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The Classics, the Incarnation and Christianity

Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.

The perennial problem for Catholic teachers of Latin and Greek literature is how to integrate these disciplines into the ultimate aim of education, which “ennobles what is merely natural in life and secures for it new strength in the material and temporal order, no less than in the spiritual and eternal.” [1] In other words, how can the pagan classics of Homer, Virgil, Cicero, and the rest be so spiritualized as to make their inclusion in the curriculum of a Catholic high school or college not only tolerable but positively desirable as instruments for producing, in the words of Pius XI, “the true Christian, who thinks, judges and acts in accordance with right reason illumined by the supernatural light of the example and teaching of Christ.” [2]

Many answers are possible and every teacher has his own method. The following study is intended to show one way in which the problem may be solved. For our basis of integration we shall take a body of religious facts which are frequently met in Latin and Greek. These will be evaluated with a view to profiting the student both academically and spiritually, and doing this by drawing upon the very essence of the pagan and Christian religions. As the subject of integration we shall use the transformation of gods into men and men into gods, which run as a theme through all the ancient classics.

Incarnation and Deifications Among the Greeks and Romans

The human-divine transformations in the Greek and Roman religion found expression in the only two ways possible: either as anthropomorphoses, where the gods took on human shape and consorted with men upon earth, or as apotheoses, whereby men became elevated to the status of the gods. It is often quite hard to distinguish between the two. Thus when Horace describes Pollux, Hercules, Augustus, Bacchus and Quirinus as assuming their seat at the celestial board, and beginning to partake of the nectar of the gods, the suspicion arises that merit so transcendent must have been of heavenly origin, and a birth story is invented to show that the person who was apotheosized was in reality, and antecedently, a god in human form.

However, there are numerous instances where the gods are directly said to have been humanized, generally for the purpose of gratifying their amorous desires. In this way the sons of Zeus by human mothers were innumerable. Among them were Perseus, Castor and Pollux, who were specially called “the sons of Zeus,” Hercules and Bacchus, Aeacus and Sarpedon. Many too were the sons of Poseidon, most of whom were marked by gigantic size and ruthlessness. Of the three brothers who divided the world between them, Hades alone seems to have been without issue of any kind.

The sons of the gods did not fail to show their mixed ancestry, by also entering into union with mortal women. As a consequence, a particular member of the human family might have attributed to him or her a strain of the divine. Theseus for example was said to have been the son of Poseidon. Troilus the son of Apollo, Meleager the son of Ares. Where the attribution of divine origin may have begun with a purely legendary figure, its terminus was not infrequently a real historical person. Thus the mythical chieftain Hellen was reputed to have been the son not of Deucalion, but of Zeus, which at once conferred the patent of divine nobility upon every Hellene. All the Greek physicians claimed to be descended from Asclepius, the god of medicine and son of Apollo. Along the same lines, Socrates is made to argue in the Euthyphro that all sculptors were descended from Daedalus, and so from Hephaestus, the Greek god of fire, corresponding to the Roman Vulcan.

Love was not the only motive which induced the gods to take on human shape. It was anger at the gods which drove Demeter to leave heaven and incarnate herself as a woman. Hera wished to gratify her spite against Heracles and so assumed the form of an Amazon. On occasion the operating motive was the censorship of human morals. We read that Apollo and Poseidon assumed the figure of men in order to test the insolence of Laomedon; and Zeus himself came to earth in the likeness of a laboring-man to test Lycaon and his fifty sons, who were notorious for their wickedness. The same reputed motive underlies the well-known story of Baucis and Philemon, which was popularized by the poet Ovid. And we know from Hesiod that the gods were believed to roam the earth in the likeness of men to spy on their moral conduct.

