The Two Babylons - Hislop's hypothesis debunked

D. Burke

The Nimrod Hypothesis – a Critical Analysis

At the outset it must be emphasised that this is not intended to be an exhaustive critique of Hislop’s entire work, but rather a dissection of his methodology. The purpose here is to expose the fallacious reasoning upon which he has built his hypothesis, and invalidate his conclusions by an appeal to logic, reason, and documented history.

Superficial Similarities Cannnot be Equated with Proof

Whenever this I read a passage from The Two Babylons, I cannot help recalling a note which was scribbled on one of my university essays by a lecturer in ancient history:

Your discussion of the various cultural forces at work is sound, although here you become the victim of too little learning combined with a boldness of style.  Sounding plausible doesn’t make it right, as your analysis of the cultural influences implies.  The idea is good; the sensitivity to evidence is less apparent.

A careful examination of The Two Babylons will reveal that the Reverend Hislop has fallen victim to the same rush of enthusiasm. He has begun with a preconceived idea, located a number of sources that appear to give it credit, and extrapolated a probable (but ultimately fallacious) conclusion from what amounted to very little evidence in the first place.

What Exactly is Hislop Trying to Say?

In order to refute Hislop's argument effectively, we must first ensure that we understand the full extent of his claims.

These are:
  • That the Roman Catholic Church has knowingly incorporated paganism into its beliefs and practices.

  • That the representation of Mary as Mother of God is based upon pagan beliefs.

  • That the RCC doctrine of the Trinity is pagan in both its origin and definition.

  • That the RCC is a revival of the Babylonian religious system - specifically, the worship of Nimrod and Semiramis.

  • That the ornaments, symbols, rituals and images of the RCC are borrowed from pagan idolatry.

  • That the RCC is Satanic.
Having defined the scope of Hislop's thesis, we now need to consider the means by which he may be reasonably expected to support his claims.

He must:
  • Prove that the RCC has knowingly adopted pagan beliefs and practices.

  • Give dates for the changes that would have taken place.

  • Specify which cultures have provided the RCC with her inspiration.

  • Show how this was achieved.
But before we do this, I must offer the following proviso: just as it is important to know exactly what Hislop is claiming, so too is it important to know what he is not claiming.

Hislop's Thesis is Not Anti-Trinitarian

I never cease to be amazed by the number of perfectly respectable brethren who continue to quote The Two Babylons during a public lecture on Trinitarianism in an attempt prove that the Trinity is false. Contrary to popular belief, Hislop makes absolutely no attempt to disprove Trinitarianism itself. Indeed, he refers to it as...

...the original patriarchal faith.

... and:

...that sublime mystery of our faith.

He also says ...

While overlaid with idolatry, the recognition of a Trinity was universal in all the ancient nations of the world, proving how deep mated in the human race was the primeval doctrine on this subject, which comes out so distinctly in Genesis.

...proving beyond any shadow of a doubt that his sympathies lie with Trinitarianism.

Why, then, do people insist on deferring to this book as if it constitutes the ultimate anti-Trinitarian resource? The answer is simple: like Hislop, they have allowed their biases to cloud their judgement.
  • They skim over his pious references to the Trinitarian dogma, focusing only on his rabid anti-Catholicism.

  • They applaud his assault on the Catholic tradition of representing the Trinity by means of statues, images and icons.

  • They cheer his derision of pagan motifs without comprehending the motivation behind it. They see Hislop as anti-Trinitarian; and yet, the reality is very different. He is fulminating against (a) the misappropriation of his beloved Trinity by "the old heathens", and (b) the idolatrous representation of the Trinity by human artificers.
Having eventually waded through Hislop's labyrinth of "proofs", the undiscerning reader will conclude that the ultimate target of Hislop's polemic is Trinitarianism itself. Alas, nothing could be further from the truth.

Observe the context of the following tirade:

The three heads are different arranged in Layard's specimen, but both alike are evidently intended to symbolise the same great truth [of the trinity], although all such representation of the Trinity necessarily and utterly debase the conceptions of those, among whom such images prevail, in regard to the sublime mystery of our faith.

Need I say more? Even a superficial reading is enough to tell us that these are not the words of an anti-Trinitarian. They are, in fact, the words of a zealous Trinitarian. How, then, can Hislop's book be successfully employed as a weapon against the Trinitarian dogma?

The answer is simple: it can't.

Was there a Deliberate Adoption of Paganism by the RCC?

Even on the most superficial level, Hislop’s argument does not sound very logical. On the one hand he tells us that the RCC knowingly incorporated paganism into its religious system:

…it was brought in secretly, and by little and little, one corruption being introduced after another, as apostacy proceeded, and the backsliding Church became prepared to tolerate it, till it has reached the gigantic height we now see, when in almost every particular of the system of the Papacy is the very antipodes of the system of the primitive Church.

