In 1853, Scottish Presbyterian theologian Alexander Hislop published a pamphlet entitled The Two Babylons: Romanism and Its Origins that was expanded into a book released after his death in 1903. Most of Hislop’s arguments relied on supposed parallels that show Catholicism is just an ancient Babylonian religion dressed up in Christian language. Fundamentalist authors such as Jack Chick in the late twentieth century took these arguments and put them into massively popular evangelism tracts.
Known as “Chick tracts,” these publications contained stylized cartoons depicting hapless Catholics appearing before God on judgment day, when they discover they are damned because they belonged to a “pagan religion.” Chick has published tens of millions of tracts that contain false assertions about the origins of Catholic practices. This includes the claim that eucharistic worship comes from ancient Egypt.
Ironically, Hislop’s arguments have also found their way into another kind of fundamentalism: “new atheist” arguments against Christianity.
For example, Hislop condemns the celebration of Easter as a carryover from paganism. Hislop says the name of the holiday “bears its Chaldean origin on its very forehead. Easter is nothing else than Astarte, one of the titles of Beltis, the queen of heaven” (The Two Babylons, ch. III). Atheists share similar memes online claiming Easter is based on the pagan god Ishtar, even though in most cultures the celebration of Christ’s resurrection is called Pascha in honor of Christ being the risen Passover Lamb.
Indeed, this fact about Easter and the Resurrection show Protestant and atheist fundamentalists are wrong when they try to ground the origin of the Eucharist in paganism.
Isis, Horus, and Seb?
Pasch means “Passover,” and when the Jews were enslaved in Egypt, God told his people to kill a lamb that was without blemish so that the angel of death sent to punish the Egyptians would “pass over” their homes (Exod. 12:43-51). But Christians also have a lamb who was sacrificed so that spiritual death would pass them over: Jesus Christ.
John the Baptist said that Jesus was “the lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29), and St. Paul said, “Christ, our Paschal Lamb, has been sacrificed” (1 Cor. 5:7). The Passover lamb in the Old Testament had to be a male, without blemish, and his legs could not be broken (Exod. 12:5,46). Christ, our Passover lamb, is male, without sin (Heb. 4:15), and during the crucifixion his legs were not broken (John 19:33). Finally, the Passover was not complete until the lamb was eaten, and so the “Passover” that Christians still celebrate must be completed in the same way.
But according to fundamentalists such as Hislop and Chick, the Eucharist has nothing to do with the Jewish Passover meal. Instead, it is a pagan idea that infiltrated the Church through satanic influences.
Bart Brewer, another purveyor of this kind of fundamentalism, says that after the conversion of Constantine and the legalization of Christianity in the fourth century, “[new converts] brought with them pagan rites which they boldly introduced into the church with Christian terminology, thus corrupting the primitive faith” (“The Mystery of the Eucharist” at gospelbeacon.org).
But many of the “rites” the Church adopted are harmless customs, such as styles of vestments or temple architecture. Protestants do the same thing when they exchange wedding rings, because this practice is not found in Scripture, but it is found in ancient Roman sources.
In his tract on the Eucharist called The Death Cookie, Chick makes even more astounding assertions than Brewer. He claims the Eucharist was taken from the Egyptian practice of worshiping the sun god Osiris in the form of “round sun-shaped wafers made of unleavened bread.” He even claims that the monogram IHS imprinted on the host stands for “Isis, Horus, and Seb, the gods of Egypt.” Chick doesn’t footnote or document any of these claims, and for good reason—they are utterly without merit.
First, Osiris was not the sun god (that title belonged to Ra), and so there were no “sun-shaped” wafers made in his honor, and reputable Egyptologists know nothing of Osiris being transubstantiated into a Eucharist. Second, the monogram has nothing to do with Egyptian mythology. I, H, and S are the first three letters in the Greek version of Jesus’ name. Finally, wafers and cakes offered in the Old Testament were presumably also round (Gen. 18:1-8, Exod. 29:1-2), but no Protestant would say they were pagan in origin.
