Worshiping Like Pagans?

by Dr. E. Glenn Hinson

How much did Christians borrow from Greek and Roman religions?

[Christian History originally published this article in Christian History Issue 37 in 1993 ]

“The Devil, whose business it is to pervert the truth, mimics the exact circumstances of the Divine Sacraments in the Mysteries of Mithras. He himself baptizes some, that is to say, his believers and followers; he promises forgiveness of sins from the Sacred Fount and thereby initiates them into the religion of Mithras; ... he brings in the symbol of the Resurrection, and wins the crown with the sword.”
—Tertullian (early third century)

This is just one bit of tantalizing evidence that has led some scholars to suggest early Christians borrowed worship practices from the religions of Greece and Rome, particularly the mystery religions (see “Inside Pagan Worship” in this issue).

Christian History asked Dr. E. Glenn Hinson, professor of church history at The Baptist Theological Seminary at Richmond, Virginia, to explore how much early Christians worshiped like their pagan neighbors.

Some scholars have claimed the apostle Paul was essentially a devotee of Greek mystery religions, that we cannot understand the New Testament without understanding the language of the mystery religions. Hardly anyone would now agree.

Still, most scholars recognize that over several centuries Christianity did not escape the effects of Greek and Roman culture. The question is, to what extent did the culture’s religions shape the lives and customs of Christians?

To answer that question, we must divide early Christian attitudes by historical periods.

Hesitant Adaptations

The church experienced little Greek and Roman influence in its earliest years. In the age of the apostles, up to about A.D. 70, the predominance of Jewish Christians in the churches assured the influence of Judaism. Because Judaism was diverse, we find variety in worship across the vast reaches of the Roman Empire. The New Testament gives evidence of at least four styles of Christian worship: temple worship (Acts 2:46), synagogue worship (Acts 16:13, 16), a fellowship meal concluded by the Lord’s Supper (1 Cor. 11), and a charismatic type of service with emphasis on prophecy (1 Cor. 14). None of these approaches to worship significantly reflects Greco-Roman customs.

From the late first century on, though, Gentiles came to outnumber Jews in the Christian assembly. They imported in subtle ways some of the ideas, attitudes, and customs of Greek and Roman culture. And to make Christianity attractive to Gentile hearers, Christian missionaries adopted their language and even their ideas.

When Justin Martyr (c. 100-c. 165) wrote his Apology, for instance, he spoke of baptism as “illumination,” a word packed with meaning for Greek and Roman intellectuals. Ignatius of Antioch (c. 35-c. 107) characterized the Lord’s Supper as “the medicine of immortality.” Other apologists (defenders of Christianity) called the Supper “the unbloody sacrifice.&rdquo

These early evangelists, though, chose their words cautiously. Justin took great pains to qualify what he said about baptism, the Eucharist, and even the word Sunday.

Like other Christians, he still preferred “Lord’s Day” and went out of his way to note that Christians worshiped “on the day which is called Sunday” (by non-Christians).

The apologists realized the similarities of Christianity to mystery religions, so they felt compelled to differentiate true custom from false. To Justin, the breaking of the bread and sharing of the cup were things “evil spirits have taught to be done, out of memory, in the mysteries of initiations of Mithras. For in these likewise, a cup of water, and bread, are set out with the addition of certain words, in the sacrifice or act of worship of the person about to be initiated.&rdquo

Clement of Alexandria (c. 150-c. 215) and Origen (c. 185-c. 254) drew more daringly from the culture, but they exercised caution when they spoke about competing cults. Although probably at one time an initiate into the Eleusinian mysteries, Clement wrote at length on their vileness:

"The mysteries are simply tradition and idle invention; it is worshiping one of the devil’s tricks when people honor with bastard religiosity these unholy holinesses and impious initiations.

"Think of the mystic chests. . . . What is in them but sesame cakes, triangular cakes, round cakes, cakes shaped with hollows like navels, balls of salt, and a snake, symbols of Dionysus Bassareus? And pomegranates besides, and boughs of fig, and fennel, and ivy, yes, and biscuits and poppies. These are their holy things!

"And what of the symbols of Ge Themis, which no one is supposed to reveal—marjoram, a lamp, a sword, a woman’s comb' [a religious euphemism for a woman’s sex organ]. It’s downright shamelessness!&rdquo

Neither Clement nor Origen, moreover, ever abandon Paul’s original understanding of the term “mystery.” They always tie it to God’s saving plan in Christ, not to one of the stories of the gods.

