Pagan Christians

Two thousand years ago, Jews dispersed to regions around the Mediterranean with religions that honored deities other than “the Lord” of Hebrew literature. These pagan communities prayed to gods or goddesses who conquered life in the world and achieved immortality. Their liturgies solemnly commemorated and ritually enacted a deity’s life, death, and resurrection, which, of course, is what we do in the Mass. The rites put participants in close relation with the divinity and allowed them a share in the divine powers. Like the Mass, sacred pageants of pagans produced a constant renewal, a participation in the deity’s dying and rising.

Our Mass and sacraments have the spiritual aura and basic significance of Pagan ceremonies. Pagan myth and rite corresponded to each other as they do in Christian practice where the significance of Passion and Death, Last Supper, Mass and Eucharist are closely interwoven. Significantly, the Mass is called the Mystery.
Like Christians later, pagan mystery religions had confession of sin, repentance, purification, pleas for deliverance, successful healings, atonement, and salvation. Initiation ceremonies brought a new state of mind through experience with the Sacred. Lesser mysteries were designed to purify candidates for greater mysteries, as Baptism and Confession lead to the holier mystery of Eucharist.

The ceremonies included sacred meals, prayers of thanksgiving, sacred texts, accounts of visions, miracle stories, incense, and fixed confessions binding the community, somewhat like Christian creeds. Reitzenstein writes that in Rome a message of salvation climaxed in the confession of Hermes as the triune God of the world. Another confessional formula declared Isis Goddess over all.

The deities offered soteria or salvation for things in this life. But Greek mystery rites also expressed the Egyptian belief in an afterlife of either ecstasy or misery, heaven or hell in our terms. In Greek mythology, virtuous people went to the Elysian Fields for their paradise of ideal bliss, an obvious forerunner of the Christian heaven.

I use Christian sources for my information in the hope that fellow Christians will credit it. One is the textbook used in my scripture class taught by Ivan Havener, OSB, The New Testament: An Introduction, by Norman Perrin and Dennis Duling. They write about divinities in the Greco-Roman world:
Eternal, immortal gods are said to descend, or are sent from heaven to earth, for some important redemptive mission on behalf of humankind, and occasionally they can be identified with historical figures . . .
When Roman emperors claimed divine prerogatives, . . . majestic titles were often bestowed on the emperor (or demanded by some!) such as “Lord,” “God,” “Son of God,” or “Savior.” Titles of this sort were also given to Jesus.          
More parallels to Jesus existed. Believers who accepted initiation in pagan mysteries identified with the savior god or goddess. They died and were reborn to become divine, after which they were honored for their renewal. The ancient writer Apuleius has an account of Lucius being initiated in the rites of Isis. Lucius was considered purged of his mortality and "filled with divine, immortal power, . . . in recognition of the transformation he had undergone."
Catholic doctrine holds that we are divinized at Baptism, expounding the same theme of renewal/transformation. Paul writes in Galatians 3:27:
You are all sons of God by faith in Christ Jesus, since all of you who were baptized into Christ put on Christ.
Like Pagan mysteries, Paul distinguishes sharply between the uninitiated and initiated, between the “natural man” and the “spiritual man” (1 Corinthians 2:14-15). This Hermetic saying could have been written by Paul while expressing his “new creation” theme:
Thou hast made us, while still in the body, divine by the sight of Thyself, . . .
The following statements by Paul also echo Pagan ceremonies:
Anyone in Christ is a new creation. (2Corinthians 5:17)
All that matters is that one is created anew. (Galatians 6:15)
Through baptism into his death we were buried with him, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead . . . we too might live a new life. (Romans 6:1-14).

Hellenistic piety flows out in Colossians 3 when it tells us that we become like Christ:
You have been raised up in company with Christ ... you have died! Your life is hidden now with Christ in God. When Christ our life appears, then you shall appear with him in glory.... What you have done is put aside your old self ... and put on a new man (sic) ... formed anew in the image of his Creator.
With the substitution of “Isis” for “Christ” something similar to these words might have been intoned at Lucius' elevation.

