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Come Reason's Apologetics Notes blog will highlight various news stories or current events and seek to explore them from a thoughtful Christian perspective. Less formal and shorter than the www.comereason.org Web site articles, we hope to give readers points to reflect on concerning topics of the day.

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Showing posts with label pagan. Show all posts
Showing posts with label pagan. Show all posts

Friday, December 18, 2015

Christmas, the Solstice, and December 25th



Over the last two posts, I've explained how historical research is showing the date for celebrating Christmas was not chosen because of a Roman holiday like Saturnalia, but how the early church linked the date of Jesus's birth to the date of Jesus's crucifixion. That means Christmas is not a response to a pagan celebration such as Saturnalia but it has Christian roots.

However, Saturnalia is not the only candidate offered by critics as why December 25th was the focus of the coming of the Son of God. There is another holiday that actually occurred on December 25 mentioned in antiquity. This was the Dies Natalis Solis Invictus, translated as is the "Birthday of the Unconquerable Sun." It was celebrated on December 25 in 354 AD according to the calendar of Philocalus.1

The Sol Invictus cult followers worshipped the sun. Thomas Talley reports that while Emperor Aurelian did not first introduce Rome to the cult, he popularized it and the celebration day. Previously, local celebrations of Sol revolved around the dedication of the god's temples in August and/or November. In fact, the word Natalis can mean more than simply birthday, but it may also be used for the concept of an anniversary, as Roger Pearse notes:
There is also the question of what "natalis" means. It could mean birthday; but also it can mean "anniversary of the dedication of a temple". This seems to be the meaning for other "natalis" in the calendar. We know that Aurelian dedicated the temple of Sol Invictus. Thus we would get a festival on the anniversary of the dedication of the temple, and thus the idea that the festival was created at the same time by Aurelian.2
Tally tells us the "indigenous Sun cult at Rome does not seem to have been especially sensitive to the winter solstice or any other quarter days."3 Also, Steven Hijmans declares that while Aurelian set the feast, it may not have been set in December until much later:
there is no evidence that Aurelian instituted a celebration of Sol on that day [December 25]. A feast day for Sol on December 25th is not mentioned until eighty years later, in the Calendar of 354 and, subsequently, in 362 by Julian in his Oration to King Helios.4

The Roman Solstice and Who's Borrowing from Whom?

One mistake we must be careful of is placing too much emphasis on the similar sounding words "sun" and "Son." This is a common misstep for English speakers. While the Latin word for sun is "sol, the word translated son is "filius," breaking any ties to a play on words. Yet, Romans did hold to the idea that December 25 was the "birth of the Sun as the days began to noticeably get longer. Schmidt quotes Macrobius who states it was the Egyptians of the 4th or 5th century that developed the metaphor of the sun coming on the solstice as an infant and growing until the summer, where it would then shrink again as an aging man.5

Of course, all of this is well after the 202 to 211 AD mark where Hippolytus ties December 25 to Jesus's birth. If the Natalis was originally celebrated in August or October or November, why was it changed to December? One possibility is that Aurelian dedicated a new temple on that day and thus they celebrated that dedication as a feast day. Thomas Talley gives us an even more interesting possibility:
Halsberghe, without suggesting that there already was a Christian festival on December 25, presents the probability that one item in Aurelian's religious agenda was the provision of an authentically Roman alternative to the increasingly successful Christian mission.6
Of course, there's much much more, but I think you can see that the charge of Christians chose December 25 in order to "Christianize" or even just appease a pagan populous is weak at best. If you want to dig into more of the history, T.C. Schmidt's series is a great place to start, although it is only available via the internet Archive now. He summarized his findings thus:
  • Saturnalia did not occur on December 25 and had nothing to do with the birth of any god or anyone else.
  • A feast to Sol Invictus (the Unconquered Sun) did occur on December 25, but the earliest evidence for it dates from the mid to late 4th century. There is no evidence that Emperor Aurelian established a Festival of Sol Invictus (or anyone or anything else) on December 25.
  • Egyptians apparently presented an infant as a representation of the newborn Sun on the winter solstice, but this evidence also dates from the fourth and fifth centuries.
  • Hippolytus in 202-211 AD set the date for the birth of Jesus on December 25, because he thought Jesus was conceived 9 months earlier on the Passover, the day in which he also thought the world was created (5500 years earlier), the Vernal Equinox March 25.

