Does the Trinity have pagan origins? Let’s plunge into the Deeper Waters and find out.
I had planned to write a book review again today, but then in a discussion on if Christianity copied from pagans, someone shared this to respond to my claim that they did not. What we saw from the last election cycle in our country is sometimes it’s tempting to get people to move away from a candidate by claiming they’re racist, sexist, homophobic, etc. (Didn’t work too well this time.) In religion, it can be tempting to label something as pagan and think everyone will back away. Of course, labeling is not the same as being able to demonstrate.
The post under question is from Many Prophets, One Message and can be found here. The post is from a Muslim so I won’t be commenting on everything. For instance, when we start talking about the Muslim belief, I won’t be saying anything. Islam is not a specialty area of mine and when I dialogue with Muslims, I stick to what I know, the New Testament. Others who have studied Islam more might want to say something about that part.
So let’s see what they say.
In order to understand the influence of paganism on the doctrine of the Trinity, we need to first understand the world into which Christianity was born and developed. The disciples, the first believers in Jesus, were Jews. In fact Christianity started out as a movement within Judaism. Like Jews since the time of Moses, these first believers kept the Sabbath, were circumcised and worshiped in the Temple: “One day Peter and John were going up to the temple at the time of prayer—at three in the afternoon.” [Acts 3:1] The only thing that distinguished the early followers of Jesus from any other Jews was their belief in Jesus as the Messiah, that is, the one chosen by God who would redeem the Jewish people. Today, many Christian scholars agree that authors of the New Testament such as Matthew were Jewish believers in Jesus. The influence of Judaism on the New Testament is important because it helps us to correctly understand its message. The New Testament is full of terminology like “son of God.” Such language is interpreted literally by Trinitarians to mean that Jesus is God the Son, but is this correct? What was the intention behind the Jewish writers of the New Testament when they used such language? What did these terms mean at the time of Jesus?
I’m pleased that there is some right stuff here, such as the authors of the New Testament being Jewish believers in Jesus, though I’d say it’s quite a good possibility that Luke was a Gentile believer. Still, the claim that the first believers kept the Sabbath, were circumcised, and worshiped in the Temple is flimsy. All we have is one verse and it only describes the Temple.
I meet many Seventh-Day Adventists who think that Paul had to worship on Saturday because he went into the synagogues on Saturday to speak to the Jews so he was still observing the Sabbath. If he was, it will need to be established on other grounds. Why would Paul go on Saturday? He went on Saturday because that is the day the Jews were there. If he had gone on Sunday, no one would have been there to hear the message, or at least if some were there, it would not be the usual crowd.
In the same way, when the first believers went to the temple, this is only the believers in Jerusalem and they went there because that was a central meeting place to spread the message of Jesus. Of course, we learn later in Acts 12 about them meeting in the homes of believers as well. As for circumcision, if they were Jews, they were indeed circumcised, but as we learn in Acts 15, circumcision was not seen as essential for Christianity. This was the first great debate. (And aren’t we men all thankful for how it turned out?)
Our writer also says “Son of God” in interpreted literally by Christians. Unfortunately, He does not state what this means. For instance, if I say Jesus is the Son of God, I don’t mean in a literal sense such as God having sex with Mary. I also realize it can be used in a figurative sense as it has been used of angels and of great men and yes, the pagans used the title for their kings. Our author, unfortunately, cites no Trinitarians who are doing what he claims.
In fact, I would argue that Son of God is not the greatest claim to deity Jesus made. Son of Man is far more persuasive. With this, Jesus is consistently pointing to the figure in Daniel 7. This is the figure that will rule alongside the Ancient of Days and whose Kingdom has no end.
