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Catholicism and Paganism

- Is the Catholic Church the New Babylon?

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(Last Updated:  08 Oct 2000 )

The Catholic Church is often unfairly "painted with a Babylonian brush" - claims are frequently made that Catholicism is simply a revival of ancient Babylonian mystery religion in a new guise.  The classic exposition of this point of view is that of Alexander Hislop, whose 1858 book The Two Babylons: The Papal Worship Proved to be the Worship of Nimrod and His Wife constitutes in many cases the "Bible" for those who wish to make these sorts of claims.
I was recently engaged in a discussion about the validity of Hislop's work, and of the basis for the mistaken understanding that Catholicism is derived from paganism.  This article is a slightly edited transcript of that discussion.  It picks up as I was responding to a claim, based on Hislop's book, that Catholics worship Mary and that this is derived from pagan adoration of the goddess Diana.

Introductory Critique of Hislop's The Two Babylons

I have now read Hislop's book.  It is less than impressive.  The man had a real genius for pulling together isolated elements of myths, re-translating names, and working etymological magic, to prove that all paganism had a common origin, and now a common Catholic out-working.  His premise seems to be that any similarity in religious matters, no matter how strained, proves descent and identity.  He does not accurately present the Catholic view.  In one of the few times he even refers to official Catholic teaching, he misquotes the Council of Trent and puts forward a telling point against a straw man of his own making (Hislop, Ch. 4, sect. 2).

A crucial point that Hislop entirely fails to engage is that the "Christianisation" of pagan ideas has a Scriptural basis, believe it or not, because even pagan things have some truth mixed in with their errors, and they can be purified and used to better express Christian truth.  Provided it is no longer being used to honour a pagan god, there is nothing wrong with taking an aspect of something non-Christian and using it in a Christian setting.  It is an indisputable fact that Jesus Christ has the power to purify pagan things so that they can be put to use in a Christian context; this is what happens, after all, whenever a pagan converts to become a Christian.

For example, I thought it odd that despite a fairly long treatment of circumcision in Chapter 4, Section 1, Hislop never mentioned the fact that circumcision was a pagan rite long before God adopted and purified it and used it as the sign of his covenant with Abraham (see Jeremiah 9:25-26).  Another instance of this sort of thing is when Paul quoted the pagan philosophers Epimenides of Crete and Aratus of Cilicia in his preaching at Athens (Acts 17).  By mixing paganism and Christianity like this, Paul is simply following his own principle: "To those outside the law I became as one outside the law—not being without law toward God but under the law of Christ—that I might win those outside the law. To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all men, that I might by all means save some. I do it all for the sake of the gospel" (1 Cor 9:21-23).  Paul also uses pagan literature to illustrate his points when he quotes Menander of Athens in 1 Corinthians 15:33 and the Cretan "prophet" in Titus 1:12.

In addition, Paul spent some time proving to his readers in Corinth that Christians could eat food (usually meat) that had been offered to idols because "we know that an idol is nothing in the world, and that there is none other God but one" (1 Cor 8:4). Thus Christians who were strong in faith could eat such food because they recognised that no pagan gods exist and such food therefore brings those gods no honour (see also Romans 14).

The exchange of wedding rings is another Christian practice of pagan origin, yet they are perfectly acceptable symbols of the unity of Christian marriage.

I came across a review of Hislop's book, written by a non-Catholic author shortly after the second edition was published, and I think it provides a good summary of things.  It is from The Saturday Review, September 17, 1859:

"In the first place, his whole superstructure is raised upon nothing.  Our earliest authority for the history of Semiramis wrote about the commencement of the Christian era, and the historian from whom he drew his information lived from fifteen hundred to two thousand years after the date which Mr. Hislop assigns to the great Assyrian Queen.  The most lying legend which the Vatican has ever endorsed stands on better authority than the history which is now made the ground of a charge against it.
"Secondly, the whole argument proceeds upon the assumption that all heathenism has a common origin.  Accidental resemblance in mythological details are taken as evidence of this, and nothing is allowed for the natural working of the human mind.
"Thirdly, Mr. Hislop's reasoning would make anything of anything.  By the aid of obscure passages in third-rate historians, groundless assumptions of identity, and etymological torturing of roots, all that we know, and all that we believe, may be converted ... into something totally different.
"Fourthly, Mr. Hislop's argument proves too much.  He finds not only the corruptions of Popery, but the fundamental articles of the Christian Faith, in his hypothetical Babylonian system...
"We take leave of Mr. Hislop and his work with the remark that we never before quite knew the folly of which ignorant or half-learned bigotry is capable." (cited in Ralph Woodrow's The Babylon Connection?)

