A Word on Paganism and Christianity

This current series of articles argues that the central doctrines of Catholicism (the Trinity, Incarnation, Virgin Birth, Atonement, Mariology, etc.) are divinely revealed and so unique to Christianity. Despite the existence of vague parallels in other religions, they were not derived from outside the Judaeo-Christian tradition. However, this does not mean that no minor Christian practice or tradition (with a small "t") originated in a pre-Christian culture. In fact, some of them have, such as decorating ones home with holly and misteltoe at Christmas, or coloring eggs for Easter.

What Hath Hislop Wrought?

Though nineteeth-century atheists loved this "Christian plagarism" theory, one of its most influential proponents was, ironically, a Christian:  . He was pastor of the East Free Church in Arbroath, Scotland, and the author of, a deeply-flawed book which, unfortunately, remains in print today.

Unlike the anti-Christian skeptics, Hislop did not wish to disprove Christianity as a whole - only Catholicism (as is obvious from its subtitle).  His strategy was to look for any "similarities", no matter how slim, between pagan myth and Catholic belief.  Once he found something promising, he offered it as "proof" of his outrageous theory that Catholicism is actually the pagan religion of ancient Babylon masquerading as Christianity!

Oddly, however, he did not limit himself to pagan parallels of beliefs peculiar to Catholicism.  Hislop claimed that pagan "triads" of deities were the real "trinity" worshipped by Catholics (a notion refuted in a previous article), that the Catholic "Jesus" was a thinly-disguised "dying god" named Tammuz (refuted below and in this article), and that the Dove in Catholic art is not a symbol of the Holy Spirit, but of the "goddess Semeramis"!

Now, all Christians believe in the biblical doctrines of the Trinity and the saving death of Christ, and many use a dove to symbolize the Holy Spirit, as does Sacred Scripture (Matthew 3:16).  So Hislop's arguments, if true (they are not), would be damning to Christianity itself - and to the New Testament!  Yet that has not kept some anti-Catholic Fundamentalists from naively reading, reprinting and selling The Two Babylons in their bookstores.  It has also become the basis for many scurrilous anti-Catholic broadsides, most notably those of one Jack T. Chick.

Hislop himself did not seem to believe that his work in any way refuted the whole Christian faith.  In his twisted view, Protestants worshipped the true Jesus and believed in the truths of the Bible, while Catholics "really" worshipped Babylonian gods and participated in ancient pagan rites, regardless of what they said or thought, or whether their beliefs had any biblical parallels.

This illogical and ahistorical idea is still just a step away from discrediting all of Christianity.  Indeed, some of Hislop's arguments have since been used by atheists, Muslims and various other detractors in an attempt to disprove Christianity as a whole, not just Catholicism.  His theory has even led to the formation of the Noachides, a movement of ex-Evangelicals who have abandoned Christianity as "pagan" and embraced a quasi-Jewish observance of the Noachide Laws.

It's easy to see how such a flawed theory could, if taken to its logical conclusion, ultimately lead to a rejection of Christ and Christianity.  As Our Lord Himself said, "By their fruits you shall know them..."

The Bible and Paganism

What the Noachides don't seem to notice, however, is that the Old Testament and Judaism would also fail to stand up to Hislop's standard. The religion of ancient Israel had quite a few elements in common with the surrounding pagan religions.  For instance, the Hebrews called the One True God El, which is the word for "God" in the Semetic languages.  Many of YHWH's titles incorporate this word, such as "El Shaddai" (God Almighty) and El Elyon (God Most High).  Yet El was also the name of a pagan deity - the primary god in the Canaanite pantheon, considered the father of the gods and creator of the earth! Does this mean that Jews and Christians worship a pagan deity? By Hislop's standards, it would be difficult to deny that.

Many scholars have pointed out the similarities between the biblical account of the Flood of Noah and the pagan Epic of Gilgamesh. Some Christians agree but argue that the common descent of humanity from Noah would naturally mean that people of all tribes and lands would possess an ancestral memory of a great flood. However, if we apply Hislop's standards to Scripture itself, arguing that similarities between Biblical stories and pagan myths indicate that the former originated from the latter, we would be forced to conclude that the Deluge account is doubtless a monotheistic "plagiarism" of paganism.

In numerous places, Sacred Scripture depicts YHWH riding on the clouds (Psalm 68:5, 34; 104:3; Isaiah 19:1).  This was a common depiction of the pagan god Baal; in fact, one of Baal's titles was "Rider on the Clouds".  YHWH and Baal are clearly depicted as rivals in Scripture (see I Kings 18); so this is perhaps an attempt to "supplant" Baal.  The sacred writers were saying "YHWH is the real Rider on the Clouds"!

There are also striking similarities between Psalm 104 and the "Hymn to the Sun" composed by Akenaton, the monotheistic Pharoah of Egypt who worshipped only the sun-god Aton.  Many scholars believe that the psalm may have even been patterned on that hymn. Similarly, the Song of Songs bears a strong similarity with ancient Egyptian love poetry.

The Bible repeatedly mentions prayer with outstretched or uplifted hands (Job 11:13, Psalm 28:2, 63:4, 88:9, 134:2, 141:2, 143:6; Lam. 2:19; 1 Tim 2:8). Archaeology has shown that the ancient Canaanites, Egyptians, Etruscans and Romans used this prayer posture as well. Does the Bible's endorsement of a prayer gesture used by pagans mean that the Bible is pagan or endorses paganism?

