The canonical book of the religious sect known as the Parsees, more frequently though less precisely called Zend-Avesta—an inversion of the Pahlavi phrase "Avistāk va Zand," the Scriptures and the Commentary or the Law and Its Interpretation. The Avesta is the Zoroastrian Bible supplemented by the Pahlavi, or Middle Persian, writings, as the Hebrew Scriptures are by the Talmud.

Jewish Interest.

The Avesta has special claims upon the interest of Jewish scholars, there being certain points of similarity between the Avesta and the Old as well as the New Testament, points that are striking or close enough to call forth frequent comment. In the next place, the Avesta, as the sacred book of early Persia, must command attention because of the historical points of contact between the Jews and the Persians. Note especially such passages as the following: Isa. xlv. 1, 13, 28; II Chron. xxxvi. 22, 23; Ezra i. 1-11; v. 13-17; vi. 1-15; and perhaps Ezek. viii. 16. See Persian Religion.

The Typical Magian.

The Avesta represents the ancient priestly code of the Magi; for Zoroaster, or Zarathushtra, as his name is called in the original texts, has stood in history as the typical Magian, as the sage, priest, prophet, andlawgiver of ancient Iran. According to the more recent views on the subject, which agree with the traditional date for his era, he flourished about 660-583 B.C.; though the common tendency is to believe that he lived and taught at a much earlier period. It is certain that King Artaxerxes and the later Achæmenian rulers professed his faith; less certain is it according to some scholars whether Darius and Xerxes, and still less whether Cyrus, were really followers of the Avesta and genuine Zoroastrians, although much may be said in the affirmative. It is beyond doubt that they were all worshipers of Ahuramazda, or Ormuzd, the supreme God of the Avesta; and this makes the passages in Isaiah (xliv. 28; xlv. 1, 13) relating to Cyrus doubly interesting. In the Old Persian inscriptions the Mazda worship of Darius is most pronounced. For these reasons still more importance is to be attached to the Avesta in the history of religious thought, especially when the power and the wide-spread influence of the Persian empire in early times are taken into account.

According to the book itself the Avesta represents a direct revelation from Ahuramazda to Zarathushtra. The sacred text (Vend. xxii. 19) mentions "the Forest and the Mountain of the Two Holy Communing Ones"—Ormuzd and Zoroaster—where special intercourse through inspired vision was held between the Godhead and his prophetic representative on earth, as between Yhwh and Moses on Sinai. Later tradition repeats the view that the sacred book was the result of inspiration, for the Pahlavi texts (Dk. vii. 3, 51-62; viii. 51; Zsp. xxiv. 51) recount not only how Zoroaster communed with Ormuzd, but like the Zoroastrian Gāthās they tell also of ecstatic visions of the six archangels and of other revelations which were vouchsafed to him. According to a tradition preserved in the Pahlavi writings (Dk. Bk. 3, end, quoted by West, "Sacred Books of the East," xxxvii., Introd. 30-32), the Avesta itself was committed to writing at the instance of King Vishtāspa, whom Zoroaster converted to the faith and who became Zoroaster's patron. The king's own prime minister, Jāmāspa, had a hand in the redaction as scribe, and Zoroaster's mantle descended upon him, so that he succeeded the great priest in the pontifical office on the latter's death (Dk. iv. 21; v. 34; vii. 5, 11).

Traditions About Origin.

It is said by Ṭabarī, and by Bundarī after him, that Vishtāspa caused two copies of the holy texts to be inscribed in letters of gold upon 12,000 ox-hides (see Jackson, "Zoroaster," p. 97)—a tradition which is confirmed by Pliny's statement that Zoroaster composed no less than 2,000,000 verses (N. H. xxx. 2). These two archetype copies, mentioned in the Dinkard, the Artā-Vīrāf, and the Shatrōihā-i-Airān, were to serve as the standard priestly codes of Vishtāspa's realm. The faith was to be promulgated throughout the world in accordance with the teaching of these. There is likewise a tradition (see Dk., references above) to the effect that one of these original copies came into the hands of the Greeks and was translated into their tongue. Support for this tradition may perhaps be found in the Arabic lexicon of Bar-Bahlūl (963), according to which the Avesta of Zoroaster was composed in seven tongues, Syriac, Persian, Aramean, Segestanian, Mervian, Greek, and Hebrew. A still earlier Syriac manuscript commentary on the New Testament by 'Ishō'dād, bishop of Ḥadatha, near Mosul (852), similarly speaks of the Avesta as having been written by Zoroaster in twelve different languages. As for the other archetype copy, which seems to have been the principal one, the direct statement, again of the Pahlavi treatise Dînkard, says that it was burned by Alexander the Great when he invaded Iran.

The Fate of the Avesta.

Whatever may be the value of these traditions regarding the Avesta, the fate of the sacred book was connected with the history of the people, and with the rise and fall of the fortunes of Iran. The five centuries that followed the invasion of Alexander with the government of the Seleucidæ and the sway of the Parthians were dark ones for Zoroastrianism. Nevertheless, there is no reason for making the strong claim that Darmesteter does to the effect that the tradition was lost. It is known that the last of the Parthian monarchs were filled with the true Zoroastrian spirit; and it can be proved from Greek, Latin, and other writings, that the tradition of the wisdom of Zoroaster lived on during the long period between Alexander and the rise of the House of Sassān in the third and fourth centuries. The entire Sassanian period was a most flourishing time for the creed which was now restored to its pristine glory. But in the seventh century, with the rise of Islam, the Avesta gave place in Persia to the Koran; Ormuzd sank before Allah; and Zoroaster yielded to Mohammed. A number of the faithful cherishers of the sacred fire, however, sought safety in flight from Iran and found refuge in India, where they are still known by their ancient name Parsi; it is they that are the conservators of the remnants of the old Avestan texts that have passed through so many vicissitudes.