Corresponding to divine incarnations are the legends of deification. Among the Greeks, after Plato had achieved immortality by his writings, he was reported to have been a son of Apollo. Incidentally, he is the only philosopher among the ancients who thus attained the honor of a birth story. The Spartan kind Demaratus, according to Herodotus, was declared by his mother to have been the son of the hero-god Atrabacus. Alexander the Great was believed even in his life-time to be the offspring of the sun-god Ammon. Similar apotheoses fill the pages of Roman history, from the founding of the city to the time of Constantine. Romulus, the traditional founder of Rome, was held to be the son of Mars and Ilia; and after death he was said to have returned to his heavenly home by being carried up to the gods from the Campus Martius. So too Aeneas is reported to have been deified and worshipped as Aeneas Indiges on the banks of the River Numicus.

With the beginning of the Empire, the deification of Roman rulers became an established practice of the nation. Julius Caesar was declared to be a god- Divus was the term used- the title given him by senatorial decree and his worship was put on a full ceremonial basis, with temple, priests and ritual. The same thing was done in the case of Augustus, Claudius, Vespasian, and Titus. As time went on, this phase of the Roman religion grew apace. For while only four of the first eleven emperors attained deification, from Nerva on almost all were made Divi. The last of the Divi, deified in 307 A.D., was Romulus, the son of Maxentius, whom Constantine defeated at the Milvian bridge. There is no record of a member of the imperial family being formally deified in Rome during his lifetime. But there is ample evidence that the emperors were worshipped as gods in the provinces and in various parts of Italy even before their death. Moreover deification was not limited to emperors or members of the imperial household. The poet Virgin attained a virtual deification, and there were many who believed that the magician Apollonius of Tyana had divine powers, so that temples were erected in his honor.

Rationalist Interpretation of Pagan Incarnation and Deifications

The foregoing summary of pagan mythology is a commonplace to anyone familiar with the classics. But it has not been a commonplace in the hands of the enemies of Christian revelation. They have found in these human-divine transmutations so many arguments against the fundamental doctrine of Christianity, which is the Incarnation of the Son of God. As far back as the second century, the Epicurean philosopher Celsus argued against the divinity of Christ by appealing to parallels in Greek mythology, where gods and demi-gods become men, die and rise again from the dead. There was, he said, Zamolxis who dwelt beneath the earth for three years and returned to the surface alive; Rhampsinitus who played at dice with Demeter and returned to the upper world with a golden napkin which he received from her as a gift, besides Orpheus, Protesilaus, Hercules, Theseus and others. [3] Towards the end of the third century, when the struggle between Christianity and decadent paganism had reached its final stage, it occurred to some of the enemies of the new religion to set up Apollonius of Tyana as a rival of Jesus Christ. Apollonius was a sorcerer of the second century who was deified in Asia Minor. The many wonders reported in his life made him a formidable competitor in the minds of the pagans to Jesus of Nazareth. Since the rise of deism in the sixteenth century and up to modern times, critics of the Gospel have used the Life of Apollonius above Socrates and equal to Jesus as a god. [4] Sanday describes him as “the most conspicuous example of a worker of pagan miracles.” [5] Guignebert believes there is an “essential similarity” between Jesus and Apollonius—both equivalently divine. [6]

Around the turn of the century an entire volume was published on the subject of Pagan Christs, in which the author tried to prove “the hypothesis of a pre-Christian Jesus-God,” as found in the pagan mythologies. [7] In recent years a series of books in commentary on the classics and in the field of comparative religion has been written with the undisguised purpose of equating the divinity of Christ with the incarnate gods and deified heroes of Greek and Roman antiquity. In Salomon Reinach’s Orpheus, which has gone through thirty-eight editions, we are told that there are “between Orphism and Christianity … analogies so evident and so striking” that it is “impossible to accept them as accidental.” [8] According to Gordon Laing, professor of Latin at the University of Chicago, “Roman society … at the time when Christianity emerged, was wholly familiar with the ideas of a man-god.” Therefore “the Christians adapted themselves to the pagan attitude,” and also deified their hero-founder, Jesus of Nazareth. [9] Dr. Hopkins, professor of Comparative Philology at Yale, states that “Christianity … utilized for the construction of its Church, much pagan material,” particularly from the Grecian cults. “Baptism, fast purification, vigil, the hope of immortality and resurrection, miraculous cures, water turned into wine, all these were pre-Christian.” More significantly, however:

