Did Christianity Adopt Pagan Influences?

Jan 09, 2010

How did the original Christian Church, started by Jesus and the apostles resist pagan influences? How did Martin Luther fight against Catholic teachings and the paganized Christianity that had developed as the Catholic Church?
I have rephrased a confusing question, trying to answer what I think was being asked.

This is something of a loaded question. I will do my best to answer it and hope that I am understanding exactly what is being asked.

First the original movement started by Jesus changed significantly after his death and resurrection. Prior to his death he was a Jew living under the Law, leading fellow Jews, living under the Law.

2017-10-21 - Hellenization was seen as a Pagan Influence
I decided to add this section to help explain how difficult it is to accept changes in our faith presentation. To fully appreciate the struggle in the primitive Christian movement you must grasp the historical significance of the Hellenization that took place 100-200 years PRIOR to the time of Jesus.

This started under Alexander the Great, but really became accute under the Seleucid Empire leading to the revolt of the Maccabees.

Hellenization was seen as pagan influence for the devout Jews in Palestine and this attitude continued into the earliest Christian (almost 100% Jewish) movement. It is THIS struggle that makes it difficult for the Jews to allow Gentiles into the Church - the apostle Paul has to fight to keep the Jerusalem leadership from forcing the Gentiles to live under the Law of Moses (see Acts 15).

To some Protestants Emperor Constantine embraces the Roman pagan culture around him. A fair reading would be that he DOES co-opt some of the pagan culture, but many of these actions were to PROMOTE Christian faith. THIS is what seems to have happened with Hellenization around 400 years prior to Constantine.

Non-Christian culture surrounds us. Some would argue (and I would agree) that the internet has damaged our culture, but over 1 million people have visited this web site. I use the internet almost daily to look up biblical topics and to read scholarly writings.

My encouragement is that we ALL need to be careful about judging others, and especially judging others living during a different age. If you call what Constantine did adopting pagan practices, then some of what I have mentioned (using the internet, having a 401k, maybe going to Starbucks or MacDonald's) could be the same.

On the Day of Pentecost (Acts 2) a VERY difficult process was put in motion which led to the following changes:

  • Hellenized Jews from all over the Roman empire (not living under the sacrificial laws) joined the movement
  • Gentiles joined the movement which led to serious conflicts (Acts 15) never resolved until 70 AD when the Temple was destroyed and the Jewish system was basically dismantled
  • The rise of the Gentile church led by Paul, a man who had not physically been present during the earthly ministry of Jesus
  • After 70 AD and especially by the beginning of the second century Christianity came to be dominated by Gentile believers

The mainly Gentile Church:
- did not live under the Old Testament laws
- met and worshipped on Sunday, not the Sabbath
- (the early Jewish Christians met on both days)
- followed the leadership established by Paul rather than the Jerusalem leadership

So the "original Christian Church started by Jesus and the apostles" had already changed dramatically by the beginning of the second century.

The Catholic Church likes to say that it started with Peter. Most Protestants like to say that the Catholic Church started with Constantine. In reality what we know as the "Catholic Church" with a Pope does not become a settled movement until Gregory, known as "Gregory the Great" in 590 AD. Prior to this leadership power resided more with regional bishops, with ecclesiastical power slowly evolving to the Roman bishop, sometimes called "papa" by some to illustrate his primacy. But it is critical to note that prior to Gregory there were conflicts where regional bishops refused to abide by the decision/opinion of the Roman "papa" bishop. Gregory consolidated this power and authority.

One must also consider the changes that took place when Constantine moved the seat of his power to Constantinople in 330 AD. This at least signals the beginning of what becomes the Eastern Orthodox Church which represents a huge sector of Christianity often ignored by Western Christians, especially Protestants.

"the time the Catholic church paganized Christianity"
I can only assume that you are talking about pagan influences that found their way into Christianity like: Constantine's use of the Sun god, wedding rings, naming the days of the week after the planets, the development of Christmas trees, and even the cross (or crucifix) which was adopted from the Romans.

Many Christian symbols, dress, and tradition comes from the Old Testament. This makes perfect sense - as mentioned above, Jesus was a Jew and the primitive Church was Jewish at first. The Israelites, however, adopted things from the other nations around them in the Old Testament. This is what Christians did as well. Sects like the Jehovah's Witnesses point to "pagan" influences while ignoring their own adoption of "non-Christian" concepts. Jehovah's Witnesses, for example, meet in a building - the primitive church met in the public arena and/or in private homes. I have never met a JW with longer hair and a beard, yet the Jewish primitive Christians would have worn longer hair and would typically have worn a beard or some kind of facial hair. To crop one's hair short and shave one's beard would have been seen as trying to look like the Greeks or Romans. For the primitive Jewish Christians THIS might have been considered bowing to pagan influence.

I think you can see my point. As King Soloman said, "There is nothing new under the sun." No religion is absent of ALL outside influence. The problem you face when you try to isolate and eliminate all outside influences is - where do you stop? As I sit here working on my Dell computer (I wonder if they invest in ANY company that MIGHT do something I would NOT agree with) watching NFL football (which is very similar to going to the Roman coliseum to watch the "games") I am wearing Nike cross-training shoes (Nike, being a Greek god). There are probably some Christian sects that would see all of this as pagan influences on Christianity.

This kind of obsessive-compulsive thinking is what led young men to live in caves, sleep on the ground with a rock as a pillow, and live on nothing but bread, water, and a bit of cabbage; wearing extremely rough clothing made of wool that scratched the skin to remind them that pleasure is not really a good thing. The problem here is that...these things could also be seen as pagan influences on Christianity. Some of this extreme dualism resembled the Stoics or Apollonius (a Greek Neopythagorean philosopher) more than Jesus or Paul.

Christianity in the hands of the Protestants

Finally, to the last part of your question:
"to the time Martin Luther broke away from the Catholic church, and did they fight against Catholic teachings when they began to enforce them?"
Martin Luther did not intend to break away from the Catholic Church. He was forced to against his will. He was specifically arguing against the concept that the Pope or a Church Council could dictate teaching not supported by the New Testament. He was not arguing against the Papacy, or against Church councils. He probably did not agree with several specific items of Catholic teaching, but this was always the case. The Catholic tradition is filled with men/women who did not agree with particular teachings. The Catholic Church has always allowed dissent; but it always mattered HOW you complained or disagreed.

Luther had been engaged in aggressive debate with fellow priests and theologians at the University of Wittenberg - nobody was really bothered by this kind of discussion/debate. The Pope and the Church just did not appreciate it when Luther nailed his complaints on the church door.

The Reformers quickly separated into sects, unable to agree with each other completely on many issues. So, do we have to agree with EVERYTHING in order to share in "the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace?" No matter what a particular leader or sect thinks is "right," another equally spiritual leader will see it differently.

I hope this helps.

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