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DID PAGANISM INFLUENCE THE DOCTRINES OF FIRST-CENTURY CHRISTIANITY?
Eric V. Snow
Did ancient pagan belief produce the doctrinal and liturgical content of first-century Christianity? Did the Christian mysteries come from the pagan mysteries? Was Christ just another pagan savior sun god dressed up with Jewish historical trimmings? Was Paul himself a convert from paganism who merely incorporated pagan ideas into His portrayal of Christ as divine?
The defenders of Judaism routinely claim that early Christian theology and practice was taken directly from the Roman Empire's pagan religions, especially the mystery religions and Gnosticism. For example, Samuel Levine argues: "Paul introduced the pagan ideas of his neighborhood into the worship of Jesus, and made a new religion which would be perfectly acceptable to the Gentile pagans in his neighborhood. Paul simply switched Jesus for Attis, put a little Judaism in, and then called it Christianity."[i] So can Christians prove such charges to be false? Since the New Testament forms the foundation of Christianity’s teachings, and only Scripture should have ultimate doctrinal authority ("sola Scriptura"), only claims about the primitive, first-century church deriving its doctrines from paganism are analyzed here, not those about Catholics of later centuries who adopted such customs as Christmas and Easter.
THE SCHOLARLY CLIMATE OF OPINION
It's important to realize that such charges of Christian dependence on paganism are on the downswing among contemporary scholars in the fields of classics and Biblical studies. Ronald Nash, one-time professor of philosophy, surveys the state of scholarly opinion over the past century on this issue. Although such charges were common from about 1890 to 1940, the scholarly books and articles written in reply made such claims appear much less frequently: “Today, in the mid-1980s, most Bible scholars regard the question as a dead issue.” William Craig, another professor of philosophy, recently declared: "I know of no reputable New Testament scholar or historian today who would any longer defend the view that the Christian ideas of the resurrection were derived from parallels of pagan religions." Even in 1956, the Swedish scholar H. Riesenfeld labeled such appeals as outdated. True, as Morey notes, standard brand theological liberalism hangs onto such claims, such as Bultmann’s Gnostic dependency thesis. Scholars in other fields still circulate these charges in ignorance of their refutation elsewhere, but this perspective is plainly on the defensive. Even the likes of Robin Lane Fox, a determined enemy of Christianity, denies that paganism and Christianity are fundamentally alike in a book (Pagans and Christians) that compares the two side-by-side.[ii] Hence, when arguing for the influence of paganism on Christianity, the defenders of Judaism may be citing non-Biblical studies/Classical scholars, minority dissidents in those fields, or outdated sources, such as James Frazer's The Golden Bough.
SOME STANDARD DIFFERENCES
Some basic differences between the mystery religions and Christianity should be summarized. The mystery religions as well as Gnosticism attempted to have some special secret knowledge that limited the "Truth" to a few special initiates. But Christianity sought to proclaim publicly "Christ, and Him crucified" (I Cor. 2:2) and His message to the world to everyone, whether anyone believed or not. As Metzger notes, the Christians made their sacred books available to all, including making translations for non-Greek speakers in the major vernaculars.
Christianity also maintained it had the one and only way to salvation; thus, it believed in the exclusive nature of the truth. Christians believe only one true religion exists, as Jesus made plain (John 14:6): "I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father, but through Me." Similarly, Peter declared to the Sanhedrin that there was salvation in no one else (Acts 4:12). For this reason, Paul and Barnabas pointedly denied they were Zeus and Hermes to a large crowd in Lystra who mistook them for being these two gods, but pointed them to the true Creator (Acts 14:11-18). Pagans usually cared little about how many gods they or others worshiped besides the one they might have emphasized. For if Christianity were as paganized as the defenders of Judaism maintain, why would have any Christians resisted sacrificing and/or swearing allegiance to the Roman emperors as gods?
