Back in August we posted an article about the beginnings of the Parliament of World Religions at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago. That article spoke about one of the contributions from what was at the time a little known religion to people in the United States, namely A Brief Sketch Of The Zoroastrian Religion And Customs, An Essay (1893), by Ervad Sheriarji Dadabhai Barucha. In it Mr.Shaeriaji mentioned that though little is known about the early history of Zoroastrianism, it may be confidently asserted that the kings of the Achaeminian Dynasty such as Cyrus, Darius, Xerxes, and others (B.C. 559-329) were Zoroastrians, for they emphatically speak of Auramazda, the greatest God, as does every Zoroastrian…”
That was back in 1893 and the essay was delivered from Bombay, India, now known as Mumbai. Leading up to the 2023 convention of the Parliament of the World’s Religions, once again in Chicago, FEZANA (the Federation of Zoroastrian Associations of North America) has contributed an online pre-Parliament event called
CYRUS’ CYLINDER: A Timeless Zoroastrian Legacy. which the public is invited to watch. To find out more about that event here is a link which describes the event and provides registration information.
As Swedenborgians are People of the Book, a name for followers of the major faiths whose sacred scriptures stem from the Old Testament Bible, our interest is in seeing what we know about Cyrus and his connection to our religious heritage, and in what ways might the Zoroastrian faith of Cyrus impacted the historical path of the Jewish people of his time.
Some extracts from the Jewish Virtual Library follow. Note that “Deutero-Isaiah” or Second Isaiah, refers to that part of Isaiah (chapters 40-55) attributed to a second author. The first author addresses Judah prior to the invasion of the Assyrians, The second author takes up the story much later, after Assyria, and near the end of the Babylonian captivity.
“Cyrus holds a special place in the history of Israel. He is mentioned in the prophecies of Deutero-Isaiah, in the Book of Ezra (and at the end of Chronicles), and in the Book of Daniel. In these passages he appears both as one destined to save Israel and to fulfill for it a certain mission on behalf of the God of Israel … and as one whose edict and command served as a foundation for the return to Zion and the erection of the destroyed temple. Apparently the successes of Cyrus, particularly the preparations and steps that indicated that a struggle between him and Babylon was pending, were in part responsible for rousing Deutero-Isaiah to utter his prophecies on the imminent redemption of Israel and the impending destruction of Babylon. The hopes of the prophet are clearly expressed in chapter 45:1–13: God turns “to His anointed, to Cyrus,” whom He helped in the past and will further help in the continuation of his activities (“I will go before you, and level the mountains; I will break in pieces the doors of bronze, and cut asunder the bars of iron”). Cyrus is to rebuild Jerusalem and restore the exilic community. “An explanation of the relations between Cyrus and the Jews rests upon an understanding of his general policy, particularly in Babylon itself. This policy was based upon benevolence toward the conquered, support and sympathy for their gods, and a correction of the injustices done to them by the previous ruler Nabonidus, or in the case of the Jews of Babylon, by Nebuchadnezzar. In conformity with this policy, he restored the Babylonian gods to their temples,reconstructed temples that had been neglected in the time of his predecessor, and even returned exiles to their homes. His policy toward the Jews was similar to that toward the Babylonians.”
The return of some of the Jews from Babylon is the start of the Second Temple Period, but most of them did not end up in Judah and the diaspora began – the majority of Jews immigrated to others areas in the middle east – Syria, Egypt, and later Greece and Italy. Many other changes happened in Judah – prophecy ceased, monotheism became firmly entrenched, and Judah became colonies not only of Persia (under Zoroastrian leaders) but of Greece by Grecian rulers in Egypt and then Syria. Greek-Syrian rule ended with the Maccabean Revolt, when the Maccabeans took Jerusalem and reestablished Jewish practices (though the Maccabees were neither descended from David nor of the tribe of Judah). When the Maccabeans finally controlled all of Judah they formed an Alliance with the Roman Republic. The Romans later replaced the Jewish leadership, and shortly thereafter the Second Temple Period ended when Rome put down a revolt and destroyed the temple in 70 CE. This whole period saw many major cultural, political, and religious developments, including the rise of messianic ideas and movements, and formation of the sects of the Pharisees, Sadducees, Essenes, Zealots, and early Christians.
Though Cyrus was not ever thought to be a Jewish convert by any means, doing his deed for Judah out of his Zoroastrian background, he was well thought of by the Palestinian rabbis. Not so much by the Babylonians. Cyrus is supposedly descended from Japeth, a character from Genesis who demonstrated “commendable behavior toward Noah when drunk.” So there is a line through the Old Testament connecting Cyrus with from early times up through the beginning of a 500-year movement that opened the way for the initiation of Christianity. It was likely the Babylonian captivity itself that was the primary driver for the many changes in Judaism in that time, while Cyrus was the catalyst needed to return the elite of Judah back to the promised land.