Tag Archives: Paganism

Pagans: A Review

Rome’s famous Colosseum, right before dusk (October 2018)

If you have a “bucket list,” of things do in this life, consider putting a trip to Rome on there. My wife and I spent two weeks last October, walking through Rome’s ancient side streets, following tour guides underground in the Catacombs, and savoring some delicious food above ground, all while uncovering layers and layers of buried history. I could have spent a whole month in Rome, and still hungered for more.

What stood out to me the most was how this once great center of pagan, classical culture, was overtaken by the story of Christianity. How did this marbled, sculptured story of the Greco-Roman world get superseded by the painted images of the Crucified and Risen Christ, found throughout so many of Rome’s churches?

Pagans: The End of Traditional Religion and the Rise of Christianity, by James J. O’Donnell, tells the fascinating story of how “pagan” Rome became Christian Rome.

My wife and I took another trip recently, a bit closer to home, down to Florida and back, which afforded me a lot of time driving and riding in a car … for many hours. It was the perfect opportunity to listen to some Audible audiobooks, so I downloaded James J. O’Donnell’s Pagans: The End of Traditional Religion and the Rise of Christianity , and I enjoyed it immensely. I felt like I was right back there in Rome, ascending the Palantine Hill overlooking the Roman Forum.

Pagans is one of the recommended books that you will find, while viewing Tim O’Neill’s excellent website, History for Atheists. Followers of Veracity will know that Tim O’Neill has done a great service by properly educating atheists regarding the accurate history of Christianity, and Christians can learn from him as well.  As an atheist himself, to accuse O’Neill of having a cognitive bias favoring Christianity simply falls flat.

Likewise, O’Donnell, a classical scholar at Arizona State University, and biographer of Saint Augustine of Hippo, manages to correct a lot of popular errors of pagan and early Christian historiography, despite having a somewhat contrarian bent of his own.

In O’Donnell’s retelling, “paganism” as a religious system, did not exist, prior to the rise of Christianity, in the latter days of ancient Rome. The religious traditions of the Greco-Roman world were an amalgamation of various local practices, shrines, and deities, all jumbled together, to be ultimately synthesized by Greek philosophy and Rome’s politics. Christianity essentially invented “paganism” as a concept, as a convenient way of describing what the Christian faith was not. Christianity was unique, as was Judaism, from which it came, in that it claimed that the God is Israel, who raised Jesus from the dead, was the one and only true divine being. The victory of Christianity therefore made the ad hoc assemblage of pagan gods and goddesses irrelevant.

In describing the transition of the pagan world to a Christian Rome, O’Donnell skewers many common misperceptions, that all too often get tossed together along with other “fake news” of our day, propagated by social media. Take the word, “pagan” itself. Historically, to be “pagan” had no religious connotation. The root word, pagani, simply meant “country folk.” This makes great sense considering that the early Christian movement took root in cities like Corinth, Ephesus, and Rome, and not the countryside.

More “fake news” gets annihilated with O’Donnell’s prose. No, the emperor Constantine did not impose his imperial thumb on the Christian church, in order to “make” Jesus into a God, at the Council of Nicea. If anything, O’Donnell correctly shows that Constantine went along with the bishops’ decisions at Nicea, affirming the divinity of Jesus, largely as a matter of political expediency. But he  was actually more sympathetic to the Arian heresy, that situated Jesus as being something greater than merely human, but nevertheless, still not wholly divine. You can think of Constantine as a politicized promoter of Jehovah’s Witnesses-style theology, as opposed to someone who supposedly “made” Jesus into becoming God.

It was not until emperor Theodosius, several regimes later, that orthodox Christianity, as we know it today, got the full rubber stamp from the seat of political power in Rome, as affirmed by the church at the Council of Constantinople in 381.

This did not mean that Theodosius’ orthodox theology necessarily made him a nice guy. Theodosius was excommunicated from the church, by the influential bishop Ambrose, following a massacre that Theodosius ordered in Thessalonica. Only after months of penance was the emperor readmitted back into the church. Though Theodosius did crack down on pagan temples, much of the old ways of the Greco-Roman gods were already fading away.

