An area fraught with disagreement is the relationship of Christianity to what has been called paganism. The latter term itself presents some difficulty as it is a later coinage used to describe earlier religious forms. It is not a term used by the people whose practice it describes and it gathers together under one head a vast swathe of beliefs, practices, and ways of seeing and interacting with the world. The very concept of ‘religions’ is a later, Western European Protestant one. Ancient people did not think of themselves as members or practitioners of ‘a religion’ among others. Nor did they distinguish between ‘religion’ and other areas of life like politics, philosophy, or some secular sphere.
Nevertheless, paganism is used as a rhetorical foil in argumentation. It has become a commonplace of scholarship to identify elements of the Scriptures or of historical Christian theology or practice as having been borrowed or taken over from paganism. This identification is seen to somehow devalue or marginalize them. To reduce the Scriptures to just one of a set of Ancient Near Eastern documents is seen to neutralize their religious power and effectiveness. Within many Christian circles, even those who most passionately resist these scholarly claims about Scripture, the identification of later elements within the life of the Church as being in some way derived from, or even merely similar to, some element of paganism demonizes them. Such accusations have been leveled at core elements of the Christian faith, such as the veneration of the Theotokos and departed saints, on one hand, and against the thoroughly banal, like Christmas trees or Easter eggs.
The disjunction, here, between ancient and modern ways of experiencing the world, becomes quickly clear. In order to understand the Scriptures and the ancient Christians, we need to move beyond contemporary categories of analysis and seek to understand them the way they understand themselves. Rather than approaching the discussion from the perspective of ‘religions’, what must be described is the ritual life of ancient Israel, the Second Temple period, and the early Christians in comparison and contrast to the ritual life of the other nations. The ritual life of the people of God in these three periods is remarkably consistent as has been previously discussed. When compared with the ritual life of other peoples, there are a great many points of direct continuity as well as certain areas of great discontinuity. Both these continuities and these discontinuities are revelatory.
In the ancient world and in almost all non-Christian cultures today, some form of sacrifice is practiced. The most common form of this sacrifice has been the offering of incense. It has likewise included, however, offerings of food and drink including both the meat of sacrificial animals, various forms of cakes and grains, and libations. These sacrifices were sacred meals in which spiritual beings were invited to take part. These general statements are generally true, but there are, additionally, a wide range of specifics shared in common in the ritual lives of all ancient peoples including ancient Israel. These have likewise been preserved, in various forms, within the Church’s ritual life to this day.
Within sacrificial ritual, for example, here are only a few of the universal principles which have existed in all ancient cultures. Sacrificial animals must be young, physically intact and perfect, and preferably the firstborn. Other food offerings and incense must follow particular prescriptions regarding their constituents and quality. The officiants of offerings bathed and wore clean clothes, special to that purpose, generally of linen. Sacrificial elements were brought to the altar in a procession accompanied by singing. This marked the beginning of the sacrificial ritual per se, differentiated from other accompanying worship. The altar was placed within a specially delimited sacred space. This space was permanently determined in the case of established temples and shrines, but even when an altar was placed in a temporary position the area around it was marked out as sacred. Before the offering proper, water was poured over the officiant’s hands. The blood of an animal offering was collected and separated from the food element for the sacrificial meal. Offered prayers portrayed anything killed as having offered itself voluntarily. Portions of offerings were given to the being who was being worshipped, other portions to the priests, and others to those bringing the sacrificial offerings, generally the community as a whole. All of the offerings were consumed in the ritual. Anything which couldn’t be consumed for any reason was disposed of as sacred by carefully prescribed means.
There are many other common features of worship beyond these elements of sacrificial ritual. The orans position of prayer, with both hands raised apart and palms open, is attested in Akkadian, Aramaic, Hebrew, and Greek sources among others from the earliest period. Antiphonal and responsorial singing are constant throughout cultures. This generally took place in the form of one singer or chanter leading, while others, sometimes a chorus, responded. Purification rituals included ceremonial washings with water. They also included the pouring or rubbing of other, thicker substances on the body of a person which were then subsequently washed and wiped away.
