Monday, March 07, 2011

Christianity and Paganism: A Casual Discussion

After being asked a few months back about my views on how paganism may have influenced Christianity, I have spent quite a bit of time attempting to write out a nice essay explaining my opinions.  Unfortunately, I have found it next to impossible to "get it on paper," as the saying goes.  After several valiant efforts, I have abandoned the originally essay.  Instead, I want to just talk briefly and casually about my thoughts on this subject.

In recent years - thanks in large part to the Internet - there has been a lot of talk and discussion about the influence of pagan ideas and beliefs on the rise of Christianity.  A few years back, there was an Internet movie called Zeitgeist that caused quite a sensation in this regard.  It was ultimately a film about how 9/11 was an inside job, but the first segment of the film discussed some incredibly provocative theories about the origins of Christianity and its connection to pagan beliefs - particularly the religion of ancient Egypt.

I wrote a long and scathing critique of the movie's religion segment a few years back, so I won't repeat myself here, other than to say that virtually the entire thing, from beginning to end, was balderdash of the most insidious kind.  Be that as it may, the movie has helped to spark some healthy debate on the subject.  There have also been some books out recently discussing these topics, though I have not personally read them.

To put it simply, I think the question of pagan influence on Christianity turns first on what aspect of Christianity one is talking about.  In terms of Christian theology and doctrine, there can be no doubt that paganism had a profound effect.  Beginning in the 2nd century, Christianity had become almost exclusively "Gentile" - that is, non-Jewish.  A a full-blooded Jewish sect in the 1st century, Christianity went through a painful separation in the last few decades of that century and by the year 100 or so, it had essentially become a whole new religion.  

As a Gentile religion, it sought converts from among the pagan religions of the Roman empire.  Like any religion, most of its adherents eventually came from within - that is, they were born to Christian parents.  But in the first few centuries of Christian history, many, many former pagans converted to the new religion, particularly in the 300's C.E., after it became the official religion of the empire.  It was during this same time, of course, that much of the theology and many of the doctrines Christians still follow today were developed and put into practice.  As such, pagan beliefs that converts brought with them deeply and greatly influenced the development of Christian theology and doctrine.  

Consider, for instance, the doctrine of the Trinity, which could easily be viewed (particularly by an outsider) as watered-down polytheism: three gods in one, separate but equal.  This doctrine was formulated during those early centuries when pagan (i.e. polytheistic) beliefs were still common.  

Related to that issue is the question of the divinity of Jesus.  This was a huge issue in the early church, particularly during the 2nd century.  Was Jesus God or man?  Divine or human?  The Trinity, of course, ultimately answered that question for Christians, but the very nature of the debate was the result of non-Jews attempting to understand the distinctly Jewish stories about Jesus.  I am firmly convinced that no self-respecting Jew - even a Jewish Christian - would ever have considered Jesus to be one and the same with God.  Such a notion would have been so fundamentally contrary to all that it means to be Jewish that only non-Jews could have considered it.  Jesus-as-God is a notion that did not arise in Christianity until it became a Gentile religion.  Among pagan religions, the belief that humans could be gods was commonplace, so common, in fact, that it's one of the defining characteristics of many ancient religions.  It is not surprising, then, that the Gentile-dominated early Christian church was amenable to the notion of Jesus being one and the same with God - a notion that would likely have left Jesus's earliest followers, not to mention Jesus himself, in the stunned silence of a major blasphemy. 

So on that subject - pagan influences on Christian doctrine and theology - there is no doubt that it played a major role.  

This, however, is not particularly controversial.  What is far more provocative is the idea that paganism influenced the very telling of the Jesus story itself.  Forget 2nd and 3rd century institutional doctrine; these theories suggest that Jesus may never have existed at all, and whether he existed or not, the stories about his life were developed from pre-existing themes in ancient religion and don't really represent anything historical.

These theories and arguments make for good fiction - and if you ask the producers of Zeitgeist, probably a lot of money too - but in my opinion there is very little of substance to them.  Zeitgeist, as I said, is a pack of lies from beginning to end, but even among the more "mainstream" theories of pagan influences on Christianity, most of it is unfounded speculation.

