Pagan Traditions: Where Do We Draw The Line?

Human nature likes quick and easy answers that result in clear boundaries, but we don’t need to read far into scripture before realizing that clear and easy is not always the message God leaves for us.

An Honest Confession

If you’ve read my previous article, December 25: Christian Or Pagan Origin?, you will have gotten an overview of how, through the notion of ‘integral age’, early Christians may have established the day, December 25 as the day to celebrate the birth of Christ. This theory, however, although possible, cannot be absolutely proven even though there are signs of such a notion in the Talmud and some other (post-Jesus) Jewish literature.

If I were to be transparently honest with my readers, I’d have to confess that the more I research the origin of paganism, the more suspicious I am becoming of the probability that maybe the Roman Christians did in fact, steal the pagan holiday instead of the other way around. In this study, I welcome you to come with me as we look at this topic from different perspectives and try to at least come to an understanding of why some feel so strongly about this issue.

Are we Guilty as Charged?

Whether or not the day in itself was stolen from the pagans or established through the notion of ‘integral age’, the fact remains that in the Christmas and Easter holidays today, we mainstream Christianity, have adopted most, if not all, of the pagan traditions used for their holidays and have married them to our own Christian celebrations. These traditions have nothing to do with the birth, death, or resurrection of our Lord. So, in light of that, perhaps we should at least be thinking, from the Christian perspective, about how these things relate to the celebration, and how much it matters, or not, to participate in them. Do we even know the history behind these pagan traditions? Even if we did, how much does it matter?

There are many Christians that will claim justification for incorporating pagan symbols and traditions with Christian holidays. They say that marrying the two has “bridged” Christianity and paganism in such a way, that we have been able to reach many to Christ over the past two millennia. A good and ancient story that would aim to exemplify this justification can be found in The Federalist, titled: How Christmas Baptizes Norse Mythology into Powerful Christian Archetypes. The writer, Aaron Gleason makes the statement:

As long as we bring Christmas trees into our homes every December, the gospel is being scandalously preached to everyone with an ear to hear their sermon.

This may not be the best example for justification, but the story in the article is no doubt, an illustration of how the missionaries back in the early centuries, who became familiar with the Nordic religion, saw points that were very easy parallels to Christianity, and thus gave an easy way for the gospel to be preached.

Biblical Examples of Pagan Objects in Israelite Religion

There are various examples in the Bible of pagan objects being used in Israelite religion. A classic example of this would be that of the cherubim and the ark. Many scholars have argued that the ark of the covenant is pretty much the spitting image of an Egyptian Palanquin. Some say the cherubim were essentially Israelite versions of the Egyptian winged goddesses, Isis and Nephthys. You have two divine objects that come from pagan art, pagan practice, and pagan cultural trappings that are used in the Israelite religion, and yet God is okay with it. In fact, He tells them to build this. Why is this okay? Because they are not bowing down to the cherubim. They’re not bowing down to the object of the ark. They are worshiping in their heart and in their mind the presence of the God of Israel.

God didn’t violate His own commandment in Exodus 20:3-6 when He told them to make this. When the Israelites carried this thing around, they were not violating the commandment, because they were not bowing down to the objects.
It’s a heart, thoughts, and intent issue.

There are many other biblical examples of the Israelites using and incorporating pagan symbols, and God was okay with it. You have the account of Satan who came as a serpent in the Garden of Eden. You also have the pagan nations with serpent idols, but yet in Numbers 21:8-9, you have God commanding Moses to raise up a bronze serpent to which people had to look up to, in order to be healed from the bites of the fiery serpents.

According to some, there is also that issue with Psalm 29. Many scholars agree that Psalm 29’s background was likely originally a hymn to Baal. Its language is, in any case, strikingly familiar with that of the Baal cycle. This possibility seems to trouble many, but my question is, “Why?” Why can’t something that was meant for evil be turned into good?

