Did the Catholic Church Blend Paganism with Christianity?
We've heard well meaning Evangelicals claim that the Catholic Church
adopted pagan practices to appease the people they were converting and
consequently the Church blended pagan and Christian spiritualities (syncretism).
These claims against the Church come in many varieties. They include accusations
that the mother of Jesus is a pagan goddess, Christian martyrs in heaven are a
holdover from pagan ancestor worship, the Eucharist is a pagan sun-god, the mass
uses pagan symbolism, etc.
This view was first advanced by Alexander Hislop (1807-1862) in "The Two Babylons" (1856). He is the grandfather of this theory that has found its way into some Evangelical circles, Seventh Day Adventists and various other fundamentalist groups. The theory claims that the Catholic Church is the whore of Babylon found in the book of Revelation 17 and that the Catholic Church is not only in grave error but moreover a work of the devil. Fundamentalists will sometimes say that those who are truly 'born again' will "come out of her" (Rev 18:4). This theory is the source of many Evangelical's great anger, fear, and suspicion about all things Catholic. It's the reason why they feel the Catholic Church is not part of the Body of Christ but rather working against it.
It is not often mentioned that Hislop also taught that the Cross was a pagan symbol and a sign of the devil.
"...at first it [the Cross] was the emblem of Tammuz, at last it became the emblem of... Satan himself" (Hislop pg 281)
Hislop inferred that any Church that has a cross is worshipping in a building that contains satanic symbolism.
According to Hislop's theology, if you wear a cross around your neck, you are promoting a pagan sign of the devil.
Hislop apparently either thought that the ancient pagans used the Greek or modern alphabet, or he chose to ignore the fact that Tammuz's worshippers used cuneiform script. They didn't have either the Greek Tau or our "T", which makes his accusation even more obscure and bizare.
This does not sound like a dependable theologian, although his work has influenced hundreds of other writers and denominations that believe the Catholic Church is a pagan religion.
Hislop learned that the way to make people think you are a scholar is to put footnotes at the bottom of every page. One of the people he fooled was Ralph Woodrow.
An Evangelical theologian Ralph Woodrow wrote a popular book based on Hislop's theory, "Babylon Mystery Religion", that put Hislop's ideas into modern English and in a modern context. The book was a smashing success in Evangelical circles.
A history teacher challenged Woodrow and called the integrity of Hislop's research into question. Woodrow, being an academic and a man of integrity, decided to research the subject himself. He was shocked. He learned of the twists of history and the leaps of logic that Hislop made to advance his theory. He wrote a book of his findings and removed his previous book from print at considerable cost to himself. He is still an Evangelical. His new book "The Babylon Connection" is available from Amazon.com. Here are Woodrow's words:
As I did this [research], it became clear-Hislop's "history" was often only mythology... an arbitrary piecing together of ancient myths can not provide a sound basis for history. Take enough tribes, enough tales, enough time, jump from one time to another, from one country to another, pick and choose similarities - why anything could be "proved"!
Woodrow carefully covers the "sun god" argument that Hislop mounted against the Eucharist. He exposes the poor reasoning that tries to link the Eucharist to the sun god based on its round shape, while ignoring that the manna that God rained down on the Israelites in the dessert was also round. (Exod. 16:14) He also shows how Hislop's arguments turn against themselves.
