Click here to get started today!
Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological and Ecclesiastical Literature
a term synonymous with heathenism and polytheism (q.v.), is used to denote the non-Biblical religions of the world-that is to say, all those religious notions not called out by the revealed Scriptures. Hence the whole human race may be said to be divided into Jews, Mohammedans, Christians, and Pagans.
The word paganism comes from the Latin word pagus, a country district, a canton, the adjective from which, paganus, denoted pertaining to such a pagus; then not a soldier; then boorish, or unlearned; and, finally, among the Christian writers, one not a Christian, Jew, or Mohammedan. Its application in the last sense, which it now continues to hold, is thus accounted for: When Christianity gradually became the religion alike of the Romans, empire and of the conquerors who embraced its civilization, those who obstinately clung to the old idolatry were called, both in Latin and in the Teutonic speech, by names which in themselves expressed, not error in religion, but inferiority of social state: the worshipper of Jupiter or of Woden was called in Latin mouths a pagan, in Teutonic mouths a heathen. The two names well set forth the two distinct standards of civilization which were held by those who spoke the two languages. The paganus was the man of the country, as opposed to the man of the city. The Gospel was first preached in the towns, and the towns became Christian, while the open country around them still adhered to the old gods. Hence the name of the pagan, the rustic, the man who stood outside the higher social life of the city, came to mean the men who stood outside the pale of the purer faith of the Church. In the England of the 6th century, and in the Eastern Germany of the 8th, no such distinction, however, could be drawn. If all who dwelt within the walls of a city had remained without the pale of the Church, the Church would have had few votaries indeed among the independent Teutons.
In their ideas the opposition between the higher and the lower stage was not the opposition between the man of the city and the man of the country; it was the opposition between the man of the occupied and cultivated land and the wild man of the wilderness. The cities, where there were any, and the villages and settled land generally, became Christian, while the rude men of the heath still served Woden and Thunder. The worshippers of Woden and Thunder were therefore called heathens. Pagan and heathen, then, alike mark the misbeliever as belonging to a lower social stage than the Christian, But the standard of social superiority which is assumed differs in the two cases. The one is the standard of a people with whom the city is the centre of the whole social life; and the .other is the standard of a people among whom the city, if it was to be found at all, was simply the incidental dwelling-place of a part of the nation which was in no way privileged over those who dwelt beyond its bounds (comp. Gibbon, Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, ch. 21; Freeman, Hist. of the Norman Conquest, 4:415).
The relation of the Christian Church to the various forms of paganism, or, better, polytheism, which it has sought to supplant, and continues seeking to supplant, is a subject of great importance to the student of ecclesiastical history. But we have not sufficient room to enter here into a detailed account of paganism. We must content ourselves with saying that the principal pagan religions of the world are briefly defined as follows: Those of Japan, Buddhism and Sintoism; of China, Buddhism and Confucianism; of Tartany, Lamaism; of India, Brahminism. Buddismsm, Thuggism, and the'religion of thb Parsees; of Persia, Mohammedanism and the Zoroastrian religion; of Africa, Feticlism; of Polynesia, image-worship and hero- worship; of the ancient aborigines of Lapland, Greenland, and North America, a peculiar combination of spirit and fetich worship, described under the article INDIANS. For an account of these various forms of paganism, see the articles treating of the different countries mentioned, and of the various religious systems mentioned in that connection.
The entire pagan population of the world is estimated in Johnson's Family Atlas at 766,342,000, distributed as follows:
Australasia and Polynesia
Against this there is an estimated Christian population, including Protestant, Roman Catholic, and Greek communions, of 369,969,000; a Mohammedan population of 160,823,000; and a Jewish population of 6,000,000.
In this place we confine ourselves to that form of paganism with which Christianity came in contact immediately after its organization and propagation, i.e. the paganism of the Roman empire, and those powers organized and controlled by institutions of a like standard of civilization. For the paganism of the remaining world, in its relation to Christianity, (See FETICHISM); (See POLYTHEISM).