Much had been lost through Alexander, it was claimed; but the number of texts that were still extant was nevertheless considerable, and they represented the ancient Avesta fairly well. The canon was divided into twenty-one nasks, or books. These again were subdivided into three classes, each comprising seven books. The first group ("Gāthā" or "Gāsān") was theological; the second ("Dāt") was legal; the third ("Hadha-mãthra") was of a somewhat miscellaneous character. In this threefold classification of the nasks, Darmesteter sought to prove Jewish influences at work upon the Avesta, and he compared the classification of the Biblical texts into "Torah" (Law), "Nebiim" (Prophets), and "Ketubim." But of this Sassanian Avesta there is much less extant now because of the havoc wrought, directly or indirectly, upon Zoroastrianism and the Avesta by the Mohammedan conquest and the Koran. To-day only two of the twenty-one nasks are in any degree complete. These are the Vendīdād, or law against demons, and the Stōt Yasht, which answers to Yasna (xiv.-lix.), yet these show signs of being very imperfect. There exists also, in addition to these two remnants, an important part of another nask—this is the Bakān Yasht; and portions or fragments of others. There thusexist specimens of about fifteen of the original nasks. This material, moreover, is supplemented by various passages that have been translated from the original Avesta into Pahlavi and are thus preserved; or by quotations of the Avesta text itself incorporated into the Pahlavi treatises. All this bears but a small proportion to the Avesta of Zoroaster's time, and the remnant is but small in extent when compared with the Hebrew Scriptures.

What is still extant is commonly divided into the following six classes: (1) Yasna, including the Gāthās, or Zoroastrian Psalms; (2) Vīspered; (3) Yashts; (4) minor texts; (5) Vendīdād; (6) fragments.

The Extant Avesta.

The Yasna—a liturgical work, comprising seventy-two chapters—contains texts used by the "dastūr," or priest, in connection chiefly with the sacrifice of "haoma." In the midst of the Yasna the Gāthās are inserted. These are the Zoroastrian psalms, and they represent the verses of Zoroaster's own preaching and teaching, embodying especially his belief in a new and better life; the coming of a Messiah, or Saoshyant; the annihilation of Satan and the evil principle, Angro-Mainyush, and the Druj, "Falsehood" (see Ahriman); and the general restoration of the world for ever and ever. For theologians the Gāthās are the most interesting and important part of the Avesta; but at the same time they are by far the most difficult.

Less characteristic is the short book known as the Vīspered. It consists of brief invocations and offerings of homage to "all the lords" ("vīspe ratavō"), as the name implies. The Yashts, or Praises, twenty-one in number, contain praises of the angels or glorification of the spirits, and personified abstractions of the faith. They are generally written in meter, with some claim to poetic merit. One of the most interesting is the thirteenth, or Farvadīn Yasht, on the worship of the spirits ("fravashis"). The doctrine of the ancient Persian faith, which this Yasht contains, has been brought by Paul de Lagarde into connection with the Purim festival. Another Yasht (Yt. 19) is in praise of the kingly glory ("hvarenah"), the halo, sheen, or majesty which surrounds and protects the king as a mark of divine favor (compare Moses' shining face, Ex. xxxiv. 29). The Vendīdād, in twenty-two chapters, is an Iranian Pentateuch, and it contains numerous parallels of interest to the Biblical student.

The real pioneer exegete at the end of the eighteenth century was Anquetil du Perron; then followed Burnouf and Rask; later came Haug, Westergaard, Spiegel, Roth, Hübschmann, De Harlez; or more recently, West, Mills (a stanch advocate of the Pahlavi), and especially Geldner and James Darmesteter. The latter's theory of the late origin of the Avesta (in "Le Zend-Avesta," iii., Introduction, and "Sacred Books of the East," 2d ed., iv., Introduction) can not be said to have found much favor among specialists or support among those best qualified to judge; but he has brought out numerous likenesses between the Avesta and the Old Testament.

  • Darmesteter and Mills in the Sacred Books of the East, 3 vols., 1880-94;
  • or Darmesteter's French version, Le Zend-Avesta, Paris, 1892-93;
  • Windischmann, Zoroastrische Studien, Berlin, 1863;
  • Spiegel, Eranische Alterthumskunde, 1871-79, i.-iii.;
  • idem, Avesta, 3 vols., Leipsic, 1852-63;
  • W. Geiger, Ostiranische Kultur, 1882;
  • O. H. Schorr, in He-Ḥaluz, 1869, viii. 1-120;
  • Geldner, Awesta-Litteratur, and Jackson, Iranische Religion, in the Grundriss der Iran. Philologie, Strasburg, 1896-99;
  • Alex. Kohut, The Zendavesta and the First Eleven Chapters of Genesis in J. Q. R., ii. 223.
K. A. V. W. J.
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