When we turn to the Old Testament we find that such language permeates its pages. For example, Moses calls God “Father”: Is this the way you repay the Lord, you foolish and unwise people? Is he not your Father, your Creator, who made you and formed you? [Deuteronomy 32:6] Angels are referred to as “sons of God”: Now there was a day when the sons of God came to present themselves before the Lord, and Satan came also among them. [Job 1:6] The Old Testament even goes so far as to call Moses a god: “And the LORD said unto Moses, See, I have made thee a god to Pharaoh: and Aaron thy brother shall be thy prophet.” [Exodus 7:1] The Israelites are also referred to as “gods”: “I said, ‘You are “gods”; you are all sons of the Most High.’” [Psalm 82:6] What we can conclude is that such highly exalted language was commonplace and is intended figuratively; it is not a literal indication of divinity.
The problem here is that this is not enough to make a case and it can be cherry picking. Just pick verses that agree with your position and hey, you’ve got it! The reference to Moses is one that is being seen as a metaphor and not a claim about what it means to be the son of God. As for Psalms 82, I interpret this as sarcasm. The rulers of Israel prided themselves as being favored since they were the leaders and got to judge Israel, but God says they’re not gods, they’re mere men. Jesus used this passage to back His claims in John 10. If the title can be used of sinful men, how much more the righteous one? Note He used it to back His claim to deity and not to lessen it.
Even as late as the end of the first century, when the New Testament writers started penning their accounts of the life of Jesus, Jewish people were still using such language figuratively. In a conversation between Jesus and some Jewish teachers of the law, they say to Jesus: “…The only Father we have is God himself.” [John 8:41] The Gospel of Luke calls Adam a son of God when it recounts the lineage of Jesus: “the son of Enosh, the son of Seth, the son of Adam, the son of God.” [Luke 3:38] Jesus even says that anyone who is makes peace is a child of God: “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.” [Matthew 5:9] If the New Testament writers understood such language to be a claim to divinity, then they would have used it exclusively in relation to Jesus. Clearly, it denotes a person that is righteous before God and nothing more.
So we can see that such language, in and of itself, does not denote the divinity of Jesus. So where did such ideas come from?
Again, Son of God depends on the context. It’s not the same meaning every time, and our writer makes the mistake of thinking that it is. Note that passages like John 10 are ignored. Still, he asks a good question. Where does the idea that Jesus is divine come from?
The turning point in history came when Christianity ceased being a small movement within Judaism and Gentiles (non-Jews) started to embrace the faith in large numbers. We need to look to the pagan world of the Gentiles in order to understand the mindset of the people that received the New Testament message. Since the time of Alexander the Great, Gentiles had been living in a Hellenistic (Greek) world. Their lands were dominated by Roman armies, with the Roman Empire being the superpower of the world at the time. The Roman Empire itself was heavily influenced by Hellenistic religion, philosophy and culture. Greek gods and goddesses like Zeus, Hermes and Aphrodite, as well as Roman gods and goddesses like Jupiter, Venus and Diana, dominated the landscape. There were temples, priesthoods, and feasts dedicated to the patron god or goddess of a city or region; statues to the deities dotted the forums of the cities. Even rulers themselves were frequently worshipped as gods.
Aside from the first sentence, I really don’t have a problem with what is said here. We do need to understand the Gentile world and the pagan world to understand the New Testament. Much of what is said here about the pagan world is in fact accurate.
Gentiles from such a polytheistic background would have naturally understood Christian preaching about the “son of God” in light of a Greek or Roman god having been begotten by another. We can see this mindset manifested in the New Testament. In the Book of Acts there is an incident where the Gentile crowds think that Paul is Zeus come among them when he heals a crippled man:
When the crowd saw what Paul had done, they shouted in the Lycaonian language, “The gods have come down to us in human form!”
Barnabas they called Zeus, and Paul they called Hermes because he was the chief speaker.
The priest of Zeus, whose temple was just outside the city, brought bulls and wreaths to the city gates because he and the crowd wanted to offer sacrifices to them. [Acts 14:11-13]
In checking this, I found something interesting. When I went to the book of Acts, I did a search for the words “son” and “God.” Only two places do I see references to Jesus being the Son of God. One is in Acts 9:20.
“And straightway in the synagogues he proclaimed Jesus, that he is the Son of God.”
