John MacArthur has given a lot of pretty great Christian sermons, and he really does edify the Body of Christ at times. But when it comes to Catholicism, he’s embarrassingly ignorant, and gets a lot of even basic things wrong. I wish this was a minor thing, but it’s got pretty far-reaching implications. For example, he’s convinced that Ash Wednesday, Lent, Easter, and Christmas are pagan holidays. He draws this conclusion from a single book, Alexander Hislop’s The Two Bablyons, which claims that (1) Catholics worship Mary as a goddess, and (2) that Mary is another name for the Babylonian goddess Semiramis.
The book that MacArthur cites to is full of lies and distortions. Even other anti-Catholics reject Hislop’s book as a fraud. The Evangelical pastor Ralph Woodrow, a once-leading proponent of Hislop’s theory, even wrote his own book, Babylon Mystery Religion about how Catholicism is a reincarnation of the Babylonian religion. But even Woodrow, upon researching more, realized that Hislop was lying or confused on nearly everything he wrote. Woodrow explained in the Christian Research Journal:
The subtitle for Hislop’s book is “The Papal Worship Proved to Be the Worship of Nimrod and His Wife.” Yet when I went to reference works such as theEncyclopedia Britannica, The Americana, The Jewish Encyclopedia, The Catholic Encyclopedia, The Worldbook Encyclopedia – carefully reading their articles on “Nimrod” and “Semiramis” – not one said anything about Nimrod and Semiramis being husband and wife. They did not even live in the same century. Nor is there any basis for Semiramis being the mother of Tammuz. I realized these ideas were all Hislop’s inventions.
In other words, Hislop didn’t just fudge a few details. He made up the critical claim of the book, that Catholicism worshiped Nimrod and his wife Semiramis. Since Babylonians didn’t even think Nimrod and Semiramis were husband and wife, Hislop’s lie here invalidates the basis of his whole book.
Woodrow cites a number of other blatant misrepresentations, but the most pertient is this one:
In another appeal to Wilkinson, Hislop says that a Lent of 40 days was observed in Egypt. But when we look up the reference, Wilkinson says Egyptian fasts “lasted for seven to forty-two days, and sometimes even a longer period: during which time they abstained entirely from animal food, from herbs and vegetables, and above all from the indulgence of the passions” (Wilkinson, Ancient Egyptians vol. 1, 278) with as much credibility, we could say they fasted 7 days, 10 days, 12 days, or 42 days. Hislop’s claim appears to have validity only because he used partial information.If we based claims on partial information, we could even prove from the Bible there is not God: “…’There is no God’” (Ps. 14:1). When the entire statement is read, however, it has a different meaning: “The fool says in his heart, ‘There is no God.’”For these and many other reasons, I pulled my own book, Babylon Mystery Religion, out of print despite its popularity. This was not done because I was being threatened in any way or persecuted. This decision was made because of conviction, not compromise. While my original book did contain some valid information. I could not in good conscience continue to publish a book against pagan mixture knowing that it contained a mixture itself of misinformation about Babylonian origins.
So Hislop’s book is full of lies. But even if the similarities it cited to were right, it wouldn’t prove anything. As we’ll see later in this post, there are all sorts of surface similarities between Christianity and paganism.
Ralph Woodrow’s a good guy to know because it’s his book (the one he now rejects) that gets MacArthur going on the issue of how Catholicism is warmed over Babylonian paganism. In a Q & A, he’s asked the following:
JOHN: Hi, my name is John. I have this book on Babylon Mystery Religion by Ralph Woodrow and I just wanted to ask you what you thought of it and is Christmas derived from paganism and is the cross derived from paganism?
MacArthur, who hadn’t read Woodrow’s book, initially advised caution since Woodrow published it himself. But then he announced that Woodrow was “right on many of those issues” he addressed in the book (the one MacArthur hadn’t read). This leads to a whole litany of really basic errors suggesting MacArthur spent too much time reading Hislop, and not enough time reading Scripture:
Now, the Constantine Roman Empire that came about in about 300 or so, after that they wanted to sort of Christianize everything. And so in approximately 450 A.D., the Bishop of Rome decided that it would be really good if they could Christianize the festivals of December. So he determined in some kind of conjunction with the Bishop of Jerusalem that they would spot December 25 as the birth of Christ.
And if they could pick December 25 as the birth of Christ, that might sanctify all of this, even though it’s highly unlikely that He was born then. They were really trying to overpower the paganism. But instead, they got a mish-mash.
