Easter - A Pagan Festival

My Easter Message

Happy Easter to All!

As at Christmas, when we are urged to bring back the "true meaning" of the holiday, so at Easter are we urged to do so, especially by letters to the editor and columns on the religious page of the newspaper.

Of course, we all have the right to use any reason we like for celebrating any holiday. But the implication that your Easter celebration is authentic only if you do it with the Christian resurrection in mind betrays an ignorance of religious history.

This holiday has been celebrated every spring all over the world in an unbroken tradition going back to many centuries before Jesus was even born, and thus cannot have had any original connection to him.

Easter was originally (and still is) a celebration of the fertility of the earth, renewed each springtime. The egg, the chick, the rabbit, the flowers, are all fertility symbols (and much older than the Christian symbol of the resurrected god). Its celebration has often been marked by sexual exuberance, as is still prominent in the pre-Lenten Carneval and Mardi Gras festivals and the phallic symbolism of the May pole and the cross.

Long before Jesus, many peoples associated this festival with the coming back to life of the god of fertility (Tammuz - see Ezek 8:14, Adonis, Osiris, Perseus, Orpheus), who had been dead in the underworld during the winter. Even the name by which Christians still celebrate the festival is a corruption of the name of the ancient fertility goddess Ishtar or Ashtoreth (whose name also survives in the name of one of the books of the Old Testament, the only Bible book that contains no reference to God - the Book of Esther).

The Christian church, because it could not eradicate the celebration of this popular festival, reinterpreted it and assigned to it a new meaning, but was unable to erase completely its original significance. Undoubtedly current attempts by Christians will have no more success. The egg and the rabbit, the phallic pole or cross (the real symbols of the festival) will continue to be loved and celebrated as long as we can marvel at the new life which the spring brings.

I first posted this article on an e-mail discussion list. I received quite a few objections, I will share those comments and my responses. The comments are in bold; my responses follow each one.
Christians celebrate the Resurrection . . Pagans may celebrate Ishtar, I dunno . . . . but to say that Christians have re-interpreted the festival is a bit misleading. No??

My post said that the Christian church took a pagan fertility festival which the pagans had used for centuries to celebrate the resurrection of pagan gods and adapted it to celebrate the resurrection of Jesus. Not many Christians are told by their churches about the prior existence and original meaning of this festival. And you say that I am being misleading? Did the Christian church reinterpret the meaning of the festival or did it not?

It is interesting that a number of people come together and try to paganize also the meanings behind some holidays.

This is an interesting twist. It is a historical fact (as I said in my post) that the Christians "christianized" older existing pagan festivals. How can one "paganize" something that was already pagan? And I think you misunderstand if you think I am trying to do anything to the Easter holiday (like "paganize" it). I specifically said that I don't care how you or anybody else celebrates it. I am not trying to "paganize" it. I am merely providing information about the origins of the holiday - information which the ordinary Christian seems not to be aware of.

If Christians (or anybody else) want to adapt existing pagan holidays to their own purposes, I don't object. But I don't see anything wrong in pointing out where those festivals came from. Do you think that we should not point out to Mormons that their temple endowment ceremony is adapted from the Masonic initiation ritual? If you think it's all right for us to point that out to Mormons, then how is it different for me to point out that the Christian Easter is a direct descendant of pagan fertility rites? Is this perhaps information that you would rather Christians not have?

If people continue to look to these days with other than Christ in mind, how can they keep from giving the day back to the lord of the underworld?

This holiday never belonged to the lord of the underworld. Osiris, Tammuz, Orpheus - all were gods who conquered the underworld. They were the enemies of the underworld. They brought new life. Beauty, sunshine, birth. Jesus (in the Christian version of the myth) is just the latest in a long line of gods to do this. Don't be so narrow-minded as to think that anything that is not Christ is bad. You are starting to sound like a Mormon talking about Mormonism.

I have noticed a pattern on this group of many of those who proclaim themselves to be athiests to mock and ridicule those of us who proclaim to be Christians. Why? What point does it serve? If your problem is with the LDS, let's discuss them. If your problem is with the ones who commercialize Christianity, then let's move in that direction. But to mock and ridicule someone who is connected with neither, but happens to be a Christian, is wrong. And it's a shame, because life is too short.

I want to point out that I was not mocking or ridiculing Christianity or Christians. My post was factual.

Now, it may very well be that the facts I pointed out may make Christians feel somewhat uncomfortable, but that's not my fault. I don't have a "problem" with those facts, but Christians might. It is then a problem for Christians. I would be happy to discuss those facts. When I have posted at other times facts about Christian history or doctrine or Biblical archaeology which Christians on the list objected to, I always stated my willingness to be corrected. No Christian on this list ever responded with facts or pointed out my errors, but simply railed at me for "mocking" or "ridiculing" or "persecuting" them. Bad ME!

So, please tell me what I said that was factually or logically incorrect, and indicate how I "mocked" or "ridiculed" you Christians.

I don't have problems with those who commercialize holidays. I have problems with people who refuse to acknowledge unpleasant facts about the basis for their beliefs - whether they be Mormons, Christians, Muslims or Atheists.

You're right: life is too short... too short to take offense where no offense is meant, too short to live it based on phony facts, too short to waste it as captive in any superstition like Mormonism or ..... [fill in the blank however you like].

Can you direct me to books on the historical evidence of Christ being or not being resurrected. My pastor stated yesterday that there is no evidence of his body every being found so........

First, let me be impish enough to point out to the good pastor that they haven't found Jimmy Hoffa's body, either. ;-) What conclusion do you suppose he would draw from that?