Hislop, Alexander (1858), The Two Babylons.

On the other hand he acknowledges that, through the work of the Jesuits, the RCC was able to subdue (and in some cases practically eliminate) the pagan beliefs of the cultures with which it came into contact. Exactly why the Church should be so keen to adopt paganism at the same time as she is relentlessly crushing it, is never actually explained.

Nevertheless, before we write him off entirely, we must examine Hislop’s thesis.

His first step is to draw parallels between Catholicism and the ancient religions of Babylon and Egypt.

The most significant of these are:
  1. Babylonian worship was a “mystery religion” - the RCC is a religion of “mysteries”, and the woman on the beast in Revelation 17 bears the title “Mystery, Babylon the Great.”

  2. Babylonian worship involved the use of a cup - the RCC is represented in Revelation 17 by a woman with a cup that is filled with the blood of the saints, and a coin struck in 1825 by Pope Leo XII showed the RCC as a woman with a cup in her hand.

  3. Babylonian worship spoke of a god (Nimrod) who died and came to life again through the birth of his son - the RCC teaches that Jesus (as God) died and rose again (as God).

  4. Babylonian worship spoke of a woman (Semiramis) who gave birth to Nimrod without physical conception - the RCC teaches that Jesus (as God) was born of a virgin.

  5. The “fish hats” of Dagon in Babylonian worship are similar to the Pope’s mitre.

  6. The Egyptian ankh (along with other pagan cross-like figures) is similar to the cross that is used by the RCC.
It will be seen that these assertions amount to nothing more than an unfortunate mixture of truth and error. Christadelphians (and many others) agree that the RCC is the woman on the beast in Revelation 17, so we can safely dismiss (1) and (2).

The others require careful scrutiny.

Is the Representation of Mary as Mother of God Based upon Pagan Beliefs?

The simple answer to this question is a resounding “No.” While many pagan religions certainly included a “mother of God” myth, it takes a mighty stretch of the imagination to accept the idea that the RCC was happy to borrow the concept.

When you read his book, always keep in mind the fact that Hislop was a member of the Anglican Church, and therefore a Trinitarian himself. As such, he cannot deny the fact that his own religious system teaches the literal birth of God the Son from the womb of the virgin Mary. Whether he likes it or not, he is stuck with an embarrassing parallel between Catholicism and Anglicanism.

Hislop wants to paint the RCC with as black a brush as possible, but he also needs to avoid the pitfall of a self-defeating claim. This is why, when we begin to read The Two Babylons more closely, we find that his main contention is not so much with the idea that Mary has given birth to God, but with the Catholic tradition of Mariology.

What is Mariology?

Mariology is defined as the study of that theology "which treats the life, role, and virtues of the Blessed Mother of God" and which "demonstrates ... her position as Co-Redemptrix and Mediatrix of all grace."  Some of the unbiblical teachings relating to the Mary of Catholic Tradition include the following:

Mary's Immaculate Conception: This doctrine teaches that she was born without original sin and was, therefore, sinless throughout her life.

Mary's perpetual virginity: This dogma asserts that she had no children after Jesus.

Mary's bodily assumption or physical ascension into heaven: This teaches that because of her sinlessness, Mary never experienced physical death.  Instead she was raised bodily into the presence of Christ.

Mary's role as Co-redemptrix and Mediatrix of all grace: This doctrine holds that the obedience and sufferings of Mary were essential to secure the full redemption brought by Christ.

Mary's right to veneration and/or worship: This teaching argues that because of her unparalleled role in the economy of salvation, Mary is worthy of special adoration.

Ankerberg and Weldon, (1993) The Facts on Roman Catholicism, citing The Catholic Encyclopedia.

Hislop boldly asserts that the RCC purloined this idea from a wide range of pagan sources. However, there was no need for the Church to do this at all.

If we want to discover the origins of Mariology, we need look no further than the logical problems that confronted the Church soon after she developed the doctrine of original sin:

The doctrine of original sin resulted in two other innovations: infant baptism, so that babies who died need not go to hell; and (much later) the belief in the immaculate conception of Mary, on the grounds that Jesus was by definition sinless, so he could not have been born of a sinful woman, so if Mary had been without sin, she must herself have been conceived without sin.

(This, which became official doctrine only in 1854, is a rare example of a Roman Catholic belief which is judged heretical by the entire Protestant world, on the grounds that it puts Mary on a fairly equal footing with Jesus; in the words of a Catholic archbishop of the time, it made her “above all our co-redemptress”.)

Barret, David V. (1996), Sects, ‘Cults’ and Alternative Religions.

The development of this dogma was gradual; it did not arise from pagan sources but from the first principles of an already-corrupted Christian theology.

