On Iranian and Jewish apocalyptics, again.

Author:Agostini, Domenico


It is first necessary to set in place the methodological parameters for defining this religious and literary phenomenon (1) conceptually and chronologically. (2) According to J. J. Collins, two main types of apocalypses can be recognized in Judaism: (3)

The better known of these might be described as historical apocalypses. In these apocalypses, the revelation is given in allegorical visions, interpreted by an angel. The content is primarily historical and is given in the form of an extended prophecy. History is divided into a set number of periods. The finale may include the national and political restoration of Israel but the emphasis is on the replacement of the present world by one that is radically new. The second type of Jewish apocalypse is the otherworldly journey. With regard to Iran, defining this term is a more complicated task. This is mainly due to the paucity of texts and passages that might be classified as apocalyptic. Even though some Pahlavi texts can easily be included under this category, an attempt to draw precise borders between the contexts of Iranian apocalyptics and eschatology is almost immediately a source of controversy. Indeed, if we also add speculations concerning the creation of the world, collective and individual eschatology, and resurrection in the context of a mythical history to Iranian apocalyptic, we could define this phenomenon as "apocalyptic eschatology" and consider its inclusion in the discussion. (4) On the other hand, if we consider apocalypticism just as an historical phenomenon, we should not ignore the clear and convincing analysis proposed by Ph. Gignoux: (5)

Dans le monde iranien, tout en maintenant la parente des termes, il me semble adequat de definir l'eschatologie comme un ensemble de doctrines qui sont au centre de la religion mazdeenne, en relation avec la genese du monde et son histoire, formant ainsi partie d'une mythologie ou d'une cosmogonie qui peut remonter a Zoroastre, et a en tout cas marque profonddment toute la pensee et lethique mazdeennes. Aussi pourrait-on reserver le terme d'apocalypse a un domaine plus restreint, celui des predictions faites aprfes leur realisation, d'evenements historiques qui prefigurent les catastrophes de la fin des temps. En ce sens, l'apocalypse a une certaine "prise" sur l'histoire, meme s'il s'agit d'une revelation prophe'tique, tandis que l'eschatologie pourrait dependre plus foncierement du mythe. Regarding Jewish apocalyptic literature, we know that its apogee can probably be located between the second century B.C.E. and the second century C.E. The history of the Jewish community at that time is characterized by the persecutions of the Seleucid king Antiochus IV Epiphanes (175-163 B.C.E.) and then by the persecutions of the Romans. Among these apocalyptic texts, the Book of Daniel, which will be the object of our comparative analysis with the Iranian tradition, was written circa 166 B.C.E. (6)

We do not have the same certitude when we try to assign a date to Iranian apocalyptic literature. In fact, beyond some Pahlavi texts written during the Islamic period (ninth-tenth centuries), notably the Zand i Wahman Yasn, (7) the Jomasp-Namag, (8) chapters thirty-three and thirty-four of the Iranian Bundahisn, (9) and a few passages in Denkard VII: 7-11 (10) and in Denkard IX, (11) we do not have any pre-Islamic evidence. (12) Most of the apocalyptic passages suggest, after an initial analysis, that this literary phenomenon was a relatively widespread genre in late Sasanian and early Islamic times.

Nevertheless, it is necessary to underline that some passages that present a strong eschatological conception can already be found in the Young Avesta. Indeed, Yast 19.88-96, (13) or the Zamyad Yast, of which the final composition is to be placed in Achaemenid times, can be considered a precursor of some topics that belong to Pahlavi apocalyptic literature. These passages deal with the coming of the future savior and his companions who will fight for the restoration of Truth against the forces of Druz, or Falsehood. (14) This text proves the antiquity of an Iranian eschatological tradition. However if we presume a diachronic development of some motifs (e.g., the future savior, the restoration of Truth/destruction of Falsehood) from the time of composition of Yast 19 to the time of the writing down of the Pahlavi texts, it is not irresponsible to consider this Young Avestan text an example of early "apocalyptic eschatology."

At present, it is evident that the question dealing with the antiquity of Iranian apocalyptics is the pivot around which any speculation regarding relations with the other apocalyptics should be posed.

Before comparing sections of Iranian apocalyptic literature--particularly passages from the Zand i Wahman Yasn--with the Book of Daniel and with the Oracles of Hystaspes, a further comment on the Iranian apocalyptic tradition should be made. Besides the abovementioned Pahlavi texts, we do not have in our possession any kind of Iranian or Zoroastrian apocalyptic literary evidence that might prove the antiquity of an apocalyptic tradition. Even though the Zand I Wahman Yasn claims to be based on the Sudgar Nask (15)--one of the lost books of the Sasanian Avesta--the apocalyptic narration is strongly related to the period following the Islamic conquest. This apocalyptic depiction of the upset of the status quo ante, with the loss of Iranian identity and of the previous social and religious pattern as well as the preservation of some eschatological and mythical materials, is all quite common in the Pahlavi texts of the same genre. (16)

Moreover, even while we can detect in the above-mentioned passage of Yast 19 some mythical topics that were later developed by subsequent apocalyptic literature, a close reading of this text raises an important set of questions: Where are the anxiety, distress, and unconditional hope that issue from the tragic, real historical events traditionally related to the end of the millennium of Zoroaster, normally present in the late Pahlavi textse


It is time, then, to compare one of the most important books of Jewish apocalyptic literature, the Book of Daniel, with the most complete epitome of Zoroastrian apocalyptic literature, the Zand i Wahman Yasn.

In Daniel 2:31-45, the young Daniel interprets a dream of the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar. In this dream, a large stone destroys a statue possessing a golden head and a body composed of four different metals: silver (composing the breast and the arms), bronze (belly and thighs), iron (legs), and iron mixed with clay (feet).

According to Daniel's interpretation of this dream, the destruction of the statue stands for the birth and the fall of four kingdoms following Nebuchadnezzar's reign, which is represented by the golden head.

This idea of metallic ages represented by branches of a tree, similar to the one behind the statue in Daniel, can be found twice in the Zand i Wahman Yasn. The first occurrence is in chapter 1:3-11, (17) where the four metallic branches of gold, of silver, of steel, and of mixed iron or iron and earth represent respectively the reign of King VVistasp, of Kay Ardaxsir, (18) of Khosrau "of immortal soul" (531-579), and of parted-hair demons, who can be identified with the Arabs or the Turks.

The second occurrence is found in chapter 3:19-29, (19) where the kingdoms and metallic ages become seven: gold for King Wistasp, silver for Kay Ardaxsir, copper for Kings Ardaxslr (224-241) and Sabuhr I (241-272), brass for the Arsacid dynasty, lead for Wahram Gor (420-438), steel for Khosrau "of immortal soul," and mixed iron or iron and earth for parted-hair demons, who can again be identified with Arabs or Turks.

For a long time, this common idea was debated by scholars, who sought to understand which of the two literary traditions influenced the other. Before dealing with this debate, it is necessary to become acquainted with the origin of this myth of metallic ages. It has often been claimed that this topic had an Iranian origin, since in Daniel it is easy to distinguish the four kingdoms: Assyria, Media, Persia, and Greece-Macedonia--or better, Alexander's empire and the Hellenistic kingdoms. Moreover, the preponderance given to the iron kingdom, that of Achaemenid Persia, and its following destruction by a kingdom having an iron core and destined to crumble as clay--that is, Alexander and the Hellenistic kingdoms--suggest an Iranian point of view. (20)

However, as J. Duchesne-Guillemin observed, the topic of metallic ages is known to us already from classical times, especially from the Works...

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