The Age of Change

When Roman emperor Constantine converted to Christianity, around 312, Christians found themselves in a radically different position in their culture. After 324, Constantine aggressively bolstered the churches and later tried to expunge paganism. His benefactions to the churches assured and inspired freer borrowing from the culture than the age of persecution ever allowed. Although Christians hesitated for a time, they soon zealously melded Christianity and Roman culture.

Buildings for worship gave evidence of the change almost immediately; Constantine and his mother, Helena, erected churches all over the Roman Empire. Christians moved circumspectly, though, opting to follow the model of the common public building, the basilica, rather than the Greek and Roman temples. In time, however, they used materials stripped from such buildings and even built on top of temple precincts.

These grand edifices brought significant changes in worship. The basic framework (inherited from Judaism and early Christianity) remained, but the liturgy became more dramatic. As the emperor became the number-one layperson in the church, a simple ceremony no longer sufficed. The pomp and circumstance of the imperial court was adapted to honor the Emperor of emperors. Processionals, lights, special dress, and numerous other elements added to the grand setting. The living joined the vast company of saints, angels, and heavenly hosts in the glorious praise of God.

As the churches borrowed more freely from Roman culture, though, they also resorted frequently to their biblical roots to evaluate what they did. Christian paintings of the fourth century, for instance, frequently depict Jesus gathered with the Twelve to read from an Old Testament scroll. In this same period, droves of Christians trekked to the Holy Land.

Still, by the end of the fourth century, Christianity had achieved a dominant position in the empire, and Christians felt they could borrow cultural language and ideas more freely than before.

Editing Time

Vast numbers of people came into the church after the conversion of Constantine. This influx could have virtually obliterated the churches' biblical foundation had they not found a way to instruct neophytes. The catechumenate—the process to teach new believers the essentials of the faith—served in part to reshape the thought and behavior of the masses.

Overwhelmed by numbers, however, the churches soon shortened the formation period from three years to the forty days of Lent. At that point, the Sunday liturgy and the Christian calendar had to bear a heavier load for instructing the newly converted.

Not surprisingly, the calendar underwent extensive elaboration. Like their forebears in ancient Israel, the early Christians observed special days and seasons, adapting such from Judaism and then Greek and Roman culture.

For instance, in order to commemorate the “Lord’s Day,” the day on which Jesus was raised from the dead, the first Christians, converts from Judaism, gathered on Saturday night after 6:00 P.M. By the early second century, however, Gentile converts met before daybreak on Sunday. Throughout the period up to Constantine, Christians observed the first day of the week as a day of worship.

With the conversion of Constantine, however, came new possibilities of adjusting the calendar to Christian ends. In 321 Emperor Constantine decreed that Sunday would be a day of rest, a legal holiday. Some scholars suggest he intended to honor the god Sol Invictus Mithras (Mithras, the Unconquered Sun). Indeed, he described the first day of the week as the day of the sun, but regard for the Christian Lord’s Day motivated the ruling.

What Constantine did about Christmas further suggests he had Christianity in mind. Early Christians, of course, had no information that would help them calculate the date of Christ’s birth. The earliest evidence for the observance of December 25 as the birthday of Christ appears in the Philocalian Calendar, composed at Rome in 336. For many years this date was observed only in the West; the eastern churches observed January 6, Epiphany. Curiously, pagan holidays lay behind both of these dates. December 25 was the Natalis Soli Invicti, the birthday of the Unconquered Sun. January 6 was the feast of Dionysus. It seems likely that Constantine, trying to unite the worship of the Sun with that of Christ, pushed, if he did not concoct, the observance of Christmas. At about the same time, the mosaic of Christ as the Unconquered Sun appeared, later found in the excavations under St. Peter’s in Rome.

Cultural Exchange

Scholars will never reach consensus on the extent of the exchange between Christian worship and the Greco-Roman culture.

Some historians say that borrowing from Roman culture radically transformed early Christianity. However, A. D. Nock, in Early Gentile Christianity and Its Hellenistic Background, concluded that borrowing was done as “a matter of diplomatic and pedagogic technique.” Nock was convinced these adaptations “owed nothing essential to pagan ritual.” What surprised him, in fact, was that the pagan mysteries had “so little” impact on Christian ritual.

Modern studies affirm that early Christianity’s adaptation to its culture was essential to its success. Adaptation was a risky business—the early Christians had no flawless guidelines, just as we have none today. But like the apostle Paul, they sought to be all things to all people, that Christianity might become the religion of as many as possible.

Dr. E. Glenn Hinson is professor of church history at The Baptist Theological Seminary at Richmond (Virginia). He is author of The Evangelization of the Roman Empire: Identity and Adaptability (Mercer, 1981).

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