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Did the Catholic Church Have Its Origin in Paganism?

There are many points of agreement between Protestants and Catholics; there are also many points of disagreement. In this article, I want to present an honest, unbiased evaluation, separate from any other doctrinal considerations.

As a young preacher, I was introduced to The Two Babylons, a book written over a century earlier by Rev. Alexander Hislop, which claimed that the religion of ancient Babylon, under the leadership of Nimrod and his wife Semiramis, was disguised with Christian-sounding names and became what is known today as the Catholic Church.

“The essential character of her system, the grand objects of her worship, her festivals, her doctrine and discipline, her rites and ceremonies, her priesthood and their orders,” Hislop wrote, “have all been derived from ancient Babylon.” Furthermore, if Belshazzar were to come back to life “and enter St. Peter’s at Rome . . . he would conclude that he had only entered one of his own well-known temples, and that all things continued as they were at Babylon.” Thus “two Babylons”—the ancient one in Babylon, the modern one being described in the book of Revelation as “Babylon the Great, the mother of harlots and abominations of the earth.”

Hislop’s subtitle, The Papal Worship Proved to be the Worship of Nimrod and his Wife, seemed to me at the time to be factual. Though the arguments were complicated and difficult to follow, he did present all kinds of pagan parallels to rites and teachings of the Catholic Church. Consequently, some of us quoted Hislop as an authority on paganism, just like Webster might be quoted on word definitions.

I later wrote a book based on Hislop’s teaching called Babylon Mystery Religion. It became quite popular, went through many printings, and was translated into several languages. Many preferred my book over The Two Babylons because it was less involved and easier to read. Sometimes the two books were confused with each other. On one occasion someone mistakenly introduced me as “Rev. Hislop.” Some people came to regard me as an authority on the subject. At the time, Karl Keating wrote: “Its best-known proponent is Ralph Woodrow, author of Babylon Mystery Religion.”

I got many letters expressing appreciation for the book and only an occasional one dissenting. One who disagreed was Scott Klemm, a high school history teacher in California. A Lutheran, Klemm’s disagreement did not reflect any doctrinal bias. He simply recognized that Hislop was not a reliable historian, and he demonstrated that citing pagan parallels is insufficient. After honestly, carefully, and prayerfully going back over all of this, I realized that he was right.

‘Undercover Jesuit’

In 1997 our ministry quit publishing Babylon Mystery Religion. I presented the details about the reasons for the change in another book, The Babylon Connection? I received some fine letters from both Catholics and Protestants expressing appreciation for the clarification and correction.

I also got mean-spirited letters from radical anti-Catholic folks who felt I had given in to the enemy. Some used terms like stupid and scum. They said I was “scared of the truth,” a “low-down coward,” “traitor to Christ,” and following “a false god.” One letter accused me of being an “undercover Jesuit.”

It puzzles me how some can be so fanatical against one set of errors—or what they perceive to be errors—only to develop greater and more obvious errors: becoming judgmental, hateful, and dishonest.

Rumors flew. According to one, “the Catholics” put so much pressure on me that I had a heart attack and almost died. Consequently, I “recanted” and wrote the other book. Another rumor had it that my motives were financial—my desire was to be popular and make more money. To the contrary, our ministry faced much financial loss because of the decision to take the original book out of print.

I recall a man saying, “I know the Catholics really must be persecuting you. Tell me, what all are they doing to you?” He seemed disappointed when I told him I had not been persecuted by Catholics.

My reason for pulling the original book out of print was quite basic: Citing similarities between Catholic practices and pagan practices proves nothing if there is no actual connection. One could take virtually anything—even McDonald’s golden arches—and do the same: The Encyclopedia Americana (article: “arch”) says the use of arches was known in Babylon as early as 2020 B.C. As Babylon was called “the golden city” (Is. 14:4, KJV), can there be any doubt about the origin of the golden arches? As silly as this is, this is the type of proof that has been offered again and again about the supposed pagan origins of the Catholic Church.

It is the same method atheists use in seeking to discredit the Bible and Christianity altogether—not just the Catholic Church. By this method, one also could condemn Protestant and Evangelical denominations such as the Assemblies of God, Baptist, Church of Christ, Lutheran, Methodist and Nazarene: Basic things such as prayer and kneeling in prayer would have to be rejected, as pagans knelt and prayed to their gods. Water baptism would have to be rejected, for pagans had numerous rites involving water. The list could go on and on.

