Christian beliefs and their origins

I don’t often hang out in GQ, so if this is a question that’s been tackled fairly recently, please forgive me.

Anyway, I was just a little curious if anyone could point out a few little tid bits of information as to where some standard Christian/Catholic beliefs come from. I know that anyone can find a place in the Bible to justify anything, but it’s fairly common knowledge that certain major holidays, such as Christmas and Easter, were originally Pagan or Roman holidays, and the concept of transubstantiation is something the Egyptians practiced long before the Catholics picked it up. But aside from these and a few other little things, I’m pretty much at a loss, and I’m a little curious about knowing more specifics about those I have mentioned, so if anyone out there’s a big theology/ancient culture buff and can help out here, that’d be great.

Catholic priests used to be able to marry. I saw an a documtentry that the church changed that mainly for finacial reasons. As a priest died, his earthly belongings would be left to the church AND not to a wife or kids. Leaving the church nice and rich!

I recently did a whole lot of reading on that exact topic, but alas, that info is at my house, and I write from my office, so I can not offer too much.

However, although the Baptists can trace their history back to the first century, the Catholic church was officially formed in 313 AD, and have through the years and ecumenical councils, created many of the church doctrines that you see today, such as purgatory, Mary worship, Saint worship, transubstantiation, etc. The protestant churches such as the Presbyterians, the Methodists, the Episcopalians / Anglicans, and the Lutherans were all created in the Reformation pretty much during the 16th century.

From the various sources I was reading, it would appear that as certain preachers disagreed with the Catholic dosctrines, they formed their own churches.

I do not have my books with me, though, so sorry that I can not provide specific years or ecumencial councils for the adoption of various doctrines. However, all sources seem to agree that almost all of the Catholic doctrines were most certainly not orginal, and can be traced back to very specific eceumenical councils, which I found rather interesting.

How far back do you want to go? From what I understand, the whole good god/bad god (God vs. the devil) can be traced back to the Zoroastrian religion of ancient persia. This influenced judaism, from which which christianity grew.

As to the xtian holidays & traditions, they were all pretty much influenced/based on earlier religions’ traditions. has some information on the Roman saturnalia. has some of the similarities between the cults of Jesus & Mithra (Zoroastrian), which long predates christianity.

[heavily paraphrased, short, short, short version]

Christianity itself was based off of Jews rebelling against the current system (Romans an such). This is why the Old Testament is all bout the Jews - no Christians yet.

Christianity carried on as an oral tradition religion - what some would call a cult - until around 300 C.E. (A.D. for all of you religious types). Then the Christians started to think “Hey, maybe this Jesus guy isn’t coming back as soon as we had hoped…” It was then that they began to pen to New Testament. It was around this time that the Catholic church was formed.

Later, some German guy got pissy at the Catholics and started his own branch (Lutheranism)… Also a real sonuvabitch King got in a tiff with the Church and broke off his little piece (Church of England, or Church of Sick Bastard for you Eddie Izzard fans). Later they merged… etc etc

IMHO - I think most Christian systems have evolved from people getting pissed at the Pope.

For what its worth I have also heard this as well. Apparently the church had trouble with many ladies making claims on church wealth upon the death of its priests. You could imagine how much chaos this would cause when a high profile pastor died.

It’s hard to find good, unbiased sources on this stuff. Pro-church writers minimize the connections with other religions, anti-church writers do the opposite.

For instance, The Jesus Mysteries by Freke and Gandy gives many parallels between Christian beliefs and pagan religions, but basically ignores all the modern scholarship on the subject. They have a second book now which I haven’t bothered to read.

A good book on the origins of Satan and hell is The Old Enemy, by Neil Forsyth. Also The formation of Hell by Alan Bernstein.

BTW, I’ve done a lot of reading on this, but I’ve never heard that the Egyptians had transubstantiation. Do you have a reference?

Yeeeesh, folks! Could we do this without all the rumors and lies that float around? This is supposed to be the Straight Dope®.

Jack Chick is not a valid source of information regarding religious or theological history. The “Egyptian” connection is nonsense.

Simply nonsense–nearly every thought expressed, here.

