Thursday, March 26, 2015

Easter, Eggs, and Nowruz

By now most Americans have probably heard of the Iranian/Persian New Year festival called Nowruz, or No Ruz.

One of the more recent claims against Easter is that this Christian Holy Day is merely a hijacked version of the Persian Zoroastrian new year festival called Nowruz (or Nauruz). The argument is that because Nowruz is celebrated on the vernal equinox, Christians must have taken this date or somehow absorbed this Zoroastrian holiday into its own ritual year.

Very few in the West knew anything about Zoroastrianism or its festivals until the 18th century, and almost nobody in the West had ever heard of Nowruz before the mid-20th century. The first ever translation of the Zoroastrian sacred texts, the Avesta, into any European language was made by Anquetil Duperron and published in 1771 (James Darmesteter 1880, xv–xx). Controversy about the genuineness of the source documents shrouded the publication until the close of the 18th century. The term Zoroastrianism was first used by archaeologist A.H. Sayce in
1874, another term from the 19th century that was used to describe this religious group is Mazdaism. (Sayce 1874, 307)

Even today, with the rising awareness of Zoroastrianism in the West, there are still very few who have made the effort to investigate the historical documentary sources of Nowruz. This lack of knowledge about Zoroastrianism and its origins has left Christians vulnerable to false claims against Christianity in many respects. This has been an issue for Christians at least since the time of Manichaeism (A.D. 3rd cent.) and the growth of Mandaeism and Roman Mithraism.

Today Zoroastrianism is popularly considered the source for the ideas of monotheism, of the devil, and the theological distinction between the devil's evil and a good god; the theological teaching of a resurrection, among others.

Claims like these and our particular focus here on the claim against Christian Easter seem to carry weight because Zoroastrianism ostensibly pre-dates the Incarnation of Christ by about 1,300 years. And it is widely presumed that the festival of Nowruz along with the use of decorated eggs also pre-date the Resurrection of Christ.

There are today a great deal of both popular writing about Zoroastrianism as a religious source for Christianity. There is also a fairly respected academic study of Zoroastrianism as part of the history of religions school that generally backs this claim. But when one begins to pull at the thread of these narratives by going to the actual sources one finds something different. Even though the tapestry they have woven is very complex and ornate and looks to be substantial, there is very little of the original yarn in the work. That original yarn itself is weak, often broken and held together by an overwhelming amount of newer threads that actually make up most of the structure.

Examples of Modern Claims

An Atheist apologetic at states:
The earliest reference we have to a similar holiday comes to us from Babylon, 2400 BCE. The city of Ur apparently had a celebration dedicated to the moon and the spring equinox which was held some time during our months of March or April. On the spring equinox Zoroastrians continue to celebrate “No Ruz,” the new day or New Year. This date is commemorated by the last remaining Zoroastrians and probably constitutes the oldest celebration in the history of the world.
“Is Easter a Christian or Pagan Holiday?” Accessed March 17, 2015.
From a Pagan/Wiccan apologic at
Mary Magdalene and the red eggs aren't the earliest examples of eggs as a spring symbol. In Persia, eggs have been painted for thousands of years as part of the spring celebration of No Ruz, which is the Zoroastrian new year. In Iran, the colored eggs are placed on the dinner table at No Ruz, and a mother eats one cooked egg for each child she has. The festival of No Ruz predates the reign of Cyrus the Great, whose rule (580-529 b.c.e.) marks the beginning of Persian history.
“Easter Eggs: Pagan or Not?” Accessed March 17, 2015.

Where and When Did This Argument Against Easter Start?

Rationalist skeptic T.W. Doan in 1882 wrote in his Bible Myths and Their Parallels in Other Religions, citing Chambers Encyclopaedia:
"[T]he ancient Persians, 'when they kept the festival of the solar new year (in March), mutually presented each other with colored eggs'"(Doane 1882, 228 emphasis original).
But this is merely a deception cloaked as scholarly authority. What Doan's source actually states is:
"We are told that the Persians, when they keep the festival..."
(Chambers’s Encyclopaedia; a Dictionary of Universal Knowledge for the People 1860, Vol. 3, p. 746 emphasis mine)
Doan hides the fact that this is an observation contemporary with him in the mid-19th century. He hides this by eliminating the words from the original that show this is an anecdotal comment, as well as by changing the tense of the verb "to keep" from present to past. Both of these are examples of anecdotal fallacy or misleading vividness. While the Chambers's Encyclopedia might be including this merely as a point of curiosity leading to an unintentional fallacy, Doan's use can only be understood as deliberate.