The religious of the divine Mother and of Mithra had already taught the doctrine of a redeeming god, whose experience was shared by the initiated believer. Mortal man through the death and resurrection of the god became by partaking in the sacraments a partaker also in the divine nature; he was mystically cleansed of sin by blood or water and became a sharer in divine immortality. The epiphany of Dionysos became the epiphany of Christ. [10]

The list of radical comparative religionists includes teachers in schools of divinity, such as Frederick C. Grant of the Union Theological Seminary, who declares in his preface to Hellenistic Religions that early Christianity lived and flourished in a world of “cults, old and new, of ancient Greek or Hellenized shrines, oracles, temples, priesthoods, and of new mystery rites of redemption.” Consequently “a theology of syncretism was created which proved useful to Christians in working out the intellectual presuppositions of their faith.” As a result, “on the basis of this theology rested many ideas of the mysteriosophical type widely favored in later antiquity,” notably, “the concept of a divine man, indeed, of a god-man.” [11]

Catholic Interpretation of Pagan Incarnations and Deifications

Confronted on almost every page of the classics with gods in human form, the Catholic teacher has an opportunity, not to say a duty, to interpret this phenomenon properly to the student. Under pressure from the adversaries since the time of Justin and Origen, Christian apologists have developed two principal methods of explanation; the first appealing to reason and history alone, the second also invoking the aid of primitive revelation.

  1. Pagan mythology and the “anima naturaliter Christiana.”—The first explanation, which was used by Tertullian in his controversy with the Romans, states that since “the soul is Christian by natural instinct,” is it not to be wondered that at least some of the concepts of Christianity should be found, however vague and corrupted, in the religions of all nation, even the most depraved. [12] Relative to the present study, the point to be stressed is that alongside the divinized men and humanized gods of Greece and Rome are to be found numerous expressions of belief which explain these transmutations as the natural desire of the human heart for some kind of communication with the deity.

  2. At one extreme we meet such complaints as that voiced by Achilles in the Illiad: “The eternal gods have assigned to us unhappy mortals hardship enough, while they enjoy bliss idly without end.” [13] At the other extreme we find what has been rightly called the culmination of Greek genius and the peak of natural religion, expressed by Plano as the hopeful destiny of man. “What shall we think,” he asks, “if it should befall anyone to perceive very Beauty itself, simple, pure and undefiled—not infected with flesh of men or human embellishment, or other such perishable folly, but absolute divine Beauty in its simplicity.” [14] Although destined only for the highest minds, and conceived only as possible, Plato speculates on what this vision of Beauty would effect in the human soul:
Do you think it would be a mean sort of life for a man, if his gaze were directed on that goal, and he not only beheld it in all its perfection but associated himself with the same? Do you not suppose that there alone, contemplating the Fair as best it may be seen, it will be his privilege to produce not the mere images of virtue but true virtues themselves, since it is Truth which he embraces. And after rearing true virtue which he begot, shall he not become dear to the gods and immortal—if ever this lot may befall a man? [15]

Between these two extremes, with varying degrees of clarity, the poets and philosophers among the Greeks and Latins voiced the common hunger of their fellow pagans to partake in some way of the good things that were enjoyed by the gods. The gods would never die, so the people conceived their heroes and great men as taken up to the heavenly regions to receive the elixir of life which gave them immortality. The gods were very powerful, so on occasion a deity came down to earth to beget an offspring of superhuman strength, as in the case of Hercules. The gods were very wise, so at times they joined in marriage with mortal women to produce such men as Plato, who was deified. The gods were handsome and the goddesses beautiful, so in the case of Pandora, Vulcan made her of clay, but Venus gave her beauty, and the art of captivating was bestowed on her by the Graces.