There is no evidence, so far as I have been able to find, that, in the Babylonian system, the thin round cake...was ever regarded in any other light than as a symbol... [nor did they believe it was] changed into the god whom it represented" (Hislop)
... the Catholics did not get the doctrine of transubstantiation from Babylon! On the other hand, it is the Protestants who regard the communion bread as a symbol!...In reality Babylon had nothing to do with it either way! (Woodrow examining Hislop pg. 65)
Woodrow also carefully exposes the fallacies behind the "pagan goddess" argument against Mary. Mary had nothing in common with the perverted pagan earth goddesses. (more on the attempts to link Mary to pagan goddesses here) He disassembles the argument that the Pope is "actually canonized Satan" citing historical twists used by Hislop to link the Pope to Babylon. He exposes the faulty association that Hislop attempts to make between the pagan god Dagon (the fish god) and the shape of the Pope's hat (mitre) saying that the hat looks like a fish. The hat was not formed until after 1100A.D. and had many shapes over the centuries. To say we worship a fish god because the Pope's hat is pointed, is about as bizarre as saying a guitar is shaped like a fish so any Evangelical who plays a guitar is worshipping the fish god. Woodrow shows Hislop's faulty claims that Peter (who Catholics believe is the first Pope) holding the "keys to the kingdom" is really Janus the god of doors, meanwhile forgetting that this reasoning could lead one to thinking Jesus is also Janus because Christ is described as holding keys. (Rev 1:18, 3-7)
Woodrow shows how Hislop's creative numerology (which is no more than superstition) could be used to make almost any name add up to the mark of the beast, including the name "The Rev Alexander Hislop." Woodrow reclaims candles and lamps (which are used by Jews in the Old Testament), he defends the anointing with oil "...anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord." (James 5:14, 15 & Mk 6:13). Woodrow demonstrates the faulty logic that claims a Church steeple is a phallic symbol and the tower of Babel. According to Herodotus 425 B.C. Babel was a ziggurat shape and looked nothing like a steeple. (pg 28)
Woodrow's in-depth book examines Hislop's attempts to re-write Church history against the Catholicism. Woodrow concludes that these are unfair fringe arguments against Catholic doctrine that don't reflect sound reasoning or research.
Woodrow makes it plain that he himself is an Evangelical and holds Evangelical views. Although he doesn't agree with all Catholic doctrine, he says it is clear that the Eucharist and Mary have nothing to do with pagan practices. Catholics have Jesus in their hearts when they take the Eucharist and they are identifying with the woman of whom Scripture says "all generations will call me blessed" (Lk 1:48) when they think of Mary. The book is called "The Babylon Connection?" by Ralph Woodrow available on Amazon.com.
Augustine wrote the The City of God in 413-426 AD. Augustine answers the pagans, who attributed the fall of Rome (410) to the abolition of pagan worship. If pagans were angry that Catholicism abolished pagan worship it's hard to imagine that the Church adopted paganism.
Why can't the whore of Babylon be the modern Catholic Church? Ancient Rome vs. modern Rome
We have to make an important distinction. Pagan Rome of the first century is much different than Christian Rome. Pagan Rome tried to squash and kill Christianity, while Christian Rome embraced it. It was a massive conversion and perhaps one of the most important historical moments in Christian history. It is quite likely that Revelation is speaking about Rome, but it is speaking about ancient Pagan Rome.
When the Whore falls we read, "'Rejoice over her, O heaven! Rejoice, saints and apostles and prophets! God has judged her for the way she treated you'. . . . In her was found the blood of prophets and of the saints, and of all who have been killed on the earth" (18:20, 24).
This shows that the Whore persecuted not just Christians, but apostles and prophets. Apostles existed only in the first century, since one of the requirements for being an apostle was seeing the risen Christ (1 Cor. 9:1).
Prophets existed as a group only in the Old Testament and in the first century (Acts 11:27-28, 13:1, 15:32, 21:10). Since the Whore persecuted apostles and prophets, the Whore must have existed in the first century. (1)
It is probable that the Angel was explaining to John that the Beast was Pagan Rome and the Whore was a apostate Jerusalem. The Whore (apostate Jerusalem) was fornicating with the beast (Pagan Rome) to persecute God's people (the early Church).
Continuing in Revelation, the angel begins to explain to John the woman's symbolism:
"This calls for a mind with wisdom: the seven heads are seven mountains on which the woman is seated; they are also seven kings, five of whom have fallen, one is, the other has not yet come, and when he comes he must remain only a little while" (Rev. 17:9-10).
We are told that the heads "are also seven kings, five of whom have fallen, one is, the other has not yet come." If five of these kings had fallen in John's day and one of them was still in existence, then the Whore must have existed in John's day. Yet Christian Rome and Vatican City did not. However, pagan Rome did have a line of emperors, and the majority of commentators see this as the line of kings to which 17:10 refers. Five of these emperors are referred to as having already fallen, one as still reigning in John's time, and another yet to come. Since Jerusalem had no such line of kings in the first century, this gives us evidence that the Beast (though not the Whore) is Rome. (2)
This passage of Revelation makes sense when it is referring to ancient Rome but makes no sense when Fundamentalists try to associate it with modern Rome. The passage says that the Whore will have power over kings. Modern Rome has no power over modern "kings", in fact there are almost no kings left in the world. Nor does the Church have power over political leaders, otherwise abortion, contraception, and pornography would not be legal in the civilized world. Revelation says that whore was the center of commerce. (Rev 18:17-19) No economist today will say that modern Rome is a leader in commerce. The US, Japan, etc are. However, ancient Pagan Rome was a leader in commerce.
