Since I’ve heard that there’s some kind of religious festival going on this weekend, I thought it might be an interesting time to write something about the history of how Christianity came to have such a blend of non-Christian origins in it. There’s actually a very interesting history to this: in essence, it isn’t so much that Christianity absorbed external elements, as that through the tumult of the first six centuries CE, a bunch of European religions mixed and combined, and the Christianity we know today was the result of that — it got its name on the label, so to speak.
To realize how big the difference between what came out and what came in is, just pick up the Christian Bible and read through the discussions between Jesus and the Apostles. This was, originally, a Jewish reform movement, responding to the particular skews and corruptions that had shown up in the (Pharisaic) leadership, concerned with economic reform, (e.g. Luke 12) a hard shift away from ritual towards personal piety, (e.g. Matthew 15) and a serious mystical trend. (Largely cut out of the “canonical” texts, but very present in the Egyptian texts) The first radical change came with Paul, who was interested in converting outsiders — something that the earlier “followers of the Way,” as they called themselves, had very little interest in. But if you compare even Paul’s early churches with (say) medieval Christianity, or even most modern branches, you’ll see very little in common. How did this happen?
Let me start by setting up a few bits of history. We’re in the Classical Roman Empire, say around the year 100 CE. Rome is expanding everywhere; there’s a well-practiced routine when a new barbarian tribe is encountered. The Romans make offerings to the gods of that tribe, saying that they will build them a temple in Rome if they let this tribe be joined to the empire; then they go to war, win, and start to fold yet another tribe into the center. The erection of that temple isn’t something accidental: it’s part of what’s called the “Pax Deorum,” the peace of the gods, and what it really is is a public statement that these new people are being folded in to the society. These conquered barbarians aren’t at quite the same level as true Roman citizens, but they’re part of the Empire now, and light-years above those barbarians outside the gates. The physical mechanisms of the Empire are backed by a deep civic notion of “Romanitas;” to be a Roman is to be part of this great thing, to have a particular relationship to the outside world: we will conquer you and you will join us. And to be part of Romanitas is to have the weight of the Empire behind you.
And then it stopped working. Hadrian makes it halfway up Britain and builds a wall; and the Romans start to realize that they’re at the logistical endpoint of where they can conquer. A climate cycle drops food production down and leads to widespread famine and disease across Europe. Worse climate cycles to the east start to push nomadic tribes further out in search of resources, and they start to hit an already-weakening Empire. Without the constant influx of resources from conquered tribes, the underlying lack of planning in the Roman economy (and system of succession) starts to show; and from about 180 to 280, the Empire essentially collapses into an infinite sequence of famines, plagues, civil wars, and barbarian incursions. The last of these wars, the War of the Seven Emperors, is ended in 287 when Diocletian personally executes his last rival, and sets up a new regime.
Diocletian’s empire was very different from Caesar’s in a lot of interesting ways, but the one I want to talk about today is that notion of “Romanitas.” Once, to be a Roman meant that you were ready to conquer everyone that you met; but the later Roman Empire was in no state to do such a thing. The central question of civic identity — of what it even meant to be a part of this empire — didn’t have a good answer, and with it, the whole question of what held the Empire together at all was up in the air as well.
Now switch over and look at the religion of the time. If we rewind back to the year 100, the Latin word religio had a very different meaning from what we think of today: it was the set of public rituals that the society participated in. These were tremendously important in a lot of ways. First of all, they were a key economic glue. Roman society didn’t have a notion of “taxation” in the modern sense; but instead, leading citizens were expected to regularly have sacrifices to the Gods to honor their good fortune in various things. At a sacrifice, animals would be killed, their first fruits given to the Gods with various prayers, and what followed is what we would today call a “big damned barbecue.” A Roman could expect to go to a sacrifice every week or so on the average, and this was the primary access that most Romans had to meat. (So when I say “key economic glue” I mean “a major part of how the society got access to food.”) Second, they were the way in which people defined their civic nature. Today, we define our nationality in terms of things we learn in school, what we read in the papers and discuss in the media — all things which didn’t exist in Rome. The expression of nationality was the common rituals that people went to. (And this, incidentally, is why the cult of the Emperor was so important: by sacrificing to the Emperor, you were indicating your loyalty to the Emperor and the Empire) Public actions were the main way that people communicated their thoughts.
One thing you may notice is missing from that list is anything which resembles our modern notion of “faith.” This wasn’t an unfamiliar concept, but it wasn’t considered to be part of “religio.” People had household gods with which they had a personal relationship, and actual priests had relationships with their gods, but nobody was generally expected to have a deep and abiding religious faith in each god that showed up through the gate. But the urge for deeper religious experiences was certainly there, and ever since the time of Alexander the Great (around 300BCE) one of the main ways this manifested was in “mystery cults.”