When I was studying at the School of Theology, the venerable Godfrey Diekmann stressed this point that we are deified, that we share in the divine nature. He wished the Church would give more attention to it. I asked him if the theme of deification exists in other religions. He looked surprised at my question, paused, and said he didn’t know. Now I could tell him that it is a theme in religions around the world. It appears in the writings of Plato and Philo. The Eastern practice of bowing to another while saying “Namaste” also acknowledges divinity in the other.

Elements common to Christian and Pagan mysteries exist in religions around the world. Another one that religions share is the significance of numbers.
Buddhism has 12 Golden Rules, Jacob and Ishmael in the Bible have 12 sons and Elijah builds an altar of 12 stones. Christ has 12 apostles, and the Pagan Apuleius tells of Lucius being initiated with 12 garments. There are Pagan trinities as there are Buddhist, Hindu and Christian trinities. Jonah is in the belly of the whale for 3 days, Christ dies and rises in 3 days; gods in other religions die and rise in 3 days. Transformation symbolized by dying and rising is a dominant and recurrent theme in all religions of the world. Reitzenstein writes,
. . . the concept of rising from the dead . . . utterly dominates religious thought.
The imitation of a divine being’s suffering and death, whence benefits flow for us and for all, is another feature Christians share with others. A rite to honor the Babylonian God Marduk includes a typical refrain:
Who but Marduk has brought him back from death to life?
Hermes says that no one attains salvation without rebirth, a well-worn Christian theme.
Shrines to dying and rising deities were common throughout Mesopotamia and Syria. One was located in Bethlehem. Church Father Jerome says,
The very grotto where the infant Christ uttered his first cries resounded formerly with the lamentations over the lover of Aphrodite.
Such eerie repetitions arising in the study of religions manifest archetypal energies, say Jungian analysts. They also indicate that alternative visions of spiritual reality have a claim equal to the Christian one.

I do not say our Christian religion is hogwash. I am placing it in the context of all religions in the hope of enlarging religious awareness. Religion plays an essential role in human consciousness, and I believe humanity now is becoming poised to move beyond traditional religions. This is the opinion of Fr. Diarmuid O’Murchu, stated in Quantum Theology: Spiritual Implications of the New Physics:
. . . each religion . . . perpetuates forms of idolatry which have caused, and continue to cause, immense pain and suffering in our world.
Religions . . . may have diminished importance for humanity as we move into a new evolutionary epoch.
. . . today increasing numbers of people are discovering their spiritual identity in contexts other than those of formal churches and religions.
Meanwhile, I still happily practice religion with my fellow Catholic Christians while expecting our religious practice to become obsolete.

DECEMBER 5, 2013
Here are the most fascinating of the many responses I received to my post “Pagans and Christians." 
Very interesting.  My delving in this area has been fairly limited. . . .  Unfortunately, few Christians delve into this subject and we are poorer for it. Exposing the facts is one way I try to place questions into closed minds. Yours is not one of them.
A lifelong Catholic
A Benedictine informs us:
Most people who have studied scripture and liturgy know that texts, rituals, images, even ideas have often been borrowed and evolved. That’s the nature of religious culture and the humanities in general. There are zillions of examples.
I’ve heard that the Buddhist tea ceremony might have been inspired by the Christian Eucharist. The Eucharist itself has thematic roots in ancient human sacrifice. Much of what we have today is rich and textured because it is drawn and mixed from many sources and borrowings.
An exclusivist model does not work for understanding our relationship to the sacred. Yet, that does not mean that we destroy what’s “different” in order to create something non-descript. If we’re mutually non-descript, we will not have treasures and riches to give and receive.
To be a worthy inter-religious or ecumenical partner means sharing kaleidoscopes that can reveal countless variations and patterns.
Brother Paul Jasmer, a Benedictine monk.  (I believe that my remark generally reflects a Catholic understanding; it’s an understanding shared in the broader theological mainstream.)
Yes, mainstream theology has these inter-religious understandings, but in today’s contentious atmosphere, few Christians are aware of it.  Brother Paul's comment overturns a Catholic position I have read more often—claiming that our tradition never participated in “syncretism” or mixing religious ideas.Many Christians—leaders included—naïvely believe that Christian ideas are unique.