Some Evangelicals have criticized the use of altars. Sometimes the accusation is launched that the mass looks like pagan worship because pagans had altars and sacrifices. Catholics believe the use of an altar is very Scriptural. Who is to say the pagans didn't steal the idea of the Jewish people who are documented all through the Bible as having altars and sacrifices. Altars are fine. The Bible says so. The pagans actually worshiped ok, except they had the wrong deity. What they did was befitting for a deity. They missed the mark as to the "WHO," but the "what" and the "how" was OK. When Paul was addressing the people of Athens who were building an altar to an UNKNOWN GOD, Paul told them they had the right idea and told them Jesus Christ is that UNKNOWN GOD.
Altars, sacrifice,...that's worship, a vertical tribute to our Lord. (Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul and mind) Tables, sharing...that's fellowship, a horizontal tribute to our Lord (Love your neighbour as yourself)
Carl E. Olson and Sandra Miesel point out that there are over three hundred references to altars in the Old Testament. Jesus came to fulfill the law rather than abolish it. There are references to altars in the New Testament (Matt 5:23-24; 23:18-20; Lk 1:11; Heb 13:10) and references in The Apocalypse to the heavenly altar in the throne room of God (Rev. 6:9; 8:3-5; 9:13; 11:1; 14:8; 16:7). Altars are often discussed by the early Church Fathers such as Ignatius of Antioch in 110 A.D., Tertullian and Cyprian.
Seventh day Adventists claim that early Christians observed the Lord's day on the Jewish Sabbath (Saturday) and that Constantine changed it to Sunday so he could do a Sol Invictus sun worship thing. Jesus died on Friday, he rose on the third day. The Second Day is Saturday, the 3rd day is what we now call Sunday. It is little wonder that Early Christians observed this as the "Lord's Day." There are many references in the first two centuries of Christianity to this "8th day" (after the Saturday Sabbath) long before Constantine's 321 A.D. declaration of that day as an official day of rest and worship of the Christian God.
I met with a Native American who became Catholic 20 years ago. He tells me the Jesuits allowed none of his people's pagan traditions to survive. In fact Catholics are being sued because they "stripped Native Americans of their heritage" when they were telling them not to worship their gods and not to do "sweat lodges" and not to have "sacred fires to the gods" and not smoke "peace pipes" etc. This hardly sounds like a Church that is into blending Christ with pagan idolatry.
Most certainly there have been some bad Popes throughout history. Some Evangelicals will point to this as proof that the Catholic Church is Pagan. Even Jesus chose a bad disciple, Judas. We don't say, "Hey Jesus can't be the Saviour, he was pagan because he had a bad disciple." Of the first apostles, 11 out of 12 deserted him in Gethsemane. Why would we think the Church would be spared from bad people if Jesus' original 12 yielded to the attacks of the devil. The miracle is that the Lord kept the "bad Popes" silent on issues of faith and morals.
Almost every symbol known to man has at one time or another been used in pagan worship to some degree or another.
Take enough tribes, enough tales, enough time, jump from one time to another, from one country to another, pick and choose similarities - why anything could be "proved"! (Ralph Woodrow)
In their attempts to avoid all things Pagan many denominations have stripped away symbolism. They have kept only a few Christian symbols. But under the examination, even the few symbols they have left they could still be linked to paganism by a creative historian like Hislop.
The fish was used for millennia worldwide as a religious symbol associated with
the pagan "Great Mother Goddess." It was meant to represent the outline of her
vulva. That's what some pagan religions used long before Christ.
The cross had been used for centuries in the Hindu religion, in Babylon, Egypt, and Assyria. During prehistoric times in Europe a human would be sacrificed and hung on a cross. Then the human would be taken down, chopped up, and pieces would be planted with the crops for fertility. And as we saw earlier, Hislop claims it is "T" in Tammuz, the pagan god, synonymous with the devil.
The wedding ring that thousands of Evangelicals wear on their fingers can be traced by creative historians to pagan origins.
We're not saying we should not use these symbols, we're simply demonstrating the ridiculousness of the claim that Catholics are into Paganism.
