“Ask a Priest: Did Christianity Simply Borrow From Pagan Cults?”

Q: I have quite the theological question for you. In modern Christian dogma, a lot has been taken from older religions (Greek paganism mainly) and modified to fit into Christianity. Examples of this could be found in that Jehovah and Zeus look almost identical when depicted in Renaissance art. Angels and devils, when spoke of in the Bible (specifically in Revelation), are depicted as looking very similar to Greek monsters (griffins and the Hydra and stuff like that), and Catholic patron saints seem no different to me than lesser gods in pagan religions. I guess my point is, if I am to have no other gods, why does Christianity historically take from other religions? Am I viewing this from an incorrect perspective? Did the Greeks “almost” have it right because they knew more than we think, or is all of this stuff metaphors and not to be taken literally in the first place? Then on a related note, as Christianity spread and ultimately flourished in North Europe, why didn’t we historically see the faith taking from the old gods in that area? It seems odd to me to be taking from the Greeks and Romans, but not having any relations between the faiths of the Saxons, Vikings, Normans and other barbarians. -R.T.

Answered by Fr. Edward McIlmail, LC

A: Thanks for your theological question. Fittingly it deserves a theological answer — one much more complete than is possible in this short attempt. Nevertheless, the following might help.

Part of the key to your question is the word “taken.” In one sense Christianity didn’t take anything from anyone. Christianity, specifically the person of Jesus Christ, is the fullness of what God wanted to reveal to the world. And God didn’t need to “take” anything from the pagan cults. Christianity did, however, build on Judaism, but that is a different sort of dynamic.

So why some of the seeming similarities between Christianity and, say, the pagan cults of the Near East? A short answer could be this: There is something embedded in the human spirit that yearns for the transcendent, something that seeks to understand why the world is the way it is. Since we are all humans, it isn’t surprising that there are common elements in every expression of religion. Among these elements are the notions of sacred time, sacred space, etc. Christianity gave genuine expression to these elements.

Christianity is radically different from these pagan faiths, however. Monotheism itself differs radically from polytheism. In the latter, for instance, the gods seem to be just as bad as humans at times. The gods sometimes seem to come from somewhere else (a metadivine realm, in the phrase of some scholars). In Judeo-Christianity, by contrast, there is one God, and he simply is — he doesn’t come from anywhere.

In pagan cults the gods are often squabbling among themselves, and sometimes using or abusing humans at their whim. In Christianity, by contrast, we believe in an utterly transcendent God who marvelously cares for us and for our salvation, so much so that he sends his Son to suffer and die for us. This is worlds apart from the pagan cults of old.

That said, the Church in fact tries to tap into the best of what every culture and people has to offer. Thus the Church used Greek philosophy to help better understand and articulate the things revealed in Scripture and Tradition. One example could be in use of the notions of substance and accidents to help us understand and explain the Eucharist.

On the other hand, Christianity didn’t adopt the Greek practice of priestesses; that didn’t fit with Christ’s plan for the priesthood. So the ancient Greeks had some things of value (their pursuit of wisdom), but in other areas they were understandably groping in the dark.

Similarly the early Church adapted certain aspects of the Roman Empire’s administrative skills to help organize the work of evangelization, etc., but it didn’t adopt the pantheon of Roman gods.

As for the saints, they certainly were not and are not held up as gods. They are human beings who, with the grace of God, are recognized as having reached laudable levels of sanctity. They would be the first to attribute their gifts to the one, real God.

(For related reading on the roots of Christianity, see Mark Shea’s article.) I hope some of this helps.

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