The Roots of Catholicism: Pagan or Jewish?

As we near Advent and Christmas, the tired claim that Christianity is warmed-over paganism will be trotted out yet again.

One doesn’t have to travel very far into either atheist or Protestant Fundamentalism to run into a sort of pseudo-scholarship that aims to assert that Catholic Christianity is basically warmed-over paganism.  It goes like this:

The name “Easter” originated with the names of an ancient Goddess: Eostre (a.k.a. Eastre). She was the Great Mother Goddess of the Saxon people in Northern Europe. Similarly, the “Teutonic dawn goddess of fertility [was] known variously as Ostare, Ostara, Ostern, Eostra, Eostre, Eostur, Eastra, Eastur, Austron and Ausos.” Therefore Easter is really the worship of this ancient Germanic fertility deity and not the worship of Jesus Christ.  That’s why it’s all decked out with eggs, chicks, and bunnies.  All fertility symbols.  Your faith is a lie.

Protestant Fundamentalists solve this by rejecting words like “Easter” and calling it “Resurrection Day” instead.  Atheist Fundamentalists solve it by rejecting the Resurrection altogether.  Catholics solve it by realizing there is no problem to solve.  It’s like this.

Seven etymological fallacies in one’s diet makes one week

When people say things stuff like the above, I always ask, “What day of the week is it?” When they reply “Tuesday,” I say, “Clearly, you are a worshipper of Tiw, the god of single combat, victory and heroic glory in Norse mythology. Oh, by the way, my parents must have worshiped him too since they named me ‘Mark’ which is derived from ‘Mars.’ Tiw was equated with Mars which is why the name of the day in Romance languages (e.g., ‘Mardi’) is a translation of Latin dies Martis or ‘Day of Mars.’  Admittedly, I don’t ever remember my parents mentioning their devotion to the god Mars (though I was born on a Tuesday so that is undoubtedly proof right there of their devotion).  But still, what other possible explanation could there be for their choice of that name?  So: pleased to meet you! Which temple do you visit to offer your burnt offerings and sacrifices to the God of War?”

Here’s the thing: etymology (the study of word origins) is funny stuff.  Some old words retain their meanings (which is why “Mother” still means today pretty much was “Mater” meant when Julius Caesar talked about his mom).  But lots of old words also get drained of old meanings and filled up with new ones (which is why “He is so gay” does not mean the same thing it did to English speakers a century ago). 

A look outside the linguistic bubble

Likewise then, we English speakers stuck with Moon Day, Tiw’s Day, Woden’s Day, Thor’s Day, Freya’s Day, Saturn’s Day, and Sun Day—and nobody for one second gave Eostre any more thought than you ponder Tiw on the day named for him.  This means that Easter is called Easter, not because Christianity glued some wise sayings by a dead rabbi on to a bunch of Germanic pagan fertility myths centuries after the life of Jesus, but because it brought the true story of the resurrection of a Jewish Messiah to lands that happened to have local cults which coincided on the calendar with the anniversary of that historical event. 

The proof of this is seen clearly the moment we get out of our provincial Angle-ish world that descends from Germanic tongues and look at the names of Easter in all the lands that trace their linguistic roots to Greek and Latin instead of Germanic languages:

In nearly all Romance languages, the feast is derived from the Latin Pascha:

• Spanish: Pascua

Italian and Catalan: Pasqua

Portuguese: PÁscoa

Romanian: Paşti

French: Pâques

Albanian, although not a Romance language, borrows the Latin Pascha as Pashka

Welsh: Pasg

Cornish and Breton: Pask

In Goidelic languages the word was borrowed before these languages had re-developed the /p/ sound and as a result the initial /p/ was replaced with /k/. This resulted in:

Irish: CÁisc

Gaelic: CÀisg

Manx: Caisht

Indeed, even several Germanic and Northern European tongues did not wind up using anything derived from local cults to Eostre, but adopted the normal use of most of Christendom.  In Dutch, Easter is known as Pasen and in the Scandinavian languages Easter is known as påske (Danish and Norwegian), påsk (Swedish), pÁskar (Icelandic), and pÁskir (Faeroese). In Russian, Pascha (Paskha) is a borrowing of the Greek form via Old Church Slavonic.  And perhaps most surprising of all to the debunkers, even In Old English the form Pascan was used by Byrhtferth of Ramsey (c. 970 – c. 1020) and the form Pasches is found in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle entry for 1122. Likewise, Pace, a dialect form of Pasch, is found in Scottish English and in the English of northeastern England, and used especially in combination with the word “egg,” as in “Pace Egg play.”