    Clement of Alexandria (193-215 AD) quoted various anonymous sources about the birth of Jesus and roughly agrees with Hippolytus, claiming that Jesus was born in late fall to early winter. Clement's sources clearly seem to believe that Jesus was conceived on the Passover and was born roughly 9 months later; in fact the only difference between them and Hippolytus is that they differed on when the Passover actually occurred. However there is a significant possibility that one of Clement's sources was Hippolytus himself because of the preponderance of possible dates he gives that fall on the 25th of a month (He gives 4 of them and then another date on the 24th) which corresponds with Hippolytus' belief that Jesus was both conceived, born, and executed on the 25th of a month.
7

References

1. "Part 6: The Calendar of Philocalus. Inscriptiones Latinae Antiquissimae, Berlin (1893) Pp.256-278." The Chronography of 354 AD. Trans. Roger Pearce. The Tertullian Project, 2006. Web. 18 Dec. 2015. http://www.tertullian.org/fathers/chronography_of_354_06_calendar.htm.
2. Schmidt, T.C., "Antiochus of Athens and the Birth of the Sun-update." Chronicon.net. T.C. Schmidt. 28 Dec 2010. Web. https://web.archive.org/web/20140717194947/http:/chronicon.net/blog/christmas/antiochus-of-athens-and-the-birth-of-the-sun/
3. Talley, Thomas J. The Origins of the Liturgical Year. New York: Pueblo Pub, 1986. Print. 88-89.
4. Hijmans, S. E. Sol: the sun in the art and religions of Rome. 2009 Groningen: s.n. 588 quoted from T.C. Schmidt. "Sol Invictus evidently not a precursor to Christmas." Chronicon.net. T.C. Schmidt. 21 Dec 2010. Web. https://web.archive.org/web/20140717194947/http:/chronicon.net/blog/christmas/sol-invictus-evidently-not-a-precursor-to-christmas/
5. Schmidt, T.C., "Christmas, the Winter Solstice, and the birth of the Sun." Chronicon.net. T.C. Schmidt. 19 Dec 2010. Web. https://web.archive.org/web/20140717194947/http:/chronicon.net/blog/christmas/christmas-the-winter-solstice-and-the-birth-of-the-sun/
6. Talley, 1986. 89.
7. Schmidt, T.C. "Sol Invictus evidently not a precursor to Christmas." Chronicon.net. T.C. Schmidt. 21 Dec 2010. Web. https://web.archive.org/web/20140717194947/http:/chronicon.net/blog/christmas/sol-invictus-evidently-not-a-precursor-to-christmas/

Thursday, July 09, 2015

Living in a Post-Pagan Culture

We in the West are living in a post-Christian culture. Europe has been overtly secular for many years, but given the high percentage of the population in the U.S. who believe in God, identify with a specific Christian faith and state religion is very important to them. Yet, the recent Pew survey showed that mainstream Christianity has been losing adherents, especially with the Millennial generation.1



Even prior to the Pew survey, the influence of Christian beliefs had been clearly waning as we saw less and less evidence of the Christian worldview impacting the important moral questions of our day. Instead of the God of the Bible and his moral standard, most Americans hold to God as someone you pray to in order to escape trouble but doesn't require anything from you. It's akin to what researchers Christian Smith and Melinda Lundquist Denton labeled Moral Therapeutic Deism.2 The recent battles that Christians have had to fight in not servicing homosexual unions to maintain their religious integrity offers a clear sign that the country had left its Christian underpinnings. There should be no doubt that American—the last hold-out in the West—has become post-Christian.

What are we trading Christianity for?

Of course, believers have lamented how a society built upon and existing because of a Christian worldview would now jettison its foundational principles for something that is not clearly defined. Most of the culture is moving to a feelings-based system of judgment.

Take a recent letter to the Los Angeles Times. Reader E.J. Parker was opining on whether the Los Angeles should change the name of Robert E. Lee school and wrote, "For me, the deciding point is this: Were I an African American, how would I feel as a parent, sending my child to a school named for the great hero for the Confederacy?" That's the deciding point? Feelings? Yet, in all those lawsuits against Christian bakers, photographers, and wedding coordinators who wouldn't service a homosexual ceremony (and even a complaint against Christians who would), feelings are the impetus and the deciding factor.

