When History Goes Bad: Perverting Religious History

Studying both history and religion, I cross paths with a fair number of people angry and jaded about both specific religions and religion in general, and they support their position with history.  Rather than simply being non-religious, these individuals are actively against it, calling it manipulative, fraudulent, and/or violent. Sometimes specific examples get conflated into tremendous generalized accusations.  Other times, the information is just wrong.

Christianity, being the majority religion in the U.S., bears the brunt of ill-informed objections. It’s one thing to simply disbelieve in another religion’s teachings.  We all disbelieve in something, because our own beliefs are not compatible with every other belief.  But there’s a considerable number of erroneous facts commonly put forth to paint Christianity (and other religions) as not merely wrong but fraudulent, an actively constructed lie made for the benefit of a few.

Churches Built on  Pagan Holy Sites

Many pagan holy places did, indeed, become locations for churches.  There’s a variety of reasons for this.  For one, it was cheaper to reuse a building than tear it down and build something new.   Second, it embraced the fact that local beliefs had long held certain locations as sacred.  But how does the placement of church buildings speak to the truth or falsity of a religion’s teachings?

Diagram of trinity

All part of the same, yet not the same

Trinity as False Doctrine

Among the three major monotheistic world religions (Judaism, Islam and Christianity), only Christianity discusses any separateness in aspects of the nature of God.  The relationship between Father, Son and Holy Spirit (or Holy Ghost), three parts of a single God, is known as the trinity.

The theology behind the trinity is immensely complex.  There are plenty of believers who admit not fully understanding it, and there are plenty of ministers who recognize and understand that it is difficult to fully grasp.

One objection thrown at the trinity is that it is not in the Bible. Certainly, it is not blatantly stated.  However,theological arguments concerning the topic are rooted heavily in the Gospel of John.

The second objection is that the Christian trinity is a copy of “the pagan trinity.”  There is no pagan trinity.  Every pagan culture had it’s own beliefs.  If such an arrangement exists  – and I don’t know of one – you wouldn’t call it a “pagan trinity.”  You would identify it by culture.

Some people attempt to name groups of three gods such as Horus, Isis and Osiris as pagan trinities, but that’s not a trinity any more than three pencils on my desk is a trinity.  Less often, the fact that many Celtic deities had a triple form is brought up.  However, triple Celtic deities still don’t operate like the Christian trinity.  They are groups of three similar figures.

Emperor Constantine’s Role in Early Christianity

In the fourth century, Emperor Constantine of the Roman Empire legalized Christianity, and he himself was baptized on his deathbed.  What his personal spiritual beliefs were, however, are muddy.  He adopted both Christian or pagan imagery to best advantage.  His mother was Christian, but his father was pagan, so he was familiar with both.

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What we do know is Constantine saw Christianity as a potential tool to reunite the empire.  As such, he diverted huge amounts of resources to the Church so it could more solidly establish and regulate itself as a single, united entity.

To that end, he called for the Council of Nicaea, where Christian bishops debated many topics and decided on the fundamental beliefs of 4th century Christianity, which is reflected in the Nicene Creed.  Included in the creed is the trinity, which was one of many beliefs early Christians had about the nature of Jesus.

What Constantine did not do, however, was dictate the decisions at Nicaea.  That was done by the bishops.  And why would he?  What could he possibly gain by deciding the trinity was real (since there was no “pagan trinity” needing a Christian white-washing) or that Jesus’s mother was a virgin?

Motivation is important.  People don’t just make stuff up for the fun of it.  Constantine wanted a united religion.  Having the bishops hammer out a single doctrine helped that goal.  The specific decisions made about that doctrine did not.

Constantine and the Bishops at Nicaea

Constantine and the Bishops at Nicaea

Repackaged Pagan Holidays

There is the continuing myth that Christianity has no original holidays but, rather, grabbed local holidays and gave them thin Christian veneers.

Certainly, you can find bits and pieces of older practices and beliefs scattered around Christianity.  That’s not a conspiracy.  That’s local custom influencing a developing religion.  It’s not trickery meant to fool apparently very simple-minded pagans into becoming Christians; it’s new believers bringing traditions with them into the new faith.

What doesn’t exist is clear correlations between pagan and Christian holidays, so long as you have your facts straights:

  • Christmas didn’t borrow much from the nativity of the Unconquered Sun beyond a calendar date
  • All Hallows Eve shares only a time of the year with Samhain
  • The only thing Easter got from Eostre was its name; and so on.
  • St. Valentine’s feast day has nothing to do with the Lupercalia…or most things associated with modern Valentine’s Day

Take a quick look around the Internet and you’ll start seeing things like Christians stealing the Celtic Imbolc and turning it into Groundhog’s Day…because, you know, Groundhog’s Day is totally Christian.

Others also credit Imbolc for Candlemas, also known as the  Presentation of Jesus at the Temple and the Purification of the Virgin.  However, Candlemas is specifically 40 days after Christmas, and it’s not centered in Ireland, so the fact they are on the same day really doesn’t say much.

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As an Aside: A comparison between the Irish pagan goddess Brigid, celebrated at Imbolc, and St Brigid of Ireland, however, is a much more legitimate comparison as there are multiple similarities between the two.

