By Bart D. Ehrman, The University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill
Experts in the history of early Christianity have regularly maintained that by the beginning of the 4th century, just prior to the conversion of Constantine, the Christian church could boast four to six million members. Apart from its missionary message, was Christianity really uniquely situated to take over the pagan world?
A Common Belief in Divine Beings
The most important point to stress here is that no religion is thoroughly unique, different from every other religion in every way. If it were, it wouldn’t be called a religion.
All religions in the Roman world, including Christianity, subscribed to the notion of divine beings, who were above and beyond the human realm. Even though Judaism and Christianity were monotheistic, they were similar to pagan religions in subscribing to numerous superhuman divine beings. They may not have been beings they would call gods, but there were lots of other divine forces in the world and in heaven above. There were angels, archangels, principalities, powers, demons, and so on.
All religions believed in worshiping one or more of these divine beings. Normally, this worship was undertaken precisely because the gods were powerful and could assist humans in their times of need. They could bring life into the world, and they could ensure life would continue. They could heal the sick, control the weather, make the crops grow, and the livestock multiply. They could bring peace and happiness to communities and individuals and do all sorts of things that were beyond the power and ability of mere mortals. Christianity agreed with all of that.
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Similar Ideas of Prayer and Offerings
These religions all held to similar, though not identical, ideas of prayer and the need to make offerings or sacrifices to the gods. Even Christians believed in an ultimate sacrifice, the death of Jesus for the sins of others. And they believed in their own self-sacrifice, the sacrifice of their own life for the sake of God and for the sake of others.
Finally, all religions believed in two-way communication. God or the gods could in some way or another, also speak to humans, just as humans could speak to them. God could give signs for example or speak through a human prophet.
Was Christianity Superior?
Given these similarities, why would one religion win out over all the others? Some scholars have maintained that the distinctive features of Christianity led to its triumph because it was simply superior to anything else on offer.
Contrary to this, the truth is that most of the features of Christianity that people today think of as superior were, in fact, already options in the Roman world.
Belief in Divine Pyramid
If we consider monotheism, we find that Jews were monotheistic, too, and so, Christianity wasn’t superior to Judaism in that way. There were plenty of pagans who thought there was one god superior to all others with lots of gods under him. In most pagan thinking, there is one supreme god with gods underneath this God.
One popular pagan cult at the time worshiped a divine deity, they simply called this deity Theos Hypsistos, the literal meaning of which is the “Highest God”. This highest god was the one god who deserved ultimate worship. This wasn’t however strict monotheism because even those who said he was the one god, recognized other deities.
Similarly, even though Christians were monotheists, it was recognized by outsiders that they also had lesser divinities. In addition to God, the Father, for example, Christians were known to think of Christ as God, and the Holy Spirit as God.
They had lots of other supernatural beings, some of whom were actually worshipped by some Christians. For example, there were Christian groups that worshipped angels. And so, pagans who wanted to become worshippers of one God did not need to convert to Christianity to do so, they had other ways of doing it.
Christian Doctrines Not Unique
Some scholars opine that, unlike pagans, Christians had doctrines. Is it the case that if you have doctrines, then you have a greater certitude about what to believe, something that’s absent from the pagan world, as pagan religions don’t have doctrines, it’s not about what you believe?
In fact, knowing what to think about reality and the meaning of life did not require Christian theology per se. Pagans already had the teachings of philosophers that involved doctrines, things to believe from Plato and Aristotle, up again, to the Stoics and the Epicureans and so forth.
It’s often said that because Christians were so highly ethical that other people were drawn to this faith, but is it the case that Christians were more ethical than others? While there is no denying the possibility, it’s important to realize morality was a very important part of pagan culture.
It may not have been a big feature of pagan religion, but it was widely available throughout Greek and Roman antiquity. Christians weren’t the only ones who believed in behaving well. Moral philosophy was widely practiced.
The philosophers constantly talked about the best way to live. Whether the philosophers were Stoics, or Epicureans, or Platonists, they might have a different grounding for their ethics, but often the results were very similar and similar to the views of the Christians. And so, we can discern that Christianity had many similarities with other religions.
Common Questions about Similarities Between Christianity and Other Pagan Religions
Ancient religions necessarily had numerous things in common and Christianity was one of those religions. And together they shared some key similarities.
Even though Judaism and Christianity were monotheistic, they were similar to pagan religions in subscribing to numerous superhuman divine beings. They believed in lots of other divine forces in the world and in heaven above like angels, archangels, principalities, powers, demons, and so on.
Ethics may not have been a big feature of pagan religion, but it was widely available throughout Greek and Roman antiquity. Christianity was not the only religion that believed in behaving well. Moral philosophy was widely practiced.