So, what is in store for Western society now? Are we to slide back into paganism? No, that won't happen. A feelings-based society is further removed from Paganism than it is from a Christian society. C.S. Lewis explains:
For [those in a post-Christian society] neglect not only the law of Christ but even the Law of Nature as known by the Pagans. For now they do not blush at adultery, treachery, perjury, theft and the other crimes which I will not say Christian Doctors, but the pagans and the barbarous have themselves denounced.

They err who say "the world is turning pagan again." Would that it were! The truth is that we are falling into a much worse state.

"Post Christian man" is not the same as "pre-Christian man." He is as far removed as virgin is from widow: there is nothing in common except the want of a spouse: but there is a great difference between a spouse-to-come and a spouse lost.3
Lewis is exactly right here. Christianity provided the grounding for the equality of all men; it is unintelligible in paganism. The New Secularists who place all their emphasis on the feelings of others have taken that Christian idea and warped it to mean all people should be equally unoffended. The new concept only vaguely resembles Christian morality, but it is completely foreign to pagan Rome of Greece, where the conqueror is lauded as the supreme example of humanity.

The West has divorced itself from Christianity. Our society is now is selling off all those things that remind us of the relationship. But if Christianity built the house, bought the furniture, and created the traditions, what will our lives look like once all those things are gone? We cannot look to the pagan past as we have buried that husband long ago. This brave new world is unknown, and perhaps those who advocate for it should show a bit more caution before every bit of shelter is lost.

References

1. "America's Changing Religious Landscape: Christians Decline Sharply as Share of Population; Unaffiliated and Other Faiths Continue to Grow." Rep. Pew Research Center, Washington D.C., 15 May 2015. Web. http://www.pewforum.org/2015/05/12/americas-changing-religious-landscape/.
2. Smith, Christian. "On "Moralistic Therapeutic Deism" as U.S. Teenagers' Actual, Tacit, De Facto Religious Faith." Religion and Youth. Ed. Sylvia Collins-Mayo and Pink Dandelion. Farnham, Surrey, England: Ashgate, 2010. 46-57. Print.
3. Lewis, C. S., Wayne Martindale, and Jerry Root. The Quotable Lewis. Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House, 1989. 482. Print.
Image courtesy Zoomar and licensed via the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0) license.

Friday, April 04, 2014

How to Be Smarter than Google

This week, I've been writing a series looking at some of the objections skeptics raise against the Easter celebration. Although it may have seemed like my purpose was to answer the objections, my true goal was something a bit more ambitious. I wanted to make you, dear Christian, smarter than Google. You may think "Make me smarter than Google? That's impossible!" Ah, but it is possible and let me show you how.

No one doubts that we are now a wired culture. Smart phones account for 74% of mobile phone users, according to Frank N. Magid Associates. We have the Internet at our fingertips no matter where we are, and that isn't always a good thing. As I heard one commentator explain, there used to be a time when as you and your friends were waiting in line at the movie theater, you may have an argument over whether that obscure bomb of a film from twenty years ago had such and such a scene in it. Such conversations may lead to discussions on the merits of the scene itself or other issues, but it would always foster communication and engagement with other people. However, now when a question like this arises someone will simply pullout their iPhone, search for the film clip or synopsis, and say "Here's the answer." That's the end of the story and usually the end of conversation on that point.

Because Google searches are so effective at slamming down an answer to points of detail, people have begun to rely on the search engine to answer everything they have a question on. And that's where the real problem comes in. When a question becomes more complex, such as "Was Easter influenced by pagan sources," simply taking the first two or three results of a Google search may not give you the correct answer. It will simply give you the most popular page. Worse, it limits your ability to critically think through the claims. By relying solely on Google, you're unplugging your brain, and that should never be the case.

But it doesn't have to be that way. You don't need to be an expert in history or on ancient religions to see why many times the claims made by these skeptics are truly ridiculous. In fact, I have been intentionally avoiding "scholar mode" to look at the facts as they are presented. Let's take that article I've been discussing this week by Heather McDougall that ran in The Guardian and just hit a couple of glaring problems. It begins:
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.
We've already looked at the supposed connection with the spring equinox, the fact that the resurrection accounts are told in a Jewish context, and that the history of the resurrection accounts could not have evolved over the centuries. But look at that second to last sentence. McDougall writes, "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." Uh, yeah. The first piece that McDougall seems to miss is that in the ancient world, no one spoke modern English. What do I mean? The play on words between son and sun only works in our language. You may not know the Greek for son and sun, but if you have taken high school Spanish, you can see that the word son (hijo) and the word sun (sol) are very different. They are not homonyms, and they wouldn't be in the ancient languages either. That play on words only works in English, and I'm pretty sure none of the Sumerians, Babylonians, or Romans spoke it in their day.