Most of these religions had notions of "resurrections" that were tied to a cyclical view of nature and of history, of the birth, death, and rebirth of vegetation from spring to winter and back again. By contrast, Christianity emphatically proclaimed a linear view of time and history for three reasons: (1) God created the world at a specific time in the past, (2) Jesus died "once for all," and (3) Christians eagerly awaited Jesus’ return, which would end this world. Only Mithraism (perhaps, since that’s in dispute) had a linear view of time, but then its god didn't die and then come to life by a resurrection.
Christianity also had a much stronger ethical, moral, and intellectual aspect than most mystery religions (excepting Mithraism some), which emphasized emotion and ritual, not moral transformation. Who can deny the demanding and majestic sweep of Christian ethics as proclaimed in the Sermon on the Mount, the Letter of James, the "Love Chapter" of I Cor. 13? Paganism’s idea of “salvation” required little or no moral change, little or no deliverance from sin, and few or no moral duties, unlike Christianity’s.
Christianity's Savior was an actual person in history, in the time-space continuum. The pagan "savior-gods" were "'nebulous figures of an imaginary past,'" as Norman Anderson remarks. Often myths begin with uncertain terminology such as, "It is said," which the New Testament lacks. The Greek gods "are not described realistically, but rather as a character of fantasy would be." Anderson explains the difference between Christ’s literal resurrection and a pagan god’s mythological/symbolic coming to life: "There is all the difference in the world between the rising or rebirth of a deity which symbolizes the coming of spring (and the reawakening of nature) and the resurrection 'on the third day' of a historical person."[iii]
CHRONOLOGICAL CHALLENGES TO PAGAN INFLUENCE
Skeptics, when drawing parallels between Christianity and the mystery religions, use a technique that ignores a crude basic of historical reasoning: The cause has to occur before the effect! They will pre-date a pagan religion’s practices that post-date A.D. 100, claiming these influenced the first-century church. For example, did the Christian doctrine of baptism draw on the taurobolium? This pagan rite sacrificed bulls in order to douse participating pagans in the animals’ blood. Now Levine indirectly refers to an inscription (dated to A.D. 376) that says in Latin, "reborn for eternity in the taurobolium and criobolium." But how can this fourth-century expression of pagan thinking prove first-century Christianity got its idea of spiritual renewal (cf. I Pet. 2:2) from these two pagan rituals that sacrificed bulls and sheep? By the late fourth century, however, since Christianity had risen to power following the Emperor Constantine's declaration of religious toleration under the Edict of Milan (A.D. 313), pagans easily could have snatched this idea from Christianity instead!
Because second-century records are the first to mention the taurobolium, it couldn’t have been the source of baptism. Even Laing dates the earliest taurobolic inscription to A.D. 133. Wagner has an A.D. 160 date. So Paul wrote his letters 75 to 100 years before the cult of Attis and Cybele apparently first practiced this rite. Furthermore, by calling the taurobolium a “baptism . . . of blood,” Levine loads the dice by using Christian terminology to describe a pagan rite in order to conclude that the two are similar. This is another standard technique for “deriving” Christian practices and doctrines from pagan rites and beliefs.[iv]
SURFACE SIMILARITIES DO NOT PROVE DEPENDENCE
Charges that Christianity's doctrines originated in paganism typically rely upon the accuser making broad, general statements that have seeming plausibility because of the superficial similarities cited between the two. For example, the Talmudic scholar Hyam Maccoby draws such parallels here: "Paul was advocating a doctrine that seemed to have far more in common with pagan myths than with Judaism: that Jesus was a divine-human person who had descended to Earth from the heavens and experienced death for the express purpose of saving mankind." In order to expose the linguistic games such a statement is built upon, it’s necessary to check the actual wording of the primary sources, and their exact translation into English. So often the more specific the analysis of the narrative or meanings of legends about (say) a dying god or rites of a mystery religion becomes, the less apparent are its likenesses to Christianity.