The Catholic Church was not “formed” in 313. Christianity (in all its divisions) was recognized as a legal religion within the Roman Empire in 313. (This would include any purported Baptists (who cannot, of course, trace their origin back to the first century, being a clear manifestation of the Protestant Reformation). It is, indeed, possible to look at the Orthodox, Catholic, Syriac, and Coptic churches and claim that one or the other has “gone astray,” but all of them can clearly trace their origins back to the first century and none of them were “created” at later dates.

Catholics do not “worship” Mary or other saints.

Transubstantiation is a philosophical/theological explanation or description of the belief held by Christians from the first century that Jesus is physically present in the Eucharist. Again, it can be argued that the particular Catholic explanation expounded most clearly by Thomas Aquinas in the tradition of Aristotle is not the proper explanation, but it is not a “creation” of the Catholic Church.

This statement has a kernel of truth in it, but it is off the mark, a bit. The discipline of celibacy for priests is urged by some writers as early as the second century. By the fourth century, it was declared mandatory by a synod in Spain (but not adopted by the whole church). The idea that priests’ inheritances were gobbled up by the church exactly reverses the problem that the eleventh century celibacy laws were enacted to fight. What had been happening was that some bishops (and some priests) had been trying to leave the (community built, church funded) properties to their heirs.
Most of the celibacy issues have been explained (with citations) in the Catholic Priests and Celibacy thread from a couple of years back.

Now, the choice of the date of Christmas was quite possibly intended as a usurpation of pagan holidays and the name Easter is taken from the worship of an old goddess of Britain (note that the Romance languages use words derived from “passover,” the Jewish holiday that is most closely related to Good Friday and Holy Thursday). However, the celebration of the Resurrection dates to the earliest days of the Church regardless of any pagan influence (and, in fact, is responsible for the Christians moving the “Lord’s Day” from Saturday to Sunday).

A sentence dropped out of my first paragraph during editing:

As far as I know, I think Easter is not based on a pagan festival. Some of its aspect (perhaps the Easter bunny) may be pagan but I don’t think the date is…

I based my reasoning that the date for Easter is derived from the day of Good Friday, and Good Friday is derived from the Passover Feast. Please do correct me if I am wrong.

Boy, Tom…as I was reading the first posts, my hair started standing on end, and I started wondering Jeez, when is tomndebb gonna show up? :slight_smile:

Depends how you define “Easter.”

Encarta may not be the best resource, but it’ll have to suffice:

Catholicism has its specific tenets and beliefs, however, the ways of celebration incorporate many pagan beliefs, deriving from many pagan cultures. What Catholics did was fix their own celebrations to coincide with traditional pagan celebrations and eventually supplant them. This was relatively simple to do since most pagan celebrations were fixed by fairly immutable phenomena - seasons, the equinoxes and the solstices.

The vernal equinox, when spring begins in the Northern Hemisphere, occurs about March 21, when the sun moves north across the celestial equator. The autumnal equinox falls about September 23, as the sun crosses the celestial equator going south.

A solstice occurs when the sun’s apparent path is farthest north or south from earth’s equator. In the Northern Hemisphere the summer solstice occurs on June 21 or 22, the winter solstice on December 21 or 22.

The Vernal Equinox was the most celebrated by pagans as it represents the return of the sun to the northern hemisphere and symbolizes fertility and renewal. Most Easter trappings represent fertility and rebirth.

The winter solstice (and Christmas) is closely related to and incorporates the birth of the Roman god Mithra (Dec. 25); the Roman holiday Saturnalia (Dec. 17 - gift giving and merrymaking); and the Roman New Year (Jan. 1 - greenery and lights).

Also remember that the early Roman Catholic Church did as much as they could to divorce their celebrations from Jewish celebrations - hence things such as the Sunday Sabbath and the dissociation of Easter from Passover.

A common question is why does the date of Easter change? The simple explanation is that Easter occurs on the first Sunday following the first full moon after the Vernal Equinox. Thus, Easter can fall anywhere from March 21 to April 18 (inclusive).

Easter is actually calculated using an archaic set of tables which determines the “Paschal Full Moon.” Therefore, what you may calculate from actual observance can differ from the official Easter by up to 2 full days.

If you like numbers, it’s all explained here:

The origins of Christmas along with its pagan connections was discussed a few weeks ago in Saturnalia and Soltice.
The origins of Easter were mentioned in passing while discussing its date selection in About Easter.

