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Holy Week around the world
April 17th, 2014
08:00 AM ET

Did Christians really 'steal' Easter?

Opinion by Candida Moss, special to CNN

(CNN) - It’s that time of year again: the time when chocolate comes in pastels, cherry blossoms start to bloom and well-marketed religion exposés are released to the world.

In other words, it’s Easter.

Among the rash of sensationalist stories we can expect through the season, the annual “Easter was stolen from the pagans” refrain has sprouted again just in time for Holy Week.

Don’t believe the hype.

Perhaps most misinformed theory that rolls around the Internet this time of year is that Easter was originally a celebration of the ancient Near Eastern fertility goddess Ishtar.

This idea is grounded in the shared concept of new life and similar-sounding words Easter/Ishtar. There’s no linguistic connection, however. Ishtar is Akkadian and Easter is likely to be Anglo-Saxon.

Just because words in different languages sound the same doesn’t mean they are related. In Swedish, the word “kiss” means urine.

But the biggest issue for Christians is the claim that Jesus’ resurrection - the faith’s central tenet - might have pagan roots.

Even apart from whether or not Jesus actually rose from the dead, many Christians claim that the very idea is unique.

There are other biblical examples of people being raised from the dead – think of Jesus raising Lazarus. But those people went on to die again. Only Jesus was raised from the dead to live forever.

But there’s a problem: Pre-Christian religions are replete with dying and rising gods.

Dionysius, most commonly thought of as the Greek god of wine, is one such example. He was lured to his death by the Titans, who then boiled and ate him. He was revived by his grandmother, and from his ashes humanity was formed, the Greeks believed.

Farther afield, Osiris – an Egyptian god-king who became ruler of the realm of the dead – was slaughtered before being brought back to life by Isis.

A similar story is found in the case of the Greek goddess Persephone, the daughter of the harvest goddess Demeter. Persephone was carried off to the underworld by the love-struck Hades. Because she ate pomegranate seeds in the underworld, she was permitted to leave only for six months a year.

Her annual resurrection is a metaphor for the changing of the seasons, and many scholars think that stories about dying and rising deities are essentially explanations for the coming of winter.

Then there’s Mithras, an ancient Iranian deity popular among Roman soldiers.

Among the many claims made about Mithras are that he was born on December 25, that adherents to his cult practiced baptism, and that he died and was resurrected.

The connections between Christ and Mithras are further amplified by the fact that the church of St. Clement, near the Colosseum in Rome, is built on top of an ancient Mithraeum.

The list goes on, and I’ll admit it’s a bit unsettling.

That's why the accusations that Christians “stole” the Resurrection from the Pagans is so popular and rhetorically powerful.

If, as many Christians claim, Christianity’s against-the-odds success is in some way proof of its authenticity and truth, then what does it say that parts of its truth were stolen from religious movements that no longer exist?

Spiritual “Manifest Destiny” looks less persuasive when extinct religious traditions supplied the backbone for the modern-day Church.

But there are ways around some of these problems.

Lumping all of these stories of dying and rising gods into a single category obscures important differences between them. Some of those who rose as gods, for example, were mere human beings prior to their return. Jesus, in contrast, was divine before his death, according to Christian theology.

Also, some of the parallels between the traditions come from a later period (post-Christianity) or are completely unsubstantiated. The arguments about Mithras and Jesus, for example, have completely fallen apart in the past 50 years because there simply isn’t enough ancient evidence to support them.

We should also ask whether the fishermen who followed Jesus around Palestine would have known about (much less adopted) stories from ancient Egyptians and Babylonians.

Greek and Roman mythology circulated widely on coins, but would the followers of Jesus who first claimed that Jesus was resurrected have known these stories in great detail?

Perhaps, perhaps not.

On the other hand, many Christians claim that Jesus’ death and resurrection is subtly different from that of other ancient deities and, thus, that the resurrection of Jesus was a wholly new idea.

The problem is, these apologists are one archeological discovery away from disaster. In the meantime, they are trying to pry Christianity apart from other late antique religions in order to protect it.

Perhaps the real problem here is with the idea of uniqueness.

As the University of Chicago scholar Jonathan Z. Smith showed, there’s a huge ideological and religious investment in the idea that Jesus was unique.

But there doesn’t have to be. Just because one idea is influenced by another idea doesn’t mean that its meaning is determined by the chronologically prior idea.