One thing that any reputable historian of early Christian history will tell you is that the stories of Jesus, and the entire gospel tradition, is a deeply and profoundly Jewish one.  Indeed, the inability (or unwillingness) over the ages of institutional Christianity to recognize the distinctly Jewish nature of Jesus and the stories about his life is, in my opinion, one of its biggest failures.  There is virtually nothing in the gospel tradition about Jesus that cannot be traced to some aspect of Judaism and Jewish history and tradition.  

Consider, for instance, the story of Jesus' birth.  This is one of the more popular stories that the revisionists like to link to paganism.  There's no question that Jesus wasn't the first person in history to have a virgin birth story connected to him.  Therefore, Luke and Matthew must have drawn it from pagan sources, right?  Not necessarily.  All the themes from these accounts of Jesus' birth can actually be traced right back to the Old Testament - the Jewish scriptures.  For crying out loud, Matthew even quotes Isaiah to back up his claim that Jesus was conceived by a virgin.  This idea doesn't come from pagan influence - it comes right out of the sacred scripture of the Jews!   

The same is true for many of the other stories about Jesus's life.  Consider the 12 disciples of Jesus.  I tend to think that the notion of an inner group of exactly 12 men is a creation of the primitive Christian community.  I think the truth is that Jesus probably had a lot of followers, some of whom came and went.  There was probably a core group that was with him the longest, but it wasn't necessarily exactly 12, and later there was a lot of controversy over who, precisely, had been part of this inner circle.  If this is correct, then we need to explain where the notion of "12" came from.  The pagan-influence theories suggest the 12 signs of the Zodiac (I think this is an argument made in Zeitgeist, in fact).  But this, of course, is silly.  Clearly the 12 Tribes of Israel would be the logical conclusion about where the notion of 12 disciples may have originated.  There is even a quote attributed to Jesus making this explicit comparison, when he tells his disciples that they will sit on 12 thrones judging the 12 tribes of Israel.  Furthermore, it is a perfect literary creation: just as the original 12 sons of Jacob became the patriarchs of the Jewish people, so the 12 disciples would become the patriarchs of the new Christian community, with their converts becoming the new 12 "tribes" - the new people of God. 

Ultimately, whether the existence of exactly 12 disciples is history or legend, it is distinctly Jewish, not pagan.  

In the end, I think it goes without saying that pagan beliefs had a lot of influence on later Church doctrine and theology.  I do not, however, think that pagan traditions had much influence on the telling of the stories about Jesus.  In fact, I'm not sure there is any reason to suppose that any of what we find in the gospels comes primarily from pagan tradition.  Now it's true, of course, that Judaism itself, by the time of Jesus and the gospels, was greatly Hellenized.  But only inasmuch as Judaism itself had been influenced by Greek culture and philosophy did any pagan thought, myth, or tradition play a role in the development of the gospels about Jesus.   


Trent N. said...

Scott - I can't thank you enough for commenting on this subject. Sorry it caused so much writing "angst" for you. You remind me of the late, great Tim Russert. As hard as I try, I can't see any personal bias in your writing. Really enjoy your blog.

A few questions for you if you don't mind.

1. In your opinion, was the author of Isaiah the first human being in the history of the world to think of and write down the concept of a Virgin Birth? In other words, was the VB concept this authors sole creation which he alone introduced it to the world?

2. Same question as above except in reference to the Resurrection. When Paul and then later Mark wrote of it, was this the first reference to Resurrection in the history of the world? In other words, was resurrection completely original and unique to Jesus, or had prior deities claimed resurrection as well, that Paul and later Mark would have surely known about when they wrote in the NT?

3. You opine that Jesus' followers as well as Jesus himself would have been in "stunned silence of a major blasphemy" at the notion of Jesus actually being God. I take that to mean you don't think that Jesus or his followers ever thought he was divine or literally "God"? Which would mean this (divinity) notion was something that was "added on" later by Paul and the Gospel writers? If so, it is an opinion you and I share, but would love clarification.