This argument evidently comes into the anti-Easter literature at some date after Hislop's 1858 Two Babylons. Hislop, who was eager to grab on to any pagan example he could claim as source, does not make use of this particular argument against Easter—not even in his convoluted treatment of the Easter egg (Hislop 1999, 109–110). The association is not found in earlier Radical Protestant writers Cotton Mather nor in George Frank von Frankau's 1862 De Ovis Paschalibus. Von Oster-Eyern . The association is also absent from Jacob Grimm's (d. 1863) Teutonic Mythology.

Given the importance of Doane's work to subsequent anti-Christian apologists this appears to be the most likely source of this criticism. At least until older clear evidence can be found.

Also, we should note, the name of this festival is not given by either of these authors, nor do either of these authors demonstrate any awareness of the history or content of Zoroastrianism.

Documenting Nowruz as a Zoroastrian Festival

Mary Boyce, one of the world's leading scholars on Zorastrianism, from her article on Nowruz in the Encyclopaedia Iranica:
“Its celebration has two strands, the religious and the secular, both of which have plainly evolved considerably over many centuries, the one with extension of observances, the other with accumulation of charming and poetic customs, most of them special to it.
Nowruz is not, however, referred to in the small corpus of Old Avestan texts attributed to Zoroaster, nor does its name occur in the Young Avesta. Its earliest appearance is in Pahlavi texts, as nōg rōz (nwk rwc, *navaka- raocah-).”(Boyce 2015)
This quotation highlights three specific problems in dealing with the history of Nowruz:

1. Lack of Documentary Evidence for the Festival Day.
There are no ancient texts that mention Nowruz or even refer to a new year celebration among the Persians, particularly among what are considered the founding scriptures of Zoroastrianism: called the Avesta. The earliest reference to the word Nowruz is from the Sasanean empire, which didn't begin until 224 A.D [third century after Christ]. And of the Sasanean documents, they appear to come from the end of the empire in the mid 7th century--when the empire was overrun by Islam. The oldest surviving copy of the Avestas actually comes to us from A.D. 1323.

Many articles on the net claim that Nowruz is actually mentioned in the Arsacid/Parthian era (247 BC-224 AD). But there is no actual evidence. There are a few inscriptions that record other events but are dated according to both the Macedonian calendar and to the Persian Zoroastrian calendar. These inscriptions do not mention Nowruz, they merely confirm that the Persian Zoroastrian calendar was in use and was based strictly on the old Egyptian solar calendar of 365 days. In other words, the identifying characteristics that these are Zoroastrian dates rest in the fact that the dates were not synchronized to the solar dates, but that the dates were off by the appropriate length of weeks compared to the Sothic cycle. That is, there was no Spring Equinoctial New Year festival through this period. There may have been a "new year" festival--but it is still undocumented, and it would have occurred in a very different part of the solar/seasonal year.
Boyce, Mary. “NOWRUZ I. In the Pre-Islamic Period – Encyclopaedia Iranica.” Accessed March 26, 2015.

A second claim is that Nowruz is mentioned in a romantic epic from the Parthian era. However, this epic Vis and Rāmin, is actually an 11th century A.D. verse by Faḵr al-Din Asʿad Gorgāni. The idea that parts of it date back to the 1st century A.D. rest upon the conjectures of scholars, not upon any external evidence.
Davis, Dick. “VIS O RĀMIN – Encyclopaedia Iranica.” Accessed March 26, 2015.

The 11th century AD is the time when again the Persian Zoroastrian calendar was more closely aligned with the new year day being close to the Spring Equinox. Thus, Boyce states evidence both on the calendar and against accepting the depiction in Vis and Rāmin as a genuine Parthian celebration of new year:
A difficulty for accepting this straightforwardly as a Parthian account of Nowruz festivities is that during the Arsacid period the month Fravardīn continued to recede slowly against the natural year, passing through winter into autumn, while in the poem this joyous celebration is called the Bahārjašn, the “Spring Festival”.  This expression is recorded by Biruni (Qānūn, Vol. I, 1954, pp. 260, 264, see de Blois, 1996, p. 47) for the Greater Nowruz of 6Ādar, which belongs to the Sasanian calendar reform of the sixth century C.E.   There are two passages in Vis u Ramin where the text has obviously been adjusted to that calendar change, but this can hardly be a third one, for this spring festival, being an essential part of the story, should belong to the epic’s Parthian core.
Boyce, Mary. “NOWRUZ I. In the Pre-Islamic Period – Encyclopaedia Iranica.” Accessed March 26, 2015.

2. Lack of Documentary Evidence for the Festival Traditions.
The traditions surrounding the holiday have been very changeable through the centuries: this is true both of the religious interpretations of the day as well as the customs and rituals surrounding the day.

We have already noted the problems about when Norwuz was first able to be documented as an actual historical event. All festival traditions known or associated with Nowruz would necessarily come after this, not before.

