Everyone knows the Bible as the #1 Christian text, but fewer people know it also contains some interesting mentions of polytheism that are worth exploring.
Polytheism Mention: Matthew 6:7
Matthew 6:7 continues a conversation where Jesus is instructing Christians on the correct way to pray.
“But when ye pray, use not vain repetitions, as the heathens do: for they think that they shall be heard for their much speaking.” (KJV)
A note on the translation: The King James Version of the Bible was the first English translation of the Bible (1611) that was widely disseminated and is still one of the top 5 most selling Bible translations.
Passage Break Down
Our polytheist friends, the Hindus, were using repetitious prayers and chanting long before Judaism showed up on the scene. Many other pre-Christian polytheists were also likely doing the same.
Our ancient ancestors kept using repetition in religious rituals because it worked for them. If it wasn’t effective, they wouldn’t have continued doing it for hundreds or thousands of years. This means that the repetitions of the non-Christians were certainly not in vain.
Note that the World English Bible translates the word ‘heathen’ instead as ‘Gentiles’ (non-Jewish people). The term ‘gentiles,’ however, was used, through rarely, as a synonym for ‘pagan.’ It is unclear which exact group of people Jesus is referring to – gentiles, pagans, or potentially all non-Christians.
However, it is clear that Jesus is being dismissive to other’s religious practices while in many other places in the Bible preaching kindness and respect to others. For example: “Show proper respect to everyone” – 1 Peter 2:17, NIV
“they think they shall be heard for their much speaking”
Being a diverse group of many different beliefs, it is wildly inaccurate to imply that ALL pagans, especially that ALL non-Christians, believed that their prayers were more likely to be heard if they were repeated. So Jesus either lacks understanding of the diversity of beliefs in religions besides his own or is simply denigrating others beliefs because they are not his own.
For Pagans who believe in multiple non-omniscient (a deity that does not know everything) gods, repeating your requests to the Divine is just smart. If the gods are: 1) far away, in another realm, 2) busy leading their own lives, and, 3) also listening to every other worshiper’s prayers, that means repeating prayers would definitely increase the likelihood that your prayer would actually get heard.
People with in-depth knowledge of religious techniques know that repetition, whether spoken, chanted, or sung, can move the practitioner into a state of altered consciousness. They also know that altered consciousness often plays a role having deeper religious experiences. Desiring worshipers to attain deeper religious experiences seems like a positive outcome for most religions. This implies either that Jesus lacked deeper knowledge of religious techniques or that, again, he was looking down on the beliefs of others.
Also, even without having a religious experience, just attaining altered consciousness from chanting and the like can often lead to desirable experiences and feelings like contentedness, peacefulness, happiness, increased concentration, reduction of stress and worry, etc. Which again, should be seen as desired outcome of religious practice.
It seems that the speaker of this passage, Jesus, was speaking from a position where he lacked any actual deep knowledge of pagan practices and was being disrespectful about the religious practices of others.
It is also seems that the ‘heathens’ were clearly put into the role of the ‘other’ – those not in the same group as the Jews/Christians. There might also be an implication that by simply being the ‘other’ and having different practices that pagans were foolish or even potentially sinful since they weren’t praying in the “right” way, aka the Christian way.
Working on this piece reignited my interest in the use of repetition in pagan practices, which I’ve used off and on for years. I hope write more repetitive prayer and chanting in the future so we can all embrace a piece of our ancient pagan heritage.