Hallowe’en (All Hallow’s Eve) has been discussed several times, most recently (in my memory) in a rather rancorous debate, Christian Fundamentalists vs. Halloween, that, despite the snarly attitudes of some posters, provided links to several good historical sites on Hallowe’en.
A good source for a lot of the early traditions and pagan connections turns out to be the Catholic Encyclopedia. Written between 1907 and 1919 (and, thus, subject to occasional bouts of Protestant-bashing and self-justification), it is still a thoroughly researched work that does not shy away from explaining the actual origins of many traditions, including pagan links. Looking up Valentine or other saint-related holidays, for example, will provide a lot information on the subject.

When the Roman Empire adopted Christianity, the Church tried to wipe out existing pagan holidays and replace them with observances of a Christian nature. In that regard, they were only partially successful.

Long before the birth of Jesus, most pagans had winter holidays or feasts. The Roman version was Saturnalia, celebrated around the Winter solstice. Similarly, long before he birth of Jesus, pagans usually had Spring festivals, often dedicated to a goddess of fertility. Such festivals celebrated the annual “rebirth” of the Earth after a long, cold winter.

The Christian Church tried to replace pagan winter festivals with a celebration of Christ’s birth, and they tried to replace pagan Spring festivals with a celebration of Christ’s resurrection. But while the pagan holidays were formally abolished, people continued to retain all sorts of practices, rituals and symbols associated with the older holidays.

Christian doctrine and beliefs are not “stolen” from paganism- but
many cusoms associated with Christianity ARE pagan in origin. TO some, that’s a sign that Christianity (especially Catholicism) is tainted by paganism. I prefer to think that one of Christianity’s strength’s was its ability to incorporate the traditions of many peoples.

To use another example, the shamrock had symbolic meaning to my pagan Irish ancestors long before St. Patrick came to Ireland. Patrick was able to use that symbol to help them understand the Trinity. A smart missionary meets potential converts on their own terms, teaches them what’s important about Christianity, and helps them fit their old beliefs and practices into a Christian framework. I don’t have a problem with that.

A fundamentalist may be outraged that Irish Christians still honor the shamrock, a pagan symbol. A non-believer may be amused! I think BOTH are missing the point.

So, Easter is NOT a pagan holiday- but all sorts of Easter symbols (eggs, bunny rabbits, etc.) do have their origins in older pagan religions. Similarly, Christmas is NOT a pagan holiday- but many of the popular trappings of Christmas (things like decorating trees) had their origins in older pagan customs.

Nicely put, astorian. The concepts being celebrated–Jesus’ birth and resurrection–are, of course, completely Christian. The non-essential trappings are borrowed from pagan customs.

It’s like saying that we celebrate the 4th of July with fireworks–therefore, Independence Day was stolen from the Chinese.

I recommend this site, it’s not definative but gives a good overview of the scene:

“The Bible & Christianity - Historical Origins”

Lots of different perspectives on this I see. From what I’ve read the term Catholic originated around 300 AD. But the papacy of what is now the Catholic Church traces directly back to the Apostle Peter (Simon, Cephas). Thats the Catholic perspective anywho.

Actually, I heard this in a discussion session back in college. Going back and finding out that Chick mentioned it as well, I feel like a dumbass for not investigating this more sooner. My appologies.

Thanks a lot for many of the links out there. I know about Christianity “adopting” localized beliefs and whatnot to help get in touch with the local people. My favorite story is of a saint that was made up to help replace the god Cernunnos. They made a statue of a saint, gave him horns, made up a funny reason for it, and thus, Cernunnos was now a Christian figure.

And it seems to me that using that example, one can say that the trappings seem to take the focus away from the essence of the holiday. The 4th of July is not about celebrating Independence, but about setting off firecrackers. In some views, that’s the “problem” with Christmas, Easter, and Holloween. The trappings, i.e. overemphasis on presents, dressing up for trick or treating, take away the focus of the meaning of the day. To a different point of view, the “problem” is that the relatively recent grafting of Christian theology onto pre-existing celebrations distorts the essence of those celebrations i.e. what was a perfectly reasonable celebration- the return of the sun! - morphed into a celebration of a religious event. It’s all so interesting. Good thread.