Is Paganism Older Than Judaism?

Paganism vs Judaism

Religions are complex and multifaceted. They evolve over time, borrowing and lending beliefs, rituals, and ideas, shaping cultures and societies throughout history. One of the many intriguing debates in the study of religions is their age and development. This article will delve into an intriguing question – Is Paganism older than Judaism? To further our understanding, we will explore several religions older than Judaism and the fascinating topic of Jewish Vikings.

Understanding the Context: The Ancient World

To understand if Paganism is older than Judaism, we need first to define these terms. Judaism is the religious belief system of the Jewish people, marked by monotheism and adherence to laws and teachings in the Torah. Historians date its inception to around the 9th or 8th century BCE, beginning with the early Israelite religions.

Conversely, Paganism is a term used to describe polytheistic pre-Christian religions spanning various regions and periods. Pagan beliefs are multifaceted, including the religions of Ancient Greece, Rome, the Celtic Druids, Norse mythology, and many others.

When we delve into these definitions, it becomes clear that certain forms of Paganism existed before Judaism. The ancient Egyptians, Sumerians, and the early Indus Valley Civilizations all had belief systems that can be classified as Pagan, dating back to 3000-2500 BCE or even earlier. These religions, encompassing polytheistic worship, nature veneration, and ancestor reverence, were indeed older than Judaism.

The Birth of Monotheism: Emergence of Judaism

The inception of Judaism is often marked by the emergence of monotheism in the Near East. Abraham, traditionally known as the first patriarch of Judaism, is believed to have lived somewhere between 2000 and 1700 BCE. However, the religion as we know it today began to take form around the 9th to 8th century BCE, when the Israelites established the first Jewish kingdoms and began to record the religious texts that would become the Hebrew Bible.

In this period, while Judaism was still forming its distinct identity, many regions of the world were already dominated by what we’d now call Paganism. Ancient Greeks were worshiping their pantheon of gods, the Celts across Europe practiced Druidism, and the ancient Germanic peoples were developing the early forms of Norse mythology.

When Did Paganism Begin?

Understanding the origins of Paganism is a complex task because the term ‘Paganism’ is an umbrella that covers a wide range of religious practices and beliefs. The term was initially used in the context of the Roman Empire to categorize religions outside of Christianity, Judaism, and Islam, generally indicating rural or provincial religions.

Historians estimate that some of the earliest forms of religion, which fall under the category of Paganism, originated in the Paleolithic era, around 300,000 years ago, as evidenced by archaeological findings of ceremonial objects and early grave offerings. Yet, the concept of Paganism as a recognizable set of religious beliefs and practices began to emerge with the advent of agricultural societies and the development of early city-states around 4000-3000 BCE.

In civilizations such as Sumer, ancient Egypt, and the Indus Valley, we see the advent of polytheistic religions with organized pantheons, priesthoods, and temples, which are hallmarks of Paganism. They worshiped deities associated with natural forces and celestial bodies, ancestors and practiced seasonal and life-cycle rituals.

It is essential to note that Paganism is not a single, unified religion but a term used to refer to various indigenous and historic polytheistic and animistic religions. The specific beliefs, practices, gods, and rituals can differ greatly from one Pagan religion to another. So while we can trace the beginnings of what we categorize as ‘Pagan’ beliefs back to the very origins of human society, the organized religions we often associate with Paganism began to emerge in earnest around 6000-5000 years ago.

Polytheism vs. Monotheism: Paganism and Judaism

The major difference between Paganism and Judaism is their fundamental divine power approach. Paganism typically involves the worship of multiple gods and goddesses, each with their domains and powers. At the same time, Judaism introduced the concept of monotheism, the belief in a single, all-powerful God.

The Jewish religious shift from polytheism to monotheism was revolutionary and represented a clear departure from the Pagan norm. The Jewish God was not only one but also transcendental, eternal, and non-physical, contrasting with the anthropomorphic gods of many Pagan religions.

