Building on Pagan Foundations
AMONG the many impressive monuments that are visited by tourists to Rome, Italy, is the Pantheon. This masterpiece of Roman architecture is one of the few buildings there that remain substantially as they were in ancient times. Begun by Agrippa in about 27 B.C.E., it was rebuilt by Hadrian about 120 C.E. One remarkable feature of this structure is its huge 142-foot [43 m]-diameter dome, surpassed in width only in modern times. The Pantheon was originally a pagan temple, a “place for all gods,” which is the meaning of the original Greek word. Today, it is still considered a Roman Catholic church. How was such a surprising transformation possible?
In 609 C.E., Pope Boniface IV rededicated this long-unused temple as a “Christian” church. At that time, it was given the name Church of the Santa Maria Rotunda. According to an article published in 1900 in the Italian Jesuit magazine La Civiltà Cattolica, the particular use Boniface had in mind for it was that of “glorifying together all the martyrs of the Christian sphere, or rather, all the saints, but first and foremost the Virgin Mother of God.” The names given to the Pantheon by the Roman Catholic Church today—Santa Maria ad Martyres or, alternatively, Santa Maria Rotunda—reflect that unscriptural intention.—Compare Acts 14:8-15.
To adapt the Pantheon to its new use, “very little needed to be done,” continues the same article. “Boniface followed the simple and generous rules already established by St. Gregory the Great [Pope Gregory I], his predecessor, a maestro and exemplary in the adaptation of pagan temples to use in Christian worship.” What rules were those?
In a letter to a missionary bound for pagan Britain in 601 C.E., Gregory gave this direction: “The temples of the idols in the said country ought not to be broken; but the idols alone which be in them . . . If the said temples be well built, it is needful that they be altered from the worshipping of devils into the service of the true God.” Gregory’s idea was that if pagan peoples saw their former temples unspoiled, they might be more inclined to continue frequenting them. Whereas pagans used “to kill many oxen in sacrifice to the devils,” wrote the pope, it was now hoped that “they no more sacrifice animals to the devil but kill them to the refreshing of themselves to the praise of God.”
Roman Catholicism also “countered” pagan worship by founding, in close proximity to former temples, churches dedicated to “Christian” patrons. Ancient celebrations were adopted and given a “Christian” significance. To express it in the words of La Civiltà Cattolica: “That some customs and religious observances of the early Christians were closely related to certain pagan practices and ways is known to all scholars nowadays. They were practices too dear to the people, customs too deeply rooted and intertwined in the public and private life of the ancient world. The mother church, kind and wise, did not believe that she had to uproot them; rather, by transforming them in a Christian sense, raising them to new nobility and new life, she prevailed over them by means that were powerful yet gentle, so as to win to herself without uproar the souls of both the masses and the cultured.”
One well-known example of the adoption of a pagan festivity is, of course, that of Christmas. December 25 was, in fact, the date on which the ancient Romans observed the dies natalis Solis Invicti, that is, “the birthday of the invincible sun.”
In her desire to win pagan hearts, the church therefore did not adhere to the truth. She justified the practice of syncretism, the absorption of heathen beliefs and practices “dear to the masses.” The result was a hybrid, apostate church, far removed from the teachings of true Christianity. In this light, perhaps it is not so surprising that a former Roman temple to “all gods”—the Pantheon—should become a Roman Catholic church dedicated to Mary and all the “saints.”
It ought to be obvious, however, that changing the dedication of a temple or the name of a celebration is not sufficient to transform the ‘worship of devils into the service of the true God.’ “What agreement does God’s temple have with idols?” asked the apostle Paul. “‘Get out from among them, and separate yourselves,’ says Jehovah, ‘and quit touching the unclean thing’; ‘and I will take you in.’ ‘And I shall be a father to you, and you will be sons and daughters to me,’ says Jehovah the Almighty.”—2 Corinthians 6:16-18.