  1. Primitive revelation among the pagan nations.—Another explanation for the human-deities and divinizations among the Greeks and Romans is to regard them as fanciful corruptions of the primitive revelation given to the human race through Adam and Eve. “In spite of fantastic adulterations,” says Parente, “the persistence in popular [pagan] tradition of certain elements which agree with the biblical narrative, indirectly proves the existence of a primitive revelation from God to our first parents.” [16] Among these “certain elements” should be included particularly the belief in immortality as something which belongs essentially to the gods but which the gods may, if they wish, communicate also to men. In the Graeco-Roman religion there are visible strains of belief in a primordial state from which man fell and in consequence of which he lost the title to godliness or immortality; belief also in the fact that somehow, sometime, the gods would deliver chosen souls from the bonds of death and take them to the heavenly repose, to happines with the deities without end. Even the concept of man’s redemption, foretold in primitive revelations, is not absent, though overlaid with fanciful debris.

  2. A point to be emphasized is what seems to be a contradiction in classical mythology. On the one hand it appears the ancients believed there is a gulf between mortal and immortal, between man and god, and that for man to attempt to bridge this was hybris, and could only end in disaster. On the other hand there was evident belief in a real kinship between the human and divine, which it was the duty of man to develop so as to make it as close as possible, finally terminating in man’s immortality. The antimony may be solved by means of a distinction, nothing that the pagans would consider as impossible any effort on man’s part to bridge the gulf between himself and the gods, if he tried to span the distance on his own initiative; but the same would be quite possible if a god condescended to make the transit. As bizarre and even repulsive as were the expressions of this concept, it remained substantially consistent through all the vagaries of the Graeco-Roman culture.

    It may also be added that for the pagans, and certainly for the Greeks, the concepts “god” or “divinity” and “immortal” were considered equivalents. Gods may have other qualities, but primarily they are immortals. To say “gods” and “men,” the Greeks might use the words theoi and athanatoi, but they might just as well use the terms athanatoi and thnetoi. Athanatos (immortal) is an adjective, and may therefore be used in conjunction with theos. But it can quite as well stand alone, and its meaning will be unambiguous—meaning “god” and nothing else, just as theos does. Consequently to believe that the soul is immortal was to believe it to be divine. If a man was or hoped to become immortal, he had to become divine.

    Relative to the residue from primitive revelation, then, the Greeks and Romans believed that man is capable of divinization by reason of potential immortality—the divinization having been accomplished in a multitude of human heroes, some of whom received the seed of immortality from the divinity of their parents, and others had this gift conferred on them because of the greatness of their deeds. But all became divine, or immortal, through condescension of the gods. If we parallel these concepts with the basic texts in Genesis: the creation of man to the image of God, with intellect and will capable of immortality; the temptation by the serpent telling Adam and Eve, “You shall be as gods”; the fall of our first parents and the consequent curse upon them that they would die the death; and finally the promise of redemption whereby God would place enmity between the devil, “who brought death into the world,” and the woman, “between her Seed and thy seed, and she shall crush thy head,” it is not difficult to trace a similarity close enough for the Fathers and St. Thomas to teach that the human race, including the pagans before the time of Christ, had received enough supernatural revelation in order to be saved. [17]

Refutation of the Errors of Comparative Religionists

Having laid a foundation to explain the Graeco-Roman deifications and incarnations, the teacher is faced with the problem of answering the charge of modern rationalism that Christianity as a system, and its central dogma of the Incarnation in particular, are natural developments from pagan mythology. The more effectively this is done, the better will the students be prepared to meet the newest assault on the supernaturality of their faith.

