Myth and Mystery: An Introduction to the Pagan Religions of the Biblical World

By Jack Finegan
Grand Rapids : Baker (1989). 335 Pages.

Reviewed by
2.1 (Spring 1991) : 105-107

The author emphasizes both the manner of diffusion and the multiplicity of ideas and practices borrowed from their antecedents by early pagan religions contemporary with Israel and early Christianity. Following the order of the chronological beginning for each religion, Finegan covers the following religions: Mesopotamian, Egyptian, Zoroastrian, Canaanite, Greek, Roman, Gnostic, Mandaean, and the Manichaean. For each one, he discusses history, sources, language, deities, mythology, society, etc. Either at the end of or within each chapter is an analysis of the extent and manner of interaction between a particular religion and the Bible.

Several examples show how Christianity and paganism, both broadly defined, came to bear upon one another. One such discussion addresses the dating of Jesus' birth on December 25. When the emperor Constantine ascended the throne after defeating Licinius in A.D. 323, he chose not to worship the sun, but its creator (p. 212). Finegan surmises,

It must have been at this time and with the intent to transform the significance of an existing sacred date that the birthday of Jesus, which had been celebrated in the East on January 6 (Epiphanius [c. 315-403], Panarion 51.11.4), was placed in Rome on December 25, the date of the birthday celebration of Sol Invictus (p. 212).

In A.D. 392 the emperor Theodosius I (379-395) placed pagan worship on a par with treason. "In the course of time `paganism' disappeared as a religious system and the once living faiths of the Roman Empire became religions of the past" (p. 215).

In the context of religious systems, the author raises several interesting points regarding the interaction between the so-called "Afro-asiatic" and the Greek and Roman classical civilizations. He then argues for an early and symbiotic relationship between the two. First, the Roman Emperor, "Gaius Caligula (A.D. 37-41) . . . was attracted by everything Egyptian and under him, the Isis cult received official recognition" in Rome (p. 196). Other emperors followed suit. Second, when the Egyptians received permission to establish a temple of Isis in Greece (333 B.C.), the Egyptian historian Manetho joined efforts with an Athenian named Timetheos to develop the cult of Sarapis in Egypt (323-285 B.C.). Third, in the course of Greek and Roman contact (in Magna Graecia in South Italy and in Greece proper, conquered by the Romans in 146 B.C.) the Romans adopted Greek gods such as Apollo and Asklepics. Consequently, equivalences between Roman and Greek deities were multiplied (p. 191). Throughout this period, the Romans adopted many mythologies from Greece, although at least a small measure of the ideological similarities is attributable to a common Indo-European heritage (p. 191).

Other interesting discussions include the origin and nature of the Magi who visited Jesus; the identity of Baal, the Asherah, and Ashteroth against whom the prophets and others polemicized in the OT; the inception of the earliest law codes and primitive forms of democracy; and the mysterious religious practices of many foreign peoples recorded in the Bible.

Several of the author's conclusions regarding the religious aspects of Mesopotamian and Israelite cultures need clarification. The evidence for a substrate language prior to Sumerian is more extensive than the author concedes. It is not just settlements that bear pre- Sumerian names (p. 191), but according to B. Landsberger, so do occupations and objects of material culture.

Finegan also argues, "Since all the names (Jericho, Megiddo, Beth-yerah etc.) are certainly Semitic this provides evidence that most, if not all of the inhabitants even in these early periods (pre-Israelite) were Canaanites" (p. 122). But equating ethnic groups with linguistic evidence is suspect methodology since ethnic and linguistic associations cannot be linked with certainty.

Familiar theological and biblical terminology employed by the author invites comparison and enhances understanding, but such terms may skew his discussions: prophet, priest, savior, archangel, sacrifice, righteousness, eternal law, vision, seer, hymns, wisdom, truth, the Holy Spirit, salvation, sinner, etc., are but a few of such terms interspersed throughout the book. The author uses them to describe the activities and character of pagan gods, their devotees, and religious trappings but often to the obfuscation of true correspondences with and differences between these and comparable terms in the Bible.

Several editorial oversights need attention: (1) on p. 126 the word hAbEXL needs a vowel added and a dagesh deleted; (2) on p. 223 the phrase "standing by laughed at them" needs an antecedent; and (3) on p. 227 quotation marks are needed before, (")so Marcion . . . works."

This work is an exceptionally good source of information regarding a select group of ancient religions. In spite of the complex nature of the issues with which it deals, the book is very readable. In addition, discussion of the religions is ordered chronologically, thus helping the reader understand and appreciate extensive borrowing from one religion to the next. Those who desire to study the religious systems that impacted Israel and the early church will find the volume quite helpful.