Things Pagans Started

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For you have spent enough time in the past doing what pagans choose to do– living in debauchery, lust, drunkenness, orgies, carousing and detestable idolatry. (1 Pet 4:3 NIV)

–pa·gan n. 1. One who is not a Christian, Moslem, or Jew; a heathen. 2. One who has no religion. 3. A non-Christian. 4. A hedonist.
–pa·gan adj. 1. Not Christian, Moslem, or Jewish. 2. Professing no religion; heathen.
(American Heritage Dictionary)

We are at that holiday time of year. Halloween is just past, Thanksgiving is just ahead, and Christmas is everywhere in the merchandise aisles. It may be pointed out that the traditions associated with these holidays, or any holidays or anniversary celebrations, do not originate in the New Testament but rather are of pagan, or perhaps Catholic, origin.

It is a fact, easily verified, that our holidays are by and large adaptations of popular pagan celebrations. However, before reacting to that we should perhaps at least consider that many of our readily accepted ceremonies and practices originate in paganism. Realistically, how could public ceremony exist at all apart from non Biblical origins, since the Bible doesn’t define or prescribe any public ceremonies to speak of (excepting perhaps the Lord’s table and baptism, which are broadly defined as to intent and content)? The traditions of Thanksgiving are associated with a pagan (native American) harvest celebration and Puritanism. The traditions of Christmas are associated with a pagan (European) winter celebration and Catholicism. Neither have a legitimate religious role or any obligation associated with them, but neither “as a modern holiday” has much to do with its roots either. They are not associated with debauchery, lust, drunkenness, orgies, carousing and detestable idolatry, in the context of family celebrations, feasting, decorating, or gift giving.

Every day each of us accepts the relics of pagan tradition when we use the calendar. The names of the months, the names of the days of the week, the length of the months and of the year, can all be shown to have origins in paganism and idolatry. We see the names of Greek, Roman, and Norse Gods in most of the calendar names, and yet we use these traditional names without thought as to their origin, and with no idolatrous intent or consequences. And we should.

When we celebrate marriage we celebrate an event that is Biblical in origin, certainly, but the traditions of the wedding are almost totally pagan–because the Bible doesn’t define any such traditions. The traditional placement of the bride on the groom’s left, the use of a bridal veil, the wedding ring, the ring finger, the throwing of grain, the candles, the wedding cake, and so forth all originate in paganism and superstition. It is a mistake to attribute any of these traditions of celebration with Biblical mandate or shroud them with a patina of inspired holiness, but such traditions are not bad nor are they anti Christian, any more than the names on the calendar are or wearing black to a funeral or using spoons and forks at dinner. These things have had, and in some contexts may still have, religious implications. Each and all of these things have to be viewed in their current cultural context–what does it mean to us and the people around us?

This is of course the very criteria that Paul prescribed for being tolerant of holiday traditions, but not carried away by them, in Romans 14:5-6 and Colossians 2:16-20. Holidays are neither inherently good or bad, but our attitude about them may be. Don’t forget that Christ is our head, our hope, our salvation. Observing a holiday tradition (without the pagan behaviors of debauchery, lust, drunkenness, orgies, carousing and detestable idolatry of course) or ignoring one, is of no great consequence, so long as we do so giving honor and thanks to the Lord.

It would be impossible to eliminate all things from our lives that have pagan origins, nor are Christians called upon to do historical, etiological or etymological searches in order to know what to accept or how to live. It is unreasonable to selectively designate certain things (holidays, for example) that have pagan origins as unacceptable, while casually accepting others (wedding ceremonies and calendars, for example). Instead, all things must be tested and then handled appropriately.

Be joyful always; pray continually; give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus. Do not put out the Spirit’s fire; do not treat prophecies with contempt. Test everything. Hold on to the good. Avoid every kind of evil. May God himself, the God of peace, sanctify you through and through. May your whole spirit, soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. (1Thes 5:16-23 NIV)

Jesus at Feasts and Festivals

The gospel of John mentions many times that Jesus went up to Jerusalem for Jewish feasts. Most of these, of course, were those mandated in the Law of Moses (Passover, John 2:23, 4:45, 6:4, 13:1, and Tabernacles, 7:2ff). John also mentions one festival Jesus attended without naming it (John 5:1) and one that Jesus attended which was not in the Law, but rather a tradition that grew up apart from scripture (The Feast of Dedication, also known as Hanukkah and the Feast of Lights, is apparently mentioned only once in the Bible, John 10:22. It developed in the era of the Maccabees and celebrated the cleansing of the Temple after its desecration by Antiochus Epiphanes. The Feast of Dedication is observed on the 25th day of the ninth month of the Jewish calendar.
~from Nelson’s Illustrated Bible Dictionary, (C) 1986, Thomas Nelson Publishers)

There may have been various reasons for Jesus participating in these feasts or holidays. In part, the ones mandated in the Law may have been attended as a religious obligation. However, since Jesus stressed the idea of the intent of the Law (see the sermon on the mount, for example), it is unlikely he attended the festivals without a genuine holiday spirit. And his attendance in Jerusalem at a non Biblical feast would suggest that he saw in the holidays something more than duty. For one thing, he may well have seen the holidays, as many today do, as an opportunity to have a wholesome good time, celebrating with friends and family and thanking God (consider Luke 7:33-35). But John also suggests that Jesus saw in the holidays an opportunity to present his message to people who for a time have turned their attention away from the ordinary and, to some extent, toward the extraordinary. Perhaps such opportunities still exist today.

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