The Founding Fathers may have been influenced by Greek classical tradition, but this doesn’t mean that we should interpret the Constitution in light of Aristotle. You can recognize both the importance and innovation of the Constitution and its roots in ancient European civics.

Rather than battening down the hatches and looking for other signs of uniqueness, Christians need to think about how meaning relates to tradition.

Christians didn’t steal Easter, but it probably wasn’t a wholly new idea, either.

Candida Moss is the author of the “Myth of Persecution” and “Ancient Christian Martyrdom” and professor of New Testament and early Christianity at the University of Notre Dame. The views expressed in this column belong to Moss. 

- CNN Belief Blog

Filed under: Belief • Christianity • Church • Easter • Easter • Holidays • Jesus • Opinion • Paganism • Traditions

soundoff (2,118 Responses)
  1. purplestikypunch

    The men and women in that pic look like Polygamists.

    May 6, 2014 at 5:23 pm |
  2. rgalinato

    There is only one God. Proof is all around.

    May 5, 2014 at 4:42 pm |
    • gulliblenomore

      Oh....you are one of those. Just because science has not yet been able to determine exactly how life began does not mean you get to just proclaim that 'god did it'. Have you eliminated all the other gods in your declaration of 'proof is all around'? Couldn't Zeus have had a hand in it....or Vishnu?

      May 5, 2014 at 4:46 pm |
      • rgalinato

        You can choose to ignore all the evidence around you.

        May 5, 2014 at 4:48 pm |
        • gulliblenomore

          I see you are completely ignoring my questions....how were you able to eliminate Zeus as the god that created everything on this planet?

          May 5, 2014 at 4:50 pm |
        • rgalinato

          Read about Zeus and those "gods" at the time and you'll see they are different.

          May 5, 2014 at 5:14 pm |
        • gulliblenomore

          So...what you are saying is that the story of Zeus (or Vishnu, or every other god) makes no sense to you?

          May 5, 2014 at 6:38 pm |
        • rgalinato

          Vishnu makes sense

          May 5, 2014 at 6:56 pm |
        • In Santa We Trust

          What evidence do you have that a god created the universe? What evidence do you have that it was your god?
          All creation myths are incorrect so there is nothing to support the gods described in those myths.

          May 5, 2014 at 7:01 pm |
        • rgalinato

          there's only one people... one God.

          May 5, 2014 at 7:03 pm |
        • gulliblenomore

          That's your evidence? That there is only one god? Compelling evidence there. Now, would you care to expound on just how you know this? I suppose that god appeared to you in the middle of the night, or in your make-up mirror, or you won a football game when you were just sure you were going to lose, or you found 5000.00 on the street....something like that?

          May 5, 2014 at 7:57 pm |
        • rgalinato

          Yes it happens so don't count on belief in God going away in your lifetime:P

          May 5, 2014 at 8:07 pm |
        • gulliblenomore

          I agree....it does happen. To the mentally challenged, especially. To the hopeless, it does.....in much the same way that the same type of visions happen to those people that believe they are abducted by aliens. But alas, I am afraid you are correct about one thing. This type of lunacy will not go away in my lifetime. There will always be people that so desperately need a crutch to get through life, and their lives here on earth so pathetic, that they need to lean on an invisible, unproven force.

          May 5, 2014 at 8:40 pm |
        • rgalinato

          Nah I think it doesn't happen to those who are mentally challenged... look up self realization and Maslow and look at the people who he studied. All geniuses.

          May 5, 2014 at 9:01 pm |
        • In Santa We Trust

          And your evidence is?

          May 5, 2014 at 9:16 pm |
    • purplestikypunch

      So your "proof all around that God exists" is essentially because that's what you think?

      May 6, 2014 at 5:22 pm |
      • rgalinato

        yeah that's what matter to me.

        May 6, 2014 at 5:29 pm |
        • jpherling

          Then you realize, don't you, that you've just admitted that your entire belief system is based on nothing more than wishful thinking?

          May 7, 2014 at 4:24 pm |
        • rgalinato

          No it's not

          May 7, 2014 at 5:06 pm |
        • rgalinato

          And you do realize your non belief is your own wishful thinking unless you think science told you god doesn't exist.

          May 7, 2014 at 5:13 pm |
  3. southerncelt

    The bigger question is why CNN asks questions that offend a billion people? According to well publshed accounts 98% of the entire world's population believes in something. Why, then, does CNN pander to the 2% that believe in nothing (a.k.a. atheists).
    There are abundant books about Jesus' life, death, resurrection, and ascension. If CNN wants to know the Truth I suggest they turn their Internet connection off, and go to a Library.