Secondly, McDougall ties the crucifixion to the constellation of the Southern Cross. Huh? We know that Romans crucified people, but trying to make such a connection is pretty tough. First of all, it's called the southern cross because it is only prominent in the night sky when you are positioned south of the equator. That's why Australia and New Zealand integrate it into their flags. But, more importantly, the idea of what shapes ANY of the constellations make are not universal. Different cultures would overlay their own images on different star clusters, just as you and a friend can look at the same cloud but see very different animal shapes in it. McDougall is spitting out a bunch of "just so" stories and there's enough here for you to at least be doubtful of them without having to do much research at all.

The Skeptic Bears a Burden When he Offers an Objection

It's natural that when Christians are confronted by a friend who questions them about an article like McDougall's, they feel a bit scared. I've received many inquiries by people asking for my help on the charges of the Zeitgeist movie or the supposedly rejected gospels. I get that it can feel overwhelming. But please remember, a lot of those objections are based on others doing their own brain-unplugging. They are uncritically taking any objection to Christianity that they can Google-search and presenting it before you to justify their skepticism.

If the skeptics you converse with are going to engage in a "you must give me reasons" exchange, then they should be prepared to give reasons why they think their "evidence" should be accepted as a real objection. It isn't enough for them to throw out the very first "critical response" they can find. As I've said before, any fool with a login and an opinion can post on the Internet. That doesn't mean the objections they offer are worthwhile.

As Christians, let's be more prepared to engage others by exercising our minds with a bit of practice in thinking through the claims instead of just turning to Google ourselves. Sure, there are going to be times where you need the background or the facts. There will be experts who offer thoughts that you may not have thought about yourself. In fact, part of my ministry is to help Christians by providing some of that information. However, I don't want Christians to be lazy. A little bit of thought can answer more than you may expect, and a quick reply based on your own common sense can help foster more discussion than copy and paste ever would.

Tuesday, April 01, 2014

Is Easter Pagan? Part 2 - What Do You Get When You Cross a Jew with...

Yesterday, I began a series looking at the claims made by some skeptics that Easter celebrations have their roots in pagan holidays and customs. My goal for these posts is to not dig into a ton of research to disprove these kinds of accusations, but to so you how, given a little time of reflection and focused thought, you can answer such claims without so much as an Internet search. Hopefully, this will give you a bit of confidence and help Christians to become better and more careful thinkers over the plethora of "Google Scholars" that simply add a lot of noise to the channel.


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."

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. We will discuss more on this tomorrow, but the concept of changing religious understanding does lead me into my third point.

3. Jesus, His Followers, and His Detractors Were all Jewish

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.

Tomorrow, I will look at the historical aspects of the resurrection accounts as my final point on why these claims are ridiculous. Until then, keep thinking!

Monday, March 31, 2014

Is Easter Pagan? Part 1 - The Rites of Spring

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. I want to look at several points, in a series of posts, but we will start with the most obvious.

1. Seasons are Universal

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.

Tomorrow I will go into more detail about the problem of the Jewishness of the resurrection accounts versus pagan spring rites. But until then, one must be mindful for an important principle: correlation does not imply causation. An example I use is the "Redskins Rule." For 60 years the outcome of the last home game of the Washington Redskins has predicted the outcome of that year's presidential election: "when the Redskins win, the incumbent party wins the electoral vote for the White House; when the Redskins lose, the non-incumbent party wins." The accuracy of that predictor over such a long period was Impressive, however anyone can see that one had absolutely nothing to do with the other. (For another interesting case, see the case of the book that predicted the sinking of the Titanic.)

I hope this first point has helped some in dispelling any worry that the resurrection may have ties to ancient pagan practices. Join me tomorrow and we'll see just how flimsy this "evidence" can be.

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Is Christmas Really a Pagan Holiday? (video)


Every Christmas, the charge is made that the holiday and its symbols were originally pagan celebrations that Christians usurped for their own purposes. Is this true? Is Christmas just a cheap imitation of a Roman Solstice celebration? Did Christians attempt to convert unbelievers by allowing them to keep their festivals? As the holiday season approaches, we'll show why such a charge can be easily dismissed.

