Monday, January 10, 2011

Word of the Week for January 2011 week 2

Who’s Lying about Christian Holidays?

Since the time Darwin’s 1859 book On the Origin of Species, most branches of academic study began to abandon the idea that God was in control of the universe. The study of science and the study of religion--Christianity and Judaism in particular--were subjected to a world-view that excluded God and miracles from any so-called “scientific” discussion. The only data or information that was allowed to be admitted as a so-called “fact” was that which excluded the supernatural and God. The only judge for what was right and true was to be human reason, frail and sinful human reason. These were academic efforts that deliberately prohibited people from walking by faith in order to steer scholarship and society by the frail light of human wisdom apart from God.

This anti-God bias affected the way academics and popular writers from that time to today portray Christmas, Easter, Pentecost, Ash Wednesday, and Hallow E’en (All Saint’s Eve) as having “evolved” somehow from pagan origins.

This week we look at Easter and some of the claims of pagan origins surrounding this celebration. We’ll look at the word “Easter” and how it has been misunderstood and its meaning re-invented by neo-pagans, the origin of Easter eggs, and the tradition of Easter bunnies.

The name of the day: “Easter”

One of the main claims against Christians is that the very name “Easter” is taken from a Germanic pagan goddess who was celebrated in the spring. The first person to conjecture that this might be so was the Christian historian and theologian St. Bede of Northumbria, England in the year 725. There was no mention of this “goddess” in any other surviving literature or traditional folk lore.

And there was no mention of this “goddess” from the time of Bede until Jacob Grimm (editor of Grimm’s Fairy Tales) referred to Bede’s conjecture in the late 1800s. Grimm tried to find evidence for some name in German tradition that might refer to this conjectured “goddess” who’s name was Easter or Eostre. But there was nothing.

Grimm’s research was not able to demonstrate that the Germans or the Anglo-Saxons ever knew of such a goddess by that name. But he conjectured that if she existed, the old Germans would probably have called her Ostara. A name which Jacob Grimm invented as a conjecture about the etymology of a word. The word Ostara does not occur in any ancient German literature or oral folk lore. (Grimm’s Teutonic Mythology, Vol. 1, p. 290)

However, neo-pagan and wiccan authors of the 20th century and later have gladly made-up all kinds of so-called “history” about this goddess that never existed. The literature from these wiccan and neo-pagan sources has been so influential that popular society assumes that this fiction is true. Most accounts of the history of Easter are based on these conjectures and the fictitious creations of the neo-pagans and wiccans.

Unfortunately, several Christian groups following the fake scholarship of Alexander Hislop in his 1858 book The Two Babylons: have bought into this modern fiction and condemned anyone who celebrates “Easter” for celebrating pagan religion. These Christian groups further compound their mistake by taking the same position as the neo-pagans and the wiccans when they assume that the word “Easter” means the same as “Ashtorah” in the Bible and the name of the ancient Babylonian goddess “Ishtar” simply because they sound the same.

The neo-pagans and wiccans have made up all kinds of claims that the Easter holiday had to do with fertility and reproduction. They claim that Ashtorah was a reproductive goddess. There is no evidence in the Bible that the asherah poles and other references to Ashera or Ashtorah had anything to do with fertility. And there is nothing that links the Ashtorah of the Bible with the old Babylonian goddess Ishtar.

Some modern archaeologists who try to show the evolution of religions in the middle-east have conjectured that ancient Ugaritic goddess named Athirat might be linked to the Bible’s Ashtorah even though many Ugaritic documents say otherwise. A few of these scholars also conjectured that this Ugaritic goddess might be the equivalent of Babylon’s Ishtar, but this is only conjecture.

So where are we with real history for “Easter”?

The word Easter comes from the old Anglo-Saxon word meaning “to shine” and was used to describe the months of the year when the sun began to get brighter and higher during the day. In 1525 William Tyndale was the first to translate the Bible into English. He used the Middle-English word “ester” = “Easter” as a translation for Passover and the day of Christ’s Resurrection. The word had already been long used and understood as referring to the day of Christ’s Resurrection when Tyndale made his translation. Despite what modern pagans and wiccans wish the past might have been, there were no known pagan or wiccan celebrations of a pagan-easter in England or northern Europe in the period from the Middle Ages through the Reformation and up to the late 1800s.

So there are two modern myths that we have debunked: first, it is not true that the name of Easter came from the worship of a pagan spring goddess; second, it is not true that the Easter celebration was a celebration of fertility and reproduction.

Where did the Easter Egg come from?

There are several traditions which converge to bring us the Easter egg. And there is some modern nonsense that really has nothing to do with the use of eggs at Easter. First, there is a sculpture on the Perisopolis of ancient Iran of a line of people bearing gifts on the New Year day celebration on the Sping equinox. One of the many different gifts carried by the people in this sculpture appears to be an egg. This was carved by the old pagan Zoroastrians from ancient Persia (modern Iran). From this sculpture modern pagans have conjectured that Christians stole the idea of using eggs at easter from the ancient Zoroastrians. The problem is that none of the writers iin the ancient Christian church mention this tradition where they came into contact with Zoroastrians.