Hislop takes great pains to tell us that the concept of “Virgin mother and divine child” is a pagan construction, and must therefore be rejected:

That this tradition came from no Popish or Christian source, is evident from the surprise felt and expressed by the Jesuit missionaries, when they first entered Thibet [sic] and China, and not only found a mother and a child worshipped as at home, but that mother worshipped under a character exactly corresponding with that of their own Madonna, “Virgo Deipara”, “the Virgin mother of God,” and that, too, in regions where they could not find the least trace of either the name or history of our Lord Jesus Christ having ever been known.

Hislop, Alexander (1858), The Two Babylons.

But here the astute reader will identify a number of conflicting statements:
  • Hislop has already told us that the RCC knowingly borrowed from paganism.

  • Now he says that the Jesuits “expressed surprise” at finding the concept of “virgin mother of God” in Tibet and China.

  • But if the RCC had knowingly appropriated this tradition fom non-Christian sources, surely the Jesuits would have expected to find it in the pagan countries they visited!
Hislop points out that neither Tibet nor China could possibly have been influenced by Christianity. He does this because he wants to maintain that the “virgin mother of God” doctrine did not originate with the Church.

However, the Emmanuel prophecies do speak of a virgin mother who was to bear the son of God, and any student of history knows that this was later corrupted into the notion of a “virgin mother of God” as the result of later doctrinal innovations which presented difficulties for the Church. Hislop cannot have it both ways.

Either there was no contact between Tibet, China and the early Church, or else there was plenty.

Is the RCC Doctrine of the Trinity Pagan in both its Origin and Definition?

In a word – “No.” This claim is demonstrably false. I shall spend no time on it here since the historical record of Trinitarian development constitutes an unassailable refutation. (See here and here for details.)

While it is true that pagan mythology contains a number of superficial similarities with Trinitarianism (along with many other concepts within Christianity as a whole) this is merely a coincidence. The mythological tradition in general, tends to concentrate on a limited number of themes.

The fact that these are repeated throughout history in various parts of the world, adds nothing to Hislop’s claim.

Is the RCC a Revival of the Babylonian Religious System - Specifically, the Worship of Nimrod and Semiramis?

Not at all. Indeed, this argument is wholly insupportable. Superficial parallels between one religious system and another do not, of themselves alone, prove a historical and ideological connection.

Far more evidence is required, and Hislop simply does not advance it. He merely points to a series of religious motifs (which appear to be duplicated in paganism) and asserts that because they look the same, they must be the same.

His thesis is generally consistent, but ultimately unreasonable. We can demonstrate the fallacy of Hislop’s approach simply by exercising it ourselves. The nature of the material is not important. As long as we have an agenda, it is possible to contrive any number of links between two entirely disparate religious systems.

By way of illustrating this point, let’s “discover” the roots of mainstream Christianity within Norse mythology…

Test Case #1: The Trinity

  • Odin (father of the gods in the Nordic tradition) sits upon a throne called “High Seat”, from which he can observe Midgard (the realms of men.) Two large ravens (whose names are “Thought” and “Memory”) roost upon opposite shoulders of the throne. Each morning they leave their perches and fly down to Midgard, where they spend the entire day. At evening they return, and whisper everything they have seen and heard into the ears of Odin.

  • Sometimes the father of the gods will visit Midgard in person. On these occasions he manifests himself as a one-eyed man attended by two large wolves.

  • The Vikings believed that Odin, Vili and Ve (three divine brothers of equal power) were responsible for creation. Later, Odin became Father of the gods, while his brothers vanish from the narrative.

  • When King Gylfi (a mortal man) makes his way to the home of the gods, he is met by three divine entities, who impart a series of prophetic revelations. The names of these entities are “High”, “Just-as-High”, and “The Third.” At the end of his audience, Gylfi realises that he has spoken to none other than Odin himself, manifested in three equal persons.

  • Odin’s wife Frigga has a magic ring, which creates nine other rings of equal value every ninth night. The numbers “3” and “9” are powerful symbols in Norse mythology, because three is the number of Odin and nine is the cube of three. They occur many times throughout the Nordic tradition.
Here we have more than enough material from which we might fabricate a "Norse Trinity" and claim that the Vikings themselves were Trinitarians.

Test Case #2: Armageddon

  • The Vikings believed that a mighty battle between the forces of good and evil would take place at the end of time. They called this battle “Ragnarök”, meaning “Twilight of the Gods.”

  • Ragnarök bears a striking resemblance to Armageddon. Even its aftermath is virtually identical. When the final battle is over, the sons and daughters of the gods return and revitalise the universe, ushering in a new age of peace and prosperity.
A comparison of Norse mythology to the events in Revelation will reveal a striking number of similarities. If we ever wanted to claim that Viking eschatology was virtually identical to that of the Christians, we could point to these similarities as "proof."