I. Pagan Theology. — The theology of these pagans, according to their own writers, e.g. Scaevola and Varro was of three forms. The first of these may well be called fabulous, as treating of the theology and genealogy of their deities, in which they say such things as are unworthy of deity; ascribing to them thefts, murders, adulteries, and all manner of crimes; and therefore this kind of theology is condemned by the wiser sort of heathens as nugatory and scandalous. The writers of this sort of theology were Sanchoniatho, the Phoenician; and among the Greeks, Orpheus, Hesiod, Pherecydes, etc. The second sort, called physic, or natural, was studied and taught by the philosophers, who, rejecting the multiplicity of gods introduced by the poets, brought their theology to a more natural and rational form, and supposed that there was but one supreme god, which they commonly made to be the sun — at least this was an emblem of him — but at too great a distance to mind the affairs of the world: they therefore devised certain daemons, which they considered as mediators between the supreme god and man; and the doctrine of these daemons, to which the apostle is thought to allude in 1 Timothy 4:1, was what the philosophers had a concern with. They treated of their nature, office, and regard to men; as did Thales, Pythagoras, Plato, and the Stoics. The third form, called politic, or civil, was instituted by legislators, statesmen, and politicians — such as, first among the Romans, Numa Pompilius: it chiefly respected their gods, temples, altars, sacrifices, and rites of worship, and was properly' an idolatry, the care of which belonged to the priests, and this was enjoined upon the common people, to keep them in obedience to the civil state. Thus things continued in the Gentile world until the light of the Gospel was sent among them. The times before were times of ignorance, as the apostle calls them: men were ignorant of the true God, and of the worship of him; and of the Messiah, and salvation by him. Their state is truly described (Ephesians 2:12) that they were then "without Christ; aliens from the commonwealth of Israel; strangers from the covenants of promise; having no hope, and without God in the world.;" and, consequently, their theology was insufficient for their salvation.
II. Paganism combated by Christianity. — The contest between Christianity and paganism. so far as the circumstances of it are known, was almost as much a contest between the civil authorities of the Roman empire and the religion, as between Christianity and the old religions of the civilized world. Of all that took place with respect to conflicts between the new and old religions in countries adjoining the Roman empire, such as the Parthian empire in the West and the Germanic nations in the North, we know next to nothing. But within the bounds of the Roman empire itself Christianity was a standing, enemy of many existing institutions ill every country, and these institutions being upheld by the state, Christians came to be looked upon, in respect to their religion, as national enemies wherever they existed. It was part of the policy of the Roman empire, as is well known, to tolerate all national religions within the boundaries of the nations which professed them, but this toleration was, suspended when these religions began to exercise a proselyting influence beyond their national boundaries. Now it was an essential characteristic of Christianity that it was a proselyting religion. Its teachers acted under the especial commission, "Go ye into all the world, and make disciples of every creature," and no other religion ever showed such an aggressive nature. Thus Christianity was, in limine, a foe to the existing religious institutions of the world, as they were looked at from a statesman's point of view;. But, more than this, Christianity refused to become a peaceable member of any eclectic system. The scepticism of the academies was superseded during the early spread of Christianity by an eclecticism originating with Ammonius Saccas and his disciples, the NeoPlatonists.
This system ‘ became extremely fashionable among the intellectual classes in the more learned regions of the Roman empire. It was an attempt, a last attempt, of heathenism to work itself into an alliance with a foe of whom an inner conviction seemed to say that he would in the end prove too strong for it. But Christianity would not come to terms. It would not even consent to the drawing up of preliminaries for a treaty of peace. The words of its Master were continually illustrated by all Christian missionaries, "I came not to send peace, but a sword." Christianity sought not toleration, not compromise, but universal supremacy. Thus, theoretically at least, the contest between Christianity and paganism was a war which could only end by the extermination of one or the other, and the process of resistance to extermination on the part of paganism was that which constituted the substance of the struggle between it and Christianity. But, apart from this general antagonism between the two religious systems, there was a special institution of the empire, its official religion, with which Christians came into fatal conflict almost by accident. This official religion had more of the rising eclecticism in it than of the old decaying polytheism, but it was little concerned with moral or theological principles, its one prominent requirement being the recognition of the emperor as an object of worship. The sacrifice of a few grains of incense to him was the test of religious obedience. To frequent the temples, to offer sacrifices to the gods, to take part in the mysteries, might be parts of religious practice, and every one was at liberty to adopt them as he pleased. But public piety, that which established a citizen as, qua religion, a good citizen, was the religious veneration of the emperor. neither more nor less. Thus the religion of Christians when tried by this test. was necessarily open to misconstruction. To burn incense to the emperor was idolatry; not to burn it seemed to be disloyalty and rebellion.