There is a strong tendency among some scholars to read Nowruz into Herodotus and Xenophon. But neither of these Greek writers actually mention Nowruz by name, nor do the events they describe necessitate the interpretation. Neither does the relief sculpture of the Persepolis necessitate that it be interpreted as Nowruz.
Stronk, Jan P. “Nowruz in Thrace? : Talanta 1994/5.” Accessed February 11, 2015.

The Behistun Inscription by Darius the Great (coronation 522 B.C. died 486 B.C.) is often cited as demonstrating the early observance of Nowruz. Darius does confess faith in the god that is central to Zoroastrianism:
(line 5) King Darius says: By the grace of Ahuramazda am I king; Ahuramazda has granted me the kingdom.
However this inscription does not use the Persian Zoroastrian calendar. It uses the old Persian lunar calendar as do the Persepolis Fortification Tablets and the Persepolis Treasury Tablets (Stern 170-174)

3. The Calendar Problem
 These documents reveal a third problem that is quite significant: the nature of the Old Persian Calendar and the innovation of the Zoroastrian Calendar. The surviving epigraphic and documentary evidence demonstrates that the Zoroastrian Calendar consisted of 365 days from the time of earliest attestation. This means that the calendar would drift one day forward every four years in a 1460 year cycle identical to the Sothic cycle of the Egyptian Calendar. This progression of the Zoroastrian year through the solar year continued of the until it was reformed in the A.D. 1,006.

What this means can be shown  fairly easily. Let us grant the possibility that eggs were used in the celebration of Nowruz in the first through sixth centuries A.D. [We need to emphasize that eggs do not show up in the historical record of Nowruz until after the 17th century-- well after the formation of the tradition of eggs at the end of the Lenten Fast for Christian Easter]. During the development of the use of eggs at easter the Zoroastrian calendar was so far out of synchronization with the Julian calendar that a seasonal or festival borrowing or cross-pollination makes absolutely no historical sense.

What does make historical sense is the possibility that a highly adaptive religion (Zoroastrianism) incorporated the tradition from Christians in the territories where Zoroastrianism survived into the 10th and 11th centuries A.D. when the Zoroastrian calendar came to finally be fixed with the solar year. It was not until that point in history that Zoroastrians were celebrating Nowruz at the Spring Equinox. It seems reasonable to conjecture that the Lenten fast and the breaking of that fast with the eggs that had accumulated during it could be the source of the Zoroastrian tradition. I put this forward as a suggestion, not as an historically demonstrated development. It is also quite possible (though in my view somewhat unlikely) that the traditions developed independently of one another.

The Source of the Date of Passover and Easter for Judaism and Christianity

The Bible places the origins of Passover festival and its dating at about 1,440 BC with the final plague upon Egypt and the Exodus of the Israelites under Moses (Ex. 12-14). The Christian festival of Easter is directly dependent upon the festival of Passover even though the date of the festival came to be determined differently from the methods used in Judaism. The date described in Exodus is the first full moon in the month of Abib. The name of the month means roughly "full heads of green barley". By extension the word means "Spring." The use of this month name implies a lunar calendar based on agricultural season rather than a luni-solar calendar.

The Babylonian luni-solar calendar strongly influenced Old Testament Israel. Israel adopted the Babylonian month names and some of the intercalation practices of the Babylonian calendar for the ritual/liturgical calendar. The month of Abib was given the Babylonian name "Nisan."

The Israelites also began establishing the first of Nisan based on the Babylonian practice of the Spring equinox. However, our earliest evidence of this does not come until the third century B.C. And at that point in history there seem to be at least two competing calendars in use in Judaea, a lunar calendar that is similar to the Babylonian version used by the Selucid empire, and 364 day calendar testified to in 1 Enoch 72-82 and Jubilees 4-6. (Stern 2012: pp. 193-204)

These calendars stand in strong contrast to the strict 365-day solar Persian Zoroastrian calendar. This Persian calendar could possibly date back to the 5th cent. B.C. However, it was strictly modeled upon the old Egyptian solar calendar. This means that it moved one day forward every four years in sychronicity with the old Egyptian calendar's Sothic Cycle.  (Stern pp. 169-191) 

What this means is that the Old Testament lunar-seasonal, the luni-solar calendars adopted in Judea before Christ, and the establishing of the date of Easter had no direct historical precedent from Zoroastrianism or the Zoroastrian calendar.

Indeed, if Nowruz were actually celebrated in the early first century the 365-day cycle of the Persian Zoroastrian calendar would put the new year date not at the vernal equinox but approximately four months earlier than the vernal equinox--probably early December at the beginning of the century to mid-November at the end of the first century. Nowruz would not match up with the vernal equinox until the 11th century AD.

