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Christianity and Paganism

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Christianity and Paganism

Part of seventh century casket, depicting the pan-Germanic legend of Weyland Smith, which was apparently also a part of Anglo-Saxon pagan mythology.

Early Christianity developed in an era of the Roman Empire during which many religions were practiced, that are, due to the lack of a better term, labeled paganism. Paganism, in spite of its etymological meaning of rural, has a number of distinct meanings. It refers to the Greco-Roman religions of the Roman Empire period, including the Roman imperial cult, the various mystery religions, as well as philosophic monotheistic religions such as Neoplatonism and Gnosticism and the tribal religions practiced on the fringes of the Empire.

From the point of view of the early Christians these religions all qualified as ethnic (or gentile, ethnikos, gentilis, the term translating goyim, later rendered as paganus) in contrast with Judaism. Since the Council of Jerusalem, the Christian apostles accepted both Jewish and pagan converts, and there was a precarious balance between the Jewish believers, insisting on the obedience to the Torah Laws by all Christians, on one hand, and Gentile Christians, developed in the gentile missionary context, on the other.

Christianity during the Middle Ages stood in opposition to the pagan ethnic religions of the peoples outside the former Roman Empire, i.e. Germanic paganism, Slavic paganism etc. Despite this, many of the central concepts of modern Christianity, like Christmas and the cross, have European Pagan roots.[1]

Pagan influences on Christianity

Pythagorean mysticism influenced Christianity.

In the course of the Christianisation of Europe in the Early Middle Ages, the Christian churches adopted many elements of national cult and folk religion,[1] resulting in national churches like Latin, Germanic, Russian, Armenian, Greek and so on. Some Pagan ceremonies were brought in and the festivals became modern holidays as pagans joined the early church.[1] The Pagan vernal equinox celebration was 'Christianized'[1] and then referred to as the Annunciation to the Blessed Virgin Mary or Annunciation of the Lord and celebrated as the Feast of the Annunciation. The Germanic Pagan solstice celebrations (Midsummer festivals) are also sometimes referred to by Neopagans and others as Litha, stemming from Bede's De temporum ratione and the fire festival or Lith- Summer solstice was a tradition for many pagans. This pagan holiday was basically brought in and given a name change, and in Christianity was then associated with the nativity of John the Baptist, which now is observed on the same day, June 24, in the Catholic, Orthodox and some Protestant churches. It is six months before Christmas because Luke 1:26 and Luke 1.36 imply that John the Baptist was born six months earlier than Jesus, although the Bible does not say at which time of the year this happened.[2]

One goal of the Reformation was to return the Christian churches to the state of early Christianity. Restorationists such as Jehovah's Witnesses continue to argue that mainstream Christianity has departed from Apostolic Christianity due, in part, to such Pagan influences.[3] See also Great Apostasy.

Influence on early Christian theology

Christianity originated in the Roman province of Judaea, a predominantly Jewish society, with traditional philosophies distinct from the Greek thought which was dominant in the Roman Empire at the time. The conflict between the two modes of thought is recorded in the Christian scriptures, in Paul's encounters with Epicurean and Stoic philosophers mentioned in Acts,[4] his diatribe against Greek philosophy in 1st Corinthians,[5] and his warning against vain philosophy in Colossians 2:8.[6]

Over time, as Christianity spread throughout the Hellenic world, and with a number of church leaders having been educated in Greek philosophy there was a fusion of the two modes of thought.

One early Christian writer of the 2nd and early 3rd century, Clement of Alexandria, demonstrated the assimilation of Greek thought in writing: "Philosophy has been given to the Greeks as their own kind of Covenant, their foundation for the philosophy of Christ... the philosophy of the Greeks... contains the basic elements of that genuine and perfect knowledge which is higher than human... even upon those spiritual objects."[7]

Augustine of Hippo, who ultimately systematized Christian philosophy, wrote in the late 4th and early 5th century: "But when I read those books of the Platonists I was taught by them to seek incorporeal truth, so I saw your 'invisible things, understood by the things that are made'.[8]

St. Augustine was originally a Manichaean.