Possibly one of the clearest examples in the Bible of God’s definition of what idol worship looks like can be found in Ezekiel 8:16-17. It shows a clear picture of individuals making a clear and deliberate choice to turn their back to where the presence of God was, and bow to another entity, in this case, the sun. The passage reads:

So He brought me into the inner court of the Lord's House; and there, at the door of the Temple of the Lord, between the porch and the altar, were about twenty-five men with their backs towards the Temple of the Lord and their faces towards the east, and they were worshiping the sun towards the east. And He said to me, have you seen this oh son of man? Is it a trivial thing in the house of Judah to commit the abominations which they commit here? For they have filled the land with violence; then they have returned to provoke Me to anger. Indeed they put the branch to their nose.

In light of the rest of the Old Testament, I personally think this verse points out that we have Old Testament examples where the things that pagans would use or do, are okay, as long as the God of Israel is being honored from the heart. He is the one to be worshiped. Not the object. Here in Ezekiel, we certainly see an example where they’re actually turning their backs to where the presence of God was, and they’re bowing to the sun where God’s presence is not. The result is abominable idol worship.

What do the Critics say?

I’ve recently made the observation that most people who don’t celebrate Christmas and Easter don’t even really know why, beyond the simple fact that they are told it’s pagan. When you ask them for details they don’t really know. Others may know more details, but only base what they know and believe on the history of the past 2000 years. Most will point you to the scriptures, Deuteronomy 12:1-4 and Jeremiah 10:2-4.

But then there are religious groups and individuals on the fringes of Christianity, that have dived into scriptures and history and have been unwavering in their stance on many issues throughout the ages. You will find most of these in the Hebrew roots crowd. They make no excuses for how they believe and live and would just as soon dump the whole Christian liturgical year and calendar. These groups will tell us that simply focusing on Roman and Greek paganism is barely scratching the surface of how, and when, the worship of the sun first began. They tell us of an account where rebellion was born. An account that self-declares the end from the beginning all the way from the Tower of Babel to the end of Revelation. Along with numerous scriptures, they puzzle together a mixture of ancient historical sources, that when assembled, can delineate a story of how paganism began, along with the celebratory feasts of the winter and summer solstices. Because of how they view history, they will unabashedly accuse mainstream Christianity of ignorantly falling for the same idolatry as the Old Testament pagan nations. They will trace this theory all the way back to Cain if you ask them to, but most of them will start with the story of Nimrod, Semiramis, and Tammuz.

The story of Nimrod, Semiramis, and Tammuz is about the mystery religion of ancient Babylon. It begins after the great flood that destroyed man. This mystery religion has been told in many different ways, through many millennia. It consists of a lot of names of many different gods, that are, in fact, all actually the same god, just different cultures, different times, and different languages. But all originate from the same story, figures, and structure. It isn’t until you read ancient historic writings that you will begin to pick out the probability of the existence of these “gods” through the brief mentioning of their names or positions, in connection to Israel's idolatry throughout the Old Testament story line and prophets.

Nimrod was considered to be the founder of Babel in Genesis 10:8-10. He was known as the ‘father god’ in pagan religions.

Semiramis is only briefly mentioned, by name, in ancient historical sources and evident through archaeological finds. She is believed by many to be the ‘queen of heaven’ mentioned in Jeremiah 7:18Jeremiah 44:17-19, and Jeremiah 44:25. She was considered to be the ‘mother god’ in pagan religions. One book that has a fair amount of content on Semiramis, also known as Sammu-Ramat, is the Bibliotheca Historica, authored by Diodorus Siculus between 60-30 B.C. In this book, she is mentioned specifically, but not exclusively, on pages 53-65. Diodorus drew on the works, which are no longer in existence, of even earlier historical authors, such as Ctesias and Herodotus. Ctesias was ridiculed for inaccuracy by other ancient writers, but his accounts are treated as reliable by Diodorus who references his account of things with no reservation.

Tammuz is mentioned only once in the Bible. This can be found in Ezekiel 8:14. He was considered to be the ‘son of god’ in pagan religion. According to some mythological stories, legend has it that he died a tragic death, but then miraculously rose again, and was rejoined with his “father” (Nimrod). He is referred to as Semiramis’s son (often under a different name due to the different languages) in extra-biblical historical sources and ancient historical Babylonian writings of stories and myths.

