Christianity and Paganism

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.

About Fr. Stephen De Young

The V. Rev. Dr. Stephen De Young is Pastor of Archangel Gabriel Orthodox Church in Lafayette, Louisiana. He holds Master's degrees in theology, philosophy, humanities, and social sciences, and a Ph.D. in Biblical Studies from Amridge University. Fr. Stephen is also the host of the Whole Counsel of God podcast from Ancient Faith and author of four books, the Religion of the Apostles, God is a Man of War, the Whole Counsel of God, and Apocrypha. He co-hosts the live call-in show and podcast Lord of Spirits with Fr. Andrew Stephen Damick.


  1. “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.”

    How does sexual immorality belong to that list with the others? Is it also a ritul and if so, then how? Is there something demonic about promiscuity?

    1. Not all sexual immorality is ritual. But many rituals in the ancient world involved sexual immorality. So there is outright demonic sexual immorality, ala Genesis 6:1-4. There are also instances like Exodus 32:6 in which ‘play’ is a euphemism for group sexual activity in the worship of the golden calf. This is further enforced by 32:25 where Moses sees that all of the people are naked at Aaron’s instigation. Many of the rituals practiced by the nations involved prostitution at various shrines, as the women of Baal-Peor (Num 25). Sexual acts of one form or another were part of much of ancient ritual outside of Israel. St. Paul even had to pointedly address this with the converts of Corinth. So it represents, along with the other things listed, a forbidden element and a point of discontinuity.

  2. Thank you Father, for this insightful post. Your writings often help me deepen my spiritual understanding (and I certainly need all the help I can get!)

  3. Somewhat related question concerning “ontological taint.” Do all sins leave taint in the space they were committed? If so, is this one of the reasons for house blessings? What happens if one commits a major sin between house blessings or if a priest is not available to bless your house yearly as may happen in certain areas?

    1. The focus of repentance is not on sin and the damage it causes, though those are real, but on healing and restoration. The same is true of blessings. A blessing of any object or person is a rededication of that person or thing to sacred purposes. So, on one hand, you can’t separate the ritual from its effect. So it is important to have your home blessed, not to mention vehicles, businesses, etc. etc. It’s important to bless yourself with the sign of the cross to refocus and commit yourself. But the refocusing, the committing, the repentance, the rededication…these are the soul that gives life to the body of blessing as ritual. This is what separates ritual from magic. Magic produces an effect regardless of the disposition of the participants. So if you commit a major sin in your home, its important that you confess it and receive absolution and rededicate yourself and your space to the service of Christ. Burning incense in the home is also helpful in this regard during times of prayer.

      1. “So, on one hand, you can’t separate the ritual from its effect…It’s important to bless yourself with the sign of the cross to refocus and commit yourself”
        Not very long ago as I was driving my car down our rural road and without prior thought of anything that I can remember, I crossed myself. As of note, I am not in the habit of doing this for no reason every time I get behind the wheel. Seconds later, down the road our mailman cut across the road right in front of me. I slammed on my brakes and he his, both cars slid sideways and came a hair from impact. He was shook, I was shocked, as he apologized. Driving away I was amazed. All I could think about was I just crossed myself seconds before that.
        Naturally, I repeatedly thanked God, picturing in my mind the protection of my guardian angel.
        No further analyzing…none of that. But I thought…wow….

  4. This post sure has redeemed the notion of ritual from meaningless back to its proper understanding. They work!
    I like the way you differentiate between ‘affect’ and ‘effect’, in what ritual does and does not do. That was a very worthwhile reflection.
    Excellent teaching, Father. Thank you.

  5. Father,

    I am not Orthodox, however, I find the Orthodox mind illuminating, instructive, and beneficial for my salvation. One could call me a catechumen, since I have had time in formal instruction. I preface that to ask this:

    Given my understanding of the Ontological nature of reality – that ritual matters – what do I make of the open communion, and the denigration of the Eucharist from “Body of Christ” to “Emblems” or “Symbols”, offered in my local denominational church? I understand it’s not a moralistic right and wrong kind of dichotomy, but rather, My question is, what does it do to, and for, my soul when I participate?