They who would gladly have taken an oath of allegiance, if it had been offered to them simply as such, refused with an unyielding firmness to do so when it was presented to them under the form of an idolatrous rite. It seems strange that the astute statesmanship of the empire did not devise some means by which men so really loyal to it as were the early Christians might be permitted to live in peace; but perhaps the explanation is to be found in the fact that the kingship and kingdom of Christ were ideas which entered largely into their religious teaching, and formed a prominent idea in the popular theory of the multitude. Such an idea would look like rebellious rivalry to the mind of a Roman statesman- one who would never be able to appreciate the force of such words as "My kingdom is not of this world"-and thus his only antidote to that worship of Christ which recognised him as the king of the Christians, though an invisible one, would be a repudiation of him by adoption of the visible emperor as their numen. If the novel custom of deifying the living emperor had not been invented, the Christians could have declared their allegiance to him without any hesitation, as is shown by the Apologies; and in such a case it is not improbable that they might, so far as public authority was concerned, have been tolerated in their religion, provided its proselyting principles had not caused any disturbance of public order.
III. Popular Paganism and Christianity. — At the same time that Christianity was thus opposed to the state religion of the empire, it was also in a position of strongly aggressive opposition to the popular religion of every country within its boundaries, that of the Jews alone being, and that only for a short time, an exception. Whether the popular religion was polytheism or some of the many varieties of fetichism, it was certain to be denounced as false by Christian teachers, and as so entirely false that nothing would satisfy Christianity except the entire abolition of what was denounced. Thus Christians arrayed against themselves a large class in those whose personal interest it was that the old religion should be maintained, and in the bulk of the ignorant among the people at large, whom stolid habits and unreasoning prejudice would enlist against innovators to whom no religion seemed sacred. Such a position of antagonism to the old religions was as essential to Christianity as uncompromising opposition to Baal was essential to Elijah; and even when Christians were not aggressive by positive opposition, their negative opposition was necessarily conspicuous. For the rites of polytheism were not confined to the temples; they pervaded all the customs of social and public life. Christians were prevented from attending the public games by the association of idolatrous rites with them; "the many images, the long line of statues, the chariots of all sorts, the thrones, the crowns, the dresses" by the preceding sacrifices and the procession. "It may be grand or mean," says Tertullian; "no matter, any circus performance is offensive to God. Though there be few images to grace it, there is idolatry in one; though there be no more than a single sacred car, it is a chariot of Jupiter; and anything whatever of idolatry, whether meanly arrayed or modestly rich and gorgeous, taints it in its origin" (De Spectac. c. 7).
The theatres were equally. forbidden, for "its services of voice and song and lute and pipe belong to Apollos and. Muses, and Minervas and Mercuries, . . . and the arts are consecrated to the honor of the beings who dwell in the names of their founders" (ibid. c.x). Even in the intercourse of private life, the Lares and Penates of the hall, the libations. of the dinner-table, the very phraseology with which ordinary conversation was largely decorated, all partook of the nature of idolatry (Tertullian, De Idol.c. 15,17, 21, 22), and the necessities of their anti-idolatrous principles thus secluded Christians from the social assemblies of their heathen acquaintance, and made them in many respects a separate community. Above all, Christianity was the deadly foe of a widespread immorality, the extent of which is almost inconceivable. Polytheism was always a religion of mere ceremony, unassociated, as a religion, with any moral law. Hence the most religious man in the sense of polytheism might be a shameless profligate, emulating the gods to whom he sacrificed in their reputed licentiousness, and guilty (as was Socrates) of crimes against which even nature revolts (id. Apol.c. 46). Vices of this class were terribly common among the Romans of early imperial times, and are exposed with scornful indignation by Tertullian in his Apology. Something of the extent to which profligacy was carried may also be seen by his denunciation of infanticide, in one bold sentence of which he says: "How many, think you, of those crowding around and gaping for Christian blood; how many even of your rulers, notable for their justice to you and for their severe measures against us, may I charge in their own consciences with the sin of putting their offspring to death?" (ibid. c. ix). Against the class of crimes thus indicated, Christianity protested by word and example, Tertullian fearlessly declaring in respect to the latter that Christians were conspicuous for "a persevering and steadfast chastity." Popular habits and customs being thus so contrary to the spirit of Christianity, it could not fail that a very strong opposition must have been offered to its progress; and although vast multitudes were quickly gathered to the standard of the Cross, there was still a large and influential mass of the population in every country of the empire who looked upon it as the sign of an institution which sought the abolition of their cherished customs and habits, which made its disciples bad citizens and bad neighbors, and which was therefore to be hated and, if possible, extinguished.