Mystery cults were the religious secret societies of the ancient world. You could join some of them by simply walking in the door, and for others you had to know someone, but what they all had in common was that you would be initiated, participate in secret rituals, gradually learn more and more of the secrets of this god. These cults often taught a combination of mysticism, philosophy, and theology; they offered a chance to see into the world beyond; and they offered a close confraternity among the members. And they were quite separate from “religio” proper, bearing it about the same relationship that gentlemen’s clubs in Victorian England bore to Parliament.
There were a few categories of mystery cult which were becoming particularly popular in the first few centuries CE. The first was the cult of Magna Mater, which was basically the worship of Isis gradually transmuted into a pan-European religion. Consider that ancient Egyptian religion was already extremely, incomprehensibly ancient: the pyramids are a great work of the late Stone Age, as much older than the Romans as the Trojan War is older than us. The knowledge of hieroglyphs had already passed out of the world, but the infinite number of mummies and inscriptions and magical practices were still very much there. Add on to this that, even thousands of years earlier, Egyptian religion had highly favored spectacular, awe-inspiring temples where people went for rituals, healing, miracles, surrounded by fire, strange smokes, talking statues — and that this tradition was still very much alive — and you have a great factory of religious beliefs which were immensely popular in the Roman world.
Second was Mithraism, a religion that we still understand relatively little. Mithras was a warrior-god, of Persian origin; he has many similarities to similar warrior-gods spread across the Near East, not least the version of Yahweh worshipped in the western Levant which later became a core part of Judaism. In Rome, his worship became very popular among the army, starting with soldiers who had served in the east. The rituals were very secret, part of the brotherhood of joining the Roman Legions; underground caverns, secret dances, sacrifices, rituals that we know very little about today because they were actually fairly good at keeping their secrets, and quite deliberately didn’t write many things down.
The third was ascetic monasticism, something which never really caught on in Europe but which was a huge deal in Egypt for hundreds of years. There was a tradition of hermits retreating off into the desert to pray, fast, and generally mortify themselves, and these hermits were considered to be avatars of purity itself, holy, powerful, capable of great magics, and mad as a bag of clams. (As a side note, The Book of the Fathers, a book on how to be a good monk written in fragments from the 4th through 10th centuries, has lots of examples of the stories of early monks, who were basically Christian Egyptian ascetics. Something like two thirds of these stories end with either “and then he/she starved to death” or “and then he/she died in a sandstorm.” These guys were hard-core.)
And Christianity — Paul’s Christianity, the kind that wanted to spread — joined in to this mix. This early Pauline Christianity worshipped in secret, because it was defiantly anti-religio; this was honestly a holdover from its Jewish roots, with the Jews being rather famous for their (often violent) unwillingness to sacrifice to other gods. But it had many other familiar features: secret meetings in (literally) underground churches, intense personal faith, mystical healing, close confraternity between the followers. Unlike many of the other mystery cults, it was built fairly strongly around concepts of morality — another holdover both from its Jewish antecedents and from Jesus’ own focus on reforming Judaism towards personal religiosity.
These religious traditions competed with each other pretty openly. If you read Apuleius’ The Golden Ass (arguably the first novel), you’ll see all these conflicts show up in people’s daily lives. Laws were passed banning Christians from serving in the army — it would destroy unit cohesion, you see, and the men might feel uncomfortable. (Le plus que ça change…) And they also combined: Christianity became popular in Egypt, and people combined it with both Egyptian asceticism (to form the seeds of monasticism) and Manichaeanism, another Persian import from which Christianity got its notions of the duality of God and the Devil. The healing magics of Magna Mater stayed popular across the board, and Christians found themselves doing basically the same things.
(There’s a whole history here, too, of how these religions related to the earlier Roman political order.)
And around the year 300, these religious and political trends started to come together. The political order of the old religio made less and less sense: giant, formal, public rituals to the gods of old Rome didn’t pull people together the way they once did. But the underlying needs behind them, both civic and economic, were still there. By the time of the civil war that followed Diocletian’s retirement (a very interesting story in its own right), Mithraism was in a bit of a downturn, apparently not providing quite enough mysticism relative to simple brotherhood; Christianity had folded most of the magical elements of Magna Mater into itself, and had done a better job of conversion through its strategy of focusing on women, and soldiers, many of whose mothers had been converts, started to use it as their secret brotherhood ritual. Against this background, Constantine (one of the warring emperors) made it the quasi-official religion of his army, and soon after won control of the Empire.
What happened here was that a religious trend of secret societies, previously illegal in many situations, which thus tended to forge close relationships among the practitioners, suddenly became an official Thing which people realized they could further their careers by converting to. Many is the Roman nobleman of this period who went to bed one night, a contented pagan, and woke up the next morning a bishop, and a few hundred thousand solidi poorer. (That was the going rate for a bishopric) But this new religious system had communal identity baked so deeply into it, and held people together well enough (after all, that’s one of the big things Constantine used it for!) that it started to become a substitute for this now-missing identity.