Spiritual Practices: Paganism vs. Judaism

Examining Paganism and Judaism’s spiritual practices helps reveal the distinct ways these two religious traditions approach divine and spiritual growth.

Pagan Spiritual Practices

Pagan spiritual practices are incredibly diverse, reflecting the wide range of beliefs that fall under the umbrella of Paganism. These practices are typically polytheistic or animistic, often focusing on the worship of nature deities and ancestral spirits. Rituals usually follow the cycles of the natural world, such as the phases of the moon or the changing of the seasons. Common practices may include rituals, spellcasting, divination, meditation, and the celebration of Sabbats (seasonal festivals). Many Pagans also use symbolic tools, like crystals, tarot cards, or runes, in their spiritual practices.

Jewish Spiritual Practices

On the other hand, Jewish spiritual practices center around monotheistic worship and observance of religious laws (halakha). Prayer is a crucial aspect, performed three times a day facing Jerusalem. The study of sacred texts, such as the Torah and Talmud, is another essential spiritual practice seen as a form of worship. Observance of the Sabbath (from Friday evening to Saturday evening) is central, involving rest, prayer, and communal meals. Life cycle events, such as bar and bat mitzvahs, weddings, and funerals, also involve specific rituals.

In essence, while Pagan spiritual practices often emphasize personal experience and a connection with the natural world and its cycles, Jewish practices focus on community, tradition, and adherence to religious law, all in a monotheistic worldview. Each offers its unique path to spiritual fulfillment and understanding.

The Cultural Impact of Paganism and Judaism

The cultural impact of both Paganism and Judaism is expansive and multifaceted, echoing through centuries of history and permeating many aspects of society, art, literature, and human thought.

Paganism’s Cultural Impact

Pagan traditions have had a significant influence on cultures globally. The myths, epics, and legends of Pagan cultures – from the Nordic sagas to Greek mythology – have served as a foundation for a vast body of world literature. Themes and archetypes from these traditions continue to inspire modern works in genres ranging from fantasy to historical fiction.

Pagan rituals often marked the cycles of the year, influencing agricultural practices and festivals that endure in various forms today. Holidays like Halloween and Easter have roots in Pagan festivals, and even Christmas borrows traditions like the Yule log and the Christmas tree from pre-Christian celebrations. The revived interest in Paganism today also speaks to its enduring cultural influence, reflected in the rise of neo-Pagan movements like Wicca and modern Druidism.

Judaism’s Cultural Impact

Judaism, one of the world’s oldest monotheistic religions, has also left a profound cultural imprint. Its influence is especially notable in law, ethics, and social justice, derived from the laws and teachings of the Torah. Principles like the sanctity of life, justice, charity, and respect for the individual have been foundational to Jewish thought and have greatly impacted Western moral philosophy and legal systems.

Judaism’s narrative tradition, embodied in biblical stories and rabbinical teachings, has influenced literary traditions worldwide. Many of these narratives, exploring themes of faith, justice, and the human condition, have been adapted and reinterpreted across various cultures and periods.

Moreover, Jewish traditions have contributed to world culture in countless ways. Jewish music, dance, cuisine, and humor have left a distinctive mark, with Jewish contributions to fields like science, philosophy, art, and literature shaping global thought and understanding.

Ultimately, both Paganism and Judaism have shaped humanity’s cultural landscape, influencing our stories, traditions, moral systems, and ways of making sense of the world. These influences serve as testaments to the lasting power and resonance of these religious traditions.

Is Norse Paganism Older Than Christianity? 

The comparison of Norse Paganism and Christianity in terms of age reveals an interesting timeline of religious development. Norse Paganism, often known as Norse Heathenism or Asatru, is a polytheistic faith based on the pre-Christian spiritual practices of the Norse peoples, who inhabited the regions of Scandinavia, Iceland, and other parts of Northern Europe. On the other hand, Christianity emerged from the teachings of Jesus Christ in the 1st century CE in the region now known as Israel.

