The Resurrection Witness of “Half-Frantic” Women (Part 3) Harmonizing the Empty Tomb Accounts

Women-at-tomb

READ PART 1: The Resurrection Witness of “Half-Frantic” Women (Part 1) The Significance of the Women Witnesses

READ PART 2: The Resurrection Witness of “Half-Frantic” Women (Part 2) Understanding Differences Between the Accounts

 

To review from last article, when reading ancient biographies, like the Gospels, we find:

  • Selective Details
  • Paraphrasing
  • Telescoping (Extending or Compressing)
  • Selective Representation
  • Selective Chronology

 

Now, armed with this understanding of ancient biographical writing conventions, we’ll place the events surrounding the women and the empty tomb in chronological order.

 

MAKING SENSE OF MATTHEW’S ACCOUNT

Selective Chronology doesn’t really come into play with the accounts of the women and the empty tomb with the exception of — possibly — Matthew’s Gospel. This isn’t surprising since Matthew is the Gospel writer who most arranges things thematically and the one who regularly gives condensed versions of accounts that read very differently than the other Gospels’ accounts. 

When you read it, it’s easy to visualize what Matthew writes as unfolding as follows: 

(1) Mary Magdalene and the other Mary go to the tomb, (2) an earthquake happens, (3) an angel descends, rolls back the stone covering the tomb’s entrance and sits on it. (4) The guards pass out. (5) Still sitting on the stone, the angel speaks to the women. 

But I don’t think this is the chronological order of these events. Is Matthew using “creative license” here with chronology? The other accounts make no mention of the earthquake, the angel’s descent, and the actual rolling away of the stone. Matthew is the only one to mention these events, and it makes sense that they would have happened before the women arrived because the other accounts report the women find the stone already rolled away upon arrival (and they encounter the angle inside the tomb). 

I think the description of the angel rolling back the stone and the guards fainting is a flashback to what happened before the women arrived. I believe it’s acceptable to read Matthew’s account as: 

(1) An earthquake occurred, (2) an angel descended, rolls back the stone covering the tomb’s entrance and sits on it. (3) The guards pass out. (4) Later, the women arrive (the guards have likely awoken and run off by now), and the women find the empty, open tomb. (5) The angel (no longer on the stone) speaks to the women inside the tomb.

Thus, the earthquake, the angel’s descent, and the guards’ falling into unconsciousness is a flashback sandwiched between Matthew telling us the women went to the tomb and the angel speaking to the women. So, Matthew can be understood as follows:

Now after the Sabbath, toward the dawn of the first day of the week, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to see the tomb. 2 And behold, [before they arrived] there was a great earthquake, for an angel of the Lord descended from heaven and came and rolled back the stone and sat on it. 3 His appearance was like lightning, and his clothing white as snow. 4 And for fear of him the guards trembled and became like dead men. 5 But [after the women arrived] the angel said to the women [inside the tomb], “Do not be afraid, for I know that you seek Jesus who was crucified. 6 He is not here, for he has risen… (Matthew 28:1–6)

After looking at the other Gospel accounts, we see that Matthew drastically condensed his account, taking many shortcuts in his retelling, but giving the key elements. Because of Matthew’s “shortcuts,” it’s easy to visualize his account differently had we not had the other accounts to compare it to.

 

HARMONIZING THE RESURRECTION ACCOUNTS

But the big differences just don’t appear in Matthew, as we touched on in the last article. Understanding the ancient (and non-ancient) writing conventions we looked at in the last article will now continue to assist us as we put the pieces of the four Gospels together to get a complete picture of the events surrounding the finding of the empty tomb.

Based on a careful reading of all four Gospels, I believe the events played out in the following way:

  • An earthquake occurs, the angel descends and rolls back the stone before the tomb’s entrance and sits on it, and the guards “become like dead men.” (Matthew 28:2-4)
  • Sometime later, around dawn, Mary Magdalene and other women go to the tomb. (Matthew 28:1, Mark 16:1-3, Luke 23:55-24:1, John 20:1)
    • Selective Representation – John only mentions Mary Magdalene and the other writers mention select women with her.
  • Mary Magdalene and the other women find the stone rolled away from the tomb’s entrance. (Mark 16:4, Luke 24:2, John 20:1)
  • Mary Magdalene splits from the other women and runs to tell Peter and John. (John 20:2) 
    • We’ll pick back on Mary Magdalene’s path below…
  • The remaining women enter the tomb and find Jesus’ body missing. (Mark 16:5-6, Luke 24:3)
    • No specific women are named here — just a general reference to the women entering the tomb. Because of this, it’s easy to imagine Mary Magdalene still with them when we read Matthew, Mark, and Luke, but we know from John’s Gospel she has run off.
  • The women see at least two angels in the tomb.
    • Selective Representation – Luke mentions two angels, where Mark 16:5 and Luke 24:4 mention one, likely the one speaking.
  • The women are told Jesus is risen (Matthew 28:5-6, Mark 16:6, Luke 24:5-7)
    • If we only had Matthew’s account, we can imagine the conversation taking place outside the tomb. Matthew’s condensed version leaves out the details of them entering the tomb.
  • The women are told to go tell the disciples (Matthew 28:7, Mark 16:7, Luke 24:8-10).

 

A CHALLENGE IN MARK’S ACCOUNT

After this, both Matthew and Luke tell us the women go and tell the disciples, but Mark seems to make a big issue for us: Mark tells us the women flee the tomb in fear and tell no one! This is where his Gospel ends. How do we rectify this?

One common way, which I’ve encountered many times, is to say that the women at first didn’t tell anyone, yet we know from the witness of the other Gospels that they eventually did. It’s often said that Mark chose to end his Gospel at this moment to emphasize what Christians are not to do. Christians are not to “keep it to themselves,” but share the good news of Jesus Christ. I’ll let you decide if this is a reasonable solution to Mark’s ending, but based on what we talked about concerning ancient writing, I think we have another, better option.

I believe it’s possible that Mark is using Selective Representation. So, just like we had a person split off from the group when Mary Magdalene ran off after seeing the open tomb, here we have another split in the group of women: Some of the women listened to the angel and ran off to tell the disciples where another section of the group ran off and didn’t tell anyone. Mark is only focusing on those women who didn’t tell.

After all, Matthew tells us the women left the tomb with both “fear and great joy” [emphasis mine]. Are both groups of women in sight here in Matthew? Luke gives us a general statement about “Mary Magdalene and Joanna and Mary the mother of James and the other women with them” telling the disciples, the same women named at the beginning of his account.  Salmone is the only woman named in any of the Gospels (in Mark’s Gospel) but not named here in Luke. Was she one of the unnamed “other women” in Luke or was she one of the women who didn’t tell anyone about Jesus’ empty tomb? Mark is the only one to name Salmone, and Mark is the only one to include that (some of) the women didn’t tell anyone. 

So, to continue our timeline:

  • Women Group A runs off and tells no one. (Mark 16:8)
  • Women Group B runs off to tell the disciples and meets the risen Jesus. (Matthew 28:8-10)
  • Women Group B tells the disciples all they experienced, but the disciples doubt it. (Luke 24:11)
    • Luke 24:11 includes Mary Magdalene here. We can assume she joins back with the other women later when she returns to the disciples. Even if that’s not the case, this is just a general statement by Luke about who told the disciples about the risen Jesus. 
    • This is where Mary Magdalene’s path and John’s account begin to overlap again with the other Gospels.
  • But Peter runs to the empty tomb (Luke 24:12, John 20:3-9)
  • Peter returns home. (Luke 24:12, John 20:10)

 

JOHN’S GOSPEL & MARY MAGDALENE

Backing up in time a bit and returning to Mary Magdalene’s path and John’s Gospel:

  • After Mary Magdalene leaves the other women at the open tomb, she runs to tell Peter and John. (John 20:2)
  • Peter and John run to the tomb and find Jesus’ body missing and burial clothes laying inside. (John 20:3-9)
    • Selective Representation – Luke only mentions Peter. (Luke 24:12)
  • Peter and John head back home. (John 20:10)
    • Selective Representation – Again, Luke only mentions Peter. (Luke 24:12)
  • Mary weeps at the tomb. She has either arrived after Peter and John left (since they literally ran there – John 20:4-6) or she arrived while they were still there and remained after they headed back. (John 20:11)
  • Mary looks inside the tomb and sees two angles, who speak to her. (John 20:11-13)
  • She turns and encounters the resurrected Jesus. (John 20:14-17)
  • Mary goes and tells the disciples she has seen the risen Jesus. (John 20:18, Luke 24:10)

There’s room for other interpretations within my timeline of these events, but I think this is a plausible option for harmonizing the four accounts of the women finding the empty tomb of Jesus and — more importantly — encountering the risen Lord himself.

