What is paganism?

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Until recently the Western world was supposedly ‘Christian’. An inheritance from the preceding ‘Roman-Christian’ culture. However, scepticism has risen about this Christian identity of the West. This was above all the consequence of the so-called ‘Enlightenment’ and the two World Wars. Since then, the West is increasingly rejecting Christianity and revaluating (a new) paganism. What is written about paganism in the Bible?

Paganism is the dominance of pagan life[1] in a certain society. The name ‘pagan’ or heathen is actually incorrect, because these words refer to uncivilized people[2] living at rural area’s[3]. Uncivilized people live in a way or in conditions that the ‘upper’ class of society deems beneath a certain level[4].

In religious sense paganism is seen as that which is (still) outside the circle of influence of one’s own belief[5]. In Biblical sense paganism is viewed as something rather negative. As something dangerous or at least that which opposes the Biblical teachings. If the circle of influence of one’s own religious community grows, paganism will logically in equal measure respond against that (new) community.

The Biblical teachings however do not seek this contrast[6] (see for example Gn 49:5-7). Still, it is a fact that pagans are identified in the Bible as people outside God’s community. This seems contradicting[7]. In a religious sense a pagan is however not defined as the non-Jew[8], because in the Bible ethnicity isn’t a big issue[9] but one’s religion. A pagan is defined as being outside the dominion of Biblical life[10].

Word study
The word ‘heathen’ or pagan is in most English Bibles the translation of the Hebrew word ‘goj’. This Hebrew word stems from the verbal root ga‘ah – to lift oneself up/to stand like a hero. The word goj however should predominantly be understood as ‘nation’ and only sometimes (depending on the context) as individual pagan.

Most translations however are quite inconsistent in dealing with the word goj. It is alternately translated as ‘nation’, ‘people’ or ‘pagan’. This shows that the difference between the Hebrew words goj and ’am is not understood. It needs to become clear that Israel in the Bible is seen as a nation – goj from the moment on that it settled in the promised Land and appointed a government[11].

‘Nation(s)’ is mentioned more then 100* in the ASV and the KJ21, whilst the Hebrew word goj(im) is mentioned more then 500* in the Bible. The word ‘people(s)’ is mentioned more then 1800* in the ASV and over 1900 times in the KJ21, whilst the Hebrew word ‘’am(im)’ is mentioned around 1650* in the Bible.

It is important to understand that the Hebrew word goj in an Israelitic sense doesn’t have so much a religious meaning but refers primarily to statehood, while pagan in Biblical sense does have a religious meaning. So, a pagan is characterized for its religious life, but can be member of any people[12]. A pagan in Biblical sense is per definition seen as unclean and someone who goes against the will of God[13].

The Hebrew word which in an Israelitic sense has the meaning of pagan is ‘zoer’, but this word is almost always translated as ‘strange’, ‘different’, ‘unauthorized’ or ‘outlandish’. Greek words like allotrios, allofulos, allogenes or xenos are rightly used to express that meaning.

The word ethnos in Greek Bible manuscripts is also translated in English as ‘pagan’, whilst that should be translated in a neutral, non-religious sense as ‘a people’. But ethnos is also alternately translated as ‘nation’ or ‘people’, which is again wrong. Greek has the word laos to be used for ‘a people’ and the words politeuma or basileia for ‘a nation’. Clearly many translators miss out on that difference as well.

It is remarkable that the translation of Greek words with the English word ‘pagan’ is often wrong. That confuses the Bible reader. An example is the Greek word telones, which means ‘(government) official’, but still sometimes translated as ‘pagan’ (ASV Mt 5:47). In this case it was a Jew who collected taxes on behalf of the Romans. That would not make him a pagan.

Blaming one another
The Romans called the first Christians[14] ‘pagans’, because they rejected the Roman cult and replaced it with a non-Roman cult[15]. Their disgust became even greater when it became clear that Christian faith originated from Judaism. Romans not only saw Jews as conquered barbarians, but also as extremely rebellious[16].

Germanic tribes increasingly gained respect for the Romans in their dealings with them. But they also called Roman Christians pagans. Especially, because these Christians regarded their polytheistic-animistic[17] religion as superstition and because they believed in One invisible God.