Test Case #3: Satan, the Supernatural Devil

  • Norse mythology contains numerous references to Loki, god of fire and deceit. Though once the most beautiful member of the hosts of heaven, he disobeyed Odin and was cast down to the earth, along with his three children Hel, Fenrir and Jörmungander. (Compare Revelation 12:9.)

  • Hel, an evil goddess, became queen of the Underworld. Fenrir, a giant wolf, was chained up with a magical fetter. Jörmungander, a massive serpent, was hurled bodily from heaven and banished to the depths of the ocean. Only Loki remained free.

  • After indulging in many years of deceit, theft, lies and murder, Loki was captured and bound to a rock.

  • At the day of Ragnarök, Loki and his children is released by a worldwide earthquake, to fight against Odin and the gods. None of them survive the conflict.
When compared with the teachings of mainstream Christianity, we find that the Viking definition of "Loki" is almost indistinguishable from "Satan, the devil." Mere coincidence? Of course it is. But if we were to follow the example of Hislop, we could quite easily claim that the one was derived from the other.

We see, therefore, that it is possible to draw any number of conclusions from the apparent correlations between various mythological traditions. Our test case shows that it would take very little effort to construct a theory, which (superficially, at least) proves that the origins of Christianity are found in the stories of the Viking religion.

However, since we know that Christianity predated Norse mythology, and that Christian missionaries did not reach the European continent until long after both systems had been fully established, it is foolish to assume that the one is founded upon the other.

Are the Ornaments, Symbols, Rituals and Images of the RCC Borrowed from Pagan Idolatry?

No. While it is true that the RCC is an idolatrous system indeed, her ornaments, symbols, rituals and images are (for the most part), the result of man-made traditions which arose from within the Catholic system itself. They are not purloined from pagan mythology.

Even those apparent correlations which do exist are superficial at the very most, and will only be found by someone who sets out with the intention of “discovering” them without giving full credence to the facts.

Is the RCC and its Religious System Satanic?

Whatever else we may believe about the RCC, we must certainly reject Hislop’s claim that it is “Satanic.”

This is nothing more than a foolish resort to the ad hominem fallacy.

Summarising the Evidence

In order to prove his case, Hislop must successfully...
    1. Prove that the RCC has knowingly adopted pagan beliefs and practices.
    Hislop certainly makes many assertions that this has occurred, but ultimately proves nothing. The very most he can claim is that certain visual and semantic correlations may be found – none of which are adequate for his purpose.

    2. Give dates for the changes that would have taken place.
    Hislop gives dates concerning a number of developments with the RCC, but the formal institutionalisation of paganism is not one of these. It is at this point that his argument becomes suspiciously nebulous.

    3. Specify which cultures have provided the RCC with her inspiration.
    Hislop does this, but the vast scope of the alleged “sources”, taxes the reader’s credibility to an insupportable degree.

    4. Show how this was achieved.
    This he has not done. Hislop’s thesis requires a deliberate and consistent collaboration between the RCC and the Sumerians, Hindus, Egyptians, Chinese, Indians, Chaldeans, Greeks, and Babylonians. The sheer logistics of such a proposal are beyond the realms of possibility.

    If the RCC was capable of sending her missionaries forwards and backwards through time and space over a period of several thousand years, she might have succeeded in constructing an apostate Christianity from the various elements of eight different pagan systems. However, I submit that this is unlikely.
One does not need to be a genius in order to realise that Hislop's theory is inherently illogical.

Hislop's Theory was Refuted Almost Two Centuries Ago

Astonishing as it may sound, Hislop fails to appreciate that the very arguments he uses to deconstruct the RCC can also be turned against both Trinitarianism in particular and Christianity as a whole. It was an excruciating oversight, and his contemporaries spotted it immediately.

On September 17, 1859, The Saturday Review openly castigated Hislop in a stinging rebuttal of his arbitrary hypothesis:

In the first place, his whole superstructure is raised upon nothing. 

Our earliest authority for the history of Semiramis wrote about the commencement of the Christian era, and the historian from whom he drew his information lived from fifteen hundred to two thousand years after the date which Mr. Hislop assigns to the great Assyrian Queen. 

The most lying legend which the Vatican has ever endorsed stands on better authority than the history which is now made the ground of a charge against it.

Secondly, the whole argument proceeds upon the assumption that all heathenism has a common origin.  Accidental resemblance in mythological details are taken as evidence of this, and nothing is allowed for the natural working of the human mind.

Thirdly, Mr. Hislop's reasoning would make anything of anything. By the aid of obscure passages in third-rate historians, groundless assumptions of identity, and etymological torturing of roots, all that we know, and all that we believe, may be converted ... into something totally different.