All glory to Christ!

READ PART 1: The Resurrection Witness of “Half-Frantic” Women (Part 1) The Significance of the Women Witnesses

READ PART 2: The Resurrection Witness of “Half-Frantic” Women (Part 2) Understanding Differences Between the Accounts

Related GFTM articles:

The Joy & Angst of Four Gospels – Part 1 – Differences or Contradictions?

The Joy & Angst of Four Gospels – Part 7 of 7 – Positive Evidence: Going on the Offensive

 

Visit my ministry site: confidenceinchrist.net

Confidence in Christ v2

The Resurrection Witness of “Half-Frantic” Women (Part 2) Understanding Differences Between the Accounts

THE CHALLENGE OF FOUR GOSPEL ACCOUNTS

 

Women-at-tomb

READ PART 1: The Significance of the Women Witnesses.

THE PROBLEM OF 4 ACCOUNTS

To get the most out of this short blog series, I suggest taking some time to read the 4 Gospel accounts of the women and the empty tomb:

  • Matthew 28:1-10
  • Mark 16:1-8
  • Luke 24:1-12
  • John 20:1-18

When we read the accounts of the women finding the empty tomb and the events that immediately follow (including the resurrection appearances of Jesus) we run into some major challenges: All four Gospels, at first glance, seem to have major differences!

For instance, in Matthew, Mary Magdalene and “the other Mary” go to the tomb. In Mark, Mary Magdalene, Mary (James’ mother), and Salmone go to the tomb. In Luke, Mary Magdalene, Mary (James’ mother), Joanna, and “other women” go. And in John, only Mary Magdalene is mentioned.

Further, in Matthew, it appears that an earthquake happens, an angel in a dazzling white robe rolls back the stone in front of the tomb’s entrance and sits on it as the Roman guards pass out from fear. Then, it seems, the angel speaks to the women from atop the stone about Jesus’ resurrection. 

Yet, in Luke, the women find the stone already rolled away from the tomb’s entrance when they arrive, and once they go inside, two angels in dazzling clothes announce Jesus’ resurrection. The women go and tell Jesus’ disciples.

In Mark, the women seemingly find only one angel in the open tomb, and the angel tells them to go tell Jesus’ disciples. Yet, the women flee in fear and say “nothing to anyone”!

And in John, it seems Mary Magdalene alone finds the stone rolled away from the tomb’s entrance and Jesus’ body missing. She runs to tell Peter and John. After Peter and John race to the empty tomb, they leave, and then Mary encounters two angels and the risen Jesus. She, then, goes and tells Jesus’ disciples.

As you undoubtedly see, all four of these share similar key details but have considerable differences. What are we to make of this, and can the differences be rectified? Do we have to accept that the Gospel writers got the “big” details correct, but got the “smaller” details wrong?

 

UNDERSTANDING THE GOSPELS AS ANCIENT BIOGRAPHY

First, we need to understand some basic characteristics of ancient historical writing. The Gospels reflect the style of ancient biographies. In short, these ancient biographies sometimes used literary devices that may seem a bit odd to us today.

This has been thoroughly documented by Michael Licona in Why Are There Differences in the Gospels? What We Can Learn From Ancient Biography as well as elsewhere. What follows is my own simplified explanation and own phraseology, some of which differs from Licona. For a more in depth look at this, along with many more examples from the Gospels, see my earlier GFTM blog 7-part series: The Joy and Angst of Four Gospels.

Once we understand these ancient literary conventions (which, in truth, most are used by modern writers as well), the chain-of-events surrounding the empty tomb will fall into place. Understanding this will not just help here in understanding the differences between these passages, but will help any time you read parallel passages across the Gospels and notice differences.

 

1. Selective Details

First, writers must leave out much more than they include in a retelling of true events. All good writers are selective in what details they include, and they select those details for a specific purpose.

Keep in mind, a difference and a contradiction aren’t the same thing. Writers may select certain details to emphasize something while totally ignoring other details another writer may include. That’s not a contradiction. Things that contradict can’t both be true. So, when we’re looking at parallel passages, we have to ask ourselves: Can the differences all be true without contradiction?

 

2. Paraphrasing

Differences in dialogue between Gospels can be understood with two simple concepts.

First of all, the authors are likely not giving us the full dialogue but only selective sections.

