November 17, 2004
For those interested in Yezidis, KurdishMedia.com recently ran this report on Yezidis in the Caucasus, and a three part series (here, here and here. It's easy to be skeptical of a statement like this one (in the first part of the series):
It is well known that Yezidism, or Zoroastrianism, being one of the oldest religions of the Middle East, has greatly influenced the history of mankind.
First, I suppose, because some scholars regard Yezidis as being primarily Islamic heretics or syncretists combining Muslim, Christian and some Zoroastrian elements rather than Zorastrians proper (I wrote quoted one author making that argument here, although note well the comments, most of which take issue with the essay quoted.) A second reason for skepticism, of course, is that it's hard to credit Zoroastrianism with much of an influence on the history of mankind, especially if one compares it to Judaism, Christianity or Islam. Yet Zoroastrian influence may well explain some aspects of our Judeo-Christian religious heritage, including the evolution of Satan from an aspect of God to his antagonist (this view, of course, is much debated).
Posted by Ideofact at November 17, 2004 09:38 PM
It is quite curious that a religious order would try to cast itself as being older than it appears.
I've been told that Mohammed actually tried that, by claiming various Jewish patriarchs/prophets/teachers (including Jesus) as predecessors. But that gave people room to compare their teachings with his, so he claimed that their true meaning had been "lost" or "corrupted".
I was also under the impression that Joseph Smith claimed similar things about Christianity when he wrote the Book of Mormon.
In short, it's not unknown for the authors of a new religion to claim ancient heritage.
Now, does that apply to the Yezidis?
Just one more thought with respect to thoughts about Satan.
The name "Satan" (literally, 'accuser') occurs first in the book of Job. He stands before God to accuse God of favoritism, and Job of craven self-service. (One of the minor prophets refers to Satan doing similar things to a high priest, if I rmember right.)
It is hard to assign Job an age any younger than Genesis, if only for the obvious reason that Job relates to God in the same way that Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob did. Job shows no evidence of the law of Moses, yet was accepted as canonical by the rabbis... So it appears that the name of Satan and the concept of a separate being among the angels ("Sons of God") who likes to challenge God's nature was present in some form among those who recorded the story of Job.
There are several references to God sending tormenting spirits and other evil influences (the 10 Plagues in Exodus, the dementia of Saul, David taking a census and the plague that results, etc.). With the exception of the Plagues, most of these references are limited to the books of 1,2 Samuel and 1,2 Kings.
So, did the idea of Satan (or evil in general) as an aspect of God exist from the beginning, or was it ported in for a time from other sources? Even more, if some evil was attributed to God, was it at His allowance, because He appeared to make use of it, or because some people thought He had a "dark side"?
Satan (and the devil, or devils) get more direct mentions in the New Testament than in the Old. Jesus refers to Satan "sifting" Peter, causing reminiscence of Satan's test of Job. Enemies known as "antichrists" are also referenced, though the referecnes are vague. Various beasts, powerful spirits, and other evils are mentioned in the Revelation.
This panoply of evil powers can be resolved into a hierarchy of evil, allowed for a time by God. Or they could actually be a loose confederation of rebel spirits, referred to by the name of the most vocal/powerful among them. Which leads us back to Satan, who is apparently the most vocal or visible such spiritual rebel in Christian thought.
Is this a case of me reading canon too much, and not reading enough period commentary by rabbis and bishops? Or is this a case of scholars who are too familiar with the popular understanding of Satan in modern Christian circles to study the roots of the idea carefully?
I do confess to zero knowledge about Zoroaster and his teachings. I would enjoy knowing more about that.
Wow -- a lot of ground to cover. First, regarding the Yezidis, I don't really know one way or the other whether their theology is closer to Zoroastrian or is instead a syncretic religion with an Islamic core and elements borrowed from other faiths.
Zoroastrians survive to this day (Freddie Mercury, the lead singer of Queen, was one, at least by birth); this site has some useful information about them. I really don't know enough about Yezidism (or Zorastrianism, for that matter) to come to a conclusion one way or the other.
Regarding Satan: There's an excellent, brief discussion of the development of ideas about Satan from the Old Testament through the middle ages in Norman Cohn's book Europe's Inner Demons that's well worth reading. Elaine Pagels wrote a book on the subject, and I read it, but it didn't make much of an impression.
Cohn notes the changing attitude towards Satan's identity and potency: In 2 Samuel, it's God who makes David take the census which results in the plague; in Chronicles, which was written much later, it's Satan who tempts David; the idea of God leading someone to sin was no longer palatable. Then there's the era of the apocrypha, when authors of the Book of Enoch and Jubilee and what not developed complicated demonologies, including the notion that a tenth of the angels had rebelled against God and been driven to earth. That's about the same time that Christianity came on the scene, and some of the ideas from the apocryphal books were adopted by the early Church fathers. They believed, however, that anyone who believed in Christ was bulletproof demonwise; by the time you get to the Middle Ages, you monks writing books about how we're beset with demons, and would perish completely were it not for the grace of God.
A long complicated history.
The Zoroastrian contribution may be the personification of the devil -- this is a vast oversimplification, but I believe Zoroastrians believe in a deity and a devil who are evenly matched; who will triumph depends upon men choosing good over evil.
The theory is that Satan as a being independent of God was borrowed from the Zoroastrians...