By this method, even the Bible would have to be rejected as pagan. All of the following practices or beliefs mentioned in the Bible were also known among pagans: raising hands in worship, taking off shoes on holy ground, a holy mountain, a holy place in a temple, offering sacrifices without blemish, a sacred ark, a city of refuge, bringing forth water from a rock, laws written on stone, fire appearing on a person’s head, horses of fire, the offering of first fruits, and tithes.

By this method, the Lord himself would be pagan. The woman called Mystery Babylon had a cup in her hand; the Lord has a cup in his hand (Ps. 75:8). Pagan kings sat on thrones and wore crowns; the Lord sits on a throne and wears a crown (Rev. 1:4; 14:14). Pagans worshiped the sun; the Lord is the “sun of righteousness” (Mal. 4:2). Pagan gods were likened to stars; the Lord is called “the bright morning star” (Rev. 22:16). Pagan gods had temples dedicated to them; the Lord has a temple (Rev. 7:15). Pagan gods were pictured with wings; the Lord is pictured with wings (Ps. 91:4).

Tabloid sensationalism

Hislop taught that mythological persons such as Adonis, Apollo, Bacchus, Cupid, Dagon, Hercules, Janus, Mars, Mithra, Moloch, Orion, Osiris, Pluto, Saturn, Vulcan, Zoraster, and many more were all Nimrod. He then formed his own “history” of Nimrod and did the same with Nimrod’s wife. According to his theory, Nimrod was a big, ugly, deformed black man. His wife, Semiramis—also known as Easter, he says—was a beautiful white woman with blond hair and blue eyes. She was a backslider, the inventor of soprano singing, the originator of priestly celibacy, and the first to whom the unbloody mass was offered. This is not factual history—it is more in the category of tabloid sensationalism.

The claim made in Hislop’s subtitle—The Papal Worship Proved to be the Worship of Nimrod and his Wife—does not stand up under investigation. I carefully checked the articles on Nimrod and Semiramis in many recognized reference works, including the Encyclopedia AmericanaEncyclopedia BritannicaEncyclopedia JudaicaEncyclopedia of ReligionNew Catholic Encyclopedia, and World Book Encyclopedia. Not one says anything about Nimrod and Semiramis being husband and wife. They evidently did not live in the same century. The Bible says very little about Nimrod and nothing about his wife. Historians agree that the information is sketchy. So how could claims about Nimrod and his wife prove anything?

It has been said that a communicator takes the complex and makes it simple; a “complicator” takes the simple and makes it complex. It seems to me that basing arguments about errors in the Catholic Church (or any other group) on details about Nimrod and Semiramis tends to complicate and confuse rather than clarify the real issues.

Following Hislop’s teaching, some claim that round objects (such as round communion wafers) are symbols of the Sun-god. But they fail to mention that the manna given by God was round (Ex. 16:14, KJV). Some are ready to condemn all pillars and historical monuments as pagan. But they fail to take into account that the Lord appeared as a pillar of fire and that in front of his temple there were two large pillars (Ex. 13:21–22; 2 Chr. 3:17).

In Eastern cultures, the many-seeded pomegranate was regarded as a fertility symbol. Nevertheless, 400 pomegranates adorned the two pillars in front of the temple (2 Chr. 4:13). Pomegranates alternated with bells on the robe of the high priest (Ex. 39:24). The Israelites did not refrain from using the pomegranate symbol, even though pagans in nearby Syria worshiped a god named Rimmon, meaning “Pomegranate” (2 Kgs. 5:18; Strong’s Concordance, 7417, 7416).

Foolish extremes

The harlot called “Mystery Babylon” is described as being “arrayed in purple and scarlet” (Rev. 17:4). Some immediately link these colors with the bright and highly decorated vestments worn by the pope and others within the hierarchy of the Catholic Church. But these colors do not establish that connection.

Purple and scarlet were used for the tabernacle curtains (Ex. 26:1), the veil of the temple (2 Chr. 3:14), and garments worn by the Old Testament priests (Ex. 28:6, 8, 15). An early Christian convert, Lydia, was a seller of purple goods (Acts 16:14). Proverbs mentions that the family of the “good wife” is clothed in purple (Prov. 31:22). Daniel—certainly not a compromiser with worldly ways—was honored by being clothed in purple (Dan. 5:29).

“Mystery Babylon” is described as being seated on “seven mountains” (Rev. 17:9). The claim that this chapter is about the Catholic Church does not fit the overall text, but because Rome is known as “the seven-hilled city,” some suppose that this is the intended meaning. Hislop, for example, described the pope as “he who has his seat on the seven hills of Rome.”