Fourthly, Mr. Hislop's argument proves too much. He finds not only the corruptions of Popery, but the fundamental articles of the Christian Faith, in his hypothetical Babylonian system...

We take leave of Mr. Hislop and his work with the remark that we never before quite knew the folly of which ignorant or half-learned bigotry is capable.

If more Christadelphians had been aware of this review, Hislop's book might not have succeeded in gaining the (entirely undeserved) support that it now enjoys within our community.

Don't Believe Everything You Read

Despite the obvious errors of Hislop's conclusions and the arbitrary nature of his method, a number of prominent theologians (not to mention a vast number of Christadelphians) continue to support the Hislopean conspiracy theory. Hislop’s impressive list of references and illustrations (most of them entirely irrelevant) are quite intimidating to the untrained eye, just as the historical pedigree of Roman Catholic theology can often dazzle the most hardened Protestant.

In 1966, Ralph Woodrow of the Ralph Woodrow Evangelical Association (USA) wrote a book entitled Babylon Mystery Religion, which stridently defended Hislop’s conclusions. Unimpeded by an academic background in the fields of history and mythology, and unrestrained by any formal qualifications as a critic in either field, Woodrow became a one-man marching band for The Two Babylons and its facile misrepresentation of the Roman Catholic system.

With breathtaking naïveté, he hailed the Hislopean thesis as a definitive refutation of Catholicism. In time he actually came to consider himself as an expert in pagan mythology. The reality however, was that Woodrow was merely an expert in the study of Hislop - and nothing else.

20th Century historians have since reconsidered Hislop’s thesis and found it wanting - but for those who had rashly nailed the Hislopean flag to their masts, it was far too late. In a series of embarrassing retractions, Woodrow abandoned his original views and wrote a second book – The Babylon Connection? - in which he confessed that his previous studies had been shallow and unprofessional:

As time went on, however, I began to hear rumblings that Hislop was not a reliable historian, I heard this from a history teacher and in letters from people who heard this perspective expressed on the Bible Answer Man radio program.  Even the Worldwide Church of God began to take a second look at the subject.  As a result, I realized I needed to go back through Hislop’s work, my basic source, and prayerfully check it out.

As I did this, it became clear: Hislop’s "history" was often only an arbitrary piecing together of ancient myths.  He claimed Nimrod was a big, ugly, deformed black man.  His wife, Semiramis, was a beautiful white woman with blond hair and blue eyes.  But she was a backslider known for her immoral lifestyle, the inventor of soprano singing and the originator of priestly celibacy. 

He said that the Babylonians baptized in water, believing it had virtue because Nimrod and Semiramis suffered for them in water; that Noah’s son Shem killed Nimrod; that Semiramis was killed when one of her sons cut off her head, and so on.  I realized that no recognized history book substantiated these and many other claims.

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 the Encyclopædia Britannica, The Americana, The Jewish Encyclopædia, The Catholic Encyclopædia, The Worldbook Encyclopædia - 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.

After considerable work in finding old reference books to which Hislop referred, it was not uncommon to find things taken out of context.  He sought to link the round communion wafers of the Roman Catholic Church with paganism, for example, by citing Wilkinson's ANCIENT EGYPTIANS. 

But Wilkinson also said the Egyptians used oval and triangular cakes, folded cakes, cakes shaped like leaves, animals, a crocodile's head, etc.  But Hislop did not mention this.  His claims about the cross symbol, the letters I.H.S., candles, and halos were also in error.

Because many of these teachings were interwoven in my book, it could not simply be a case of producing a revised edition.  Honesty, despite the financial loss to our ministry, demanded a correction of this teaching. For this reason, we now publish a 128-page book "THE BABYLON CONNECTION?" which explains all that is involved in this, and includes 60 illustrations and 400 footnote references. 

We believe the best way to combat errors in the Roman Catholic Church (or any other group) is by the Scriptures themselves - not by trying to find pagan parallels in ancient mythology.  Things that are indeed pagan should be rejected, of course; but we should not brand things as being pagan when this is really not the case.

From Woodrow’s own Website:

Woodrow's honesty is deserving of our respect. He had a great deal to lose by debunking his own book - and the fact that this was done as soon as possible, speaks volumes about his integrity.

Are Christadelphians prepared to be equally honest with themselves, and abandon the broken reed that is Alexander Hislop? Are we prepared to admit that many of us have believed (and taught) an erroneous theory which has no legitimate basis in fact? Are we prepared to admit that we were wrong, and seek to correct the error wherever it may still be found in our community?

Speaking as a former Hislop afficionado, I pray that we are.

The Lesson For Us

A number of questions necessarily arise from this painful example of amateur scholarship.