The Use of Eggs in the Jewish Passover Seder

At some time after the fall of the Second Temple (A.D. 70) Judaism began to use the egg in conjunction with ritual Passover meal. Eggs were not specified in the Mishnah (Pes. 10b) which was completed probably by Rabbi Yehudah HaNasi before his death in A.D. 217. In fact, the textual traditions surrounding this meal seem to have changed even in the way the Mishnah itself is recorded. Mechon Mamre presents a version based on the manuscript attributed to Maimonedes (12th century A.D.) which states:
הביאו לפניו, מטבל בחזרת עד שהוא מגיע לפרפרת ולפת. הביאו לפניו מצה וחזרת וחרוסת, אף על פי שאין חרוסת מצוה; רבי אלעזר ברבי צדוק אומר, מצוה. ובמקדש, מביאין לפניו גופו של פסח
מסכת פסחים פרק י,ג Mechon Mamre

Where, the Mishnah recorded in the Babylonian Talmud (Pes. 114b) states:
  הביאו לפניו מטבל בחזרת עד שמגיע לפרפרת הפת הביאו לפניו מצה וחזרת וחרוסת ושני תבשילין אע"פ שאין חרוסת מצוה ר"א <בן> [ברבי] צדוק אומר מצוה ובמקדש היו מביאין לפניו גופו של פסח
תלמוד בבלי דף קיד,א משנה (Mechon Mamre emphasis mine)
[Then] they set [food] before him. He dips the lettuce before he reaches the course following the [unleavened] bread. [Then] they set before him unleavened bread, lettuce, and a mixture of apples, nuts, and wine, and two dishes, although the mixture of apples, nuts, and wine is not compulsory. Rabbi Eliezer bar Tzadok says: It is compulsory. And in the Temple they used to bring before him the body of the Passover-offering.
Mishnah Pesachim Chapter 10, Sefaria
emphasis mine, the bolded words are part of the Bavli's recitation of the Mishnah, but not in Maimonede's manuscript.)
The egg had become a part of the ritual Passover meal as one of those "two dishes" possibly by the late 4th century A.D. The discussion surrounding the meal in the Babylonian Talmud (finished in the 6th century A.D.) includes very little about the reasons for and use of eggs in the ritual Passover meal other than that eggs may qualify as one of the two dishes.
(Bavli Pes. 114b at the Digital Torah )

What this implies is that though it is possible that there were early traditions associating the egg with the Passover meal, there is no direct direct documentary evidence of such a practice until the compilation of the Babylonian Talmud. And even in the Talmud this tradition is not necessarily evenly practiced or advocated.

The ritual use of the egg at the Passover meal and its use by Christians do not have a common doctrinal/legal or identifiable common historical cause. Rather, the development of the ritual use of the egg in the Passover meal had an independent complex history, finally becoming widely used in the 12th century A.D.

Prof. David Golinkin of the Schecther Institutes listed the documentary history of this practice:
Starting in the late 12th century, it became more or less standard practice to put a zeroa and an egg on the seder plate. This custom was recorded by Rabbi Yitzhak ben Abba Mari (Marseilles, 1120-1190; Sefer Ha'ittur, Vol. 2, fol. 133c); Rabbi Abraham of Lunel (written in Toledo, 1204; Sefer Hamanhig, parags. 64-65, ed. Refael, pp. 481-482); Rabbi Vidal de Tolosa (Spain, 14th century; Maggid Mishneh to Rambam, Hametz Umatzah 8:1); Rabbi Alexander Zusslein Hacohen (Germany, d. 1349; Sefer Ha'agudah, ed. Brizel, Vol. 2, p. 191); Rabbi Ya'akov ben Asher (Toledo, d. 1343; Tur Orah Hayyim 473); Rabbi David Abudraham (Seville, 1340; Abudraham Hashalem, p. 217) and Rabbi Yosef Karo (Safed, ca. 1550; Shulhan Arukh Orah Hayyim 473:4).
Golinkin, David. “WHY DO WE PUT A SHANK BONE (ZEROA) AND EGG (BEITZAH) ON THE SEDER PLATE? Volume 8, Issue No. 6, April 2014.” Schecther Institutes: Responsa In A Moment. Accessed March 17, 2015.
The basis for using an egg in the Jewish Passover service bears no symbolic relationship to anything known of Zoroastrianism. The historical and geographical distribution of these testimonies shows that it is most likely that the egg was adopted earlier in Western Europe and later found adoption in Israel. Zoroastrianism was geographically centered in Persia (modern Iran) and fell out of favor after the fall of the Sasanian Empire (A.D. 224 to 651) to Arab Muslim armies. This  demonstrates the extreme unlikelihood that Zoroastrianism had a historical connection with the adoption of the use of an egg as part of the Passover ritual from the post-Second Temple Period through the middle ages.


Zoroastrianism and Nowruz
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Persian Calendar

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