4. You write that much of the theology and many of the doctrines and practices that Christians follow today were developed in the 300's CE (I am assuming the Council of Nicea was a big part of this). Just how different were the doctrines and practices of Christianity in the late 300's vs. say, the year 90 CE.? And if they were indeed very different, what do you say to the folks that claim "apostolic tradition" and claim the rituals, beliefs and practices we do today are unchanged (not just since Nicea) but literally all the way back to Peter and Jesus himself.

Sorry for so many questions. Its just a really interesting topic and I can't thank you enough for commenting on it.

Scott said...

I love this stuff too, obviously, so thanks for engaging in conversation about it!

1) Regarding Isaiah: First it is important to recognize that the book of Isaiah was written by at least two, and maybe even three, different people in two or three different eras. For this reason, you'll sometimes see references to 1 Isaiah and 2 Isaiah, and so on.

The virgin birth passage comes in 1 Isaiah - the earliest part of Isaiah, probably composed in the 700's B.C.E.

Is this the earliest such reference to a virgin woman giving birth? If we are making a distinction between true "virgin" birth stories and simply "miraculous" birth stories, then it is probably one of the earliest, yes. Miraculous birth stories were widespread and commonplace and certainly pre-existed Isaiah. But a story explicitly about a virgin woman giving birth? I'm not sure if there is anything earlier than 1 Isaiah. Perhaps some of the stories of Krishna in Hindu tradition, but that's about all I can think of. And I'm not positive that those are as old as 1 Isaiah.

There's a problem here, however. Most scholars agree that Isaiah 7:14 doesn't actually say anything about a virgin woman giving birth!

Matthew quotes from the Septuagint - the Greek translation of the Jewish scriptures which was in widespread use by the 1st century C.E. In that translation, the verse definitely talks about a virgin giving birth to a son.

But in the original Hebrew - the so-called Masoretic text - the word refers to a young married woman who has not yet had her first child. There was a completely different word for "virgin" in Hebrew, and that word was not used by the writer.

This is, of course, a subtle difference, but it is a huge one in terms of its impact on the virgin birth story of Jesus. Isaiah never predicted a virgin giving birth. He predicted a woman giving birth to her firstborn son - but not as a virgin. In the ancient Hebrew mindset, of course, the firstborn son was the one that mattered most - he had the birthright, and therefore was the strongest, most powerful, had the best social position, and would eventually become the leader of the tribe, once his father died.

This is why Isaiah's "Immanuel" is the firstborn son of a young woman. The firstborn son was the only one who really mattered. In the passage, Immanuel is sent as a sign from God that he will remain with the Jews through the tumult that is coming. Such a sign would never have been sent through a second or third son - those sons were by definition the "weaker" sons.

So this is what Isaiah was talking about. It really never said anything about a virgin giving birth.

Scott said...

2) Resurrection definitely was not unique to the Jesus story. There were certainly stories of resurrection that predated Jesus. For one thing, the Jews themselves already believed that a general resurrection was going to occur at the end of time. That belief had cropped up by at least the 150's B.C.E., and this belief is what influenced the resurrection stories about Jesus.

But there were definitely stories of resurrection from other religions that were earlier than Christianity. Osiris, an Egyptian god, went through a whole cycle of birth, death, and rebirth (or resurrection). As I understand it, a number of figures in Greek religion were said to have been resurrected, although I have not studied the sources on these figures personally - I've only heard the arguments. I've also read counter-arguments saying that it requires a stretch of the imagination to suggest that these stories were true "resurrection" stories. Asclepius, for instance, was said to have been "resurrected," but only inasmuch as he was worshipped as a living deity after his death.

It's also important to consider the ancient motif of "raising the dead." Many prophets and healers of the ancient world were said to have done this.

The story of Jesus's resurrection is our most explicit and best preserved. There's no question of that. But it wasn't an idea invented by Christians.

Scott said...

3) Regarding Jesus's divinity: it is my opinion that Jesus never claimed to be divine. It is also my opinion that neither his disciples, nor any of the first few generations of Christians, believed he had been anything other than a special human being, chosen by God, and later vindicated by God.

The doctrines suggesting that Jesus was, in fact, God in the flesh, came along more than 100 years after Jesus's death, and were developed by people who not only didn't have the Jewish worldview to understand what the gospel stories about Jesus were saying, but in fact considered Jews their mortal enemies!

