Sunday, June 25, 2006

What's up with Jews and historical accuracy?

Before Hirshel departed, he asked me to compile a post about a conversation we were having. Here goes:

About a week ago, we discussed the historical account of Purim (See the ספרים חיצונים thread below).
The conversation touched upon the conflict between the Jewish account (Chazal) and the "historical record." Purim is only one of many examples, but for those who were interested, I am linking an interesting article on the Purim matter here by Brad Aaronson, based on the work of Dr. Chaim S. Heifetz's (Link provided, as promised, by Mekushor (of Berl-Yeimi fame)).

Assuming that we accept the essay as a plausible explanation, we still have a different Purim story than that of the Persians. As I have understood it (from various sources), their version is primarily a struggle between Zoroastrianism and Mithraism. Achashveirosh & Haman (who’s father Hamadasa was the Mithraist high-priest) represent the pagan Mithraism, as opposed to the somewhat monotheistic Zoroastrianism that the previous regimes subscribed to (perhaps Vashti did as well). Jews were considered political enemies and bunched in with the Zoroastrians – especially Daniel, who was a member of preceding Zoroastrian courts. This was also the physical cause for his demotion and ultimate demise (of course, Chazal provide a spiritual reason for this).

Achashveirosh may not have been a terribly sincere Mithraist, while Haman (the leading Mithraist of note) was. Haman may also have been concerned that Achashveirosh would drop Mithraism if he thought it would benefit him. Haman, worried that the King had no convictions, sought to wrest control for himself – to assure Mithraism would be the dominant religion – and Haman & friends, of course, would enjoy power, fame and fortune.

So, in the Persian version, the Jews and their miraculous salvation are secondary to the greater political battle – but it doesn’t make our version of the story less true at all.

From the essay linked above:

Darius son of Hystaspes, or Darius the Persian as he is known in Jewish tradition, was a committed adherent of Zoroastrianism. As is well known, this religion later degenerated into a form of dualism, with a god of good and a god of evil. But originally, it was a pure monotheism, and may even have been an offshoot of Judaism, as Christianity was later. Dr. Heifetz demonstrates that the conflict between this religion and the original idolatry of the Persians and the Medes was one of the main causes of the events of Purim.
The ancient religion of the Persians and the Medes was the same kind of idolatry found the world over. They worshipped Mithra and Anahita (the equivalents of Baal and Ashtoret) in lewd and barbaric rituals. About the time that waves of exiled Jews
were reaching Assyria and Babylonia and the surrounding areas, a new religion took hold among some Persians and Medes. The founder of this monotheistic religion, Zoroaster, was himself an exile from a far country, although it is more like likely that he was influenced by Jews than that he was a Jew himself.
Zoroaster taught that there was one God, whom he called Ahura Mazda. The attribute of this deity responsible for evil in the world was called Ahriman, but it was not until later times that Ahriman became a separate deity.
Some of the Magian priests embraced Zoroaster's religion, as did certain Persian and Median kings, but others clung to the pleasures of Mithraism. As Heifetz shows, Haman the son of Hamedatha was a Magian, and a devout Mithraist. After the deaths of Darius the Mede and Cyrus, who had become highly sympathetic to Zoroastrianism, if not outright converts, Haman found himself in a position to persuade Ahasuerus to abolish all monotheistic worship in the Empire. The Greeks describe how Artaxerxes II tried to reinstate Mithraism as the sole religion of Persia and Media.
Many Jews of that time argued that Ahasuerus's decree ordering the people to bow down to Haman should be obeyed, as it was only a matter of showing respect to a high official of the kingdom. But Mordechai realized that since Haman was the foremost proponent of Mithraism in the empire, bowing down to him would be no different than bowing down to Mithra.[8] When Haman saw that Mordechai refused to bow, he understood why, and realizing that the Jews were the major obstacle to his plans, he began to plot their destruction.
The death of Haman was not the end of the attempts to ban monotheism. The Magian who usurped the Persian throne after the deaths of Ahasuerus and Cambyses was named Gaumata, a name which is also rendered as Hamedatha. It is uncertain whether he was the father of Haman, but the fact that Haman is called "son of Hamedatha" five times in the Megillah suggests that his father too was a well known personage. When this Magian seized the throne (an autobiographical inscription of Darius son of Hystaspes relates that this rebellion began on the 14th of Adar), he immediately forbade the practice of Zoroastrianism. After Darius killed him and took the throne for himself, he made Zoroastrianism the official religion of Persia and Media. And so it remained, through the Parthian and Sassanid dynasties, until Persia was conquered by the Arabs. Mithraism continued to exist here and there in the ancient world, with Mithra and Anahita joined by two new deities: Omanos and Anadatos (Haman and Hamedatha), the two martyrs of Mithraism.
The favor shown to the Jews by Darius the Mede, Cyrus and Darius the Persian is easier to understand when we realize that these kings probably saw very little difference between Judaism and Zoroastrianism. Even the name -- the God of Heaven -- which is found in the decrees of Cyrus and Darius (Ezra 1:2, 6:9-10, 7:12) is a common term for Ahura Mazda in Zoroastrianism.
The reign of Darius the Persian was a time of great progress for the Jews of Eretz Yisrael. In his second year, he permitted the building of the Temple and the walls of Jerusalem, which had been halted by Ahasuerus, to begin again. In his sixth year, the Second Temple was dedicated, and the following year, Ezra led the second great wave of return, with royal permission to enforce Torah laws. And in his twentieth year, Darius appointed Nehemiah as governor of Judah, a position which he kept for at least twelve years.
When Persia fell to Alexander the Great, it had been the Persian Empire, rather than the Persian/Median Empire, for almost forty years. It is no wonder that the Greeks were confused by the stories they heard about the great Median kings Darius and Xerxes (Ahasuerus). Thus began a garbling of history which has continued to this day.