Note that here we have Paul in a Jewish synagogue and saying “He is the Son of God” about Jesus. The question to ask is how would the Jews understand this? In light of the resurrection, it would mean the claims of Jesus were true, and I would include deity in that. Acts 13:33 is the next and could in fact contain early creedal material.
that God hath fulfilled the same unto our children, in that he raised up Jesus; as also it is written in the second psalm, Thou art my Son, this day have I begotten thee.
This would include the idea that as the resurrected Son, Jesus is the rightful king of this world. He is the one meant to rule. Already, we have exalted language of Jesus. This isn’t counting what we find in the Pauline epistles that leads us to conclude that the earliest Christology is indeed the highest.
Still, what about Acts 14? As our writer goes on to say:
It is worthy of note that Paul and Barnabas did not take this opportunity to explain that it was not they but rather Jesus who was God come in human form. Such a clarification is what you would expect, if Trinitarian beliefs about Jesus are correct. Instead, they argued against such pagan beliefs and practices:
But when the apostles Barnabas and Paul heard of this, they tore their clothes and rushed out into the crowd, shouting:
“Men, why are you doing this? We too are only men, human like you. We are bringing you good news, telling you to turn from these worthless things to the living God, who made heaven and earth and sea and everything in them. [Acts 14:14-15]
Here we see that the Greco-Roman peoples that Paul and Barnabas were preaching to were in the habit of taking humans for gods. Despite Paul protesting that he was not a god, the people persisted in their belief: “Even with these words, they had difficulty keeping the crowd from sacrificing to them.” [Acts 14:18] From this example we can see that according to Christian history, it was a common practice for people to attribute divinity to other humans. In spite of Paul openly denying being a god, the people continued to worship and sacrifice to him. We can conclude that even if Jesus himself rejected being God at that time, the mindset of the people was such that they would still have found a way to deify him. This is not an isolated incident, as we read elsewhere that Gentiles believed Paul was a god because he survived a bite from a venomous snake:
It is actually not at all surprising. For one thing, I think Luke is speaking in a mocking tone about the people of Lystra. Yet why would Paul not be out spouting full Trinitarian theology at once? One problem is that a lot of people think that if the Trinity is true, that the earliest believers needed to be quoting the Nicene Creed. Not at all. They grew in their understanding like we all do. Paul himself spent three years in the wilderness rethinking everything he knew when he found out Jesus was the Messiah, and in many ways actually understood the ramifications of that better than the others.
Why would Paul not say Jesus was God in human form? Because the people of Lystra would be thinking of Zeus or some other polytheistic deity. Paul would start with where they were. We don’t know for sure what arguments he made as we’re given a picture and a paragraph, but all our writer has is a picture and a paragraph. You need more than that.
He also claims that since people were easily deified, it’s not a shock to think of that happening to Jesus. However, as has been shown, the claims of deity that we’ve already seen aren’t made to a pagan audience but a Jewish one. Jews would not be the ones to do that unless they had really good reason to believe that there had been an incarnation that had taken place. We also have to ask still “How did the idea that Jesus is deity ever come about?” Many people had risen from the dead in the Bible. None were said to be deity. Why Jesus? This is indeed a central question.
Let’s go on.
Once safely on shore, we found out that the island was called Malta.
The islanders showed us unusual kindness. They built a fire and welcomed us all because it was raining and cold.
Paul gathered a pile of brushwood and, as he put it on the fire, a viper, driven out by the heat, fastened itself on his hand.
When the islanders saw the snake hanging from his hand, they said to each other, “This man must be a murderer; for though he escaped from the sea, the goddess Justice has not allowed him to live.”
But Paul shook the snake off into the fire and suffered no ill effects.
