I don’t want to be overly negative about the Pagan elements in the Christian faith, or deny their historical and cultural significance. In any case, Jewish and Pagan wisdom and knowledge cross-fertilised long before Christianity. Moses and Joseph obviously had the wisdom and knowledge of the Egyptians and pharaohs. And 2,000 years ago, the Greek language of the Pagans was the lingua franca, including for Jews and Romans. The Torah had been translated into Greek (the Septuagint), in the 3rd BCE, by 70 Jewish scholars according to tradition.
Alexander the Great, pupil of the great Pagan philosopher Aristotle, wanted his empire to be an intelligent and cultured Greek-thinking empire, and imposed the Greek language on his subjects, including in Egypt. Indeed, his new Egyptian city of ‘Alexandria’ would become an overwhelmingly important centre of Christianity.
A lingua franca, and the routes of communication made possible by Pax Romana, enabled the Church to spread quickly throughout Europe. Christian thinkers and ‘evangelists’ began to write Greek ‘books’ or codices to add to the Septuagint (it was not until the 4th century CE that the 27 books in today’s Christian ‘New Testament’ were officially listed, or ‘canonised’ in Alexandria).
We all, then, have much Pagan in our roots – including modern-day Israel – some of which has borne good fruits: democracy, the Hippocratic Oath, musical theory, and in fact all the Liberal Arts of Hellenistic education. All the big theological words in Christian scripture and theology, such as Logos, hamartia (sin), metanoia (usually poorly translated into English as ‘repent’) come from Greek philosophy, Aristotelian ethics, and drama. Greek drama was the social media of the hoi polloi two millennia ago, long before the days of written media. If Jesus did actually walk into the Jerusalem Temple and shout ‘hypocrites’ he probably did use the Greek word hypokrites, meaning ‘actor’. The Gospel genre itself uses the Greek dramatic and biographical form, which seems to be often lost on the modern reader, especially if he or she is seeking empirical history to support a ‘Christian [Biblical] fundamentalist’ position.
My point in this article is that Christianity has dogmatised certain Pagan ideas in its core theology that, as a Christian today, I feel compelled to challenge. Obviously, Greek Paganism was not just about learning, it was what today we call ‘religion’ with gods (that were accepted, with some name changes, into the Roman pantheon) and theologies. Some of these theologies entered the Church.
Perhaps this integration of Jewish theology with ‘spurious’ Pagan theology was inevitable in its time. Rabbi Jesus instructed his 12 Disciples to go ‘to the ends of the earth’, and ‘go out and make disciples of all nations’ (Matthew 28:19). But the Disciples were Jews! As we see from the arguments recorded in the Christian Bible after Jesus’ death, the Disciples came to realise that true Judaisation would be impossible. Paul – the self-declared ‘Apostle to the Gentiles’ – convinced the early Church to drop the brit milah (Acts 15:1-2). And Peter had a vision whilst staying in Jaffa (Acts 10) convincing him that we Gentiles of the Nazarene movement had no need to follow the dietary laws.
I feel no obligation to take the covenant of circumcision, or to follow Jewish dietary laws, but deep in my soul, I do feel the overwhelming need to come ‘home’ spiritually to Israel, not as a Christian supersessionist, but in accepting that, all along, God has been piloting the history of the world through the Jews, and their restitution of Israel. In this, I am far from unique as a Christian, and, since the Abraham Accords in 2020, even some influential Muslims voices have been surprisingly critical of Islamic supersessionism, which is one of the main drivers for Jihad and Arab irredentism in the Holy Land. Some Islamic scholars are now openly supporting Israel as the Jewish nation state, including challenging the consensus view that the Al-Aqsa mosque of the Qu’ran was located in Jerusalem (‘Jerusalem’ being never mentioned in the Qu’ran). It is surely a very significant sign of the times that in November 2020 an Islamic lawyer in Saudi Arabia wrote his exegesis on this in a Saudi daily newspaper – in a nation that suffers heavy and oppressive censorship.
As I see it, the primary purpose of Christianity in the great sweep of history is to bring all nations to the centre: Zion: Home: the House: the House of God and the House of Prayer for all nations.
In my previous piece for Times of Israel Blog, I wrote that every week I ‘grab a Jew by the hem’ (Zechariah 8:23) – virtually at least – by tuning into the Parashot discussions between Rabbi Yishai Fliesher and Rav Mike Feuer on the Land of Israel Network. I’ve listened to lot of religious discussions in my life, including Jewish ones, and I moderated an online Anglican discussion group for several years, but I can’t recommend Yishai and Mike broadcasts from Judea to the world highly enough. There is never a dull moment! Despite all the insane consensus reality in the world today, and all the spurious ideas of ‘progress’, the ebullience and resilience of Yishai and Mike give me hope that there are signs of true progress – the promises of the Torah – coming through. I think that we are all coming home to the house of prayer for all nations. Please God, may it be soon.
