Tag Archives: Easter

Question: Was the Resurrection of Jesus based on stories from Near Eastern mythologies?

The Easter Season may have passed, but “we are an Easter people.”  The Church calls us to make “Alleluia” our song and live out the Paschal mysteries everyday of our lives.

 

In that vein, let us examine an important Eastery point of discussion from Marcy:

“The story of the death and resurrection of the Sumerian goddess Inanna closely mirrors the story of the death and resurrection of Jesus, yet predates his appearance by more than 3000 years. Discuss.”

 

This is a great point, leading to a fascinating discussion about a story which many people, Christian and non-Christian, have never even heard of.  Marcy has her finger on the pulse of an important debate in Christology, ongoing since the first Christmas. How can we believe the extraordinary Christian claim that Jesus of Nazareth is actually God incarnate?  

 

Non-Christians maintained in the first centuries of the Christian Era (as they do today) that Jesus was merely a man.  We see this throughout the Gospels. It was because the Jewish officials saw Jesus as merely a man that they had him crucified; a man, after all, should not claim to be God.  Ancient Roman historians, such as Tacitus, referred to Jesus of Nazareth as a man, a real historical figure, but not as a god (though other writers, like Pliny the Younger, note that Christians were worshiping Christ as God in Pliny’s day, before AD 112).  

 

Fast-forward to the Enlightenment, when thinkers held Reason up as an antidote to religious Faith.  Critics of Christianity began to propose that the story of Jesus was merely a rehashing of other ancient mythologies adopted by the earliest Christians.  Depending on which aspect of Christ’s biography these critics sought to explain or “correct,” Our Lord would be lumped together with mythical heroes born of young maidens, or magical healing gods, or, as in this blogpost, dying and rising gods (we see a similar version of this thought in writers like Joseph Campbell).  

 

The idea of a widespread “dying-and-rising god” myth, of which Christ was just one iteration, came from The Golden Bough by James George Frazer (first published in 1890).  Frazer pointed to several examples of gods that “died and rose from the dead,” including Osiris (Egyptian), Dumuzid/Tammuz (Sumerian), and Adonis (Greek).  Unfortunately for Frazer’s posterity, as more archaeological discoveries occurred throughout the twentieth century, more historical evidence mounted that Frazer was incorrect about every “dying and rising god” in his study.  In their respective myths, these gods either never really died, or they never really rose from the dead.

 

So in that light, let’s look at the story of Inanna (Ishtar in Assyrian mythology) and see if her story closely resembles that of the Resurrection.

Who is Inanna?

Inanna (Ishtar) with a servant, 3rd Century Ad.  By Jadd Haidar – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=61102115

 

The Sumerians were the first civilization to develop the art of writing.  They lived in Ancient Mesopotamia, between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, and had a complicated polytheistic mythology through which they worshiped a pantheon of gods and goddesses.  Inanna was a Sumerian fertility goddess, and as such has more than her fair share of sexually explicit stories in Sumerian mythology (she’s the Sumerian equivalent of Aphrodite or Venus).  Men and women appealed to her to solve impotency problems and to win spouses; prostitutes made her their patroness, as they played an important role in fertility cults in the ancient world.  She was also a goddess who loved war, and was said to “feast” on battles (sex and violence meet again). She was associated with the planet Venus, with its appearance in the morning and the evening.  Archaeological evidence indicates that worship of Inanna began around 4000-3000 BC, and that her cult grew to prominence during the reign of Sargon the Great (around 2300 BC).

So far, nothing in Inanna’s story connects to that of Christ’s Resurrection.  She seems no different than other mythological fertility goddesses. Now let us examine the story to which Marcy refers, that of Inanna’s descent into the underworld, her “death,” and her “resurrection.”  Although there are two variations of this story, we’ll focus on the older and more detailed Sumerian version of The Descent of Inanna (called here Inanna’s Descent to the Nether World), which dates to between 1900 and 1600 BC.  

Here is THE story itself, the Akkadian version, on a clay tablet at the British Museum.  By © Marie-Lan Nguyen / Wikimedia Commons, CC BY 2.5, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=23281061

 

Inanna’s Descent to the Underworld

 

Inanna decides to travel into the Underworld to tell the queen of the Underworld, her sister Erec-ki-gala, that Erec-ki-gala’s mortal husband had died.  Inanna dresses herself attractively with symbols of her power and instructs her minister, Nincubura, what to do if she, Inanna, does not return from the Underworld in three days: appeal to the other gods, for Inanna would be dead and in need of resurrection.  

