Did Christians really ‘steal’ Easter from the pagans?

Easter Sunday at the Vatican

(CNN) — It’s that time of year again: the time when chocolate comes in pastels, cherry blossoms start to bloom and well-marketed religion exposés are released to the world.

In other words, it’s Easter.

Among the rash of sensationalist stories we can expect through the season, the annual “Easter was stolen from the pagans” refrain has sprouted again just in time for Holy Week.

Don’t believe the hype.

Perhaps most misinformed theory that rolls around the Internet this time of year is that Easter was originally a celebration of the ancient Near Eastern fertility goddess Ishtar.

This idea is grounded in the shared concept of new life and similar-sounding words Easter/Ishtar. There’s no linguistic connection, however. Ishtar is Akkadian and Easter is likely to be Anglo-Saxon.

Just because words in different languages sound the same doesn’t mean they are related. In Swedish, the word “kiss” means urine.

But the biggest issue for Christians is the claim that Jesus’ resurrection — the faith’s central tenet — might have pagan roots.

Even apart from whether or not Jesus actually rose from the dead, many Christians claim that the very idea is unique.

There are other biblical examples of people being raised from the dead – think of Jesus raising Lazarus. But those people went on to die again. Only Jesus was raised from the dead to live forever.

But there’s a problem: Pre-Christian religions are replete with dying and rising gods.

Dionysius, most commonly thought of as the Greek god of wine, is one such example. He was lured to his death by the Titans, who then boiled and ate him. He was revived by his grandmother, and from his ashes humanity was formed, the Greeks believed.

Farther afield, Osiris – an Egyptian god-king who became ruler of the realm of the dead – was slaughtered before being brought back to life by Isis.

A similar story is found in the case of the Greek goddess Persephone, the daughter of the harvest goddess Demeter. Persephone was carried off to the underworld by the love-struck Hades. Because she ate pomegranate seeds in the underworld, she was permitted to leave only for six months a year.

Her annual resurrection is a metaphor for the changing of the seasons, and many scholars think that stories about dying and rising deities are essentially explanations for the coming of winter.

Then there’s Mithras, an ancient Iranian deity popular among Roman soldiers.

Among the many claims made about Mithras are that he was born on December 25, that adherents to his cult practiced baptism, and that he died and was resurrected.

The connections between Christ and Mithras are further amplified by the fact that the church of St. Clement, near the Colosseum in Rome, is built on top of an ancient Mithraeum.

The list goes on, and I’ll admit it’s a bit unsettling.

That’s why the accusations that Christians “stole” the Resurrection from the Pagans is so popular and rhetorically powerful.

If, as many Christians claim, Christianity’s against-the-odds success is in some way proof of its authenticity and truth, then what does it say that parts of its truth were stolen from religious movements that no longer exist?

Spiritual “Manifest Destiny” looks less persuasive when extinct religious traditions supplied the backbone for the modern-day Church.

But there are ways around some of these problems.

Lumping all of these stories of dying and rising gods into a single category obscures important differences between them. Some of those who rose as gods, for example, were mere human beings prior to their return. Jesus, in contrast, was divine before his death, according to Christian theology.

Also, some of the parallels between the traditions come from a later period (post-Christianity) or are completely unsubstantiated. The arguments about Mithras and Jesus, for example, have completely fallen apart in the past 50 years because there simply isn’t enough ancient evidence to support them.

We should also ask whether the fishermen who followed Jesus around Palestine would have known about (much less adopted) stories from ancient Egyptians and Babylonians.

Greek and Roman mythology circulated widely on coins, but would the followers of Jesus who first claimed that Jesus was resurrected have known these stories in great detail?

Perhaps, perhaps not.

On the other hand, many Christians claim that Jesus’ death and resurrection is subtly different from that of other ancient deities and, thus, that the resurrection of Jesus was a wholly new idea.

The problem is, these apologists are one archeological discovery away from disaster. In the meantime, they are trying to pry Christianity apart from other late antique religions in order to protect it.

Perhaps the real problem here is with the idea of uniqueness.

As the University of Chicago scholar Jonathan Z. Smith showed, there’s a huge ideological and religious investment in the idea that Jesus was unique.

But there doesn’t have to be. Just because one idea is influenced by another idea doesn’t mean that its meaning is determined by the chronologically prior idea.

The Founding Fathers may have been influenced by Greek classical tradition, but this doesn’t mean that we should interpret the Constitution in light of Aristotle. You can recognize both the importance and innovation of the Constitution and its roots in ancient European civics.