Seriously, there is a great deal written about the evidence (or lack of evidence) about Jesus' resurrection. On the Internet, at the Secular Web, a search turned up almost 500 items. I am familiar with some of them. To get you started, look at:

"The Jury is In"
"The Historicity of Jesus' Resurrection" by Jeff Lowder
"He Stinketh" by Robert Price
the "empty tomb" argument critiqued
transcript of a debate between a Christian and an atheist and former Christian minister (Dan Barker)
general links

There are several good articles (on both sides) in back issues of "The Skeptical Review" edited by Farrell Till. These are some of the articles in TSR that came up on a search:

"The Resurrection Maze" by Till
a pro-Christian view
Till's response to the above
Christian response to "Maze"
Till's reply to above

[The following is my response to a long and rambling post; its content can be derived from my response.]

Let me see if I understand your position on the origin of the pagan Easter. You say that it is a "paganized version of an old Jewish festival of the First Fruits" First of all, I was puzzled by this reference. You referred to Leviticus 23, which contains references to several festivals, but no "First Fruits" festival. In my Bible reference works I do not find any Jewish festival which is called "First Fruits". There are feasts called "Unleavened Bread" ('matstsoth'), "Passover" ('pesah'), "Booths ["Tabernacles'] " or "Ingathering" ('sukkoth' or 'asiph'), and it isn't clear which of these you mean. I assume that you are referring to the Unleavened Bread festival, at which a sheaf of first-fruits was waved.

Unleavened Bread and Passover came to be early combined, and my reference says that the sheaf of first-fruits of Lev 23:11 came to be waved before Jehovah at the Unleavened Bread feast 50 days before the Feast of Weeks (Pentecost). Passover, however, was never a "sacrifice of firstlings," according to my references (primarily Funk & Wagnall's New Standard Bible Dictionary). Of course, Christianity adopted both the date and the lamb/sacrifice elements of Easter from Passover. But Passover never contained any element of resurrection, of conquering death, or any identification of the lamb with a dying and resurrected god. I know that Christians later claimed that such elements were represented in the Passover feast, but I don't think that they can point to any evidence of that, other than their own imagination and wishful thinking. If you have any such evidence (other than quotes from NT writers or other early Christian writers) I would like to see it.

Whichever festival you may be referring to by the term "First Fruits," I think you will have difficulty deriving the meaning of the modern Easter celebration from it. Christian Easter celebrates the coming back to life of a dead god, with the implication that death is thus conquered and the god's followers will also survive death. This idea is derived from earlier (pagan) spring rites which celebrated the renewed vigor of the earth and the coming of new life after the "death" of winter, personified in the return of the god of fertility from captivity in the underworld.

I am assuming that you are aware of the widespread existence of such beliefs in the pre-Mosaic world. You suggested that it is fallacious to assume that just because something follows in time, it therefore results from the earlier thing (you called this the "ad hoc" fallacy, but it would be the "post hoc propter hoc" fallacy.) It would be a post hoc fallacy, however, only if no causal connection can be shown between the prior and the post event. In the case of such religious practices, however, such a causal connection can be shown and has been shown. Such borrowings are a very common thing, as one quickly learns studying the history of ideas or the history of religion.

It would be an ad hoc fallacious argument, for example, to say that ancient pagan peoples celebrated the resurrection of the fertility god every spring, and that then God revealed that Christians should celebrate the resurrection of Jesus every spring, and that the latter had nothing to do with the former.

I have no idea what the original significance of the lamb was, other than just a sacrifice. H. H. Rowley, in his book Worship In Ancient Israel, London, 1967, p 46-50, summarizes the scholarly research. The Passover "was of great antiquity" and there is some evidence that it was older than Israelite Yahwism. R. H. Pfeiffer says that "Everything indicates that the [passover] festival had been celebrated by shepherds from time immemorial" (cited by Rowley, p 47 n 8).

The oldest form of the festival, which originally was separate from the Feast of Unleavened Bread, required that each "family or group of families killed a male sheep or goat of a prescribed age, roasted it whole, and ate it with girt loins, after sprinkling the blood on the door-posts and lintel, and whatever remained uneaten had to be burned by fire before the morning." (Rowley, p 48).

As to its "meaning" (which, I presume would include the significance of the animal), Rowley says (p 49, n 5) that "Innumerable conjectures have been made" and that all are in dispute. It may have been: an offering of firstlings, a threshold rite to preserve the house from harm, a fertility rite, a rite associated with a special limping dance connected with the ancient Near Eastern nature [fertility] festival, a common meal intended to cement tribal ties, a rite used in times of pestilence to protect from the Destroyer, a circumcision festival, a celebration of the moving of nomads from winter pasturage to summer pasturage, a remembrance of the ritual slaying of the king.

You will note that none of these theories even hint that the lamb represents an incarnate God being sacrificed for the sins of the worshippers. It is only the Christians (and only 1 Pet 1:19, and John) who try to make the passover lamb into a symbol of the Messiah, which it never was in the Old Testament.

Rowley, by the way, is a Christian, and in his book takes every opportunity to point out, where he can, how the worship in ancient Israel was simply a precursor of Christ.

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Have they sacrificed thee? Do they say that thou has died for them? He is not dead! He lives forever! He is alive more than they, for he is the mystic one of sacrifice. He is their Lord, living and young for ever!

Ancient Egyptian prayer to Osiris (who rose from death on the third day),
from M. A. Murray, Egyptian Religious Poetry
cited in Thomas Freke and Peter Gandy, The Jesus Mysteries, p 54