 

Inanna arrives alone at the gate to the Underworld and demands entrance.  Her sister allows her to enter, but sets a trap. As a result, Inanna is stripped of the symbols of her authority and judged by the Anunnaki, the seven judges of the Underworld.  

 

They looked at her — it was the look of death. They spoke to her — it was the speech of anger. They shouted at her — it was the shout of heavy guilt. The afflicted woman was turned into a corpse. And the corpse was hung on a hook.

 

Thus her “death.”  Interesting that Inanna’s corpse is hung on a hook, and Christ is hung on a cross.  But there is more:

 

Three days pass, and Nincubura travels to the various gods, pleading for their help in saving Inanna.  The response of most is identical [to that of Inanna’s father?]:

 

My daughter craved the great heaven and she craved the great below as well. Inanna craved the great heaven and she craved the great below as well. The divine powers of the underworld are divine powers which should not be craved, for whoever gets them must remain in the underworld. Who, having got to that place, could then expect to come up again?

 

Only the god Enki is moved by Nincubura’s plea.  He creates and sends the gala-tura and the kur-jara (two “sexless” figures, as the Wikipedia article on all of this says) to get the corpse of Inanna from Erec-ki-gala.  They arrive at Erec-ki-gala’s throne, and receive the corpse as a gift. After the gala-tura and the kur-jara sprinkle Inanna’s corpse with life-giving water and a life-giving plant, Inanna revives and begins to rise from the Underworld to the realm of the gods.  The Anunnaki freak out, so to speak, because no one “has ascended unscathed from the underworld.”  

 

So Inanna, accompanied by the Anunnaki, travel to several people close to Inanna to select a substitute for her.  She does not allow any of them to be the substitute, however, for they show true devotion and sorrow at her “death.”  Eventually, they find Inanna’s husband Dumuzid, who is not mourning his wife (he’s dressed rather nicely and relaxing under a tree, with some versions of the story depicting him being waited on by slave girls).  So Inanna gives him to the Anunnaki as her substitute. Off he goes to the Underworld so she can survive. She cuts a deal with Erec-ki-gala so that she and her husband can see each other for half of the year.

 

Inanna and her husband.  Clearly they love each other deeply.   Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=37691709

 

Thus the story of Inanna and her resurrection.

 

Inanna vs. Christ

 

Those familiar with Christ’s Resurrection accounts from the four canonical Gospels can already see there are some surface similarities between Inanna’s myth and the story of Christ.  Both figures were hung in their death: Inanna on the hook, Christ on the cross. Both figures were dead for “three days,” or at least returned to life on the third day. But the differences run deeper than the similarities.  Here are a few of them.

 

  • Inanna is a goddess, one among a pantheon of gods and goddesses, who seeks her own selfish wants and needs.  She was forced against her will to become a corpse as a punishment for offending her sister through her pride.  
    • Christianity is monotheistic, and the Son of God is both man and still completely God (see our recent reflections on the Nicene Creed).  His Incarnation occurred not as a punishment but as a willing sacrifice for what WE did (and continue) to do wrong.  In becoming incarnate the Son “emptied himself” (Phil. 2:7), not losing anything of His divinity, but in an act of supreme love and humility, Christ took upon Himself our humanity.  The Incarnation was an act of humility, the opposite of the pride displayed by Inanna.

 

  • Despite the fact that Inanna becomes a corpse, there is no indication in the story that she first becomes human.  She remains merely divine, not human, so one wonders if her “death” is even really death, in the sense that we think of death.  
    • Christ died like we die.  Even skeptics who deny Christ’s divinity argue that he did, indeed, die via crucifixion.  Likewise, the consistent teaching of Christianity is that Jesus of Nazareth really died a human death on the cross.  Without a real death, there can be no real resurrection. But as God, Jesus could not die; hence the need for Him to be both man and God.  

 

  • Inanna returns to life thanks to the efforts of her minister and the god Enki, who uses his own creations to bring about Inanna’s resurrection.  
    • Christian theology teaches that Christ rose from the dead not because God took pity on Him but because Christ HIMSELF is God, and therefore rose through His own power.  He did not rely on or need creation to bring about His resurrection. And there is no pantheon of other gods to restore Christ to life.

