The internet and popular literature are awash in false charges that Christianity is the result of pagan, Hellenistic, and/or Gnostic syncretism.
A simple internet search and cursory perusal of public sharing sites yield manifold examples of profound error and many are being misled today as a result. A growing body of atheists and people adhering to neopaganism or false religious systems are propagating this information usually due to their own misunderstanding and deception but some are propigating the error knowingly on purpose.
During a period roughly spanning 1890 to 1940, scholars often alleged that New Testament Christianity was heavily influenced by Platonism, Stoicism, the pagan mystery religions, and other movements in the Hellenistic world. Other scholars carefully qualified these assertions and, as a result of their careful research, a large body of scholarly books and articles were written firmly rebutting these allegations as false assertions.
It is understood among the world’s theologians and scholars that Christianity was not influenced by these other worldviews. Yet even though it is commonly understood in Biblical and classical studies how weak the old case for Christian dependence is upon Greco-Roman paganism, Hellenism, and gnosticism, some modern revisionists and a host of misinformed and deceived people, for reasons other than truth seeking, continue to circulate the false assertions.
Examples include information based on texts such as the late E. A. Burtt’s argument that the theology of Paul was dependent on ideas borrowed from the Hellenistic world, Thomas W. Mrica’s work, and W. T. Jones’s textbook ‘The Medieval Mind’ in which Jones spends the first two chapters reiterating many of the old arguments about Christian dependence on the pagan mystery religions or on Hellenistic philosophy in a one sided discussion which completely ignores the fact that 19th and 20th century scholars already settled the discussion against assertions of Christian syncretism.
Because of this and the large accumulating body of popular literature asserting inaccurate information on the internet, both the public at large and the contemporary student need to be reminded of the older debate and the conclusion reached by almost all scholars, past and present, that these assertions are patently false.
Nash (2003) points out that while Christianity and Greek philosophies, as systems; have no elements in common, the Christians, as people, often held pagan ideas. Being converted from paganism it took time for them to shed their previous thinking styles. So it is no surprise that some engaged in apologetics making use of the Platonism or Stoicism they had been raised with. However, this they did accomplish and a purely Christian Nicene Creed came into being.
That creed has been consistently reinforced by subsequent creeds right up to the present. When revisionist scholars looking to undermine Christianity or make a name for themselves come along and assert gross untruths based on supposed parallels, they do a disservice to authentic history. When untrained people perpetuate the false assertions, they do as well.
As Gordon Clark (1940) explains:
“Since the New Testament was written in Greek, it uses words found in pagan writings …. But the point in question is not the use of words but the occurrence of ideas. … One cannot forbid Christian writers to use common words on pain of becoming pagans.”
He points out that when revisionist scholars assert that because a New Testament writer used terminology prominent in some pagan philosophy or religion this somehow proves his dependence on the pagan usage they are setting up a straw man argument that is simply incorrect. Even the presence of real parallels between the New Testament and pagan literature never proves dependence. From an authentic systematic theological examination perspective, these assertions of pagan influence are patently false.
Nash (2003) shows that Christians assert instead that God dictated His revelation to human authors whose writings merely reflect their distinctive backgrounds and education stating:
“It is one thing to discover that a New Testament writer like the anonymous author of the Epistle to the Hebrews was familiar with Hellenistic philosophy. But this interesting bit of biographical information does not prove that the writer was actually influenced by some alien system or terminology.” (p. 7).
Furthermore, it is important to discern between different senses of the vocabulary influence and dependence. As Nash states, “A casual disregard of these distinctions is responsible for much of the misinformation and faulty reasoning present in many discussions of the alleged Christian dependence on pagan sources” (p. 8).
He explains one tactic revisionists use when they take B is dependent on A so therefore A is a necessary condition for B meaning that if a writer had not first known or believed A, he would never have come to know or believe B. Completely disregarding everything that doesn’t support their error they then use this theory of dependence to extrapolate that Paul would never have thought of making up a dying and rising savior-god such as Jesus had he not first become aware of similar thought in pagan religion.