How could Woodrow accept Hislop’s theory at face value, when even the basic thrust of the material was self-refuting? What efforts did he make to verify the sources of Hislop’s work? On what evidence did he construct his own arguments? How could he have failed to acquaint himself with the shortcomings of this theory when the most casual glance at an everyday encyclopaedia would have been more than enough to disprove Hislop? Why did he continue in his folly for so long?

The simple answer to all these questions may be found in Woodrow’s own public statement.

We receive a constant flow of inquiries about the book, BABYLON MYSTERY RELIGION, which we no longer publish.  It has been translated in numerous languages.  Hundreds have quoted from it.  Some ministries and bookstores have ordered thousands of copies at a time. 

Many want to know why a book this popular has been pulled out of print.  Some have wondered if I had threats on my life, if severe persecution caused me to recant, or I am trying to be popular.  None of this is the case.

In my earlier Christian experience, certain literature fell into my hands that claimed a considerable amount of Babylonian paganism had been mixed into Christianity. 

While the Roman Catholic Church was the primary target of this criticism, it seemed the customs and beliefs with which pagan parallels could be found had also contaminated other churches.  Much of what I encountered was based on a book called The Two Babylons by Alexander Hislop (1807-1862)

Over the years The Two Babylons has impacted the thinking of many people, ranging all the way from those in radical cults (e.g., the Jehovah’s Witnesses) to very dedicated Christians who hunger for a move by God but are concerned about anything that might quench His Spirit. 

Its basic premise is that the pagan religion of ancient Babylon has continued to our day disguised as the Roman Catholic Church, prophesied in the Book of Revelation as "Mystery Babylon the Great" (thus, the idea of two Babylons---one ancient and one modern). 

Because this book is detailed and has a multitude of notes and references, I assumed, as did many others, it was factual.  We quoted "Hislop" as an authority on paganism just as "Webster" might be quoted on word definitions.

As a young evangelist, I began to preach on the mixture of paganism with Christianity, and eventually I wrote a book based on Hislop, titled Babylon Mystery Religion (Ralph Woodrow Evangelistic Assn., 1966). 

In time, my book became quite popular, went through many printings, and was translated into Korean, German, Spanish, Portuguese, and several other languages.  Hundreds quoted from it.  Some regarded me as an authority on the subject of "pagan mixture."  Even the noted Roman Catholic writer Karl Keating said, "Its best-known proponent is Ralph Woodrow, author of Babylon Mystery Religion".

Many preferred my book over The Two Babylons because it was easier to read and understand.  Sometimes the two books were confused with each other, and once I even had the experience of being greeted as "Reverend Hislop"!

From Woodrow’s own Website:

Evangelical zeal, a preference for material which reflected his own personal bias, a blinkered view of alternative sources, and the praise of men - all of these elements combined to form the heady mix which inspired Woodrow’s misrepresentation of Catholicism.

The lesson for us is simple: if we are to attack the beliefs of modern Christendom, let us do it with integrity, using objective, professional sources.

An Examination of Recurring Mythological Motifs

Hislop's argument was predicated upon a mass of equivocation fallacies. Having found one particular motif in one particular religion, he went hunting for it elsewhere - and when he found something that looked similar to the original idea, he concluded (a) that it must have had its origins in the same basic source, and (b) that it must be the same idea which he had discovered in the previous belief system.

This he did for every single one of the Catholic Church's must crucial doctrines, eventually (and erroneously) concluding (a) that all religions share a common source, and (b) that the Catholic Church arose from Babylonian mysticism.

At the end of the day, Hislop was wrong. But one question remains: If all religion does not share a common source, why are there so many identical and near-identical themes in the world's many different religions?

It is undeniable that almost every mythological tradition contains elements which are reflected in other, entirely unrelated traditions. This much we know for sure. But how do we explain it?

If we were to adopt the approach of Alexander Hislop, we would have to conclude that these crossovers exist because all human cultures sprang from the same original source, and share not only a common ancestry but also a common religious foundation.

Some might even be prepared to give this theory merit. They could argue that since the entire human race shares a common father in Adam, we must also share a common mythological system, consisting partly of truth (the revealed message and purpose of God) and partly of error (the inventions of men.) However, this is a gross oversimplification.

Just because we have a common ancestry, doesn’t mean that all humans necessarily share a common, unbroken link to the original teachings of God as found in the Genesis record. Over the millennia, dozens of different human societies have lost contact with the rest of the global population, and their cultures have developed independently.

We must also remember that humanity was forced to make a completely fresh start after the confusion at Babel. Societal norms, oral histories, traditional living styles and entire stages of technological development would have been lost to those men and women who could no longer understand their fellows.

If any culture wishes to preserve its former developments, a common language is a sine qua non. This is why God’s judgement at Babel was not directed at men specifically, but rather, at their most powerful method of communication: a common language.

