The rapid decline in the retention of pure doctrine by the early church is breathtaking. Despite having members who could pass on to the next generation instruction received directly from the apostles, and despite ecclesias having in their possession letters from Paul and others, within two centuries many pagan ideas had been merged with the truth delivered to them. This was as foretold: “For I know this, that after my departing shall grievous wolves enter in among you, not sparing the flock” (Acts 20:29).

The prophets of old often spoke of Israel’s rejection of God. Zechariah in describing this “falling away” links the process to Babylon with an initial application to the literal city but arguably with a secondary application to the spiritual Babylon of Revelation and its distortion of scriptural truth. He refers to “women” and an “ephah” and then continues, “Then said I to the angel that talked with me, Whither do these bear the ephah? And he said to me, To build it an house in the land of Shinar [Babylon]: and it shall be established, and set there upon her own base” (Zech 5:10–11).

This observation about Israel’s failure to maintain purity of belief and lifestyle was a precursor to the decline of the early church centuries later. It provides an interesting link to the spiritual Babylon that caused the decline and to the literal Babylon that was the source of some of the pagan concepts that were adopted.

General influence of paganism

Surrounded as they were by pagan symbols and superstitious belief, some members of the early church began to debate the extent to which they needed to be separate from such things. Despite the clear instruction to “Therefore come out from them and be separate from them” (2 Cor 6:17), some began to rationalise that perhaps this demand was not absolute. Living in towns and villages in which their lifestyle was immediately apparent, they would require great courage to state that they no longer believed in the Greek or Roman gods. Such belief could lead to ostracism by neighbours but, worse than that, failure to acknowledge the Roman Emperor as divine could lead to severe consequences from the authorities.

Some believers would have debated how far their separation had to extend when it threatened their livelihood; unfortunately, others would have debated it in the hope that they could continue to practise activities they enjoyed; then there would be those attempting to rationalise that retaining some involvement with local practices might make it easier to convert unbelievers. It was this latter concept in particular that led to the official adoption of pagan practices into Catholic Church ceremonies.

pagan

Paganism was ingrained into the society and it seems that many who became nominal Christians also retained a level of belief in false gods, probably on a ‘just in case’ basis. In certain regions the influence extended beyond the commonly found Greek and Roman gods. In around 1896 a French archaeologist, Albert Gayet, excavated thousands of tombs of Egyptian Christians from the first five centuries, which includes the period in which decline in the purity of belief occurred. The dry conditions in Egypt kept objects placed in the tombs in good condition and a report on the discoveries states:

“They show how integrated the early believers were with the culture of the ancient world, with the symbols and myths of classical Greece and Pharaonic Egypt. Here may be seen tapestry depictions of the Greek gods such as Apollo, and Dionysian dancers, mixed up with the lotus flowers of Egypt, and Nile birds, and scenes from the Gospels, vines representing the True Vine, and attributes of the Christian saints.”

It might be argued that this mixing of pagan ideas with Christianity was not condoned by the Church and was simply the practice of some who were not fully converted. However, as we will see, the Church was not at all averse to adopting the practices of the surrounding society and statues, icons and relics became standard features, along with ceremonies of great pomp and display. As well as impacting on practices such as these, the prevailing pagan concepts had a significant effect on the development of false doctrines particularly from the third and fourth centuries. Shortly after the declaration of Christianity as the official state religion, Constantine built a large basilica in Byzantium (Constantinople), in which he placed a statue of the sun-god bearing his own features and a statue of the mother-goddess Cybele. It was a harbinger of what was to become standard practice.

Statues of Christ, Mary and a broad range of ‘saints’ became commonplace in the Western wing of the Catholic Church. The Eastern wing objected to statues but, along with the West, introduced an almost limitless range of relics and icons of the apostles and appointed ‘saints’ with alleged curative powers, or at least the power to impress simplistic believers.

Doctrine of the Trinity

At face value, the introduction of Trinitarian views into the Church appears to be a matter of scriptural interpretation rather than opinion influenced by paganism. In practice, both were factors together with political opportunism. This is not the place for a treatise on the Trinity but an outline of its history will help us perceive the effect of these influences.

