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The Beginings Of Christianity Essay, Research Paper
From the time that man became a thinking and reasoning being, there has been a driving need to explain what is unknown to us. Man?s fear of the unknown and his need to explain it gave rise to various different religions that attempted to provide answers to all of man?s mystical questions. The different religions of the world competed for followers and through time many died out, just as new religions were born. Eventually there came about there came about the birth of one of the biggest religions of today?s world, this was Christianity. Unlike most new religions Christianity grew and spread throughout the entire world. How did Christianity become this successful? Many different elements contributed to making Christianity what it is today, one key element was Christianity?s ability to adapt characteristics from other religions so it could replace them. The biggest competitor of Christianity was paganism “?with its multiplicity of divine powers, rituals of sacrifice, temples, statues of deities, votive offerings, and periodic festivals”, therefore to become more popular with the people Christianity borrowed elements from the existing pagan religions so it could eventually replace them (Ferguson p.3). This method of drawing followers could be viewed as cut throat in retrospect, but it was tactics such as this combined with giving the people what they wanted that helped to make Christianity what it is today.
With the coming of Christianity to the Roman Empire no one paid this new religion much thought. The cities were full of every type of religion imaginable from Judaism to various religions devoted to Greek gods. “If you walk the streets at the western edge of town, you pass: a temple of Mithras, a temple of palmyrene gods, a Jewish synagogue, a temple of Adonis, a sanctuary of Tych, a Christian house church, a shrine to Zeus Kryios” (Ferguson p.1). At this point the Christian Church was an infant religion that was taking its first steps. With the maelstrom of different cults and religions which surrounded it, Christianity was somewhat vulnerable. Being one of the minority of religious faiths that sought to convert others, Christianity began to distinguish itself from the crowd. “As Christianity took over the empire it needed urgently to define its own doctrines. Above all it must decide who Christ was” (Murray p.32).
One of the ways in which Christianity drew the amount of followers which it did was to increase its appeal to the people of the times. When new movements are started they often draw their strength from those members of society who seek hope, generally the less wealthy and unfortunate who want to improve their state, who want something to believe in, “?they direct their appeal to the poor, the downtrodden, the disenherited, who are filled with fierce resentment toward those superior to them socially, intellectually, and economically?” (Larson p.427). people who walk through life with this frame of mind are easily won to a cause, especially one which offers the rewards given by Christianity. A faith which provides the redemption of sins along with, and most importantly, the concept of an immortal soul which will spend eternity in paradise after gaining salvation. Few religions other than Christianity offered long term rewards such as these. “?no pagan cult held out promise of afterlife for the worshiper as he knew and felt himself to be. Resurrection in the flesh was thus a truth proclaimed to be a decisive advantage of the church” (Macmullen p.136).
As Christianity started to build its foundation and establish its doctrines it was not without heavy criticism from pagan philosophers and other non-Christian scholars. The critics of Christianity eagerly advanced upon this new and barely established religion. One of the biggest questions that arose through this criticism was if Jesus were considered as a man or as God. Because since Christians referred to Jesus Christ as God, then to the pagans this was a contradiction. “Christians threatened the hard-won view that there was only one God, a conviction shared by many pagan intellectuals in the early empire, and which was thought to be distinctly superior to the polytheism and anthropomorphism of popular religion” (Wilken p.106). The pagan philosophers gained from the scriptures that God was viewed as the father of all creation, so in accordance with this belief, how can the son be equal to the father? The pagans believed that “Excessive adoration of Jesus robbed the one high God of his proper due?” (Wilken p.107). With major contradictions such as this in the Christian doctrine, it was not very difficult for paganism to postpone its end by pointing out these shortcomings.
Although Christianity could be considered the underdog among the religions of its time, and despite of the heavy criticism that it received, it slowly began to grow and gain influence throughout the Roman Empire. As Christianity became more widespread throughout the land it began to muscle out the other religions, not literally, but the strength of the Christian faith overwhelmed most of the other religions. During instances where this was not the case, Christianity would draw on elements from its competing religions to create a newer Christianity which would appeal to the followers of the other religions. This was most common with paganism. “There was indeed hardly any basic pagan idea which could not somehow be transformed, and fitted into Christianity” (Murray p.36).
One of the best examples examples of this adaptation of ideas is the development of the Christmas holiday. Many different factors went into the choice of a suitable date for the Christmas celebration. The earlier pagan religions had held a feast on December 25th in celebration of the winter solstice. The solstice was very meaningful to them because it was the time when their was the least amount of sun, which was common to be worshipped as a God itself. The factor of the waning sunlight was important to Christians because the doctrines held that Jesus was born during the darkest hour of the year. By drawing upon the existing pagan belief that the solstice was sacred and melding it with the Christian belief that the darkest hour gave birth to the light of Christ, the Christians decided that December 25th would be the appointed day for the celebration of Christ?s birth.(Murray p.32)
The choice of this date was very significant in the effort to draw people away from paganism and towards Christianity. The decided date was “?symbolically suitable, and represented the strategic ?high ground? of the pagan calendar” (Murray p.32). The winter solstice was also the point of the pagan new year celebration and therefore one of their most important holidays. By establishing a holiday on the same date as the already existing pagan one, Christianity in a sense nullified the pagan holiday and replaced it with Christmas. “Christian Christmas was on a march, then, in a negative way, as churchmen variously execrated, amputated, tolerated, allegorized, adapted and incorporated existing pagan customs” (Murray p.36). In this sentence Murray hits the nail on the head when looking at the factors which helped the Christian Church to gain influence during these times. It is interesting that Murray would use the words amputated and tolerated in the same sentence when describing this adaptation. It seems to imply that whatever elements of pagan practices which were not tolerated by the Christian Church were amputated, or cut off and eliminated.
