Testament to discount a genetic connection between the two. But New Testament concepts, though displaying a direct genetic connection to Old Testament concepts, both adjusted and transcended the older concepts. But if it can be shown that Zoroastrianism influenced the Old Testament itself, then indeed, at least in part, we must say that it also influenced the New Testament.

When one looks into the Old Testament, we see a God standing out among the surrounding cultures. Genesis 1-11, which is often said to be merely one “version” of similar creation and flood accounts, is in part a polemic against the surrounding culture’s beliefs. God many times revealed truths about Himself to the Israelites, and these truths were framed in opposition to the beliefs of surrounding cultures’ mythologies. Therefore, what must be understood up front is that the idea of Israel borrowing religious beliefs antithetical to their own would have been unconscionable to them. This sort of syncretism is always condemned in no uncertain terms in the Hebrew scriptures.

The Persian influence of Zoroastrianism on Judaism is said to touch on major doctrinal matters such as creation, judgment, resurrection, heaven, hell, Satan, and other related matters. However, major differences between their beliefs and a lack of evidence on a historical exchange of information has made discerning scholars like the aforementioned Edwin Yamauchi wary. To believe in a link between Judaism and Zoroastrianism, one must then presuppose “the chronological priority of the Iranian beliefs; late dates for the Old Testament texts; a close parallelism between the beliefs; and reasons for dependence.”[14] These presuppositions, though, fly in the face of the data.

Looking at some of the alleged parallels will show the inflated declarations of Jewish dependence on Zoroastrian belief. As Yamauchi points out, in the case of the supposed Jewish borrowing from Zoroastrian creation accounts, this depends on a minority interpretation of Isaiah 40-45 and a complete lack of concern for the Genesis account. In a similar vein, the idea that the development of Satan was based on Zoroastrian beliefs is difficult to uphold since Satan is always portrayed as subordinate to Yahweh, whereas Ahriman and Ahura Mazda are equal in power.[15]

Even more important, though, is the belief that Judaism borrowed the idea of resurrection from Zoroastrianism. If this is true, then it is claimed that Judaism—and through it,Christianity—are somehow illegitimate, copycat faith traditions. Looking at all the evidence, though, leads many scholars to agree with Zaehner: “We cannot say with any certainty whether the Jews borrowed from the Zoroastrians or the Zoroastrians from the Jews or whether either in fact borrowed from the other.”[16]

If we look at the resurrection claims, we can see why Zaehner’s hesitation is warranted. The majority of scholars do not believe that a resurrection is alluded to in Zoroaster’s Gathas, the oldest and most trusted source for Zoroaster’s beliefs. The earliest attestation to a Zoroastrian belief in resurrection actually cannot be dated prior to the 4th century BC, roughly 200 years after the biblical book of Ezekiel, which it is said to have influenced!  Yamauchi also shows how there are fundamental differences in what these resurrections look like. “The Jewish dead,” Yamauchi writes, “who are buried, rise from the dust of the earth, whereas the Persian dead, who are exposed, must be recreated from the elements. In Zoroastrianism the resurrection is linked with the fiery ordeal and the renewal, whereas in Judaism the resurrection hope means life beyond the grave with Yahweh.”[17] Furthermore, Yamauchi adds that the doctrine of resurrection is internally consistent with the Hebrew scriptures without any need to appeal to outside sources. All of this leads Walther Eichrodt to conclude: “As these differences indicate, the idea that the eschatological resurrection hope, in the form attested in the Old Testament, was influenced by Persian conceptions can be shown by any reasonable detailed comparison to be inadmissible.”[18]

Lastly, if any influence upon Israel’s beliefs did come from Zoroastrianism, then according to Hinnells (a protégé of Boyce, who thought Zoroastrianism greatly influenced the Bible), it had to fall in the intertestamental or Hellenistic period, after the Hebrew Bible had already been written. Yamauchi affirms that the case does not look good. “The argument of Iranian influence upon Judaism is undercut,” Yamauchi explains, “by the necessity of relying upon extremely late Pahlavi texts, which are our major sources for the eschatological views of Zoroastrianism.”[19] He continues, quoting Frye, “In other words, the basic Iranian sources for deriving influences are the ninth century A.D. Pahlavi books, the syncretic nature of which can easily be imagined.”[20]

Neusner states that it is what appears to be the overwhelming ignorance of Iranian religious belief: “If we must make premature hypotheses, let me here hypothecate that Iranian ‘influences’ on the culture and religion of Babylonian Jewry and all the more so of Palestinian Jewry, have been for the most part exaggerated and overrated. Examining just what the Talmudic rabbis actually knew about Iranian culture, we can hardly be impressed by their depth of knowledge.”[21]

In the end, then, I think we can safely assert that the Old Testament, while being conversant in and with the ideas and cultures of its day, has a completely original synthesis of ideas concerning God, creation, humanity, sin, and salvation. Where it does engage with other cultures and religions, it does not do so uncritically. Rather, it holds them up to the light of Yahweh and finds them wanting, and the point of Yahweh’s interaction with Israel was to give Himself to the nations and invite them to fullness and flourishing (Genesis 12:1-3; Isaiah 42:1-7; Matthew 12:17-21).

Parallelomania Redux

Once again, we see the phenomenon of parallelomania running wild. But a closer look finds that the similarities are superficial at best. In the last two remaining articles of this series, we will shift our focus from defending the life of Jesus against claims of being a copycat to more providing the positive evidence of Jesus’s actual human existence on earth 2,000 years ago.

[1] Edwin M. Yamauchi, Persia and the Bible (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1996), 403.

[2] Many, for instance, try to make the claim that Zoroastrianism had an influence on Judaism that found its way into the Hebrew scriptures, thus shaping Christianity through the mediation of the Old Testament.

[3] Mary Boyce, “On Mithra’s Part in Zoroastrianism,” Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London 32, no. 1 (1969): 18. http://www.jstor.org.ezproxy.tiu.edu/stable/613386. Quoted in Yamauchi, 437.

[4] Willard Oxtoby, World Religions: Western Traditions (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996), 536. Quoted in Yamauchi, 438.

[5] Yamauchi, 439.

[6] Mary Boyce, The Early Period. Vol. 1 of A History of Zoroastrianism (New York: Brill, 1996),246. Quoted in Yamauchi, 443.

[7] Yamauchi, 444.

[8] Jacques Duchesne-Guillemin, The Hymns of Zarathustra (Boston: Beacon, 1963), 19. Quoted in Yamauchi, 444.

[9] Yamauchi, 456.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid., 456-57.

[12] Ibid., 409.

[13] William W. Malandra, ed. and trans., “Preface” in An Introduction to Ancient Iranian Religion: Readings from the Avesta and the Acheimenid Inscriptions (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1983), vi. Quoted in Yamauchi, 409.

[14] Yamauchi, 459.

[15] Ibid., 459-60.

[16] Ibid., 461.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Ibid., 464-65.

[20] Ibid., 465.

[21] Ibid., 10.


Part 1: Was Jesus just another dying and rising God? 

Part 2: Was Jesus just another divinized human? 

Part 3: Was Jesus just based on pagan myths? 

Part 4: Was Jesus just a Zoroastrian knockoff? 

Part 5: Was Jesus just a historical fabrication? The Quest! 

Part 6: Was Jesus just a historical fabrication? The non-Christian texts 

Tags :
ahura mazda,apologetics,historical jesus,Israel,jesus mythicism,old testament,pagan myth,Persia,Zoroaster,Zoroastrianism

Abdu Murray

Abdu Murray is an international speaker and author on the intersections of the Christian faith and the questions of culture.