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This article provides an overview of the relations between Christians and Pagans.

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" in the context of early Christianity 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 or religions such as Neoplatonism or Gnosticism as well as the "barbarian" 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 Judaizers, insisting on the obedience to the Torah Laws by all Christians, on one hand, and Pauline Christianity, 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.


Pagan Influences on Christianity

The intermingling and interaction of peoples and cultures facilitated by the Pax Romana resulted in the competition and cross fertilization of religions. Christianity either evolved from or was strongly influenced by one or more of the religions of the time.

Three layers of Pagan influence on the Christian churches have been proposed:

  1. Influence on the New Testament narrative and doctrine itself. This is mainly from Hellenistic mystery religions such as Mithraism, themselves partly inspired by Ancient Egyptian Religion[citation needed] and Persian religion",[1] as well as the mythology of the Old Testament, but Buddhism is also named as a possible influence;
  2. Influence on Christian dogma in Late Antiquity, that is, the doctrine of the Christian Church Fathers in the 4th and 5th century, the Nicene and Chalcedonian creeds, including the questions of the Trinity and Christology. A strong influence here was Roman imperial cult, Hellenistic philosophy, notably Neoplatonism, and Gnosticism. Christological disputes continued to dominate Christian theology well into the Early Middle Ages, down to the Third Council of Constantinople of AD 680[citation needed];
  3. Influences of Pagan religions Christianized in the Early Middle Ages. This includes Germanic paganism, Celtic paganism, Slavic paganism and Folk religion in general[citation needed].

According to this theory, Christianity was both greatly influenced by non Christian (Pagan) cults and mythologies[citation needed].

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, resulting in national churches like Latin, Germanic, Russian, Armenian, Greek and so on.

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 original Christianity due, in part, to such Pagan influences[citation needed].


Influence on New Testament Narrative

Assertions of Pagan influences on Christianity have been made since the beginning of the Christian era.[citation needed] Justin Martyr made the following defense against the assertion that Jesus Christ was modeled after the Greek god, Dionysus.

Be well assured, then, Trypho, that I am established in the knowledge of and faith in the Scriptures by those counterfeits which He who is called The Devil is said to have performed among the Greeks; just as some were wrought by the Magi in Egypt, and others by the false prophets in Elijah's days. For when they tell that Bacchus, son of Jupiter, was begotten by intercourse with Semele, and that he was the discoverer of the vine; and when they relate, that being torn in pieces, and having died, he rose again, and ascended to heaven; and when they introduce wine into his mysteries, do I not perceive that The Devil has imitated the prophecy announced by the patriarch Jacob, and recorded by Moses?[2]

Contemporary scholars argue against alleged influences as:

The flowering of Mithraism occurred after the close of the New Testament canon, too late for it to have influenced the development of first-century Christianity.”[3]

Influence on Early Christian Theology

There was a complex interaction between Hellenic philosophy and Christianity during the early years of the church, particularly the first four centuries A.D.

Christianity originated in the Roman province of Judah, a predominantly Jewish society, with traditional philosophies distinct from the Classical 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 Epicurian and Stoic philosophers mentioned in Acts,[4] his diatribe against Greek philosophy in 1st Corinthians,[5] and his warning against 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[citation needed].

One early Christian writer of the second and early third 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 fourth and early fifth 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 twentieth 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)[citation needed], 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 Bogomils, Paulicians, and the Cathars were deeply influenced by Manichaeism. However, the Bogomils and Cathars, in particular, left few records of their rituals or doctrines, and the link between them and Manichaeans is unclear. Regardless of its historical veracity the charge of Manichaeism was leveled at them by contemporary orthodox opponents, who often tried to fit contemporary heresies with those combated by the church fathers. The Paulicians, Bogomils, and Cathars were certainly dualists and felt that the world was the work of a demiurge of Satanic origin. Whether this was due to influence from Manichaeism or another strand of Gnosticism is impossible to determine. Only a minority of Cathars held that The Evil God (or principle) was as powerful as The Good God (also called a principle) as Mani did, a belief also known as absolute dualism. In the case of the Cathars, it seems they adopted the Manichaean principles of church organization, but none of its religious cosmology. Priscillian and his followers apparently tried to absorb what they thought was the valuable part of Manichaeaism into Christianity.