Several things happened over the next hundred years which reinforced this, but perhaps the most dramatic was the sack of Rome in 410. It’s hard to express how world-shaking this was: imagine if, on 9/11, rather than destroying the Twin Towers in New York, the Taliban had simply marched in to New York City and sacked it, and the government was powerless to do anything about it. That’s roughly what happened then. And yet: the Goths who sacked Rome left the churches untouched — they, too, were Christians. Augustine used this as the jumping-off point for his book, The City of God, which crystallized the ideas that had been building up over the years: Christianity united its believers in a sort of world-spanning empire. This notion of Christianity as a social identity, rather than as a religious faith, became the cornerstone of European society for the next thousand years.
This answered the question of “how do we deal with those barbarians?:” If they were Christians, then you could use this common language of Christianity to establish relations with them. If they weren’t, you could convert them or kill them — or point your own friendly barbarians their way. It also provided a new social glue for the society, so long as everyone came over and converted.
And what you might notice is missing, again, from this picture is the modern notion of “faith.” It was important that everyone be a Christian because that was part of being part of the Empire, but the details weren’t quite as important. So the common variety of “conversion” in the Late Antique Empire went something like this:
A priest shows up in a village. The village is generally having some kind of major problem or another, whether it be a failed local irrigation system, or a famine, or a plague. The priest calls people together in the name of his god, and fixes the problem: either by prayer, or by getting people together to fix the well, or by pulling in external resources. (Most of the time, incidentally, the priest didn’t successfully fix the problem, in which case he simply would move on to the next village and try again) On success, the village praises God and converts. They have to give up “pagan rituals” — i.e., they have to adopt the forms of Christian religio rather than whatever they did locally. But the underlying importance of the sacrifices (economic, civic, etc) was still there, so what was important was to do them in a Christian way. Do them in a church, not a cemetery. Praise a saint rather than a god, and so forth.
And then the priest would move on to the next town, racking this up as yet another successful conversion. But nobody was left behind in this town who actually had a particularly deep understanding of Christian doctrine; and in fact, owing to how bad travel was in the Empire at this point, it was often 100 years until the next priest would reach a particular village! So Europe “Christianized” by adopting a shared set of practices and religious language, but not a shared religious faith in the modern sense of the word.
The results of this weren’t fully appreciated until nearly a thousand years later, during the Counter-Reformation: in response to the rise of Protestantism, the Catholic Church started to try to root out “heresy” in its own world, and discovered (much to its shock) that the average Christian had absolutely no idea what the religion was supposed to mean. (A truly fascinating account of this can be found in The Cheese and the Worms: The Cosmos of a Sixteenth-Century Miller, which studies the record of the heresy trial of some random schmuck who was grabbed by the Inquisition. The title comes from his attempt to explain just how the world was created.)
So when we talk about a “Christian syncretism,” what was happening wasn’t that Christianity deliberately or accidentally took on bits of other religions. Rather, most of the conversion of Europe — and very similarly, most of the conversion of other parts of the world later on — happened very quickly, with groups of people agreeing to take on the structural forms of Christianity, praying to saints in churches and so on, but with very little emphasis on constructing a shared “faith” in the modern sense.
In fact, this modern notion of faith came largely out of the Protestant reformation. The Protestants started out with a notion that people should have a direct, personal familiarity with scriptures and a much more personal relationship with God: ideas which hadn’t really entered much into the Christianity of the preceding millenium. The Catholics, in response, tried to “purify” their own faith and make sure that everyone was on the same page, using much the same techniques which they had developed for ensuring that there were no secretly practising Muslims or Jews in Spain after the Reconquista. (Yes, I know. You were expecting that the Spanish Inquisition would show up in here at some point.) Several centuries of spectacular bloodshed later, it was a commonly accepted idea in all branches of Christianity that Christianity was, first and foremost, about individual faith, and a common understanding of doctrine was what bound Christians together. But this hadn’t actually been a feature of Christianity ever since the days of Paul, and the Christianity of the 19th century is a very different beast from that in too many ways to count. It was a new thing.
So today, when people tell you about how Christianity has “borrowed” ideas from non-Christian religions, or that this or that holiday is actually a pagan festival in disguise, your surprise isn’t coming from the fact that Christianity ever was really a common religious language rather than a unified faith: it’s coming from the fact that, over the past few hundred years, Christianity has deeply rewritten its creed, and largely forgotten its own history. These things aren’t alien to Christianity at all: they’re the deepest part of its origins.
For more information, some places to start:
The best sources of all on this subject are books. Peter Brown’s The Cult of the Saints or The Rise of Western Christendom give an excellent snapshot of the Late Antique transition and can get you started looking for other things. Carlo Ginzburg’s The Cheese and the Worms is a great way to see what ground-level faith in the sixteenth century looked like.
Photo by Robobobobo: http://www.flickr.com/photos/45493477@N05/4178051127/