There is something deep in the human heart that needs symbols. The Evangelicals began to develop their own modern symbolism after having stripped away symbolism used by Catholicism. One must ask if they have been more successful than Catholics at avoiding symbolism that could be construed as pagan.
The modern Christian merchandise industry is booming. There is jewelry such as W.W.J.D. (What Would Jesus Do), F.R.O.G. (Fully Rely On God), P.U.S.H. bracelets, bumper stickers, mouse pads, etc. If we were to use Hislop's reasoning we could associate many of these modern symbols of Evangelical Christianity to paganism.
For instance, bracelets were commonplace among pagans and a frog was a symbol in some pagan practices. So we could say the Evangelicals are trying to manipulate the youth into pagan practices when they sell F.R.O.G. bracelets. Or we could say W.W.J.D. stands for the pagan gods of "Wodan, Vulcan, Janus and Dagon."
This is the kind of reasoning that some Evangelicals use to link the I.H.S. (Iesus Hominun Salvator) on Papal attire which means "Jesus the Savior of Men" to the pagan gods of "Isis, Horus, and Seb."
Please let me be clear that we have no objection whatsoever to W.W.J.D. bracelets, or F.R.O.G. bracelets or any other Evangelical Christian merchandise. In fact Evangelicals are selling this stuff to Catholic youth too which doesn't bother us in the least. We're glad the youth of all denominations are on fire for Jesus.
For interest sake let us turn the table and examine Evangelical methods of carrying the message of Jesus to the world. Let us look at this through Hislop's pagan coloured glasses.
Evangelicals went to Africa to evangelize and were soon playing Christian
music on native instruments. These were instruments similar to those previously
used in cannibalistic rituals. New Christians worshipped in tents that had
previously been used in sacrifices to native gods. Evangelicals went to China
where new Christians would worship Jesus in the same lotus (sitting) position
that they had previously used during occult meditation.
Back in North America Evangelicals set up huge Christian contemporary music festivals modeled on the pagan Woodstock phenomenon. They sponsored Christian glam shows with smoke and pyrotechnic effects similar to those used by Marilyn Manson. Evangelical musicians played on bongos and percussion instruments that had their roots in Caribbean sex rituals. They played Christian music to the reggae groove of pagan Rastafarians. They used break dancing that was developed by inner city ghetto kids who were into the cult of gang warfare. They were influenced by blues, jazz, rap and rock that had long been associated with a rebellious, promiscuous counter culture. They got on TV, a media that had also been used for pornographic movies. They gathered in football stadiums and cheered like a Super Bowl crowd. TV Evangelists became more popular than idolized rock stars. In their Churches they put the same kind of $15,000 sound systems that are used in most bars. They had worship services and prayer meetings in community centre rooms that were also used by sex education classes and occult meditation workshops. Meeting halls of almost all Evangelical Churches have beautiful images of nature such as waterfalls, mountains, lakes, and flower filled fields. Through Hislop's pagan coloured glasses these could be mistaken as worshiping the "created' rather than the Creator.
We find it difficult to understand how these well meaning Evangelicals can criticize the Catholic Church for ringing bells during worship, burning incense at important masses, for honouring the woman who risked being stoned to death to give birth to Jesus, for having pictures of great Christian martyrs, for building majestic Churches, for having altars with cups of wine and bowls of bread, and for having a statue of the Crucified Christ who died for our sins.
We're not criticising the Evangelical Church's approach to evangelization here. We love modern Christian music and think they are doing a great job in Africa and China. These Evangelicals are learning what Catholics found out 2000 years ago.
- It is almost impossible to avoid symbolism that hasn't at some time or
another been used in a pagan context.
- John 1:1 tells us that "all things came into being through him and without him not one thing came into being" therefore, Christians should pick up the tools that are around and use them to evangelize in the name of Jesus.
This is what the Catholic Church did 2000 years ago and that is what Evangelicals are doing today.
(1) Catholic Answers, "The Whore of Babylon" (San Diego: Catholic Answers,
Definition of Pagan: simply a non-Christian, denotes someone from the countryside (The Romans...from Village to Empire. Oxford Press 2004)
Lord Jesus, let Your prayer of unity for Christians
become a reality, in Your way.
We have absolute confidence
that you can bring your people together,
we give you absolute permission to move.