IV. Pagan Philosophy and Christianity. — Apart from the ruling powers of the empire, and from those classes which formed the bulk of the nations composing it, there was also a considerable class of highly educated men, especially in Rome and Alexandria, on whom old fashioned polytheism had no hold, but who yet set themselves against Christianity. Among such were the Epicurean Celsus, who wrote a comprehensive work, The Word of Truth (now known only by Origen's refutation of it), against the new faith; the cynic Crescens - φιλοψόφος καὶ φιλοκόμπος — the boasting braggadocio of Justin Martyr's Apology (Just., Mart. Apol. ii, 3; Euseb. 4:5); Trypho the Jew, against whom the same apologist wrote an important work, his Dialogue with Trypho; and Lucian the satirist, who opposed Christianity as a superstition unworthy of intellectual men (Lucian, De Morte Peregrin. c. 11-16). Indeed, the contemptuous manner in which grave writers like Pliny, Tacitus, and Suetonius mention the new faith seems to show that the literary class in general was opposed to it, and did not even think it worth while to make any effective inquiry in regard to its principles. That they gradually learned to feel more respect for it is shown by the rise of the eclectic school of the Neo-Platonists; but even among these there were bitter opponents of Christianity, though there are indeed others who theoretically adopted a large portion of its principles. (See ECLECTICISM); (See NEO-PLATONISM).
V. Persecutions of Christians by Pagans. — The broadest and most evident form of .the struggle for life and supremacy between paganism and Christianity was that of the continuous attempt of the former to suppress the latter by force. In this the state and. the populace co-operated, and there is no reason to think that the intellectual classes and philosophers held aloof. The first approach to a general persecution was that begun at Rome under Nero (Tertull. Apol. c.v). St. Paul's account of his own sufferings (2 Corinthians 6:23-27), his reference to the amphitheatre at Ephesus (1 Corinthians 15:32), to actual persecution of Christians (1 Corinthians 4:9, and perhaps in Hebrews 11:35-38), to the position of the apostles as the "off scouring of the earth," to the "much tribulation" through which the faithful entered into rest, to his deliverance "out of the mouth of the lion," all seem to shows that the struggle between paganism and Christianity had begun even in apostolic times. But it is probable that persecution then was of a local kind, arising out of charges made by Jews against Christians, for whom they entertained a deadly hatred. Suetonius mentions, indeed, that the Jews were driven out of Rome by Claudius on account of an insurrection raised by one "Chrestus," probably one of the many false Christs that rose up at this period, and Christians who were not Jews may have been expelled with them, though anything like a Christian insurrection (as the historian's words are sometimes interpreted) was so alien to the spirit of the early Christians as to be beyond probability. After the great fire of Rome in the year 64, Nero, however (who is said by Dion and Suetonius to have been himself the incendiary), accused the Christians of causing it, and brought upon them a terrible stream of indignation from the excited Romans. Tacitus wrote his annals about thirty years after that, and he describes their sufferings in a few graphic words. Nero, invited the citizens to a festival in the imperial gardens (now the Vatican), and the chief spectacle which he then offered them was the martyrdom of their hated neighbors. Some were sewn in the skins of wild beasts, and torn to pieces by dogs; some crucified: some burned to death; some smeared over with inflammable substances, and used as torches or bonfires to light up the gardens after dark. This persecution lasted for four years, and there can be no doubt that it was carried on in other cities as well as at Rome. During the course of it the apostle Peter was one of those who were crucified in the gardens of Nero, and Paul was beheaded a short distance out of Rome. How many others went to make up the grand vanguard of the army of martyrs it is impossible to say, but the words of the heathen historian point to a great multitude rather than to a merely considerable number. It is usual to reckon ten periods of persecution, at intervals, spreading over the latter half of the 1st the 2d, the 3d, and the 4th centuries. But this enumeration is arbitrary, and cannot be supported by historical evidence. During the whole of that time there was persecution going on in some part of the empire, although emperors like Hadrian, Vespasian, Titus, Nerva, and Trajan (Tertull. Apol. c.v) were unlikely to give it: any encouragement. Yet Pliny's famous letter to Trajan (Pliny Epp. 10:96) shows that it was difficult to save Christians from the popular cry for their extermination; and the martyrdom of St. Cyprian is another illustration of the same fact. The last and most terrible of the general persecutions was that which immediately preceded the accession of Constantine, when it seemed as if Diocletian had nearly accomplished his object of destroying the very name of Christian. It is not the purpose of this article, however, to go into any details respecting these periods of persecution, and the subject may be dismissed with the following table, which represents the conclusions that may be arrived at from the examination of historical-data:
A. CHRONOLOGICAL TABLE OF PAGAN PERSECUTIONS.
64-65 Under Nero: ‘ Martyrdom of St. Peter and St. Paul (Tertull. Apol. v; Euseb. Hist. Eccl. ii, 25).