The people expected him to swell up or suddenly fall dead; but after waiting a long time and seeing nothing unusual happen to him, they changed their minds and said he was a god. [Acts:28:1-6]
With this background in mind, it’s easy to see how Judaic phrases like “son of God” took on a different meaning when transported out of their Jewish monotheistic context into pagan Greco-Roman thought. The Trinity doctrine arose neither in a vacuum, nor strictly from the text of Scripture. It was the result of the influence of certain beliefs and attitudes that prevailed in and around the Church after the first century. The Church emerged in a Jewish and Greek world and so the primitive Church had to reconcile the notions they had inherited from Judaism with those they had derived from pagan mythology. In the words of the historian and Anglican bishop John Wand, “Jew and Greek had to meet in Christ”
Except the Gentiles never claimed Paul was a son of God. They were claiming he was a god. The Jews were the ones using the Son of God claim. Note that already our writer is claiming the church received ideas from pagan mythology. All we’ve seen so far is that some pagans thought Paul was a god. We have seen no evidence that the Jews received these ideas or that the early church did and if Luke is indeed mocking the people, then it is quite likely they did not.
It’s interesting to note that the Greco-Roman religions were filled with tales of gods procreating with human beings and begetting god-men. The belief that God could be incarnate, or that there were sons of God, were common and popular beliefs. For example, the chief god in the Greek pantheon, Zeus, visited the human woman Danae in the form of golden rain and fathered Perseus, a “god-man.” In another tale Zeus is said to have come to the human woman Alcmena, disguised as her husband. Alcmena bore Hercules, another “god-man.” Such tales bear a striking similarity to Trinitarian beliefs of God being begotten as a man. In fact, the early Christian apologist Justin Martyr, considered a saint in the Catholic Church, said the following in response to pagan criticisms that Christianity borrowed from their beliefs about the sons of God:
Well, not really. That a god could take on a human guise is one thing. That they would take on a human nature is entirely different. This is the claim about Jesus. Jesus entered into every aspect of human life, the good, the bad, and the ugly. (Not that Jesus Himself did anything bad of course.) That is in no way a similiarity to the Christian claims. Gentiles would be quite horrified by the thought of the gods doing something as shameful as actually becoming human. Still, let’s look at what our writer has to say about Justin Martyr.
When we say that the Word, who is our teacher, Jesus Christ the first born of God, was produced without sexual union, and that he was crucified and died and rose again, and ascended to heaven, we propound nothing new or different from what you [pagans] believe regarding those whom you consider sons of Jupiter.
And the comment on this is:
According to ancient Roman myth, Jupiter was the king of all the gods. Here Justin Martyr is telling Roman pagans that what the Christians believe about Jesus being the son of God is nothing different than what they believe about the sons of the god Jupiter. That the Church Fathers’ conception of the Trinity was a combination of Jewish monotheism and pagan polytheism can be seen in the testimony of Gregory of Nyssa, a fourth century bishop who is venerated as a saint in the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches. He also happens to be one of the great figures in the history of the philosophical formulation of the doctrine of the Trinity. He wrote:
We’ll see what comes from Gregory next, but let’s look at what Justin Martyr is saying. What is he defending? He is trying to defend the claim that the Christian religion is NOT shameful. Justin thought the parallels were there because the devil in the myths of the pagans was trying to imitate…..what was he trying to imitate?
The prophecies of Moses.
In fact, I find Justin’s parallels to be stretches. Why would he do this? To get the emperor to stop persecuting the Christians based on their believing something new and strange. In Justin’s time, new beliefs were viewed with suspicion so you tried to connect your beliefs to something old. That’s why Justin points to the Hebrew prophecies. (Get that. Justin believes that all about Jesus is prophesied in the Old Testament, not taken from pagans.) He is wanting pagan audiences to see parallels, indicating they probably didn’t see them before. Note also that there is no indication that the Christians took this on to be more hospitable to pagans. After all, here we are about 100 years later and if that was the plan, it has failed miserably.
I also want to be clear I don’t agree with Justin’s argument, but just because I don’t agree doesn’t mean I think we should misunderstand it. It can only be disagreed with truly if one truly understands it. Let’s make sure we are interpreting Justin rightly.
Now moving on to Gregory:
For the truth passes in the mean between these two conceptions, destroying each heresy, and yet, accepting what is useful to it from each. The Jewish dogma is destroyed by the acceptance of the Word and by belief in the Spirit, while the polytheistic error of the Greek school is made to vanish by the unity of the nature abrogating this imagination of plurality.
