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Christian Babylonianism

A church member pointed to the cross on the cover of a Bible I was carrying one day, and asked, “You know what that stands for?”

“The sacrifice of Jesus?” I said.

“No,” he said. “That’s what the Catholic Church wants you to think. It is initial of the pagan god Tammuz. The Catholic Church uses it to keep paganism alive, while people are deceived into thinking it’s Christianity.”

Bless his heart.

We have the Reverend Alexander Hislop, a Victorian-era Church of Scotland minister, and his book The Two Babylons, or The Papal Worship Proved to be the Worship of Nimrod and his Wife, to thank for the regular regurgitation of this stuff.1

Hislop’s argument, boiled down, is that Roman Catholicism isn’t really Christian, but a mélange of characters and symbols from ancient Babylon, with but a thin Christian veneer over them. He maintained that Constantine, the first nominal Christian emperor, really didn’t want to abandon paganism, so he renamed pagan characters with Christian names, and celebrated pagan celebrations as Christian events. This accounts for (among other things) why Catholicism venerates Mary and Jesus rather than Jesus alone: Mary is the Babylonian Semiramis, Jesus her son Tammuz—the type of the pagan goddess and son.

The Two Babylons is clever—by which I do not mean to say that Hisslop made it all up. There have been influences from other cultures on both Judaism and Christianity. The Old Testament says that Babylonian, Egyptian, Assyrian, and pagan culture left traces in the Jewish faith; Pharisaic Judaism was one of the reactions to that. Post-apostolically, we Adventists have noted that Constantine’s royal pronouncements on Christian practice had the effect of sanctioning a strong church hierarchy, leading to some unfortunate doctrinal changes that persist to this day. There’s also evidence that early Christianity was at times a little too good at crossing culture lines: that missionaries syncretized existing cultural practices to make Christianity more attractive.

That doesn’t mean that Hislop has a sound argument, however. That Christianity wasn’t thoroughly, deeply, recognizably Christian in those early centuries is nonsense. It’s true that other cultures and religions influenced Christianity and led to compromises seen somewhat more clearly in retrospect (there were some good reasons for the Protestant Reformation). But to suppose that early Catholicism—please remember that for centuries, all Christians were Catholics—was just a façade on a secretly cherished Babylonish faith is just stupid. If true, even the most conscientious Christian is in big trouble: it was that very church that solidified our canon of Scripture, and defined much basic Christian understanding (Jesus’ divinity, the Trinity, and others) that we accept today.

There’s an internal consistency to Hislop’s arguments—as long as you don’t examine them too closely, at which point the history falls apart. To make his arguments work, Hislop has to make Nimrod, Semiramis, and Tammuz interchangeable with Egyptian, Greek and Roman gods, though they were centuries and continents apart. In the original myth, Nimrod and Semiramis weren’t husband and wife—they didn’t even live in the same century—nor is Semiramis ever said to be the mother of Tammuz. The disk halo in paintings isn’t a symbol of the sun god, but artists’ attempt to capture the glory that Scripture describes shining from the faces of Godly people.

One of Hislop’s big complaints is Catholics’ use of the cross, a shape he traces to ancient pagan art. But the crossing of two lines is a simple and universal decorative detail, as well as a schematic human body shape—which was why the Romans found it a useful shape to hang human bodies upon.

Those scholars who’ve bothered to look at the books Hislop cites find he’s misquoted and misinterpreted source materials. In short, The Two Babylons is an amateur piecing together of partial truths to support Hislop’s anti-Catholicism.

The true believers, like the guy above, suspect that this camouflaged paganism is still infective: a sort of spiritual ebola virus that seeps into our children’s subconscious minds and makes them little pagans against their will.

If so, we’re in big trouble, because there is nothing absolutely free of some cultural influence. Christmas undoubtedly got its season from winter solstice celebrations, and is loaded with pagan symbols like the evergreen tree and mistletoe—yet endorsed by Ellen White. We’re compromised by the months and the days of the week, most of which carry pagan names. In fact, one of the Hebrew months was named Tammuz!

Many symbols of biblical worship—kneeling in prayer; raising hands; taking off shoes on holy ground, a holy mountain, or city; a holy temple; sacrifices without blemish; vicarious atonement; laws written on stone; holy fire above a person’s head; first fruits; baptism; venerated writings; circumcision—had contemporaneous cognates in pagan religions. Are they all, then, tainted?

Fortunately, thoughtful people in many centuries have been able to separate origin from present use and understanding.

Then why has The Two Babylons persisted? Because it provides a simple, convenient, and (most important) external answer to why we’re so messed up. For it isn’t really about Catholics, or theology, or pagan corruption of the church.

It is about fear. To have inside information about an external enemy is to feel some measure of control. We human beings are quite capable of ignoring facts to calm our anxiety.

Scripture offers a better way to manage fear: by our trusting ourselves to God’s care, who “has not given us a spirit of fear, but of power and of love and of a sound mind” (2 Tim. 1:7).

Notes and References

1. I have in my library a copy of The Two Babylons with R. R. Figuhr’s name on the flyleaf—by which I mean to cast no aspersions on Elder Figuhr, for I have no idea what he thought of it; the friend who gave it to me bought it at a yard sale.

Loren Seibold is senior pastor of the Worthington, Ohio, Seventh-day Adventist Church. He also edits a newsletter for North American Division pastors called Best Practices for Adventist Ministry.

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