And where do all these variations on “Pascha” come from?  Funny you should ask: The name is derived directly from Hebrew Pesach, or as we call it in English, “Passover.” Why Passover?  Because Christians had a burning interest in Jesus, not as the fulfilment of pagan tales of fertility gods, but as the fulfilment of Jewish prophecy—and because they associated Jesus great saving work of death and resurrection not with Eostre, Osiris, Isis, Cybele, or Attis, but with the anniversary of the Jewish Passover and nothing else.  That’s why there was something called the Quartodeciman Controversy in the second century.  Some Christians thought we should celebrate Easter on 14th day of Nisan in the Hebrew calendar (no matter what day of the week that fell on) while others thought you should wait till the Sunday following (since Jesus rose on Sunday).  Eventually, the Church agreed on the Sunday, but that’s not important here.  What is important is that the Church never had any quarrels about reconciling the date of Easter with some pagan feast day.  All the quarrels about Easter (or Pascha) centered around Jewish feasts and Christian historical dates and nothing—nothing ever—references something in pagan myth or in pagan cultic practice.  It’s simply not on the radar for early Christians.

Dear Fundamentalists: Yule be surprised by this Christmas story

Similarly, despite what you have heard countless times every Christmas, it turns out that what drove the dating of the birth of Jesus had nothing to do with the Feast of the Unconquered Sun. No. Really.  According to William Tighe, a church history specialist at Pennsylvania’s Muhlenberg College, “the pagan festival of the ‘Birth of the Unconquered Sun’ instituted by the Roman Emperor Aurelian on 25 December 274, was almost certainly an attempt to create a pagan alternative to a date that was already of some significance to Roman Christians. Thus the ‘pagan origins of Christmas’ is a myth without historical substance.”

The fact is, our records of a tradition associating Jesus’ birth with December 25 are decades older than any records concerning a pagan feast on that day.

[T]he definitive “Handbook of Biblical Chronology” by professor Jack Finegan (Hendrickson, 1998, revised edition) cites an important reference in the “Chronicle” written by Hippolytus of Rome three decades before Aurelian launched his festival. Hippolytus said Jesus’ birth “took place eight days before the kalends of January,” that is, Dec. 25.

Tighe said there’s evidence that as early as the second and third centuries, Christians sought to fix the birth date to help determine the time of Jesus’ death and resurrection for the liturgical calendar—long before Christmas also became a festival.

In short, there was agitation in the early Church concerning not Jesus’ birthday but the day upon which the historical Good Friday and Easter fell. In the Eastern Church, the tradition focused on April 6 as the date for the original Good Friday, while in the Western Church it was widely held that the date was March 25. Why does this matter? Tighe continues:

At this point, we have to introduce a belief that seems to have been widespread in Judaism at the time of Christ, but which, as it is nowhere taught in the Bible, has completely fallen from the awareness of Christians. The idea is that of the “integral age” of the great Jewish prophets: the idea that the prophets of Israel died on the same dates as their birth or conception.

This notion is a key factor in understanding how some early Christians came to believe that December 25th is the date of Christ’s birth. The early Christians applied this idea to Jesus, so that March 25th and April 6th were not only the supposed dates of Christ’s death, but of his conception or birth as well. There is some fleeting evidence that at least some first century and second century Christians thought of March 25th or April 6th as the date of Christ’s birth, but rather quickly the assignment of March 25th as the date of Christ’s conception prevailed.

It is to this day commemorated almost universally among Christians as the Feast of the Annunciation, when the Archangel Gabriel brought the good tidings of a savior to the Virgin Mary, upon whose acquiescence the Eternal Word of God (“Light of Light, True God of True God, begotten of the Father before all ages”) forthwith became incarnate in her womb. What is the length of pregnancy? Nine months. Add nine months to March 25th and you get December 25th; add it to April 6th and you get January 6th. December 25th is Christmas, and January 6th is Epiphany.

And because these traditional, albeit competing, birth dates were already being revered in the rapidly growing Church, says Tighe, the emperor of a failing pagan empire instituted the Feast of the Unconquered Sun not only as an “effort to use the winter solstice to make a political statement, but also almost certainly [as] an attempt to give a pagan significance to a date already of importance to Roman Christians.”

In addition to this there’s another small but telling point. As Richard Ostling has written, we also find that St. John Chrysostom (a patriarch of Constantinople who died in AD 407) noted that Christians had celebrated December 25 from the Church’s early days. Chrysostom reinforced his point with an argument that used Scripture, not pagan mythology, for corroboration:

Luke 1 says Zechariah was performing priestly duty in the Temple when an angel told his wife Elizabeth she would bear John the Baptist. During the sixth month of Elizabeth’s pregnancy, Mary learned about her conception of Jesus and visited Elizabeth “with haste.”