When aspects of paganism were not able to be conformed to Christianity they were often discredited and proclaimed as false. The word “superstition” was often used by Christians in reference to pagans to achieve this purpose. In this context superstition can be defined as “?a judgemental term traditionally used by dominant religions to categorize and denigrate earlier, less sophisticated or disapproved religious attitudes and behavior” (Oneil p.163). By calling pagan beliefs superstitious the Christians were essentially saying that the beliefs were born out of ignorance and fear, qualities of a religion which no one would devote their faith to. Christianity not only portrayed pagan beliefs as ignorant and foolish, but also as evil and demonic. The image of the friendly yet mischievous pagan deity Pan was used by Christianity to represent Satan himself. It became the norm for Christians to “?categorize the whole of classical pagan religion as idaltrous and even demonic?” by pointing a finger and using the word superstition (Oneil p.164). During the time period in which this was occurring many converts were accepting the Christian doctrines. But, even though the people were converting their beliefs to that of Christianity, they still had many pagan beliefs and habits which faded very slowly. In an effort to stamp out the remaining elements of paganism, nearly all remnants of pagan thought were categorized as superstitious and therefore evil. It came to the point where usage of pagan names, or symbols, or any other pagan views were seen by the church as devil worship. In one instance a bishop “?rejected the use of Latin calendrical vocabulary, since the days of the week were named after pagan gods (in his view demons) like Mars, Jove, and Venus” (Oneil p.164).
As a foothold was gained in overcoming paganism by adapting and absorbing many of their beliefs and practices, Christianity took another step towards the eradication of paganism by Christianizing pagan churches, temples, and other buildings. One author states that, “?every pagan building which was capable of giving shelter to a congregation was transformed, at one time or another, into a church or chapel” (Lanciani p.160). No buildings were spared during this time, regardless of size. All buildings were used ranging from the smallest private home to the grand coliseum, “The Coliseum, which we meet first, on our right, was bristling with churches. There was one at the foot of the Colossus of the sun? besides other chapels and oratories within the ampitheatre itself” (Lanciani p.161). As the popularity of paganism fell and that of Christianity soared, many pagan buildings were simply abandoned. In reaction to this the Christians made use of these structures as best they could. By taking advantage of these newly available buildings, the Christians succeeded not only in expanding their church, but also in erasing the memories of paganism.
Any opportunity which was provided for replacing, covering, or otherwise erasing paganism was capatalized on. Statues of pagan heroes and deities were taken down, often destroyed, and then replaced by symbols of Christianity such as a crucifix or a statue of the Virgin Mary. When archeological sites which are historically known to be pagan religious sites are excavated there will almost certainly be Christian artifacts to be found. They may not be immediately noticable because in many instances the Christian additions were makeshift and not permanent, but upon close inspection there will most likely be some evidence of Christian influence. This evidence may be as little as etchings in the walls or the decaying remains of a painting or other artwork, or they can be as obvious as an intact statue of the Virgin Mary.(Lanciani p.162-163)
The encroachment of Christianity into Pagan buildings and architecture was not confined to those of the living. The cemetaries and graveyards were also gradually removed of pagan influence and replaced with those of Christianity. “Pagan gravestones and ex-votos are no longer set up, while Christian epitaphs and increasingly rich burials come into view” (MacMullen p.133).
In conclusion, Christianity has come a long way since the days when it was just another temple amidst the hundreds of others that filled the ancient Roman cities. By looking back at the obstacles that Christianity faced and the routes it took to overcome them and idea can of Christianity?s future can be gained. The religious competition for Christianity has gradually been defeated. By adapting useful elements from other religious Christianity was able to draw their followers away from the competition and towards the ranks of the Church. Once the followers were gained Christianity proceeded to attempt to erase the remaining evidence that these other religious were ever here. And once the physical evidence was gone, the memories were then dulled. When looking into the future, if history repeats itself, then the religions which share the world with Christianity today could very likely end up as an element which will contribute to the Christianity of the future.
Clapp, Rodney. “Let the Pagans Have the Holiday [Christmas]” Christianity Today 37 (1993): 31-32. D 13
Gauchet, Marcel. “After Patanism” The New Republic bol. 218 #9 (1998): p.38.
Goetz, Philip W. The New encyclopedia Brittanica. Vol. 16. University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1990.
Lanciani, Rodolfo. Pagan and Christian Rome. The riverside Press Cambridge, Boston and New York, 1892.
Lanson, Maritin A. The Story of Christain Origins. Village Press, Oklahoma, 1977.
MacMullen, Ramsay. Paganism in the Poman Empire. Yale University Press, New Haven and London, 1981.
Morgan, Kenneth O. The Oxford Illustrated History of Brittain. Oxford University Press, Oxford and Yew York, 1984.
Murray, Alexandor. “Medieval Christmas” History Today 3b (1986): 31-39
Oneil, Mery R. “Superstition” The Encylopedia of Religion. Macmilan Publishing Company, New York, 1987.
Stock, Robert D. “Dionysus, Christ, and C. S. Lewis” Christianity and Literature 43 (1985): 7-13.
Wilken, Robert L. The Cristaians As The Romans Saw Them. Yale Univerity Press, New Haven and London, 1984.
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