Pagan Religions and the Development of Christianity
One theme that permeated my outside reading with relation to the early churcc is that God did not, and does not, leave himself unknown even among the Gentiles. Specifically, Paul relates in Romans that “since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities-his eternal power and divine nature-have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse.” (Romans 1:20) It appears that God did even more than that, planting seeds of truth among Gentiles regarding the death and resurrection of His Son, Jesus Christ. While Brian Moynahan in The Faith: A History of Christianity and, albeit less directly, Frank Slaughter in God’s Warrior, a work of fiction, may argue that Christian thought was influenced by Greek philosophy and certain pagan religions, it can also be argued that whatever insight Gentiles had concerning God came from God Himself. Regardless of the exposure Paul and others may have had to these other religions and philosophies, knowledge of a certain belief system does not necessarily mean influence on one’s own beliefs. Indeed, one can derive the gospel simply from the Old Testament writings without reference to any pagan belief system, as this essay will show. It will also argue that whatever similarities these other belief systems had with Christianity came not by accident, but through insight given by God Himself to pave the way for acceptance of the gospel of Jesus Christ.
However, before proceeding to argue against the claims of the above mentioned authors, it is necessary to more fully understand the claims of critics with regard to the theological underpinnings of Christianity. To do that, this essay will review some of the pagan religions and philosophical systems that some hypothesized played an important role in the formation of Christian thought and theology. One of the most intriguing religions of the sort is the cult of Mithras.
Initiation into the cult apparently involved bathing in a bull’s blood. The prospective initiate descended into a pit while a bull is sacrificed in a grate above his head and its blood pours down to cover him. Some see this as a precursor to the Christian emphasis on justification through the blood of Christ (Romans 5:9). For example, the statement that “they have washed their robes and made the white in the blood of the Lamb” (Rev 7:14) may indicate to some that Paul and other church founders arrived at their notion of Christ’s death and blood setting Christians free from sin and death through these other religions. When combined with the fact that the pagan world celebrated Mithras’ birth on December 25, a case against Christ can be built by some to argue against the divine revelation of the gospel which Paul claimed (Gal 1:11-12).
Other apparent similarities between Christian thought and pagan religions exist in the so-called ‘mystery religions.’ Only initiates into the cult receive the mystery and were privy to its secrets. It seems, though, based on suggestions made in God’s Warrior by Frank Slaughter that initiates may have made plays unveiling the mystery. One such play, he contends, Paul witnessed while living in Tarsus. The basic plot involved a struggled between a young man-god and Pluto, the guardian of the underworld. At the climax of the play, Pluto plunged a knife into the young man-god’s chest, killing him. The guardian of the underworld attempted to drag off the body, but was halted by the goddess, Demeter. In response to cries from her daughter, Persephone, Demeter banished Pluto and raised the young man-god from the dead. At the close of the play, the narrator called for the audience to take heed, for “as the young god was saved, so comes salvation for us from suffering and death.” (Slaughter, p.39) While none of my reading verified this account, it appears that the Eleusinian mysteries involved a struggle between Demeter and Pluto that revolved around her daughter, Persephone. In this version, the guardian of the underworld stole Persephone and reunion with the deity only came through the resurrection of the daughter. (King, Jr., 1950) Regardless of which account is correct, certain similarities between the mystery religions, including the Mithraic cult and the Eleusinian mysteries, are apparent.
Moreover, certain philosophies are claimed to have influenced Christian thought. The most prominent of these philosophies is Stoicism. One famous teacher of this philosophy named Nestor may have taught in Tarsus while Paul dwelled in that city. The author of God’s Warrior, Frank Slaughter, suggests that Paul may have studied under Nestor for a time before traveling to Jerusalem to study under Gamaliel, thereby becoming well acquainted with the philosophy. According to Stoic philosophy, something called Logos, a word or reason that some, like Brian Moynahan, the author of The Faith: A History of Christianity, see as similar to the Holy Spirit, permeates the universe and determines the nature of things. Humans in this philosophy are a particle of Logos and derive their knowledge of matters human and divine from it. Moynahan claims that the opening lines of the gospel of John-“in the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God”-show a familiarity with Stoicism. Also like Christianity, Stoics saw a nobility and purpose in suffering. The chief philosopher in Stoicism, Seneca, wrote that all outward calamity is a “divine instrument” that “trained a man to exercise his spirit in indifference to worldly setbacks.” (Moynahan p. 29) In light of that revelation, many link Paul’s assertion that “we rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope” (Romans 5:3-4) to the early Stoic philosophy.
