Zoroastrianism: A Catholic Explainer

Although the biblical Magi are often identified as Zoroastrians, this is not certain.

Who were the Magi?
Who were the Magi? (photo: Unsplash)

Zoroastrianism is a religion associated with Persia (modern Iran). Today, there is a small number of Zoroastrians in Iran and a larger number in India. They also live around the world and are sometimes referred to as Parsis (“Persians”).

The religion was founded by a man named Zoroaster, who is also called Zarathustra. When Zoroaster lived is not certain. Some say he may have lived before 1000 B.C., when the biblical patriarchs and Moses lived. However, there are multiple indications that he lived 258 years before Alexander the Great, which would place him in the sixth century B.C., around the time of the Babylonian exile.

The Zoroastrian scriptures are known as the Avesta. For a long time, they were transmitted orally, and the earliest manuscripts we have of them date from the 10th century A.D. Consequently, there is scholarly uncertainty about their history.

Zoroastrianism and Judaism have a number of common ideas, and some scholars have proposed that these ideas became prominent in Judaism after contact with Zoroastrians. However, other scholars have pointed out that the influence may have gone in the other direction — i.e., Judaism influenced Zoroastrianism — or that both religions explored ideas that were in broader circulation at the time. It is even possible that Christianity may have influenced Zoroastrianism.

Reportedly, Zoroaster was born into a priestly family but then underwent a profound conversion. Zoroastrians believe an angel commissioned him to serve as a prophet, and he was taught that the ancient gods of the Persians were actually evil demons and that none but the supreme God should be worshipped.

Zoroastrians refer to the supreme God and Creator as the “Wise Lord” (Ahura Mazda). He and his allies (in heaven and on earth) are engaged in spiritual warfare with an evil entity known as Ahriman or Angra Mainyu (“Destructive Spirit”).

Sometimes Zoroastrians are mischaracterized as being “dualists” or believers in two fundamental spiritual powers. While they do believe in a moral dualism between good and evil, they do not believe that these powers are equal. 

At the end of the world, Ahura Mazda will conquer Angra Mainyu. This will be accomplished through a savior figure known as the Soshans (“One Who Brings Benefit”), who will be born of a virgin, lead the final battle against evil, and resurrect the dead.

Although the biblical Magi are often identified as Zoroastrians, this is not certain. The term magi originally applied to a priestly tribe of Medes, who were native to Persia and who are among the ancestors of modern Kurds. 

However, the term magi broadened in meaning, and by the first century, it could be used for anyone who practiced foreign or unauthorized rituals. Thus in Acts 8, a Samaritan man named Simon is described as practicing mageia, leading him to be called Simon Magus in the Christian tradition.

All the New Testament tells us is that the Magi came “from the East” (Matthew 2:1). It is possible that they were Zoroastrians, but it also is possible that they were Babylonians, Nabateans, Arabians or members of another Eastern people.