There are some who say that the archaeological finds that have been unearthed in recent centuries and decades are yet another sign that these legends, such that of the life of Nimrod, Semiramis, and Tammuz may have been more than just mystical stories. And if by chance they were just mystical stories they seem to have definitely played a huge part in the originating of the different gods and rituals in pagan cultures. Stonehenge is just one such place. The English Heritage writes in an article:

The stones were shaped and set up to frame at least two important events in the annual solar year, the mid-winter sunset at the winter solstice and the mid-summer sunrise at the summer solstice”. The winter solstice may have been more important than the summer solstice for the people who built and used Stonehenge. Excavations at Durrington Walls suggest that people held huge feasts around this time of year. Recent excavations reveal huge amounts of discarded pig and cattle bones. Archaeologists discovered that these animals were probably killed when they were around 9 months old. They would have been born in the spring, so it would seem that these pigs and cattle were slaughtered around the time of the winter solstice.

The real story behind Stonehenge could be anyone’s guess. There are different theories out there about the historical timeframe in which it was built and used. It’s not always easy to know with certainty, what really happened in history, and I will be the first to admit that, more often than not, most of us will find ourselves using the different sources that often lean towards specific doctrines and theology we want to hold on to. The study of history is one of my greatest joys. I think if more people would study history and learn about the past, there would be a lot fewer people driven by fear, in our world today. The study of history is important because it gives us a better understanding of who we are, where we come from, and what is influencing us and others around us. We may not always know what sources to follow and what conclusions to come to, but if we have true Godly love, a humble heart, and a mind that is open to give and receive knowledge, I find it hard to believe that God would allow such a one to stay deceived without prompting spiritual conviction to change what needs to be changed.

If you as a Christian, want to gain a deeper understanding of the true origin of these pagan roots and traditions, I recommend reading Mystery Babylon: The Religion of the Beast, by Rav Sha’ul and History of Freemasonry, by Albert Mackey. I may not agree with all conclusions in those books, but I found the historical sources that have been able to be pieced together to be very thought-provoking, depending on one’s view of history, in correlation with their perspective on eschatology.

How do we Reconcile the Striking Similarities of Pagan Concepts in Christian Religion?

If you have made it this far in this article, you may be feeling somewhat concerned with having learned that some of the beliefs taught in the Christian religion, were already a pagan concept before the biblical time frame of Jesus ever walking the earth in the flesh. If you take time to read the two books mentioned above, you will additionally learn that many of the Christmas and Easter celebratory traditions, in fact, also started back in ancient pagan cultures and are not merely pagan traditions of the past 2000 years.

But, before you decide just to throw out your common practices and traditions connected to Christmas and Easter, and change your way of life, I’d like to present a scenario that many may not be aware of today because of a difference in some older biblical translations. This scenario is that of the Divine Council and Deuteronomy 32 worldview of the Bible. I came across this worldview a few years back in my quest to find answers for the strange language I came across in Psalm 82 when I was doing word searches on the different Hebrew names of God. In this particular instance, I was looking up all the mentions of the word, Elohim. I posted a question about the Psalm on Facebook and was referred to Micheal S. Heiser’s work on the Divine Council and Deuteronomy 32 worldview of the Bible. I have since read two of his books, The Unseen Realm and Reversing Hermon. Studying his work and exegesis interpretation of the Bible has changed my perception of the world we live in today, along with my understanding of the mechanics of the two opposing kingdoms.

If you want access to an in-depth study of the Divine Council and Deuteronomy 32 worldview, I recommend reading The Unseen Realm. Below, I will just share a brief summary, starting with taking a look at a few different translations.

In the NKJV Deuteronomy 32:8-9 reads:

When the Most High divided their inheritance to the nations, when He separated the sons of Adam, He set the boundaries of the peoples according to the number of the children of Israel. For the Lord’s portion is His people; Jacob is the place of His inheritance.

The ESV however, reads:

When the Most High gave to the nations their inheritance, when he divided mankind, he fixed the borders of the peoples according to the number of the sons of God. But the Lord’s portion is his people, Jacob his allotted heritage.

The ESV translation would seem to more closely match that of the Septuagint which reads:

When the Most High divided the nations when He separated the sons of Adam, He set the bounds of the nations according to the number of the angels of God. And His people Jacob became the portion of the Lord, Israel was the line of his inheritance.

Even though, the NKJV itself, reads “children of Israel”, the original KJV cross references this verse back to the tower of Babel account, so it is unlikely that the translation of some Bibles “He set the boundaries of the peoples according to the number of the children of Israel” is the original meaning.

