Just like it’s commonly claimed that Christmas is a pagan celebration (which I’ve written several articles about here), it’s also commonly claimed that Easter is a pagan celebration. But does this claim have any standing? Lenny Esposito of Come Reason ministries has a blog series that looks at the claim that Easter is pagan. He starts off by explaining a question that was brought to him:
Recently, I received a request from a friend who asked, “which came first, the Easter celebration: the resurrection of Jesus Christ or all this other stuff about the goddess of fertility and the eggs and rabbits and all that?” As we approach the Easter season, the question isn’t uncommon. Modern media loves to plaster the covers of magazines with questions about Jesus or the Bible during this time, since they know such “special” issues are guaranteed moneymakers.
They also look to run some of the most inflammatory tripe passed as fact. For an example, look at the article in The Guardian newspaper that ran a couple of years ago. Entitled “The Pagan Roots of Easter,” author Heather McDougall leads with:
Easter is a pagan festival. If Easter isn’t really about Jesus, then what is it about? Today, we see a secular culture celebrating the spring equinox, whilst religious culture celebrates the resurrection. However, early Christianity made a pragmatic acceptance of ancient pagan practises, most of which we enjoy today at Easter. The general symbolic story of the death of the son (sun) on a cross (the constellation of the Southern Cross) and his rebirth, overcoming the powers of darkness, was a well worn story in the ancient world. There were plenty of parallel, rival resurrected saviours too.
So, should Christians worry? Is McGougall right? Does a Christian need to prove that the resurrection came before these other celebrations? The answer to all of these questions is an emphatic no. While one can go on a historical odyssey, checking out dusty books for hard dates, usually answering such claims doesn’t take that much effort. If one were to slow down and just think a bit about what we do know, you can see how quickly these kinds of charges fall apart.
Over the course of his series, he covers four points:
- Seasons are universal
- Too much of everything leads to nothing
- Jesus, his followers, and his detractors were all Jewish
- The historical documentation of the resurrection accounts.
So let’s look at these four points:
- Seasons are Universal
In his first blog in the series, Lenny has this to say:
The first point one must realize is that everyone throughout the history of the world experiences the change in seasons. (Folks like me living in California may be an exception, but that’s a separate story.) Of the four seasons, spring has always been the biggest deal, because it is the time of more temperate weather, where one can come out from indoors. More importantly, it’s the time for planting the food that will feed you and your family for the next year. Spring is the time when the trees and the flowers begin to bloom, so the season is associated with new life. Is it a surprise that various cultures would develop festivals and feast days to their gods at this time? Of course not!
There is a natural reaction to the new life that is sprouting from trees and from the ground. Part of that reaction is to tie the days of spring to the concept of new life. In early cultures, items like eggs and rabbits, which are known for their rapid reproduction, are natural symbols of new life. But because of the ties to new life, ancient people would tie sprint to the sexual cults. So the cult of Astarte (Astoreth in the biblical accounts) with the fertility and sexual prostitutes would have springtime festivals. But the spring is 25% of the entire year! Just because some fertility cults had big orgies and used symbols like eggs and multiplying rabbits doesn’t mean there is any tie whatsoever to the resurrection! Think about it — what does a Jewish Messiah who rises from the dead have to do with temple prostitutes and creating babies? The similarities are tenuous at best.
In the 2nd blog of his series, he starts off with:
As an example of the “Easter is Pagan” claim, we’ve been looking at an article written by Heather McDougall that appeared in The UK newspaper, The Guardian. Let’s look at a second paragraph from that article:
The Sumerian goddess Inanna, or Ishtar, was hung naked on a stake, and was subsequently resurrected and ascended from the underworld. One of the oldest resurrection myths is Egyptian Horus. Born on 25 December, Horus and his damaged eye became symbols of life and rebirth. Mithras was born on what we now call Christmas day, and his followers celebrated the spring equinox. Even as late as the 4th century AD, the sol invictus, associated with Mithras, was the last great pagan cult the church had to overcome. Dionysus was a divine child, resurrected by his grandmother. Dionysus also brought his mum, Semele, back to life.”
Which leads to points 2 and 3:
2. Too much of everything leads to nothing
The first thing that should stand out to you as a red flag is how McDougall lists Sumerian, Egyptian, Roman, Baylonian, and Greek religions all as sources to the single holiday of Easter. There’s something incredulous when one finds that the “real” origins of a very specific and detailed event (the death and resurrection of Jesus) has so many points of origin. It reminds me of when I was a little kid and I used to go to the soft drink fountain to create a “suicide,” If you mix enough of everything together, all the distinctive tastes blur and what comes out is bland. Put a lot of various paints in a can and you won’t get a vibrant color, but they meld into a dingy brown.