The accusations of borrowing from paganism are not easy to classify. They are often so groundless as to defy analysis. But on one point at least there seems to be common agreement, that the pivotal doctrine of the Incarnation is a natural sublimation, derived from the ancient religions, notably of Greece and Rome. As described by one author:

The ideas of an Incarnate Saviour, of the Virgin Birth, of the Second Advent, of the Sacraments … these seemed to be distinctive possessions of Christianity; these were marks clearly dividing it from any form of paganism…. But it proves that we were completely mistaken. The modern study of primitive religion shows that every one of these beliefs is, or has been, held in some part or other of the pagan world, quite independently of Christianity. [18]

This attitude is the stock-in-trade of many textbooks and reference sources presently in use in non-Catholic universities. [19] It has been refuted many times, as far back as Origen’s reply Against Celsus. But the arguments need to be better known, first in principle and the in practice, to meet the modern counterpart to the enemies of the Church in the patristic age. In the following sequence, the arguments are directed against the radical claim that the Christian Incarnation is a natural development from pagan mythology.

  1. Fundamental differences.—The differences between pagan incarnations or deifications and the Incarnation of the Son of God are so fundamental as to preclude the possibility of a natural outgrowth.

    1. Paganism in general and particularly its human divinities were notoriously polytheistic, whereas the Christian Incarnation is uncompromisingly monotheistic. Arguing with the Romans of his day, Tertullian asked them in derision, “Shall I quickly run through the list of your deities, one by one, numerous and important as they are, the new and the old, barbarian and Greek, Roman and foreign, captive and adopted, private and public, male and female, belonging to the country, the city, the sailor, the soldier? It would be wearisome even to call the roll!” [20]

    2. The character of the pagan incarnations, as in Greece and Rome, was dissolute and immoral in the extreme. St. Augustine described the humanized deities of Rome as “so wanton, so impure, so immodest, so wicked, so filthy, so foul, so detestable to alien from every religious feeling,” that when the people “saw that the gods delighted in the commission of these things,” they concluded the gods “wished them not only to be exhibited [as in the orgies of the Bacchanalia] but to be imitated by the people” in their daily lives. [21]

    3. If we trace the origin of the pagan gods and their human embodiments, we find that all is myth and legend, the product of a fervid imagination under the stimulus of religious feeling. Whereas the life of Jesus Christ is not only traceable to a definite historical person, living and dying in historically authenticated circumstances, but His coming was prophesied centuries before He was born, and the prophecies have been clearly fulfilled. Jesus Christ, therefore, otherwise than Apollo or Hercules, actually lived. His deeds are a matter of history and His words are recorded in documents whose veracity is beyond reproach. Not only Catholics, but everyone who is willing to study the evidence without prejudice reaches the same conclusion:
      Christianity had the unique advantage over all its competitors, in having a historic Person as Founder…. Christianity was the new spiritual power which entered our humanity from the Personality of one who had been a familiar figure in Palestine.
      The Christian apologists were conscious of the strength of their position in having an historic centre. Thus, in the middle of the second century as Assyrian fidei defensor wrote: “We do not utter idle tales in declaring that God was born in form of man. I challenge you, our detractors, to contrast legends with our narratives…. Your legends are but idle tales.”

      There never was a Mithra, and he never slew the mystic-sacramental bull. There never was a Great Mother of sorrows to wail over Attis and to become a true mother to the sorrowing daughters of humanity. Isis, in all her splendour, was but the product, however idealized by the religious instinct, of Egyptian Zoolatry…. The Logos of the Stoics was a pure abstraction &3133; and of their ideal Wise Man Plutarch declared, “He is nowhere on earth, nor ever has been.” But for Christians, “the Logos became flesh and tabernacled among us, and we beheld His glory,” an advantage which Augustine declares he could not find in any of the competitors of Christianity. [22]

    4. In the last analysis, a transcendent doctrine like that of a deity becoming man is beyond human credulity unless the claim to a man’s divinity is attested by real miracles worked in confirmation of his name. Jesus Christ alone both made the claim that He was God and proved the assertion by working not one but many miracles, terminating in His glorious resurrection from the dead.