Further similarities exist between expressed Stoic philosophy and the basic theology of the New Testament. Stoics believed in a form of immortality and that the death of the body only signified the beginning of the true life of the soul. (Moynahan, p. 29) Seneca wrote, indeed, that the “body is not a permanent dwelling, but a sort of inn (with a brief sojourn at that) which is to be left behind when one perceives that one is a burden to the host.” (Moynahan, p. 29) While the philosophy did not speak of the resurrection of the dead, the belief in immortality and some of the phrasing behind it indicate to some an influence by the philosophy. Also, according to Moynahan, at the same time as the Gospels were penned another Stoic moralist expressed other ideas that bore likeness to Christian thought. Apparently, he taught that “love and forbearance must be extended even to enemies” and that “whoever would be good must first realize that he is evil.” (Moynahan p. 30)
In the book God’s Warrior, Frank Slaughter posits that Paul met with Seneca himself during his house imprisonment and therefore had a chance to share the gospel with him. During the meetings that ensued, Seneca expressed similar notions to those presented by modern day critics of Christianity, essentially suggesting that the various similarities between Paul’s gospel and these other religions are not accidental. He hypothesized, in effect, that Paul’s interpretation of the life and teachings of Jesus of Nazareth came as an “amalgam of his strict Jewish upbringing, his early contact with Greek philosophical thought, and the often murky concepts of the mystery religions, with their symbolic rituals encompassing sacrifice, resurrection, and the promise of eternal life.” (Slaughter p. 353)
Indeed, God’s Warrior suggests even more, claiming that the basic revelation Paul received concerning Jesus serving as a sacrifice for our sins arrived not directly from Jesus nor by way of the Old Testament Scriptures, but after observing a pagan religious event. Basically, Paul, according to this book, witnessed a human sacrifice at the Great High Place of the Nabateans after he escaped from Damascus to Arabia. He received this vision, not directly by seeing it with his own eyes, but while in the great shine of Petra. It appeared to him in a great black obsidian stone and showed a man sacrificed at the altar of this religion to redeem the people for another year through the death of the young man. One can argue, based on the author’s description of this event, that the revelation did, indeed, come from God directly for it came in a vision, but the way that the vision is described could easily lend to the opposite argument that these pagan religions shaped Paul’s theology. His ‘vision’, one could claim, arose not as a revelation from God, but through thought and meditation on a concept. In any case, the scene does not convince one that Jesus of Nazareth is indeed the Christ, the Messiah sent to the Jews to save them from their sins. Instead, it appears to argue that Paul’s visions were an amalgam of his Jewish heritage and certain Greek and other pagan philosophies and religions.
No matter how convincing the above arguments are for influences on Christian theology from outside Scripture itself and the Lord Jesus’ own testimony, one can easily argue from the opposite viewpoint. That is, Paul and the other pillars of the Christian church, most of whom were Jewish, received their revelation either directly from Jesus’ words or from the evidence present in what now is called the Old Testament. Perhaps the most powerful of such evidence is given in Isaiah 52:5, “…he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him and by his wounds we are healed.” Paul, trained as a Pharisee, surely knew of this prophecy and, therefore, attempts to argue that his views of the Messiah arose not necessarily from Scripture but from pagan religions lack weight.
Moreover, as a Jew steeped in Jewish traditions and rituals, he had abundant training in the sacrificial system of the Israelites. In particular, when Paul refers to “what the law was powerless to do in that it was weakened by the sinful nature, God did by sending His own Son in the likeness of sinful man to be a sin offering” Romans (8:3), he must have had the Day of Atonement in mind. On this day, one goat was slaughtered for the sins of the people of Israel while another goat bore the weight of the sins and carried it off to a far away place. (Lev 16) This practice had been instituted once a year to cleanse the people of Israel. On that day, Israel would be clean before the Lord from all its sins. This practice, performed each year “on the tenth day of the seventh month” (Lev 16:29), served as a ritual cleansing from sin and an outward justification from sin.