It is worth pointing out here the route of my becoming ‘plugged in’ to Israel, despite the historical baggage that Christianity carries, which makes things difficult.
I was an atheist between the ages of 10 and 30. Approaching 30, I started to take my atheism seriously, even learning French in order to read the French Existentialists at source, somehow finding vicarious solidarity in their angst and sense of the absurdity of civilisation and life. But at age 31, I had an overwhelming and joyful epiphany. Either I had been seeking God all along, or God had been seeking me. I don’t know, but from this moment, my deep-thinking atheism became deep-thinking theism. I now wanted to know more about God, and so naturally became acquainted with the Church of England (into which I had been baptised as a baby), which in its traditional forms was culturally familiar, not least because I had been classically trained in music.
My years of Existentialism made me question everything in life, and I carried that over into the Church. I soon became highly critical – privately at first – of Christianity in all its forms. There are many blatant contradictions. For instance, clergy preach about idolatry and graven images, whilst being surrounded by venerated graven images and consecrated idols.
Christianity, I’m afraid to say, is a conspiracy of half-truths and platitudes, hoary with age. The ‘divine’ platitudes are rooted in millennia-old propaganda, half-truths, and Paganism.
Second-century propaganda – including in the ‘New Testament’ that was slowly beginning to take form in the second century – was used to set the Church apart from the Jews, to make the Church the ‘new’ Israel. And as church schisms started to form, each church developed propaganda to denigrate what it saw as schismatic or heretical in the others. Christians on the non-consensus side of a schism were invariably in danger. Consider the monks who followed the influential theologian Origen of Alexandria (d. circa 253). Origen was posthumously declared a heretic, and in the fifth century Pope Theophilus order the slaying of 10,000 monks who adhered to Origen’s teachings. Theolophilus’ nephew, Bishop Cyril of Alexandria, was equally ruthless. He set about the Pagans, perhaps to obscure that fact that Christianity had inherited so much Pagan religion. The clergy of Alexandria famously destroyed the Great Library of Alexandria. Cyril then came into conflict with the patriarch of Constantinople, Nestorious, in arguments about the divinity of Jesus. Was he wholly divine, or wholly human? Or – according to Bishop Cyril – was he both fully human and fully divine? Saint Cyril’s theory is, more or less, taught by the Church to this day. It is one of Christianity’s logical contradictions.
[ This is a logical contradiction, because for a human to be fully human, he cannot be more than human. If he is more than human, he is not fully human. Of course, we can say that, theoretically, to become fully human is to become fully divine – imago dei. But this is not what the Church meant. The Church meant that Jesus was “God from God”, born of a virgin.
Jesus himself, according to the records, never claimed to be fully divine, even chastising a follower who called him ‘good’: ‘Why do you call Me good? No one is good but One, that is, God’. (Mark 10:18).
Also in the gospel of my namesake (Mark 12:29), Jesus says the greatest of all commandments is the Shema Yisrael, saying “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is One”. Unlike most of my fellow Christians, I have always refused to accept that God has three parts, be it three persons – i.e. three centres of consciousness, or three personas – i.e. three faces for engaging with the world (known to some as the Sabellian heresy). There are several theories of ‘trinity’, and of the hierarchical status of three ‘persons’ in it. One of these disputed theories divides the Western Church from the Eastern Church to this day: the so-called ‘Filioque controversy’. ]
‘Saint’ Cyril, a Trinitarian, could not tolerate true monotheists. He first incited pogroms against the very large Jewish community in Alexandria, and then set about persecuting the Nestorian Christians who, though they accepted that Jesus was anointed Messiah, refused to refer to his mother as ‘the mother of God’.
In the western or Latin half of the Church, things were even worse. The Latin Church was more zealous in its persecution of schismatics (including Greeks), and Jews, even before the Great Schism of East and West in 1054.
The Western Church (including the Church in England before and after King Henry VIII and the Reformation) has generally taught that its purpose is to ‘save’ people from a place called ‘Hell’. This place was apparently created for the purpose of eternal punishment of human souls. The Church therefore believed itself morally obliged to kill all the ‘false’ teachers. After all, if these false teachers (i.e. the schismatic churches, the Jews, and the Muslims) were destined for eternal punishment in Hell, the moral case was made for ending their life immediately, lest they recruit others on the path to perdition.