For more videos, be sure to visit the Come Reason YouTube channel at http://www.youtube.com/comereason 



Monday, December 09, 2013

Pagan Christmas Trees and the Burden of Proof

Many times when we seek to defend the faith, we can get caught taking on a bigger burden of proof that we should. I was recently reminded of this when a couple days ago I had two Jehovah's Witnesses visit my home. Given that it's three weeks before Christmas, we discussed the Christmas celebration and its roots. The Witnesses pointed to my tree and claimed it was originally a pagan symbol and Christians shouldn't be bringing such pagan symbols into their homes.


Now, I've heard this charge before. We hear tales of the yule log being tied to celebrations of the winter solstice and Christmas trees symbolizing a pagan concept of new life resurrecting through its ashes. This claim isn't limited to atheists; I found the following story on the Facebook page of a man who claims to be a Christian. In his article, he shouts that following holiday traditions is Baal worship and provides the following as "unequivocally historical." I've shortened the section a bit, but the words are his:
"Nimrod of Babylon whose wife Semiramis deified his memory by implementing an observance to replicate his death and this in the Yule log which was also chopped up to a stump, then she birthed an illegitimate child (Tammuz) through another man, and claimed this new child was Nimrod resurrected anew.

"To memorialize this she instituted a brand new young green sappling (Christmas tree) the next morning and sold this lie that on the night before Christmas the slaughtered and quartered former demi-god Nimrod entered into the fire of purification as a cut down tree (Yule log) and through being made pure as the savior of the world, he resurrected and regenerated the following morning as a new being, i.e. the green tree."
Christians who hear such charges are quickly put on the defensive, and they normally seek to explain how the Christmas tree (or Easter eggs, bunnies, or other symbols used in holiday celebrations) no longer holds their original meaning. They have been integrated into the Christian tradition and now carry Christian meanings—at least for the person with the tree in his house.

I agree that such an argument is valid. Even though we call the fifth day of the week Thursday, doing so in no way implies that we wish to exalt the Norse god Thor even if that's the origin of the day's name. But, as I've been researching Christmas origins, I've found that the real problem isn't with the pagan origins of Christmas traditions, but the spurious origins of the belief that Christmas traditions ever were pagan in the first place.

Did pagans ever use Christmas trees?

Let's look at the concept of bringing a Christmas tree into your home. Critics will try to point to some ancient rite or festival prior to Christianity where trees were used and force a connection between them. For example, Jacqueline Farmer, in her children's book O Christmas Tree, writes that the ancient Egyptians used palm branches to decorate their in celebration of the winter solstice. She then points to the Romans celebrating Saturnalia and says they also used evergreen branches to brighten their homes. Both are offered as the genesis for Christmas trees.

But, why should we believe that? It is no surprise that ancient people would decorate their homes to mark significant events, including the beginning of a new growing cycle. It is also no surprise that trees would play an important symbolic role across many cultures. Trees live much longer than people and can be identified as existing from generation to generation. Also, because fruits and nuts will grow on trees, they can be a source of food. Finally, the shedding of leaves and the new blossoms that accompany the seasonal cycle makes trees a natural symbol for these ideas. This is easily shown by looking at the practice of Northwest Native American tribes, who had no connection with Egyptian or Roman culture whatsoever, would take a tree to carve and decorating it as a totem pole.

Assuming the worst

Behind each of the assertions that Christmas and its traditions are rooted in paganism lies the flimsiest evidence. There is just no historical connection to Christmas trees and pagan rites. There are some scholastic works on the history of Christmas traditions that try to make the connections, but these tend to come from the eighteenth and nineteenth century, and are woefully out of date.

Simply pointing to some festival that used a log or a tree and then claiming that this proves Christmas to be rooted in pagan worship is on the same level as one who would point to totem poles and say that their origin lies in the Roman celebration of Saturnalia. The evidence for both is the same: cursory and unconvincing. Why not go even further and argue that since the Bible used the symbol of trees (the Tree of Life, the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil) in its creation story, perhaps the Romans borrowed their use of trees from the Bible!

While Christians can make a case for symbols in modern culture adopting new meaning, I don't think it's necessary. It seems to me the burden of proof is on those making the charge of paganism, and I see no evidence to believe their charge has merit.

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Does Easter have Pagan Origins?

This week is known as Holy Week, since it marks the events in Jesus' life between Palm Sunday and Easter morning.  Millions of Christians will be observing the pivotal events of the death of the Savior and celebrating His resurrection on that glorious Sunday morning. I've had people challenge me on the origin of Easter, claiming that its roots are not found in Christianity. 