Still, the modern neo-pagans and wiccans assert that the egg is an ancient sign of fertility. That seems as bright a claim as saying that water is wet.

Of the traditions that actually do contribute to Christianity using eggs in the Easter celebration there are three to consider.

First: In the celebration of the Passover meal, which Christ celebrated the night before He was crucified, a roasted whole egg is placed as one of six food items on the Passover plate. The egg, called Beitzah symbolizes the Passover sacrifice that was offered in the Temple in Jerusalem and was then eaten as part of the meal on Seder night. The egg was introduced to the Passover meal after the Temple was destroyed in 70 A.D. The egg was the first dish served at Jewish funerals in the time of Christ’s ministry on earth. The egg was also used as a symbol of mourning the loss of the Temple where the Passover Lamb was sacrificed. It is usually eaten dipped in salt water which symbolizes the bitter tears of the people.

Early Christians in the first and second century continued to celebrate the Passover along with the Resurrection of Jesus Christ. Primarily the Passover was celebrated because of Christ’s institution of the Lord’s Supper.

Second: the season preceding Easter is called Lent. The season of Lent is a fast. In both the eastern and western Church this meant fasting from meat and fowell--including eggs. Eggs were used to break the Lenten fast on Easter Morning. In preparation for this breaking of the fast the eggs were decorated to commemorate the sacrifice of Jesus Christ as the Paschal Lamb of God Who takes away the sins of the world. The breaking of the shell became a symbol of Christ’s rending of the tomb.

Indeed, the use of decorated eggs to celebrate Christ’s resurrection on Easter morning is so widespread across the world and so closely tied with the spread of Christianity that one cannot call it anything but a Christian tradition. But that doesn’t keep the neo-pagans and modern commentators from trying to claim that Christian’s “stole” this so-called “pagan” tradition.

So we turn to the third tradition:

Where did Easter bunnies come from?

There is an interesting doubling up of the Easter bunny with the fictional goddess Ostara. The modern ‘histories” of Easter tend to claim 1) that Easter was originally a pagan fertility holiday 2) of devotion to the goddess Ostara (Eastre, however spelled), 3) she used eggs as a symbol of fertility, and 4) she always carried a pet bunny because it was so fertile. Now, all of these 4 claims are fiction.

So where did the bunny really come from?

According to Karl Joseph Simrok’s 1855 book called Handbuch Der Deutschen Mythologie Mit Einschluss Der Nordischen, “The rabbit is a pagan symbol and has always been an emblem of fertility.” (page 551) The old 1911 Catholic Encyclopedia cites this as proof that Christians cannot use the rabbit in celebration of Easter. But I cannot find this sentence in my copy of Simrok’s book. Perhaps mine is a different edition.

What is interesting about the rabbit or hare is that it has been used by all kinds of religions around the world as a symbol. Each religion fitting its own teaching on the symbol of the rabbit. But in most cases the symbol refers to new life. In the ancient eastern Church the rabbit was used on tombstones and as a symbol of Christ. One author points out that some early Christians viewed the rabbit’s hole as a symbol of the tomb of Christ.

Christian art has several examples from the early times through the renaissance of rabbits as a symbol of Christ. To name just a few The three hare window in Paderborn, Germany and also in the monastery Muottatal in Switzerland, where three rabbits are together in a triangle with only one ear each showing, symbolizing the Trinity, Martin Schongauer’s 1470 engraving The Temptation of Jesus has three by three rabbits at the feet of Jesus Christ. His student Albrecht Dürer's woodcut of 1497 The Holy Family with the Three Hares showing two hares next to each other and the other going down toward a hole with a stone rolled next to it; Hans Baldung Grien 1512-1516 painted the altar for the Freiburg Cathedral with the second panel representing Mary’s Visitation to Elizabeth where he painted the rabbits about the feet of Mary and Elizabeth; and Titan’s Madonna and Child with St. Catherine and a Rabbit which was painted in 1530.

I picked these works of art because they are all pre-Reformation. They demonstrate that the rabbit or hare was used a symbol of Christ and the Resurrection before the time of the Reformation.

America owes the use of the Easter Bunny to the Pennsylvania Deutch settlers who came from Alsace, a German and French area on the border between the two countries. Back in 1678 Georg Franck von Frankenau in 1682 wrote against the excessive eating of Easter eggs which parents would leave in the name of the Easter Hare--the Resurrected Christ. The people from this region settled in Pennsylvania and brought with them their symbolism and traditions surrounding the hare representing Christ, the egg representing the tomb, and Christ’s resurrection with the giving and breaking of eggs when the fast of Lent was ended on Easter Sunday.

Yes, Easter, the eggs, the bunny, all of them are still being perverted into something else by our own society. The devil, the world, and our own flesh don’t want to hear about Christ’s resurrection and will attack any symbols used to teach the resurrection.

But now you know enough of the real history of Easter and the symbols used by the Christian Church to celebrate this holiday.

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