I think one of the biggest problems in Evangelical Christianity is the “legalism boogeyman”, which I have written about before. But another empty fear consumes the Hebrew Roots movement at this time of year: the syncretism boogeyman.
Hebrew Roots aficionados are loathe to adopt any practice that seems “syncretic”, or that incorporates elements of worship that are derived from any extrabiblical (universally called “pagan”) tradition. This time of year the biggest target is Christmas. Unfortunately, most of the attacks on Christmas are ill-founded and mean-spirited.
Toby Janicki’s highly recommended four-CD set “What About Paganism?” offers several potential reasons why Christmas was fixed on December 25 by the early church. Toby also mentions the theory, found in this Bibical Archaeology Review article, that December 25th was fixed based on the view that Christ must have died on the date of his conception; if he had been conceived on or near Passover, he would have been born around Christmas.
McGowan’s article is interesting in that it takes some of the wind out of the sails of those who trumpet Christmas as nothing more than a rehabilitated pagan holiday. But there is still no denying that the date and practice of Christmas is foreign to the Apostolic church, a later invention, and currently infused with practices that are not drawn from the Bible.
While the Internet is astir with arguments between Hebrew Roots-ites who condemn everyone who celebrates Christmas as an idolater and those who think that we shouldn’t condemn several billion people solely for decorating trees, I would like to provide a little background to the discussion.
As much as the Hebrew Roots camp (hereafter “HR”) seems interested in learning about their Hebrew Roots, they don’t seem interested at all in learning about the ancient world and how people thought and acted then. Everyone – everyone – in the ancient world offered sacrifices to their gods. The Jewish sacrificial cult was not substantially different from anyone else’s. Everyone had specific cultic rites they had to perform in order to successfully live in harmony with their gods.
The God of the Jews was, in this particular respect, identical to the other gods of the nations: He had a temple and required that certain rites be performed correctly in it. The rites themselves are, on the surface, nonsensical. Sprinkling blood, burning fat and incense, putting blood on the ears, thumbs, and toes of the priests… none of it makes any sense from a modern scientific point of view. So it was with the cults of all the other gods.
This becomes even more interesting in light of the fact that God’s temple cult post-dated the concept of temples, cultic rites, etc. HR loves to point out that in Deuteronomy 12:29-32 God commanded the Israelites not to borrow pagan methods of worship. But loads of what God commanded the Israelites to do is mirrored in older pagan religions! Is God a syncretist?
It gets worse. Pick up any decent Old Testament Survey textbook; the most popular among Evangelicals is probably LaSor, Hubbard, and Bush. You’ll find that large swaths of the Old Testament have nearly exact parallels in contemporary or even more ancient sources. The wisdom literature of the surrounding nations sounds exactly like Proverbs. The hymns to other gods sound exactly like the Psalms. Is God a syncretist?
HR people love to play on the differences between the cult of Y-H and the cults of foreign gods but the condemnation of pagan worship in the Prophets must be seen in light of the fact that all the Semitic cults, at least when compared with modern religions, had numerous and obvious similarities that obviously do not qualify as syncretism. So what is syncretism?
Let’s take a closer look at Deut. 12:29ff. “When the LORD your God cuts off from before you the nations which you go to dispossess, and you displace them and dwell in their land, take heed to yourself that you are not ensnared to follow them, after they are destroyed from before you, and that you do not inquire after their gods, saying, ‘How did these nations serve their gods? I also will do likewise.’ You shall not worship the LORD your God in that way; for every abomination to the LORD which He hates they have done to their gods; for they burn even their sons and daughters in the fire to their gods. Whatever I command you, be careful to observe it; you shall not add to it nor take away from it.”
There seem to be three basic concerns here. The first is that God does not want the Israelites to inquire after pagan gods. The reason for this is very simple and if you miss it, you miss the point of the entire passage: in antiquity, all gods were regarded as territorial. In other words, it was perfectly reasonable to assume that upon entry in to Cana’an, the Israelites would have to figure out how to worship the indigenous gods. In a sense, they probably thought they were changing jurisdictions. This is what everyone thought in the ancient world, because all gods were regarded as territorial.
Why do you think God kept reminding Jacob that He was “with him” as he traveled to Laban and back (Gen. 28:15, 31:3)? Why did God have to remind Moses that He would be “with him” (Ex. 3:12)? Because the default understanding of gods was that they inhabited specific places – whether natural, such as a grove of trees, or artificial, such as a temple. God wanted Jacob and Moses to know that He was not only the God of Bethel, or of the burning bush – he was God, everywhere. This made the God of Israel unique among other ancient gods.
Another great example is the Samaritans. When they were brought in by the Assyrians to inhabit Samaria, they were attacked by lions. The King of Assyria sent one of the priests from Bethel (you know, the illegitimate cow altar Jereboam built) to teach the Samaritans how to appease the indigenous god (God?). (I wonder if it worked?)
Deuteronomy 12:29-32 is primarily, then, about the problem of the Israelites trying to worship the indigenous gods because of the common understanding that they had to in order to inhabit that piece of real estate peacefully.
The second concern is about the barbarity of the indigenous worship: “You shall not worship the LORD your God in that way; for [Hebrew: כִּי; that means "because"] every abomination to the LORD which He hates they have done to their gods; for they burn even their sons and daughters in the fire to their gods.” Notice what God finds particularly appalling is the child sacrifice. He wants to make sure that the Israelites don’t take on such practices. That is the stated reason He forbids them from taking on the practices of the Canaanites.
The third concern is about the purity of Temple worship: “Whatever I command you, be careful to observe it; you shall not add to it nor take away from it.” God doesn’t want the Temple worship to be contaminated by other rites. The cult has to operate exactly as He commanded. This was the case for every ancient sacrificial cult. Everything had to be just so.
So for example, when King Ahaz had Uriah build an altar identical to the one in Damascus, and demanded that the daily offerings be offered on it, that was syncretism. The worship of Hashem was mixed with worship of the Damascene gods by combining the rituals together.
Syncretism then is a bit narrower than the HR camp tends to define it. It involves actively seeking after other gods in addition to the true God. It involves polluting cultic worship with other rituals that don’t belong. Both of these concepts are intimately related. And Christians don’t do either of these things. None of this applies to the situation of Christmas trees, etc.
The Jewish sages did a lot of study and work to figure out how the prohibitions on idolatry apply outside the cultic sacrificial system. Their conclusions are often reasonable and sensible and I think we can learn a lot from them. Teaching organizations like FFOZ are doing a great job of distilling this information for us. We ought to take advantage of this information and use it to help us come to Biblical conclusions.
Pick up “What About Paganism?“ while it’s on sale.