The doctrine was accepted at the Council of Nicaea, conducted in AD 325 under the auspices of the Emperor Constantine, who wanted to resolve the continuing debate on the relationship between God and Christ. A church leader, Arius, argued that they were distinct persons but another leader, Athanasius, argued that they were of the same nature. His opinion prevailed, aided no doubt by Constantine’s approval. Although officially endorsed by the Council, the doctrine was not universally accepted and debate continued to rage, especially over such terms as “likeness” and “identity of essence”. Supporters of both Arius and Athanasius competed for the favour of the new emperor, Constantius, who succeeded to the role in 337 upon the death of his father, Constantine.

For political expediency, Constantius wanted a simpler definition to stop the intense argument from causing disruption within the Empire. He was unsuccessful and the argument continued after his death in 361. The debate became even more complicated when an East-West divide developed, with the East arguing that the Holy Spirit was not within the Godhead but at the “summit of the created angelic order”. Yet another Council was conducted, and at Constantinople in 381 the Nicaean Creed was ratified but with the wording expanded to state that “the Holy Spirit proceeded from the Father”. Essentially, this is the creed applied in the churches today, but even after this ratification it was not accepted by all and the debate raged for centuries. It was not the sole cause but it contributed to the two wings of the Church officially dividing in 1054.

Although there was scriptural debate, there was also pagan influence in the development of Trinitarian thought. Some may have deliberately intended to bring pagan concepts into the debate and others may have unknowingly been influenced simply because it was ‘the way of the world’ at the time. Herein is a word of warning for us when debate takes place over the real or perceived need for change in ecclesial styles to meet the ‘needs of the times’. Adjustments may be needed on occasion, but we have to be careful not to introduce them simply to comply with prevailing worldviews.

In Is God a Trinity? David Kemball-Cook quotes from several authorities in relation to the pagan influence:

“…Christian doctrine in the 2nd and 3rd centuries AD was influenced heavily by the Greek-speaking, termed ‘Hellenistic’, culture of the time. As a result, Christian doctrine was removed from its roots in primitive Christianity and Hebrew modes of thought, and became an exercise in abstract thought and speculative metaphysics.

As well as the general Platonic influence on theology, beliefs in a divine trinity were common in pagan thought of the second to fourth centuries. In Egypt the concept of God as trinity or triad was of ancient origin, with the best known example being Osiris, Isis, and Horus (father, mother, child), but that it was flourishing in the 2nd century and afterwards, particularly in Alexandria.”2 [Athanasius was Bishop of Alexandria].

Worship of MaryThe Catholic doctrine that Mary the mother of Jesus was without sin, was perpetually a virgin and upon her death rose bodily to heaven has no scriptural support whatsoever. Reliance is placed on Papal and Church Council statements with only tenuous mention made of Scripture. In connection with Mary’s bodily assumption the Church concedes:

“This dogma has no basis in scripture. It was nonetheless declared ‘divinely revealed’ meaning that it is contained implicitly in divine Revelation.” As with so many of these aberrant dogmas there is a pagan background, in this case the influence of the worship of feminine gods known as goddesses. We are familiar with references to Artemis (Diana) but there were many more female deities in the pantheon of Greek and Roman gods. Again we find that Constantine and the Council of Nicaea were instrumental in developing the unscriptural concept that it was appropriate to worship Mary. The agreed Trinitarian creed was distributed to all bishops and included with it was an infrequently mentioned appendix that codified the developing idea that Mary was the Mother of God. One secular historian in referring to this background states:

“This emphatic statement [the creed] included an important mention of Christ’s mother, and it secured a space for Mary in all future debates on Christ’s nature. Mary, as Mother of God, reached all Christian communities through the appendix to the letter sent to all bishops in the aftermath of the Council: ‘For He is the express image, not of the will or of anything else, but of His Father’s very substance. This Son, the divine Logos, having been born in flesh from Mary the Mother of God and made incarnate, having suffered and died, rose again from the dead and was taken up into heaven, and sits on the right hand of the Majesty most high, and will come to judge the living and the dead’.”