Rather than battening down the hatches and looking for other signs of uniqueness, Christians need to think about how meaning relates to tradition.

Christians didn’t steal Easter, but it probably wasn’t a wholly new idea, either.

Candida Moss is the author of the “Myth of Persecution” and “Ancient Christian Martyrdom” and professor of New Testament and early Christianity at the University of Notre Dame. The views expressed in this column belong to Moss.

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27 comments

  • Ida Atkins

    Well, I hate to dispel your nice little hypothesis but even the Bible mentions ‘Easter’ once by Paul when speaking to the Gentiles and the word is Eastra in the Greek which the reference is to the pagan spring fertility rites which occurred at the Spring equinox in which pagans worshiped the Goddess ‘Eastra’. (Now let us look at Acts 12:3,4: “And because he saw it pleased the Jews, he proceeded further to take Peter also. (Then were the days of unleavened bread.) And when he had apprehended him, he put him in prison, and delivered him to four quaternions of soldiers to keep him; intending after Easter to bring him forth to the people.”

    Verse 3 shows that Peter was arrested during the days of unleavened bread (April 15-2 1). The Bible says: “Then were the days of unleavened bread.” The passover (April 14th) had already come and gone. Herod could not possibly have been referring to the passover in his statement concerning Easter. The next Passover was a year away! But the pagan holiday of Easter was just a few days away. Remember! Herod was a pagan Roman who worshipped the “queen of heaven”. He was NOT a Jew. He had no reason to keep the Jewish passover. Some might argue that he wanted to wait until after the passover for fear of upsetting the Jews. There are two grievous faults in this line of thinking.

    First, Peter was no longer considered a Jew. He had repudiated Judaism. The Jews would have no reason to be upset by Herod’s actions.

    Second, he could not have been waiting until after the passover because he thought the Jews would not kill a man during a religious holiday. They had killed Jesus during passover (Matthew 26:17-19,47). They were also excited about Herod’s murder of James. Anyone knows that a mob possesses the courage to do violent acts during religious festivities, not after.

    • Dustin Cavanaugh

      You are correct. Ostara/Eostre is correct not Ishtar. Every major holiday is pagan derived. Jesus was born in late August or September not December. Christmas was originally celebrated on January 6. Early popes lijed to modernize pagan holidays as Christian ones in order to further encourage pagans to warm up to Christianity by celebrating theseholidays but in a Christian way. St Valentines day is yet another Christianized holiday as is Halloween. Lupercalia and Samhain. Pagans were around first so it isnt surprising. Polytheistic religions were around thousands of years. before Zoroastrianism which was the first monotheistic religion. You. could say Christians stole ideas but you could say the same for pretty much every religion. I think the best thing to remember is we arent as different as we think and we all can learn from each other. Early man needed an explanation of things just like we do. Its all the same but I will give you a little tidbit. The explanations are all overall incorrect and are at most based on false truths. We cannot know the answers we seek as they are unknowable. The only exception would be the possibility during our demise. Never during our Earthly lives though. Is there a God? Is there life after death? I dont know and cant know and neither can you. We have used religion to harm each other throughout time when all we need to do is just care about each other as if they were ourselves. You have heard the saying “An eye for an eye makes the whole world go blind” but I bet you havent heard “A sandwich for a sandwich makes the whole world fed” and this is because we as humans are imperfect and crave negativity. Honestly if the world was perfect then existence would serve no purpose. There is a delicate balance and hopefully we get it right one day.

      • Dustin Cavanaugh

        Ive read the bible front to back numerous times as well as studied the history of world civilization as well as early greek and roman history. Like all other information the bible does not give answers to me only more questions. If it works for you that is wonderful but I am a man of science and truth. I accept no answer as definitive and personally believe such a thing is arrogant, irresponsible, and detrimental to the advancement of humanity as a whole. This is just my opinion though and like you are entitled to ypurs I am entitled to mine. I will tell you this Christians comonly oppress the nonreligious but not intentionally. Never force your views on anyone and never vote religious ideals into law as it causes inadveryent oppresdion and Jesus was a peaceful man. Do not hurt people I beg of you. Inadvertent or not it can be prevented.

    • Vic

      Ida Atkins – Uhmm…no. The word in Greek in Acts 12:4 is πάσχα [pascha] passover, not Easter. The version you are using has an incorrect translation.

      So called “Christians”, did ‘steal’ every major holiday from paganism.