Yet, God clearly had something further in mind, for Ezekiel prophesied a time when God would give His people “a new heart and put a new spirit within you.” (Ezekiel 36:26) The law had provided outward justification for the Israelites and peace with God so long as it had been fulfilled by them. Still, the law proved powerless to transform men’s hearts and cast sin far from them in truth. In His wisdom, God foresaw the need for something else, a new covenant with the nation of Israel. He knew that He would have cleanse Israel from its sins and the prophet Jeremiah spoke of this when he said, “I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts.” (Jer 31:33) The sacrificial system with which Paul was so well acquainted was not sufficient. Something else needed to be done and when the author of Hebrews refers to Jesus offering for “all time one sacrifice for sins” he refers not to pagan traditions, nor does he appeal to pagans but to Jews steeped in Jewish heritage. Likewise, when Paul refers to Jesus as a sin offering, he does not speak of the mystery cults, but to God abolishing the sacrificial system because it did not suffice to cleanse man from his sins. God needed a more perfect sacrifice, Jesus, and Paul, fully aware of Scripture, knew that the entire sacrificial system pointed not to an end in itself but to the Lamb of God, Jesus Christ.
There are some who might argue, though, that to Jews the idea of human sacrifice was appalling. While Jewish beliefs did indeed hold human sacrifice to be abhorrent, Isaiah spoke of a man “led like a lamb to the slaughter.” (Isaiah 53:7) The prophet speaks of this “suffering servant” further when he says “it was the Lord’s will to crush him and cause him to suffer.” (Isaiah 53:10) So that none may misconstrue that statement as merely indicating punishment, Isaiah says that “he was assigned a grave with the wicked.” (Isaiah 53:9) As appalling as the idea of human sacrifice may have been, one of the prophets of Israel clearly spoke of one human suffering unto death at the hands of God. The one who suffered did so that by “his wounds we are healed.” (Isa 53:5) For a Jew to accept the idea of the Messiah dying as a sacrificial offering to God only required that they accept the prophecy of Isaiah as deriving from God. Indeed, the passage even mentions that “the Lord makes his life a guilt offering.” (Isa 53:10) For Paul to preach a gospel centered around a crucified Messiah offered as a sacrifice for our sins required simple revelation of the Scriptures in question. When he speaks of Christ as the Passover Lamb (1 Cor 5:7) he merely applies the Jewish teaching he knew so well to his understanding of the Christ. Nothing beyond knowledge of the Old Testament and the history of God’s interaction with His chosen people, Israel, is needed to account for the basic gospel account Paul shared freely.
Yet, despite the evidence from the Old Testament, some may wonder why such similarities exist at all between the gospel Paul preached and these pagan philosophies and religions. These arguments likely come from the same people who argue that Moses derived the Ten Commandments not from God but from Hammurabai’s Code more than a millennium before. Such individuals cannot conceive how two different belief systems can seem so much alike in certain ways without deriving one from the other. Some may go so far as to suggest that Paul simply copied the thought systems of these other cultures to extend Jewish culture and religion beyond the realm of Jews. One can demolish an argument along those lines simply by comparing the Christianity Paul preached with, say, Stoic philosophy. Paul’s enjoinder to the Philippians to “rejoice in the Lord always” (Phi 4:4) has no counterpart in Stoic philosophy, for that same philosophy elevated reason above all emotions and named joy “as reprehensible as anger, sorrow, or greed.” (Slaughter, p. 24) If one were attempt to construct a similar command in Stoic philosophy, it would read, “Think calmly according to Logos always. I will say it again: think calmly.” Clearly, the two belief systems hold similarities, but the essential nature of the two is vastly different.