These commonalities are explained by the nature of ritual as such. Ritual does not communicate something, represent something, or produce some affect in an audience. Ritual does something. It has no audience. It has participants. One of those participants may be the recipient of sacrificial offerings or prayers. Put another way, ritual works. Ritual elements, and rituals as wholes, produce an effect in reality, either in the world or within the participants. Rituals interact with the created order itself and so are written into the spiritual and physical worlds, as their interface, in the same way in which scientific and mathematical laws are written into the physical world and its created function. The first sacrifices that take place in the Scriptures are those of Cain and Abel (Gen 4:3-5). No instruction is given by God regarding sacrifice before this event. Sacrificial worship is taken as a given of creation and life in this age from the very beginning by Scripture.
The primary difference between the worship of Yahweh and the worship of the gods of the nations, then, is not one of mode but one of the object. The ritual life of ancient Israel, the Second Temple period, and Christianity has always been required to be directed solely toward the Triune God, Yahweh. St. Paul expresses this paradigmatically in 1 Corinthians 10:15-22. The apostle here bases his argument against participation in idolatrous ritual on the fact that the Eucharist, the pagan sacrifices, and even the sacrifices of the Jerusalem temple (v. 18) all work the same way and all produce the same effect. The same communion which the participant in the Eucharist shares with Christ is shared by the participant of pagan sacrifice with the demons to which those sacrifices are offered.
This distinction by St. Paul, not of ritual but of participants and recipient, explains the relationship between apostolic Christianity and the Jerusalem temple while it still stood. There is no command, in St. Paul’s writings or elsewhere in the New Testament, to separate one’s self from the temple and its worship. Christ himself participated actively in the life of the temple’s worship, protected its purity, and spoke of its legitimacy. Even after his ascension and enthronement, the apostles continued to manifest the same attitude. This is particularly true of St. James, the Lord’s brother, who presided at Jerusalem. The central elements of early Christian liturgical life, for example, the Eucharist and Baptism, represented fulfillments of elements of pre-existing worship and so Christians no longer took part in their older types. The remainder of the temple’s liturgical life, however, such as the offering of incense with prayers and various other offerings as those in which St. Paul participated at St. James’ behest (Acts 21:23-26). Even these elements were no longer limited to the temple, but their practice in the temple was directed toward Yahweh. They were no longer necessary for the Church, but nor were they unacceptable for those in Jerusalem and its environs. Christians could freely participate until the temple’s destruction, but since that destruction, they have had no particular need for the site for their practice.
This is not, however, to say that as long as ritual life is directed toward Yahweh, the mode of ritual is irrelevant. It is obvious from quite early in the Scriptures that this is not the case and that a swathe of ritual practices from the other nations is not allowable in the ritual life of Israel. In this respect, the episode surrounding the golden calf in Exodus 32 looms large as an example of idolatrous and sexual ritual which are strictly prohibited. These prohibitions result in differences in practice even in the ritual elements shared by Israel and all other nations. As but one example, the ark of the covenant resembles in nearly every way the palanquins of ancient Egypt. This includes the presence of two-winged spiritual beings on its cover. In the case of Egypt, these were winged depictions of the goddesses Isis and Nephthys. In the case of the ark, these are two winged cherubim, sphinx-like creatures who guarded the divine throne. However, while an Egyptian palanquin displayed the image of a god sheltered by these wings, the ark of the covenant had beneath the wings only a space. It was within this space that God himself, the visible Yahweh, would appear in the most holy place on the Day of Atonement.
These practices, however, were prohibited for the same reason that ritual practice throughout the ancient world and within the Church is so similar: they work. Divination, contact with spirits of the dead, idolatry, sexual immorality, and other similar ritual elements are not proscribed because they don’t work. The Torah is not seeking to stop people from wasting their time or following silly superstitions. These are forbidden because they work. They are forbidden because they produce actual communion and fellowship with rebellious demonic spirits. This communion has a corrupting effect on both participants and the created order around them in which they dwell. It leaves behind an ontological taint which must be purified. It does damage to the human person which must be healed and restored.
Ritual has, since human pre-history, produced divine-human communion. It is a means of participation in the creation, both spiritual and physical, invisible and visible. To commune with rebellious spiritual powers has and will always be to join in their rebellion. This participation is corrupting and corrosive to the human person. It brings corruption and death into that person’s world. Ultimately, it results in the destruction of human persons and their world. In contrast, the Triune God has, since the expulsion of humanity from Paradise, used ritual as a means for human persons to enter into the communion of divine persons. This communion is likewise transformative, bringing healing, purification, transformation, and eternal life. This transfiguration happens not only to human persons but through human persons and the community of the Church, to the entirety of creation. When the Triune God is worshipped according to his commandments, it is the life of the world that is preserved and its salvation which is realized.