Paganism and Christianity
By: J. Marlando
When I was a kid I was fortunate in that my mother did not try and indoctrinate me into her religion—she was a non-active Episcopalian. After going to a number of different denominations, at around seven or eight I chose to be baptized Catholic. I was very devout as a boy but once I got over the pageantry and mystery of it all, that devotion waned and I went for years not interested in religion whatsoever. Then during the 1960s I was introduced to Zen Buddhism. I began meditating and became hooked on Eastern spiritual thought. Today I talk of seeking Christ/Buddha consciousness as my spiritual quest although, these days, I am not as devoted to the search as perhaps I should be. Nevertheless, the above is a brief accounting of my “religious” history although I’ve always had a strong intellectual interest in the study of both Paganism and Christianity.
In this particular article I am not going to attempt to cover native traditions such as the spirituality of the American Indian but rather I will attempt to give an accounting of our historic ties to our own religious/spiritual past. And so please expect the unexpected.
The Roots of Paganism
Paganism began long before the dawning of civilization. Indeed, it is obvious that the hunter/gatherers of prehistoric times developed superstitions and beliefs based on their close association with Nature. As a result, nearly everything mysterious or magnificent was given a sprit or god. There was the sun god, a thunder god, a tree god and so forth. To our very ancient ancestors spiritual life dwelled in all things—as a quick aside, a great many millenniums later, that is, in our own times, a great many quantum physicists are agreeing that there is a degree of consciousness in everything including the stones—so the spiritual and spatial belonged equally to the reality of the prehistoric mind and heart.
We do not know precisely when spiritual image making came about since there might have been wooden carvings made that have simply rotted away. However, we do know that around 22,000 years ago that the Venus of Willendorf was sculpted in stone.
Shamanism in one form or other probably existed millenniums before Paleolithic times (the Old Stone Age) when cave art evolved. (As a point of interest many American Indian tribes had both male and female medicine people but also homosexuals, called “man/woman” were regarded highly as having many special powers). In any case, a vital role of the shaman was his or her ability to enter the spiritual—invisible—world and be given wisdom by the spirits themselves.
When prehistoric people began to farm and so develop villages they brought their spirituality with them and so, as a result, the earliest civilizations were animistic (the belief that Nature has a soul) and it was upon this rock that the earliest “religions” were born.
The Roots of Christianity
Christianity was probably born a mystery cult; an offshoot of traditional Judaism. There is no historical proof that Jesus existed at all but there are certain signals that there was indeed a historical Jesus; a rabbi or teacher that chastised the Judaism of his day primarily because the Pharisees of his time (the spiritual fathers of Judaism) and the Sadducees (the priestly elite) had become egocentric and self-serving.
However, it is impossible to know what is true and what isn’t when it comes to the life of Jesus. Even the gospels were written 30 to 100 years after his death (probably translated in Greek from either oral accounts or accounts penned in Aramaic) but, without doubt whatsoever, corrupted by Church of Rome’s scholars to shade them in Catholic reasoning. Historically the Roman historian and senator Tacitus who was not even born until at least 50 years after the death of Jesus, refers to the historical Jesus in his writing but mostly with apparent doctoring by the Church’s intellectuals. As a result we can’t really know what is true, what is myth, what is metaphor and what is fabricated about Jesus’s life.
As for the crucifixion it is doubted by a great many more scholars and researches than accepted. For one thing Rome kept exquisite records and there are no recording of such an execution being carried out and there is no historic accounting in Jewish records either. On the other hand, I am convinced that Jesus was crucified primarily because his trial and sentencing arrived in such a short time that he attacked the Temple's aistocrats turning over tables and chased away the pigeon dealers. But it is far more complex than this: the Temple referred to isn’t our mental image of a place of worship like a church. The Temple was gigantic, a place of trade, of business and banking even housing people. And, the place was constantly under watch by both Roman and Jewish guards. How Jesus (and those with him) held this place at bay for even a day we will never know but it was clearly a blatant act of sedition. That is, an act to provoke rebellion against government and religious authority. This is precisely why the crucifixion begins to make historic sense.
