Both ancient Christians and Jews prayed to and for their dead. However, this would not put them out of line with the practices of contemporary pagans. A cursory overview of pagan prayers for and to the dead is useful in understanding the same kind of prayers within Judaism and Christianity.
Anyone who ever watched the movie “Gladiator” may remember the protagonist Maximus praying to little figurines that represented departed family members of his. Even though the movie is not the accurate historically, the practice Maximus is partaking in is indeed genuine.
The pagans believed that the souls of the dead, both good and bad, were deities of sorts. Essentially, good people became angelic demigods when they died, the wicked became demonic demigods, and those who were not quite bad or evil became a demigod of an uncertain nature. These demons can be prayed to in order to attain protection or blessing (akin to a guardian angel or patron saint) and also prayed for in the case that their afterlife is not in paradise.
Saint Augustine comments on the pagan view of the afterlife in Book 9, Chapter 11 of City of God:
He [Plotinus] says, indeed, that the souls of men [when they die] are demons, and that men become Lares if they are good, Lemures or Larvæ if they are bad, and Manes if it is uncertain whether they de serve well or ill. Who does not see at a glance that this is a mere whirlpool sucking men to moral destruction? For, however wicked men have been, if they suppose they shall become Larvæ; or divine Manes, they will become the worse the more love they have for inflicting injury; for, as the Larvæ; are hurtful demons made out of wicked men, these men must suppose that after death they will be invoked with sacrifices and divine honors that they may inflict injuries. But this question we must not pursue. He also states that the blessed are called in Greek εὐδαίμονες, because they are good souls, that is to say, good demons, confirming his opinion that the souls of men are demons (emphasis added).
While Augustine is focusing strictly on the view of the neo-Platonists, the same ideas and terminology can be found in both Greek and Latin thought of not only Augustine’s time, but in writings predating Christ. Mentions of the worship of the dead can be found in the writings of the Romans and Greeks such as the books of Herodotus, Plautus, Menander, and Cicero.
The terminology that the pagans employed to refer to their dead demigods found its way into Christianity as it was employed in prayers for the dead. Christian tombs such as one in the catacombs dated in the third century, offered up prayers for the Manes. The above tombstone has the letters D and M on the top, which is a Latin version of RIP (Rest In Peace). It is short for Diis Manibus or in english, “To the spirits [Manes] of the dead.”
While the preceding linguistic evidence would seem like “smoking gun proof” that paganism has infiltrated modern Orthodoxy and Catholicism, we must admit that the use of loan-words is not evidence that a concept is wrong. Indeed pagans understood Manes to be demons/demigods that used to be humans. However, Christians evidently did not hesitate to use the same terminology even though there is no record of them believing the dead become transmuted into some sort of angelic beings. Christians likely used the term “Manes” in order to express a distinctly Christian concept for the reposed Christian–that being that the souls of humans are eternal and live on after death.
The use of loan-words are common within the history of Christianity. The Greek word for God, Theos, obviously was used for pagan deities before it was ever ascribed to the Trinity. Likewise, the Hebrew word for God, El, was used for Canaanite deities. Yet, the Old Testament is replete with references to El and Elohim. In the present day, Egyptian Christians call God “Allah,” because they speak Arabic–not because they are part Muslim. As we can see, just because Christians employed the same words and had similar concepts, that does not necessarily mean they had the same pagan meanings behind them.
Even though the preceding is a matter of the historical record, some may still speculate that Christians were unaware that they were borrowing pagan ideas and perverting the Christian faith in the process. However, we have historical evidence that mitigates against this.
We just read the section of City of God where Augustine thought the pagans were “wicked” for believing that men become Manes after death and condemned them for giving “sacrifices and divine honors” in their name. Yet, being aware of all the preceding, in other writings he approved of the Christian practice offering prayers and sacrifices (in the Eucharist) on behalf of the dead.
For example, Augustine wrote in his Handbook of Faith, Hope and Love that “it is plain that the services which the church celebrates for the dead are in no way opposed to the apostle’s words” (Paragraph 110). Clearly, Augustine thought there was a difference between the pagans believing that their dead live on and sacrificing/praying to/for them, and that of the Christian practices of conducting services, Eucharistic sacrifices and prayers to/for the dead.
At first glance, we might be thinking, “What?” It is difficult for us moderns to appreciate what was going on in men like Augustine’s heads, because it seems like a “conflict of interests” to us to denounce pagans for something that sounds almost identical to what Christians do. That aside, this we know: Christians like Augustine were not unaware of the pagan practices as they condemned them. This makes the idea that Christians mistakenly endorsed a Christianized version of it much less likely. They saw crucial differences between the prayers and sacrifices that the pagans offered compared to those of Christians.