    I suppose this could be an article on its own – if it’s a valid sacrament, but in an imperfect form, am I still judged if I partake, or is it so far removed from true Eucharist, that it doesn’t even matter? I understand that there might be a lot of theologoumenon in your answer, but I am curious as to what the major thoughts might be.

    Lord have mercy.

    1. The Orthodox Church is mostly agnostic about what is going on in other communities. On one hand, St. Irenaeus states that “We know where the Holy Spirit is, not where he isn’t.” This is not just allowing for the possibility that the Holy Spirit is at work outside the boundaries of the Church. It is a confident expression that he is doing so, as God is acting through all of his creation. On the other hand, the Orthodox Church doesn’t say that this or that ritual of this or that group is ‘valid’. It would seem reasonable, though, to apply what St. Paul has to say to this issue. I.e. regardless of what may or may not be taking place in the sacraments of a non-Orthodox polity, to participate in an unworthy manner would constitute, reasonably, a sin against conscience. And all sin is spiritually destructive. I don’t think its reasonable to suppose that people seeking to follow Christ in good faith (albeit in a mistaken manner) are necessarily sinning, though they may be deriving no spiritual benefit.

      1. Your reply here is helpful in regards to me processing all the rituals, beliefs and practices I engaged in when I was a Mormon. I genuinely thought I was doing the right thing and genuinely wanted to worship and orient my life towards God. Some people say that, although well-intentioned, Mormon practices are evil and all adoration is actually directed towards demonic things. I have hard time believing that. I tend to think that, as you said in your comment here, that I was simply not deriving any spiritual benefit. I think in some instances I was being spiritually harmed, but most often that probably wasn’t the case.

  6. The Epistle reading this past Sunday took my mind back to this post, and raised a question for me. If we go a little above the assigned passage, St. Paul says:

    “Hence, as to the eating of food offered to idols, we know that “an idol has no real existence,” and that “there is no God but one.”…However, not all possess this knowledge. But some, through being hitherto accustomed to idols, eat food as really offered to an idol; and their conscience, being weak, is defiled. Food will not commend us to God. We are no worse off if we do not eat, and no better off if we do. Only take care lest this liberty of yours somehow become a stumbling block to the weak. For if any one sees you, a man of knowledge, at table in an idol’s temple, might he not be encouraged, if his conscience is weak, to eat food offered to idols? And so by your knowledge this weak man is destroyed, the brother for whom Christ died.” (1 Cor 8:4,7-11)

    From what I understood in the post is that part of the problem with “pagan” rituals is exactly that *they work*, but that the being with which they engender communion is not God, nor any god (as they do not exist), but demons or evil spirits.

    However, it *sounds like* St. Paul is saying that this is not so, and that partaking in the meat sacrificed to the idols (I notice he even mentions being “at table in an idol’s temple”) is benign for those who know that the gods are nothing, but could be sinful if your doing so causes someone who *doesn’t* know this to violate his or her conscience on the matter.

    Do you think this is a case of St. Paul taking a “for the sake of argument, let’s say you’re right that eating meat in an idol’s temple isn’t a big deal…it’s still an issue if you cause your brother to stumble,” or is St. Paul actually saying it’s not a big deal? If the latter, how does that square with the idea that even their rituals “work”?

    1. Your last paragraph is essentially correct. This passage needs to be read in tandem with what St. Paul says in 1 Cor 10:14-22, later in the same section. It includes a direct call back to this earlier discussion. St. Paul is giving a whole series of reasons why one should not eat food offered to idols. In chapter 8, this is, “Let’s say for the sake of argument that an idol is nothing, I won’t argue that with you. You still shouldn’t for the sake of your brother.” But then goes on to say that what the nations offer in sacrifice they sacrifice to demons.

      Some more on the later passage in an article published here.

      1. Thank you, Father! This is a lot to think about. Perhaps it’s because I grew up Baptist, but this is pretty much the *opposite* of how I’ve always heard the passage in 1 Cor 8 presented. However, seeing it this way, it makes sense why the council in Acts 15 forbade the Gentile converts from eating meat sacrificed to idols.

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