Here is another response I liked. This agnostic writer is not identified for fear it would threaten employment—a powerful statement in itself.
I found this post the most interesting of all the dozens of posts you've had in the 2 plus years I've been following your blog. 
I became aware of the parallels between pagan religions and Christianity during the ‘90s and at first I wrote it off but the more parallels I discovered it seemed to me that it was more than a coincidence.  I'm sure you are also aware of the more than dozen gods who were born of virgin births, who suffered died, were buried and resurrected (Horus, Krishna, Dionysus, Mithra, etc).
It has led me to the conclusion that Christianity is just the latest in that line of religions.  I discovered all these facts in a piecemeal fashion without intending to do so.  I guess you might say it was serendipity.  Through a nearly 20 year personal journey it has led me to my current status as an agnostic.  Even though I'm agnostic, I'm still heavily influenced by my Catholic background.  I believe works to be very important.  I also believe helping the less fortunate is important. 
I think that faith without good works is meaningless.  It is more of our modern-world feel good nonsense.  I think the Catholic faith has that part right.  But I'm ashamed of the Catholic hierarchy’s cover-up of sex scandals and its treatment/philosophy towards women. 

I was curious if you've had a similar journey.  I'm surprised by how many Christians are unaware of the parallels between Christianity and much earlier religions.  Those discoveries really shook my faith.  I'm sure you've studied these things in more detail than I have.
Agnostic and former Catholic
I also was influenced by knowledge of Pagan counterparts to worship of Jesus, but my journey had different quirks, which I hope to publish in a memoir.
Brian’s mother forwarded his response.
I've been reading her blog entries.  She's obviously very sagacious with much time invested in historical research. . . . At times I felt as though I was reading far more eloquent versions of my own journal entries. 

I believe [Jesus] most likely did exist, though no more a child of God than any of the rest of us.  I don't believe he literally rose from the dead. A spiritual prodigy perhaps, as I understand Buddha, the Dalai Lama, etc to have been and be respectively, with incredible wisdom pertaining to matters of God.  I find solace and prosperity in what they profess(ed) about God, but I do not worship the professors. 

I’m a doubting Thomas.  I would most likely have different beliefs on the matter if I personally put my fingers in his wounds and watched him ascend into the sky, but my skepticism is proportional to the two millennia between then and now.
It hasn’t yet proven to be possible for me to be at rest with any belief other than “I’ll never really know,” regardless of how many personally documented accounts and “factual” history is presented.  My nature limits the validity of such accounts to underlying meaning, which suits me personally just fine.
Brian Kessler
Also in response to "Pagans and Christians," a reader sent “Sex and the Single Priest,” which appeared in the New York Times.
And Karen Tate said:
Many comments seem to acknowledge the Pagan roots of Christianity while admitting few Christians know this history. What I find even more disturbing is these very Christians will then, in their ignorance, marginalize and demonize these faiths, their spiritual ancestors.

PAGAN CHRISTIANS,  December 19, 2019
They fasted, they made sacrifice, they sang hymns, they recited litanies, they walked in processions, they initiated people with water, kissed the altar, bore sacred vessels with ritual solemnity, communed with their god by partaking of a sacred meal, and they had a professional priesthood. They were Pagans.

 “Pagan” originally meant rural or rustic—in Latin paganus. It carried no negative feeling at all. Christianity was born in the Roman Empire, which accounts for Latin being the language of the Catholic Mass. People outside of cities in the Roman Empire—Pagans—clung to their old religions longer than city people, who were more easily swept into the new Jesus Movement. The rival Christians gave Pagans a bad name.

After Jesus was crucified, his followers, profoundly affected by the spiritual master, kept his memory alive. Thus, the Jesus Movement rose and spread. It could be expected that the emerging religion would borrow ways of worshiping from religions around it.