When we consider the origins of these two faiths, Norse Paganism is older than Christianity. Norse Paganism’s roots lie in the Proto-Indo-European religion, which dates back to at least 2000 BCE, possibly even earlier. Over time, these beliefs evolved into a distinct Norse pantheon, with gods such as Odin, Thor, and Freya becoming central figures by the start of the Viking Age (around 793 CE).

Christianity, conversely, emerged much later. It originated in the 1st century CE and gradually spread throughout the Roman Empire over the next few centuries. By the time the Viking Age began, Christianity had become the dominant religion in Europe.

Interestingly, the Viking Age saw considerable contact between Norse Pagans and Christian societies. Norse raiders often came into conflict with Christian kingdoms, leading to cultural and religious exchange. By the end of the Viking Age (around 1066 CE), Christianity had made significant inroads into Scandinavia. This marked the start of the Christianization of Scandinavia, which saw the gradual decline of Norse Paganism and the rise of Christianity in the region.

Therefore, although Norse Paganism as a distinct set of beliefs and practices predates Christianity, the transition from Norse Paganism to Christianity occurred later in history, after Christianity was already well-established in much of Europe. This illustrates these two religions’ complex, intertwined histories shaped by centuries of coexistence, conflict, and cultural exchange.

What Religion Came After Paganism?

The term ‘Paganism’ encompasses a variety of pre-Christian, predominantly polytheistic religions. There are many religions that developed after Paganism, as they emerged in different regions across different periods. However, in terms of major global religions, the emergence of the three major Abrahamic religions – Judaism, Christianity, and Islam – represents a significant shift in the religious landscape post-Paganism.

Judaism, dating back to around the 9th or 8th century BCE, can be seen as one of the first monotheistic religions to rise after, and in some regions alongside, Pagan religions. The concept of a single, all-knowing, all-powerful God was a significant departure from the polytheistic traditions of contemporary Pagan religions.

Christianity emerged from Judaism, taking root in the 1st century CE in the Roman Empire, a predominantly Pagan society at the time. Over the next few centuries, it spread and gained acceptance, ultimately becoming the state religion of the Roman Empire by the end of the 4th century.

Islam, the youngest of the Abrahamic religions, emerged in the 7th century CE in the Arabian Peninsula, a region with a mix of Pagan, Christian, and Jewish influences. Islam rapidly spread across the Middle East and North Africa, often replacing local Pagan traditions.

It is worth mentioning that Paganism and these monotheistic religions did not exist in isolation but interacted and influenced each other in various ways. The evolution from Paganism to monotheism was neither linear nor uniform, and remnants of Pagan beliefs can often be found interwoven with practices of the newer religions.

A Fascinating Intersection: Jewish Vikings

A fascinating intersection between Judaism and Paganism exists in the historical anomaly of the Jewish Vikings. Vikings, known for their seafaring exploits and Norse Pagan beliefs, have been traditionally thought of as completely separate from Jewish history. Still, recent archaeological and historical research has discovered evidence of Jewish Viking communities existing, primarily in today’s Ukraine, during the Viking Age (c. 793–1066 CE).

Intriguing artifacts like Viking jewelry bearing Hebrew inscriptions and historical texts suggest that some Viking communities may have had Jewish interactions or even conversions. This fascinating example illustrates the dynamic and often surprising interplay between religious traditions throughout history.


So, is Paganism older than Judaism? The answer is complex and dependent on how we define these terms. If we understand Paganism as encompassing all pre-Christian, polytheistic religions, then yes, there were certainly religions we would classify as Pagan today that predate the formation of Judaism.

However, it is also important to remember that both Paganism and Judaism are not static but evolve over time. They interact with each other and other religions, creating a rich tapestry of human spiritual expression that continues to fascinate scholars and laypeople alike.

The intersection of Judaism and Paganism in the example of the Jewish Vikings serves as a powerful reminder that religions do not exist in isolation. They borrow, influence, and interact with one another, creating intriguing historical narratives that continue to captivate us today. This continual evolution and interplay make the study of religious history a truly fascinating field.