The seven hills are Palatine, Capitoline, Quirinal, Aventine, Caelian, Esquiline, and Viminal. The pope’s seat is on the Vatican hill, across the Tiber to the west, not one of the seven. A seven-hilled city would more likely describe pagan Rome, not papal Rome.

Moreover, if the word mountains is taken literally, the hills of Rome would hardly qualify. The highest is Quirinal at 226 feet above sea level. St. Peter’s Basilica—just the building—is nearly twice as high. I speak from first-hand experience, having climbed the stairway of the dome all the way up in 1978. It is 434 feet from the floor to the cross on top.

Taking a stand against “paganism” should not be carried to a foolish extreme. We do not refrain from using the word janitor, even though it comes from Janus, the Roman god of doors and gates. We do not avoid using the word cereal, even though it comes from Ceres, the goddess of grains. We do not refrain from using the word panic, even though it comes from the god Pan, who went about scaring people. We don’t refuse to visit a museum, even though the word comes from the Muses, the nine daughters of Zeus who presided over learning and arts.

According to Browser’s Book of Beginnings, the earliest evidence of a game that featured two opposing teams kicking, tossing, and aggressively advancing a ball in opposite directions was practiced 5,000 years ago in Egypt—as a fertility rite. Imagine a parent sending a note to her child’s school: “My son is not to play football—it’s pagan.” It is obvious: Finding a pagan similarity does not, in itself, provide connection.

Even if a primitive tribe worshiped a tree, Christians who decorate a Christmas tree do not do the same thing. If they regarded it as a god, would they throw it out to be picked up by trash collectors? Even if pagans worshiped the sun, there is no connection with Christians who attend a sunrise service in honor of Christ’s Resurrection. After all, it was “when the sun had risen” that the women came to the tomb and found it empty (Mark 16:2). If some ancient people worshiped Dagon as a fish-god, this has no connection with Christians who place fish symbols on their cars.

False oath

Years ago, someone handed me a copy of the “Knights of Columbus Oath,” which was circulated at the time John F. Kennedy was running for president. This oath—supposedly taken by Catholic men—required relentless war (secretly or openly) against Protestants and Masons: to exterminate them from the face of the earth; to hang, strangle, waste, burn, boil, and bury alive these infamous heretics; to rip up the stomachs and wombs of their women and crush their infants’ heads against the walls.

Most copies of the oath—such as the one I was handed—had no return address, which should have raised suspicion. It did for me. Still, some believed it must be factual because it said, “Copied from the Congressional Record, Feb. 15, 1913.” They failed to question why it was printed in the Congressional Record.

In 1912 a magazine called The Menace printed the bogus oath, supposing it to be authentic, but later admitted that there was no evidence it was. Meanwhile, Eugene Bonniwell, a Catholic, lost an election for Congress. He thought the circulation of the “oath” may have been partly responsible. When the elections committee made their report, the oath was used as an exhibit and condemned as spurious. That is how it came to be printed in the Congressional Record.

It is like saying the following statements were “copied from the Holy Bible”: “Curse God, and die” (Job 2:9); “There is no God” (Ps. 14:1). One must look at the context. Valid evidence is not based on partial information.

So it is with claims about pagan origins. Even though Hislop quoted from many scholarly books, seemingly giving his thesis credibility, he often used partial information to make his claims. Two examples will suffice:

Hislop claimed the use of round communion wafers in the Catholic Church came from paganism. He cited Wilkinson (Egyptians, vol. 5, p. 353): “The thin, round cake occurs on all altars.” But in Wilkinson’s book, he said that these cakes were of various kinds: round, oval, or triangular; some were shaped like leaves, in the form of an animal, a crocodile’s head, or some other figure. Hislop did not bother to give us this information.

In another appeal to Wilkinson, Hislop said that the forty days of Lent came from paganism: “Such a Lent of forty days was observed in Egypt, as can be seen on consulting Wilkinson’s Egyptians (vol. 1, p. 278).” But Wilkinson says Egyptian fasts “lasted from seven to forty-two days, and sometimes even a longer period.”

To those who feel that finding Babylonian origins for present-day customs or practices is of great importance, my advice is to move cautiously, lest we major on minors. If there are things in our lives or churches that are indeed pagan or displeasing to the Lord, they should be dealt with, of course. But in attempting to defuse the confusion of Babylon, we must guard against creating a new “Babylon” of our own making.

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