When we come to examine the human mythological tradition, we find a number of recurring themes, which appear all over the globe at various stages in history.

Some of these are:
  • A global flood.

  • A divine or semi-divine hero.

  • A quest for immortality.

  • A quest for hidden knowledge.

  • A mystic cycle of birth, death and rebirth.

  • An afterlife for those who have died.
Of course, we can’t assume that a myth necessarily contains some basis in fact just because it is old, nor should we accept that it constitutes some remnant of God’s truth just because it happens to look very similar.

Our first glance at the list above is enough to show that certain mythological themes have distinct correlations with the Christian message. The prevalence of a “worldwide flood” myth, for example, can be explained by the fact that there was a worldwide flood – the one of which we read in Genesis. Other myths, however, are in no way comparable to Biblical stories, and so their origins must surely be apocryphal.

We need to keep this in mind, because secular critics of God’s Word will often use the synchronicity of the mythological tradition against us. They will say that Christianity is nothing more than a conglomeration of ancient tales and pseudo-historical data.

If, for example, we point to the impressive age of the Mosaic books as proof of our claim, they will simply respond by citing older religious texts, such as The Epic of Gilgamsesh.

This huge work was written in Akkadian in cuneiform script on twelve fragmented clay tablets. It is dated by historians at some time between 3000-2000 BC in the early Bronze Age, and the story of Gilgamesh finds us today as a combination of its various earlier versions and translations pieced together to give us a whole story.

By contrast, the Torah is conservatively dated at around 1400 BC.

Many historians will argue that Judaism was simply an offshoot of the Mesopotamian religion, which came out of Ur with Abraham. They say that it was developed by Jacob in the year 1650 BC, and that the Torah drew its inspiration from religious older texts. In fact, there are six generally accepted early legal codes that are used as comparisons to the Mosaic laws.

These are:
  1. The Ur-nammu Code, c. 2050 B.C. from the Third Dynasty of Ur.

  2. The Code of Bilalama, c. 1925 B.C. from Eshnunna.

  3. The Code of Lipit-Ishtar, c. 1860 B.C. from Isin.

  4. The Code of Harmmurabi, c. 1700 B.C. from Babylon.

  5. The Hittite Code, c. 1450 B.C. from Boghazkoi.

  6. The Assyrian Code, c. 1350 B.C. from Assur.
All have been translated into English, yet none has been found in its entirety, so some of the comparisons can not be absolutely accurate. But even a surface investigation of these legal codes yields contrasts to the civil laws that Moses mediated.

Superficial resemblance is not the same as a direct, intentional parallel, or an active attempt to borrow another culture’s ideas. If we find certain themes recurring within certain mythological and cultural traditions, this is more likely due to a human fascination with those themes than to any basis in historical fact.

For example, it is abundantly clear that every human society has possessed a yearning for immortality and hidden knowledge. That’s just how we are made. God has "put eternity in the heart of man", as the New International Version renders Ecclesiastes 3:11.

Naturally, the secular scholar is likely to disagree. He will look for ways to “explain away” the supernatural aspects of religion and replace them with symbolic cultural ideals.

The “divine or semi-divine hero” myth is a particular favourite of atheists who seek to discredit Christianity by making spurious connections between the story of Jesus Christ and the legends of paganism. This motif receives a detailed analysis in a fascinating book entitled Mythology – the Voyage of the Hero (1977.)

Its author (David Leeming) identifies eight common characteristics of the hero myth:
  • The miraculous conception and birth, and the hiding of the child.

  • Childhood, initiation and divine signs.

  • Preparation, meditation and withdrawal.

  • Trial and quest.

  • Death and the scapegoat.

  • The descent to the underworld.

  • Resurrection and rebirth.

  • Ascension, apotheosis and atonement.
Leeming’s book contains more than one hundred and sixty-six stories taken from over two dozen different cultures, spanning several thousand years. In all of them, the eight themes listed above were clearly present.

I approached Leeming’s thesis with caution because I was concerned that he might have drawn up his categories in advance, and fished for legends to suit them. However, this does not appear to be the case. Leeming compiled his material eclectically, and looked for correlations afterwards. He also noted that the recurrent themes of the myths he researched were distinctly correlative to the rituals observed by the religious traditions of each particular culture.

Leeming paints a picture of the mythological hero as a cultural archetype, whose life contains all the rites of passage, trials, quests, joys, and sorrows necessary for the achievement of the ultimate human goal - immortality.

The eight mythological themes represent eight phases of life, culminating in a scapegoat’s death and a triumphant return from the grave. These phases are treated differently by every culture, with some placing greater emphasis on the physical achievements of the hero – as seen in the legend of Heracles – and others emphasizing the serenity which comes with spiritual development, represented so beautifully in the Arthurian Grail Quest mythoi.