The 24 classes of Jewish priests served one week in the Temple, and Zechariah was in the eighth class. Rabbinical tradition fixed the class on duty when the Temple was destroyed in AD 70 and, calculating backward from that, Zechariah’s class would have been serving Oct. 2–9 in 5 BC. So Mary’s conception visit six months later might have occurred the following March and Jesus’ birth nine months afterward.

So how did it become “common knowledge” that Christmas is really just a warmed-over pagan festival? Ironically, this staple of anti-Christian myth arises in a quarrel between Christians: Protestants and Catholics, to be precise (nobody ever seems to notice the Orthodox in these Age of Enlightenment spats). It’s like this, says Tighe:

Paul Ernst Jablonski, a German Protestant, wished to show that the celebration of Christ’s birth on December 25th was one of the many “paganizations” of Christianity that the Church of the fourth century embraced, as one of many “degenerations” that transformed pure apostolic Christianity into Catholicism. Dom Jean Hardouin, a Benedictine monk, tried to show that the Catholic Church adopted pagan festivals for Christian purposes without paganizing the Gospel.

In the Julian calendar, created in 45 BC under Julius Caesar, the winter solstice fell on December 25th, and it therefore seemed obvious to Jablonski and Hardouin that the day must have had a pagan significance before it had a Christian one.

Note that: Jablonski began, not with evidence, but with an assumption that the winter solstice must have had significance to Roman pagans before it had a Christian one. In other words, Jablonski simply noticed a correspondence between the Julian calendar’s solstice and Christmas and assumed the pagan feast must have been the prior one even though he had no proof for his theory—just like the “Feast of the Resurrection comes from Eostre celebrations” guys.  Meanwhile, Hardouin, rather than challenge that assumption, simply went along with it. And the entire myth about Christmas being a warmed-over pagan sun-worshipping feast is based upon the work of these two authors.

But in fact, the date [December 25] had no religious significance in the Roman pagan festal calendar before Aurelian’s time, nor did the cult of the sun play a prominent role in Rome before him.

There were two temples of the sun in Rome, one of which (maintained by the clan into which Aurelian was born or adopted) celebrated its dedication festival on August 9th, the other of which celebrated its dedication festival on August 28th. But both of these cults fell into neglect in the second century, when eastern cults of the sun, such as Mithraism, began to win a following in Rome. And in any case, none of these cults, old or new, had festivals associated with solstices or equinoxes.

What can we learn from this?

It is vital we not get bogged down in minutiae and miss the blazingly obvious. For instance, we must not get distracted by the irrelevant question of whether Roman Christians were right to place Jesus’ birthday on December 25. Nor should we waste time saying, “Ah ha! Some early Christians relied on the unbiblical Jewish tradition of ‘integral age’ or Chrysostom’s ‘rabbinic tradition’!” Again, granted: the date of Christmas isn’t found in Scripture. But that isn’t what matters.

The crucial thing is not, “Did the early Christians get the date of Christmas right?” It is, rather, “What mattered to them as they determined the date of Christmas?” And when you look at that, you again immediately realize that what dominates their minds is not Eostre, Cybele, Attys, Osiris, sun worship, or anything else in the pagan religious world. What interests them is—from our modern multicultural perspective—stunningly insular. Their debates are consumed not by longing for goddess worship, pagan mythology, or a desire to import Eostre, Cybele, and Attis into the faith, but by the exact details of the New Testament record of Jesus’ death, alloyed with a Jewish—not pagan—theory about when Jewish—not pagan—prophets die. The early Christians don’t care a bit how pagan priests ordered their worship in the Temple of Diana at Ephesus. They care intensely about how Levitical priests ordered their worship in the Temple of Solomon at Jerusalem. These Christians are riveted on Scripture and the details of Jewish and Christian history and tradition. They don’t give a hoot what sun worshipers, Osiris devotees, or Eostre fans might think.  It’s all about how Christ our Passover has been slain, not about how Christ our Mithras bull has been slain.

In short, the obvious interest for early Church is Christ’s roots in Old Testament Jewish revelation, not in paganism.

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About Mark P. Shea 0 Articles
Mark P. Shea is a popular apologist, author, speaker, and blogger. He is the author of several books, including The Da Vinci Deception, Making Senses Out of Scripture: Reading the Bible as the First Christians Did, By What Authority?: An Evangelical Discovers Catholic Tradition and This is My Body: An Evangelical Discovers the Real Presence. Visit his blog Catholic and Enjoying It!

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