- 22 Jan 20
As another Christmas arrives, it’s again worth considering the innumerable flaws in the Christian seasonal narrative – and, by contrast, the enlightened pagan outlook.
Days before Xmas you are out for a nosh and a few scoops before hitting the shops and the next thing you know you’re being buffeted and tripped by a troupe of urchins trilling sweetly about Jesus. Clip on the ear some of them want.
Pagans, by way of contrast, are a pleasant sort of people. You hardly ever hear pagans giving out about Christians thieving their winter festival.
It would be different if the boot were on the alternative foot. Kill you as quick as they’d look at you, Christians, if they suspected you’d dissed their crazy-moon beliefs. That’s the mindset which enabled them to multiply and prosper in the years after Jesus, even as pagans were scattered to the wind, slaughtered in droves, tortured to death.
It’s unthinkingly, routinely remarked, even by sensible, secular people, that cruel behaviour is “un-Christian.” “Christian” is used as a qualifier of kindness, mercy, love. Violent factions are urged – “Can ye not behave like Christians?” This is a misuse of words and a distortion of history.
If all the early Christians had wanted to do was practice their religion in peace, the civil authorities would have accommodated them, no problem. Had they set about recruitment by pious example or rational argument or magical tricks, they would, by and large, have been accorded the courtesy of a hearing. The Roman world had scores of religions, some of them less daft than others. Every neck of the woods had its own assortment of deities. It wouldn’t have occurred to anyone that believing in Juno would be offensive to Vesta, or that proclaiming the divinity of Jesus would incur Jupiter’s wrath. Rome’s representative in Palestine at the time, Pontius Pilate, was a gentleman compared to the Christian dogmatists soon to assert themselves.
None of this conforms to the standard narrative of Christianity’s origin, of the winsome infant, ever-virgin mother and sturdy father assembled in classical formation amid the frugal comfort of a soft-glow stable, star-stained sky poised for glory to descend.
The first adherents of the cult may have been humble, prayerful people right enough, maybe even watching their flocks by night as they followed the arc of a star from the East. But once they had the strength and the swagger, they set about obliteration of all rivals.
The fact that key aspects of core Christian beliefs were widely shared across the Middle East made it all the more necessary that other claimants be suppressed. The world was coming down with gods born to virgins around the time of the Winter Solstice – Osiris (Egypt), Adonis (Syria), Dionysius (Greece), Attis (Phrygia), Mithras (Persia) and a flock of other fatherless deities were all well-established, and had millions of followers long before Jesus was a gleam in the eye of the Holy Ghost.
The prevalence of these myths arises from the rhythm of nature. This is the moment of the year when the earth turns the cold corner of winter, when people in past times could celebrate survival, break open the stores, look forward to the warmth of the sun on their faces and the miraculous blossoming of new life, a time to laugh and love and shrug off restraint.
All learned Christians, including popes, have known all this all along. In “Jesus of Nazareth – The Infancy Narratives”, published seven years ago, Benedict XVI conceded that Jesus had been born years earlier than the Church had preached, that the event did not take place on December 25th, or in a stable, that there was no basis for believing there was an ox and ass involved in the matter, much less a little drummer boy going “Pa rum-pum-pum-pum.” (Although if we rule the babe-in-a-manger business in, why baulk at the suggestion of a pre-incarnation John Bonham?).
Benedict’s admission that the foundation myth of Christianity was as full of holes as slab of Swiss cheese did not, of course, prompt him to cancel the annual nativity scene in St. Peter’s Square, complete with manger, swaddling clothes, limpid-eyed livestock and all the trimmings. The show must go on, he may have murmured to himself.
The Bethlehem story inviting you in is the exact equivalent of the chain-store adverts currently alluring you with soft soap and angel-song to pay over the odds for tinsel and tat.
If you have a present still to buy, consider The Darkening Age: The Christian Destruction Of The Classical World. Wonderfully well-researched and beautifully written by Catherine Nixey, it presents the early Christians as they were, bearded, black-robed, wielding cut-throat weapons, roaming Syria, Iraq, Palestine, bellowing fealty to their wrathful god as they descended on pagan homesteads and villages like wolves on the fold.
Statues of the old gods which had stood proud for centuries were toppled and broken to bits, exquisite pieces of ancient art trampled into the dust, the writings of poets, philosophers, mathematicians, historians shredded or piled onto bonfires. All previous learning deemed diabolical.
Nixey encapsulates the difference between Christians and pagans by reference to St. Augustine (“That all superstition of pagans and heathens should be annihilated is what God wants, commands, proclaims”) and pagan writer Symmachus (“We see the same stars, the same world surrounds us. What does it matter what wisdom a person uses to seek for the truth?”). Let’s have a traditional non-Christian festival this year. Eat, drink and be merry, kiss strangers on the street.