But when the Christians later[18] more and more became dominant in the Roman empire they in their turn called their fellow Romans and especially the Germanic peoples ‘pagans’. They did that because these did not join the Christian belief. A belief that more and more became defined and framed in.

So, the conclusion is they that represented the ‘majority’ in a society seemingly determine what belongs to paganistic doings and dealings[19].

Alternative names
As stated above, the term ‘pagan’ is actually incorrect. This certainly is the case when the ruling class, the elite is called ‘paganistic’ by the people. It is ridiculous to define them with a term that actually means ‘they that live in rural area’s’.

An often-used alternative name for ‘pagan’ is unbeliever, but even that is incorrect. It presupposes these people do not believe or have a believe which is wrong. It again shows that the term paganism originally[20] was a religious term[21].

Another alternative name used for ‘pagan’ is ungodly. Someone who acts and/or behaves himself as if the God of the Bible doesn’t exist or is irrelevant; a God-less person. Perhaps that is the best alternative for the incorrect term ‘pagan’.

Above all it is important to realize that the term ‘pagan’ or ‘Godless’ was used as a judgment of someone else. To condemn outsiders[22].

Biblical determination
In the Bible a pagan is judged negatively (Lv 18:24; Mt 18:27). This might seem to go against the command of the Lord Jesus to evangelize the world, but still, it’s a fact. This negative stance did not change after His salvation work and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit[23].

In fact, Adam and Eve behaved themselves as pagans when they chose to go against the command of God and ate from the Tree of Knowledge. Still, they seem to have tried to recover from that. They gave their son, who would be their heir, the name Set[24]. From him came forth the line of righteous offspring in which Noah was born. A man which God deemed as obedient to His will (Gn 6:22; 7:5). Cain and his offspring can be seen as the first Godless peoples; pagans.

In later generations the pagans are above all the offspring of Canaan, the son of Ham, who is seen as extremely pagan (Godless) and therefore the Israelites needed to banish them on God’s command (exterminate them or drive them out of their midst from the promised Land).

Characterization
In general sense a pagan is someone who lets himself be guided by the primary impulses. This is explainable, because man in Biblical sense has come under the power of sinfulness[25] since the disobedience of Adam. So, the pagan is in principle unaware hopeless[26] and doesn’t know wellbeing[27].

A pagan behaves itself like an animal[28], but understands this to be ‘normal’[29]. Like an animal a pagan hunts for the earthly, physical and materialistic units and achievements as a way of self-perseverance but also for self-satisfaction (1 Jh 2:16); human spirituality (idolatry), carnal love (adultery), food, clothing, power, etc.

The hunt of a pagan often goes together with (spiritual) violence[30], although there are also quite refined pagans. Still, paganism characterizes itself in seeking to push back (spiritual) boundaries or lifting well-known limits (libertarian thinking). It is however remarkable that they, even after many millennia, achieve only a little or nothing. This is due to the fact that they continuously work inconsistent and are divided against themselves.

When pagans are somewhat fearless or think that they are, they can go from worse to evil (predator behavior). To go from one debauchery to the other blasphemy. Or it could be that the pagan goes into a spiral of fear, that quite often ends in (all kinds of) psychological diseases and/or suicide. (All kinds of) addictions are also typical pagan.

Pagans are sometimes judged as dumb people and/or those who hold a backward superstition. They that have never heard of a high spiritual civilization or purposefully cast it aside[31]. But such characterizations rather show unjustified pride.

Biblical view
Paganism in Biblical sense means being of no use to God[32]. Two types of pagans are distinguished; those who do not know the God of the Bible (the unknowing[33]; Mt 6:7) and those that purposefully cast Him aside (the rebellious;18:17)[34]. The context in which someone is called ‘pagan’ determines the type applicable.

From the viewpoint of the people of Israel there existed an Old Covenant definition of pagans: those that don’t belong to Israel[35]. According to that Covenant pagans were per definition judged as unclean and sinful[36]. In the New Testament believers were more explicitly called sheep and therefore pagans were defined as wolves (10:16; Acts 20:29). Their natural enemies[37].