Goddesses were worshipped prior to the Greek and Roman periods and some commentators, including Hislop in The Two Babylons, draw a link back to the Babylonian goddess Mylitta, known as Ishtar or Astarte to the Assyrians and later to the Greeks as Aphrodite. The worship of Mary is primarily based on the adaption of pagan ideas rather than on differing scriptural interpretation, which is the more common cause of doctrinal variance. As we know, Diana was the female goddess of Ephesus in Asia (Acts 19) and it is not surprising to learn that it was in the Council of Ephesus (AD 431) that she was confirmed as “Mother of God”.

The renowned historian Edward Gibbon refers to some of these external influences in the Jewish and later the Christian communities:

“Since the introduction of the Greek or Chaldean philosophy, the Jews were persuaded of the preexistence, transmigration, and immortality of souls; and Providence was justified by a supposition that they were confined in their earthly prisons to expiate the stains which they had contracted in a former state.

… The polytheist and the philosopher, the Greek and the barbarian, were alike accustomed to conceive a long succession, an infinite chain of angels, or demons, or deities, or aeons, or emanations, issuing from the throne of light.”

Easter

There is no record of the early church initially observing Easter as a prescribed festival and there is certainly no apostolic instruction to do so. Details of how it developed into a major church festival are obscure but there is some evidence that in the third and fourth centuries the death and resurrection of Christ was celebrated in a festival at Passover time. At first it was apparently a simple ceremony and, although not a prescribed annual remembrance, there seems no harm in a period of reflection additional to a weekly participation in the emblems. The problem is what it grew into by the inclusion of unscriptural additions.

Hislop states that by the fifth century the commemoration was preceded by the forty-day period of abstinence of Lent, which he considers was adopted from the worship of the Babylonian goddess Astarte. Whether or not it was a direct borrowing from Babylon or from several forms of false worship that included prescribed periods of fasting or abstinence, the fact remains that the Catholic Church merged pagan practices into the commemoration and developed it into a major festival on the church calendar.

A Church Council held in 519 declared that Lent should solemnly be observed before Easter. This had the effect of introducing ideas from paganism as well as encouraging belief in the concept that righteousness was obtainable by compliance with the regulations and ordinances of the Church. To add to the popularity of the festival, and to mark the conclusion of the period of abstinence from certain foods, hot cross buns and coloured eggs were included as religious symbols in the festivities. Food offerings to idols were common practice in many countries and we note the warning from the prophet Jeremiah:

“The children gather wood, the fathers kindle fire, and the women knead dough, to make cakes for the queen of heaven; and they pour out drink offerings to other gods, to provoke me to anger.” (Jer 7:18, RSV)

Jeremiah was probably referring to the worship of the Babylonian goddess Ishtar, and again we have a linkage between practices of the literal city and those of Rome, the spiritual Babylon. The use of eggs in the commemoration may also have a link to Babylon but there could be other derivatives as the mystique of new life from an egg influenced many pagan practices. Hislop contends there is a direct link with Babylonian practices and quotes from ancient writers including Hyginus, an Egyptian and keeper of the Palantine library in Rome at the time of Augustus, who stated: “An egg of wondrous size is said to have fallen from heaven into the river Euphrates. The fishes rolled it to the bank, where the doves having settled upon it, and hatched it, out came Venus, who afterwards was called the Syrian Goddess, Astarte.”6 Worship of Astarte was extensive across the Mediterranean region, one large centre being on Cyprus where a large monument of an egg is stated to have existed.

Christmas

Scripture provides not the slightest inkling that the birth of Christ should be commemorated with a festival of any sort, let alone a festival observed with the enthusiasm given to Christmas, either in its secular or religious forms. Despite complete lack of instruction regarding it, Christmas became the second most significant church festival after Easter. Ostensibly a remembrance of Christ’s birth, the festival was heavily influenced by pagan concepts introduced either to make Christianity more appealing to the masses or because the reasoning of the time subtly held sway over the minds of the leaders.

