Transmitters, Texts, and Traditions: the Zoroastrian Priesthood from the Sasanian to the Early Islamic Period
Date of Award
Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)
Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations
van Bladel, Kevin
This dissertation examines the institutional framework of the Zoroastrian priesthood through its individual priests and their relationship with ruling authorities. Entitled “Transmitters, Texts, and Traditions: The Zoroastrian Priesthood from Late Antiquity to the Early Islamic Period,” it traces the survival and transformation of the priesthood across the divide of the Arab conquest of Iran, the period of transformation from Zoroastrianism as a state religion under the Sasanid kings to the gradual conversion of the population to Islam under Muslim rulers. Using primary sources in Arabic, Syriac, Armenian, and Greek alongside material culture and literary sources in Middle Persian, I study the priesthood through its interactions with others—including Christians and Muslims. The study of Zoroastrianism has traditionally been the study of its texts. Although many of these were only composed in their present form in the ninth and tenth centuries CE, they are often taken to be representative of earlier religious thought and practice. Besides shifting the focus from texts to the priests who authored them, my research critiques received narratives of continuity and also examines the mechanisms of the transmission of religious knowledge. I conceptualize the priesthood as the institution that is responsible for the preservation of Zoroastrian religious knowledge even until today, but which has never existed in isolation, and I demonstrate the contingency of the priesthood’s survival in the ninth and tenth centuries through the efforts of Zoroastrian priests in dialogue with Muslim rulers and intellectuals and as part of Islamic society. The dissertation consists of an Introduction, four chapters, and a brief Conclusion, followed by Appendices with tables and corollary discussions. Chapter 1 examines the Zoroastrian priesthood as it is represented in the Sasanian administrative corpus of seals and sealings, as well as the early post-Sasanian Ṭabarestān archive, to show the extent of late-Sasanian priestly bureaucracy and its evolution immediately following the end of Sasanian rule. In Chapter 2, I compare this view of the Sasanian priesthood to that found in contemporary literary sources in Syriac, Armenian, Greek, and Middle Persian to demonstrate the role and function of Sasanian-era Zoroastrian priests through their interactions with Christians and other religious groups as representatives of state authority. These two chapters offer a picture of the Zoroastrian priesthood in the late Sasanian period that is more complete than previous scholarship, which has only treated small topics or limited corpora of sources. The full scope of the Zoroastrian priesthood, at the height of its power under the Sasanians, is then contrasted to the situation of Zoroastrian priests in the ninth through eleventh centuries in the final two chapters of the dissertation, when Zoroastrians are living under Muslim rule and the population has gradually converted to Islam. Chapter 3 analyzes Zoroastrian narratives of the past and their elaboration in the Middle Persian books composed in the ninth and tenth centuries. In this chapter I also critique modern scholarly conceptions of Zoroastrian priestly genealogy, and using contemporary Arabic sources I establish a new chronology for the priests of the early Islamic period. Chapter 4 situates the Zoroastrian priesthood in broader Islamic society, using a wide range of Arabic sources to show the role of the Zoroastrian priests outside of the Zoroastrian community, as judge, scholar, sage, and advisor to Muslim rulers and intellectuals. My argument is that the institution of the Zoroastrian priesthood survives from antiquity through the patronage of Muslim rulers and moreover that this is accomplished through a deliberate process of reinvention and adaptation on the part of individual Zoroastrian priests of the ninth and tenth centuries. This process has parallels in the renegotiations of other religious minorities under Muslim rule, but also has implications for how we view the religious traditions which the Zoroastrian priesthood transmits—as the selective transmission of religious knowledge on the part of individuals seeking institutional authority from the Muslim state. My claims build upon the recent work of scholars who seek to contextualize Zoroastrian Middle Persian texts in the Islamic period, but my contribution is unique in its focus on the priesthood and its role in preserving the religion as we know it.
Dang, Kayla, "Transmitters, Texts, and Traditions: the Zoroastrian Priesthood from the Sasanian to the Early Islamic Period" (2022). Yale Graduate School of Arts and Sciences Dissertations. 582.