Posted by: chuckbumgardner | June 16, 2012

Just a Regular Old Greco-Roman Pagan

I came across what struck me as a good “person in the pew” summary of what it would have been like in terms of religion for the typical Greco-Roman pagan.  It’s a bit lengthy for a blog post, but good reading.  Enjoy!

Had you converted to Christianity during the period that soon followed the apostles, you most likely would have come out of a Greco-Roman pagan worldview.  This would have meant several things.  In the first place, you were probably already very religious.  When the apostle Paul said to the Athenians on Mars Hill (Acts 17) that he perceived they were steeped in religion, it was not a compliment but an observation.  A veritable multitude of gods, spirits, daemons, and philosophies were a practical part of daily pagan life.  Roman culture was built on the understanding that the proliferation of religious activity was beneficial, not only for the person but (more importantly) also for the civic good.  The philosopher-statesman Cicero had laid down the basis for right thinking about the welfare of society.  Pietas (piety) or dutiful conduct in the amount of attention one paid to the gods by way of sacrifices, incense, and just plain lip service at public events was crucial for maintaining social stability.  Everyone knew that the pax Romana was dependent on the pax deorum (peace of the gods).  Even the religious skeptic must see, Cicero said, that ‘if our reverence for the gods was lost, we should see the end of good faith, of human brotherhood, even of justice itself.’

At the heart of religion was ritual, the kind and content of religious observances properly performed.  Indeed, the Greco-Roman world was a strongly ritualistic culture that extended to virtually every area of one’s life.  You and your family may have been worshipers of one god, be it a traditional god of the Roman pantheon or a more exotic god from Asia Minor such as Cybele, but you were not monotheists.  Despite your personal devotion to Jupiter or Cybele, your weekly schedule demanded that you participate in the civic veneration of other gods, whether at your workplace, during a procession through your neighborhood, or at a banquet where a cup of libation was raised in honor of the emperor as a divine being.  In such moments, you knew that these cultic acts in the name of one god or another were social obligations and benefited the preservation of an ordered and secure life.  From childhood you had been raised to be tolerant of this divine interchangeability.  Even the loyalty to one’s own family deity was not jeopardized by such religious syncretism.  Accommodation to and assimilation of various divinities were the rule of the pagan life.

Of course, pagan religion also offered the hope of personal salvation.  You would have heard of such phrases as ‘born again’ or ‘baptism into new life’ when it came to the spiritual benefits offered.  Proponents of Cybele would have told you that to be reborn spiritually, you had to be bathed in streams of bull’s blood, a ritual known as the taurobolium.  But this really had nothing to do with allegiance to one God or a plurality of gods.  In fact, salvation had little to do with the exact content of what you believed as you did the prescribed acts.  Form and action, not content, were most important.  After all, Socrates had shown that it was not important to believe everything behind the religious rites as long as you were involved in doing them.

In sum, this was a religious worldview that the classical historian A. D. Nock identified as salvation through ‘adherence.’  You accrued religious benefit not by rejecting previous gods and former allegiances in order to embrace new ones but rather by accumulating multiple deities and participating in the various worship services offered to them. . . . There was no need to discard the former divinities in order to accept the benefits of new divinities.  Again, accommodation and assimilation were the rule.

As Williams goes on to describe conversion of pagans, he speaks of the necessary rejection of certain aspects of their mindset.  It was necessary to embrace both monotheism (vs. syncretism) and a specific content of belief (vs. focusing merely on ritual).  “Conversion also meant that your religious activities were qualified by the assent of the mind and heart.  In other words, the content of one’s faith mattered; simply performing the right services was not enough.” (30)

It struck me (as it has no doubt struck you), that much of what Williams noted about Greco-Roman pagans would not be too far afield from 21st-century American paganism with its emphasis on syncretism (“God”–however you might conceive of him after choosing what you like from the smorgasbord of religious options–and the new tolerance) and ritual (just do the right things, and that’s all that really matters).

D. H. Williams, Evangelicals and Tradition: The Formative Influence of the Early Church (Baker, 2005), 27-29



  1. Interesting stuff. You may want to correct a couple of typos: “pproliferation” and “lreligious”

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