Incidentally, we can assume that at least a few of Jesus’s followers had entered the temple with him. According to historian Joel Carmichael, Simon the “rock,” Simon “the Zealot, John and Jacob Ben-Zavdi (the sons of Rage) were all known as Kingdom of God activists.
In any case, it is probably safe to say that a majority of historians and religious scholars today believe that Jesus was an Essene. I agreed for a long time until I actually thought about it. Jesus was, if you will, a rebel not a recluse; a Jew seeking reform not more religious rigidity. He ate and drank with the lowest echelon of his society, defied the elite, welcomed women in his following—a taboo at the time. He was militant in some ways but also he preached love and forgiveness, turning one’s cheek, Good Samarian-ism and treating others as we would be treated.In all these things he was THE Messiah at least in potential. After all, had the world simply learned from and practiced his teachings the Jew’s would have seen the lasting peace among all people that they had hoped and prayed for.
With the above aside, however, it appears that after Jesus’s death or retreat from the front lines of religious-socio rebellion that at least some of his followers did not disband but rather began growing their following. Certainly Thomas and Mary Magdalene were among them. Some scholars believe that the earliest Christian cult called themselves, “The Nazarenes.” It was outsiders who began calling them Christians as a nickname or slang term. (Actually the term Christ arrives from the Greek word “Christos,” meaning “anointed.” Jesus evolved into being called Jesus Christ or, in other words, Jesus the Anointed one).
The early Christians were quite novel for their time since they were neither Jewish nor Pagan. While the Nazarenes (if indeed that is what they called themselves) accepted the one god concept, Jesus was revered as being a manifestation of godliness as even he called himself the Son of Man and made no claims of being a God on earth. He did say, “The father and I are one” but this obviously referred to the “oneness” of all things something sages and other wise and holy persons had been teaching for centuries if not millenniums. Indeed, this connectedness to All was no doubt the basis for the earliest shamans. In fact, in the Gospel of Thomas Jesus says:
I am the light which is over everything
I am the all; from me the All has gone forth,
And to me the All has return
Split wood: I am there.
Lift up the stone, and you will find me there.
This is obviously a profound statement and gives us a clear idea of Jesus’ connectedness to the spiritual, if you will to universal mind but this would never be adopted as part of the very Christianity that formed itself in his name. Indeed, as the Nazarene movement grew and became more and populated, they spread into the Pagan Roman territories and no doubt began to politicalize their religiosity. When their numbers (and influences) began to be noticed by the Roman authority the roots of Christianity, as we know it today, began to emerge.
Pagan and Christian: Basic Differences and Similarities
Pagans are polytheistic (believing in many gods) while Christians are not (believing in one god).
Pagans view the universe (and so Nature) as being manifestations of the divine while Christians interpret the universe (And so nature) as more of a “fallen” creation.
Pagans revere the divine principle of the feminine and worship the Goddess while Christians revere the divine masculine principle and worship a God.
As a quick aside the church was extremely slow in formally acknowledging the Immaculate Conception which occurred in 1854. Pope Pius IX declared that Mary, the mother of Jesus, was herself conceived free from original sin. Mary’s assumption into heaven, however, was not defined until the 1950s by Pope Pius XII but most importantly Mary was not proclaimed the Mother of the Church until 1964. Not Protestanism or Catholicism put much emphasis on Mary who is ironically, sometimes also referred to as the mother of God. Modern day cults such as Mormonism are openly chauvinistic and non-worshipping of the mother of Jesus.
Pagans are typically Goddess-centered while Christians are God centered. (In modern paganism gender seldom plays a role in the divine; the divine masculine and feminine are in oneness).
Pagans celebrate the divine in Nature while Christians take God out of Nature: Pagans believe that the divine is part of human experience while Christians teach that the divine dwells outside the human experience.