When Christians first encountered Manichaeism, it seemed to them to be a heresy, as it had originated in a heavily Gnostic area of the Persian empire. Augustine of Hippo (354–430) converted to Christianity from Manichaeism. Until the 20th century, most of the Western world's concept of Manichaeism came through Augustine's negative polemics against it. According to his Confessions, after eight or nine years of adhering to the Manichaean faith (as a member of the Manichaean group of Hearers), he became a Christian and a potent adversary of Manichaeism. It is speculated by some modern scholars (Alfred Adam, for example), that Manichaean ways of thinking had an influence on the development of some of Augustine's Christian ideas, such as the nature of good and evil, the idea of Hell, the separation of groups into Elect, Hearers, and Sinners, the hostility to the flesh and sexual activity, and so on.

How much long term influence the Manichaeans actually had on Christianity is still being debated. It has been suggested that the religious cosmology. Priscillian and his followers apparently tried to absorb what they thought was the valuable part of Manichaeaism into Christianity.


Origins of Christianity

St. Clement I was an Apostolic Father.

Early Christianity arose as a movement within 1st century Judaism, following the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth. As such, Christianity developed within the matrix of Judaism, relatively independent from pagan religious beliefs and customs. With a missionary commitment to both Jews and Gentiles (non-Jews), Christianity rapidly spread into the greater Roman empire and beyond. Here, Christianity came into contact with the dominant Pagan religions. By the 2nd century, many Christians were converts from Paganism. These conflicts are recorded in the works of the early Christian writers such as Justin Martyr as well as hostile reports by writers including Tacitus and Suetonius.

Persecution of early Christians in the Roman Empire

Christianity was persecuted by Roman imperial authorities early on in its history within the greater empire.

Persecution under Nero, 64–68 AD

The first documented case of imperially-supervised persecution of the Christians in the Roman Empire begins with Nero (37–68). In 64 AD, a great fire broke out in Rome, destroying portions of the city and economically devastating the Roman population. Nero himself was suspected as the arsonist by Suetonius,[9] claiming he played the lyre and sang the 'Sack of Ilium' during the fires. In his Annals, Tacitus (who claimed Nero was in Antium at the time of the fire's outbreak), stated that "to get rid of the report, Nero fastened the guilt and inflicted the most exquisite tortures on a class hated for their abominations, called Christians [or Chrestians[10]] by the populace" (Tacit. Annals XV, see Tacitus on Jesus). Suetonius, later to the period, does not mention any persecution after the fire, but in a previous paragraph unrelated to the fire, mentions punishments inflicted on Christians, defined as men following a new and malefic superstition. Suetonius however does not specify the reasons for the punishment, he just listed the fact together with other abuses put down by Nero.[11]

Persecution from the 2nd century to Constantine

By the mid-2nd century, mobs could be found willing to throw stones at Christians, and they might be mobilized by rival sects. The Persecution in Lyon was preceded by mob violence, including assaults, robberies and stonings (Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History 5.1.7).

Further state persecutions were desultory until the 3rd century, though Tertullian's Apologeticus of 197 was ostensibly written in defense of persecuted Christians and addressed to Roman governors.[12] The Edict of Septimius Severus familiar in Christian history is doubted by some secular historians to have existed outside Christian martyrology.

The first documentable Empire-wide persecution took place under Maximinus Thrax, though only the clergy were sought out. It was not until Decius during the mid-century that a persecution of Christian laity across the Empire took place. Christian sources aver that a decree was issued requiring public sacrifice, a formality equivalent to a testimonial of allegiance to the Emperor and the established order. Decius authorized roving commissions visiting the cities and villages to supervise the execution of the sacrifices and to deliver written certificates to all citizens who performed them. Christians were often given opportunities to avoid further punishment by publicly offering sacrifices or burning incense to Roman gods. Those who refused were charged with impiety and punished by arrest, imprisonment, torture, and/or executions. Christians fled to safe havens in the countryside and some purchased their certificates, called libelli. Several councils held at Carthage debated the extent to which the community should accept these lapsed Christians.

