Today, I was at a Vietnamese Restaurant and I saw a picture of a deity (Tara) that stuck me as a Buddhist version of the Virgin Mary. Even though a lot of Atheists and Protestants will jump on these things as “proof” of paganism infiltrating Catholicism/Orthodoxy, the earliest known mention of the goddess was from the second century and her earliest image was 700-800 years after the time of Christ. By then, iconography of the Virgin Mary and her veneration existed for centuries.
Nevertheless, that does not mean that Pagans did not precede Christians in several things. Here are my top five:
5. Halos. Most people are so culturally used to halos they do not even think of their religious significance. In short, they do have a profound Christian meaning. The Scriptures call God “Light” and speak of Him dwelling in “inapproachable light.” Further, Jesus Christ shined with brilliant light at the Transfiguration. Yet, the earliest images of Jesus Christ in Christian history lacked any indication of light glowing around Him.
By the fourth century, Christian art started putting a halo behind Christ’s head. However, it is a historical fact that halos were used in Greek and Roman art. This art predated the use of the halo by Christians. Picture above is Apollo, a god of the sun. Obviously, the halo is meant to represent his “sun-goddiness.”
By the 5th or 6th century, Christian art started portraying the saints of the Church with halos as well. At the same time, the halo for Jesus Christ was altered to have a cross and the Greek letters for “I AM” in order to clearly differentiate Jesus Christ from the saints. While one may be quick to think the adding of halos is proof of a sort of Christianized henotheism which elevated the saints to gods, the truth of the matter is it is nothing more profound than what we sing in “Amazing Grace:”
When we’ve been there ten thousand years,
Bright shining as the sun,
We’ve no less days to sing God’s praise
Than when we first begun.
The hymn is referring to how the saved will shine in heaven (Dan 12:3, Matt 13:43). We shine in heaven, because we are being transformed into the likeness of God who is Light. So, the halo in iconography, though pagan in its origins, was simply put to Christian use to visually portray a Christian doctrine.
4. Reliquaries. While there is Biblical evidence that the Jews venerated their own saints and held onto their relics, there is also evidence that the ancient Greeks did the same. While one can certainly argue that the Jewish practice predated the Greek one, most secular historians do not take this view.
Nevertheless, the crucial difference between ancient Greek and Judeo-Christian practice was that while the latter believed relics to be miraculous (i.e. God worked healing through them, such as Elisha’s bones raising a dead person in 2 Kings 13:20-21), the Greeks did not attribute such miracles to their relics. Rather, the relics were either used like mementos or objects that had to be venerated and treated properly to avoid angering the Manes (demons that the deceased men become after death). If you think that’s weird, well, we are talking about Paganism after all.
3. Hesychasm. In short, Hesychasm is a Christian mystical practice that joins meditation, the repetition of the Jesus Prayer, and oftentimes breathing practices in the pursuit of experiencing firsthand a vision of God (i.e. Divine Light). While the Scriptures have examples of such visions (i.e. Moses seeing the fringes of God and the disciples seeing the Transfiguration), they also have examples of visions of God which do not explicitly involve Light (i.e. Isaiah’s). Further, none of the examples contained calculated breathing practices or repetitious prayer as far as we know.
A thousand years before Christianity existed, Hinduism allegedly used the chanting of mantras with seemingly the same goal in mind. However, historical evidence seems to indicate otherwise. Just as the Scriptures themselves warned against repetitious prayers, early mantras appeared to be exactly what Christ was teaching against–praying repetitiously for stuff thinking that by doing it the right way you’ll get the crap you prayed for. Hence, mantras were not pagan attempts to experience the divine (though Pagan meditative practices with that goal did exist).
Pagan attempts at meditating upon “heavenly things” was accomplished by emptying one’s thoughts. However, Jewish meditation (as recorded by Philo who lived during the time of Christ) busied itself with contemplating the Scriptures and actively thinking about God. Hence, Judeo-Christian prayer and meditation has always been contemplative. By the time Augustine discovered Neo-Platonism (whose meditation included active contemplation and not the emptying of oneself), Jewish practices predated Neo-Platonism’s by centuries.
Granted, the Platonists and the Pythagoreans meditated with the goal of achieving a divine experience. However, it appears their practices was not a humble prayer or repeating of Scriptures, but rather a hard-core reflection upon thinking about math, philosophy, and other stuff that took years of learning. Clearly, Hellenistic meditation does not provide for us the Christian antecedent that detractors are looking for.
So, how about Hesychasm itself with the weird breathing stuff? It is possible Elijah prayed in the same was (notice his posture when praying in 1 Kings 18:42). Further, it is known that Hesychastic practices were mentioned by name, and their prayers documented, in the fourth century. So, despite the claims of some that Hesychasm itself was borrowed by Eastern Christians from Sufism (who I suppose allegedly stole it from the Hindus/Buddhists), this is historically indefensible.
2. Multiplication. Finally, an easy one! Jesus says we have to forgive our enemies 70 times 7 (that equals 490 by the way). Yet, base ten multiplication existed among the ancestor-worshiping Chinese centuries before Christ! What does this prove? Nothing! Just because someone was first and they were pagan, that does not completely invalidate whatever they came up with! The Bible could invoke Pagan math without being sycretistic.
1. The Greek Language. I will also end with an easy one! Did you know that the New Testament was originally written in a language that for centuries was used to praise pagan gods? In fact, the Greek word used for God in the New Testament (Theos/Theon) was used in reference to pagan deities! If that does not prove that Christianity borrowed something from Paganism, what will?
Of course, the preceding is silly. Like the previous point, just because something (here, an entire language) was used by Pagans, that does not invalidate the worthiness of the language or Christianity for using it.
There is only one thing that can invalidate Christianity: if what it teaches lacks a concrete reality. “If Christ is not risen, then our preaching is empty and your faith is also empty” (1 Cor 15:14).
In the end of the day, whether or not a Pagan once used a halo or chanted a prayer does not matter. It does not mean that Christians cannot use similar practices. Similarity is not automatically bad. If similarity to Paganism invalidated a Christian practice, then we would have to throw our Bibles into the trash because they were originally written in a Pagan language.
Christians believe in a God who has really risen from the dead and who intercedes for us daily in heaven. We believe in a faith that is unchanged over centuries as proof that God has had the same, visible impact in the lives of many over the centuries. This consistency is what we perceive as the testimony of the Holy Spirit throughout history. In the end of the day, practices that have been approved by Christians sharing His Spirit over the centuries must take precedence over armchair historians making a logical leap that everything that once was Pagan makes anything similar to it bad forever.