I was bemused by the number of different mythical and semi-historical figures Hislop identifies as Nimrod.  Just for fun, here's a (not necessarily exhaustive) list:

Adon, Adonis, Aesculapis, Ala-Mahozim, Alorus, Apollo, Baal, Baal-aberin, Bacchus, Bassareus, Belus, Bol-Kahn, Centaurus, Chusorus, Consus, Dagon, Dayyad, Dionysus, E-anush, Guebres, Hephaistos, Hercules, Janus, Janus Matutinus, Kentaurus, Khons, Khuk-hold, Kronos, Lateinos, Latus, Linus, Lucifer, Mamers, Mars, Mavors, Melikerta, Memmon, Merodach, Mithra, Moloch, Mulciber, Nar-kissos, Nebrod, Ninus, Oannes, Odin, Orion, Orpheus, Osiris, Phaëthon, Phoroneus, Pluto, Saturn, Tahmurs, Tammuz, Tithonus, Vulcan, Wodan, Zer-Nebo-Gus, Zoroaster.

Hislop claims that all kinds of things started in Babylon, but uses examples from other countries, the rationale presumably being that we know what the Babylonian religion is because we find it scattered throughout the world, and since we find it throughout the world, it must have come from Babylon.

This isn't really the place to go into an in-depth review of Hislop's claims, but fortunately enough, it's already been done.  Ralph Woodrow is the author of the (relatively) famous Babylon Mystery Religion, a book largely based on Hislop's work that draws the same conclusions.  Woodrow was described by Catholic writer Karl Keating, in Catholicism and Fundamentalism, as the "best-known proponent" of the school of thought equating Catholicism with paganism.  Since then however, Woodrow has had a change of heart.  Several months ago, I copied the following from his website (

"We receive a constant flow of inquiries about the book BABYLON MYSTERY RELIGION that we no longer publish. It has been translated in numerous languages. Hundreds have quoted from it. Some ministries and bookstores have ordered thousands of copies at a time. Many want to know why a book this popular has been pulled out of print. Some have wondered if I had threats on my life, if severe persecution caused me to recant, or I am trying to be popular. None of this is the case.

In my earlier Christian experience, certain literature fell into my hands about the mixture of paganism into Christianity. While the Roman Catholic Church was usually the target, it seemed other churches had also been contaminated by customs and beliefs for which pagan parallels could be found. The book that was the textbook on the subject-so often quoted and referred to-was THE TWO BABYLONS by Alexander Hislop (1807-1862). Over the years, this book has impacted the thinking of many people-ranging all the way from those in radical cults to very dedicated Christians who hunger for a move of God and are concerned about anything that might hinder that flow.

Because this book is very detailed, having a multitude of notes and references, I assumed it was factual.

But in time I would discover that Hislop's "history" was often only an arbitrary piecing together of ancient myths. He claimed Nimrod was a big, ugly, black man; his wife, Semiramis, was a most beautiful white woman with blond hair and blue eyes, a backslider, known for her immoral lifestyle, inventor of soprano singing, the originator of priestly celibacy, etc. He said the Babylonians baptized in water, believing it had virtue because Nimrod and Semiramis suffered for them in water; that Noah's son Shem killed Nimrod; that Semiramis was killed when one of her sons cut off her head, etc. These and many other claims of Hislop, I came to realize, could not be substantiated by any recognized history book! Hislop's basic claim is expressed in his subtitle: "The Papal Worship proved to be the worship of Nimrod and his wife." But when I checked reference works, all the encyclopedias, etc., not one of them said anything about Nimrod and Semiramis being husband and wife! They did not even live in the same century! Nor is there any basis for Semiramis being the mother of Tammuz, that he was born on December 25th, etc. These are all inventions of Hislop.

After considerable work in finding old reference books to which Hislop referred, it was not uncommon to find things taken out of context. He sought to link the round communion wafers of the Roman Catholic Church with paganism, for example, by citing Wilkinson's ANCIENT EGYPTIANS. But Wilkinson also said the Egyptians used oval and triangular cakes, folded cakes, cakes shaped like leaves, animals, a crocodile's head, etc. But Hislop did not mention this.

