Triumph over Paganism, you say?

Recently, Patheos brought back the old Christian rhetoric on Christmas: triumphally prejudicial and bluntly ignorant. The author of the post, Michael Bird, is a PhD specialized in Theology and New Testament, which probably explains a lot about his text.

The post presents modern Christmas as a sign of Christian triumph over the ancient religions of Europe, namely that of the Invincible Sun in Rome. He then adds a more theological note, talking of a victory of Jesus over pre-Christian gods, the military powers They supported, and the misery of the masses. Or, in his own words, the end of the “tyranny of paganism”. He speaks of peace, the defeat of the pagan kings who slaughtered, robbed, looted and whose power was based on fear. He presents Christmas as “freedom from the worship of the state” and “victory of God over the inhumanity and irreligion of paganism”.

There are questions on how far the choice of December 25 for Jesus’ birthday was determined by pre-Christian celebrations. A 2003 article on the origins of Christmas, available online, already pointed out to a greater likelihood of an astrological reasoning behind the choice, as opposed to a mere desire to replace older festivities. The symbolic significance of the solstice, more than anything, might have been the decisive element in the debate on when was Jesus born and which had generated a series of possibilities in the first centuries of the Common Era: April 19, May 20, November 17, March 28, and January 6. And even though some Christians refused to celebrate the birth of Jesus at all, because they saw birthday feasts as a pagan practice. The 3rd century theologian Origen was one such case, which brings us the question of how much Christianity changed when faced with pre-Christian religions and how much of a triumph it had.

The new religion was not entirely original. The notion of a divine saviour who dies and comes or is brought back to life is an old one and was part of pagan mystery cults, namely those of Dionysus, Osiris, and Cybele and Attis. One might say that caring for the poor, slaves, and women was an innovating element in Christianity, since it broke with the established elite that controlled or monopolized those cults, but that’s not exactly true either. There were (and are) goddesses who appeal directly to women (such as Juno and Isis), as well as those who were closely related to slaves and freedmen, like Diana and Feronia. But one thing that Roman and other pre-Christian religions didn’t have (but Christianity does) was orthodox scriptures and dogma. And there was another thing that was also absent from many pagan’s minds, but not that of Christians: exclusivism, i.e., the belief that truth is the exclusive property of one religion and that all others, along with their gods, are false and evil. This may not have been unheard of, but it was largely unknown or ignored in the Ancient world. Michael Bird probably sees this is a sign of Christianity’s superiority over the “irreligion of paganism”: it has scriptures, moral commandments, and only one god to worship as opposed to, in his own words, a “plethora of gods with the sexual ethics of Charlie Sheen and the behaviour of an undisciplined toddler with superpowers.” And yet those are the very things that made Christianity a repressive and intolerant religion which, despite all its power, was forced to take in practices from the cults it was opposed to.

The reference to a celebration in honour of the sun on December 25 shows up in a calendar from 354. It was probably not an old festivity, at least when compared with other solar holidays that went back to the early imperial or late republican days. But an older, much older celebration was that of Saturnalia. It commemorated the Golden Age of Saturn and it was linked with the agricultural cycle, though originally it may have had a purifying goal in the transition to the New Year. In any case, Saturnalia was marked by general revelry, the halting of businesses, gift giving, the hanging of wreaths and garlands, and the election of mock kings. There was a certain carnival ambience to it, but a lot of what modern Christians do at Christmas has an origin in the feast in honour of Saturn. And the same can be said of seasonal lights, bonfires, the Yule logs, and, most obviously, the Christmas tree, which has a Germanic origin. Now, Michael Bird says that the fact that non-Christian things have been “stuffed” with a Christian meaning is a sign of Christiniaty’s triumph. But it can easily mean the exact opposite, i.e., that despite the power and influence the new religion gained, it was unable to root out polytheistic practices. It failed to beat them and so it joined them, starting with the habit of celebrating birthdays, that oh so pagan thing for Origen. Looks more like a half-triumph and a testament to the resilience of pre-Christian practices. And it’s a defeat of Christianity’s exclusivist claim, forcing it to embrace ritual inclusiveness.

