In contrast to the polytheism of the ancient Middle East, which understood the world as being shaped by many different independent spirits who are often in conflict, since antiquity, the religions of the Middle East see the world as the product of a single deity, a single will that created the universe and controls everything in it. Zoroastrianism (Mithraism) seems to be the first Middle Eastern religion to have articulated such ideas, sometime between 1000 and 500 BCE. Certain forms of Zoroastrianism are actually dualistic, considering the world to be locked in a struggle between two coeval original principles—a good god, Ahura Mazda, and an evil god, Angra Mainyu—and in this way explain the existence of evil in the world. But other forms of Zoroastrianism subsume both the good and evil “original” principles into the overarching concept of Zurvan or time. Acknowledgement of a single, all-powerful God who created and controls the universe is more straightforward in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. The distinction between such apparently strict forms of monotheism and Zoroastrian dualism is not as clear-cut as it may seem, however, because monotheism (and Zurvanism) poses the philosophically insoluble “problem of evil” (in a nutshell: either God is all-powerful and therefore created evil, or evil exists independently of God, who is thus not all-powerful). The Christian Satan (the Devil) and Muslim Shaytan (Iblis) are the functional equivalents of the Zoroastrian Angra Mainyu. It seems most reasonable to take Zoroastrianism, on the one hand, and the monotheistic faiths, on the other, as different approaches to solving the same problem—namely, how to explain the existence of good and evil in the world in a way that links the good with a single divine force that is ultimately responsible for the creation of the world and of life.
Fred M. Donner
Professor of Near Eastern History, University of Chicago
1. In what ways do the concept of monotheism and the central belief in prophesy relate to one another?
2. This essay clearly explains each of the similarities between the monotheistic faiths within the Middle Eastern religious paradigm. However, there are stark differences between polytheism and monotheism—apart from the quantity of deities one worships. In particular, with regard to the degrees of difference in the areas of prophesy, revealed scripture and final judgment. Using what you know about polytheistic faiths, and inferring from reading the main essay, describe how polytheistic faiths would stand apart from the Middle Eastern religious paradigm concepts of prophesy, revealed scripture, and final judgment.
3. Donner explains the enormous growth of Christianity and Islam through their proselytizing character, whereas Judaism, and its smaller population of faithful, is non-proselytizing. Generally speaking, what challenges would/has each faith encounter(ed) through history as related to their proselytizing or non-proselytizing character?