  • Mira jona

    I have been reading the bible for the last 18 years it was the only thing that was able to answer all my questions, I do not know much history ,but I know that Jesus is real “how” he was able to change my life and did thinks in my life that others could not do ,Jesus miracles is clear evidence that he alive and God is real ,and i am inviting you all to except salvation and invite Jesus to your life , you lose nothing instead you will become his son/daughter so when we will leave this world we will able to meet hem.

    • Mira jona

      I do apologies for the incorrect spelling of “except Jesus” what I ment is to accept Jesus . Thank you

    • Dustin Cavanaugh

      If the bible helped you thats wonderful but the bible just repeats what people should already know. How many other religious books have you read of other religions? What reason do you have to believe these other boks cant help others and dont give the same message. If the bible worked for you thats wonderful but there is good reason 40% of the world is Christian and 90% of the scientific community are of agnostic mindsets. Simple minds settle for simple answers. Do not take that as offense to you because I envy such simple minds because ignorance truly is bliss. How much I wish that I would see my family again after death but complex minds cannot settle for faith as we know better than to accept such things as definitive. I also have good reason to believe the bible was corrupted by the Romans for their own delfish desires. Paul claims in Romans thst all rulers are ordained by God and to follow the emperor as he was ordained by God. Very convenient that was to them but not all rulers through time shared the same ideas nor followed the laws of God. I do envy you though. I wish I had a simple mind as I woild love so much to truly believe I could see my family again and actually meet my mother but my mind is simply incapable of belieiving such things. Happy easter to you and I do hope the bible continues to help you because thst which helps people is good tegardless of its origins or derivation.

  • John

    Act 12:3,4 …. EASTER????? I don’t know what you’ve been smokin’ but that was after PASSOVER…..

  • Joey

    Religion is by far the sickest institution on Earth. The bunnies and the eggs which are symbols of fertility come directly from the worship of Ishtar/ostara/eostre. How many churches who claim strict allegiance to christianity have the easter bunny come pay them a visit and have easter egg hunts for all the little children. Hey, train em young, beat it into them, and then tell them that God is gonna burn them forever and ever in hell if they depart from it when they grow up. No wonder there is so much physcocsis in the world today. Sick sick religion. But hey…..praise the Lord…..right. Silly wabbit, tricks are for kids.

    • Thomas Adams

      Every holiday in Christianity is pagan, even Christmas…

      Jeremiah 10:1-5
      Hear ye the word which the Lord speaketh unto you, O house of Israel:

      2 Thus saith the Lord, Learn not the way of the heathen, and be not dismayed at the signs of heaven; for the heathen are dismayed at them.

      3 For the customs of the people are vain: for one cutteth a tree out of the forest, the work of the hands of the workman, with the axe.

      4 They deck it with silver and with gold; they fasten it with nails and with hammers, that it move not.

      5 They are upright as the palm tree, but speak not: they must needs be borne, because they cannot go. Be not afraid of them; for they cannot do evil, neither also is it in them to do good.

  • Thomas Adams

    Every holiday in Christianity is pagan, even Christmas…

    Jeremiah 10:1-5
    Hear ye the word which the Lord speaketh unto you, O house of Israel:

    2 Thus saith the Lord, Learn not the way of the heathen, and be not dismayed at the signs of heaven; for the heathen are dismayed at them.

    3 For the customs of the people are vain: for one cutteth a tree out of the forest, the work of the hands of the workman, with the axe.

    4 They deck it with silver and with gold; they fasten it with nails and with hammers, that it move not.

    5 They are upright as the palm tree, but speak not: they must needs be borne, because they cannot go. Be not afraid of them; for they cannot do evil, neither also is it in them to do good.

    • Dustin Cavanaugh

      And I can’t believe people such as yourself try and refute something with no evidence to disprove. I suggest you look up “tacitus on chr*st” and I also suggest to stop the blatant hypocrisy just for the sake of creating negativity where it serves no useful purpose.

      • Clotus Jones

        Not to worry, I still believe in Santa. Since you are a Christian, I am sure you support capital punishment. Hypocrite. You bible thumpers think you can tell people how they should live. You’re worse than al queda and the Muslims.

      • Dustin Cavanaugh

        Lol me a Christian now thats funny. I am strongly agnostic and actually I only believe the death penalty should be a choice. That or life in prison. The death penalty is sometimes a better choice than life in prison but a man should decide which he wants. No man should ever decide whether another man lives or dies and the argument “He didn’t show mercy so why should we” is in defiance of the law of God and you are right many sipporters are indeed “Christian” Im almost dying of laughter from the bible thumper comment though. I dedicate much of my life speaking against the need for religion and the hypocrisy, pain, and oppression it has led to. I however see no good comibg from unecessary hate abd commenrs such as yours.