These claims can be traced back to Hislop, and they are so outrageous that even some of Hislop’s defenders “threw in the towel” and realized his thesis was indefensible.
One of these was Protestant author Ralph Woodrow, who adapted Hislop’s research and published it in 1966 in the much more readable Babylon Mystery Religion. Several decades later, Woodrow realized that the evidence did not support Hislop’s claims and, in many cases, even contradicted them.
This led to the publication of Woodrow’s 1997 book The Babylon Connection? where he denounced his previous book and took Hislop to task for several egregious historical fictions. Woodrow also saw how the “parallelomania” he embraced earlier in his career could be repurposed to be used against Christianity as a whole. He writes:
As Christians, we don’t reject prayer just because pagans pray to their gods. We don’t reject water baptism just because ancient tribes plunged into water as a religious ritual. We don’t reject the Bible just because pagans believe their writings are holy or sacred. . . If finding a pagan parallel provides proof of paganism, the Lord himself would be pagan (The Two Babylons).
Some of these eucharistic falsehoods also come from the debunked early-twentieth-century Egyptologist Gerald Massey who claimed that in Egyptian worship “flesh and beer, were transelemented or transubstantiated by the descent of Ra the holy spirit” and that this sacrament was “continued by the Church of Rome” (Ancient Egypt: The Light of the World, 221).
Massey’s work is also cited in films such as Zeitgeist, which claim Jesus never existed and his life story was plagiarized from the Egyptian God Horus. However, Massey’s claims about Egyptian roots of Christian doctrines have been thoroughly discredited, and contemporary Egyptologists do not rely on his work (he isn’t in the 2020 edition of the Oxford Handbook of Egyptology, for example).
Even Massey’s peers rejected his scholarship, as can be seen in the renowned British Museum Egyptologist Archibald Sayce who commended an 1888 article for its “through demolition of Mr. Massey’s crudities [and] errors.” His colleague Peter le Page Renouf said of Massey that “no lunatic could possibly write more wild rubbish” (“Religion and Science in Late Nineteenth-Century British Egyptology,” 1101).
Missing it on Mithra
As I noted earlier, there are two kinds of critics who claim that the sacrament of the Eucharist was borrowed from pagan religions: anti-Catholic Protestants who believe that distinctly Catholic beliefs come from pagan mythology and Jesus “mythicists” who believe that Jesus never existed and that anything related to him was borrowed from that same mythology.
When it comes to the Eucharist, mythicist critics say this is just a rehashing of other communal meals that were celebrated in pagan mystery religions. But another hazard of trying to “prove by parallels” is that human beings are all created in the image of God and so it’s not surprising if religious rituals share at least some similarities. This includes wanting to offer something of value (i.e., a sacrifice) to a deity and sharing a communal meal with fellow believers.
C.S. Lewis reached a similar conclusion when he said God had revealed himself indirectly to pagans through their myths and that the Gospels were now God’s direct revelation. They were, as he said, “myth become fact.” “We must not be nervous about ‘parallels’ and ‘pagan Christs’: they ought to be there—it would be a stumbling block if they weren’t,” Lewis wrote. “We must not, in false spirituality, withhold our imaginative welcome” (God in the Dock, 59).
In response, Jesus mythicists present a quote from second-century St. Justin Martyr as their “smoking gun” to show the parallels can’t be chalked up to human similarities. Justin comments on the Eucharist and offers this explanation for why there is a similar celebration in the Roman cult of the god Mithra:
He said, “This is my blood”; and gave it to them alone. Which the wicked devils have imitated in the mysteries of Mithras, commanding the same thing to be done. For, that bread and a cup of water are placed with certain incantations in the mystic rites of one who is being initiated, you either know or can learn (First Apology, 66).
According to the mythicists, Mithraists celebrated the Eucharist long before Christians did, and so Justin is ignorant of the fact that it was actually Christians who copied this sacrament from paganism, and not the other way around. However, Mithraic scholar Manfred Clauss tells us
there can be no question of imitation in either direction. The offering of bread and wine is known in virtually all ancient cultures, and the meal as a means of binding the faithful together and uniting them to the deity was a feature common to many religions. . . . The ritual meal was probably simply a component of regular common meals. Such meals have always been an essential part of religious assembly (The Roman Cult of Mithras, 109).