This sort of faulty reasoning combines with a bias that Geisler (2003) describes as follows to perpetuate the false view that New Testament revelation could not have come from God and must have derived from other sources:
“Unmistakably, however, is the commonality of a consistent and persistent anti-supernaturalism that attacks orthodox Christianity at its core. If miracles do not occur, then the Bible is unreliable and historic Christianity is not credible. On this unjustified premise modern liberalism is based. Its view of Scripture, then, is as faulty as its view of miracles. Of course, the Bible cannot be a supernatural revelation of God if there are no supernatural events. Some form of negative biblical criticism thus becomes necessary” (p. 348).
The Greco-Roman culture was mostly Hellenistic at the time of Christ and peoples and nations of the Mediterranean world were united by a common government, law, language (e.g. Greek) and an increasingly common culture enabling trade, travel, and communication. But individualism was present in ways it had not been prior to Alexander. While it is true that a trait of the Hellenistic world was syncretism, it is not true that Christianity was a result of it (Nash, 2003).
Nash (2003) points out that:
“Christianity began in a world in which the spirit of syncretism was king. Students of the history of philosophy know that gradually, during the Hellenistic age, most of the walls between the major philosophical systems began to break down. This is especially true in the case of Platonism and Stoicism from about 100 B.C. to A.D. 100. There was little to prevent an especially religious person from worshiping any number of gods that belonged to an equally large number of religions” (p. 12).
The problem arises when some revisionists uncritically assert the general eclecticism of the age is proof that early Christianity was a syncretistic faith. Christianity was exclusive teaching only one true God with all others false and those who worship them lost. It taught there is only one mediator between God and man and that is Jesus Christ God’s son whom any seeking to approach God must go through with all other ways closed and those who attempt any other way lost. Christianity was an exception to the syncretism and inclusiveness of the Hellenistic age.
Nash (2003) notes that:
“Christ appeared at the time when all the striving and hopes of all peoples were converging to a focus, when the vast majority of mankind were hungering for religious support, when East and West had been wedded, when men were expecting a new era, when the philosophy of Greece and the religious consciousness of the Hebrew were pointing toward a new revelation. Christ came at the one time in history when all civilized nations lived, as it were, under one roof, when the happiness of mankind depended on the will of one, when all were able to communicate in one language, when men were unanimous as to the perils and needs of the world, when there was peace on earth” (p. 12).
Christianity was exclusive offering one way of salvation and it is irresponsible for proponents of an early Christian syncretism to dismiss disliked portions of the Gospels on the grounds that they result from a Hellenistic influence on the Gospel writer.
For example, if one approaches the New Testament with a worldview of atheism, the presence of a miracle in the text then is easily dismissed as Hellenistic myth; if they dislike the Christian exclusiveness regarding atonement, they write it off to an intrusion of Hellenism into the text; and so on and so forth recklessly mistreating every aspect of the text that offends them.
The author has personally had these types explain to him that Paul must have been a homosexual struggling with a homosexual “thorn in the flesh”, using similar reasoning, and all sorts of nonsense erroneously impressing their own prejudices and biases onto the text. The author recommends reading Samples (2007) ‘A World of Difference: Putting Christian truth-claims to the worldview test’ paying attention to part one for more information on how formal reasoning is used amongst scholars to derive accurate and proper conclusions.
Philosophy immediately preceding the life and death of Jesus was transitional. Platonism and stoicism, for example, of this period are just a transition from a more important past to a more important future. Aristotelianism, Epicureanism, and even Pythagoreanism had relatively minor followings. These systems are all very different from Christianity and alleged parallels are easily explained (Nash, 2003).
For example, it is often claimed that the writings of the apostle Paul show Platonic dualism. They do not. The scholars that asserted Pauline dependence on Platonism all claim this. Paul never taught that his body was evil or the source of his sinning claiming instead that people are born with a sinful nature in need of redemption and bodily resurrection to glory in an environment where all matter is not inherently evil and all spirits are not inherently good. This has no parallel in pagan usage being derived from Hebrew scripture (Nash, 2003).