It’s true every Catholic feast day shares that day with a pagan holiday, but that’s because every saint has a feast day, there’s an infinite number of pagan cultures generating their own distinct holidays, there’s only 365 days in the year, and everyone has to share.

Moving on.

A False Bible

There’s all sorts of things said about the Bible.

The Bible is a translation of a translation of a translation.  Actually, that has never really been the case.  Translators try to get hold of very old copies and translate them, rather than grabbing a a contemporary’s translation and working from that.  And for the first thousand years of the Bible in western Europe, it was only written in Latin and was expected to be a copy if a single Latin Bible: St. Jerome’s Vulgate text.

Today, many English translations were only translated once from the original Greek and Hebrew or from the Latin Vulgate, which was translated from Greek.

There are nuances that get lost in any translation.  However, it’s not nearly as dire as some make it sound.

Copy errors have destroyed the original meaning.  Copy errors were a significant issue for a long time, but that problem was corrected during the Renaissance via the printing press, which could mass-produce a document without error.  Scholars of the time also  actively sought out old manuscripts to remove the accumulated errors.

The Church removed Biblical books it did not like.  Absolutely false.  The Catholic Bible has remained unchanged since it was codified in the 4th century.  Various other denominations have removed some of the Old Testament books, most commonly because over the centuries Jews have reconsidered which documents hold the weight of scripture.  The New Testament – the part most directly relevant to Christianity – remains the same among all groups.

Often, this accusation specifies certain books that you’ve never heard of like the Gospels of Thomas or Mary Magdalene.  When were they removed from the Bible?  Never.  Just because a document says gospel doesn’t mean it’s Biblical.  There were hundreds of Early Christian writings.  When the Bible was codified (and it wasn’t at Nicaea, as many claim; it happened at a later council), bishops had to decide which documents belonged and which didn’t.

It wasn’t a process of throwing out so much as deciding which to accept.  Generally speaking, a book had to be written by someone who knew Jesus.  St. Paul is an exception because he was an incredibly prolific and influential writer.  Christians everywhere were working off his writings.

The Gospels of Mark and Luke are also exceptions.  Mark and Luke were followers of St. Peter and St. Paul, respectively, two of the biggest figures after Jesus himself.

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The book needed to appear legit.  For example, if a book supposedly written by St. Paul wasn’t in circulation until decades after his death, it was tossed as a forgery.

Containing teachings that were already understood to be false also got books rejected.  This most specifically addresses the Gnostic gospels.  Gnosticism is its own system of thought, and it was concluded fairly early that Gnosticism and Christianity simply did not work together.

A book needed to be centered around Jesus or the Apostles in order to be Biblical. Thus, a book telling the stories of early martyrs could be seem as completely legitimate, but it was not considered important enough to gain the weight of scripture.  As such, there’s lots of beliefs within these rejected books that are still considered truth.  The story of Mary’s immaculate conception comes from one of these sources.

These books were not removed from the Bible: they were never part of the Bible to begin with.

The books themselves were edited.  No, they weren’t.  There’s some disagreement of interpretation, but the words have not been changed outside of the limits of translation.

Not all accusations are about truth or falsity.  Some condemn Christianity by viewing specific events as common policy.  The child-molestation issue in the Catholic Church is one example.  Just because it happened doesn’t mean the average Catholic, much less the average Christian, condones it, and dogma certainly doesn’t condone it.  Quite the opposite.

It’s legitimate to criticize Catholic leadership for its reaction to the scandal.  But it’s quite another issue to say the scandal invalidates Catholicism or Christianity.

large groups might also be held accountable for the behavior of small sections.  The Westboro Baptist Church, for example, is an exception rather than a rule of how Christians believe they should act.  Most Christians are horrified by the WBC’s antics.

Finally, religion can be blamed for things human will do with or without religion, such as war.  We would fight just as many wars if we didn’t have religion.  most wars aren’t even primarily motivated by religion, but even if they were, I’m confident we’d find other reasons to bash each others’ brains in.  It’s part of our nature.

4 comments

  • Jason Owen

    I really enjoyed this article and agree that religion, while it can cause problems (wars and conflicts), it does get a lot of blame for problems it should not. Many times a person calling themselves a “Christian” is simply stating the name of their ‘gang’ and not their faith.

    I did have one issue with the article. The Church in Rome did move All Hallows Day from May 19 to November 1 in order to have All Hallow’s Eve on October 31, so that they could draw in the pagans from their Samhian celebration, winning coverts to Christianity.

    http://www.catholiceducation.org/articles/civilization/cc0070.html

    It was a tactic they employed and it worked very well, perhaps too well, but The Vatican in the 8th century did rearrange their holy day for this purpose. Not that it changes ANYTHING about the faith because this holy day was not about The Father, The Son or The Holy Ghost but about the people who served them that had died. Kind of a Holy Labor Day.

  • Olqa

    Actually, from what I gathered, the reasons behind moving All Hallow’s are unknown, and the probability of it being “to draw people away from Samhain” is pretty slim. Samhain just wasn’t important enough – one celebration of one relatively small (and of marginal to Christian world teritory at the time) people. The pope had lots of other lands and peoples with pagan traditions to consider, remember. Why would Samhain hold so much weight?

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