Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Did Christians Steal Pagan Festivals?

My article for this week's newspapers answers a question about the accusation that Christian holy days were imitations of pagan festivals:

Q:  Is there any validity to the claim that Christian holy days like Christmas and Easter were borrowed from pagan festivals, or that religious leaders designed them to replace pagan festivals?

These accusations have taken several shapes over the years.  The least accusatory of these claims assert that Christians created new holy days to replace the pagan festivals of the people who had converted in new lands.  More aggressive versions claim that the Christians simply recycled the pagan festival by making them about Jesus, but using the same traditions as the pagan festival and giving them new meaning. 

The most offensive of these accusations construct a scenario in which the authors would have us believe that even the person of Jesus and the events of His life were lifted from previous Egyptian or Middle Eastern religious systems rather than being genuine historical events. 

This most severe accusation is the simplest to answer.  The first people to make such claims were two 19th century authors named Gerald Massey and Godfrey Higgins.  Prior to their assertions, there is no evidence that anyone had ever drawn these connections.  Additionally, there is no evidence that early Christians had access to any information about Egyptian mythology in order to imitate it. 

In addition, there is ample evidence to the historicity of the events of Jesus’ life and that His disciples began teaching and believing the familiar teachings about Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection during the generation who witnessed His crucifixion.  This evidence comes from both Christian and Roman historical documents.  When putting the events recorded in the Gospels about Jesus on an even playing field with any other event or person of the Greek and Roman world, we find that the evidence relating to Jesus is superior both in quantity and consistency. 

Regarding the proposed links between Christian holy days and Roman or other pagan festivals, we find that the evidence is similarly lacking.  No accusation of these links existed during the times contemporary with their initial celebration by the churches, but only arose, like Massey’s and Higgins’ assertions, only in the 19th century. 

In fact, prior to the reign of Emperor Constantine around 313 B.C. the Christians were well-documented to avoid all things Roman rather than to imitate them.  So, since we have documented evidence that Christmas was observed by the churches at least a century prior to this date, it certainly would have caused enough controversy if Christians were imitating the Roman Saturnalia what we would have record of it, which we do not. 

Instead, we know that the Church has observed the festival of the Annunciation (Jesus conception when Gabriel announced Jesus coming birth to Mary) on March 25 since very early times, making it only logical to celebrate his birth 9 months later – on December 25.  This is done not because anyone believes Jesus was born then.  In fact, most evidence would indicate his actual birth was in another season of the year, but this is ritual time that enacts Jesus life and its events in the course of a year, rather than celebrating the literal date of events. 

Likewise with accusations that Easter was an imitation of a festival to the goddess Oestre, because of the similarity of names and common time of year.  The weakness of this accusation is that it is only the English-speaking world that uses the word Easter to refer to the day we celebrate the Resurrection of Jesus.  The rest of the Christian world uses terms related to Resurrection or Passover in their names for what we call Easter.  In addition, Resurrection Sunday was a well-established festival of the Church centuries before Christianity ever reached the English-speaking world. 

It is often said that every legend and false understanding has some grain of truth at its core, and that grain is this:  In lands where Christianity was being preached for the first time, people were often attached to the seasonal festivals and traditions that were related to their former gods.  In order to alleviate anxiety about leaving behind their former rituals, Christian pastors often pointed people to the already-existing Christian ceremonies that occurred around the same time of year, as an outlet for their natural desire to gather in communal celebration of common faith. 

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