However, McDougall seems to think that everything that has even an inkling of parallel to the resurrection story is proof that the resurrection accounts are derived from that story (a concept we covered a bit more last time.) But religious rituals are not so easily changed, regardless of the ritual’s cultural base. The reason a ritual works is because it is passed down. Religious rituals are taken even more seriously. Any changes would have to be shown with some pretty compelling evidence to back it up. McDougall has thrown out a Zeitgeist-type wild claim, but she will need to do more than simply make the claim.
3. Jesus, his followers, and his detractors were all Jewish
This is a great point that Lenny has:
I don’t know if it escaped McDougall’s notice, but everyone agrees that Jesus was a first century Jew living in the Jewish state when Judaism was in full swing. Post-exile Judaism would be the de facto worldview for Jesus, His followers, his audience, and even His detractors, such as the Sanhedrin and the Pharisees. Anyone who knows anything about ancient Judaism knows how strict the Jews were not to have anything to do with pagan gods.
This point is underlined in the gospels when the Pharisees try to trap Jesus in asking Him whether they should pay taxes to Caesar or not. You remember the Pharisees, right? They are those people who took the Jewish faith so seriously that they would place a strainer on their wine glasses lest they ingest a gnat and violate the Jewish prohibition against swallowing an animal with its blood. The Pharisees question Jesus on giving money to Caesar as a violation of the Old Testament law. Jesus deftly answers “render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s.” Jesus kept His Jewish understanding of serving only Yahweh intact while also showing the flaw in their thinking.
So, would a Jewish audience, one who is so attuned to the strict adherence of their faith that they would die rather than be forced to worship any other god really buy into a story that is perhaps Sumerian in origin? Do you think the Jews would recognize pagan myths that were popular in their day? Do you really think that Jesus or His Jewish disciples would invent such stories in order to gain adherents? The concept is preposterous! This would go over about as well as going to an Orthodox rabbi today and trying to convince him that the messiah is really Mohammad and Islam is Judaism fulfilled.
Finally, and most importantly, he concludes with:
4. The historical documentation of the resurrection accounts.
In response to the claim that Easter is pagan, he says:
The problem with such a claim is that it ignores the incredible historical evidence we have for the resurrection. Unlike many pagan celebrations, such as the Mithraic rites which were so secretive we really don’t have any written documentation about them at all, save some mentions by outsiders or artwork on walls. No books or scrolls exist. The resurrection, on the other hand, is incredibly well documented and its historical roots are strong…
Of course most people are aware that all four gospels are written with the event as their climax, and each Gospel dates to between thirty and sixty years of the resurrection itself. That means that when the gospels were being circulated, people were alive who could testify to the truthfulness of the accounts they contain. There really isn’t much time for pagan myths to “creep into” the stories. Suggestions by skeptics such as Heather McDougall that “the Sumerian goddess Inanna, or Ishtar, was hung naked on a stake, and was subsequently resurrected and ascended from the underworld” somehow influence the resurrection accounts are laughable when you consider that:
- Crucifixion was a real punishment inflicted on Jews by Romans in the first century (and we can know that for certain).
- Attracting others to your belief system by saying they were crucified was about as attractive as asking a French revolutionary to follow someone beheaded in the guillotine. Rome used crucifixion as a deterrent because of its abhorrence by the general public.
- The concept of the resurrection wasn’t one that people of the ancient world took to immediately. For an example of this, just look to Paul’s sermon on Mars’ Hill. Luke tells us, “Now when they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some mocked. But others said, ‘We will hear you again about this'” (verse 32). That’s not what I would call a rousing endorsement. The idea of anyone being resurrected was just as incredulous to those in Paul’s day as it is today. Paul has made a pretty strong case to a crowd who he says were” very religious in all things” (v.22). Yet even they mocked the initial notion of the resurrection. Again, this is not an attractive aspect if you are trying to convert Gentiles.
However, the earliest documented mention of the resurrection is none of those found in the gospels. As I’ve written before, 1 Corinthians 15:3-5, which contains the full creedal basis for the belief in the resurrection, is dated to within a few years of Jesus’ death and resurrection itself. Paul even says that there are saints who were eyewitnesses to the resurrection who were still alive; the Corinthians could go and ask them themselves! There are other signs of the resurrection accounts as historical, but these should be enough to dispel the concept of the resurrection accounts to be corrupted by pagan myths
You can read more about 1 Corinthians 15:3-8 being one of the earliest creeds found in the Bible here: part 1, part 2, as well as Evidence of the Resurrection Accepted Even by Atheist New Testament Scholars. T