Even the liberal German scholar Adolph von Harnack denied the pagan mystery religions influenced Christianity. He objected to the procedure of the comparative religion school that ignored important and specific differences in order to find apparent similarities, thus manufacturing “a causal connection between everything and everything else” and “thus, with the magic wand of ‘comparative religion,’ triumphantly eliminate every spontaneous trait in any religion.”[v]
Similarities do not prove causal influence decisively; although both true and false religions can share similar ideas, that doesn't prove one must have come from the other. Since humans can reason similarly on similar natural phenomena, widely separated individuals could invent similar mythical explanations for the same natural phenomena, such as the cyclical view of time and the death/rebirth motif derived from the seasonal changes affecting vegetation. The history of science, in which some major discoveries were independently made, such as the invention of calculus by Newton and Leibniz, shows similarities can be explained by mechanisms besides cultural diffusion from a common source.
MACCOBY'S GENERAL TECHNIQUE EXAMINED
Maccoby's general technique needs specific examination. He manipulates the meaning of terms and ignores contrary evidence to describe Christianity as originating in heathenism. He denies Judaism or the Old Testament supplied any (sufficient) precedents Christianity may have built upon by making extreme general statements. Furthermore, he assumes that no new religious revelation is possible, that if it isn't like something in Judaism, it must be pagan derived and/or false. For example, he claims: "We must look for a parallel in [other] religions which had the concept of the salvific death and resurrection of a deity." He discounts or ignores partial precedents, such as (here) the resurrection of the widow's son by Elijah (I Kings 17) and the Suffering Servant (Isa. 53:8). Ironically, Maccoby accuses other scholars of routinely "snatching at fleeting parallels" in their "comparative study of Judaism and Christianity." But he makes even more superficial parallels between paganism and Christianity in The Mythmaker and Paul and Hellenism.[vi]
DID PAGAN “SAVIOR-GODS” AND JESUS DIE FOR THE SAME REASONS?
Attempting to find pagan parallels to Christ's death and resurrection, Maccoby cites Dionysus, Adonis, Attis, and Osiris. Only by consulting works, such as Machen's or especially Wagner's, which laboriously pick over the details of the alleged parallels, could the unwary readers of Maccoby know how shaky his generalizations really are. Wagner flatly denies such claims: "That Paul modeled his Christ 'myth' on the myths about other 'dying and rising' gods is now no more seriously held than is the derivation of . . . the resurrection on the third day from the mystery cults." Boulanger adds: "It is permitted to generalize even more: The idea that the god who dies and is resurrected in order to lead his faithful to eternal life doesn’t exist in any Hellenistic mystery religion."[vii]
A list of gods who (supposedly) died and came alive again neither proves that pagan and Christian soteriology are actually similar nor that the pagans attributed to these divine deaths the same meaning that Christians do to Christ's. Most of the likenesses are eliminated after peering underneath the cosmetic similarities between Jesus' and the pagan sun/savior gods’ deaths.[viii]
First of all, in no surviving myth or account did a supposedly dead god receive life three days later. Also only in Christianity did God in the flesh die for the sins of others, for humans breaking His law, as a vicarious, substitutionary atonement. As Wagner observes, none of the pagan gods intended to help men by dying through (for example) a hunting accident or self-castration. Furthermore, since the Greek gods were immortal, undying (cf. tragedy of Prometheus), they didn’t take on human fate and death, which Hengel perceives.[ix]
Unlike the pagan gods, Jesus died once for all time and all people (Hebrews 7:27; 9:25-28; 10:10-14). Because, to a Christian, the idea of His Savior having to die literally again and again is unbearably repugnant, it can't be an event that is repeated time and time again (like the seasonal vegetation cycle), just as creation and judgment day won't be repeated either. Consequently, Christianity denies the cyclical view of time and history, in which all the events of history will be literally repeated time and time again, a theory that pagans believed in nearly universally in some form. But like Judaism, Christianity upholds a linear view of time: It progresses from creation through the present to the Second Coming and Judgment Day.
Jesus' death also was an actual event in history. At a specific time and place He "suffered under Pontius Pilate," which is hardly the case for the death of the pagan gods of mythology, who died in some dim, undatable time and place.
