Pagan influences on early Christianity

During and after the lifetime of Jesus, the Eastern Mediterranean area was awash with rival philosophies, often bracketed together as “Pagan” but in fact differing considerably from each other. I had often come across references to Paul as being “Hellenised” without understanding what that meant. Slowly I have been garnering evidence from different sources. Judaism was not the only show in town. I am sure any theology student would find this list laughably incomplete; if that’s you – why not send me more detail so it can be incorporated in this Post?

(1)   Persian Zoroastrianism
The ideas Christianity might have picked up from (or at least shared with) this older rival religion are thought to be

(a) the idea of the Last Judgement, preceded by a general resurrection
(b) an afterlife with rewards and punishments
(c) the concept of a personal deity
(d) the writing down of our life story in a heavenly Book of Life
(e) the naming of angels, each with its own specific function

(2)   Hellenism (the Ancient Greek mind set)
”Plato’s philosophy, with which Christian theology has almost always been intertwined, is the greatest example of a ‘top-down’, or metaphysical, account of reality. The apparent world in which we live is explained by reference to a greater unseen and controlling ‘spiritual’  world of eternal truths above. Our dual nature – body and soul, the passions and reason – shows that a part of us properly belongs to that higher world. Our life is then a journey through time towards the last home in eternity which we hope to enter through death.” (ii)

(a) the use of philosophical terms like “logos” or word e.g. in John’s gospel
(b) analytical reasoning
(c) a different understanding of the human condition
(d) new notions of God
(e) the very existence of theology (literally ‘study of God’) as a subject in its own right
(f) we live in the shadowy world below, a world of the senses and appearances

NB The Russian and Greek Orthodox churches stem from this emphasis in early Christianity.

(3)   Roman influences
As  a citizen of the Roman Empire, Jesus saw the Roman’s activities at first hand. He would have noticed their legal and organisational strengths.

NB The Roman Catholic church sprang from those wings of the early church that were more influenced by the Romans than by Hellenism.

(4) Manichaeism
St Augustine (354-430 CE) was a Manichaeian for 11 years before returning to the Christian religion of his mother. His writings had an enormous impact on the church. One of the things he brought with him was their negative view of sex.

All this [except(4)] is relevant to the first century split in Jesus’ followers.

The Gentile (i.e. non-Jewish and therefore presumably ‘Pagan’) wing was led by, or strongly influenced by, the hellenised St Paul. They were not on good terms with the church back in Jerusalem, and indeed judged them as heretics. Paul created a religion of his own (our Christianity today) which was based on his writings, and paid little attention to what Jesus said or did. Indeed Jesus the man was replaced at the core of the faith by Christ the son of God (a claim Jesus never made for himself). Unlike the mother church back in Jerusalem, the church of the diaspora Jews and -increasingly- of gentiles consisted of urban, sophisticated hellenised Greek speakers, who weren’t particularly interested in Jesus’ Jewish nationalism or messianic claims.

The Jewish wing of the Church, led by James the Just, ‘the brother of Jesus’ and other apostles like Peter and John, in Jerusalem, insisted on maintaining various Jewish traditions like circumcision for new male converts, and animal sacrifices. They were mostly illiterate farmers and lived very pious lives. They numbered members of Jesus’ family amongst them. Collectively they were known as the Ebionites, which means ‘the poor’. They spoke Aramaic and they lived in poverty in Jerusalem, waiting for Jesus to return. They only used the gospel of Matthew, they denied the virgin birth and the divinity of Jesus and they rejected Paul’s teachings. They were very affected by the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans in 70 CE. Although they were known throughout Christendom as the ‘Mother Assembly’ they were in a state of permanent disagreement with the church in the Jewish diaspora led by Paul. By the end of the fifth century they faded out as Paul’s Hellenised gospel got the backing of the Roman empire, and all opposition was considered heretical.(iii)

(i) Geering, L. “Christianity without God” Bridget Williams Books (NZ) (2002)
(ii) Cupitt, D. “Radical Theology” Polebridge Press (2006) p.115
(iii) Aslan, Reza “Zealots” Westbourne press (2013)

Related Zingcreed Posts:
Jesus’s communist brother James  (1) His life
Jesus’s communist brother James  (2) His epistle
From Hebrew to Hellenist, how the church metamorphosed
Paul vs Jesus
St Paul – a few notes


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