Paul the Persian: Zoroastrianism is incoherent, but science is a better guide

In my last post, we found Armenian writer Eznik of Kolb stating that the Avesta was not in written form in his own time, the 5th century AD.  This information came to us via Zaehner’s book on Zurvan.[1]

Zaehner also gives us a comment on Zoroastrianism by none other than Paul the Persian!  This obscure writer will be familiar to few of us, as he wrote in Middle Persian, and almost none of the Christian literature in that language survives.  However we know a little about him from Bar Hebraeus, and a few other sources.

Paul the Persian lived in the later 6th century. The Chronicle of Seert tells us that he hoped to be Bishop of Persis, but on failing to be elected, sadly he apostasised to Zoroastrianism.

He wrote works in Middle Persian on Aristotle, for the Sassanid Persian king. Some of these were translated into Syriac, some by Severus Sebokht, and so they exist in a shadowy form in Syriac manuscripts and obscure publications.

Zaehner quotes Paul on Zoroastrianism, and we will come to this in a moment.  But his source is almost equally interesting.  For he gives as a reference “Casartelli, The Philosophy of the Mazdayasnian Religion under the Sassanids, p.1″.  This itself is a curiosity. It can be found at here, from which I learn that it is a translation from the French[2], and that it was published in 1889, in India!  The translation was made by Firoz Jamaspji Dastur Jamasp Asa, rather than by an Anglo-Indian.  Here is what the learned Indian – a Parsee? – has to say:

1. Paul of Dair-i Shar, a learned Persian, who flourished at the court of the greatest of the Sassanide kings, Khosrav Anosheravan (A. D. 531—57S) gives us, in an impressive picture, the different theories on the nature and attributes of God, which were shared at the time among the minds of his fellow-countrymen.

“There are some,” he says, “who believe in only one God; others claim that He is not the only God; some teach that He possesses contrary qualities; others say that He does not possess them; some admit that He is omnipotent; others deny that He has power over everything. Some believe that the world and everything contained therein have been created; others think that all the things are not created. And there are some who maintain that the world has been made ex nihilo; according to others (God) has drawn it out from an (preexisting matter).”[1]

2. One might suspect that in this passage, amidst some general remarks on philosophical theories, Paul is speaking about various doctrines scattered over the whole world, especially as he was a Christian, and had studied the heathen philosophies of Greece in the schools of Nisibis or of Jondishapur.[2] But it must be remembered that the writer is here addressing himself directly to king Khosrav, and mentioning to him details which must have been familiar to him, just as he cites elsewhere[3] in proof of multi vocal words the Persian names of the sun. It is therefore very probable that the author is here describing the opinions which were current in his time in the bosom of the Eranian religion itself. Moreover, it cannot be doubtful to those who are aware of the divergence of opinions which separated the numerous Eranian sects, that Paul is here enumerating faithfully the characteristic doctrines of the Eranian sects of the Sassanide period.

[1] Paulus Persa, Logica, fol. 56; from Land, Anecdota Syriaca, vol. IV, Leyden, 1875 (translation p.8).
[2] Land, ibid., Scholia, p.100.
[3]  Paulus Persa, Logica, fol. 58v.

Paul, then, is testifying that Zoroastrianism had no settled teachings on a good number of subjects even in the 6th century AD.

While looking up Paul, I discovered yet another interesting snippet.

The Encyclopedia Iranica informs us that Paul’s Treatise on the Logic of Aristotle the Philosopher addressed to King Ḵosrow or Chosroes I, as we would know him, is the Logica referenced above, published by Land, and extant in British Library ms. 988 [Add. 14660], foll. 55ᵛ-67ʳ; Wright, 1872, p. 1161.  Apparently the first half of this work has been translated into French by Teixidor (1992, pp. 129-32; 1998b), which is good news for those who wish to read it in something other than a Latin translation.

Apparently Paul argued, either in this or a related lost work, that through knowledge one may attain certainty, allowing people to reach unanimous agreement. Faith, however, can neither gain exact knowledge nor eliminate doubt, leading to dissension and discord.  These ideas influenced later Arabic writers, who record some of the ideas.[3]  Sadly I was unable to obtain access to either of the references.  One would like to know exactly whose words these are; and how closely related to Paul’s own words.