Similarly, here in England, this was the reason for executing ‘witches’ (male and female). Our King James Bible of 1611 is famed the world over, but the same (Scottish) King James VI who lent his name to it had written his own philosophical treatise – Daemonologie, In Forme of a Dialogue, Divided into three Books: By the High and Mighty Prince, James &c. James explains the threat of witchcraft, and the need to persecute witches, whom he would later send to the gallows when installed as England’s King James I, and head of the Church. (William Shakespeare, as one of the King’s Men Playing Company, use ideas from the King’s treatise in Macbeth.)
And so I think it is fair to say that the Western Church has historically assumed the responsibility of killing those who are likely to jeopardise the salvation of those who are ‘saved’.
However, not all Church leaders wanted, or allowed, the killing or forced conversion of Jews. Church Father, Augustine of Hippo (d. 430), made the theological case for allowing Jews to ‘survive but not thrive’, in the hope that their degraded status would validate Christianity in the eyes of Christians. Eventually such ideas led to Church-enforced Jewish ghettos. Pope Paul IV issued his papal bull Cum nimis absurdum in 1555, decreeing ghettoization, the title being taken from the bull’s opening: “Since it is absurd and utterly inconvenient that the Jews, who through their own fault were condemned by God to eternal slavery…”
Apart from the schisms, the churches started to dogmatise logically-impossible half-truths, which were carried over into the Reformed (Protestant) churches. Although the earliest Christians, or Nazarenes, where closely aligned to Jews, and even worshipped in the same buildings and the Jerusalem Temple, the Church came to interpret God’s promise to Israel of salvation of the world as almost wholly about ‘salvation’ of the individual in a world that was ‘fallen’ and ‘totally depraved’. This doctrine of ‘total depravity’, for some influential teachers, even applied to the human mind, thereby denying that the human intellect is God’s great gift to mankind. The emphasis therefore, even in the Church of England today, is not on seeking wisdom and knowledge, but on receiving ‘grace’ for ‘salvation’ through ‘belief alone’.
Of course, Judaism teaches to this day that there is nothing worse for the individual than eternal separation from God, but, as I am sure my Jewish friends and teachers would agree, the overwhelming purpose of Judaism is not individual ‘salvation’, but salvation of the world: bringing the world home to God: making an Israel-centred world of loving-kindness in which it is possible for the messianic age to come.
The idea that the Creation is depraved (or created by a Demiurge) comes from our Pagan roots, not our Jewish roots, as does the Church’s historical attitude to the human body, sex, and the supposed virtues of celibacy, virginity, and therefore of not having children if you want to be fully virtuous.
Similarly, the idea that man can kill god (Deicide) is Pagan, and blasphemous in my view, but most of my fellow Christians seem to believe it. The belief depends of course on the doctrine of the Trinity, which itself depends on another Pagan belief: a god being born to a virgin goddess. And here, in the ‘Incarnation’ we come to another logical contradiction, based on long-outdated natural philosophy (science), that the Church refuses to address. The authors of the New Testament, and the councils such as Nicaea and Chalcedon who set the creeds and the dogmas – deciding that Jesus was at once fully God and fully man – used the Greek science of the day now known as “preformationism”. Preformationism had been deduced by philosophers such as Pythagoras and Aristotle, and not overturned until relatively recently. It tells us that a very tiny man exists in a sperm (or seed), and that this tiny-man-in-the-sperm develops into a baby and then back into a man (as preformed), or into a woman if it is ‘misbegotten’ (according to the Aristotelian scholar Saint Thomas Aquinas). The woman’s body was believed to serve only as a suitable material substrate for the seed, just as, say, an acorn needs a suitable soil to become the oak tree it is preformed to become. (The mammalian ovum was not discovered until the 19th century.)
We can excuse our Christian forebears for believing, literally, that the begotten seed of God Himself grew in the womb of the Virgin. But today, not only is this scientifically unacceptable, it is theologically unacceptable, according to the very criteria of Nicaea and Chalcedon, because if Jesus did not have 46 chromosomes, from both his biological parents, he was not fully human.
I suggest that the Jewish faith, the faith of Jesus himself, which has not constructed dogmas based on Pagan beliefs and outdated science, can help us out today. Judaism – or much of it at least – has been able to evolve, and embrace the modern world, in the way that Christianity has not (apart from the liberal and cultural strands of Christianity, such as Christian Atheism, but they have done so at the expense of describing all the fundamentals of faith, including ‘God’, as merely metaphor).