Pagans have, by and large, changed in modernism in that the polytheism of ancient times (the belief in many gods) has changed to believing in a single spirit as permeating everything—today this single spirit is commonly referred to as “Mind” or “Consciousness.” Modern Christians still maintain that the one God is outside Nature and beyond time; that “He” is an observer and judge but not a direct participant in the workings of the world as He is said to have been during the Old Testament days. (Indigenous paganism, however, maintains ties to the ancient beliefs).
Additional note: Only Christianity, Judaism and Islam are considered non-pagan religions except for Buddhism which remains in a category of its own. Christianity, Judaism and Islam all trace their origins back to Abraham and worship the same God.
Sketches of Paganism as History
Before Abraham and Judaism the world was entirely Pagan and had been since before the advent of civilization. Paganism seems to have changed over time as community life slowly became more sophisticated…and organized. The earliest city/states were ruled by god/kings and by then shamans had become high priests. High Priests were not only in charge of the city’s rituals and sacrifices but often the wars declared against other city/states and villages. Ancient European (civilized) Paganism was not the spiritual, passive and meditative practice we may think of it as being today but rather it was a greedy, self-aggrandizing war machine with the belief in war gods leading them to victory and…booty.
Space does not permit attempting to describe the transition period from tribal Paganism to bureaucratic Paganism but one of the most successful, ancient civilizations was Crete, clearly a goddess worshipping society although, it seems, it was not strictly a matriarchy but rather there existed an equality between the masculine and feminine natures. This can certainly also be said of Catal Huyuk, the early civilization in what is now known as South Central Turkey. Not unlike the Cretans they worshipped the goddess and yet maintain a balance of power between priests and Priestesses. Interesting enough both were powerful cultures in terms of wealth, religion and even strength. Crete had a mighty navy but these were not warring people. Indeed, the historian Riane Eisler points out that the earlier societies that, “In sharp contrast to later art, a theme notable for its absence from Neolithic art is imagery idealizing armed might, cruelty and violence-based power. There are no images of ‘noble’ warriors or scenes of battles. Nor are there any signs of ‘heroic conquerors’ dragging captives around in chains or other evidences of slavery.”
As the mainland Greek culture(s) expanded however the goddess slowly gave way to the god. Unlike traditional goddess/god relationships, Zeus was not thought of as a mere offspring of the Mother Goddess but an independent principle who was worshipped in his own right. By this time the Jews had abolished goddess worship and the Hebrew tribes had been organized under Leviticus warrior-priests who began instigating wars of conquest.
Then evolved the popularity of a different god: This god was known to have been born in a cave by a virgin mother on December 25th; he was identified with the ram or lamb and was called liberator and savior. We are talking about Dionysus the Greek deity who brought the great gift of wine to mankind. He would sometimes also be worshiped in the form of a bull.
When Christianity evolved they changed the image of the Sacred Bull
This was not, by any means, a new mythology—there were gods said to be born of virgin mothers, in caves of underground chambers, called healers and saviors and who descended into hell and rose again such as Hercules amidst the Romans, Mithra among the Persians, Adonis and Attis in Syria and Osiris and Isis in Egypt.
In the meantime another civilization had emerged in around 700 BCE in Austria—those tribal people would become known as the Celts
The Celts did not build temples but worshiped their gods in the woods in what were called sacred groves where they would sometimes carve their gods using tree trunks. Their enemies were known to destroy these ‘holy places.” Indeed, it is known that Julius Caesar ordered the sacred groves cut down in a site near Marseilles but this was no uncommon practice. What is perhaps most interesting is that the Celts made no distinction between male and female rulers.
The Druids were the tribe’s moral philosophers, judges and arbitrators of private and public disputes—it is also thought that they were the tribe’s scientists and made the calls when to go to war. The Celts were a warring people!
Even the Romans were appalled by the Druids practices of human sacrifices, however. Indeed, both Claudius and Tiberius attempted to stop the religious practices of the Druids but, it seems, failed to do much more than diminish the hideous practices of human sacrificial rites. On this regard, it seems, at least in Wales, the Druid Priests and Priestesses are said to have learned their sacred knowledge from the fairies.