St. Paul tells us that Christians took part in a communal meal before receiving the Eucharist (this was often called an agape or “love” feast). Paul chastised the Corinthians for using such occasions to be drunk and gluttonous while others went hungry.
Of course, Christians did not “borrow” the concept of a communal meal from pagans since all people have a natural desire to share food in a communal setting. The Mithraic “communion meal” was simply that, a communal meal. Clauss writes, “Mithraists did not just receive bread and wine or water, as the literary sources seem to suggest, but were in addition served actual meals” (The Roman Cult of Mithras, 115).
More to the point, if there were any borrowing, it would be from Christianity to Mithraism, since the Roman Mithra cult took shape after Jesus and had no connection to the Persian Mithra cult that existed before the time of Christ.
The Jewish roots of the Eucharist
In The Death Cookie, Chick imagines that after satanic paganism corrupted the Church, the truth of God’s word was lost until the Middle Ages. The comic book depicts a peasant finding a Bible tucked away in a wall and saying “What’s this? It looks interesting. Let’s see what it says.” He then shares the discovery of Sacred Scripture (which Christians had been hearing proclaimed at Mass for centuries, by the way) with his friends and says of the Eucharist: “At the Last Supper Jesus said when you eat this bread and drink of the cup, ‘This do in remembrance of me’ (Luke 22:19) to show the Lord’s death until he comes.”
“Then it’s symbolic!” his friend exclaims. “The [pope] has lied to us.”
It’s common for fundamentalists to deny the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist by pointing to Jesus’ command to “do this in memory of me.” After all, why would you remember someone at a meal if the person there with you under the form of bread and wine? But this question to accept the false dilemma that either the Eucharist is a memorial dinner in honor of Christ or that it is a sacrifice involving his literal body and blood. Why can’t it be both?
The Church teaches that the Eucharist is certainly a memorial meal, but it is not only a memorial.
At the Last Supper, on the night he was betrayed, our Savior instituted the eucharistic sacrifice of his body and blood. This he did in order to perpetuate the sacrifice of the cross throughout the ages until he should come again, and so to entrust to his beloved spouse, the Church, a memorial of his death and resurrection: a sacrament of love, a sign of unity, a bond of charity, a Paschal banquet in which Christ is consumed, the mind is filled with grace, and a pledge of future glory is given to us (Catechism of the Catholic Church 1323).
Jesus said, “Do this in memory of me,” and the words “in memory” come from the Greek word anamnesis, which means more than a mental recollection of a past event or person. It means, instead, a “remembrance brought about by the act of sacrifice.”
An example can be found in Leviticus 24:7-8, in which the Israelite priest and his sons are instructed to offer a memorial sacrifice of bread to the Lord each Sabbath:
You shall put pure frankincense with each row, that it may go with the bread as a memorial [anamnesis] portion to be offered by fire to the Lord. Every sabbath day Aaron shall set it in order before the Lord continually on behalf of the sons of Israel as a covenant forever.
The Hebrew word for memorial in this passage, azkarah, also means “memorial offering.”
The parallel between this and the sacrifice of the Mass, at which holy bread is offered on the new Sabbath to commemorate the new, everlasting covenant in Christ, is uncanny. Similarly, when Jesus said, “Do this in memory of me,” he did not mean simply “Remember me when you eat this meal.” A more accurate translation of Jesus’ command would be “Receive me as a memorial sacrifice.”
The first Christians, who were raised in Judaism and wouldn’t have been misled by idle, pagan tales, would have had no difficulty understanding that a memorial dinner can bring about the actual presence of God. Bible scholar Brant Pitre puts it this way:
Just as God had been really present to his people in the tabernacle of Moses and the temple of Solomon, so now Jesus would be really and truly present to his disciples through the Eucharist. And just as the old bread of the Presence had been the sign of God’s “everlasting covenant,” so now the Eucharist would become the perpetual sign of the new covenant, sealed in his blood.