 

  • Inanna escapes the Underworld by using her husband as a replacement.  
    • One of the crucial aspects of Christ’s Paschal Mystery (His suffering, death, Resurrection, and Ascension) is that He underwent the fullest extent of human suffering (physical, emotional, spiritual, etc), died, returned to life, and went to Heaven body and soul (never to die again) all with full consent of His will.  No one takes His place; rather, he takes our place, taking upon Himself the guilt for our sins, even though He was innocent of any sin.

 

Clonmacnois Scripture Cross Jesus in the Tomb County Offaly Ireland

Christ being prepared for burial, from the High Cross at Clonmacnois in Ireland,

 

The story of Inanna is one of many pagan myths that share some similarities to the Resurrection of Christ.  While at first the idea that Christians merely borrowed pagan ideas to flesh out the story of Jesus seems appealing (to the critic) or troubling (to the believer), examining the literary evidence shows that the pagan stories are very different from the Christian one.  The key difference between these myths (stories) of paganism and the story of Christianity is, as C. S. Lewis noted, “the story of Christ is simply a true myth: a myth working on us in the same way as the others, but with this tremendous difference that it really happened.”  To Lewis, “myth” does not mean something untrue, but something beyond mere reality.  Myth gets at the deeper truths beyond the facts, reaching realities the sciences cannot.  Most myths are not historically true, of course; they tell a story to educate and entertain.  Unlike the myths of paganism, Christianity myth, as Lewis notes, is one of historical reality.  

 

The Incarnation is a story which is simultaneously historically and spiritually true.  It teaches us truths greater than the greatest pagan myths, namely that God loves us so much that “He came down from Heaven.”  Perhaps one could say the pagan myths borrowed from Christianity, not in time, since the pagan stories usually came first in time, but in truth. Christianity, after all, teaches that Truth came and dwelt among us.  

 

It is a natural to see death as an evil and to desire life eternal.  The “dying-and-rising god” motif taps into that desire to conquer death.  Perhaps it is an inner remembrance of Eden, when we lived without fear of dying and walked with our God.  Under slavery to death, our salvation came not by some manipulative deity’s guile but by the sacrifice of the God who made us, and loves us, at our hands.  All of the “dying-and-rising god” myths, each grasping in shadows at this ultimate truth, find their answer on the cross, on the day that death was conquered not by a goddess who sends her husband to die in her place, but by Christ who laid down his life so His Bride, the Church, could live.
The stories of Inanna and other pagan mythological figures are shrouded in mystery.  No one believed figures like Inanna or Adonis were originally real, historical men and women.  They were gods outside of this mortal world. Christianity is different; ours is a religion deeply drawn from historical truths.  The Incarnation, life, death, and Resurrection of Jesus took place in a particular historical place at a particular historical time, and the records come from eyewitness accounts of the historical events, namely the four canonical Gospels.  

 

Christ’s Resurrection and Ascension, c. 400.

 

Permit a quick equivocal example of what skeptics do in stating that Christians merely applied pagan myths to the life of Christ:  Mahatma Gandhi achieved great success in bringing about social change through peaceful, non-violent protests. The story goes that Martin Luther King Jr. achieved the same.  Could we just say that followers of King merely took stories of Gandhi and, with the best intentions, applied them to their civil rights leader? Of course not, because there is a historical record of the words and actions of King written by those who lived with him, those who heard him speak, and those who saw him do his peaceful, non-violent deeds.  For his part, King was clear about Gandhi’s influence on his own protests.  If King was not so upfront, contemporaries of him could have easily remarked that his protests were merely the protest of Gandhi adapted to an American civil rights situation, instead of an India vs. British civil rights situation.  

 

Skeptics millenia from now might incorrectly claim King did not exist, or that his teachings and actions were exaggerated to mimic those of Gandhi, cashing in on the success of the Indian.  This sounds ridiculous today, but that is a similar objection to the story of Christ in light of pagan myths. Just as we should honor the memory of both King and Gandhi, so we should likewise honor Christ, who through His Resurrection demonstrated the most profound truth of history, that “God so loved the world that He gave His only Son, so that everyone who believes in Him might not perish but might have eternal life.  For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him” (John 3:16-17).

 

It is truly Good News, a better tale than even the most beautiful pagan dreams.  

 

 

For Further Reading (beyond the in-text links)

 

Olson, Carl E.  Did Jesus Really Rise from the Dead?: Questions and Answers about the Life, Death, and Resurrection of Jesus Christ (Ignatius Press, 2016).  