His claims about the cross symbol, the letters I.H.S., candles, and halos were also in error.

Because many of these teachings were interwoven in my book, it could not simply be a case of producing a revised edition. Honesty, despite the financial loss to our ministry, demanded a correction of this teaching. For this reason, we now publish a 128-page book "THE BABYLON CONNECTION?" which explains all that is involved in this, and includes 60 illustrations and 400 footnote references. We believe the best way to combat errors in the Roman Catholic Church (or any other group) is by the Scriptures themselves-not by trying to find pagan parallels in ancient mythology. Things that are indeed pagan should be rejected, of course; but we should not brand things as being pagan when this is really not the case."

Those who approvingly cite Hislop, should take the opportunity to read The Babylon Connection?; it should prove to be quite interesting.  I certainly found that reading Woodrow's new book immediately after reading Hislop was quite eye-opening (note that although this book shows the author's nobility in its reversals on prior claims, Woodrow still displays some misconceptions about Catholicism).

The Rosary as an Example of a Catholic Distinctive of Pagan Origin

Hislop makes a huge number of claims against Catholicism.  It would be very hard to respond to them all, but one that I have seen quoted elsewhere (and which I only recently realised came from him) is to do with the Rosary.  Hislop claims that the rosary was a favoured religious ornament of ancient Rome, and that its origin is "thoroughly Pagan", being used by Roman ladies as "remembrancers" of the dead and for which purpose they hung about their necks in the same manner as the modern version, their many beads encouraging the frequent repetition of pagan necromancy.  He goes on to say in Chapter 5, Section 4, that the rosary found its way into ancient Rome from India, where they were very similar in style and used for the purpose of necromancy and prayers for the dead.  My correspondent with whom I was debating this issue claimed that this purely pagan practice had survived the transformation to modern Catholicism virtually unchanged.

But in response, we must remember that similarity does not imply a causal connection.  The fact that some pagans prayed with upraised hands (Hislop, Ch.5, Sect.1; or Virgil's "Amidst the statues of the gods he stands, / spreading forth to Jove his lifted hands") doesn't negate the biblical exhortations to "Lift up your hands to the holy place, and bless the LORD!" (Psalm 134:2) or to "pray, lifting holy hands" (1 Tim 2:8).  The fact that some mystery religions venerated a holy book does not mean the Bible is of pagan origin.  Pagans pray. Some pagans pray with their eyes closed. Some pagans pray while reciting prayers and meditating on the contents of their holy books.  And some pagans have used instruments similar to the rosary to facilitate their prayer.  None of this invalidates similar Christian/Catholic practice.

Hislop's conclusions about the word "rosary" are also somewhat dubious.  He says in Ch.5, Sect.4 that: "'Rosary' itself seems to be from the Chaldee 'Ro,' 'thought,' and 'Shareh,' 'director.'"  This is a good example of the etymological gymnastics that Hislop engages in throughout his book, and I find it much more plausible to concur with my Concise Oxford Dictionary (and numerous other sources) in asserting that the word "rosary" comes from Latin and means a garland of roses (presumably because the rosary beads could be said to resemble a wreath of roses, and because the rose is one of the flowers used to symbolize the Virgin Mary).

It is another misrepresentation of Catholicism to say it endorses necromancy.  The Church specifically condemns this practice: "All forms of divination are to be rejected: recourse to Satan or demons, conjuring up the dead or other practices falsely supposed to 'unveil' the future" (Catechism of the Catholic Church, #2116).

Any prayers related to departed Christians are based on the understanding of Jesus' teaching about the righteous who die: "... that the dead are raised, even Moses showed, in the passage about the bush, where he calls the Lord the God of Abraham and the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob. Now he is not God of the dead, but of the living; for all live to him" (Luke 20:36-38).  Christians who have died are still a part of the Body of Christ, and being closer to God they are still alive as Jesus said, and in a sense are more alive than us.  If prayers for the dead are exclusively pagan, then so was the Jewish culture that Jesus was brought up in, as is illustrated in 2 Maccabees 12:39-45 where Judas Maccabeus and his men "turned to prayer" on behalf of some of his soldiers who had sinned and been killed.  If one accepts the canonicity of 2 Maccabees (as do the Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches, and essentially all of historical Christianity up until the time of the Reformation), then we have here a clear-cut Scriptural basis for prayers for the dead, as we are told that Judas "acted very well and honorably, taking account of the resurrection... it was a holy and pious thought" (2 Macc 12:43, 45).  Even if one regards 2 Maccabees as apocryphal, it still shows us a lot about historical Judaism, and it is especially interesting because that passage was written at about the time the parties of the Pharisees and the Sadducees developed.  The Sadducees denied there was a resurrection (Luke 20:27), but 2 Maccabees 12 emphasises the truth of the resurrection, as Jesus did when refuting the Sadducees with a Scripture passage from one of the books they acknowledged, Exodus (chapter 3).

