Sunday, April 27, 2014

Christian Canonization And Ancient Roman Deification

There's been a lot of discussion lately of Christian borrowings of pagan symbols, holidays, institutions, concepts, etc -- some of it interesting and actually informative, a lot of it just one more tired, uninteresting, juvenile, inaccurate New Atheist game of "gotcha!" wherein the players, who would much rather score points than be right, take a kernel of scholarly information and carry it far, far into Absurdistan -- and of course there's also been a lot of discussion of today's canonization of John XXIII and John Paul II, but it wasn't until this morning that I started to wonder how many similarities there might be between ancient Roman deification and Christian beatification.

First, let me reassure those of you who are sensible enough to have been disenchanted by New Atheist ravings -- and surely there are a lot of us -- that, although they never miss a chance to blow something out of proportion, there actually are many pagan holdovers in Christianity. For example and apropos of today, when two Popes are being canonized, the title pontifex maximus, which means "great bridge-builder," was applied to a Roman religious official long before Christianity existed, so long that we cannot say when it originated, its origins fading into the mists of fable. The Tiber river winds through the ancient part of Rome and also provided a crucial defensive barrier outside the city, so it's not so odd that the office of bridge-builder came to be seen as sacred. Yeah, so anyway, Christians didn't invent the title of Pontiff, which was held by many prominent Romans including Julius Caesar and almost all of the Western Emperors until Theodosius the Great, who ruled from 379 to 395, transferred the title to the Bishop of Rome. Which means that I've been talking a bunch of nonsense when I've been telling people that the Roman Pontiff didn't attend the Council of Nicea, because the Bishop of Rome wasn't yet the Pontiff. Constantine, who was Emperor of both the Eastern and the Western Empire when the Council took place in 325, was the Pontiff. (I've also been wrong when I've told them that the Pope wasn't there, because the title "Pope" didn't yet refer exclusively to the Bishop of Rome. But the bishop of Roman wasn't there, and he wasn't thick as thieves with the man who moved the capital 1000 miles away from his diocese.)

It strikes me that monotheism and polytheism may not be as entirely different form each other as they sometimes seem, especially when we consider angels and demons and saints. Do they not play roles in monotheism similar to those of gods in polytheism? The similarity is particularly striking today: two Pontiffs are being canonized. In pagan Rome, many Emperors, who were also Pontiffs, were deified upon their deaths.

It's difficult to research this, the search being cluttered not only by hate-filled New Atheists yelling Aha! Gotcha! They stole it all! but also by hate-filled Protestants making the equation Catholic=idolators and pagans=Satan=pure evil. A pox on both of those houses, and a hearty welcome to everyone who wants to learn and not hate. I don't share one bit of the religious fervor of many Catholics about this day, but I feel much closer to them than to all the stupid raving haters.

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