Some early Christians sought out and welcomed martyrdom. Roman authorities tried hard to avoid Christians because they "goaded, chided, belittled and insulted the crowds until they demanded their death." According to Droge and Tabor, "in 185 the proconsul of Asia, Arrius Antoninus, was approached by a group of Christians demanding to be executed. The proconsul obliged some of them and then sent the rest away, saying that if they wanted to kill themselves there was plenty of rope available or cliffs they could jump off."[13] Such seeking after death is found in Tertullian's Scorpiace or in the letters of Saint Ignatius of Antioch but was certainly not the only view of martyrdom in the Christian church. Both Polycarp and Cyprian, bishops in Smyrna and Carthage respectively, attempted to avoid martyrdom.

The Diocletianic Persecution

The Christian Martyrs' Last Prayer, by Jean-Léon Gérôme (1883).

The persecutions culminated with Diocletian and Galerius at the end of the third and beginning of the 4th century. The Great Persecution is considered the largest. Beginning with a series of four edicts banning Christian practices and ordering the imprisonment of Christian clergy, the persecution intensified until all Christians in the empire were commanded to sacrifice to the gods or face immediate execution.

This persecution lasted until Constantine I, along with Licinius, legalized Christianity in 313. It was not until Theodosius I in the later 4th century that Christianity would become the State church of the Roman Empire. Between these two events Julian II temporarily restored the traditional Roman religion and established broad religious tolerance renewing Pagan and Christian hostilities.

The New Catholic Encyclopedia states that "Ancient, medieval and early modern hagiographers were inclined to exaggerate the number of martyrs. Since the title of martyr is the highest title to which a Christian can aspire, this tendency is natural". Estimates of Christians killed for religious reasons before the year 313 vary greatly, depending on the scholar quoted, from a high of almost 1,000,000 to a low of 100,000.

Prohibition and persecution of Paganism in the Roman Empire

The Edict of Milan of 313 finally legalized Christianity. In the period of 313 to 391, both Paganism and Christianity were legal religions, with their respective adherents vying for power in the Roman Empire. This period of transition is also known as the Constantinian shift. In 380, Theodosius I made Nicene Christianity the state church of the Roman Empire. Paganism was tolerated for another 12 years, until 392, when Theodosius passed legislation prohibiting all pagan cultic worship. Pagan religion from this point was increasingly persecuted, a process which lasted throughout the 5th century. The closing of the Neoplatonic Academy by decree of Justinian I in 529 marks a conventional end point of both classical paganism and Late Antiquity.

Lay Christians took advantage of these new anti-pagan laws by destroying and plundering the temples [14] Theologians and prominent ecclesiastics soon followed. One such example is St. Ambrose, Bishop of Milan. When Gratian became Roman emperor in 375, Ambrose, who was one of his closest educators, persuaded him to further suppress Paganism. The emperor, on Ambrose's advice, confiscated the property of the Pagan temples; seized the properties of the Vestal Virgins and Pagan priests, and removed the statue of the Goddess of Victory from the Roman Senate.[15]

When Gratian delegated the government of the eastern half of the Roman Empire to Theodosius the Great in 379, the situation became worse for the Pagans. Theodosius prohibited all forms of Pagan worship and allowed the temples to be robbed, plundered, and ruthlessly destroyed by monks and other enterprising Christians[16][17][18][19][20] and participated in actions by Christians against major pagan sites.[14]

In the year 416, under Theodosius II, a law was passed to ban Pagans from public employment. All this was done to coerce Pagans to convert to Christianity. Theodosius also persecuted Judaism, destroying a number of synagogues.