And then there’s the claim that Christmas stands for the triumph of peace, the defeat of kings whose power was based on fear, the end of the misery of the masses, and freedom from the worship of the State. Which makes me wonder if Michael Bird ever read a History book or turned on the tv. As soon as Christianity gained the upper hand, it quickly moved from hunted to hunter: it made itself the official religion and persecuted all the others, with as many violence and bloodshed as necessary. A quick look at what happened can be found here. And this was something new, for while there had been religious persecutions before, they were primarily motivated by political reasons: the druids were a menace to Roman dominance and the Bacchanalia threatened social order. They were not suppressed on the basis of dogma or religious scriptures, but on the same grounds that today would force a State to illegalize a religious group: threat to public law and order. A tolerance that Christianity was unable to show because it had dogmas, it had scriptures and, worst of all, it has an exclusive claim to truth and divinity. And that makes it a breeding ground for fanaticism and intolerance. By the way, I don’t mind having gods with a sexual life. It actually makes Them all the more appealing because They are closer to human experience and understand what natural and healthy drives are.

So Christianity presented itself as something radically new, radically different, and a liberating force. Despite the fact that it wasn’t entirely original and that it became even less so as it grew in numbers and power and was forced to take in elements that contradicted its original exclusivist claim. It didn’t bring peace, justice, and the liberation of the masses, who were still poor, miserable, and disease-driven centuries after the “triumph” of Christianity. And it didn’t end the rule by fear, which was used by both Christian kings and religious authorities with their threats of death, torture, and eternal damnation. Did it triumph? Yes, in the sense that it managed to impose itself as the dominant religion. But it failed in rooting out pagan practices to the extent that it was forced to adapt itself. Christmas is an example of just that and December 25 speaks of pagan resilience: pre-Christian practices survived persecution and their original religions are being brought back. Just like the sun, they have gone through dark times before rebirth.


15 thoughts on “Triumph over Paganism, you say?

  1. I like the comparison you make between these polytheistic traditions of Europe and the sun, and that having gone through the dark night, they are now in a new “breaking dawn” 🙂 (in case anyone doesn’t get it, Breaking Dawn is from the Twilight(-saga))

  2. I am fascinated by how something happened around 1.500 yrs ago is still raising so much discussions.
    What happened is called synchretism, one religion took from previous. Traditions survived name changes, ancient gods were turned into saints.
    Maybe because I live in a country where Christianisty and Paganism are strictly interwined (just look at Tarantolate)
    Just one note on a strictly historical side: religion was the name given to political goals during the whole Middle Age, one example Catari or the Saxon conversion. That is history, the rest are opinions

  3. Folks, I think we live in different domains of discourse. I’m a historian of the early church in the Graeco-Roman world and a theologian for contemporary Christian communities. I’ve noted the link between the Roman Empire and Roman religion, and how eventually the Christian religion eclipsed both of them. My post was obviously triumphalistic, but that is how history panned out. You don’t have to like it, but that is history.

    • No, your post reflects one version of History. A very ill-informed and militant one that has little regard for the different perspectives, different ideologies, and the details that presided over events. Something that you as an historian should be aware of and indeed have the duty to take into consideration. And I am speaking as someone who’s an historian, too.

      The problem is not History but your take on it, which was heavily biased by your theological perspective, highly offensive in its language, and lacking the maturity that should be expected from an academic.

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  5. Thank you for your article!

    “Dr.” Bird’s response here just demonstrates how feeble his attempt was–if something is triumphalistic, it tends to mean there’s a falsity to it, and yet he was claiming that aspect of his article quite happily and boldly. Pride goes before a fall, and such…

    As for his final lines on kicking the pagan gods in their collective nads: it’s very unfortunate that if any of the pagan gods were to try the same on the Christian’s versions of their own Christian gods (i.e. God and Jesus), it would have no effect whatsoever…and I’m sure both Iao Sabaoth and Yeshua are not happy about their portrayal as such.

      • Crikey…Well, I made a reply to his further post. In case it gets deleted, I’ll copy it below:

        Ha! Wow! Such a zinger from you again, you little rascal, you! You’re continuing your Saturnalia antics even further–wow, what a dedicated Saturnalian you are! Saturn is pleased, I’m sure–and your Jesus is probably turning over in his grave, or his manger, or wherever he happens to be at this time of year.

        It isn’t as if every Pagan since that film came out has had this same joke put against them. I personally don’t own any goat-skin leggings, but that’s because they’re out of my price range at present, and it’s so hard to find matching shoes.

        (As you may not have noticed–which I note is a problem amongst many of your religion–that in the fuller context of that film, the person who is in charge of the P.A.G.A.N.s is a Christian minister who really just wants money and power for himself. Though they may not wear goat-skin leggings, that continues to describe many of your co-religionists and prominent leaders.)

        After all, you know what “CHRISTIAN” means: Crying Hysterically Repeatedly Insisting Somehow They’re Infallibly Always Noble. It’s true, I saw it in a movie once, and boy is it ever accurate!

        But you know, I’m just joking, so that makes it okay.

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