Pagan roots

(Book: First Apology, by Justin Martyr, courtesy of The Christian Classics Ethereal Library.)

One of the more interesting aspects of Justin Martyr’s writings is the way he promiscuously borrows from whatever sources he feels will bolster his case, be they Christian sources, Jewish sources, or pagan sources. If you’re a thinking person, you might read Justin’s frequent parallels between Christian dogma and pagan myths, and might wonder just how much of new Christian revelation is really just old pagan superstition, re-packaged and re-branded.

That notion apparently bothered Justin too, and today he’s going to take a few moments to try and poison the well so that we don’t pursue that thought too far. The parallels, he says, don’t mean that Christianity imitated paganism. Oh no.

But those who hand down the myths which the poets have made, adduce no proof to the youths who learn them; and we proceed to demonstrate that they have been uttered by the influence of the wicked demons, to deceive and lead astray the human race.

Notice how Justin chastizes the pagans for failing to provide proofs for what they claim. If you were a cynic, you might hazard a guess that Justin would immediately follow that accusation with an argument for which he himself “adduces no proof.” And you’d be exactly right.

You may recall back in chapter 21 of the First Apology Justin argued that Christian teachings were just as credible as pagan myths because Jesus only did the same sort of things as the “sons of Jupiter” did.

[When] we say also that the Word, who is the first-birth of God, was produced without sexual union, and that He, Jesus Christ, our Teacher, was crucified and died, and rose again, and ascended into heaven, we propound nothing different from what you believe regarding those whom you esteem sons of Jupiter. For you know how many sons your esteemed writers ascribed to Jupiter: Mercury, the interpreting word and teacher of all; Æsculapius, who, though he was a great physician, was struck by a thunderbolt, and so ascended to heaven; and Bacchus too, after he had been torn limb from limb; and Hercules, when he had committed himself to the flames to escape his toils; and the sons of Leda, and Dioscuri; and Perseus, son of Danae; and Bellerophon, who, though sprung from mortals, rose to heaven on the horse Pegasus.

So if all those things could happen to the offspring of pagan gods, then it shouldn’t be too astonishing if Jesus did them too, right? Ok, point made, point won, Jesus’ story is credible because pagan gods have done the same things. But pay attention now. All Justin wants us to remember from that argument is that he won it. That’s the only take-away we’re supposed to take away. Because what he’s going to argue next is that those pagan stories are all lies.

For having heard it proclaimed through the prophets that the Christ was to come, and that the ungodly among men were to be punished by fire, they [the demons] put forward many to be called sons of Jupiter, under the impression that they would be able to produce in men the idea that the things which were said with regard to Christ were mere marvellous tales, like the things which were said by the poets.

It’s all a conspiracy, you see. The demons were reading their Bibles one day, like all good demons do, and they noticed these prophecies, and they understood them exactly the same way Justin did (hmmm…). And then they invented these pagan myths, and planted them in the pagan religions, so that people would think the real prophecies were myths too. And that worked so well that they created fake fossils and buried them in the ground so people would believe in evolution. Or something.

And these things were said both among the Greeks and among all nations where they [the demons] heard the prophets foretelling that Christ would specially be believed in; but that in hearing what was said by the prophets they did not accurately understand it, but imitated what was said of our Christ, like men who are in error, we will make plain.

Ok, so they didn’t understand these prophecies quite as well as Justin did. They made a few mistakes along the way. To err is human (and not just human, apparently). It’s kind of cute, in a way, how Justin assumes that demons are wicked and powerful and diabolically clever, and yet somehow the believer is always able to see through all their tricks and out-smart them. (Notice, too, how he “adduces no proof” that the demons actually did any such thing. Proofs are for pagan poets.)

The prophet Moses, then, was, as we have already said, older than all writers; and by him, as we have also said before, it was thus predicted: “There shall not fail a prince from Judah, nor a lawgiver from between his feet, until He come for whom it is reserved; and He shall be the desire of the Gentiles, binding His foal to the vine, washing His robe in the blood of the grape.” The devils, accordingly, when they heard these prophetic words, said that Bacchus was the son of Jupiter, and gave out that he was the discoverer of the vine, and they number the ass among his mysteries; and they taught that, having been torn in pieces, he ascended into heaven. And because in the prophecy of Moses it had not been expressly intimated whether He who was to come was the Son of God, and whether He would, riding on the foal, remain on earth or ascend into heaven, … gave out that Bellerophon, a man born of man, himself ascended to heaven on his horse Pegasus. And when they heard it said by the other prophet Isaiah, that He should be born of a virgin, and by His own means ascend into heaven, they pretended that Perseus was spoken of. And when they knew what was said, as has been cited above, in the prophecies written aforetime, “Strong as a giant to run his course,” they said that Hercules was strong, and had journeyed over the whole earth. And when, again, they learned that it had been foretold that He should heal every sickness, and raise the dead, they produced Æsculapius.