Christianization during the European Middle Ages


During the Saxon Wars, the Christian Frankish king Charlemagne waged war on the pagan Saxons for over 20 years, seeking to Christianize and rule the Saxons. During this period, the Saxons repeatedly refused Christianization and the rule of Charlemagne, and therefore rebelled frequently. In the year 782 of this period, Charlemagne is recorded as having massacred 4,500 rebel Saxon prisoners in Verden (the Massacre of Verden), and imposing legislation upon the subjected Saxons that including the penalty of death for refusing conversion to Christianity or for aiding pagans who did the same (such as the Capitulatio de partibus Saxoniae). While rebellions continued to take place even after his death (such as that of the Stellinga), Charlemagne succeeded in laying the groundwork for the Christianization of the Saxons, yet was unable to reach the Scandinavians, who remained pagan.

The Anglo-Saxon conversion

The Anglo-Saxon conversion was one of the most difficult for Christian missionaries because paganism was so entrenched into the culture. The Saxons were one of the last groups to be converted by Christian missionaries and it was mainly under the threat of death by Charlemagne and with some inclusions of pagan culture and concessions on the part of the Christian missionaries. The Saxon conversion was so difficult for a number of reasons including their distance from Rome and lack of centralized polity until much later than most other peoples; but also, their pagan beliefs were so strongly tied into the culture in every way it made the conversion much rocky transition. Their sophisticated theology was a bulwark against an immediate and complete conversion to Christianity.[21] So the new theology was translated into terms of Northern life.

The conversion of Æthelberht, king of Kent is the first account of any Christian bretwalda conversion and is told by the Venerable Bede in his histories of the conversion of England. In 582 Pope Gregory sent Augustine and 40 companions from Rome to missionize among the Anglo-Saxons. “They had, by order of the blessed Pope Gregory, brought interpreters of the nation of the Franks, and sending to Æthelberht, signified that they were come from Rome, and brought a joyful message, which most undoubtedly assured to all that took advantage of it everlasting joys in heaven, and a kingdom that would never end with the living and true God.”[22] Æthelberht was not unfamiliar with Christianity because he had a Christian wife, and Bede says that there was even a church dedicated to St. Martin nearby. Æthelberht was converted eventually and Augustine remained in Canterbury.[23]

The Anglo-Saxon conversion in particular was a gradual process that necessarily included many compromises and syncretism. A famous letter from Pope Gregory to Mellitus in June 601, for example, is quoted encouraging the appropriation of pagan temples and festivals for Christian use.

The temples of the idols in that nation ought not to be destroyed; but let the idols that are in them be destroyed; let holy water be made and sprinkled in the said temples, let altars be erected, and relics placed. For if those temples are well built, it is requisite that they be converted from the worship of devils to the service of the true God .... And because they have been used to slaughter many oxen in the sacrifices to devils, some solemnity must be exchanged for them on this account .... but kill cattle to the praise of God .... For there is no doubt that it is impossible to efface everything at once from their obdurate minds; because he who endeavours to ascend to the highest place, rises by degrees or steps, and not by leaps.


Olaf I of Norway, during his attempt to Christianize Norway during the Viking Age, had those under his rule that practiced their indigenous Norse Paganism and refused to Christianize tortured, maimed or executed, including seidmen, who were tied up and thrown to a skerry at low tide to slowly drown. After Olaf I's death, Norway returned to its native paganism.