Furthermore, Jesus died voluntarily (see John 10:11, 17-18) as no pagan god did. He sacrificed himself by intention from the beginning of His ministry (cf. Matt.16:23). By contrast, Juno's jealousy led to Dionysus's death, a plot of seventy-three conspirators slew Osiris, Attis mutilated himself under a pine tree, and a boar killed Adonis. None of these deaths were long-planned sacrificial deaths meant to save others from spiritual or even physical death. As J. Gresham Machen observes: "Osiris, Adonis, and Attis were overtaken by their fate; Jesus gave his life freely away. The difference is stupendous; it involves the very heart of the religion of Paul." [x]
Finally, Jesus' death was ultimately a triumph, not a defeat, because He rose from the dead, which allows all to be saved (justified) by His death, and saved (sanctified and later glorified) by His life (Rom. 5:8-10). The New Testament's sense of exultation concerning Jesus' ultimate fate sharply contrasts with the attitudes of the devotees of the Mysteries, "whose followers wept and mourned for the terrible fate that overtook their gods," as Nash remarks.[xi] Clearly, the specifics about why and how Jesus died sharply differ from the circumstances surrounding the deaths of various pagan gods.
CHRISTIANITY DID NOT GET ITS DOCTRINES FROM PAGANISM
Judaism's claims that Christianity got its doctrinal content mainly from pagan religion have been weighed and found wanting in this article. Their fundamental error is to use outmoded and/or biased scholarship, and to make superficial and/or anachronistic comparisons between pagan and Christian ceremonies and doctrines in order to conclude the latter came from the former. When they claim the beliefs of the mystery cults and Christianity are alike, they will have poor or even no direct evidence from the primary sources to prove their claims. They also systematically ignore or discount the Christian doctrines and ceremonies that have Jewish precedents, such as the Qumran sect’s multiple lustrations resembling Christian baptism. Then C.S. Lewis's insights can’t be casually dismissed: Whatever pagan religions and Christianity may have in common may reflect what highly limited religious truths human reason and emotion can find on their own.[xii] Besides consulting the books cited in the footnotes to this article, my book, A Zeal for God Not According to Knowledge: A Refutation of Judaism’s Against Christianity, can be ordered by those who want to know more against such claims. For it’s high time now to bury the Werde/Loisy/Bousset/Reitzenstein thesis that Christianity depended on the Mysteries for its doctrinal content or ceremonies, upon which the defenders of Judaism have hitched a ride, a thesis only sustainable through shallow, obsolete, irresponsible scholarship making frivolous, superficial, anachronistic comparisons.
[ii]Ronald H. Nash, The Gospel and the Greeks: Did the New Testament Borrow from Pagan Thought?, 9-10, 116-19; Riesenfeld in Davis and Daube, The Background of the New Testament and Its Eschatology, 81; See also McDowell and Wilson, He Walked Among Us, 175-97, (Craig), 283; Robert Morey, The Trinity: Evidence and Issues, 207-10; Fox, Pagans and Christians, 21-22.
[iii]See McDowell and Wilson, He Walked Among Us, 176-82, 179 (Anderson citation), 186-89, and Nash, Gospel and the Greeks, 171-72; See also 121-25, 128, 146; Metzger, "Methodology in the Study of the Mystery Religions and Early Christianity,” 13.
[iv]Gordon J. Laing, Survivals of Roman Religion, 125; Gunter Wagner, Pauline Baptism and the Pagan Mysteries, 266; On chronology and the taurobolium, see Nash, The Gospel and the Greeks, 142-43, 153-56, 176-78; Levine, You Take Jesus, I'll Take God, 40.
[vii]Maccoby, Paul and Hellenism, 71; see also 64-65, 78; Wagner, Pauline Baptism and the Pagan Mysteries, 269; my translation, André Boulanger, Orphée: Rapports de l’orphisme et du christianisme, 102.
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