The same goes for Stoic influence. Though only late stoic manuscripts remain, the stoics were pantheists who believed God has no personality, free-will does not exist, the world keeps repeating itself (a cosmological error similar to that in Hinduism), etc… It is important to note that phrases such as “the will of God” meant something very different to a pantheistic Stoic than it does in the context of New Testament theism (Nash, 2003).
While Paul quoted from Stoic writers in his famous sermon on Mars Hill in Athens (Acts 17) in attempting to communicate to them, using language they understood something of the one true God, it is an exaggeration to assert anything more. Seneca’s ethic is repulsive to Pauline Christianity as it is totally devoid of genuine human emotion and compassion and there is no place for love or pity or contrition lacking repentance, conversion, and faith in God. When Stoic writers use phrases like “imitation of God” they have nothing in mind resembling the New Testament God and the New Testament, and when viewed properly do not appropriate any Stoic ideas.
A number of scholars have claimed that the New Testament concept of Logos, prominent in the Fourth Gospel and other Johannine literature, was borrowed from either Philo or Alexandrian Judaism. They mistake its usage in the New Testament.
As the Original Catholic Encyclopedia states:
“The word Logos is the term by which Christian theology in the Greek language designates the Word of God, or Second Person of the Blessed Trinity. Before St. John had consecrated this term by adopting it, the Greeks and the Jews had used it to express religious conceptions. The Logos has not for him the Stoic meaning that it so often had for Philo: it is not the impersonal power that sustains the world, nor the law that regulates it; neither do we find in St. John the Platonistic concept of the Logos as the ideal model of the world; the Word is for him the Word of God, and thereby he holds with Jewish tradition, the theology of the Book of Wisdom, of the Psalms, of the Prophetical Books, and of Genesis; he perfects the idea and transforms it by showing that this creative Word, which from all eternity was in God and was God, took flesh and dwelt among men. This difference is not the only one which distinguishes the Johannine theology of the Logos from the concept of Philo, to which not a few have sought to liken it. The Logos of Philo is impersonal, it is an idea, a power, a law; at most it may be likened to those half-abstract, half-concrete entities, to which the Stoic mythology had lent a certain personal form” (para. 1, 11, and 12).
Regarding the mystery religions themselves, comparative mythology which finds casual connections between everything while tearing down solid barriers, bridging unbridgeable chasms, making spurious claims from disparate combinations, etc…. are simply bad scholarship that must be rejected.
As Nash (2003) states:
“By such methods one can turn Christ into a sun god in the twinkling of an eye, or one can bring up the legends attending the birth of every conceivable god, or one can catch all sorts of mythological doves to keep company with the baptismal dove; and find any number of celebrated asses to follow the ass on which Jesus rode into Jerusalem; etc… ” (p. 108).
The magic wand of comparative religion wielded by revisionist atheists triumphantly eliminates every spontaneous trait in any religion while scholars who understand them far better asserting the mystery religions exercised little if any substantive influences on early Christianity are simply ignored. For authentic modern scholars, the subject was settled in the 19th century and considered a dead issue. Despite the issue being settled in the favor of authentic Christianity, deceived modern atheists and neo-pagans today are attempting any length to revive a discussion that was long since settled posting erroneous information and making spurious claims in popular, not to be confused with scholarly, publications and all over the internet deceiving many.
The worst simply run false assertions out of context together in a linear timeline presenting a completely false presentation of both history and Christianity claiming Christianity is, in fact, simply another mystery religion built from pieces of other mystery religions which amounts to nothing more than a fanciful invention. Other’s then repeat them and as a final act of reckless madness they cosign each other’s falsehoods. Unscholarly people deceived by their own or other’s misinformation and their own prejudice are completely out of step with the tide of relevant contemporary scholarship.