Towards a Legitimate Methodology

The following checklist was compiled by a Catholic apologist in response to the all-too-familiar accusation of "pagan roots" by atheists (such as Robert Ingersoll) and anti-Catholics (such as Hislop.)

Whenever one encounters a proposed example of pagan influence, one should demand that its existence be properly documented, not just asserted.  The danger of accepting an inaccurate claim is too great.  The amount of misinformation in this area is great enough that it is advisable never to accept a reported parallel as true unless it can be demonstrated from primary source documents or through reliable, scholarly secondary sources.

After receiving documentation supporting the claim of a pagan parallel, one should ask a number of questions:

1.  Is there a parallel?

Frequently, there is not.  The claim of a parallel may be erroneous, especially when the documentation provided is based on an old or undisclosed source.

For example: "The Egyptians had a trinity.  They worshiped Osiris, Isis, and Horus, thousands of years before the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost were known" (Robert Ingersoll, Why I Am an Agnostic).

This is not true.  The Egyptians had an Ennead—a pantheon of nine major gods and goddesses.  Osiris, Isis, and Horus were simply three divinities in the pantheon who were closely related by marriage and blood (not surprising, since the Ennead itself was an extended family) and who figured in the same myth cycle.

They did not represent the three persons of a single divine being (the Christian understanding of the Trinity).  The claim of an Egyptian trinity is simply wrong.  There is no parallel.

2.  Is the parallel dependent or independent?

Even if there is a pagan parallel, that does not mean that there is a causal relationship involved.  Two groups may develop similar beliefs, practices, and artifacts totally independently of each other.

The idea that similar forms are always the result of diffusion from a common source has long been rejected by archaeology and anthropology, and for very good reason: humans are similar to each other and live in similar (i.e., terrestrial) environments, leading them to have similar cultural artifacts and views.

For example, Fundamentalists have made much of the fact that Catholic art includes Madonna and Child images and that non-Christian art, all over the world, also frequently includes mother and child images.  There is nothing sinister in this.  The fact is that, in every culture, there are mothers who hold their children!

Sometimes this gets represented in art, including religious art, and it especially is used when a work of art is being done to show the motherhood of an individual.  Mother-with child-images do not need to be explained by a theory of diffusion from a common, pagan religious source (such as Hislop’s suggestion that such images stem from representations of Semiramis holding Tammuz).

One need look no further than the fact that mothers holding children is a universal feature of human experience and a convenient way for artists to represent motherhood.

3.  Is the parallel antecedent or consequent?

Even if there is a pagan parallel that is causally related to a non-pagan counterpart, this does not establish which gave rise to the other.  It may be that the pagan parallel is a late borrowing from a non-pagan source.

Frequently, the pagan sources we have are so late that they have been shaped in reaction to Jewish and Christian ideas.  Sometimes it is possible to tell that pagans have been borrowing from non-pagans.  Other times, it cannot be discerned who is borrowing from whom (or, indeed, if anyone is borrowing from anyone).

For example: the ideas expressed in the Norse Elder Edda about the end and regeneration of the world were probably influenced by the teachings of Christians with whom the Norse had been in contact for centuries (H. A. Guerber, The Norsemen, 339f).

4.  Is the parallel treated positively, neutrally, or negatively?

Even if there is a pagan parallel to a non-pagan counterpart, that does not mean that the item or concept was enthusiastically or uncritically accepted by non-pagans.  One must ask how they regarded it.  Did they regard it as something positive, neutral, or negative?

For example: circumcision and the symbol of the cross might be termed "neutral" Jewish and Christian counterparts to pagan parallels.  It is quite likely that the early Hebrews first encountered the idea of circumcision among neighboring non-Jewish peoples, but that does not mean they regarded it as a
religiously good thing for non-Jews to do.

Circumcision was regarded as a religiously good thing only for Jews because for them it symbolized a special covenant with the one true God (Gen. 17).  The Hebrew scriptures are silent in a religious appraisal of non-Jewish circumcision; they seemed indifferent to the fact that some pagans circumcised.

We would do well to follow such a methodology. It is logical, rational, objective - and above all, intelligent. It is just the sort of methodology that we would wish others to employ when examining our own faith.

Let us therefore employ it when we come to examine theirs.


The evidence presented in Leeming’s book (combined with my time at university and my personal studies in Greek, Norse, Celtic, Anglo-Saxon, Arabian, Christian and Jewish mythology) has led me to believe that there are common sources for many of the primal myths found throughout history. The first of these (naturally enough) is history itself, while the second is the predisposition of the human psyche.

To argue (as Hislop does) that the sole source is a shared religious tradition, is to ignore the plain facts of history and invite any amateur scholar to deconstruct the entire Christian faith on the basis of a few coincidental similarities.

A foolish mistake indeed.