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The Big Question

Did Christianity borrow from pagan mythology?

By Sandra Beardsall

Sometime during the first or second century AD, a man named Demetrius, son of Artemidorus, put up a stone tablet inscribed with a well-known hymn to the goddess Isis. Although Isis was an Egyptian goddess, her fame had spread throughout the eastern Mediterranean world. Demetrius copied his hymn at one of her temples near his home, on the west coast of what is now Turkey.

In the hymn, Isis describes her powers: “It is I who divided earth from heaven. It is I who made justice strong. . . . It is I whom fate obeys.”

Sometime in that same sweep of centuries, a Christian author, perhaps living not too far from Demetrius, ascribed to Jesus the words, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. . . . I am the true vine.”

Christianity emerged in a landscape bursting with stories and shrines devoted to complex families of deities. One could expect to hear of gods and goddesses dying, rising, ruling, judging. One could ask them for healing, wealth and happiness. As Jesus’ followers sought to describe the wonder and mystery of their experience of him, they naturally turned to the language of their time and place to help shape their own narratives.

So they borrowed images and phrases from the pagan context in which they lived and prayed. Pagan symbols, like good shepherds, peacocks and pelicans — who nurture their young with their own blood — abounded in early Christian art.

And then there was Greek philosophy, which had been insisting for several centuries that it was better to explain the world through “reason” than through myth. The philosophers were only partially successful in this endeavour. Many people wove meaning into their lives from both temple worship and pagan philosophy. Christians, however, were caught in this cultural competition between myth and reason. Pagan philosophers scoffed at the parables of Jesus, suggesting that Christians told such tales because they had no logical argument to offer. So Christians began to borrow the language of Greek philosophy to “prove” the soundness of their religion. We can thank the pagan Greeks for some of the concepts that would become central to Christian creeds and theologies, such as the notion of Christ as the “Logos,” a philosophical term meaning the “logic” of the universe. At the same time, the early Christians held fast to their treasured narratives of Jesus.

In the fourth century, Christianity began to replace and eventually to eclipse the pagan religions and philosophies. Politics, economics and the power of Christianity’s message and organization all played a part. By the sixth century, pagan worship and thought had almost entirely disappeared, although Christian practices continued to absorb pagan ways (think Halloween and Christmas trees).

In the 1800s, archeologists and other scholars began to unearth once more the shared religious worlds of Judaism, Christianity and pagan beliefs and practices. For many believers, these discoveries and what they taught about Christian origins enriched their faith. Others, however, sought to condemn or disprove any Christian-pagan link. More recently, some writers have asserted that since the Christian story is simply an “imitation” of older myths, and because of its leaders’ “dishonesty” about its second-hand narrative, we should reject the Christian story altogether.

These arguments sound rather like the reason-versus-mythology debate of the ancient Greeks. Now, as then, however, we do not have to choose sides. Logic and story are not opposites. Rather, both are integral to human life and community. Ancient myths are not falsehoods but stories that describe the “farthest limits” of human yearning, wrote literary critic Northrop Frye. Some of these become our sacred stories. We tell them, but we also live them. They inhabit us, and they make us think. Wrestling with our stories is hard but necessary work.

Demetrius was devoted to Isis. He used the tools he had to express his faith that she would bring “strong justice” to earth. Christians are devoted to Jesus. Our stories about him — threaded as they are with the language of the ancients — are still ours, to tell and to engage, and to retell in the idiom of our time and place.

“What language shall I borrow?” Lutheran pastor Paul Gerhardt asked in his haunting 1656 hymn O Sacred Head. What language, indeed, will we borrow to sing our song of faith?



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