(Of course, I fully realize that plenty of room remains for the skeptics to say that Chazal simply made it all up or refer to it as "Harry Potter fantasy" - or is that only applicable to Lubavitcher Rabbeim?)


Anonymous said...

there was some major discussion on purim on the j blogs purim time, check out godol hador and others

Anonymous said...

Interesting info until your summing up of the situation:

Of course, I fully realize that plenty of room remains for the skeptics to say that Chazal simply made it all up or refer to it as "Harry Potter fantasy" -

Its not intellectually fair to create this magnitude of doubt about the accuracy of chazal even in a manner of jesting. You presented a lot of new info, history, technical hypothosis from some professor type, written authoritatively, that most people can't really assimilate from one reading. Then you summarize that a skeptic (which i understand is not pejoritive or an oppenent torah) can really dimiss the entire account of chazal because really this professor is a genious.

I read your summary as 'a believer now has plenty of wiggle room to question chazal because the professor is athoritative and pointed out so many holes'.

regarding the actual post, i don't see any major contradictions that would detract from the events of purim as we know it.

Anonymous said...

Sorry for the confusion here. This post was not really about Purim - it was about the way we look at religious Jewish history in general.
Furthermore, I wanted to make a larger point about "our version" of accounts in contrast to the "historical record" and apply that accross the board - including "Chassidic history."

The Purim article is fascinating - and I accept it - and I don't question our Purim stroy at all!
But, you can see that if we were to start off as secularists, we might have a different take. Sort of like the take that a critic of chassidus would have when it comes to Chassidic accounts.

Am I still being too cryptic?

Hirshel Tzig - הירשל ציג said...

BTW Lonely,
Thanks for posting a comment.

A Simple Jew said...

"Chassidic history" is a topic all to itself. Despite the fact that many people may be very learned in the study of Chassidus, very few are learned in the history of Chassidus.

Anonymous said...

I don't mind if people chose to be ignorant of Chassidic hostory - I only mind the attacks they make against Chassidus, Chassidim and Chassidic history...