Second of all, the dialogue — or at least parts of it — might be a paraphrase. Though modern Bibles have quotation marks around dialogue, quotation marks didn’t exist in ancient Greek. Also, keep in mind, Jesus likely taught primarily in Aramaic, but the Gospels were written in Greek. Thus, we don’t know if what is written is supposed to be a word-for-word representation or a paraphrase or a summary. 

Even in modern times, when telling a true story, people rarely repeat the dialogue verbatim. Instead, they sum up the dialogue by paraphrasing.

 

3. Telescoping (Extending or Compressing)

Next, think of a telescope. A telescope can be extended to its full length or it can be compressed to a much smaller size. Ancient historians sometimes give a longer account with more details, but sometimes they compress the account, cut out details, and tell it in abbreviated form. To understand this better, share about a true event with your friend and take a good five minutes or more to tell it. Afterwards, tell the same story again but in 30 seconds.

To illustrate telescoping (as well as some other literary concepts covered here) let me tell you about Paterson, New Jersey and mixed martial arts fighter Jon Jones. 

Established in 1792, Paterson, NJ is the first planned industrial city in the United States, thanks to Alexander Hamilton and a 77-foot waterfall called the Great Falls on the Passaic River. The Great Falls produced a lot of energy for running mills, making Paterson a major player during the Industrial Revolution. Not only was the city known for its cotton, wool, and (later) silk mills, but the first locomotives and the first Colt revolvers where manufactured there. I taught high school English for 16 years in downtown Paterson, a short walk from the Great Falls. It’s an interesting sight: A huge waterfall in the middle of one of the most urban areas of the United States. In 2011, the Paterson Great Falls National Historical Park was established thanks to President Obama.

In 2011, I had been involved in martial arts for about as long as I had been teaching in Paterson when I heard the UFC (Ultimate Fighting Championship) was coming to Newark, NJ. On March 19, 2011, Jon “Bones” Jones would fight Mauricio “Shogun” Rua for the light heavyweight belt. I bought my tickets and was anxiously awaiting fight night when these two very different parts of my world collided.

On the day of the fight, Jon Jones had visited the Great Falls. But the really exciting news was that he had stopped a thief from stealing a woman’s purse while there. I was at work when I heard this, barely a block away from where this happened, so I got on the internet as soon as I could to find out more details. Evidently, Jon Jones had gone to the Great Falls to relax before his big fight and, instead, found himself using his martial arts skills to take down a bad guy not unlike a comic book hero.

So, here’s how all this about Paterson, Jon Jones, and the Gospels intersect: As I read various online articles about the incident — some very short, some longer — it was interesting to see how different articles gave different details. Longer articles would fill in details that the shorter articles left out. The shorter articles took shortcuts in retelling the story. It wasn’t until after reading several different articles that I felt like I had a full picture of what happened.

For example, one article only mentioned that Jones stopped a thief who stole a woman’s purse, so in my head I was picturing a purse-snatching or mugging. But another article explained that the purse was grabbed through the window of a parked car. One article only stated that Jones chased down and physically stopped the thief, where another gave the detail that a double-leg takedown (a standard wrestling move) was involved.

This is similar to the differences we find between the four Gospels. Ancient writers write differently than we’re used to and we can’t expect them to write like modern newspaper reporters, but there are shared similarities. In their articles, modern reporters select the details they will or will not share; sometimes they include direct quotes and sometimes they paraphrase or summarize what someone said; they “telescope” — sometimes they retell the events in a longer format or they compress it all into a shorter telling.

Finally, they also use “Selective Representation.”

 

4. Selective Representation

Selective Representation is when an ancient writer only focuses on one person instead of everyone involved. At other times, the writer may focus on several people to represent the larger group. This explains why Matthew and Mark mention only one angel in the empty tomb, but Luke mentions two. Matthew and Mark appear to be only focusing on one, likely the one who spoke. Let me point out this isn’t a contradiction. It would be a contradiction if one of the writers claimed that there was only one angel in the tomb, which none of the writers do. 

Likewise, this explains why Matthew, Mark, and Luke mention different women with Mary Magdalene at the empty tomb and John only mentions Mary Magdalene. Mary Magdalene is the most known of the women, so John only focuses on her. This may seem odd to us today to not mention the other women with her at all, but even modern writers do this. When I read the articles about Jon Jones stopping the purse thief, several writers only mentioned Jon Jones being involved. It wasn’t until I read other articles that I learned that Jon Jones’ trainers were also involved in chasing and stopping the thief! Thus, some of the articles focused only on the person with the big name, the most famous person involved — Jon Jones. Likewise, John’s Gospel only focuses on the “big name” of the women, the most “famous” person involved — Mary Magdalene. Again, let me point out that this isn’t a contradiction. For it to be a contradiction, John would have had to written that only Mary Magdalene found the tomb empty.