I would argue that even Paul and the writer of John did not think Jesus was God. Paul explicitly calls Jesus a man who was "born of a woman" - a colloquialism that refers to any human being - and states that he was "chosen" by God through resurrection to be "God's son." That hardly sounds like Paul thinks Jesus was God.

Even John, who makes such grandiose claims about Jesus, doesn't ever actually say Jesus is God. In fact, Jesus is constantly referring to God as external from himself - his "father" - and claims only that he is "one" with God. Being "one with God" and "being God" are two dramatically different things. John's Jesus definitely claims that God is working through him - that he is God's special prophet. But that doesn't mean he was claiming to be God. We only interpret John's Jesus to be claiming to be God because we read it through the lens of 1800 years of Church doctrine about the Trinity.

Scott said...

4) Regarding doctrines and rituals. Many of the rituals practiced today do indeed go back to the 1st century - most notably the Lord's Supper. Gathering together for a ritual meal to remember Jesus, in fact, was probably the germinating seed of the very rise of Christianity. If you want to know how Christianity came to exist, look to the table.

So certainly some of our rituals and practices go back pretty far. Coming together and reading scripture and singing hymns (i.e. a church service) pretty much goes back to the 1st century too, as does baptism.

Some of our beliefs, too, go back that far. Belief in the resurrection, for instance. Although I think the earliest Christians probably thought of the resurrection in more mystical and spiritual terms, and less in literal terms, the resurrection was certainly always the central theme of Christianity.

Belief in Jesus's miracles and healing power, praying to God in Jesus's name, etc. All these things go back to the 1st century.

But in terms of things like the divinity and nature of Jesus (God or man or both?), the Trinity, the "plan of salvation," the doctrines of transubstantiation and the immaculate conception of Mary - things like that do not go back to either the New Testament or the 1st century.

Basically, it is the difference between primitive ritual and belief, and high theology. The primitive ritual and belief goes back pretty far, as the phrase implies. High theology, however, was not developed until decades and centuries later.

As for apostolic tradition: I have to say that calling Peter the first pope is a little like calling Christopher Columbus the first president. But then again, I'm not Catholic so maybe I'm biased :)

steve said...

You're going to have plenty adjustments to make after you read "Insights on the Exodus, King David, and Jesus" also published under the title "The Greatest Bible Study in Historical Accuracy." The author is Steefen (Pen Name). Jesus' birth and resurrection are addressed in my books.

The construction of the biblical Jesus does have pagan influences and in his birth and resurrection, the influences of the biographies of two kings.

- Steefen

Scott said...

We'll have to agree to disagree Steve.

Greg said...

Hi Scott,
I'm fairly new to your blog, so forgive me if I ask a question you've explained in previous blogs.

I saw in your reply to Trent N. that you don't think Jesus or any of his followers believed Him to actually be God.

I wanted to ask if you personally believe that Jesus was God? I assume the answer is yes because I read in the 'About Me' section of your blog that you are a passionately believing Christian. If the answer is No you don't believe he was God, than isn't that contradictory to the centerpiece of the faith? And if the answer is Yes you do believe it, then do you believe that it was revealed to his followers somehow a century or more later?

I fully respect your faith whatever it may be. I am really just curious after reading this blog and the comments that followed.


Scott said...

Hi Greg. Thanks for reading and for your question.

To give you a brief answer, I do not believe that Jesus was God. I believe, rather, that Jesus offered a profound and inspiring path toward understanding and communing with God in a very individual way.

As I have stated above, I also don't believe Jesus claimed to be God, or that his earliest followers believed him to be God. I believe he was deified by later generations of Christians who, essentially, never really understood who he was or what his purpose was.

I don't tend to think of God in supernatural terms - that is, as a supernatural being "out there" somewhere. I tend towards what Marcus Borg calls "panentheism" - God is here, with us, around us, within everything and permeating everything. I believe Jesus stands at the door of this understanding of God.

Many, many people have told me I'm not really a Christian and that using the term is misleading. I strongly disagree with the first point, but can understand the second point. However, as a devoted follower of Christ, I can think of no more legitimate way to describe myself than "Christian," even if I am a different kind of Christian than many people.

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