Seven Testaments of World Religion and the Zoroastrian Older Testament
- ISBN: 9781538127865
- Published By: Rowman & Littlefield
- Published: November 2019
A classic question of causality is that of the chicken and the egg—which came first? The obvious answer is that the egg came first, laid by some creature that was not a chicken. When it comes to religious traditions, the answer is not so simple. In their case, what we may say is that some or all traditions have, now and in the past, had an influence on one another. Where then can we discern the similarities and differences that are bound to arise from such cross-pollination? Brian Arthur Brown seeks to address this in his Seven Testaments trilogy, of which Seven Testaments of World Religion and the Zoroastrian Older Testament is the first volume.
Brown makes his aim clear: “If monism and monotheism can be shown to have some common roots, are they as totally incompatible as is usually presumed, or might there be ways in which these traditions can enrich each other? This is the key consideration in what follows here” (6). The goal is to demonstrate how the traditions of the world are (inter)connected. According to Brown, Zoroastrianism played the role of chief mediator between the three great traditions of the West and the four great traditions of the East. He seeks to demonstrate Zoroastrianism was, upon encountering threads of monotheism in the West and streams of monism in the East, spurred the others forward. This was helped greatly by threads of both monotheism and monism being found to varying degrees within the Zoroastrian tradition.
At the crux of Brown’s argument are what he calls the “Dead Zee Scrolls” and the clear similarities found across the scriptures of the seven major world traditions (i.e., Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism, Confucianism, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam). The “Dead Zee Scrolls” are supposed to be the missing elements of the Avesta, the scriptures of Zoroastrianism. Should they be found, Brown contends, then there will be the clearest evidence of the scriptural influence of Zoroastrianism on the other seven traditions. Of course, this is highly speculative: while one may presuppose the possibility of there being a Zoroastrian equivalent to the Dead Sea Scrolls, one is currently left hoping for them to be found (if they even exist).
Nevertheless, Brown and other contributors provide compelling evidence from what is available. Some of the evidence is archaeological: there was clear interaction and cross-pollination along the Silk Route during the Axial Age (circa 550–400 BCE). Peoples from across the ancient Orient and Occident were interacting with one another, trading goods and sharing ideas. What is more, the sacred texts of the world’s traditions (at that time) were being shared. As Roshan Rivetna puts it, “evidence is mounting that the Scriptures of the Avesta may be regarded as the reformed Vedic ‘Older Testament’ of all seven testaments of the major world religions” (109). Again, the evidence points out for us how the Bhagavad Gita (for example) was available in the West and the Torah was available in the East. This suggests mutual influence over the centuries.
The chief shortcoming of Seven Testaments is how it relies heavily on the reader having at least perused the other two volumes of the trilogy. While Brown provides additional material with/in the appendices of this third volume, especially appendix B and the epilogue, there remains much to be desired. (It should also be noted that Seven Testaments is not primarily written for an academic audience.) Frankly, the text does not stand well on its own, though it does make a compelling case. One can presume that the other two volumes—Three Testaments: Torah, Gospel, and Quran (Rowman & Littlfield, 2012) and Four Testaments: Tao Te Ching, Analects, Dhammapada, Bhagavad Gita: Sacred Scriptures of Taoism, Confucianism, Buddhism, and Hinduism (Rowman & Littlefield, 2016)—do provide the evidence referenced in Seven Testaments . . . but can one reasonably do so? This is left to the reader who has read all three texts.
Here then is the point of contention that I suggest we can raise against Seven Testaments: Brown and the other contributors make claims throughout the text, though especially at the beginning, which rely heavily on the reader having already perused the other two volumes of the Trilogy. For example, he states that 95 percent of persons who adhere to a religious tradition today are adherents of these seven traditions "that share an ‘Older Testament’” (xxvi); and on the previous page he claims the acceptance of Vedic influences on Judaism sans any sources to corroborate the claim. Even David Bruce in his introduction to Seven Testaments expresses my concern that Brown “sometimes seems to overstate his case” (xxx); however, I do agree that the audacity of Brown’s project is due in large part to how he is leading us to explore new scholarly territory.
In the end, Seven Testaments is compelling and thought provoking for the astute reader. Indeed, though I do not yet find myself fully convinced by Brown’s thesis that Zoroastrianism was the primary mediator between seven of the world’s great traditions, I nonetheless find myself asking: “What if?” What if Zoroastrianism played so prominent a role in the developments of these other traditions? What would it mean for the adherents of these traditions? Perhaps there was a comingling of Judaism and Zoroastrianism in Babylon, resulting in Vedic influences which can be discerned in Christianity and Islam? And perhaps the development of the Silk Route could have allowed for Zoroastrianism to influence Hinduism, Buddhism, Confucianism, and Taoism.
What I find Seven Testaments to have done well is to broach these and other questions concerning the development of the world’s great Axial traditions. The fact is, however, despite the vignettes provided by Brown and the other contributors, that the above questions are left open, leading the reader to seek out the other two volumes of the Seven Testaments Trilogy—I know that I will.
Robert McDonald is a PhD student in comparative theology and philosophy at the Claremont School of Theology.Robert M. McDonaldDate Of Review:January 28, 2022