95-96 Under Domitian: Banishment of St. John (Euseb. Hist. Eccl. iii, 17- 18).
104-117 Under Trajan: Martyrdom of St. Ignatius (Euseb. Hist. Eccl. iii, 36).
161-180 Under Marcus Aurelius: Martyrdom of St. Polycarp and the martyrs of Lyons (Euseb. Hist. Ecclesiastes 4:15 v, 1).
200-211 Under Severns: Martyrdom of St. Perpetua and others in Africa (Euseb. Hist. Ecclesiastes 6:1; Ecclesiastes 6:4-5).
250-253 Under Decius: Martyrdom of St. Fabian (Euseb. Hist Eccl. 6:41- 42).
257-260 Under Valerian: Martyrdom of St. Cyprian (Eu seb. Hist. Ecclesiastes 7:10-12).
303-313 Under Diocletian, Galerius, and Maximian: Martyrdom of St. Alban (Euseb. Hist. Ecclesiastes 8:1-17; Ecclesiastes 9:1-11; Bede, Hist. Eccl. i, 6, 7).
VI. The Decline of Paganism. — The long and bitter struggle between the paganism and the Christianity of the Roman empire came to a close with Constantine's victory over Maxentius. As early as A.D. 311 Galerius had been terrified by a shocking and mortal disease to issue a decree, in which he, with the emperors Constantine and Licinius, directed that persecution should cease, that churches should be rebuilt, and that the Christians should be allowed to worship in peace (Eusebius, Hist. Ecclesiastes 8:17). But the execution of this decree was much hindered by Maximin and Maxentius, and it was only on their defeat by Licinius and Constantine that a real toleration began. After that event (A.D. 313). the emperors immediately published the famous Edict of Milan (Eusebius, Hist. Ecclesiastes 10:5; Lactantius, De Mort. Persecut. 48), in which the previous decree was rigidly enforced and all persecutions entirely suppressed. In the year 321 a severe blow was given to expiring paganism by an edict in which the emperor established the Lord's-day as a public festival. and a day of abstinence from labor. When Constantine became sole emperor, in A.D. 324, he issued one in a still more decided tone, in which he exhorted all his subjects throughout the empire to forsake paganism and worship Christ only; and from that time he and his successors ruled the empire as Christian emperors. Before the end of the 4th century paganism had become so much weakened and the Christian population so decidedly predominant that the emperors were able to take measures towards its final suppression. Theodosius (A.D. 381) forbade apostasy to paganism and suppressed its sacrifices, though still tolerating its minor rites (Cod. Theodos. 16:7), the Western emperors, Gratian and Valentinian, following his example. When Theodosins became sole emperor (A.D. 392), he forbade all kinds of idolatry under severe penalties (ibid. 10, 12). The last traces of paganism died out in the Eastern empire in the first quarter of the 5th century (ibid. 10, 22), and its final extinction in the West was at the same time effected by the supremacy of the Northern invaders. If since that age Christianity has lost its ground, it has not been to the old paganism, but to its Eastern successor, Mohammedanism. The former never revived after the time of its last great effort to gain supremacy in the Diocletian persecution, and for nearly three centuries the empire was wholly Christian.
See Kortholt, De Religione Ethnica; Rudiger, De Statu Paganorum; Tzschirner, Fall des Heidenthums; Dollinger, Judaism and Paganism Milman, Hist. of Latin Christianity, vol. 1; Hardwick, Church Hist. of the Middle Ages (see Index); Maclear, Hist. of Christian Missions, p. 5 sq.; Merivale, Conversion of the Northern Nations; Schaff, Ch. Hist. 2, 67-71; Pritchard, Egyptian Mythology (designed to illustrate the origin of paganism).
These files are public domain.
McClintock, John. Strong, James. Entry for 'Paganism'. Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological and Ecclesiastical Literature. https://www.studylight.org/encyclopedias/eng/tce/p/paganism.html. Harper & Brothers. New York. 1870.