Homer, the Bible, and Beyond: Literary and Religious Canons in the Ancient World

By Margalit Finkelberg; Guy G. Stroumsa | Go to book overview

SCRIPTURE AND EXEGESIS IN
ZOROASTRIANISM

SHAUL SHAKED

Several questions surrounding the history of the Zoroastrian canon are shrouded in mystery, and are therefore the object of surmise and speculation. We do not know when the original texts that form the body of scriptures were composed. We believe—or most of us do— that the earliest layer in the Zoroastrian canon of scriptures, the Gathas of the Avesta, date back to Zoroaster, the founder of the religion, but many of us do not pretend to know at what period he lived, nor precisely in what region of Iran he was active. Some scholars firmly beheve in an early dating of the life of the Prophet, which may go as far back as 1200 BCE or earlier,1 and others argue with equal conviction for a much later date, around the sixth century BCE2 a very significant chronological gap. One important scholar, Gherardo Gnoli, has written a book to prove the early dating of Zoroaster, but since then he has changed his mind and he is now an advocate of the more recent date.3 The arguments are mostiy circumstantial, not factual. They are based in part on traditions that are patendy unreliable and themselves the result of late speculations. We are thus ultimately left to make up our minds on the basis of flimsy evidence and on what looks like a question of taste: do we have a preference for an archaic environment, or for a more historical period? Do we regard Zoroaster as an ancient founder of religion, whose period of activity lies beyond all hope of verification and contextual understanding, or as a reformer who belonged to early historical times? I have already expressed the view that no matter how important it is to establish a chronological timetable for Zoroaster’s period, in

1 M. Boyce A History of Zoroastianism, I (Handb. der Orientalistik 1,8,1,2, Heft 2A; Leiden-Köln, 1975), 190, sets the date of Zoroaster at 1400–1000 BCE.

2 I. Gershevitch, “Approaches to Zoroaster’s Gathas”, Iran 33 (1995), 6ff.

3 G. Gnoli, Zoroaster’s time and homeland. A study on the origins ofMazdaism and related problems (Naples, 1980), esp. 175; for the more recent dating: G. Gnoli, Zoroaster in history (New York, 2000).

-63-

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