As Nash (2003) states:
“We must analyze the biblical writing to see if the author’s Christian beliefs have been shaped by, or derived from, the non-Christian parallel. Hugo Rahner declares that even if early Christians like Paul did borrow ”words, images, and gestures from the mysteries, they did so not as seekers but as possessors of a religious substance; what they borrowed was not the substance but a dress wherein to display it. Commitment to a high view of Scripture is not at all inconsistent with saying that biblical writers could have adapted language and ideas from their culture for the specific purpose of explaining and communicating the Christian message. Contemporary missionaries do this all the time” (p. 112).
A Christian missionary to a tropical island population, for example, which has no knowledge of snow might explain Isaiah 1:18 by reframing “white as snow” as white as the inside of a coconut. Does this mean the Book of Isaiah is dependent on polytheistic pagan Polynesian indigenous pantheism? Of course not! But this is an example of the sort of logic being employed by those who wrongly assert a dependence of the unique Christian revelation on paganism.
Although Roman gods like Jupiter and Vesta drew many followers, it was the mystery religions (like those of Bacchus and Isis which originated with wine making, involved plays, and phallic processions) with all their darkness and perversion that captivated the empire. The mystery religions themselves were distinct religions in the first century which often included drunkenness and orgies seeking deep symbolic significance in the natural process of growth, death, decay, and rebirth. They stressed a “higher knowledge” associated with their secret ceremonies. The mysteries had little if any use for doctrine or correct belief. They were primarily concerned with the emotional state of their followers (Nash, 2003).
Many of the publications that purport to find signs of an early Christian dependence on the mystery religions repeat a number of fundamental errors. In many cases they ignore important differences between different cults or between different stages of the same religion so as to suggest too great an agreement among the mysteries. Sometimes they go so far as to imply that the Hellenistic world contained but one basic mystery religion. They often misinterpret accurate archaeology. Often they use careless language first using Christian terminology to describe pagan beliefs and practices and then marveling at the awesome parallels that they think they have discovered. Oversimplifications and exaggerations (especially regarding the notion of rebirth in certain mysteries) in this literature are in error.
For example, we never find Christianity borrowing from a mystery religion but we find the opposite sometimes is true. This cannot be used to show Christianity was influenced by the mystey religions. The chief rival of Christianity in the second century AD, the pagan mystery cult Mithras in Rome, copied sacred Christian rites and perverted them.
Martin, Rische, and Van Gordon (2008) quote Justin Martyr in 150 AD stating:
“For the apostles, in the memoirs composed by them, which are called gospels, have thus delivered unto us what was enjoined upon them; that Jesus took bread, and when He ahad given thanks, said, “This do ye in remembrance of Me, this is My body;” and that, after the same manner, having taken the cup and given thanks, He said, “This is My blood;” and gave it to them alone. Which the wicked devils have imitated in the mysteries of Mithras, commanding the same thing to be done. For, that bread and a cup of water are placed with certain incantations in the mystic rites of one who is being initiated, you either know or can learn” (P. 107).
Consider the myth of the Isis cult concerning Osiris where Osiris was murdered by his brother Seth who then sank the coffin containing Osiris’s body in the Nile. Isis discovers the body and returns it to Egypt. But Seth gains access to the body of Osiris dismembering it into fourteen pieces which he scatters widely. Following a long search, Isis recovers each part of the body and Osiris comes back to life. That’s the myth in a nutshell. But along comes the revisionist and begins projecting their bias into the story choosing words than never existed in the original story calling it a “resurrection “even rewriting the myth to incorporate a “resurrection” after a “baptism” in the Nile and then hijacking history to attempt to tie it to Christianity.
The early Christian church met and skillfully refuted these “rising savior myths” arguing that they had no relation to Jesus Christ, even as an archtype, since most of them died and did not rise again. They are from multiple cultures and seldom have much at all in common. Unfortunately, Christians today regularly encounter a resurrected form of this argument without any primary sources to support their claim. The eyewitness testimony of the apostles to the person and teaching of Jesus Christ provide a rock solid foundation for the defense of the Christian faith in the face of rampant pagan license. It is important to first separate the historical Jesus from the pagan saviors. Jesus is a historical person whose life is detailed in authentic accounts such as the gospel of John whereas the pagan saviors are myths.