  • Deborah

    I don’t and will never believe that anyone who is a non believer, and has not the indwelling of the Spirit of the Living Gd would ever read the Word of God from cover to cover. It is hard enough as a believer to do this, and trust me when I say that if they are reading some of the scriptures with an unbelieving heart, then they will never comprehend what they are reading anyway since it is the Ruach Ha Kodesh who brings an understanding of the deeper spiritual truths there in. I really think anyone saying “Ive read the bible front to back numerous times as well as studied the history of world civilization as well as early greek and roman history. Like all other information the bible does not give answers to me only more questions. If it works for you that is wonderful but I am a man of science and truth. I accept no answer as definitive and personally believe such a thing is arrogant, irresponsible, and detrimental to the advancement of humanity as a whole”, is a liar, and that he has not read the whole Bible, especially the Apocrypha, which if he had read the Bible from cover to cover it would have been included in his lying boasting. See what good your faith in science, which is based on trying figure out the Creator’s methods, will do for you on judgement day as you stand before Yahuveh and attempt to explain to Him why you called His truth a lie and denounced Him before mankind, dismissing Him as myth. I don’t envy you.

    • Tony

      Hey Deb,

      Could you explain this to me with an open heart?

      (Deuteronomy 22:28-29 NLT)

      If a man is caught in the act of raping a young woman who is not engaged, he must pay fifty pieces of silver to her father. Then he must marry the young woman because he violated her, and he will never be allowed to divorce her.

    • Dustin Cavanaugh

      Matthew 7 “Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you. Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.” I also never denounced your God as I have no basis to do so. I also find it funny you can believe in human ressurection but not that a non-Christian would read the bible cover to cover. I am a thinker and I strive to be unbiased. This requires understanding which requires reading. Also, despite what you think readibg is not difficult for all people so speak for yourself.

  • Gabriel

    Whether you call it Easter or Passover, the key is do you have the words of Jesus in your heart. Have you repented and forgiven? Has the blood of the LAMB taken away your sins? Will death passover you on Judgement Day? Who is the judge? Who is the merciless official? The word in the Greek, which the New Testament was first written down in is Paschal in Acts 12:4. It was first spoken in Hebrew and the word is Pesach. The focus should be on us ressurecting with Jesus on the last day and focusing on what the scriptures tell us to do to accomplish this. Remember, Jesus came to save not to condemn. As a Messianic Jew, I appreciate that Jesus is Lord and that he forgives my sins allowing me to enter his eternal kingdom. Whether you call it the Ruach Ha Kodesh or the Holy Spirit, does HIS Spirit reside in you. Do not let your LOVE grow cold! As a sinner, I can’t cast a stone or I’ll stumble over it!!! So let us LOVE on another as our Messiah/LORD/Christos etc commands us.
    Matthew 25:31-46.
    JESUS IS LORD!

    • Dustin Cavanaugh

      As said before easter is derived from Ostara which could have roots with Ishtar but Easter itself is not derived from Ishtar at all. The question is that wheter or not Ostara is derived from the Goddess Ishtar and yes that is also highly probable. Without explaining it properly it causes similar confusion as is when people who don’t understand that humans and apes sharing a common ancestor does not mean we evolved from apes.

  • ANdrew

    It’s really not at all about Christians stealing anything. Jesus himself instituted the only single observance/ritual that is Biblically correct for a Christian to celebrate when he held the “Last Supper” with his 12 apostles and said; “You must keep doing this in rememberance of me.”. He did this on Passover. He died on Passover. The connection was powerfully meaningful. It was the “blood of the lamb” sprinkled on the doorpost that spared Israelites in Egypt from suffering loss of firstborns as the Egyptians did with the 10th plague. Jesus was prophetically referred to as a sacrificial Lamb who would go to the slaughter to provide blood attonement for human sin. Jesus wasn’t “stealing” an existing ritual from the Jews but drawing a connection to it.

    As far as Christmas Trees, Rabbits, Eggs etc., it has always been, going all the way back to the Jews wandering in the wilderness under Moses, that people are rebellious, obstinate, wayward and resistant to maintaining purity of worship. Just because a 3rd century Roman Emporer suddenly decides that all Romans must become Christian, doesn’t mean that they are going to give up their existing beloved traditions and of course they did NOT! Imagine trying to get the many millions of Christians today to give up their rites & rituals currently associated with Christmas and Easter. Jesus himself could appear to them and say “Stop your idolatry and false worship!” and they’d be out buying eggs and bunnies the very next day.

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