When God established His covenant with Abraham, they actually enter into a suzerainty treaty of the type commonly used by pagans in the Ancient Near East.  The Lord commanded Abraham and all his male offspring to undergo circumcision, a procedure which was common to many pagan religions in that area.  Animal sacrifices - also commanded by God - occurred in the surrounding heathen nations as well.

Do these facts bother you?  Do they shake your faith?  They shouldn't!  Remember that while the Lord condemns sinful pagan activities such as idolatry, human sacrifice and sexual immorality, He does not necessarily condemn all the elements of non-Jewish and non-Christian cultures.  There are some elements of truth in every human religion, and God can use these to lead pagans to the pillar and ground of all truth, the Catholic Faith.

Remember how St. Paul, in preaching to the Athenians, cited an altar dedicated to "the unknown god" - whom he identified with the One True God (Acts 17:22-32)?  Surely the Athenians did not intend to worship YHWH with that altar; it was set up to worship an unknown pagan deity.  Yet Paul used it as a springboard to tell them about the One God, Who was truly "unknown" to them!

Paul goes on to quote two pagan writers:  Epimenides of Knossos and Aratus of Soli (vs 28).  He presents their words as apt descriptions of the true God, even though they themselves were writing about Zeus!  St. Paul must have reasoned that their words were more truly spoken of the Most High God than of any pagan deity; even as the inspired psalmists believed that qualities falsely attributed to Baal were more appropriate to YHWH.

Also recall how St. Paul argued that Christians who were strong in their faith may eat food that had been offered to heathen idols, since they recognize that the idols don't really exist (1 Cor. 8:1-8).  He goes on to say we should be careful not to scandalize our weaker brethren who think it is wrong (vvs. 9-13), but the very fact that he allows it shows that Christians need not be hyper-scrupulous about everything associated with paganism.

As long as we don't commit idolatry, superstition or immorality, it is okay to carefully appropriate things which originated in non-Christian cultures.

More Pagan Adapations

If the righteous patriarch Joseph could accept the Egyptian practice of embalming/mummification for both himself and his father Jacob (Genesis 49:29-50:3), despite its pagan origin, and if the ancient Israelites could build their Tabernacle using gold from Egypt (some of which had undoubtably came from Egyptian idols) then why can't Christians take a symbol used by pagans and imbue it with Christian meaning, to the glory of the One True God?

Both Christians and Jews have been using calendars for centuries to mark the holy days they celebrate to the glory of God.  But calendars were first developed among the pagans, based on their observation of the motions of the sun, moon and planets (the same origin as astrology!).  On both the Julian and Gregorian calendars, the names of most of the months are of pagan origin:

The days of the week were named for the seven "planets" in ancient astrology, which were in turn named for pagan gods: The base-twelve division of time into hours, minutes and seconds also has its roots in ancient Babylon, a pagan nation.  Yet we don't hear too many Fundamentalists complaining about the pagan origins of how we tell time, or the fact that many days and months still bear the names of heathen gods (as do all the planets in our Solar System)!  Does an Evangelical commit idolatry every time he says the word "Saturday" or "January", or talks about the planet Venus?  Hardly!

So what should we do, abandon the "tainted" Julian or Gregorian calendars for, say, the Jewish calendar?  Well, even then we could not escape pagan names, for one of the Jewish months is called Tammuz, after an ancient pagan deity!  And as we saw above, calendars in general are of pagan origin, with ties to astrology.  Yet how silly it would be to give up calendars completely on that account!

Many other traditions which we perform without even thinking about them originated in paganism.  For instance, the practice of blowing out candles on a birthday cake has roots in Greco-Roman paganism, as does the use of flowers at funerals and gravesites, and numerous traditions related to weddings.  Did you know that the wedding ring originated in paganism?  Yet Jews and Christians have used it for centuries as a symbol of the marriage covenant/Sacrament of Matrimony.  This is not displeasing to God at all, since there is no idolatry involved in the wearing of a piece of jewelry!

In sum, Christians have effectively "baptized" many pagan practices and symbols, converting them to Christian use.  There is nothing sinful or idolatrous about that; as long as something doesn't violate Christian faith and morals, it can be cautiously assimilated.

Even in our modern secular world, we are surrounded by emblems of pagan origin.  The symbols for male and female are derived from the signs for Mars and Venus.  The Caduceus - the medical symbol with the entwined serpents - was originally the staff carried by Hermes/Mercury (which became confused with the staff of Aesculapius, the god of medicine).  The image of Justice (a blindfolded woman holding a pair of scales) which decorates many court buildings is based on Themis, the ancient Greek goddess of order, law and justice.  Even the Statue of Liberty is modern version of Libertas, the Roman goddess of Liberty.

Does this mean that Christians cannot go to a medical clinic featuring a caduceus on front, or to a court building with a Justice statue on top?  Is it idolatrous for a Christian to visit the Statue of Liberty?  Hopefully everyone can see the absurdity in that way of thinking.

I could go on, but I think I've made my point.  Just because something is of pagan origin does not mean that Christians cannot adapt it to use for the glory of the One True God.  So looking for similarities between Catholic and pagan practices, and then concluding that Catholicism must actually be a heathen religion, is ridiculous. It's like pointing to a newly-baptized convert to Christianity and saying "Hey, you were born into a pagan family and raised a pagan, so you can't be a Christian now; you must still be a pagan!".

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