Christianity has spread monotheistic civilisation across the world, and brought news of God of Israel to the world. But intellectually-honest Christians need to acknowledge that if Christianity was/is ‘the great light’ for the world, then it has equally projected a very dark shadow.
Personally, I do accept that Jesus was the Messiah (or the Christ in Greek transliteration) for the world. And I accept that he was resurrected from the dead. This makes me Christian, or Nazarene, almost by definition. But as Amy-Jill Levine says in her excellent and necessary book The Misunderstood Jew – The Church and the Scandal of the Jewish Jesus (HarperOne, 2006), there was nothing that Jesus could give Jews that Jews did not already have. Jews already had knowledge of God of Israel, the Torah, the Oral Torah, and they had prophets, teachers, resurrections and messiahs (or ‘anointed ones’).
The new religion, Christianity, for us Gentiles/Pagans, deprived of the Holy Language centred on the Holy Name, understandably needed to put ‘holy’ things in place. The Church leaders made no secret of their need to do this, hence the expression, ‘When in Rome, do as the Romans do’, attributed to Saint Ambrose, 4th century Bishop of Milan. We Christians face East to the Sun: almost all church naves point east because Emperor Constantine’s favourite god was Sol Invictus – to be worshipped not on the Sabbath (i.e. Saturday or sabbato in Latin) but on dies Solis: Sun-day.
Alas. Today the names Abraham, Jacob (Israel), Moses, etc. are familiar to billions of worshippers of God. This is the great success of Christianity (and Islam). But I suggest the time has come to shrug off our Paganism and half-truths, and the antisemitism that has cursed the Church throughout its history, to this day.
The Church cannot be holy if it is anti-Semitic, i.e. anti-Shem. ‘Hallowed be thy Name’ is the first line of prayer that Jesus taught his followers. Deep down (although there is not enough space to explain here) I think that antisemitism, including in its Christian forms, is the human soul’s rejection of the House of the Name. And as I wrote in my last blog, when we cease to accept that holiest of the holy names in the holy language is holy, then nothing in any language is holy, and objective truth becomes impossible.
I am currently studying (partly to advance my Biblical Hebrew) a very dense book titled Hebrew Language and Jewish Thought (Routledge 2005) by Dr. David Patterson, Jewish theologian, holder of the Hillel Feinberg Chair in Holocaust Studies, and a personal friend (since I met David at conference on antisemitism at Oxford in 2019). He writes:
‘Among the chief causes of the Holocaust is the Christian doctrine of supersession, which declares Judaism to be now theologically meaningless and Jews therefore to be ontologically superﬂuous. Hence Jews and Judaism have no place in the world. Both, according to traditional Christian thinking, are archaic. Further, once the Jews have been declared superﬂuous and Judaism archaic, so too does the Torah become unnecessary and outmoded in any relation to the Holy One. Having thus abandoned Torah, as Rav Abraham Isaac Kook rightly pointed out well before the Holocaust (in 1920),
Christianity knows full well that if the accoutrement of its pagan style should dissolve and disappear, it would no longer ﬁnd standing in life for its peculiar setup, and it would be forced to be reabsorbed in Judaism, its source. Therefore Christianity protects its existence and it is ﬁlled with lethal hatred toward Judaism and Israel. (Kook 1993: 148)’
Perhaps Rav Kook is right. Perhaps deep down, subconsciously, Christianity’s fear and hatred of Israel, and of the religious Jew, is fear of being absorbed back into our Jewish source, and the House of the Holy Name yod hey vav hey.
Removal of Pagan accoutrements would force us to properly admit that Jesus lived by the Shema Yisrael, and who told us to follow him, not worship him, and not to venerate statues and idols of him. We are to worship God of Israel.
Christianity will come Home. But when we move home – as I literally did very recently here in England – we get rid of all the unnecessary and ugly clutter we have acquired over the years. As a priority, the Church must dump its antisemitism rather than, as a present, allow it, nay often encourage it, to mutate into new forms, particularly anti-Israelism (such as that led by the World Council of Churches).
As I have written often elsewhere, since 2000, the United Nations (UNGA and UNHRC) have issued more country-specific condemnations on Israel than all the nations of the world combined! Whereas historically nations would condemn the Jews in their midst, today they condemn the Jewish nation in the midst of all nations. Might I suggest that so long as the nations are in a state in which it is impossible for the Jewish nation to build the Temple of the site of God’s all-centring dwelling on Earth – the Jerusalem Temple of music – the nations cannot know harmony and peace, or rather true Peace: Shalom.