 

5. Selective Chronology

Of these literary conventions used by ancient authors, this may be the one that is most odd to us today. Ancient writers, even when retelling true events, didn’t feel as compelled as us today to place things in chronological, linear fashion. Ancient writers used more flexibility in narrative sequence than modern writers. In other words, they were okay with moving things around to emphasize a point. Sometimes they organized things in topical or thematic groups. The overall structure of the story remains the same, but the smaller units within the bigger framework may be moved around. 

For example, in Matthew 13 we find several parables of Jesus with similar messages. Did Jesus say all of these parables one-after-another or did Matthew lump these parables with similar themes together? Either option is possible. 

Another example: When did Jesus drive the merchants out of the Temple? John has it happening at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, but the other three Gospels has him doing it at the end. One possible explanation is that John is using Selective Chronology to emphasize Jesus’ zeal at the beginning of his Gospel. (Of course, another simple explanation is that Jesus drove out the merchants twice — once towards the beginning and once towards the ending of his ministry.) 

To sum up, when reading ancient biographies like the Gospels, we find:

  • Selective Details
  • Paraphrasing
  • Telescoping (Extending or Compressing)
  • Selective Representation
  • Selective Chronology

 

Next, armed with this understanding of ancient biographical writing conventions, we’ll place the events surrounding the women and the empty tomb in chronological order.

NEXT: The third (and final) article in this series: Harmonizing the empty tomb accounts.

READ PART 1: The Resurrection Witness of “Half-Frantic” Women (Part 1) The Significance of the Women Witnesses.

READ Part 1 of The Joy and Angst of Four Gospels.

The Resurrection Witness of “Half-Frantic” Women (Part 1) The Significance of the Women Witnesses

THE SIGNIFICANCE OF THE WOMEN WITNESSES 

Women-at-tomb

After Jesus’ arrest, Peter — one of Jesus closest disciples — denied association with Jesus three times and the rest of the remaining 12 “inner circle” disciples ran off, abandoning Jesus (Mark 14:50). Even if we were to take a skeptical stance when reading the Gospels, this doesn’t seem like an invented detail by the early church since it certainly doesn’t make the disciples look good; these same men would be leading the early church, especially Peter. It was the woman who stayed by Jesus to watch him die on the cross (along with John)(Matthew 27:55; Luke 23:49; John 19:25-27), and it was the women to first see him alive afterwards.

The New Testament Gospels report that at least five women, several who are named, including Mary Magdalene, were the first to find Jesus’ tomb empty, and Jesus’ first post-crucifixion appearances were to Mary Magdalene and (at least some of) these other women (Matthew 28:1-10; Mark 16:1-8; Luke 24:1-11; John 20:1-18). Considering that in first-century Israel women’s testimony wasn’t taken seriously, even in a court of law, this is an interesting detail.

The Talmud, a written commentary on the Jewish oral law, gives us insight into attitudes towards women in first-century Israel when it puts the testimony of women as witnesses on the same level as gamblers (dice-players and pigeon-racers, to be exact) and slaves [1]. A well-known morning prayer for Jewish men thanks God that “You have not made me a Gentile, a slave, or a woman.” With this, first-century Jewish historian Josephus writes:

“But let not a single witness be credited; but three, or two at the least; and those such whose testimony is confirmed by their good lives. But let not the testimony of women be admitted, on account of the levity and boldness of their sex.” (Antiquities of the Jews 4.8.15)

In fact, when the women share that they witnessed Jesus alive, the disciples don’t take them seriously (Luke 24:10-11) — yet another detail not likely to be invented; it certainly makes the future leaders of the church look clueless. Even 1 Corinthians 15:3-7, an important early confession of the church, mentions numerous eyewitnesses of the resurrection by name but leaves out naming any women. (We can assume the women were numbered with the 500 unnamed witnesses it mentions.)

So, the big question is: Why would all four Gospel writers claim that women were the first witnesses to the resurrection when no one in their culture would take the testimony of women seriously? Even in the second-century Greek philosopher Celsus mocked Christianity as a religion based on the testimony of Mary Magdalene, a “half-frantic woman.” [2]

Therefore, it seems unlikely the Gospel writers would invent this detail if they were only looking to convince people of Jesus’ resurrection. In fact, this detail points towards the opposite: The Gospel writers were more concerned with reporting what they believed to be true than creating a story of mass appeal. 

