In terms of the core of its teachings, the orthodox Church evolved principally from the teachings of Jesus Christ… but the dogma in which it has entrenched itself has strayed far from what Jesus intended in terms of his mission. And there is no doubt that much of this dogma was rooted in earlier pagan myths and rituals.
Political manipulations, sectional disagreements within the Church itself, and the interpretations and misinterpretations of scribes through the centuries have further widened the rift between the teachings of Christ and the Church’s expressed views.
For any institution to survive through the centuries, it needs to keep up with changes in society and take account of new information that throws light on the accuracy and relevance of its beliefs. The Church has been slow to do this. There is concern among many Catholics that even today the Church refuses to reconsider its position on crucial issues like contraception, celibacy and women priests.
At the same time, however, the influence of the pagan past is clearly to be seen in many aspects of Christianity, not only because the past cannot simply be thrown off entirely when new ideas begin to prevail, but because the Church deliberately imposed some of its rituals and days of celebration over major pagan ceremonies in order to obliterate earlier religious practices and beliefs that were unacceptable to it.
By the middle of the second century, the ‘Nazarenes’ – those who followed the teachings of Jesus and later of his brother James – were being persecuted by Pauline Christians who were well into the developing orthodoxy that was to be cemented by the Council at Nicaea in 325 AD. Christianity had become much more the religion of Paul’s view of Jesus than the religion of Jesus himself.
The Council of Nicaea is largely seen now as a calling together by Constantine of Christian representatives – both orthodox and sectarian – in order to create a unified Christianity to stabilise the weakening Empire. It was, in fact, attended also by leading figures from all the pagan religions in the Roman Empire because it was Constantine’s intention to create a universal (“catholic”) religion for the Empire, and he was not inclined to be too tolerant of any group who opposed this.
In order for pagan cults to be willing to be drawn into the ‘universal’ religion planned by Constantine, they had to feel assured that certain of their rituals would persist and some of their major feast days continue to be observed, even if under different names.
Pagan fertility ceremonies became blessings of the fields under the spiritual guidance of priests. The Eastern Orthodox Church had a tradition of sharing dyed and painted eggs as symbols of life renewed when Christ rose from the tomb, but the Easter tradition of eggs and rabbits had actually been taken over from fertility rites celebrated by pagan religions. ‘Virgin’ births were celebrated in pagan religions long before the story of Mary, mother of Jesus, and resurrections of fertility gods in nature religions were ritually observed long before the resurrection of Christ. There is nothing sacrilegious in saying that many Christian beliefs were in the long line of old and honoured religious tradition.
Imposing new Christian traditions over older pagan ones was favoured as a way of drawing formerly pagan believers into the Church. Many of our rituals stem from pagan rites; for instance, confetti thrown during celebrations and rice thrown at bride and groom arose from the practice of throwing grains of wheat and barley during pagan processions.
The months of our Christian calendar are named after Roman gods and Roman Caesars. With the exception of the Roman origin of Saturday (Saturn’s Day), the days of the week are named after Germanic gods.
The Church realised that the most effective way of eventually eliminating pagan beliefs – or at least rendering them ineffective as threats – was to superimpose Christian celebrations over them. The assumption of many of the pagan rituals gradually became so embedded in the dogma and traditions of Christianity that their pagan origin was either unknown to later Christians or no longer mattered.
The Christian Church in the years following on Nicaea was therefore a mix of several shades of belief and by no means orthodox. Orthodoxy had been imposed by Constantine, but belief came about more slowly. The sign of the fish had been ousted in favour of the Cross, and the new focus was on the suffering of Christ for the sins of mankind.
The Church of Antioch had been founded in Asia Minor about 36AD by James, Peter and Thomas. Church leaders were outraged by the goings-on at Nicaea and withdrew from the Council.
Even the earlier religion of the Israelites from which Christianity borrowed much had in turn borrowed many beliefs from contemporary and earlier pagan religions, including the story of Noah and the Flood. Orthodox Christianity’s way of presenting Mother and Child echoes the Egyptian goddess Isis and the child Horus from the powerful cult of Isis which also celebrated the resurrection of her husband, the god Osiris. The use of holy water is not confined to Christian blessings. In ancient Egypt, jars of water from the holy river, the Nile, were kept in jars in homes and public buildings to protect against evil influences.
Worship of the Madonna echoes the veneration given the goddess Diana by members of pre-Christian Roman cults.
There are echoes of paganism in countless Christian ceremonies and traditions, including in the exotic garments of the highest priestly class. The ringing of the church bells is found in earlier Buddhist Tibetan and Chinese monasteries, as were beads and rosaries, and the halo of Renaissance paintings was Babylonian in origin, used to depict not only holy figures but also to indicate great virtue in ordinary human beings. The practice of celibacy was common in pagan religions, particularly in Rome. Many pagan religions valued celibacy as an extreme of virtue, but it was not a practice followed by the Christian Church until some centuries after its founding, and then it seems to have been the result of practical considerations; that is, that the Church was losing land to the heirs of married priests and, secondly, that married men with families could not give undivided attention to the Church.
Powered by Qumana