Influence on Christian Liturgy and Ritual

Idolatry in Christianity

Idolatry in Christianity is the worship of a created object either made by human hands or created by God instead of, or in addition to, the worship Christians see as being due only to the ChristianGod[citation needed].



Lent and Easter


Mystery plays

The passion plays of Christianity had their counterpart in Pagan mystery plays, the most famous of which were the Eleusinian mystery cults which originated in Attica[citation needed].

Conflicts between Christians and Pagans

Christians and Pagans in the Roman Empire

In AD 313 with the signing of the Edict of Milan, Christianity was no longer outlawed and now tolerated in the Roman Empire. Although Constantine allowed public Pagan practices, specific Pagan temples were torn down upon his orders, while in other cases temple treasures were confiscated [9] After the death of Constantine in 337, two of his sons, Constantius II and Constans took over the leadership of the empire. Constans, ruler of the western provinces, was, like his father, a Christian. Constans was killed in 350, and soon after his brother became the sole emperor of the entire empire three years later.

But it wasn't just the emperors who persecuted the Pagans. Lay Christians took advantage of these new anti Pagan laws by destroying and plundering the temples[citation needed]. Theologians and prominent ecclesiastics soon followed[citation needed]. 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[citation needed].

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[citation needed].

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

With the gradual Christianization of Europe the Christian views of marriage replaced more permissive, Pagan views. A process which was not free of confrontation; see: History of Christianity and homosexuality.

Religious Warfare During the Middle Ages

The Christian mission during the Christianization of Europe was to a large extent peaceful.[10] There were some exceptions, mainly the Saxon wars, the Christianization of Norway and later the Baltic Crusades[citation needed].

Saxon Conversion

In 782, Charlemagne allegedly had 4,500 Saxons beheaded at the Massacre of Verden[citation needed]. Their crime was that they had continued to practice their indigenous Germanic Paganism after converting, under duress, to Christianity. Alcuin and other theologians at the court of Charlemagne opposed his treatment of the Saxons and insisted in peaceful and voluntary conversion.[11] Mainstraim history describes these events as religious warfare rather than religious persecution.[12] Still, some Neopagan authors present them in support of a case for the religious persecution of Pagans.[13]

Saxon Pagans had been invading the Frankish lands during the time of Charles Martel and Pepin, the Grandfather and Father of Charlemagne. Martel and Pepin were satisfied with just pushing back the invaders. Not so Charlemagne. The Saxons had invaded Frankish land. This group, unlike their cousins that went to England, practiced human sacrifice and ritualistic cannibalism[citation needed]. At this time the Saxons in England had been converted to Christianity. Sending back a Saxon priest to try to convert the Saxons in Germany, St. Leafwine was lucky to escape alive[citation needed].

Charlemagne initially wanted to destroy all Saxons[citation needed]. Changing his mind, he decided to subjugate them and force Christianity upon them. He believed by doing this there would at least be peace on their borders[citation needed]. He didn’t do this with the other Pagan tribes, like the Avers and the Slavs, perhaps due to a different nature amongst them[citation needed]. In the tenth year of a thirty year war, Charlemagne, suffering the loss of many men and churches destroyed by the Saxons, had the opportunity to take revenge on the Pagan Saxons. He slaughtered 4500 of them[citation needed]. He prostrated himself at the bishop's feet to confess this crime. The war wouldn’t end for another twenty two years. Three years after the end of the war, all of the Saxons were converted to Christianity, at least nominally. Charlemagne, the first of the Holy Roman Emperors, made steps for the unity of all of Europe.[14]

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 Barbarian groups to the converted by Christian missionaries and it was mainly under the threat of death by Charlemagne and with great 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.[15] So the new theology was translated into terms of Northern life.