It’s grievous scholarship to fabricate falsehood and then propagate it and that’s exactly what we see these revisionists engaging in as they actively seek parallels that don’t exist in the cult of Cybele and Attis, The cult of Mithra, etc… As the author has shown, the mere fact that Christianity has a sacred meal (or baptism) is no proof of pagan dependence whatsoever. Ceremonial washings that antedate the New Testament have a different meaning from New Testament baptism. Etc… Martin, Rische, and Van Gordon (2008) do an excellent job of refuting any Christian dependence on pagan mystery religions chapter four titled ‘Ancient Paganism.”
Early Christianity is an exclusive historical monotheistic religion (deriving from an earlier Hebrew belief system) with a definitive body of doctrine asserting that the death and resurrection of Christ happened to a historical person at a particular time and has absolutely no parallel in any of the pagan mystery religions. Alleged parallels between Christianity and the mysteries are imaginary or exaggerated and the genuine parallels that remain are not synergetic except as the Christian influences later pagan systems.
Trendy fads among atheists, neo-pagans, and revisionist scholars regarding supposed New Testament dependence on mystery religions are patently false with the issue being settled amongst 19th century scholars. As that issue was settled, certain scholars shifted their attention to a supposed New Testament dependence on Gnosticism erring again in the process. The cycle repeated with the consensus of relevant scholars concluding Gnosticism was never a dependency for Christianity.
Geisler (2002) concludes his discussion noting:
“A survey of the history of the Christian church from the Reformation to recent times reveals that there is virtually unanimous consent that the Bible is the divinely inspired, infallible, and inerrant Word of God. This follows the basic view of the early church and deviations from this view were extremely rare before the late nineteenth century, when liberalism and neo-orthodoxy challenged the longstanding position of the Christian church, both East and west, Catholic and Protestant” (p. 500).
Nash (2003) encourages each person to ask the following when confronted with dependency theories and claims regarding the New Testament:
1. What is the evidence for the claim? Even recognized authorities have made unsupported and ill supported claims. Ask for exact specifics and qualify them.
2. What are the dates for the evidence?
3. What literature pro and con has already been published about this theory? Usually, new claims and theories are discussed in journals first.
4. Is the language used to describe the evidence faithful to the original source material, or does it include interpretive material such as Christian language, themes, or imagery? As we have seen, it is a lot easier to surmise the dependence of some Christian belief on a Hellenistic source if the pagan practice or belief is incorrectly described in Christian language.
5. Are the alleged parallels really similar, or are the likenesses a result of either exaggeration, oversimplification, inattention to detail, or-once again-the use of Christian language in the description?
6. In the case of any genuine parallel, is the point of analogy significant? Does it relate to an essential Christian belief or practice? Or does it refer to something incidental, such as the late Christian adoption of December 25 as the date of Christ’s birth?
7. Is the parallel the sort of thing that could have arisen independently in several different movements? For example, could it have arisen from common language?
8. Is the claim consistent with the historical information we have about the first-century church?
9. Even if you discover something prior to, or contemporaneous with, early Christianity with a significant parallel to an essential Christian belief does the fact that some New Testament writer knew of a pagan belief or term prove that what he knew had a formative or genetic influence on his own essential beliefs? We’ve already discussed how early Christianity was exclusive and not syncretistic borrowing from Greco-Roman mystery religions, Hellenism, or Gnosticism.
Christianity, Christian revelation, Christian doctrine, and the New Testament is a unique revelation from God, not a product of nor in any way dependent on mystery pagan religions, Hellenism, or Gnosticism. Martin, Rische, and Van Gordon’s ‘The Kingdom of the Occult” is an excellent resource for further information on this topic and the topic of ancient paganism.
In a future article we will examine a completely separate issue of how pagan ritual and organizational structure influenced church practice after the church was legitimized by the pagan Greco-Roman empire from Constantine in the fourth century until roughly the reformation. Understand that the early Christians were all Jewish converts and Christian revelation/doctrine is a unique revelation from God given from Him and is completely separate from the worldviews of paganism, Hellenism, and Gnosticism.