But, what were the crucial differences? Elsewhere, Augustine relates a story that helps us understand where Christians “drew the line” between right Christian practice and pagan heinousness. In Book VI of Augustine’s Confessions we have a story about Ambrose correcting Augustine’s mother, Monica, for honoring the tombs of martyrs with sacrifices of food and drink:
When, therefore, my mother had at one time— as was her custom in Africa— brought to the oratories built in the memory of the saints certain cakes, and bread, and wine, and was forbidden by the door-keeper, so soon as she learned that it was the bishop who had forbidden it, she so piously and obediently acceded to it, that I myself marvelled how readily she could bring herself to accuse her own custom, rather than question his prohibition…[B]ecause these, so to say, festivals in honour of the dead were very like the superstition of the Gentiles, she most willingly abstained from it. And in lieu of a basket filled with fruits of the earth, she had learned to bring to the oratories of the martyrs a heart full of more purified petitions, and to give all that she could to the poor; that so the communion of the Lord’s body might be rightly celebrated there, where, after the example of His passion, the martyrs had been sacrificed and crowned (emphasis added).
The episode is quite striking in that Augustine is completely aware that the way his mother honored the dead was similar to that of pagan rites. His mother, upon finding this out, stopped making offerings of food (something common to ancestor worship-cults) and instead began praying to them and giving what she otherwise would have spent in offerings as alms to the poor.
We may surmise from the preceding episode that what appears to be the crucial difference between right and wrong practice is as follows: the pagans worshiped their ancestors as demigods and made both prayers and offerings to them (as worship includes an offering such as a sacrifice). When Monica would bring baskets of fruit, bread, and wine and offer them to the saints (presumably to encourage them to pray for her), she was not far off from the pagans who would make offerings to the demigods so to bribe them to answer the offerers’ prayers.
Correct Christian veneration for the dead neither prays to the saints in the belief that they answer the prayers in their own power nor does it include an offering to those saints. Rather, petitions are given to the saints to pray to God (Monica got this right) and offerings are made to God Himself, not to the saints, on the saints’ behalf.
Indeed, only the one true God may be given offerings, the chief sacrifice being the Eucharist. This is why we often call worship a “service” or “liturgy” (which literally means “work.”) Worship is the giving of oneself to God in prayer, praise, alms, and also the offering of Himself (“Thy own of Thy own”) in the Eucharist. To give an offering to a saint, as Monica was doing, subtly descends into the polytheistic “superstition of the gentiles.” This is because offerings to the saints puts them on some sort of par with God, which is wicked.
Polytheism has many altars, with many offerings, to many gods. When we look upon cultures that still worship their ancestors and great men of old (particularly in Asia), we often see that they all have altars in which offerings are placed. This was true of the ancients. In the Aeneid, Virgil writes of there being altars for the Manes.
The Orthodox do not have altars for the saints or their relics. Whole churches may be built in honor of a saint and be a place of pilgrimage, but even then there is no altar dedicated to service to the saint or offerings made to her/him. This is a crucial difference between Christian and pagan practice, something immediately obvious to Augustine and Ambrose, but less so to us…and Monica!
The long short of it is that generally prayer for the dead is not most people’s big tripping point. Most people pray for their loved ones when they die, whether they write theological treatises about it is another story.
The real issue is prayer to the saints. On the face of it, it smacks of polytheism to the Protestant. However, this article has made it clear that the Orthodox do not pray to saints with the idea that the saints themselves answer their prayers nor do they worship the saints. Rather, they ask saints to pray for them to God and they, unlike the pagans, make offerings only to God and not to the dead. Christians have been doing this throughout recorded history and there are some Biblical grounds for it, though they may not be as explicit as other Scriptural doctrines.
So, even if one knows all of this, why does praying to saints feel like polytheism to many Protestants? This is because Protestant worship lacks the whole concept of making real offerings.
Many Protestants do not refrain from calling their worship “meetings” and most would not know what they are serving in their “services.” This is why when Protestants see Orthodox kissing icons, a show of devotion infinitesimally more overt than Protestants often show to God Himself, they cannot help but confuse the act as obvious worship and idolatry.
However, rethink this whole issue in the lens of Orthodoxy. The Orthodox certainly show devotion to the saints, just like we are devoted to our own living brothers, sisters, fathers, and mothers (spiritual and otherwise). After all, saints are merely departed brothers and sisters. Death does not end our devotion for a beloved family member. So, the show of devotion to the saints is merely that, devotion.
Worship is given only to God. Only God gets the offering, only God is expected to answer the prayers, and in fact the saints themselves are petitioned for to God. The Liturgy of Saint Chyrsostom has the priest say the following in reference to the Eucharist:
We offer You this spiritual worship for those who have reposed in the faith: forefathers, fathers, patriarchs, prophets, apostles, preachers, evangelists, martyrs, confessors, ascetics, and for every righteous spirit made perfect in faith–Especially for our most holy, pure, blessed, and glorious Lady, the Theotokos and ever-virgin Mary.
So, the saints in glory benefit from us offering a sacrifice (the Eucharist) to God on their behalf! It makes no sense to offer them anything.
In light of the preceding, it is clear that the saints when venerated are not accorded worship, because they are not expected to answer prayers (that’s God’s job) nor are offerings made to them. Worship, in both Judaism and Christianity, requires an offering. Because Protestantism does not have a firm handle on what they offer in worship, it is hard them to understand how prayers to God offered for the dead, and petitions made to the dead, are not forms of ancestor-worship. In the end, the issue is not with Scriptural teachings or history of religion in the Mediterranean–the issue is with how Protestantism approaches worship.