Conversion of Æthelberht

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.”[16] 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.[17]

A gradual conversion

Many believe that Christian missionaries invaded and wiped out paganism to be immediately replaced with Christianity. However, the truth is that the Anglo-Saxon conversion in particular was a gradual process that necessarily included many compromises and syncretism. A violent conversion to the new religion was unnecessary when the old provided so many parallelisms that the tribal culture could absorb the conquering God without disrupting any of its basic preconceptions; only in time were these to give way before an ecclesiastical conquest

Christian/Anglo-Saxon Syncretism

Naturally there would be comparisons made between the new Christian god and the Old Pagan ones. Besides many naturally occurring parallelisms occurring in the mythologies of Christianity and Paganism, Missionaries made an effort to translate Christianity in a way that would be more palatable to Pagan converts.

Wodan and Christ

The importance of Wodan in Anglo-Saxon theology was proverbial. As might be expected, Wodan was in the first place equated by Christian missionaries with the devil. However, Anglo Saxons made obvious connections with their old God Wodan and new one Jesus. In Saxon mythology, Wodan gained knowledge of runes by sacrificing himself to himself, hanging and fasting on the World tree Yggdrasill.[18] Likewise, Christ was also a Hanging God sacrificing himself for redemption. Christ and Wodan are also both famously mentioned in the much discussed Anglo Saxon “Nine Herbs Charm” which was a Christian charm meant to fight poison but had pagan origins. Christ was supposed to have invented the nine herbs as he hung on the Cross.[19] As Woden masters the magic runes of wisdom by hanging on his Cosmic Tree, so Christ creates the magic herbs as He hung on His Tree, the Cross. While the ties between Wodan and Christ are obviously tenuous and there was no obvious attempt to blatantly conflate the two it is significant that the two existed side by side in Pagan-Christian theology and were not viewed as being mutually exclusive of one another by most early Anglo-Saxon pagans.

Emphasis on kingship

Kingship in Pagan theology was incredibly important and Christian missionaries openly attempted to include this in their teachings. The Heliand, for example, an infamous example of Pagan-Christian syncretism, referred to Jesus as the “Great Chief.” The genealogies of the royal houses of Kent, Wessex, East Anglia, Mercia, Bernicia, Deira, and Lindsey all record the descent oftheir kings from Wodan. Divine lineage was a claim of Northern royalty even before the settlement of England.[20] During the conversion of the Bretwalda to Christianity they sought a way to connect their lineage with some Christian divinity. Thus, King Aethelwulf of Wessex in the Anglo-Saxon chronicle sub anno 855 , Wodan is sixteenth in descent from “Sceaf, who is the son of Noah and was born in Noah’s Ark.” Because the kings of Anglo Saxon kingdoms were supposed to have been divinely ascended they served as spiritual leaders of their communities. As a chief’s main concern was to be victorious, likewise God was expected to lead its people to victory. Consequently, it's not surprising that the old concept of the king as bringer of victory also continues with Christianity. The Christian God, “king of victories,” gave triumph to the earlthly rulers who served him. Many Saxon chiefs converted because they believed the Christian God would bring about conquest and real material gain

Anglo-Saxon Judith and theological comparisons

Many comparisons were also made regarding elements of Pagan and Christian theology including Heaven and Valhalla; hell and Niflhel. The Anglo Saxon poem Judith has many such comparisons when wyrd becomes fate and Grendel turns into the seed of Cain. Many view this as a tainting or bastardization of the old Pagan mythologies by Christianity but really it was such that the Pagan vocabulary was absorbed in the new faith. The story of the great flood is also apparent in Paganism as well.


Many Pagan holidays were incorporated into the Christian calendar. St. Martin’s Day was (and is) November 11, the great feast day closest to the old Winter’s Day festival of November 7, on which the king sacrificed for a good year. The popularity of the feast of St. John the Baptist (June 24) is undoubtedly a continuation of the Midsummer observance of paganism.