Here's a fairly typical example sent to me by a skeptic who Google-searched for an objection and copied the page whole. The essay, entitled "Christian Feast Days and Their Relationship to Pagan Holidays," was written by Donna-Lynn Riley for an Intro to World Religions class at North Virginia Community College. The professor liked it so much she reproduced it on the course's page as a resource.

Discussing the origin of Easter, Riley writes:
"For Christians it is the celebration of the resurrection of Jesus Christ. But the very name of this holiday shows pagan origin. The term "Easter" has been said to be derived from Estre or Eostre, the Anglo-Saxon goddess of spring and dawn. The festival for Eostre was celebrated on the day of the Vernal Equinox, the first day of spring."1
So, Riley claims here that Easter has its origins not in the resurrection of Jesus, but the holiday's very name "shows pagan origin." Really?  Then how did Christianity get started at all? Riley doesn't seem to take into account that Christianity relies on the resurrection for its origin.

Let's first look at the historical context of the events that lead to the beginning of Christianity. As has been clearly shown by the research of Gary Habermas and Michael Licona, the vast majority of New Testaments scholars hold at the very least:
  • Jesus died by crucifixion
  • Very shortly after Jesus' death, His disciples had experiences that led them to believe that Jesus had been resurrected and had appeared to them.
  • The Christian persecutor Paul dramatically converted to Christianity. Paul stated the reason for his conversion is because he too experienced the risen Jesus.2
These three facts are held as historical bedrock by scholars who run from the very conservative to the very liberal.  Even atheists who are New Testament scholars will admit these facts. Going one step further, Jesus' death and resurrection are clearly tied to the timeline of the Jewish celebration of Passover. Jesus' last supper (on Holy Thursday) was the Passover meal. Therefore, the celebration of Easter would naturally also be found to be in close proximity to the Jewish Passover feast, which is in the spring.

In writing her paper, Riley took the name of Easter and said the holiday pulls its origins from the "Anglo-Saxon goddess of spring and dawn." But even this isn't quite right.  First, Easter existed long before Christianity was introduced to the people of ancient England.  In most of the world the word used for Easter is "Pascha", which is a derivation from the Hebrew word for Passover.3 So if the Anglo-Saxons tried to link Easter celebrations to their spring festival, the pagan origin is a late-comer and the word not found within the majority of Christendom.

But even the existence of the goddess Eostre has been questioned by British history scholars such as Ronald Hutton.  He writes that all the accounts of the label of Easter originating with a goddess are stemming from the monk Bede's writings, published in the eighth century. Hutton writes that the idea of Easter referencing a goddess celebration "falls into that category of interpretations which Bede admitted to be his own, rather than generally agreed or proven fact."4 He goes on to write:
"It is equally valid, however, to suggest that the Anglo-Saxon 'Estor-monath' simply meant 'the month of opening' or 'the month of beginnings', and that Bede mistakenly connected it with a goddess who either never existed at all, or was never associated with a particular season but merely, like Eos and Aurora, with the dawn itself.

"With the removal of this shadowy deity from the canon of historical certainty, there evaporates any reliable evidence for a pre-Christian festival in the British Isles during the time which became March and April. It may be that there was none, the ancient inhabitants being wholly taken up with ploughing, sowing, and caring for young livestock." 5
So, we have the possibility that Easter refers not to a pagan goddess at all, but to the season in which its marked.  And if there was a goddess Eostre, the holiday may not be referring directly to her, but to the name of the month instead. However, we do know that the Pascha celebration dated hundreds of years before the Christianization of the British Isles.

It is evident that Ridley is unfounded in trying to link Easter to any kind of pagan celebration. What's more troubling is that her professor was so enamored with her paper, that she keeps it as a published resource on her Intro to World Religions web page. She should know better.

References

1. Ridley, Donna-Lynn. "Christian Feast Days and Their Relationship to Pagan Holidays." Written Feb. 9, 2003.<http://www.nvcc.edu/home/lshulman/rel232/resource/RileyPaper.htm>.Accessed March 25, 2013.
2. Licona, Michael. The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach. (Downers Grove, Il.: IVP Academic, 2010). 463.
3. "Pascha" Wiktionary Entry. http://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/Pascha Accessed 3/26/2013.
4. Hutton, Ronald. Stations of the Sun:A History of the Ritual Year in Britain. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996). 181.
5. Ibid. 182.
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