 

Pitre, Brant.  The Case for Jesus: The Biblical and Historical Evidence for Christ (Image, 2016).

 

Broussard, Karlo.  “Why Jesus’ Resurrection Is Not Borrowed from Pagan Myths”

 

Mark, Joshua J.  “Inanna’s Descent: A Sumerian Tale of Injustice.”  Ancient History Encyclopedia, February 23, 2011.

 

Heffron, Yaǧmur.  “Inana/Ištar (goddess),” Ancient Mesopotamian Gods and Goddesses, Oracc and the UK Higher Education Academy, 2016

 

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Question: The Dating of Christmas and Easter

The Date of Christmas

“Adoration of the Child” by Gerrit van Honthorst

This second part was, originally, to follow closely behind its predecessor, but circumstances beyond my control, and my tendency to over-research, delayed this post’s creation for far too long.  My original hope had been to have it online by the end of the Christmas season.  Lent is here, so I guess it will have to serve your Lenten meditations.

Oh well.

In the first of these two posts, we dealt with Marcy’s question: “Why are there so many pagan items incorporated into the celebration of Christmas (Yule log, Christmas tree, etc.)?”  I hoped to show that such pagan celebrations arise in Christian traditions because the Church, when preaching the Faith to these pagan peoples, incorporated what was useful into the life of the Church, creating an authentic culture.  In this second post, we will deal with her question involving the dating of Christmas: “Why is the date for Easter set according to a phase of the moon, instead of on a fixed date, like Christmas, and who set it up like that? Why is Christmas placed so close to the winter solstice instead of closer to the assumed actual time of year that Christ was supposed to have been born?”

The question assumes one commonly held belief concerning Christmas: the birth of Christ actually occurred during the spring.  Several pieces of evidence are put forward to support this.  The key one is that Luke’s Gospel reports that shepherds who were “in that region living in the fields and keeping the night watch over their flock” (Luke 2: 8).  The obvious implication is that the area around Bethlehem, where Mary gave birth, would be too cold in late December for shepherds to be watching their sheep at night.  Christ must have been born during a warmer time (maybe Spring or Autumn, during the feast of Tabernacles, the harvest feast for the Jews), and thus December 25 is wrong.  The date, the theory continues, was chosen, like the Christmas tree and Yule logs, to incorporate pagan celebrations into the newly formed Christian Faith, a way of making new converts feel more at home.  That is the reason why the Church moved the celebration of Christ’s birth to December, away from its real date.

Often repeated, such evidence is, and with each repetition it sounds that much more convincing.  However, we should not be so quick to throw out the traditional date of Christmas.  There is evidence in favor of it, as well as against it.

First, let’s address the whole shepherd issue.  Does the presence of shepherds and sheep remove the possibility of a December Christmas?  Taylor Marshall, a professor and chancellor at FisherMoreCollege [http://www.fishermore.edu/] in Texas, notes that “Bethlehem is situated at the latitude of 31.7,” a latitude with “rather comfortable” outside temperature in December (Marshall, 52).  A quick glance at the weather nowadays in Bethlehem (January 2013) has a nighttime temperature of around 50 degrees Fahrenheit, not balmy, but bearable.  At the same time, the Catholic Encyclopedia notes that “Authorities moreover differ as to whether shepherds could or would keep flocks exposed during the nights of the rainy season” (Martindale, “Christmas”).  The issue of shepherding in the winter thus remains open.  We cannot reject the December dating of Christmas because of a shepherd-based argument.

The second argument against the dating of Christmas in December is the claim that Christians simply put Christmas in December to coincide with one of several pagan festivals: the festival of Saturnalia, which celebrated the winter solstice (the festival ran through middle/late December), or the celebration of the Natalis Solis Invicti, a celebration of the Unconquered Sun’s Birth (held on December 25).  The Christian Church, in an attempt to bring in more pagan converts, acquired these older pagan feasts, and thus made Christ’s birthday coincide with these festivals.

Is there evidence for such an acquisition?

Again, Dr. Taylor Marshall goes through a truly scholastic (in the original sense of the term) discussion of these points.  Regarding the winter solstice, he notes that the dates recorded for the celebrations (sometime between December 17 and December 22) do not coincide with the date for Christmas.  Now, this counterargument seems dismissive, but, then again, the connection between the winter solstice and Christmas is one of temporal approximation; there doesn’t seem to be any theological or spiritual connection between the coming of winter and the arrival of Christ.  If anything, springtime would be a better symbol, rather than the winter solstice, for the arrival of Christ, the life for the world.