See also


  1. ^ a b c d G. Barna and F. Viola (2008), Pagan Christianity?: Exploring the Roots of Our Church Practices, BarnaBooks.
  2. ^
  3. ^
  4. ^ "Acts 17:18–33 – Passage Lookup – New International Version". Retrieved 2009-11-09. 
  5. ^ "1 Corinthians 1:20–25; – Passage Lookup – New International Version". Retrieved 2009-11-09. 
  6. ^ "Colossians 2:8; – Passage Lookup – New International Version". Retrieved 2009-11-09. 
  7. ^ Clement of Alexandria. Miscellanies 6. 8
  8. ^ Augustine of Hippo. Confessions 7. 20
  9. ^ Nero Ch 38
  10. ^ In the earliest extant manuscript, the second Medicean, the e in "Chrestianos", Chrestians, has been changed into an i; cf. Gerd Theißen, Annette Merz, Der historische Jesus: ein Lehrbuch, 2001, p. 89. The reading Christianos, Christians, is therefor doubtful. On the other hand, Suetonius (Claudius 25) uses the same 'e' transliteration of the Greek Krystos, meaning the anointed one, and associates it with a troublemaker among the Jews
  11. ^ Nero 16
  12. ^ Tertullian's readership was more likely to have been Christians, whose faith was reinforced by Tertullian's defenses of faith against rationalizations.
  13. ^ Droge, A.J. and Tabor, J.D. (1992:136) A Noble Death: Suicide and Martyrdom Among Christians and Jews in Antiquity HarperSanFrancisco. Misquoted as Groge and Tabor (1992:136) by C. Douzinas in Closs Stephens, A. and Vaughan-Williams, N. (2009:198) Terrorism and the Politics of Response Routledge, Oxon and New York.
  14. ^ a b Ramsay McMullan (1984) Christianizing the Roman Empire A.D. 100–400, Yale University Press, p.90.
  15. ^ "Gratian", Catholic Encyclopedia, 1909
  16. ^ Grindle, Gilbert (1892) The Destruction of Paganism in the Roman Empire, pp.29–30. Quote summary: For example, Theodosius ordered Cynegius (Zosimus 4.37), the praetorian prefect of the East, to permanently close down the temples and forbade the worship of the deities throughout Egypt and the East. Most of the destruction was perpetrated by Christian monks and bishops,
  17. ^ Life of St. Martin
  18. ^ Gibbon, Edward The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, ch28
  19. ^ R. MacMullen, "Christianizing The Roman Empire A.D.100–400, Yale University Press, 1984, ISBN 0-300-03642-6
  20. ^ Catholic Encyclopedia (1912) article on Theophilus, New Advent Web Site.
  21. ^ Chaney, William. "Paganism to Christianity in Anglo-Saxon England." The Harvard Theological Review 53 (1960): 197–217.
  22. ^ Bede's Ecclesiastical History of England. Charleston: BiblioBazaar, 2007
  23. ^ Fletcher, Richard. The Barbarian Conversion : From Paganism to Christianity. New York: University of California P, 1999.

Further reading

  • Samuel Angus, The Mystery Religions and Christianity, 1966. University Books, New York, NY. 359 pp.
  • Robin Lane Fox, Pagans and Christians: In the Mediterranean World from the Second Century AD to the Conversion of Constantine (London: Viking, 1986, ISBN 978-0-670-80848-9; Penguin Books Ltd new edition, 2006, ISBN 978-0-14-102295-6)
  • Gordon Laing, The Church Fathers and the Oriental Cults, The Classical Journal (1918).
  • Ramsay MacMullen and Robin Lane (ed.), Paganism and Christianity 100–425 C.E.:A Sourcebook. (A primary sourcebook for interaction between Pagans and Christians from the 2nd century to 425 CE)
  • Lutz E. von Padberg Die Christianisierung Europas im Mittelalter, 1998. Reclam ISBN 3-15-017015-X (German) (History textbooks on the Christianization of Europe are also easily available in English.)
  • Stanley E. Porter, Stephen J. Bedard, Unmasking the Pagan Christ, 2006. Clements Publishing. 172 pp. ISBN 1-894667-71-9
  • J. M. Robertson, Pagan Christs, 1966. Dorset Press, New York, NY. 171 pp. ISBN 0-8216-0136-9
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