Veracity blogger, on-site, overlooking the Roman Forum, in 2018, where the “pagan” culture of Rome reigned supreme, until the story of the Crucified and Resurrected One superseded it.

Furthermore, the greatest Christian thinkers of the 4th and 5th centuries, like Ambrose and Augustine, made use of the classical tradition, when it served the purposes of promoting the Gospel. They were not afraid of any inherently polluting influence of paganism, though such thinkers often disagreed with one another, as to what aspects of pagan culture could be redeemed, and what aspects of pagan culture should be rejected, when advancing the cause of the faith.

I appreciated O’Donnell’s frank retelling of this fascinating period, avoiding the over-romanticization of Christianity’s history, on the one side, while also correcting a lot of the misinformation, regularly propagated by atheists on the Internet, on the other. It was a relief to hear from a genuine scholar. Alas, O’Donnell’s contrarian tendency disturbed me at a few points, which I thought took away from his overall presentation.

For example, O’Donnell matter of factly describing Saint Augustine of Hippo to be entirely ambitious in using his rhetorical skills, to promote himself, as a defender of the faith. I can see this in Augustine as the young Christian, but I would certainly hope that as Augustine matured, so would his growth in sanctification. Plus, O’Donnell’s insistence that Augustine never actually “converted” to the Christian faith, came across as forced and unconvincing. Yes, Augustine had a Christian mother, and so he surely did have some basic Christian instruction as a child. But that did not mean that Augustine automatically embraced his mother’s faith. Augustine’s Confessions still tells that story of his conversion, as a young man, into the loving arms of Jesus, rather well.

But aside from a few prickly moments like these, I found O’Donnell to be generally an excellent, accurate tour guide of ancient Rome. O’Donnell does not reveal where his sympathies regarding the Christian faith really stand (based on his few, cynical digs, here and there, he probably is not), but for a work of history like this, he need not to. If you want to understand how the ancient world transitioned from “paganism” to Christianity, O’Donnell’s Pagans would be a good place to start.


See Don Webb’s excellent review of Pagans here, and Michael Bird’s brief review.

The Temple of Vesta, in the Roman Forum, was a site for “pagan” cultic activity, back to the 7th century before Christ. The temple was eventually closed during the late 4th century C.E., when Christianity became the official religion of Rome.

Krampus: “Santa’s” Dark Side

A 'Greetings for the Kampus' Christmas postcard from the early 1900s (source: Wikipedia)

A ‘Greetings from the Kampus’ Christmas postcard from the early 1900s (source: Wikipedia)

Just in time for this Christmas season, there is a new movie in theaters with a twist on Santa, Krampus (view trailer here). Krampus is actually an ancient, Alpine pagan character from pre-Christian Austria, a horrific beast who comes once year to scare children into good behavior. As the Gospel spread in that part of Europe centuries ago, the legend of Krampus got intertwined with the celebration of the Christian feast day for Saint Nicholas, on December 6. Old habits are hard to break! National Geographic has an informative write-up on the revival of Krampus celebrations, which generally takes place the night before Saint Nicholas’ day.

As Western culture continues to loosen its moorings to Christendom, it should not surprise us that Krampus makes his way to America. Krampus is yet another attempt in postmodernity to distract us from considering the mystery of the Incarnation. But it would be wrong-headed for Christians to dismiss Christmas itself as simply being of some pagan invention because of Krampus. We really need to be a bit “tongue in cheek” about this. So, I thought it might be helpful to relink a couple of older Veracity posts that dive into the history:

Was Easter Originally a Pagan Holiday?

A few years ago, this image linking the celebration of Easter with the goddess Ishtar made its rounds on the Internet on various atheistic websites. Is there any truth to such claims? In short, this is complete nonsense. But sadly, some Christians propagate these ideas, too.