    May 5, 2014 at 9:52 am |
    • gulliblenomore

      There is only one 'book' about Jesus's life....your bible. And....even that is quite suspect. The reason there are so many other people that believe in some sort of god is that they are, by nature, fearful. Nobody wants to believe that this life is all they get. But, with absolutely no proof of an afterlife, or of any gods at all, it seems that the '2%' may be the only group that has it truly right

      May 5, 2014 at 9:59 am |
    • jpherling

      Believers have no claim to know the Truth, because the truth is that which is accordance with the facts, and when it comes to anything having to do with Yehoshuah ben Yosef (as Jesus would have been known during his lifetime, if he really existed), there are no facts – only oral tradition written decades written down after his hypothetical death.

      May 5, 2014 at 2:11 pm |
      • rgalinato

        Our Father, Who art in Heaven, hallowed be Thy name; Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done on earth as it is in Heaven. Give us this day our daily bread; and forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us; and lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil. Amen" ~ Jesus... absolutely sure of it.

        May 5, 2014 at 3:22 pm |
        • gulliblenomore

          Well....if you have the proof, let's hear it! I don't believe in any god at all, but since I have no proof there is no god, at least I have the intelligence to admit I could be wrong. Can you do the same?

          May 5, 2014 at 3:29 pm |
        • rgalinato

          That's obvious he said it. All you have to do is read the different things people said about him and you know it true.

          These people writing things about a man that existed 2000 years ago. Yeah he wasn't a regular guy for sure. Let's see if there is proof, or anyone writing about you, in 200 years.

          May 5, 2014 at 3:34 pm |
        • gulliblenomore

          I'm not disputing Jesus, the man, I'm disputing Jesus, the son of god. Buddha was several hundred years before Jesus. And the Indian gods were also prior to Jesus....all being written about. By your logic, I'm guessing you worship all those gods.

          May 5, 2014 at 3:51 pm |
        • rgalinato

          right and Buddha was a real man, a prophet, and he said there would one day be a Christ.

          May 5, 2014 at 4:37 pm |
        • gulliblenomore

          Once again....do you have any evidential proof that your god exists? And...by the way, the bible is not evidential proof.

          May 5, 2014 at 4:39 pm |
        • igaftr

          rgalinato
          "right and Buddha was a real man, a prophet, and he said there would one day be a Christ."

          You are correct that he was a man, as far as prophet, unknown, as far as prdicitng christ...you have fallen for a very old scam. That alleged old script was proven to be a hoax by people who were christians trying to gain credibility for their beliefs. IT WAS A HOAX. and you have fallen for it.

          May 5, 2014 at 4:54 pm |
        • gulliblenomore

          Iga....their entire religion is a hoax....but he fell for that, too.

          May 5, 2014 at 4:56 pm |
        • rgalinato

          and that's why Buddhists are still waiting for the Christ to come?

          May 5, 2014 at 5:21 pm |
        • jpherling

          You can pray until you're blue in the face and you can tell yourself as much as you want that you're absolutely sure, but no matter what, you still no empirical evidence to go on. I suggest that you decide to give up your emotional addiction to your beliefs and rely strictly on facts, logic, and reason.

          May 6, 2014 at 4:45 pm |
        • rgalinato

          yeah thanks and you can do the same

          May 6, 2014 at 4:47 pm |
  4. idiotusmaximus

    Did Christians really 'steal' Easter?

    It's probably quicker to ask what didn't the Christians steal?

    April 22, 2014 at 11:30 am |
    • cosmostheinlost

      Here's a list of what they stole:

      http://cosmostheinlost.com/2013/06/20/pagan-symbols-and-the-coming-christianity/

      April 22, 2014 at 12:52 pm |
    • TruthPrevails1

      idiotusmaximus: Please don't waste your time going to cosmic's blog...it is full of lies and apologetic crap. This dolt seems to think he is more intelligent than Neil De Grasse, furthermore, a page back he admits to looking for the funding that comes from every hit his page-typical christard greed. He seems to think he is an authority on everything when he's just another worthless hateful apologist who doesn't truly care about what others have to say, just what his own delusional thoughts are and how he can spread his lies.

      April 22, 2014 at 10:18 pm |
  5. rgalinato

    This Easter was fun!

    April 21, 2014 at 4:22 pm |
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About this blog

The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.