Did the early Church imitate or borrow from pagan practices?

When I was a fundamental Baptist I was taught that the Roman Catholic Church was a syncretization of Christianity with paganism.
Did the early Church imitate or borrow from pagan practices?

Your answers have been great. Thanks for your help!

I think this one is a bit gray. The Church does not incorporate pagan practices. However, the early church did capitalize on a few things to make conversion easier. If there was a secular custom or practice in a certain place, it may be fused with the new religious beliefs. This wasn’t necessarily the intent of the Church, but often the habits of new Christians that were not forbidden by the church. The Christmas tree is an example.

Whenever I think of this, I think about Paul in Athens. He saw that they had a place reserved in their temple for the “Unknown God” and Paul boldly proclaims, “Hey! I know who your unknown god really is!” He took advantage, if you will, of their fear of omitting a deity to introduce them to the Almighty - then it was easier to persuade some that this God is really the only one to worship.

In many cases, it’s either popular custom that became Christianized or was utilized as a tool to aid conversion.

No, the Fathers of the Church never borrowed anything from the pagans or incorporated any of their heresies into the Holy Catholic Faith. However, as the poster above mentioned, the early Church did supplant previously pagan things and change them to Chrisitan things. For example, Christmas was not originally celebrated as its own holiday in the Church, but in order to replace a pagan winter festival, Christmas was added to the calendar in December.

May God bless you and lead you into the Holy Catholic Church! :slight_smile:

In the early centuries of Christianity, when missionaries were successfully bringing the faith to pagan tribes in Britain, Germany, and elsewhere, it was common practice to pull down the old shrines or places of worship and build a church on the same site, to drive home the message that the old belief had now disappeared and the new religion had taken its place. It wouldn’t be surprising if a similar process of Christianization was applied, not only to the buildings, but possibly also to what went on inside them, though I don’t have any specific instances that I could quote.

As already stated, certain cultural ideas were changed in order for the pagans to be better able adopt the Gospel. It’s actually a cultural immersion technique that is used today in advance sustainable development theory.

People often use that as an excuse to diminish Catholicism, but a linear, one-dimensional pattern of thinking cannot hope to understand.

Jews are/were monotheist and believed in one god … while pagans believed in many gods and were polytheists.

Early Christians seemed to combine these two concepts…which may have eased the attraction for some followers from both jewish and pagan sides to join.

While believing in three gods of equal standing that make the christian trinity, the three are presented as just one god…so the religion is still considered monotheist.


Perhaps if you could offer some examples of what you believed were pagan practices the CC adopted?

Here are some examples. When the empire suddenly became Catholic there were many pagan priests who were out of a job. They got retrained as Catholic priests. Naturally some pagan traditions were retained. At the beginning of each Mass there is a procession into the church led by the priest. This is a pagan tradition, not Christian.

The communion bread used in the Mass is in the shape of a disc. The Jewish seder bread is square and has holes in it. So were did the disc idea come from? It was borrowed from the worship of Satern,the sun god. The sun appears as a disc in the sky.

The advent wreath is straight out of pagan worship.

Of course they did. what is Easter? a pagan fertility festival featuring rabbits and eggs. Christmas is at the end of the year to coincide with Saturnalia or various other end-of-year celebrations. you can put your own Christian themes in, but at least be honest about where they came from. I’d say what’s more important is the motive behind it, not who started it first.

The Gospel writers, for example, used that pagan language known as (Koine) Greek :smiley:

But seriously, if you are interested on paganism’s relationship with the Church, I would recommend:

David Bentley Hart’s Christ and Nothing: firstthings.com/article/2003/10/christ-and-nothing, and

G. K. Chesterton’s Man and Mythologies, part of * The Everlasting Man*: cse.dmu.ac.uk/~mward/gkc/books/everlasting_man.html#chap-I-v, as well as the entire book.

Christi pax,


Ummm…no. Easter is the celebration of the Resurrection.

The Catholic Church has nothing to do with eggs and rabbits as far as Easter goes. That is a purely secular adornment.

Christmas is at the end of the year to coincide with Saturnalia or various other end-of-year celebrations. you can put your own Christian themes in, but at least be honest about where they came from. I’d say what’s more important is the motive behind it, not who started it first.

Christmas does NOT coincide with Saturnalia.