Norwegian Civil War 995-1030

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[citation needed]tortured, maimed or executed, including seidmen, who were tied up and thrown to a skerry at ebb to slowly drown. After Olaf I's death, Norway returned to its native Paganism. Olaf II of Norway had Pagans who refused to convert tortured, blinded or executed, and despoiled Pagan temples, eventually resulting in at least nominal Christianization of Norway[citation needed].

Baltic crusades

Christian positions towards paganism

See also

Topics of Christianity and Paganism:


  1. ^ Beck, Roger (2002). "Mithraism". Encyclopædia Iranica. Costa Mesa: Mazda Pub. Retrieved 2007-10-28. 
  2. ^ Justin Martyr
  3. ^ Ronald H. Nash, Gospel and the Greeks, p.137
  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".;&version=31;. Retrieved 2009-11-09. 
  6. ^ "Colossians 2:8; - Passage Lookup - New International Version".;&version=31;. Retrieved 2009-11-09. 
  7. ^ Clement of Alexandria. Miscellanies 6. 8
  8. ^ Augustine of Hippo. Confessions 7. 20
  9. ^ Eusebius, Vita Constantini 3. 54-58
  10. ^ Padberg, 1998, 183
  11. ^ Padberg (1998), 97
  12. ^ Padberg (1998), 94f
  13. ^ Strmiska, Michael F.. "The Evils of Christianization: A Pagan Perspective on European History". in Terrie Waddell (editor). Cultural Expressions of Evil and Wickedness: Wrath, Sex, Crime. Editions Rodopi B.V.. ISBN 978-9042010154. ""From the Pagan point of view, we can ask what might have happened if Charlemagne had chosen a different path. What if he had pursued a policy of religious tolerance instead of religious persecution?"" 
  14. ^ Church History by John Laux pp. 250-252; The Building of Christendom by Warren Carroll pp. 310-311; Christ the King Lord of History by Anne W. Carroll pp.140-142
  15. ^ Chaney, William. "Paganism to Christianity in Anglo-Saxon England." The Harvard Theological Review 53 (1960): 197-217.
  16. ^ Bede's Ecclesiastical History of England. Charleston: BiblioBazaar, 2007
  17. ^ Fletcher, Richard. The Barbarian Conversion : From Paganism to Christianity. New York: University of California P, 1999.
  18. ^ Auden, W. H. Havamal Words of the High One. Grand Rapids: Kessinger, LLC, 2004
  19. ^ Pettit, Edward, ed. Anglo-Saxon Remedies, Charms and Prayers from British Library MS Harley 585 : The Lacnunga. New York: Edwin Mellen P, The, 2001.
  20. ^ Chaney, William. "Paganism to Christianity in Anglo-Saxon England." The Harvard Theological Review 53 (1960)

Further reading

  • Samuel Angus, The Mystery Religions and Christianity, 1966. University Books, New York, NY. 359 pp.
  • Edward Carpenter, Pagan and Christian Creeds: Their Origin and Meaning, 1921. Harcourt, Brace & Co., New York, NY. Reprinted by Health Research, Mokelumne Hill, CA., 1975. 319 pp.
  • T.W. Doane, Bible Myths and Their Parallels in Other Religions, 1882. Reprinted by Health Research, Mokelumne Hill, CA., 1985. 589 pp.
  • Tom Harpur, The Pagan Christ: Recovering the Lost Light, Toronto. Thomas Allen, 2004. ISBN 0-88762-145-7
  • John G. Jackson, Christianity Before Christ, 1985. American Atheist Press, Austin, Texas. 237 pp.
  • Gordon Laing, The Church Fathers and the Oriental Cults, The Classical Journal (1918).
  • Lutz E. von Padberg (1998), Die Christianisierung Europas im Mitterlalter, Reclam (German) (History textbooks on the Christianization of Europe are also easily available in English.)
  • J. M. Robertson, Pagan Christs, 1966. Dorset Press, New York, NY. 171 pp.


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