Thursday, July 17, 2014

Jacob and Esau and the Iranian Myth of Zurvan

I happened to have stumbled across an incredibly detailed study of the Iranian myth of Zurvan at the Encyclopaedia Iranica.  I had a vague recollection about the figure of Zurvan or 'Time' in Zoroastrianism.  I think I was first introduced to the concept in one of the books in the Eranos series when I was a kid.  Nevertheless when I became aware of the strange and twisted back story to the myth I found parallels between the Biblical story of Jacob and Esau quite astounding:

We are left, therefore, with a very specific and amply attested fact: the myth of Zurvan, which is an alternative version of the Zoroastrian myth of creation known from Greek, Syriac, Armenian, and Arabic sources (texts given synoptically in Zaehner, 1955 and Rezania, 2010). In this myth, which is surprisingly uniform in the various sources, the two spirits (Ohrmazd [see AHURA MAZDĀ] and Ahreman [see AHRIMAN]) are presented as the twin offspring of a pre-existing god Zurvan. The difference among versions of the myth is largely restricted to the origin of the two spirits: the myth presents Zurvan as sacrificing for a period of a thousand years, in order to beget a son. Zurvan experienced a moment of doubt; as a result, Ohrmazd came into being because of the sacrifices and Ahreman out of Zurvan’s doubt. When Zurvan realized that two children had been formed in his womb, he promised to give dominion to his first-born, intending it to be Ohrmazd, but Ahreman pierced the womb and presented himself as the first-born. It is here that the stories vary, but in general it is from the birth of the two spirits onwards that the narration of the cosmogony follows the customary lines known from “standard” Zoroastrianism. The myth of Zurvan is thus some sort of a “prequel” to the ordinary story of creation, and there are very few (if any) indications that this prequel was considered as imposing by any contemporary Zoroastrian, as it has seemed to modern Western scholars. 

I have grown more and more interested in the possibility that scholars haven't done enough to uncover the Persian influence on the development of the Torah.  One of the most obvious impediments is the silly tendency of researchers to assume that 'Judaism' came before 'Samaritanism.'  I see the actually historically inverted.  In other words, the reason we know so little about the original exegetical tradition associated with the Pentateuch is because (a) our understanding of the text is dominated by Jewish sources and (b) 'Judaism' only emerged as a separate tradition at the beginning of the Hellenistic period (cf. the fragments of Hecataeus).

Under these assumptions, I put forward that the Dustan were likely connected with the oldest exegetical traditions in Israel.  The name 'Dustan' is Persian as are a number of words in the Pentateuch and more important associated with surviving Samaritan sectarian groups in the first and second centuries of the Common Era.  I wonder then whether the Persian myth of Zurvan is the proper literary context for understanding the Jacob and Esau narrative.  Consider what we get from Eznik of Kolb in the 5th century:

When, they saw, there was nothing at all, neither heaven nor earth nor any creatures that are in heaven or earth, there was a certain one named Zruan, which is translated fate or glory. He performed sacrifice" for one thousand years, so that there might be a son to him, whose name is Ormszd, who might make heaven and earth and everything that is in them. And after a thousand years of performing sacrifice he began to ponder in his mind, and said, 'Will this sacrifice I am performing be of any help, and will there be to me a son Ormizd, if I strive in vain?' And while he was meditating on this, Ormizd and Arhmn were engendered" in the womb of their mother: Ormazd, from the performance of sacrifice; and Arhmn, from the doubting. Then, when Zruan found out, he said, 'There are two sons there in the womb: the one of them who reaches me first, him I will make king.' And when Ormizd recognized the thoughts of his father, he declared them to Arhmn, saying, 'Zruan our father had the thought that the one of us who goes to him first, him will he make king.' And when Arhmn heard this he punctured the womb, went out and stood before his father. And Zruan, seeing him, did not know who this might be, and asked, 'Who are you?' And he said, I am your son.' Zruan said to him, 'You are not my son, my son is sweet-smelling and luminous, and you are dark and foul- smelling.'"- And while they were speaking these things to each other, Ormizd being born in his own hour, came and stood before Zruan. And when Zruan saw him, he knew that this was Ormazd his son, for whose sake he had been sacrificing. And, taking up the bundle of twigs" with which he had been performing the sacrifice, he gave it to Ormizd, saying, 'Up till now I performed sacrifice for your sake, hereafter you will do it for mine.' And as Zruan gave the bundle of twigs to Ormgzd and blessed him, Arhmn, coming up to Zruan, said to him, 'Did you not promise" this: Whichever of my two sons reaches me first, I will make him king?' And Zruan, in order not to break his promise, said to Arhmn, 'O false one and malefactor! Let the kingdom be given to you for nine thousand years, my having appointed Ormazd king over you, and after nine thousand years Ormszd shall reign, and what he will then to do, he shall do it.' Then began Ormizd and Arhmn to make the creations; and everything that Ormizd made was good and straight [ulil], and whatever Arhmn worked was evil and warped [t'iwr]." [Eznik of Kolb, De Deo (Maries and Mercier 1960, pp. 460- 461  tr. by J. R. Russell]

What are the implications for our understanding of the origins of the Israelite religious form that the tradition possibly understood itself to have originated from the Semitic equivalent of Arhmn?  If the parallels hold up we should ask, how and why did the story of two heavenly twins develop into an association with two earthly twins as the heads of a family of West Semitic people?  As well we should ask, what are the implications on Marcionitism?

My feeling again is that at the core Marcionitism developed from the earliest surviving forms of the Israelite religion - in specific the Dustan (hence the early interest in Samaria and the 'Dositheans' in particular among the Church Fathers).  As well Marcionite 'dualism' and its struggle to distinguish itself from Manichaeanism marks the difference between the early Israelite sects 'loose borrowing' from Zurvanism as opposed to the tradition of Mani which went back to the original source of the tradition.

Hard to prove any of these things right now, but I think in general the existence of an early Israelite tradition rooted in Persian religious thought is ignored by scholars because (a) too much emphasis is placed on Judaism and (b) too little is accorded to Samaritan sources.  Any attempt to reconstruct an Israelite religious tradition which dated back to the Persian period is also necessarily going to be quite speculative.  The motto of most scholars by contrast seems to be 'a sure nothing is better than a maybe something.'  But in this case we have to ask - what happened to the Persian-religious inspiration that made Paradise in the shape of an Iranian garden and bid Moses goodbye with the eshdat lamo?  I clearly suspect that it will end up being the 'missing link' in our understanding of Judeo-Christian origins ultimately connecting Marcion to Moses ...

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