The Faith Life Study Bible, explains that, while many translations read “sons of Israel” in Deuteronomy 32:8 (following the traditional Hebrew Masoretic text’s reading of benei yisrael), the term, “sons of God” (benei Elohim in a more ancient Hebrew) is the more probable original reading. This is based on ancient Hebrew manuscript evidence from the Dead Sea Scrolls (250 B.C.-50 A.D.). The Septuagint also attests to reading “God,” not “Israel” for this verse.

The fragmentation of mankind after the flood into nations occurred at the Tower of Babel incident (Genesis 11:1–9 compare Genesis 10). Deuteronomy 32:8–9 (compare Deuteronomy 4:19–20) notes that Yahweh then chose Israel for Himself as a nation. The other nations would have no direct relationship with Yahweh, but instead were set under the rule of other ‘Elohim’ (see also Psalm 82). Other passages envision the future regathering of these nations into the family of Yahweh. (Genesis 22:18 , Isaiah 2:2–4Romans 1:16–17, Romans 3:29-30, Romans 9:22-26).

So now... if you’ve read the article in The Federalist (linked above) –
If you’ve been able to piece together the story of Babel, along with the agenda of supernatural evil –
If you understand the Deuteronomy 32 World View as written in the Septuagint, ESV, and ancient Hebrew translation of this text found among the dead sea scrolls –

One can’t help but wonder… Was God planting truth amidst this punishment situation where He disinherited the nations of the earth and assigned them to other “gods”? Was Yahweh planting messages of truth (I’m referring to parallels in the pagan, Jewish, and Christian cultures) about the true God? Parallels that survived, and by Yahweh’s plan could be capitalized on someday.

Is this a discussion that the early church had? Did the missionaries see these things as an opportunity to bridge the truth?
I find it hard to believe that the early church was simply looking for opportunities to use truth to become more pagan. It wasn’t always an issue of palatability. In some cases, there were real bridges, and there were real analogies between cultures that could be used to reach people and get them to believe. Maybe we should think a little more cautiously before we just make the early church out to be the villain and think a bit harder about why some of these things may have been done and thought about, the way they were.

Some Closing Thoughts

If we were to focus on getting rid of everything pagan in our lives today, there would likely not be any culture or denomination, that wouldn’t be affected. Many terms and words we use in our vocabulary today were originally derived from pagan deities.

The days of the week… All derived from pagan deities. The months of the year… All derived from pagan deities. Even the names of the Hebrew months are derived from Babylonian deities.

There are many, many other words and terms we use that come from pagan deities. One that Christians are really familiar with is the term hermeneutics. But how many additionally realizes that the term itself is also believed to be derived from the Greek god Hermes who served as ‘messenger of the gods’.

The decision of where we choose to draw that boundary line has to be an issue of Christian liberty. This ought to be an issue of conscience and not a spirituality contest. Old Testament Israelites used, even sometimes at God’s command, symbols and objects that were part of pagan traditions, and it wasn’t idolatry; it wasn’t a violation of anything so to speak.
When it comes to pagan ‘things’ the real issue becomes, is it a substitute for Yahweh? If so, that’s evil. And also, are you worshiping the object itself instead of Yahweh? That, too, is evil.

One of the biggest lessons I’ve learned through my studies on various topics over a span of recent time is that the equations in life are often more difficult to solve than many care to admit. Human nature likes quick and easy answers that result in clear boundaries, but we don’t need to read far into scripture before realizing that clear and easy is not always the message God leaves for us.

When it comes to Deuteronomy 12:1-4 and Jeremiah 10:2-4, the difference I make in my mind is the ‘difference of association’. Meaning: we do not associate the Christmas tree with God, the way the pagans do with their gods, therefore I don't see it as anything associated with our worship of God, but rather a cultural tradition that we have adopted for fun and festivity. Perhaps someday God's spirit will lead me to a different conviction concerning this topic. My desire is to always stay teachable and never stop learning.

I hope you’ve enjoyed coming with me to explore the different aspects of this topic. If this study does not sway you one way or another, I hope that it may have at least opened the door for a better understanding as to why people think the way they do.

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