So far, so wrong. Mark Shea’s debunked this myth thoroughly, so I won’t repeat it, and Woodrow explains why it’s wrong in the earlier link. But basically, there are plenty of pagan groups that celebrated December 21th (since it was the Solstice), but the December 25th day comes from Judeo-Christian origins — it was nine months after the earliest celebrations of Easter (March 25th), and it put Jesus’ circumcision day (that is, the day He officially became a Jew) as the start of the year, quite fittingly. Only after the Christians started celebrating Christ’s Mass on December 25th did anti-Christian pagans, backed by the emperor, create a massive pagan celebration of the sun god on that day.
It’s also not true that Christianity resulted in a half-pagan, half-Christian “mismash.” MacArthur points to mistletoe, Christmas trees, holly, Christmas cards, and St. Nicholas as warmed-over paganism. On at least the last two, he’s absurdly wrong. But even if the first three were used in pagan celebrations, so what? We’re talking about plants. Can we not use plants in our celebrations for fear that some pagans might do the same thing? The simple fact is: these are plants that are beautiful in the wintertime, and there’s not a lot to choose from. As Woodrow noted, “As Christians, we don’t reject prayer just because pagans pray to their gods. We don’t reject water baptism just because ancient tribes plunged into water as a religious ritual. We don’t reject the Bible just because pagans believe their writings are holy or sacred.“
Another illustration, just before Easter, traditionally the Christian church celebrates what season? Lent. You know where lent came from? There’s no lent in the Bible, none. It never appears in the Bible. It had nothing to do with the resurrection of Christ. But in ancient paganism, in the instructions of Baal and Ashteroth and the deities of the ancients, it was believed that Tammuz, or Baal, he goes by a lot of different names, Cupid, many names, but that Tammuz or Baal was killed by a wild boar. And when he was killed by a wild boar, his mother Semiramis, the high priestess of Babylonian paganism, mourned for him and cried for him for 40 days and at the end of those 40 days, he was risen from the dead. So the whole concept of the 40-day mourning and going without and fasting has absolutely nothing to do with the resurrection of Christ but was an imposition on Christianity from pagan mystery religions of Babylon.
These sorts of statements suggest that MacArthur should put down the crazy anti-Catholic books and pick up a Bible. What does it mean to say that there’s no Lent in the Bible? We already know from Scripture that the nation of Israel can proclaim a time of fasting for the entire people (Joel 2:15), and that even when the Assyrian city of Nineveh did the same, God had mercy on them (Jonah 3:8-10). So if pagan Assyria can call a fast, you’d think that the Church could, too. And in fact, Jesus says that His followers will fast after He’s Ascended (Luke 5:33-35), and the Book of Acts shows that the Apostles did just that, collectively (e.g., Acts 13:2-3 and Acts 14:23). Plus, forty is the Biblical number for preparation, not the pagan one.
Forty days is the length of time for the Flood (Gen. 7:17), in which God prepares a new world for Noah, an event we know prefigures Baptism (1 Peter 3:20-21). Forty years is the length of time for the wandering in the desert, when God prepared the Jews in exodus for Israel (Exodus 16:35), living off the Manna that prefigures the Eucharistic Christ (John 6:51). And forty days is how long Jonah gave the city of Nineveh to repent (Jonah 3:4), which they did through turning their hearts towards God, and fasting. So we know that God likes fasts, that the Church can call fasts, and that forty is an important number of preparation in Scripture.
Even if these were the only Scriptures on point, Lent would clearly be Biblical. The Church would be doing exactly what God praises Israel, Nineveh, and the Apostles for doing. But look at how Jesus begins His ministry in Matthew 4:1-2, immediately after His Baptism:
Then Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. After fasting forty days and forty nights, He was hungry.
So Jesus has a forty day fast to prepare for His public ministry, which is to say, Jesus instituted Lent Himself.
As for this story about how Lent comes from an old Bablyon myth in which Semiramis nutures Tammuz back to life, it’s utter nonsense, as is the idea that the Babylonian Tammuz, the Tyrian Ba’al, and the Greek Cupid are the same. The only thing these figures have in common is that they have mothers. They’re not even from the same religions! Apparently, though, depicting a “sentimental” mother/son relationship is paganism and against Scripture, as MacArthur goes on to explain
The mother/child perspective where you see in the Roman churches, you know, the virgin or you see the pieta, the carving, this whole mother/child thing does not come, basically, from Christianity. There’s no sentimentalization of that in the Bible, but it comes, again, from paganism.