      As regards the phenomena attributed to the gods, like Aslepius among the Greeks, or to men who were deified, like Apollonius of Tyana, they were not genuine miracles. In the first place, historical evidence for the cures and wonders reported is at a minimum. Documents are scarce and centuries removed from the time of the supposed events; and the whole context is so fantastic that any part of the narrative is immediately suspect. But even granting the substantial historicity of the pagan phenomenon, the question still remains whether they really transcended the powers of nature and, if so, whether by a special intervention of God or through the operation of some malignant spiritual power. St. Augustine admits that some of these events seem to transcend nature, but he denies they could possibly come from God. “The end for which the [pagan] prodigies are wrought,” distinguishes them from the true miracles of the Gospel. “For these prodigies commend the worship of a plurality of gods, who deserve worship the less the more they demand it.” But the miracles of Christ “commend the worship of the one true God.” [23] The marvels of paganism, therefore, are either to be dismissed as poetical fancy and fraud, or admitted to have happened through the agency of a preternatural power that is hostile to God.

    5. In order to claim that the Christian Incarnation is a natural outgrowth of paganism, it is necessary to ignore or deny a whole body of historical facts. Christ as man was born of a race opposed on principle to the idolatry of Greece and Rome. The religion which He preached was far removed from mythology. Where the pagans sanctioned promiscuity, He taught monogamy and the ideal of virginal celibacy. They believed in gods and goddesses, He made faith in the one Triune God an essential for salvation. They allowed murder, cruelty and rapine, and had these vices symbolized in the mythologies of their gods; He demanded meekness, humility, and charity, even to loving one’s enemies and laying down one’s life for another. They had only the vaguest notion of an after-life, whereas He proclaimed the doctrine of the Kingdom of God, where man is destined to enjoy the beatific vision in a glorious eternity. Since it is a cardinal principle of logic that no one can give what he does not have, the Christian Incarnation and the doctrines of Christ could no more evolve from the mysteries of paganism than a stone or a tree can generate a man.

  2. Mutual opposition.—If the Incarnation is a child of paganism, how explain the opposition between parent and offspring, an opposition so violent it covers three hundreds years of early Christian history with blood, and did not cease until one of the parties to the struggle was overcome? Evidence of the pagan opposition to Christ may be found in all the contemporary documents. The letter of Pliny the Younger, as proconsul of Bithynia, to the Emperor Trajan, is among the best known. He reported to Rome:
    The method I have observed towards those who have been denounced to me as Christians is this: I interrogated them whether they were Christians. If they confessed it I repeated the question twice again, adding the threat of capital punishment. If they still persevered, I ordered them to be executed.
    Those who denied they were, or had ever been, Christians, who repeated after me an invocation to the gods, and offered adoration, with wine and frankincense, to your image, which I had ordered brought for that purpose, together with those of the gods, and who finally cursed Christ—none of which acts, it is said, those who are really Christians can be forced into performing—these I thought it proper to discharge.

    They affirmed the whole of their guilt, or their error, was, that they were in the habit of meeting on a certain fixed day before it was light, when they sang in alternate verses a hymn to Christ, as to a god, and bound themselves by a solemn oath, not to any wicked deeds, but never to commit any fraud, theft, or adultery, never to falsify their word, nor to deny a trust when they should be called upon to deliver it up. [24]

    Trajan’s answer to Pliny commended his vigilance and technique. “The method you have pursued, my dear Pliny, in sifting the cases of those denounced to you as Christians is extremely proper. [25] The number of martyrs during the Roman persecutions is variously estimated, but contemporary witnesses agree it was a magna multitudo. Describing the tenth persecution under Diocletian, Eusebius speaks of “tens of thousands” who died for their faith in God become man in Jesus Christ.