It probably didn’t borrow anything. I bought Ovid’s Metamorphoses for the purpose of researching this very subject (it’s sitting on my shelf as I type this). The supposed parallels between Christianity and the mystery religions are not close to being parallels. The idea that the Crucifixion of Christ is somehow a parallel to a eunuch vegetation God like Attis is beyond the level of laughable.

Dionysus is also a god that supposedly shares parallels to Christ because Dionysus was the god of wine. However, his behaviour couldn’t be more dissimilar to Christ’s. Dionysus, for instance, often drove people to madness. One story has Dionysus driving a farmer mad, causing the farmer to murder his own son (while in the state of madness). The supposed parallel where Dionysus’ uses wine involves him turning the sails of a ship into giant vines, thereby causing the boat to overflow with wine. The sailors, who wanted to rape him, jumped into the sea and Dionysus turned both of them into dolphins.

I could go on and on. Suffice to say that the difference is night and day. Christianity was opposed to these mystery religions-- it hardly borrowed from them.

The Church borrowed or adopted various pagan practices and customs, and continues to borrow practices and customs from outside of the Church to the present day (and will continue to do so in the future).

It does not borrow anything that contradicts doctrine.

Some examples are:

  • Adopting various pagan holiday’s in the Roman World & Christianizing them
  • Adopting pagan architecture for Churches
  • Adopting protestant music to Catholic Masses & liturgy services
  • Adopting certain Islamic language & customs (Arabic-speaking Christians call God “Allah” and often observe dress & fasting norms)
  • Adopting certain Native American practices into the liturgy (for example, the use of tobacco as incense)

There are many, many, many other examples you could find, especially I’m sure in Africa & Asia which is largely unknown to me.

Absorbing outside culture into Church life is something that predates St Pope Gregory the Great, but Gregory the Great is famous for his discussion on how to handle the Christianizing of the Anglo pagans. There was debate over whether or not to destroy their temples. Gregory the Great replied that rather than destroys the pagan temples, they should be refitted into holy sanctuaries, so that the natives would continue to visit their same places of worship, but it would now be directed towards the Trinitarian God.

Perhaps the most intense things the Church absorbed weren’t cultural customs or art, but modes of thought & reason. Christianity started out very Jewish in nature, obviously since almost all of its first converts were in Palestine and Jesus himself is a Jew. There was a powerful emphasis on covenant, ritual, and ancestry (which is still retained to the present day), but it didn’t stop there. The absorption of the astute pagan Greeks into the Universal Church added a great level of refinement to its thinking, and produced theologians such as Augustine, Jerome, and Chrysostom. Of course, they weren’t innovating from doctrine, but they were using their unique education & perspective to provide additional illumination to Scripture & doctrine, which is a continuing process up to the present day.


The Catholic Church gets it “Diocese” from the Roman Emperor Diocletian who divided his territory into different parts.


A beautiful book to read…you owe it to yourself with your excellent presentation of inquiry…to get hold of Cardinal Ratzinger’s ‘Spirit of the Liturgy’.

He is the Church’s greatest theologian of our times, and teaches clearly and eloquently.

If you can just read the chapter on Sacred Time…Christ was born in the Constellation of Aries the Ram.

The ancient Jewish calendar celebrates March 25 as the celebration of life…to that of Abraham. Recall Abraham having visitation by Archangel Gabriel just as Abraham was about to sacrifice his son, Isaac. The Angel told him not to sacrifice his son but instead to sacrifice the ram stuck in the bush…so he did.

We celebrate March 25 as the Incarnation of Christ…His life now True God and True Man at His conception in the womb of the Blessed Virgin through the Holy Spirit and Mary’s ‘Fiat’, her Yes to God.

Christmas was not celebrated until later in the Middle Ages on December 25…Advent the time of light approaching in the darkness.

There is alot there.

In Italy today, kids don’t get Christmas presents like here…they all write letters of love and thanks to their parents.

Anyway…I think this instruction on Pope Benedict’s ‘Sacred Time’ would be good for you or any Catholic wanting more background. Another is learning about the Liturgical Year…and we celebrate certain feasts of saints at daily Mass…recalling their sacrifice and charism in living their faith through heroic virtue…some days we celebrate the days they were martyred…Anyway, the Liturgical Year is a great study…the rhythm of daily life…

God bless you!

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