The Christian conception of God, argues Gregory of Nyssa, is neither purely the polytheism of the Greeks nor purely the monotheism of the Jews, but rather a combination of both.
There’s a little bit of error mixed in with the understanding here. The Trinity that Gregory accepted is montheistic, but it is not a unitarian monotheism. In fact, this is one of the first mistakes made in Trinitarian discussions. There’s an assumption that God must be one in person. In fact, Jews in the time of Jesus were open to a plurality in the Godhead and even afterward. Afterward, look at figures like Metatron. Before, look at figures like Wisdom and the Logos and sometimes the Son of Man as well.
Even the concept of God-men who were saviours of mankind was by no means exclusive to Jesus. Long before Jesus was born, it was not uncommon for military men and political rulers to be talked about as divine beings. More than that, they were even treated as divine beings: given temples, with priests, who would perform sacrifices in their honour, in the presence of statues of them. In Athens for example, Demetrios Poliorcetes (Demetrios the Conqueror of Cities, 337–283 BCE) was acclaimed as a divine being by hymn-writers because he liberated them from their Macedonian enemies:
How the greatest and dearest of the gods are present in our city! For the circumstances have brought together Demeter and Demetrios; she comes to celebrate the solemn mysteries of the Kore, while he is here full of joy, as befits the god, fair and laughing. His appearance is solemn, his friends all around him and he in their midst, as though they were stars and he the sun. Hail boy of the most powerful god Poseidon and Aphrodite! For other gods are either far away, or they do not have ears, or they do not exist, or do not take any notice of us, but you we can see present here, not made of wood or stone, but real. So we pray to you: first make peace, dearest; for you have the power…
Note that there is a difference between being a divine being, and being seen as ontologically equal to one supreme God. What is the claim of Jesus? Was Paul just preaching that Jesus was a divine being? Note also that you can show all day long other humans were turned into divine beings. That does not show that when it was done to Jesus, that it was done falsely. That would be like saying “Other Jews thought other figures were the Messiah, so when they thought it about Jesus they thought wrongly.” It doesn’t work.
The Athenians gave Demetrios an arrival that was fit for a god, burning incense on altars and making offerings to their new deified king. It must be pointed out that as time passed by, he did some other things that the Athenians did not approve of, and as a consequence they revoked their adoration of him. It seems that in the days before Jesus, divinity could be stripped away from human beings just as easily as it was granted. Perhaps the best known examples of God-men are the divine honours bestowed upon the rulers of the Roman Empire, starting with Julius Caesar. We have an inscription dedicated to him in 49 BCE discovered in the city of Ephesus, which says this about him
Descendant of Ares and Aphrodite
The God who has become manifest
And universal savior of human life
What of it? Claims were made of Caesar like this. Again, our writer will have to show that the claims were made falsely about Jesus. This has not been done. In fact, as we saw earlier, the claims were first made in a Jewish context. I plan on showing more of that later on.
So Julius Caesar was God manifest as man, the saviour of mankind. Sound familiar? Now prior to Julius Caesar, rulers in the city of Rome itself were not granted divine honours. But Caesar himself was – before he died, the senate approved the building of a temple for him, a cult statue, and a priest. Soon after his death, his adopted son and heir, Octavian, promoted the idea that at his death, Caesar had been taken up to heaven and been made a god to live with the gods. There was a good reason that Octavian wanted his adopted father to be declared a God. If his father was God, then what does that make him? This deification of Caesar set the precedent for what was to happen with the emperors, beginning with the first of them, Octavian himself, who became “Caesar Augustus” in 29 BCE. There is an inscription that survives from his lifetime found in the city of Halicarnassus (modern Turkey), which calls Augustus
…The native Zeus
and Savior of the human race
There’s something interesting about all of this. It does indeed sound familiar, but not for the same reasons. Let’s consider what is said by a Bart Ehrman blog which can be found here. If you will look through, the exact same references are used and many times, the same language is used. Ehrman is also a favorite of Muslims, so this doesn’t surprise me, but again, can the writer show that this happened with Jesus in a Jewish context?
