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The Greco-Iranian World and Its Religious Movements As Of c. 600 CE. 2.2: Chapter 2, On the Eve of Islam (see model syllabus). ISLAM: TWO ROOTS Arabia (next session) Ancient Hellenistic-Iranian World Both a break and a continuation of this world. Iran

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the greco iranian world and its religious movements as of c 600 ce

The Greco-Iranian World and Its Religious Movements As Of c. 600 CE

2.2: Chapter 2, On the Eve of Islam (see model syllabus)



  • Arabia (next session)
  • Ancient Hellenistic-Iranian World
  • Both a break and a continuation of this world


  • Achaemenids (Hakhamanesh), c. 559-331 BCE

- Cyrus (Kurush) the Great unites Medes and Persians, c. 559 BCE,

- conquers Babylon, 539 BCE

  • Greek dominance 331- c. 246 BCE - 651 CE

- Alexander the Great destroys Persepolis, ends the Achaemenid Dynasty.

- Seleucid (successor Greek) dynasty, c. 323 BCE - c. 246 BCE

  • Parthian Dynasty, c. 246 BCE - 227 CE. Gradual cultural Persianizing
  • Sasanian Dynasty, 227 CE - 651 CE

- Zorastrianism \'refounded\', made the state religion.

- Continuing Struggles with the Roman/Byzantine empire.

  • Muslims conquer Iran :

- Battles of Qadesiyeh (637), Nahavand (642),

- death of Yazdagerd III, last Sassanian Shah, 651.


Long term Iranian (re)assertation?Continuity of Political struggle into Islamic period:Greeks vsAchaemenidsRoman vsParthians then SasaniansByzantines vsSasanians then MuslimsContinuity of Persian cultural assertion:- Hellenizing influence under Seleucids- Parthians turned increasing to Iranian heritage- Sasaniansnutured Iranian consciousness and Zoroastrian religion- Persian high culture submerged under Muslims for about two centuries- Then reasserts itself (see next chapter)


Zoroastrian Religion

Mazdaism “The Good Religion”


Ormazd (Ahura Mazda, “The Wise Lord”) Ahriman (AngraMainyu,)

Chooses good chooses evil

AmeshaSpentas (6 Holy immortals)  

yazatasdivs (daevas

World created by Ormazd (arena of struggle of Good vs Evil)

Humans (may choose good or evil)

Shah (represents Ormazd) Rebels,enemies

Priests Heretics, etc.


Final Judgment


Kingship in Iran

  • Ohrmazd bestows part of his sovereignty on the shah:

- the king is a symbol of God;

- royal power on the material plane parallels divine power on the spiritual plane.

- royal khvarenah (effulgence, blessing, fortune), probably related to the later Muslim idea of the Sultan as the Shadow of God on earth.

  • “[If the shah rules well] The empire will prosper, the common people will be freed from fear and enjoy a good life, science will advance, culture will be looked after, good manners will be further refined, and men will be generous, just and grateful, many a virtue will they practice and perfect will their goodness be.” (Denkart, late Zoroastrian text)
  • “The principal characteristic of kings is pleasure . . . pleasure is consonant with kingship provided it is rooted in greatness. Pleasure rooted in greatness does not pass away” (Denkart in Zaehner, 1961, 299)

Religion and government

- “religion and government are twins” (sometimes ascribed to Muhammad but certainly of Iranian origin.)

- Jamshid, the first ruler, said to have refused to accept both kingship and priesthood

- God said to have granted kingship toGayomarth (the Iranian Adam) and charged Seth with the affairs of religion (another version, from a Muslim source)

- Thus priesthood is parallel to kingship

  • “Nor can religion be stable without royalty

Nor can royalty be permanent without religion:

They are two foundations interlaced with one another,

Which intelligence hath combined in one."

(Firdowsi, quoted in Martin, Islam and Modernism 33)



  • Founded by Mani (d. c. 275)

- claimed to be a prophet

- successor to Zarathushtra, Buddha and Christ

  • Spread to Roman Empire in the West and China in the East
  • Teachings:

- Material world is evil and darkness, opposed to the Realm of Light

- sparks from the realm of light have become captive in material human bodies

- may escape through a regimen of strict asceticism, including celibacy and vegetarianism.

- Only the elect can do this

- Others can benefit by following a less rigorous regime and supporting the elect.

  • Politics:

- Mani sought support of shah, gained it for a time

- Uigur rulers in central Asia adopted Manicheism 763 – 840

- Heavily persecuted before and under Islam


Byzantine Christianity (Eastern Orthodoxy)

  • 4th Century: Christianity first tolerated and then becomes the state religion
  • 476 End of the Western Empire
  • 1453 End of Eastern (Byzantine) Empire


  • Trinity:

- One God in three “persons”, Father, Son, Holy Spirit

- Christ is “the only begotten Son of God, begotten of his Father before all ages; God of God, Light of Light, True God of True God, of one substance (or being) with the Father . . .” (“Nicene” Creed)

  • Incarnation:

- “one and the same Son . . . perfect in Godhead and perfect in manhood . . . in two natures, inconfusedly, unchangeably, divisibly . . . , concurring in one person . . . not divided into two persons . . .” (Creed of Chalcedon)

- “born of the Virgin Mary, the Mother of God (theotokos, lit.: God bearer) (Creed of Chalcedon)


Orthodoxy continued

Worship; Churches

- Icons: “windows on eternity”

- Iconostasis – sense of mystery

- Christos Pantokrator – Risen Christ is ruler of the universe

- A Russian reaction to Orthodox worship in Constantinople (10th century):

“We knew not whether we were in heaven or on earth, for surely there is no such splendor or beauty anywhere upon earth. We cannot describe it to you: only this we know, that God dwells there among men, and that their service surpassses the worship or all other places. For we cannot forget that beauty.” (Ware, The Orthodox Church, p 269)


Church and Society related

- State/emperor as “icon” of God’s rule

- “Melkite” – follower of the king/emperor

- Eventual development of ethnic churches

- Clergy and laity; Monks and higher clergy are celibate

- In Syria: clergy were generally Greek but the people spoke Aramaic (later Arabic)


Nestorian Christianity

  • Also called “The Church of the East”

- Named after Nestorius, who was for a time Patriarch of Constantinople (428-31).