TL;DR: all the Greek myths are the result of demons trying to plagiarize Moses, and any differences are because they got the words wrong. Interestingly, Justin cites the prophet Moses as the source for the “prince of Judah” prophecy, even though this was supposed to have been Jacob’s blessing on Judah, uttered before Moses was even born. Justin is probably right—the whole prophecy was probably the work of someone other than Jacob, though the evidence suggests a priestly source some time early in David’s reign rather than Moses himself.

Equally interesting is the fact that Justin attributes the myth of Hercules to a demonic interpretation of Psalm 19:5, “In [the heavens] He has placed a tent for the sun, Which is as a bridegroom coming out of his chamber; It rejoices as a strong man to run his course.” The whole myth of Hercules came from that one symbolic remark in Psalm 19. No more far-fetched than any of Justin’s other “prophetic” interpretations, I suppose, but still pretty bizarre.

One thing the demons emphatically could not foresee, though, is the crucifixion, at least according to Justin. After all, you want Christian dogma to have at least something that hasn’t been snagged out of old pagan legends, and crucifixion seems a likely bet.

But in no instance, not even in any of those called sons of Jupiter, did they imitate the being crucified; for it was not understood by them, all the things said of it having been put symbolically.

Despite all their diabolical cleverness, demons apparently can’t understand prophecies when they’re symbolic (except in Psalm 19, I guess). It’s just one of those magical rules that spontaneously pops into existence whenever believers need it. Curiously, though, it seems the symbology of the cross is pretty hard to miss, according to Justin.

And this, as the prophet foretold, is the greatest symbol of His power and role; as is also proved by the things which fall under our observation. For consider all the things in the world, whether without this form they could be administered or have any community. For the sea is not traversed except that trophy which is called a sail abide safe in the ship; and the earth is not ploughed without it: diggers and mechanics do not their work, except with tools which have this shape. And the human form differs from that of the irrational animals in nothing else than in its being erect and having the hands extended, and having on the face extending from the forehead what is called the nose, through which there is respiration for the living creature; and this shows no other form than that of the cross. And so it was said by the prophet, “The breath before our face is the Lord Christ.”

Apparently you have to be pretty thick to fail to notice that the shape of the cross is everywhere. The mast of a ship, right? (Justin says “sail,” but I presume he was thinking of the furled sail making a cross with respect to the mast.) The shape of a plow. The various tools used by diggers and mechanics. Even the fact that you can stand up and stretch your arms out to the side. Even your nose.

Yes, somehow Justin sees a cross in the shape of your nose. Don’t ask me how. It’s there, at least as far as he’s concerned. He seems to be associating it with Lamentations 4 somehow, but it’s a “grownups can’t see it” sort of mystery—hidden from demons, but plainly visible to believers. Magic doesn’t have to be rational.

Let’s hit the fast-forward button for just a bit here, because the next chapter or three can be quickly summed up. Justin says that demons are still deceiving people through the powers of magicians like Simon and Menander, and he still thinks that there’s an idol of Simon in Rome, that people are worshipping, and he asks Caesar to destroy the statue. Justin also gives demons credit for the teachings of Marcion, who was actually a Christian bishop but whose teachings were regarded as heretical. And why were Christians being persecuted in Justin’s day? You guessed it: demons again.

From there Justin’s mind flits to saying that Plato plagiarized Moses when he said God created the world out of unformed matter. Genesis 1 says that God created the heavens and the earth, and the earth was without form and void, and Plato also mentions God shaping “unformed” matter, so Plato stole the whole idea from Moses. (Apparently it never occurred to Justin that someone might imagine a creator God without having to read Genesis first.)

And finally, in chapter 60, he makes the argument that when Plato makes a reference to the soul of man being placed cross-wise on the soul of the universe, Plato is really referring to the story in Numbers 21 where the Israelites said something that pissed off God, and He sent poisonous snakes to bite them, and Moses made a bronze serpent and set it on a pole, and people could look at the bronze serpent and not die after being bitten. The idea is that being saved by looking at a snake on a pole is like Christians being saved by looking at Jesus on the cross.

The striking thing about this story is the “crosswise” element. That’s the one thing that’s not present in the story of the bronze serpent, and yet somehow that’s supposed to be the one thing that Plato plagiarized from it. How Plato is supposed to plagiarize the one element that’s not actually in the story, I’m not sure, but that’s the conclusion Justin draws. Maybe this is one of those magical symbolic thingies that only believers can see.

And the moral of the story?

It is not, then, that we hold the same opinions as others, but that all speak in imitation of ours.

Yeah, that’s the ticket. The reason there are so many parallels between Christianity and pagan religions is because the pagan religions are imitating Christianity—even when the pagan religions came first.

7 Responses to “Pagan roots”

  1. Nemo Says:

    Off the point, but the formatting of this post switches from ragged-right to right-justified halfway through. It even does it in the RSS feed. It seems to start with the “But in no instance” quote block.


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