The connection between Christmas and the celebration of the Natalis Solis Invicti is likewise tenuous.  Though there was a pre-Christian tradition of sun worship in Ancient Rome, the festival in honor of the Natalis Solis Invicti do not predate the celebration of Christmas in December.  The earliest references to the Natalis Solis Invicti occur during the reign of Emperor Aurelian.  Aurelian established the celebration in AD 274 with the intention of unifying various pagan rituals, possibly in reaction to increased Christian activity in the mid-3rd century.  Contemporary Christians did not seek to connect the date of Christmas to the festival.  Only in the 12th century does one find scholars connecting pagan festivals and Christmas, often with the explicit purpose of dissuading people from celebrating Christ’s birth.  On the contrary, many Church Fathers refer to the celebration of Christmas on December 25, whereas March 25 was given the date not only of the Annunciation, and therefore Christ’s Incarnation, but also the date of His crucifixion.

The argument over whether Christ was born in the spring versus the winter does not seem a part of the early Christian Church.  A more pressing debate in the early Church, it seems, was not if Christmas belonged in the spring, but rather if Christmas was on December 25 or January 6 (the Western half of the Church solved this problem in typical joyous fashion: 12 days of Christmas, from December 25 through January 6).

As far as Easter is concerned, much debate raged over when it should be celebrated.  What time of year was never an issue; all four Gospels are very clear in putting the Passion, Death, and Resurrection of Jesus in the context of the Jewish feast of Passover, commemorating the exodus of the Israelites from slavery in Egypt.  This answers the first part of Marcy’s question: Easter is so intrinsically linked with the feast of Passover (which, in turn, is based on the vernal equinox and the cycle of full moons) that to deviate from that context might diminish the importance of the feast.  All Christians, since the beginning, saw in the feast of Passover a precursor of Christ’s Passover from death into life through His resurrection.  On all of that, Christians agree.

The controversy, rather, was over what day of the week to celebrate this greatest of feasts.

Two camps emerged in the first centuries following the end of Roman persecution (because, of course, when one is worried for his or her life, one doesn’t quibble over when to celebrate Church feasts).  One camp said that Christians should celebrate Easter three days after the Jewish celebration of Passover, regardless of the day of the week on which this celebration fell.  The other major camp held that the Church should celebrate Easter near the time of Passover, but on a Sunday, in commemoration of how Christ rose on the “first day of the week.”  This controversy went through several phases during the first millennium of Christendom.  Popes and Church councils would decree, eventually, that Easter was to be always celebrated on Sunday, though not without some heavy debates (the last big debate over this issue arose at the Synod of Whitby, England, in 663; Wilfrid, a British cleric who sided with the Sunday date for Easter, by that time the official decision from Rome, persuaded the contingent of Irish monks to celebrate Easter on Sunday by invoking the Irish fidelity to the Holy See).

So there you go.  I hope that cleared up everything, or if it didn’t, just let me know.

Happy Lent!

For Further Reading:

Marshall, Taylor.  The Eternal City: Rome & and Origins of Catholic Christianity.  Dallas, TX: St. John Press, 2012. – Defends outright the traditional dating of Christmas.

Martindale, Cyril Charles.  “Christmas.”  The Catholic Encyclopedia.  Vol. 3.  New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1908.  Accessed 11 Feb. 2013. Available at  http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/03724b.htm.

McGowan, Andrew.  “How December 25 Became Christmas,” Biblical Archaeology Review, n. d.  Accessed 11 Feb. 2013.  Available at http://www.bib-arch.org/e-features/Christmas.asp.

Ratzinger, Joseph Cardinal (Pope Benedict XVI).  The Spirit and the Liturgy.  Translated by John Saward.  San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2000. – See especially Part II, Chapter 5 (“Sacred Time”) which has a fascinating look at the history of setting the dates for Easter and Christmas.

Thurston, Herbert.  “Easter Controversy.”  The Catholic Encyclopedia.  Vol. 5.  New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1909.  Accessed 11 Feb. 2013.  Available at http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/05228a.htm.

Tighe, William J.  “Calculating Christmas,” Touchstone, December 2003.  Accessed 11 Feb. 2013.  Available at http://www.touchstonemag.com/archives/article.php?id=16-10-012-v.

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