This assertions is just strange. In Isaiah 49:15, God declares, “Can a mother forget the baby at her breast and have no compassion on the child she has borne? Though she may forget, I will not forget you!” So the very image God gives of His love for His people is of a mother loving her child. It doesn’t get any more “sentimental” than that.
Semiramis, it was said by the pagans, conceived her son Tammuz because she was implanted by a sunbeam. That would falsify what? The virgin birth. And after that she gave birth to her son without a human father. So that the mother/child cult really came through mystery religions of Babylon and in its pagan origin, was superimposed on Christianity and, ultimately, the confusion came out in the Roman Catholic system where you have lent, which has no Biblical basis at all.
Again: Semiramis isn’t even Tammus’ mother! As I said before, Hislop just made this stuff up. Once again, MacArthur needs to put down the crackpot books and pick up a Bible. The devotion to Mary and Jesus starts with Genesis 3:15, which prophesies a Woman and Her “Seed,” a reference we know to be to the Virgin Birth. It continues with Isaiah 7, promising that the Virgin will bear a Son. It continues into the Gospel, in which Mary places Herself in total obedience to God, who blesses Her with the unique privilege of bearing God the Son Himself, Jesus Christ, Savior of the world.
In fact, that’s only one part of it. You know the term “Queen of Heaven”? I was reading a Catholic book the other day. Queen of Heaven…Queen of Heaven you can find in the book of Ezekiel. And the first Queen of Heaven was Semiramis, the high priestess of Babylonian cults, the mother/child cult. Many of these features have come out of paganism and been superimposed across Christianity.
In his defense, MacArthur is at least trying to advance an argument from Scripture. It’s the wrong Scripture, though — the pagan goddess called “Queen of Heaven” isn’t mentioned in Ezekiel at all, but in Jeremiah (see Jeremiah 7:18 and Jeremiah 44). In any case, Catholics aren’t talking about a goddess, but about the Virgin Mary, who is depicted as crowned in Heaven in Scripture (Revelation 12:1-2.).
As Woodrow notes, there are a lot of surface similarities between paganism and Christianity:
If finding a pagan parallel provides proof of paganism, the Lord Himself would be pagan. The woman called Mystery Babylon had a cup in her hand; the Lord has a cup in His hand (Ps. 78:8). Pagan kings sat on thrones and wore crowns; the Lord sits on a throne and wears a crown (Rev. 1:4; 14:14) Pagans worshipped the sun; the Lord is called the “Sun of Righteousness” (Mal. 4:2), Pagan gods were likened to stars; the Lord is called “the bright and Morning star” (Rev. 22:16). Pagan gods had temples dedicated to them; the Lord has a temple (Rev. 7:15). Pagans built a high tower in Babylon; the Lord is a high tower (2 Sam. 22:3). Pagans worshipped idolatrous pillars; the Lord appeared as a pillar of fire (Exod. 13:21-22). Pagan gods were pictured with wings; the Lord is pictured with wings (Ps. 91:4).
So this game of “that looks sort of like this other thing, so they must be the same” is just silly, particularly when it causes you to attack a Scriptural depiction of Mary as being crowned in Heaven. MacArthur continues:
Now, that is not to say that we have to abandon all meaningful things. I mean, just because the world wants to mess up and confuse the issue doesn’t mean that I have to be confused about it. I could celebrate Christmas today if I wanted to and I could celebrate it any day I want and I can be grateful the Lord was born or the Lord was risen from the dead or whatever. That’s my prerogative as long as I understand the distinction. The part that I don’t think is necessary is for us to sort of just say, well, we will not do all of that.
So in the same breath, he’s saying that Christmas, Easter, Lent, and the rest are pagan mishmash, and then that it’s okay to celebrate them. He evens says we can just make up our own Christmastimes individually (which sounds great for those days you don’t want to go into work, I’m sure). In any case, in Scripture, you never see anyone simply declare their own holiday for themselves personally. You want to talk about extra-Scriptural traditions, MacArthur’s got one right here.
He concludes by talking about how Christmastime is nice, because it opens people up to Christ — a great argument for why the Church, rather than the individual, should be able to set feasts and fasts, and holidays in general. Then he tells everyone how great there’s “There’s another book that’s very helpful called The Two Babylons by Hyslop, H-Y-S-L-O-P. Also, a very, very helpful book.” Matthew 7:18 tells us that “A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit.” When MacArthur tries to base serious views on Catholicism off of fraudulent and deceptive sources, it’s no wonder he manages to get every single issue he addressed on the subject fundamentally wrong.