A few years ago, this image linking the celebration of Easter with the goddess Ishtar made its rounds on the Internet on various atheistic websites. Is there any truth to such claims? In short, this is complete nonsense. But sadly, some Christians propagate these ideas, too.

So, is the Christian celebration of Easter originally derived from a pagan holiday?

Just yesterday I overheard the idea that Christians are dishonoring Jesus by being involved in a celebration that involves the painting of eggs. This otherwise sincere believer understood that Easter eggs are associated with the pagan practices of child sacrifice.

I just about fell out of my chair.

Sadly, a lot of folks get their information these days from random Internet websites, rather than credible, researched resources. Much of the “free” content available on the Internet on these subjects today come from public domain sources where the copyright has expired, such as some scholarly works written in the 19th century. For example, a Scottish theologian, Alexander Hislop (1807–65) wrote a pamphlet in 1853, The Two Babylons, where Hislop lays out his theory of the connections between Easter, as celebrated traditionally among Roman Catholics, and Ishtar, an ancient goddess of fertility and sex.  But more modern research has shown that such theories are without historical foundation.  To make a long story short, Easter has its roots in the Jewish celebration of the Passover and Christ’s resurrection, not ancient fertility rites.

In his day, apologists like Hislop were very interesting in writing polemic works designed to criticize Roman Catholicism in an attempt to promote a more Protestant understanding of faith. But today, these same type of arguments are used by atheists to attack Christianity in general. To complicate matters even more, as traditional religions associated with European paganism are being revived in the West, you will find various groups, such as modern day Druids and Wiccans, who use the same type of pseudo-scholarship folklore to justify their practices as a polemic against Christianity!

Unfortunately, there are some evangelical Christians today, mainly associated with the Hebrew Roots movement, introduced briefly here on Veracity, that thrive on such supposedly convincing theories. It is true that many evangelical Christians are basically ignorant of the Old Testament and the Jewish roots of the Christian faith. So while the modern trend to have church-run Passover Seders in an attempt to make up for this deficiency could be a step in the right direction, mishandling of such practices might do more harm than good. In other words, if you think that a once a year church-run Seder is enough to ground the Christian believer in an understanding of authentic Jewish belief and Old Testament theology, then you are probably short changing yourself. If you really want to understand the Old Testament, there is simply no shortcut other than actually taking the time to read and study the Old Testament, or the “Hebrew Scriptures,” as many Jewish people would prefer to say. Furthermore, developing a friendship from an actively practicing Jewish person is probably the best education you can get!

The problem with much that goes on with the “Hebrew Roots” movement is that in their enthusiasm to get back to the Jewish roots of our faith, they inadvertently toss “the baby out with the bathwater,” all based in ignorance as they appeal to the conspiracy theory logic of those like Alexander Hislop.

Now, I am not much into painting Easter eggs, and if avoiding such practices help you to distinguish Christian faith from the revival of neopaganism, then that is perfectly understandable. But please do not take away my chocolate Easter bunny. Yum! Yum!

The main point here is that we should not allow atheists and pagans to hijack Easter. Our confidence in the Gospel is not grounded in conspiracy theories. Instead, it is about the celebration of our Risen Lord from the empty tomb!! Arm yourself with a knowledge of what the Bible teaches and credible scholarly research. Here are few recommended resources online for correcting some of the misconceptions about Easter:


Have a Merry Mithras!?

Roman bas relief from 2nd or 3rd century depicting Mithras, a central figure of the "Mystery Religions" of the early Christian era, killing a bull.

Roman bas relief from 2nd or 3rd century depicting Mithras, one of the gods of the “Mystery Religions” of the early Christian era, killing a bull.

Who was born on December 25th? Born of a virgin in a stable with shepherds present? Who had twelve disciples? Who was killed and buried in a tomb, and then rose up three days later after his death? Students of the Bible might think the answer is obvious. Not so, according to a popular movement known as “mythicism”. For the “mythicists” this original ancient figure is Mithras, a Persian god. Christianity is really just a copycat faith of Mithraism. Should we be wishing one another a “Merry Mithras” instead during the Christmas season?
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