    If the pagans saw nothing of their own religion in Christainity and therefore opposed it as an intruder, the Christians were taught to see nothing of Christ in pagansim and therefore to avoid it as an enemy of their salvation. Writing to the Greek Corinthians, St. Paul warns them, “The things which the heathens sacrifice, they sacrifice to devils, and not to God. And I would not have you become associates of devils.” [26] In like manner, the Romans are told that their pagan contemporaries, “while professing to be wise, they became fools, [having] changed the glory of the incorruptible God for an image like to corruptible men.” [27]

    Justin the Martyr was a convert from Graeco-Roman paganism in the early second century. After conversion he wrote an Apology to the Emperor Antoninus Pius who was persecuting the Christians. “We alone are hated,” he declared, “because of the name of Christ, and, though we commit no crime, we are executed as criminals,” for believing that “Jesus Christ alone is truly the Son of God.” [28] He then compares the crude immoralities of the pagan religion which the converts had abandoned with the spotless purity of the doctrine of Christ: “We who, from every nation, once worshipped Bacchus, the son of Semele, and Apollo, the son of Latona [who in their lusts for men practiced things too disgraceful even to mention], and Proserpine and Venus [who were thrown into a frenzy for love of Adonis, and whose mysteries you also celebrate], and Aesculapius, or any other of the so-called gods, now, through Jesus Christ, even under threat of death, hold these in contempt, while we consecrate ourselves to the unbegotten and impassible God.” [29] Justin concludes that the Christians “feel sorry for those who believe these things, but we know that the real instigators are the demons.” [30]

  3. Hypothesis of religious evolution.—Although comparative religionists cannot prove their theory about the pagan origins of Christianity, we can show that this opinion was born of the passion for explaining everything, including religion and revelation, on the basis of evolution. Religious evolutionism was first popularized in the eighteenth century by the English sceptic Hume, and reached its ultimate conclusion in the pantheism of Hegel. Contrary to the evidence of history, Hume stated that the religion of humanity is a constantly evolving process, beginning with the crudest for of animism and gradually developing into the monotheism of Christianity. Hegel extended the theory to say that the deity itself is an evolutionary being, and religion is one of its marks of development. The perfect religion, according to Hegel, is Christianity, which he describes as “the self-consciousness of God,” or again as the religion which “contains inseparably the universal and the individual, the finite and the infinite,” and teaches “their absolute identity.” [31]

    With some aspect of this theory as a foundation, modern evolutionists proceeded to read into human history the interpretation that every subsequent religious culture is the natural effect of the one preceding. In this way, as illustrated, for example, in the Rand McNally Histomap of Religion, antedating Christianity we have: Magic and Fetishism, Tabu and Totemism, Ancestor Worship, Tribal Gods and Divine Kings, Propitiation of Nature Spirits, and Fertility Cults. When we come to Christianity, the origin is very simple: “Jesus of Nazareth declares the kingdom of heaven within.” Later on, “Paul assimilates Hellenistic mysteries, and proclaims Christ as Lord for Jews and Gentiles.” At first there is a struggle over this pagan accretion, in the form of the “Arian heresy.” Finally “the Nicene creed [proclaims] the Trinity, [and] Christ is considered God Incarnate.” [32]


Pope Pius XII in the encyclical Humani Generis instructed Catholics, especially teachers, to be on their guard against those who “hold that the so-called theory of evolution … explains the origin of all things, and they go so far as to support the monistic and pantheistic notion that the whole world is subject to continual evolution.” [33] This warning has many applications, but none more important than regarding the origin of Christianity. Consequently if the teachers of religion and theology have a duty to explain the coming of Christ as a supernatural even that is unique in the history of the world, teachers of the classics have at least an opportunity to show that the Incarnation is not a natural evolution from the mythologies of pagan Greece and Rome.

[1] Pope Pius XI, Christian Education of Youth (New York: The Paulist Press, 1939), p. 37.

[2] Ibid., p. 36.

[3] Celsus’ original diatribe has perished.But we have about ninetenths of it, mostly verbatim, in Origen’s Contra Celsum, written about 250 A.D., which is properly regarded as “the great apologetic work of antiquity.”