This is yet another example of a divine saviour of mankind. Now Octavian happened to also be the “son of God” by virtue of his divine father Julius Caesar. In fact Octavian became known as ‘Divi filius’ (“Son of the Divine One”). These, of course, are all titles widely used by Christians today to describe Jesus. We must realise that the early Church did not come up with these titles out of the blue, they are all things said of other men before they were said of Jesus. For early Christians, the idea was not that Jesus was the only person who was ever called such things, this is a misconception. The concept of a divine human being who was the saviour of mankind was a sort of template that was applied to people of great power and authority. We’ve seen that the history of paganism is littered with such examples, and Jesus was just another divine saviour in a long list of divine saviours that had preceded him.
And this is it. There is no interaction with the divine claims found in the New Testament. There is no indication that pagans believed in a Trinity. Instead, we have the idea of “Pagans turned humans into deities so the same happend with Jesus.” That needs to be shown on all counts and not just asserted. Let’s look at some divine claims about Jesus.
Chris Tilling has a wonderful book called Paul’s Divine Christology. I have reviewed it here. Tilling’s hypothesis is that if there was something that set YHWH apart as deity it was His position as being in covenant relationship with Israel. When we go to the New Testament, we see this same language, but it’s not so much YHWH and Israel as it is Jesus and the church. The parallel is that Jesus is seen as the one the people of God honor in the New Testament in the way that God is honored in the Old Testament.
Another work worth reading is that edited by Michael Bird called How God Became Jesus. I have also reviewed that here and interviewed three of the authors here. You can get an excellent lesson on Christology there.
I regret that I haven’t read Larry Hurtado’s massive work Lord Jesus Christ yet, but I have read How On Earth Did Jesus Become A God?. Hurtado points to some of our early creedal traditions. Jesus is spoken of as the Lord. The language is saying “Anathema, Maranatha.” It refers to the coming of the Lord and is in Aramaic, something Gentiles were not known for speaking. This is high language of Jesus referring to the coming of the Lord. Romans 1:3-4 referring to the divine nature of Jesus fits in this as well as this is also a creedal statement.
The writer might also be interesting in my talk with Rob Bowman on the Trinity. For John, there is my talk with Paul Rainbow on Johannine theology. There are plenty of other authors that could be read like Bauckham and O’Collins and others. Our writer did not interact with any and it’s very easy to make a case if you ignore all the best arguments against your position.
Also, I point to statements such as Paul’s of Jesus being in the divine nature in Philippians 2 and then the language of Isaiah that was applied to God alone. Revelation has all creation in chapter 5 worshiping Him who sits on the throne and the Lamb. Note that the Lamb is separated from all creation. In fact, a fascinating way to study Revelation is to go through and see not what it says about whatever your view is of end times, but what does it say about Jesus?
Matthew also begins with early on having Jesus being seen as Immanuel, meaning “God with us.” In the end, Jesus says He has been given all authority and says “I am with you always.” These are bookends. In the middle, He also says that when two or three are gathered, He is in their midst, which is a reference to what was said about YHWH in the study of Torah by the Jews.
We could go on and on with Jesus forgiving someone in the book of Mark and Mark 1 having Scripture that applied to YHWH being applied to Jesus, with Hebrews, a thoroughly Jewish book, having an opening chapter that is a massive tour de force on Jesus being fully equal with God, and with Jesus saying that all must honor Him as they honor the Father in John. The person wanting to know more about this is invited to go to the best scholars on both sides and study the issue.
In conclusion, I find that the writer just hasn’t made his case. He has spent so much time looking at the pagans, that he has not looked at Jesus at all really. What happened in the life of Jesus? What is the evidence? A suspicion is not the same as an argument. The same arguments made could be used to argue that Jesus wasn’t really the Messiah, which Islam would not want to say.
If the writer wants to show true pagan influence, I hope they do better next time.