THE BIBLE AND PAGANISM

In watching the History Channel miniseries, “The Bible,” the scenes depicting the plagues God sent upon Egypt reminded me that every one of those plagues was directed against the pantheon of gods Egypt worshiped. For instance, there were a number of gods associated with the Nile River, the very lifeblood of the Egyptian economy and culture. The first plague turned the Nile and all the waters in Egypt into blood, showing God’s superiority over all the supposed gods of the river. (David Padfield has some excellent articles detailing these plagues entitled “Against All The Gods Of Egypt”).

The Bible – and especially the New Testament – did not develop in a vacuum. There were many different influences at play during the time the Bible was being written. There were different cultures in different countries and multitudes of different religions in all those different places. It is inevitable that there was a clashing of the ideals and principles of Christianity with the pagan religions at the time of its beginning.

The presence, nature and influence of these pagan religions upon Christianity is not always readily evident to us unless we know something of those religions and therefore know what to look for or how to recognize what is under consideration in places where these religions and Christianity come into conflict. I have been doing some reading along these lines for the past few days and what I have found so far is both fascinating and enlightening.

One such occurrence is found in the book of Acts. On the day of Pentecost people accused the disciples upon whom the Holy Spirit had fallen of being under the influence of wine.

The book of Acts begins with a story of the disciples of Jesus being filled with the Holy Spirit. They were speaking in tongues and things seemed to be uncontrolled. When people saw it, interestingly, they said, “They are filled with new wine” (Act 2:13 RSV). (Religious Ecstasy in the Bacchae and the New Testament)

Peter’s response is also a very important indication of Dionysian influence in those who made the accusation. Peter says, “For these people are not drunk, as you suppose, since it is only the third hour of the day.”(Act 2:15 ESV). (Ibid).

The worshipers of Dionysus engaged in their devotions to the god of wine mostly at night. In the play, “Bacchae,” Pentheus asked Dionysus, “Do you hold your rites during the day or night?” Dionysus replied him, “Mostly by night. The darkness is well suited to devotion.”

What happens when people are possessed by Dionysus? We can find several important indications in the “Bacchae” (a play explaining the religion of Dionysus, the god of wine, mr) …  First,when they are possessed by Dionysus, they prophecy. Dionysus, according to Bacchae, is not known only as a god of wine, but also “god of prophecy.” The statement of Teirasias is worth full quotation here. “Moreover, this is a god of prophecy (μάντις ὁ δαίμων). His worshipers, like madmen (μανιῶδες), are endowed with mantic powers (Of, relating to, or having the power of divination; prophetic). For when the god enters the body of man he fills him with the breath of prophecy.” It seems like there is a similarity in phonology, if not in the root, between being mad and prophesying. (Religious Ecstasy in the Bacchae and the New Testament).

There were people in Jerusalem on that day from various parts of the Roman empire who would have been familiar with the pagan practices of the Gentiles – including the worship of Dionysus. The apostles speaking in the various languages of the lands from which these people came would have given them another reason for their conclusion since the worshipers of the pagan god also engaged in ecstatic utterances. In fact, the worshipers of the false god believed that to be under the influence of wine was conducive to prophesying. There was even a saying, “In vino veritas, a Latin phrase that translates, “in wine [there is the] truth”. It is also known as a Greek phrase “Ἐν οἴνῳ ἀλήθεια” En oino álétheia, which has the same meaning” (Wikipedia).

Peter’s answer is very much to the point of denying either the influence of wine or of a pagan god.

“…these people are not drunk, as you suppose, since it is only the third hour of the day. But this is what was uttered through the prophet Joel:

“‘And in the last days it shall be, God declares,
that I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh,
and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,
and your young men shall see visions,
and your old men shall dream dreams;
even on my male servants and female servants
in those days I will pour out my
Spirit, and they shall prophesy” (Acts 2:16-18).

What was going on on Pentecost wasn’t drunkenness. It wasn’t an orgy to Dionysus. Their speaking wasn’t the ecstatic raving of a person under the influence of wine. This was from God as a result of the Spirit being “poured outon them, not as a result of them pouring wine into themselves.

Another well known fact about this worship is that there were many women devoted to it, claiming that they had the ability to speak in tongues and to prophesy. In fact, women played a prominent role in this and other religions of the Roman world at the time. It is not inconceivable that some of what we have had difficulty grasping from our modern day western influenced thinking may be explained by a better understanding of these pagan influences.

There are other indications of the influence of pagan religion in the New Testament. One of these is in 1 Corinthians 12-14 for example. These chapters deal with the problem the Corinthian Christians were having over spiritual gifts. Again, the major issue was concerning speaking in other languages. While Paul does not name the source of the agitation, it is very likely it came from some people having been converted from paganism perhaps from the cult of Dionysus (1 Cor. 6:9-11). Since ecstatic utterances were a part of the worship of this pagan god, it may have been that these people were attempting to engage in the same kind of “tongue speaking” they had done in their former life. This would certainly have been disruptive and disorderly. They would have been showing off their ability as a matter of pride, not with any intent to edify and instruct others.

Whether or not this was the case, Paul’s instruction for praying and prophesying to be done for the purpose of edifying everyone present would have contradicted the pagan inspired practice of ecstatic exercises simply for the excitement of the individual. This would also have a bearing on the instruction to the women in 1 Cor. 14:32-35 for women to be silent in the churches if women were contributing to the confusion as in the throes of a Dionysian ecstasy. B. W. Johnson (1833-1894), commented on these verses:

“It may be that even this prohibition was due to the circumstances that existed in Ephesus, where Timothy was (1 Tim. 2:12-15, mr), and in Corinth, and would not apply everywhere. If so, it applies wherever similar circumstances exist, but not elsewhere. Both were Greek churches. Among the Greeks public women were disreputable. For a woman to speak in public would cause the remark that she was shameless. (B. W. Johnson, People’s New Testament with Notes, via eSword).

Even in the afore mentioned play, there is a part where a mother (Agave) and some other women during the madness of wine tears her own son (Pentheus) limb from limb and strips the flesh off his body with their bare hands without even recognizing him as her son! That is how orderly people were in their “ecstasies!” Their own mythology describes the disgusting and violent kinds of things this worship lead to.

No wonder Paul wanted there to be order in the churches. In contrast to the disorderly, uncontrolled, wine-sotted kind of behavior which characterized pagan religion, he insists that those who spoke in the assemblies of saints must be under control. Those who exercised miraculous gifts were to be in control of themselves.

For you can all prophesy one by one, so that all may learn and all be encouraged, and the spirits of prophets are subject to prophets. For God is not a God of confusion but of peace” (1 Cor. 14:31-33).

We will continue to think about this subject in the next post.

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