[4] Ernest Renán, The Life of Jesus (New York: Modern Library, 1927), p. 388.

[5] William Sunday, The Life of Jesus in Recent Research (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1907), p. 206.

[6] Charles Guigenbert, Jesus (London: Paul, Trench, Trubner and Co., 1935), p. 193.

[7] John M. Robertson, Pagan Christs, Studies in Comparative Hierology (London: Watts and Co., 1911), p. xi.

[8] Salomon Reinach, Orpheus, A History of Religious (New York: Liveright, Inc., 1930), p. v.

[9] Gordon J. Laing, Survivals of Roman Religion (New York: Longmans, Green and Co., 1931), p. 120.

[10] E. Washburn Hopkins, Origin and Evolution of Religion (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1923), p. 334.

[11] Frederick C. Grant, Hellenistic Religions, The Age of Syncretism (New York: Liberal Arts Press, 1953), p. xxxviii.

[12] Tertullian, Apology (New York: Fathers of the Church, Inc., 1950), p. 53.

[13] Homer, Iliad, XXVI: 526.

[14] Platonis Opera, II, “Symposium” (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1910), p. 210e.

[15] Ibid., p. 211a-212a.

[16] Pietro Parente, “La salvezza degli infedeli,” L’Osservatore Romano, February 15, 1951.

[17] St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, IIa Iiae, q. 2, a. 7-8.

[18] Vivian Phelips, Concerning Progressive Revelation (London: Watts and Co., 1937), pp. 7-8.

[19] It is not only philologists and secular academicians who propagate the theory vom Mythos zum Logos, but also teachers in schools of divinity. A recent example is Robert M. Grant, professor of theology at the University of the South, who goes through three hundred pages to prove that the miracles of Christ which claim to prove His divinity are only “symbols [or] stories conveying pictures of the freedom and the power of God.” However, some of the “church fathers [like Augustine] were too much under the spell of Greek rationalism to be able to avoid rationalizing their own myths. They had to treat the miracles of fiat as if they were events subject to sense-perception.” See Grant, Miracle and Natural Law in Graeco-Roman and Early Christian Thought (Amsterdam: North-Holland Publishing Co., 1952), p. 269.

[20] Tertullian, op. cit., p. 36.

[21] St. Augustine, The City of God, Bk. II (Edinburgh: T. Clark, 1934), chap. Xxvii, p. 88.

[22] S. Angus, The Mystery-Religions and Christianity (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1925), pp. 309-311. The second-century Assyrian quoted is Tatian. The reference is from his apology Ad Graecos, p. 21.

[23] St. Augustine, op. cit., Bk. X, chap. Xvi, p. 406.

[24] Pliny Letters (New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1927), pp. 401-405. This is Letter 96, in Book X, of the standard collection.

[25] Ibid., p. 407.

[26] I Cor. 10:20.

[27] Rom. 1:22-23.

[28] St. Justin Martyr, The First Apology (New York: Christian Heritage, Inc., 1948), chaps. xxiv-xxv, pp. 59-60.

[29] Ibid.

[30] Ibid., p. 61.

[31] Georg Hegel, “The Philosophy of Religion,” Journal of Speculative Philosophy, XV (January, 1881), 9-11.

[32] John B. Sparks, Histomap of Religion (Chicago: Rand McNally and Co., 1952). Introducing the histomap, which is widely used in public high schools, is a verse from the Moslem writer Abdu el-Yezdi:

“All Faith is false, all Faith is true:
        Truth is the shattered mirror strown
In myriad bits; while each believes
         His little bit the whole to own.”

[33] Pope Pius XII, The Encyclical Humani Generis” (Weston, Mass.: Weston College Press, 1951), p. 7.

The Catholic Educational Review
Vol. LIII, 1955

Copyright © 1998 Inter Mirifica

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