It seems to me that in order to substantiate Hislop's hypothesis that Catholic distinctives, such as the rosary, are derived or borrowed from pagan originals, then there are a number of conditions which must be true, including the following:
 - the similarities between the Catholic distinctive and the alleged pagan source must be material, significant, and pervasive enough to suspect derivation;
 - the similarities must be of such a nature as to either require borrowing, or be best explained by borrowing;
 - there must be a historically plausible explanation of how the borrowing occurred;
 - the borrowing hypothesis must more persuasive than the alternative Catholic explanation;
 - there must be a historically plausible explanation for the origin of any significant differences between the Catholic distinctive and the alleged pagan source;
 - there must be demonstrable means, motive and opportunity for the Catholic Church to foist the pagan baggage upon an unsuspecting public.

In my humble opinion, Hislop's various theses fail to meet these conditions.

"Pagan" Festivals

My correspondent in this discussion went on to say the following:

"Naturally, following the partial adoption of quasi-Christianity by Constantine the Great in the fourth century, many other pagan articles of Rome, including the prototypes of Christmas and Easter, found a new home in a thoroughly bastardized form of Christianity."

I find it interesting that people can put a date like this on the paganisation of Christianity, yet still accept doctrinal development of such crucial aspects of the faith as the Trinity (defended and defined at the first Ecumenical Council, Nicaea I, in 325AD - a council instigated by Constantine - and at the second Ecumenical Council, Constantinople I, 381AD), fundamental Christology (fully God and fully man, one person with two natures and two wills - Ephesus, 431AD; Chalcedon, 451AD; and Constantinople III, 680AD), and even the Canon of Scripture itself (discerned by Catholic bishops and defined at the Council of Hippo in 393AD and at the Third Council of Carthage in 397AD).

Continuing with the citation from my opponent:

"According to the late Alexander Hislop in his The Two Babylons, the festival of ‘Christmas’ was not known until the third century and not widely observed until the late fourth century.  Hislop identifies this modern celebration as the counterpart of the ancient pagan festival in which the birth of the son of Isis, the Egyptian title for the queen of heaven, was born; legend places the event on December 24th or 25th."

Ralph Woodrow in The Babylon Connection? points out that Hislop's source here (Wilkinson's Ancient Egyptians) says that Isis gave birth, prematurely (which resulted in her son's lameness), about the time of the winter equinox.  However, the Egyptians "celebrate the feast of his mother's delivery just after the Vernal Equinox" (Wilkinson, vol 4, pg 405), which is in spring, making the connection to Christmas somewhat tenuous.

Also, it is interesting to note that Hislop says Isis and her son Osiris (or Horus) were the Egyptian version of Babylon's Semiramis and Tammuz, the Babylonian Messiah (see for example Hislop's Ch.2, Sect.2).  This is why Hislop can draw the parallel with Christmas.  But Woodrow cites Wilkinson to the effect that the child born about the time of the Winter Solstice was actually Harpocrates, not Isis' older son Horus.  Hislop gets around this by equating Harpocrates and Horus in Ch.5 Sect.4, but it all strikes me as a bit strained.  Things get even more confusing since Hislop says that Horus was the son of Osiris (Ch.2, Sect.2, Sub-Sect.2, and also Sub-Sect.5), which seems odd as in Ch.2, Sect.2 he cites Bunsen to the effect that Osiris is "the child called most frequently Horus".  Hislop also equates Horus and Osiris in Ch.4, Sect.2.  This all somehow leads to Hislop's inexorable conclusion: "There can be no doubt, then, that the Pagan festival at the winter solstice--in other words, Christmas--was held in honour of the birth of the Babylonian Messiah" (Ch.3, Sect.1).