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[1] Paganism is hardly one clear cultural form, but really more a mingling of culture forms. So, each expression of paganism is determined by its cultural context.
[2] Who in the early days called others pagans are often the ones nowadays can be called pagans themselves based on today’s standards.
[3] Area’s outside the (fortified) cities of old; the countryside. Pagans used to be people living in small villages (Latin: paganus) or in the wilderness.
[4] But for long it was not defined what that level was. The definition of a minimum level of civilization is something of the modern age. This is often called level of prosperity.
[5] In the Bible commands are given to deflect the influence of paganism and possible change it to benefit the Biblical way of life, with the purpose to safeguard the strengthening of God’s people.
[6] Quite some Christian denominations however do seek that contrast as their goal, although this clearly goes against the will of God.
[7] In the New Testament however it is commanded to love even the outsider (tolerance). This is only possible through the fulfillment by the Holy Spirit.
[8] The suggested difference between a Jewish Christian and a heathen Christian is nonsensical and goes against the Bible (Rm 10:12), but this is sometimes based upon a Theological theory (e.g., Two-ways and/or Two-peoples of God theories).
[9] Still, God reckons with the people of Israel, because He has created them as a nation for Himself.
[10] This can also be due to falling away from Faith.
[11] See for example: 2 Samuel 7:23.
[12] According to Moses an Israelite living as pagan should be cast out (banished or sentenced to death) from the community of believers, unless that person returns to the faith of Israel. A pagan cannot and does not belong to the people of God.
[13] Someone who is not dedicated to God and probable performs acts of idolatry.
[14] From the second century onward these followers of the Lord Jesus were more and more born and raised in Roman families. So, these were already raised from early on as Christians. Previously people however only just became Christian later in life. As adults.
[15] Roman culture tended to be tolerant towards foreign cultures and open to adopt certain things regarded beneficial.
[16] The Jews had extorted special privileges from the Romans and still rebelled several times against them. Most famous is the so-called Jewish War that lasted for more than five years (66-70 CE).
[17] Germanic tribes connected all kinds of powers, phenomena and happenings in creation with magic, evil spirits and gods.
[18] From the end of the 4th century AD onward.
[19] Although portraying others negatively is in itself by definition paganistic.
[20] Also for pagans themselves.
[21] But religion and culture used to be mingled, but nowadays this is seen as separate.
[22] According to some the term ‘Christians’ was originally however also used as a negative identifier of believers in Antioch (Syria) in the first century AD. A name of scorn, how it nowadays again becomes fashionable to use.
[23] It is a given for a religious community (God’s people), that whomever doesn’t take part in it is seen as an outsider. A pagan cannot delight God. So, believers likewise do not have delight on them in absolute and principal sense.
[24] The Hebrew name Sjet means ‘restoration’, since it stems from the root sjiet – put (upright)/make it a matter of the heart.
[25] The power of satan and his demons.
[26] This explains why God commanded believers to make pagans known with the Biblical religion, whilst the Spirit of God approaches each of these pagans individually.
[27] Sjalom. This is repeatedly claimed by the prophet Isaiah (Is 48:22; 57:21; 59:8).
[28] Although humans are created in the Image and Likeness of God, He has taken from them His Holy Spirit. Therefore, they lack the human possibility to come in direct contact with God and thus they are only physical creatures and comparable with animals. Still, they distinguish themselves from animals because they acknowledge responsibility to God. Their conscience makes that clear to them.
[29] A pagan judges everyone who doesn’t join in their paganism as inhumane. That in itself also is a deciding argument for the legitimacy of Biblical faith.
[30] Like occultism, making use of magic and spiritual powers.
[31] Nowadays however non-conformism, like that of gipsy’s, is received by some as the right way.
[32] Actually it is more being irrelevant, because a pagan by itself is unable to be of any use to God. Being of use is a demand for being/staying a member of His people.
[33] God has given man a spiritual ‘antenna’. A possibility to wonder whether there is Someone greater than man itself and Who that could be. An elementary knowledge of God’s existence. Even someone that rejects the idea that Someone greater than itself (a so-called atheist) still believes. Namely in atheism.
[34] This can also be people that have fallen away from Biblical belief.
[35] That definition only has value if Israel’s observation of the Biblical religions is any ‘better’ then that of pagans.
[36] A pagan in the sense of the Old Covenant was in principle outside of those who were deemed as the neighbor.
[37] Thus, also in New Covenant quite rightly believers were warned for the danger a pagan and paganism have for the people of God.