To savor space we must take a gigantic historic leap to post Roman days now and the Christian movement.
Sketches of Christianity as History
As far as we can tell, the earliest Christians were nearly as political as they were religious. While a great many of the Nazarenes (if indeed that’s what they called themselves) entered Roman territories, they were hostile to Roman rule. This is easily understood, the Nazarenes were Jews and the Romans had enslaved them and corrupted their Jewish homeland.
As said earlier the Nazarenes were unique during the first years of the Common Era since they could not be categorized as followers of Judaism or Paganism. Jesus of course was their icon and their religious focus but the irony is that Jesus was apparently a person devoted to Jewish religious purity was an advocate of John the Baptist who was militantly against Roman occupation and those elitist Jews who profited from selling out to the Romans as followers of YHWH (Yahweh). Baptism, back then, however, was not what most people believe that it was: John the Baptist was a militant who preached the “way of the Torah” and “The Kingdom of God,” and was a seditionist, often violent. When Jesus was baptized by him, he was being initiated into John the Baptist’s socio-religious causes not being ordained God’s chosen one as the movies depict. Baptism itself comes from the Greek, baptism synienai which means a rite of being initiated into some association. Jesus was becoming “in association” with John the Baptist
According to (Matt. 11.11) Jesus considered John the Baptist the greatest man ever born of woman. In any case, their alliance occurred during the time of Pilate’s term in office. John the Baptist, however, was soon arrested for sedition by Herod Antipas and put to death. It would not be more than three years later that Jesus is said to have been sentenced and put to death.
Evidently the “Nazarene” (call them Christians) movement began to grow after Jesus’s execution. Indeed, many of them were excommunicated from Judaism for their devotion to Jesus and his teachings. We must recall of course that, many of Jesus’s teachings were anti-authority both secular and religious. In any case, many no doubt felt the necessity to migrate and migration would be easy since the Roman territories would expand all the way to Rome.
The Nazarenes, if you will, entered Rome with a chip on their shoulders. First the Romans were Pagans and secondly Rome had corrupted and overtaxed their homeland. The early “Christians,” however, were not at all violent even though they often referred to themselves as warriors of Christ Jesus. This was probably the reason the Romans began calling the Nazarenes, “Christians” which would have been a negative term at the time. After all, the Nazarenes were teaching anti-Roman rule and anti-Paganism, both dangerous occupations in ancient Rome. Nevertheless it seems that the Christian influence kept growing and now Pagans were being baptized into Christ. While I have not been able to trace, historically, when the Christians changed from being a movement into a religion, but that transference probably occurred in Rome when Jesus’s teachings began being taught in private homes by “elders” of the movement.
As an aside, this brings us to an interesting observation: Part of the early teachings of the Christians was the ideas of sin, guilt and redemption. This would have been a brand new concept for the Pagans since they lacked the idea of wrong doing much less sin. There were even some pre-Roman Pagan rituals that honored a person before his burial for his keen thievery and other dastardly deeds during his lifetime. There was of course a morality amidst the Pagans such as faith in the deities and making sacrifices and so forth. Incidentally, Pagans had no devil concept either. The Devil is a construct of Christianity and shared by the Muslims. In Judaism there is no personage of an evil one. Indeed, the Hebrew word “Satin” merely means “adversary” and is thought to be one’s own inclination to do wrong.
Anyway, as we all know, Christians eventually came to be looked upon as enemies of the empire and many chose to be martyrs than to bow before the idols of Paganism, including the emperor himself. Nevertheless, as we also know, Christianity was destined to become the official Church of Rome.
Christian Versus Pagan
Roman Paganism was extremely snobbish and class conscious; the most successful and powerful government and army that was known. It had been Hellenized just as Judaism had but, at the same time, it had created its own philosophy, religion and imperialism; it was a conscientious Republic led, at the time, by Constantine! He had a conflict at home, however. His mother had been baptized a Christian.