Confused?  Me too.  But regardless of Hislop's fanciful theories, and any flaws therein, I think this is all somewhat beside the point, as I discuss below.


"Similarly, he [Hislop] states that this 'festival was celebrated among the heathen at that precise time of the year, in honour of the birth of the son of the Babylonian queen of heaven; and it may fairly be presumed that, in order to conciliate the heathen, and to swell the number of the nominal adherents of Christianity, the same festival was adopted by the Roman Church, giving it only the name of Christ'.  Hislop also points out the origin of the ‘Yule’ celebration as originating with 'the Chaldee name for "infant" or "little child"'.  Thus, December 25th was 'Yule-day' or 'Child’s day'."

In his discussion of festivals, Hislop fails to point out that the Jewish Feast of Tabernacles was on the same day as a Canaanite fertility festival that it took the place of.  This can be seen as an example of the same principle by which Christmas coincided with the festival of Sol Invictus (or Hislop's feast of the son of Isis).  The pagan feast disappeared after the Church eliminated its pagan connections by replacing it with the worship of Jesus Christ.  That this strategy worked is obvious; I don't know anybody who worships Isis or her son (provided of course they could even figure out who he is...), but I know lots of people who worship Jesus and who focus their attention on him in a special way at Christmas.

Besides, what a lot of people don't realise is that Christians believed December 25th was the date of the birth of Christ before the Roman emperor Aurelian instituted the pagan feast of Sol Invictus (see William H. Tighe, Calculating Christmas: The Story Behind December 25).

Replacing a pagan feast with a Christian one that supersedes would be is a way to defeat paganism, not surreptitiously embrace it.  And it seems to have worked, as overtly sun-worshipping pagans seem rather scarce these days.

More on pagan festivals...

"Hislop similarly describes Easter as a modern counterpart to the ancient Babylonian solemnities surrounding the adoration of "Ishtar".  In regard to the worship of Baal in ancient Britain, he states that '[Baal’s] consort Astarte was also adored by our ancestors, and that from Astarte, whose name in Nineveh was Ishtar, the religious solemnities of April, as now practised, are called by the name of Easter'."

In response I quote from an article by James Akin, writing in The Nazareth Resource Library:

"The fact is that there are only two languages in which the name has any pagan associations whatsoever -- English and German...
"In English, of course, the name is 'Easter' and in German 'Ostern.' These are related in name to a pagan spring festival, whose name, if you check a dictionary, was derived from the prehistoric West Germanic word akin to the Old English term east, which means, simply enough, 'east,' the direction of the rising sun. It has nothing to do, contrary to what you will hear from some anti-Easter-ites, with the goddess Ishtar.
"But in virtually every language except English and German, the name of Easter is derived from the Jewish word Pesach or 'Passover.' Thus in Greek the term for Easter is Pascha, in Latin the term is also Pascha. From there it passed into the Romance languages, and so in Spanish it is Pascua, in Italian it is Pasqua, in French it is Paques, and in Portugese it is Pascoa. It also passed into the non- romance languages, such as the Germanic languages Dutch, where it is Pasen  and Danish, where it is Paaske.
"Thus only in the highly Protestant countries of Germany (where the Reformation started) and England (where the intense persecution and martyrdom of Catholics was the harshest), does the term "Easter" have any pagan associations at all. So perhaps in these two Protestant countries paganism was not sufficiently stamped out to use the Judeo-Christian term for the celebration of Christ's Resurrection that was used everywhere else in Europe."

Also, I can't help but wonder how Hislop would have referred to the days of the week without surreptitiously invoking such pagan deities as the Sun, the Moon, Tiws (the Germanic version of Mars, the god of war), Wodin/Odin/Mercury, Thor/Jupiter, Frigg (Odin's wife/Venus), or Saturn.

Hislop criticises the "skilful adjustment of the calendar" that allowed Easter to take the place of solemnities.  However in fact, the date of Easter has nothing to do with paganism, but instead is based on Christ's resurrection in its Jewish-Passover context. Since Passover was always on or after the first full moon after the Spring equinox, and since the Resurrection was the first Sunday after Passover, Easter is always the first Sunday after the first full moon after March 21 (historically, the Spring equinox).

This is only a brief treatment of some of the misunderstandings and errors that abound when Catholicism is said to be derived from pagan origins.  For some more resources on some of these issues, see my Anti-Catholicism and Responses page.

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