  1. [1]Robert Charles Zaehner, Zurvan: A Zoroastrian Dilemma, Biblo & Tannen Publishers, 1955; 128-9.  Google Books preview here.
  2. [2]L.C.Casartelli, La philosophie religieuse du Mazdeisme sous les Sassanides, 1884.  Google Books (US only).  The French includes the original Syriac, which is omitted by the English.
  3. [3]EI gives: D. Gutas, “Paul the Persian on the Classification of the Parts of Aristotle’s Philosophy: A Milestone Between Alexandria and Baghdad,” Der Islam 60/2, 1983, pp. 231-67 (p.247); reprinted in his Greek Philosophers in the Arabic Tradition, Aldershot, 2000; J. Texidor, “Science versus foi chez Paul le Perse. Une note,” in From Byzantium to Iran: Armenian Studies in Honour of Nina Garsoïan, ed. J.-P. Mahé and R. W. Thomson, Atlanta, 1996, pp. 509-19.

Eznik of Kolb: the Avesta was not transmitted in writing but orally

A tweet by @BLAsia_Africa led me to a neglected passage in Eznik of Kolb, the 5th century Armenian writer, and a quotation from Paul the Persian!  From it I learned that:

…the Avesta was transmitted orally and not written down!

The author drew this conclusion after reading some remarks by R. C. Zaehner in 1955[1]:

However, whatever our view on the evidence of Paulus Persa, we have two other testimonies which can leave us in little doubt as to the fluidity of Zoroastrian dogma in Sassanian times. These are supplied by the Armenians Eznik of Kolb and Elise Vardapet. Eznik, like the nameless heretic of the Denkart, was struck by their inconsistency. ‘Their foolishness’, he says, ‘is enough to refute them from their own words which are mutually exclusive and self-contradictory’;[7] and again, repeating the oft-made charge that they had no books, he says: ‘Since their laws are not in books, sometimes they say one thing with which they deceive, and sometimes another with which they seduce, the ignorant.’[1]

[7] Ed. Venice, 1926, bk. ii, §2, p.128; Langlois, ii, p.375; Schmid, p.94.
[1] Venice, 1926, ii, 9, p.156; Langlois, ii, p.381; Schmid, pp. 111-12.

(Langlois = V. Langlois, Collection des historiens anciens et modernes de l’Arménie, 2 vols, 1867: p.179-251; Schmid = J.M. Schmid, Wardapet Eznik von Kolb: Wider die Sekten. Aus den Armenischen ubersetzt…, Vienna, 1900. Online here.)

There is actually a complete English translation, and I used to have a copy but it was mislaid.  So let’s use Langlois, and just check the context of that quote.  It appears in column 1 on p.381, in about the middle of the page:

En second lieu, pour cacher cette honteuse action, [Zoroastre] publie que pour le besoin des jugements [Ormizt et Arhmèn] ont créé [le soleil].  Aussi comme les dogmes religieux ne sont pas écrits, tantôt ils disent une chose, et se trompent, tantôt ils en disent une autre, et ils trompent les ignorants. Cependant si Ormizt était Dieu, il pouvait tirer les autres du néant, comme il avait créé les cieux et la terre, et non pas au moyen d’un commerce infame, ou bieu en raison de l’absence d’un juge.

Secondly, in order to conceal this shameful act, [Zoroaster] set forth that [Ormazd and Ahriman] created [the sun] to perform judgements.  Also as the religious teachings are not written down, sometimes they say one thing, and are deceived, sometimes they say another about this, and deceive the ignorant.  However if Ormazd was god, he could brings the others out from nothing, like he created the heavens and the earth, and not by means of an infamous commerce, or because there was no judge.

That does seem like a pretty clear statement that the Avesta, the Zoroastrian scriptures, did not exist in written form at this date as far as Eznik knew; and that in consequence Zoroastrian teaching was pretty fluid.  I have seen popular claims that Christianity borrowed from Zoroastrian sources; but if there really are similarities, chronology would suggest that the borrowing is in the other direction.

  1. [1]Robert Charles Zaehner, Zurvan: A Zoroastrian Dilemma, Biblo & Tannen Publishers, 1955; 128-9.  Google Books preview here.