- Seems to have emphasized the distinction between the divine and human natures of Christ

- In particular, he objected to the term theotokos used of the Virgin Mary

  • History

- Initially strong in Syria and Iraq

- Spread eastward to Iran, Central Asia, China

- Strong for some time under Islam

- Nestorians made major contributions to Islamic civilization; especially translations of philosophy.

- Declined after the Mongol invasions.



  • Christ has one, divine, nature (mono+physis), which clothed itself in humanity
  • Armenian (Gregorian) Church:

- From about 300 (first country to have a Christian ruler).

- Struggled to maintain political and cultural independence vis-à-vis Romans and Persians, later Byzantines and Muslims (and others).

  • Jacobite Church: Strong in Syria until the Crusades. Syriac language.
  • Coptic Church:

- Strong in Egypt, spread to Ethiopia.

  • Strong emphasis on monasticism (Christian monasticism began in Egypt).

- Persecuted by Byzantines.

  • Eventually declined under Islam.
  • The Monophysite and Nestorian churches represented cultures different from the Greek. This, probably more than doctrinal issues, accounts for their continuing separation from the “Orthodox” churches.

Jews and Judaism

Dates, people, places

  • c 1700 bce ? Abraham (Avraham) “Our Father”
  • c 1300 bce ? Moses (Moshe) “Our Father”
  • c 1013-973 bce United Kingdom under David and Solomon (Shlomo)
  • 586 bce Destruction of Temple, Babylonian exile, diaspora
  • 538 bce Begin to return to Land of Israel
  • 331 bce Alexander takes the Land; Greek rule
  • 168-63bceMaccabees – revolt, independence in Land
  • 63 bce - 638 ce Roman / Byzantine rule
  • 70 ce Temple destroyed during revolt against Romans
  • c 200 ceMishna promulgated
  • c 220 ce Babylonian academy founded (under Persian rule)
  • c 600 ce Babylonian Talmud completed
  • 634-40 ce Muslims take Syria, including Land of Israel


  • Probably from 586 on most Jews lived outside of the Land of Israel
  • Seen as “exile”
  • Punishment for sin
  • Return in the time of the Messiah

Rabbi Ben Zakkai on the Destruction of the Temple

Once, as Rabbi YohananbenZakkai was coming forth from Jerusalem, Rabbi Joshua followed after him and beheld the Temple in ruins.

“Woe to us,” Rabbi Joshua cried, “that this, the place where the iniquities of Israel were atoned for, is laid waste!”

“My son,” Rabbi Yohanan said to him, “be not grieved. We have another atonement as effective as this. And what is it? Acts of mercy, as it is said, For I desire mercy and not sacrifice.” (Hosea 6:6)

(Avot de Rabbi Natan, ch. 6, quoted in Neusner, Between Time and Eternity, 33, modified)



- The central concept and practice, especially after the destruction of the Temple and the end of sacrifice

- Written authority

- Bible (Tanach: Torah, Prophets, Writings)

- Mishnah (laws)

- Talmud (Mishnah + Gemara, commentary)

- Contents:

Halakah (Halacha) – law, practice (most important)

Haggada – theology, myth, stories, etc

Rabbis: study, interpret these authorities

Talmud on Study and Practice

Which is greater: study or practice?

Rabbi Tarfon said, “Practice is greater".

Rabbi Akiba answered, “Study is greater, for it leads to practice.

Then they all answered and said, Study is greater, for it leads to practice.”



  • Several movements:

- some scholars consider them a separate religion

- some were Christian or Jewish in form

- e.g. Valentinus (active c 135-165) and Marcion (active c 140s)

  • Gnosis:

- esoteric knowledge or wisdom

- imparted by the teacher to initiates.

- knowledge of one’s true self, which has fallen from the highest spiritual realm and become trapped in the world of matter

- the means of return, salvation

- Brought by a Messenger from the spiritual realm (e.g. Christ)

- Often inversion of standard ideas: e.g. Serpent in Eden offered true wisdom, Old Testament as work of lower god (Marcion)

  • Docetism: Christ did not have a material body, “appeared” to.


  • Philo+Sophia = Love of Wisdom
  • Covered: physics, metaphysics, ethics, politics, and much else

Main figures

  • Socrates (d. 399 bce),
  • Plato (d. 347 bce)
  • Aristotle (d. 322 bce).
  • Philo of Alexandria – Jewish philosopher (c. 20 bce – c. 40ce)
  • Christian apologists: e.g. Justin Martyr (d. c. 165ce)
  • Plotinus (205–c. 270 ce)
  • School of Athens closed in 529ce
  • Schools in Sasanian territory, from late 5th centuryce


- Ideas/forms – material world is imperfect copy

- Soul: immortal, prexistent, contemplated the form

- Intellectual effort: means of attaining vision of forms

Cave: Most people see only images or reality projected on the back of the cave

Republic: should be ruled by philosophers who have seen the true forms


- The One, above being

- Universe emanates from it (as rays from sun)

- Evil is non-being

- Material world is imperfect (not evil)

- Turn from material world to realize unity with the One