The more reasonable sounding argument that rather than an explicit imitation, exposure to pagan religions and philosophies influenced Christian thinking in more subtle ways is harder to dismiss. As mentioned above, some claim that ‘Paul’s gospel’ consisted of an amalgam of Jewish religion and pagan ideas and not true revelation from God. It strikes us as reasonable that exposure to pagan ideas had at least some influence on the way the early Christians thought about and understood the gospel message. Yet, the basic argument itself is flawed. They point to the similarities between Christianity and certain pagan notions and assume that one must have come from the other, but simply because one person learned how to sew and weave in one part of the world and another person learned the same does not mean one learned from the other, no matter whether the two people are neighbors or not. In the language of statistics, correlation does not prove causation and so the argument made by pundits with regard to Christianity’s origin fails on purely logical grounds.
However, this essay argues another hypothesis, namely that the correlation between pagan religions and philosophies of the time and Christian theology did not arise by chance. Rather, instead of prevailing pagan ideas shaping Christian theology or vice versa, both sprang from God. One source, a transcript of a paper written by Martin Luther King Jr., noted that “the mystery religions paved the way for the presentation of Christianity to the world of that time. They prepared the people mentally and emotionally to understand the type of religion which Christianity represented.” (King, Jr., 1950) The writer further goes on to contend that these religions, in different degrees, represented “imperfect examples” of Christianity. It seems as if these pagan philosophies and religions represented a truth seen but darkly, a skewed reflection in a mirror not revealing the true figure but a portion of it, enough for people to recognize the real thing when it appeared to them. Some may argue that these pagan religions, rather than preparing the pagan world for the gospel, were, in fact, a scheme devised by the devil to twist the truth about Jesus and prevent the Gentiles from receiving the truth. Based on the impact the gospel had in transforming the pagan world in the first century and a half of its existence, that argument lacks the power to convince. Instead, it seems more likely that God prepared the way ahead of the apostles and other disciples to transform fallow ground into fertile farmland where the seed of God’s Word could grow, producing a crop that would yield a “hundred, sixty, or thirty times what was sown.” (Matthew 13:23) Whereas God sent John the Baptist to the Jews to prepare the way of the Lord, he sent glimmers of truth to the Gentiles that took the form of mystery religions to pave the way for Jesus in the pagan world.
In conclusion, though some argue that prevailing philosophies and religions in the pagan world shaped Christian thought and theology, I encountered no convincing evidence or argument to prove this point. Instead, a strong case can be made that the gospel message itself derived from the Old Testament, that is from the writings of Moses and the prophets. If one closely examines the words of these men, one can find the basic gospel and the truth about Jesus without requiring reference to Gentile influence. Still, the seeming correlation between Christian preaching and these other religions begs the question whether somehow the two systems of belief are interrelated. While correlation does not prove causation, coincidence proves intriguing. In this case, though, the argument favors an alternative source for these ideas. One did not spring from the other, but both derived from God. Much like God sending John the Baptist to prepare the way of the Lord, He sent glimmers of truth to the pagan to pave the way for the good news. To prove this point would perhaps be impossible, but circumstantial evidence regarding the impact of the gospel on the pagan world, especially the Greek world, at that time appears convincing and would, if true, further confirm the truth that God intended the gospel not only for Jews but for Gentiles.
Moynahan, Brian. The Faith: A History of Christianity. New York, NY: Doubleday, 2002.
Slaughter, Frank G. God’s Warrior. Garden City, NY: Doubleday & CO, Inc., 1967.
King, Jr., Martin Luther. “The Influence of the Mystery Religions on Christianity.” 500215: The Influence of Mystery Religions on Christianity. 15 February 1950. Martin Luther King Papers Project. 15 February 2005. <http://www.stanford.edu/group/King/publications/papers/vol1/500215-The_Influence_of_the_Mystery_Religions_on_Christianity.htm>
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This is a terrific and well-researched article and I would love to see more like it. Thank you for introducing me to this concept of King's, I was not aware of it. It seems to parallel a concept that C.S. Lewis put forth about the Druids. In addition to your suggestion that both ideologies came from God, it could also be said that God does not give laws without purpose, and pagan beliefs might come forth out of a utilitarianism of sorts. Why do all mammals have similar spines? Not because they are related, but because the design works. These ideologies, when tested, would also work whether they were tested by Christians or not. I've gone on long enough. One tiny comment, you had several misspellings, but other than that magnificent work!