Because Jesus and his followers were Jews, his disciples adopted the Jewish chosen-people concept. This led them to denounce traditional non-Jewish (Pagan) religions in spite of sharing their ideas of Holiness and ways of relating to The Holy.

We still use Pagan words and phrases like "mystery," “salvation,” "sacrament," and "handing on truth." From Pagans comes our idea of hell or Hades. And our saints, who took on the characteristics of their lesser deities. And our halo, which first adorned the sun-god Mithras. 

And the fasting, the sacred meal (the way I was taught to think of the Mass and Communion), the professional priesthood (“professional” suggests the possibility of clericalism)—all done by Christians and Pagans alike. Christians adopted Pagan elements around them, but denounced those whose religious stories became patterns for the Christian story—typical of rivals. 

We should thank Pagans for Christmas. What developed into our beloved Christmas began in the fourth century when Christians started a feast patterned after the Roman solstice holiday. It honored the Roman sun god, Sol Invictus (Sun Invincible or the Unconquerable Sun), one of several sun gods. Jesus became another sun god. 

With Pagan gods, the mythic Jesus Christ shares having been born of a virgin on the winter solstice, having 12 disciples, 7 sacraments, dying and rising in 3 days, and being commemorated in sacred meals. In human psychology, the Lord Father takes up the same place as Zeus—authoritative commander of all, often harsh. Mary took over Goddess titles—Virgin, Queen of Heaven, Start of the Sea. 

When I was growing up in the 1950s, Catholics practiced all the elements mentioned. I can still hear the repeated melody of litanies when I was growing up. The priest would sing a saint’s name and the choir would sing, ora pro nobis (pray for us) again and again. It would have been less boring if we could have sung with the choir. 

We had processions in church that involved only the priest, servers, and men with important positions—always all males. They processed down and up and around the aisles, carrying banners while the priest bore a sacred vessel with ritual solemnity and the choir sang. 

The rest of us watched the performance, standing, kneeling, or sitting in our pews as directed by rubric. But on Corpus Christi everybody processed in the cemetery. We girls got to strew flowers in that procession. It was a big deal to fill a basket with flowers, wear a white dress, and walk around the gravestones slowly strewing the contents of our baskets. 

Today, aware that Pagans influenced our Christian liturgy, I see that the Gloria of the Mass with its paeans to the "Most High" reflects Pagan piety. I sing along just because I love to sing, but the words seem nonsensical to me. I change words if I can fit them to the melody. 

“Almighty” and “only-begotten” and “you alone are the Holy One” and “seated at the right hand of the Father” reflect Roman-Hellenistic culture with its belief in gods that dwelled “on High.” Romans had conquered Greece and absorbed Greek (Hellenistic) religions. 

Their religious idols clash with the earthy Nazarene known for sayings blunt, combative, and baffling, sayings that shatter pious certainties and challenge logic. To me, this Jesus who actually lived and subverted the foundations of conventional thinking, is far worthier of reverence than the god patterned on Pagan gods. 

I was amused to read that Christian rubrics borrowed even this small detail: In the gesture of priestly blessing, the priest raises his thumb and first two fingers while bending the other two. I used to see priests do this, but not anymore. 

Catholic processions and litanies? Rare, today. Roman-Hellenistic influence seems to be fading. Today, both Christian and non-Christian spirituality directs us to relate with Spirit within, not bowing to gods out there and up there.


Brenda Asterino said…
Jeanette, I always appreciate what you write, your research, etc. But, in this regard, I think you are misrepresenting paganism. I don't believe that they, as like Christianity, ever try to conquered life. They participate in life. Christians taught that medicine had to be based on torture. Pagans are in a completely different sphere of perspective. Even though, I am not a pagan, I don't think they would say they observe the deity dying and rising.... I think you should ask one and get a clarificaiton on the difference between Catholic perspectives and approaches and theirs. From my studies (which are limited), I doubt that a born Catholic can groc where they are coming from without an extensive overview. Two completely different ball games, Jeannette.

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