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    The Case Against Classical Paganism - and Why It Was Wrong

    Excerpted from
    God Against the Gods
    By Jonathan Kirsch

    The biblical condemnation of polytheism, when stripped of its rhetorical overkill, rests on a single theological offense: the pagan commits an unforgivable crime when he or she prays to any god or goddess other than the Only True God. Although some of the biblical authors delight in describing (and, of course, denouncing) the exotic and provocative rituals of paganism, the manner of worship ultimately matters less to these ancient rigorists than the deity to whom worship is offered. Indeed, the rituals and practices of classical paganism were very much like those of the faith that is actually described in the Bible.

    "Paganism" is a term that is used indiscriminately to describe a vast array of unrelated beliefs and practices, ranging in time, place and expression from the crude burial rites of the Neanderthals to the exquisite statuary and epic poetry of the Greeks and Romans-and much else in between. Among the fantastic variety of pagans who have come and gone over the centuries, to be sure, were men and women whose religious practices were bloody, bizarre and even deadly. But the only thing that all of these pagans share in common is the fact that they did not confine their worship to the Only True God as that deity is variously defined in Judaism, Christianity and Islam.

    Because the final and decisive battle in the war of God against the gods was fought in the heart of the Roman empire at the very peak of its power and glory, as the most rigorous Jews and Christians saw it, the principal enemy of monotheism was the high culture of the classical world, a culture that began in Greece, reached its zenith in Rome and spread throughout the Roman empire. "Classical paganism," then, was the official religion of a civilization that is recalled and honored today in the classical texts that are studied in our universities, the statuary that fills our museums and the architectural styles that grace our monuments and public buildings.

    Still, the bad odor that clings to paganism begins with the alarming and sometimes revolting depiction of pagan ritual that we find in the Bible-paganism, we are taught, is hopelessly tainted with harlotry, idolatry, sorcery and, at its most wretched, human sacrifice. All of these notes are rung, for example, by Ezekiel in the passage that we considered in the last chapter. When God describes the debaucheries of the fallen woman who symbolizes faithless Jerusalem, he does not confine himself to her "harlotries." Rather, he allows us to understand that her sin is spiritual as well as carnal.

    The historical reality, however, may not have been quite so lurid. The "harlotries" that so agitated the prophets may have been mostly or entirely metaphorical. Rituals of sacred sex, if they took place at all, probably consisted of a single act of ceremonial intercourse by a priest and a priestess on a holy day or at a moment of crisis such as a plague, drought or famine. Indeed, some revisionists openly wonder whether the sexual practices of paganism are mostly in the eye of the beholder. They point out that "qedeshah," the Hebrew word that is rendered in conventional Bible scholarship as "temple prostitute," literally means "a consecrated woman." A fresh reading of ancient texts and archaeological evidence leads some recent scholars to believe that a qedeshah was not a sacred whore at all but a midwife, a wet nurse or perhaps a sorceress. "Tragically," writes Bible critic Mayer I. Gruber, "scholarship suffered from scholars being unable to imagine any cultic role for women in antiquity that did not involve sexual intercourse."

    Pagans, in fact, were as intent on imposing sexual law and order on a lively populace as the most rigorous monotheists. The Roman Senate, for example, was outraged by the spectacle of the Bacchanalia, a festival that honored the god of wine, Bacchus (also called Dionysus), with orgiastic bouts of drinking, the display (and use) of phallic icons like the ones that Ezekiel complains about and even the occasional act of public sex, all carried out in plain sight in the streets. By 186 B.C.E., the senators, declaring themselves to be concerned that the initiates were at risk of anal rape, ordered that the Bacchanalia be suppressed by force of arms as a "depraved foreign superstition."

    If we take the ancient sources at their word, some goddess-shrines in the more remote corners of the Roman empire served as functional equivalents of brothels. "A school of wickedness for all the votaries of unchasteness" is how the ancient Christian chronicler Eusebius of Caesarea describes the temple of Aphrodite at Aphaca (now Efqa, in Lebanon). The temple, for example, attracted prostitutes of both sexes, among whom were male transvestites-"men undeserving of their name [who] forgot the honour of their sex," as Eusebius puts it, "and propitiated the demon by their effeminate conduct." But the worship of the goddess may have had little or nothing to do with their sexual exploits-the "abandoned votaries of sensuality and impurity," as Eusebius dubs them, may have included ordinary prostitutes offering their services to worshippers who were aroused by the ceremonies that they just attended inside the shrine.

    By late antiquity, sex in the sacred precincts of paganism was more a matter of private scandal than religious practice. During the reign of Tiberius (14-37 C.E.), for example, an unsigned note was delivered to a Roman noblewoman called Paulina. She was invited to the temple of Isis, the Egyptian goddess of fertility, where the jackal-headed god Anubis promised to grant her the privilege of bedding down with him. When she dutifully appeared at the temple, the figure wearing the mask of Anubis turned out to be a thoroughly mortal man-a Roman knight who was either the seducer of a gullible woman or the lover of a conniving woman.

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