Converting the Pagans

Another Christmas.  The triumph of Christianity has always intrigued me. How did a coterie of errant Jews manage to convert our pagan ancestors to a newly-born religion.  I just finished reading a book with the appropriate title of The Triumph of Christianity which answers this question and more.

Jesus Christ did not offer his creed as a new religion but as a correction to Judaism. Rather, it was another Jew, with Roman citizenship, who first conceived the idea of converting pagans.  Saint Paul was not an apostle, and he didn’t know Jesus. But he realized that the messiah was the salvation of all people, not just the Jews.  Because of that, believers in Christ could bypass Jewish laws.  There was no need for them to be circumcised or follow kosher rules.

Paul’s target audience, pagans, did not have religion as we know it. Paganism was cultus deorum, literally “the care of the gods” – a cult.   Our ancestors didn’t have strict doctrines or a single deity.  The afterlife was of little concern to them.  Their understanding of life denied both reincarnation and eternity: “I was not; I was; I am not; I care not,” was inscribed on many tombs.  Everyday morality came from their ethnic culture or from philosophers, not priests.  What really motivated them was fear of misfortune.  Pick a god, any god, to ward off bad luck, bad health, or natural disasters.  Pray to that god – Jupiter, Venus, whoever – and make frequent animal sacrifices.  Today, the annual rite to liquefy the blood of San Gennaro to protect Naples from Vesuvius echoes this cult system.  The typical Italian procession of patron saints also harkens back to pagan days.

Peter, Paul, and other Christian missionaries didn’t so much convert our pagan ancestors as accommodate their pagan beliefs. All the Roman/Italic gods were replaced by saints.  Roman holidays (Saturnalia = Christmas, Feast of Augustus = the Assumption) remained, with new names.  Even the Latin word Deus (Dio in Italian) derived from the Greek Zeus. But the greatest accommodation to the Italic soul was the Holy Family with the Mother of God.  There is no such equivalent in the Jewish religion.  Mary was the real life embodiment of the Earth Mother, the Italic symbol of fertility and harmony.

Early Christian theologians spent decades debating Mary’s purity and Joseph’s place in her life. Mark’s gospel doesn’t mention anything about the birth of Jesus but lists his brothers and sisters by name.  Catholic doctrine explains these siblings as cousins, while Orthodox doctrine identifies them as step-children from Joseph’s previous marriage.  Italians simply do not dwell on it.

Instead, Saint Francis memorialized Jesus’s birth and nuclear family in 1223 with il presepio or Nativity Scene.  Like later Renaissance art that depicted for the first time detailed scenes from the Scriptures, Francis captured so much in his Nativity: the humble birth in a stable, the veneration by the poor shepherds and the wealthy Magi, the newborn innocence of life, and the enduring traditional family.

One can imagine how appealing to pagan Italians this gentle and loving story was in a world of fickle gods and constant sacrifices. This new religion that preached kindness and charity, forgiveness and hope took the edge off a harsh existence.

But conversion had its dark side. Pagans were now told they would burn in hell if they didn’t embrace the new Savior – the kind of bad luck pagans tried to avoid – so convert they did.   When Emperor Theodosius (AD 379-395) made Christianity the state religion, pagans were on borrowed time, as were Christians who followed the wrong doctrine.  In short, heresy was added to intolerance.  Just as Jesus condemned the Pharisees for false doctrine and overturned the tables of moneychangers, the new Church Fathers began cleaning house in Christ’s name.

The final blow to Roman paganism occurred in AD 382 when Christian Emperor Gratian removed the Altar of Victory from the Roman Senate House. It had been installed there by Augustus some 400 years before. A senator pleaded for its return saying “This [pagan] worship subdued the world.”  No matter.  Two decades later, Italy suffered its first barbarian invasion.

Fortunately, Christianity eventually converted even these invaders. -JLM

1 thought on “Converting the Pagans”

  1. It is also noteworthy to remember that animal sacrifice was a significant part of Abrahamic monotheistic religious practice… the temple in Jerusalem was replete with it every day…. if I’m not mistaken the Orthodox are vying to reinstate this very practice nonexistent since 70 CE

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