The general time of the year for Christmas appears to have been based on the Roman festival of Saturn celebrated at the winter solstice with much revelry and drunkenness. The selection of 25th December as the exact date, according to some sources, pre-dates Roman times with links back to Babylon:

“… within the Christian Church no such festival as Christmas was ever heard of until the third century, and not till the fourth century was far advanced did it gain much observance. How then did the Romish Church fix on December the 25th as Christmas-day? … Long before the fourth century, and long before the Christian era itself, a festival was celebrated among the heathen, at that precise time of the year, in honour of the birth of the son of the Babylonian queen of heaven; and it may be fairly presumed that, in order to conciliate the heathen, and to swell the number of the nominal adherents of Christianity, the same festival was adopted by the Roman Church, giving it only the name of Christ.”

Christmas trees

The Romans used trees to decorate temples during the festival of Saturnalia. There are also records of trees being used in Northern Europe from the tenth century and in Germany and other central European countries from the sixteenth century. Early usage was clearly pagan but by the 1500s it became common to use them to represent the ‘tree of paradise’ in plays performed at Christmas or as a symbol of hope during the winter for the coming spring.

By the early nineteenth century the use of Christmas trees had become popular amongst the European nobility. In 1841 Queen Victoria’s husband, Prince Albert of Germany, set up a Christmas tree at Windsor Castle and the publicity it received resulted in many homes across England having Christmas trees in the following year and beyond. The desire to emulate the Royal Family caused the commencement of a practice that has continued into our era and is seen as one of the ‘traditions of Christmas’ with no thought being given to its origins.

Our response today

In eras in which the pagan aspects of Easter and Christmas were apparent it would be untenable for a genuine believer to participate in the festivals in any way as the populace would see it as acknowledgment of false gods. Those origins are not considered in today’s world and none of our associates would see any connection with pagan concepts. It is therefore largely a matter of individual conscience as to the extent we engage in these matters, having in mind Paul’s observation about some esteeming one day above another and some treating all alike. Eating a chocolate egg at Easter is not an acknowledgement of pagan gods but the conscience of others does need to be considered. It is most important, however, that any such activities be understood as having no religious significance and that our children are well aware of that fact.

Not just history

With the decline in influence of the Catholic Church from the effects of secularism and the profile given in recent years to abuses by the clergy we may be inclined to perceive the issues discussed here as being of historical interest only. We must remember that for centuries the Catholic Church held sway over the minds and lives of vast numbers of the world’s populace, and savagely crushed any opposition to its power or its beliefs. That influence continues strongly in some developing nations and through parts of the Western world. The surging popularity of the new Pope Francis suggests that influence will bloom again, as in the depiction of Revelation 18, “I sit a queen and am no widow”.

Examples can readily be found: in 2010 Pope Benedict XVI warned bishops in Brazil against including non-religious cultural practices and rites into the Mass: “the incorporation of such practices and rites under the guise of inculturation was ‘syncretism’ that obscured the true understanding of the Mass.”8 The comments are interesting in that they recognise that the practice continues but ignore the fact that centuries ago pagan practices were incorporated into the current form of the Mass.

Each year, five million Catholic pilgrims visit a statue of Mary in a grotto at Lourdes in France to seek forgiveness and (they hope) to have illnesses cured. This statue purportedly has special powers because it is on the site of an alleged vision of Mary. Another five million per annum visit a monastery in Czestochowa to see Poland’s holiest relic, a painting known as the ‘Black Madonna’, allegedly painted by Luke. The dark tones on the skin of Mary are stated to have been caused by a fire around the fourteenth century that destroyed the monastery but miraculously left the painting unscathed. In all probability the dark tones have been caused by burning candles in front of the painting for centuries, but reality is beside the point for those searching for miracles and for a church that generates a huge income from the visitors.

Without an understanding of the past and present ways of Catholicism we may fail to see the impact of many of the visions in the Book of Revelation as we wait for that day when we will see: “Fallen, fallen is Babylon the great! It has become a dwelling place of demons, a haunt of every foul spirit, a haunt of every foul and hateful bird; for all nations have drunk the wine of her impure passion, and the kings of the earth have committed fornication with her, and the merchants of the earth have grown rich with the wealth of her wantonness” (Rev 18:2–3, RSV).