Every year, especially around Christmas and Easter, it’s common for secularists and neopagans to post memes claiming to “debunk” some or other part of Christianity. While some may contain a kernel of truth – Christianity’s relationship with Paganism is a long and complicated one – others are so far off the mark they’re laughable.
Take this one, for example:
Yep, there’s plenty wrong here. So many cross-references and inaccuracies that we may as well compare it to this one:
But before I go into that, let’s talk about the evolution of the anti-Christian mentality that gave this meme birth.
Originally, the idea that “everything Christian is originally Pagan” didn’t start out that way. It instead started in the idea that “everything Catholic is actually Pagan,” and finds its root in the Swiss Reformation, particularly the works of John Calvin. We can find the seed in his Institutes, (Book I, Chapter 11) and Bible Commentaries (Genesis 31:30), and the first thing we’ll notice is a tone of “We don’t care what they say, Catholics are idolaters because we say they’re idolaters.”
Yet it was the British Protestants who gave this rhetoric its specific direction. The anti-Catholic polemic that claimed to point out “this exact Catholic practice comes from this exact Pagan practice” comes from Conyers Middleton, in his A Letter From Rome dated 1729. Middleton – described as “a man of war from his youth” and “the most malignant member of a malignant crew” (Moulton, The Library of Literary Criticism, pp. 279-281) – Middleton’s argument depended entirely on misquoting both Pagan authors and Early Christian Fathers, or quoting them entirely out of context so long as it served his purpose.
The Letter from Rome was widely circulated and published in many editions over the next 150 years. At the time, Richard Challoner (the man behind the Douay-Challoner Bible) responded to Middleton by refuting his claims and then predicting: if what he says can be applied to Catholicism, then it also applies to the whole of Christianity. (Preface to The Catholic Christian Instructed, 1737)
The next step in this thought comes again from Middleton, in his Free Inquiry into the Miraculous Powers (1747). Here he moves from Catholicism to the whole of Christianity, claiming miracles were deceptions or frauds, the Early Fathers were con-artists, everything the Jews had originally came from the Egyptians. The book was controversial in its time, and we find him quoted favorably by later authors on both sides of the Atlantic, including America’s own Thomas Paine in his Explanation of the Prophecies.
Within 100 years of A Letter from Rome, we see Challoner’s prediction come true in the person of Robert Taylor (Diegesis, 1829), a disaffected Anglican clergyman who strove to prove that Jesus never existed and that Christianity is an outright fraud. Once publishing this book, he posted notice at the University of Cambridge seeking to debate anyone, anywhere about these ideas, claiming complete confidence in proving his argument.
Of course, his argument falls apart before we even finish his introduction, where he puts the Apostle’s Creed side-by-side with what he called the “Pagan Creed.” The moment he tells us Pagans everywhere recited “I believe in Jasius Christ,” we automatically know his argument’s fraudulent and our time with him is done.
Of course this didn’t stop others from following his example, such as Gerard Massey (1828-1907) who looked over a few items in the British Museum and then claimed Jesus was actually Horus. In fact he was laughed out of the room by every serious Egyptologist who read him, and this takedown from Lutheran Satire gives us the main details:
While modern scholarship tends to distinguish between the “Jesus of History” and the “Christ of Faith” – the person who actually lived and the person who performed miracles and rose from the dead – Middleton’s and Taylor’s legacy continues today amongst what’s called the Mythicists, people who insist that Jesus never existed, mostly by repeating or elaborating on the claims in the Diegesis.
The best-form mythicist argument is most likely that of Richard Carrier, who claims Jesus was euhemerized, that is, a god who originally visited people in dreams and later mythologized as a human being, and that the idea of a really-existent Jesus spread the same way cargo cults spread on islands in the South Pacific. On the one hand I’d answer that extra-biblical first-century writings plainly contradict the euhemerization thesis, and that ancient Middle Eastern civilization (and at that time the Roman Empire) cannot be fairly compared to islanders in the South Pacific. We’re talking about vast differences in technology, in worldview, and overall levels of civilization, so vast that the comparison is laughable at best and betrays a certain level of arrogance at worst.
So Let’s Talk about Easter
Okay, onward to Easter. The first thing we hear is that “Easter” is actually taken from the name of a Pagan goddess. Most specifically we hear that name’s taken from the Anglo-Saxon goddess Eostre, goddess of the dawn. This comes from Bede’s De Temporum Ratione, chapter 15, where he attempts to give an etymology for April being called “Eostre-monath,” or the “Month of Easter.” (Sadly I can’t find a link to the entire text).
Of course, one could elaborate on this and compare the name “Easter” to any deity whose name sounded remotely similar (in this case, “Ishtar”). And this could make a good case, except that Easter’s not the real name of the holiday!
“Easter” is the name in the English language, while the cognate Ostern is the name in German. However, the official name of the Holiday is Pascha – the same word in Greek, Latin, and Aramaic, itself derived from Hebrew Pesach, “Passover” – and every other Indo-European language calls the holiday some variant of Pascha. While this may have helped Bede explain why Pascha came to be called Easter in his homeland, it likewise debunks Eostre from being the deciding factor (it was 600 years before Christianity came to England), as well as Ishtar (the names Pascha and Ishtar sound nothing alike, not even close).
Once we cross this bridge, all the other “Easter is Pagan” memes unravel themselves. The various folk customs (eggs, bunnies, etc) are pre-Christian in origin.
There’s no problem admitting that, unless one assumes the word “Pagan” automatically means “Evil.” Of course, one would also have to assume that religion begins in a vacuum and that new converts would have to leave behind every part of their cultures and every part of themselves to be “pure.” Now while the Celtic and English-speaking churches generally insisted on that level of purity – as shown in the Synod of Whitby in 664 and the Devotional Revolution of 1850 – the rest of the Christian world doesn’t think that way.
No, the Church always saw pre-Christian customs like this: if a non-Christian religion has something that’s inherently good, then it must’ve come from God somehow. This connects to what Pre-Vatican II theology calls natural revelation and is rooted in Romans 1:20. Historically when such a practice was encountered, people are encouraged to hold onto their practices and culture while redirecting the practice to Christ. In essence the culture was baptized but not stolen, and any practices that could be retained were retained.
A fairly well-known example of this occurs in Pope St. Gregory the Great’s Epistula ad Mellitum, where he discusses the question of how to treat Pagan temples in Britain:
“For if those temples are well built, it is requisite that they be converted from the worship of devils to the service of the true God; that the nation, seeing that their temples are not destroyed, may remove error from their hearts, and knowing and adoring the true God, may the more freely resort to the places to which they have been accustomed.”
In essence, the temple building was “baptized” and rededicated to Christian use; the idols (explicitly contrary to Christian belief) were rejected, while the building and presumably any decoration not explicitly contrary to Christian belief was maintained.
In this sense there’s no problem admitting what folk customs may come from our Pagan past, and in fact the Church prior to Vatican II openly admitted it. Rather than condemn the custom, we should instead thank our ancestors for preserving a piece of themselves and their way of life – even if altered, it was still at least partially preserved – and all who came between our ancestors and ourselves, for passing their ways of life onto us in the modern day.
!חַג פַּסחָא שָׂמֵח