By then Christianity was no longer a small, social revolutionary movement. What happened is this: In the year 311 A.D., the Caesar, Galerius, after spending a lifetime persecuting the Christians, took a new turn on his deathbed and, according to Jones and Pennick, “…issued an edict and this was the a turning-point in religious history.” The Christians did something that the Pagans had never really done…organize!
By the time of Constantine “the church” was a massive, well-organized religion and the seeds of future Catholicism had been planted. No doubt greatly influenced by his mother, Constantine announced that he had had a divine dream telling him to paint the Christian Chi-Rho sign on his soldiers’ shields
In 337 when Constantine was on his deathbed, he finally agreed to be baptized. Afterwards Constantine’s three sons put a ban on Pagan sacrifices and all Pagan rituals; observing a Pagan day of celebration became a capital offence. These bans were lifted, however, in 349 to the delight of the majority Roman population…the Pagans. Then in 363 Christianity became Rome’s official religion again. By 394, when the Church of Rome had grown into a massive, organized political force, Pagans were forced underground. Soon thereafter they began losing many of their civil rights and were even banned from Imperial Service. Organization had given political and religious rise to Catholicism.
The Church began an intense campaign to convert the Pagans, however. This included adopting certain Pagan rites and rituals which they had done all along their way in any case. In fact, some of the coincidences between Pagan and Christian rituals remain uncanny. For example, The story of Jesus itself corresponds to many stories of Sun gods all born on December 25th just after the winter solace. There is the nailing to the cross (or tree); the empty grave and resurrection just as is told of Osiris, Attis and other Pagan gods mentioned earlier. There is the Nativity of the Virgin on the 15th of August and of the Nativity of the Virgin on the 8th of September…All corresponding to the movement of god through Virgo. And, as Carpenter reports, “The church dedicates the very day of the winter solace (when one may very naturally doubt the rebirth of the sun) to St, Thomas, who doubted the truth of the resurrection.” Indeed, the use of holy water and incense were all originally Pagan rites.
There are simply many corresponding dates and rituals that Pagans and Christians share. Far too many to attribute them to coincidence! In fact, the church was absolutely against goddess worship but finally a church was dedicated to Mary (the mother of god) but on the very spot where Diana’s temple stood. Indeed, Mary’s procession used smoke and burning torches which had long before been used for Diana’s procession. Finally, the church took at least a few Pagan deities and renamed them saints: The goddess Freya became Maria….the Norse god Baldur, renamed St. Michael…Thor became St, Olaf and so on.
In the end Christian and Pagan came to blows so to speak—they burned one another’s churches or temples; they attacked one another viciously leaving streams of blood throughout the land. The church was far too powerful for the Pagans to combat, however, and so they soon enough became a shadow religion. Then the insanity of criminal “heresy” evolved followed by the inquisition during which people were imprisoned, tortured and murdered while their property and other valuables were being confiscated. But by then another Mad-hatter-religion was growing. It would become the other half of the so-called “holy” Crusades.
And the rest is (also) history.
I personally find the study of world religions fascinating. I have been at it for some time and while I support all those with religions of their own, I am convinced that the greatest truth is within each of us. I cannot justify worldly doctrine or dogma although I suspect that some personalities are given comfort by them. As for Jesus—it is my belief that his teachings are of great value to all of us as individuals and as nations. What could be more positive and productive in our world more than loving one’s neighbor as oneself?
References and suggested further reading
Carmichael, Joel * The Birth of Christianity * Dorset Press
Eisler, Riane * The Chalice & the Blade *Harper & Row
Grant, Robert & Freeman, Noel David * The Secret Saying of Jesus * Barnes & Noble
Jones, Prudence & Pennick, Nigel * A History of Pagan Europe * Barnes & Noble
If you enjoyed this article you will proably also enjoy:
Amazon Price: $19.98 $17.72 Buy Now
(price as of Feb 19, 2016)