The combination of the embarrassing details of Peter’s denial and the male disciples’ abandonment of Jesus; the absurdity of worshipping a crucified God-man to first-century Jews and Romans (which I wrote about before); and the first witnesses of the resurrection being women all are details very unlikely to be invented if the Gospels were mere fictions, especially if they were invented to win converts to a new religion. 

 

THE CHALLENGE OF FOUR GOSPEL ACCOUNTS

As I pointed out before, when we read the retelling of the same event in more than one Gospel, sometimes they’re told differently and this often causes confusion. (Let me point out, this is often the case when reading four independent accounts of any incident.) For instance, the two birth narratives in Matthew and Luke share key details but are also extremely different, almost seeming like two different stories. But when we read them carefully, we can figure out how they fit together like pieces of a puzzle. Much of Matthew’s account — including the visit of the magi and the flight to Egypt — occur later than many of the events recorded in Luke’s account, perhaps months or even a year or two after Jesus’ birth.

When we read the accounts of the women finding the empty tomb and the events that immediately follow (including the resurrection appearances of Jesus) we run into the same challenge but worse. All four Gospels, at first glance, seem to have major differences!

Take some time to read the 4 Gospel accounts of the women and the empty tomb:

  • Matthew 28:1-10
  • Mark 16:1-8
  • Luke 24:1-12
  • John 20:1-18

Next article, we’ll tackle how to understand these differences.

NEXT: Differences vs. Contradictions & the Gospels as Ancient Biographic Literature

[1] Rosh Hashannah 1.8

[2] Quoted by Origen in Against Celsus.

A Short Message for Resurrection Sunday: Blind Faith or Trust?

 Jesus_tomb

“Then Jesus, calling out with a loud voice, said, ‘Father, into your hands I commit my spirit!’ And having said this he breathed his last.” (Luke 23:46)

God the Son has existed for eternity in perfect fellowship with God the Father. When God the Son became Jesus, though he was both God and man, he voluntarily gave up his rights as God and submitted wholly to the will of the Father.

Philippians 2:6-8 tells us Jesus “did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant… he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.”

When Jesus took on himself the sins of the world and willingly endured the utter terror of crucifixion, he demonstrated perfect faith in God the Father.

As a former self-professed atheist, I can tell you, skeptics don’t like the word faith. They portray faith as “blind faith” — as belief without evidence. But a more accurate understanding of Christian faith is found in the word “trust.” As your time with Christ grows, so will your trust of him. As you pray, grow more familiar with His Scripture and live according to it, and partake in His church, your trust will strengthen. Nonbelievers can’t understand Christian faith because they have never walked with Christ.

When the Holy Spirit woke me out of the murkiness of atheism years ago, I did take a leap of faith. Now, after nine years of walking with Christ, when I don’t know what the future holds, I can say with confidence, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit!”

Faith is not belief without evidence, but belief because of prior evidence.

All praise to the God who was crucified, who rose from the tomb three days later, defeating death and sin. All praise to the God who completed the work for our salvation, and just as He freely offered his life for our sins, now offers us His free gift of salvation – a free gift we can accept or reject, but a free gift nonetheless – free for us but not for him.

Three_Crosses

Does Christianity Have Pagan Roots? (Part 1) How Did “Easter” Originate?

Aren’t rabbits & eggs pagan symbols for fertility?  Isn’t the word “Easter” from a pagan goddess?  Didn’t Christianity just borrow from earlier pagan myths and practices?

Easter_rabbint_eggs

THE AGE OF MISINFORMATION

It’s inevitable.  During this time of year in the (Mis)Information Age, skeptics are going to start posting blog articles and memes declaring that Easter is a pagan holiday high-jacked by the oppressive, monotheistic Christians.

In one such blog article I read at this time last year, the author performed the most death-defying acrobatics I’ve ever read to attempt to show how Christianity is just a bootlegged copy of pagan religions.  The comments below the article praised the author’s brilliance.  One comment that stayed with me was a woman who unabashedly wrote: “There you go making sense again!”  Sadly, the article wasn’t just death-defying but logic- and history-defying too.

Around the same time, I came across a meme showing the goddess Ishtar and claiming Easter originated with her (because, hey, the names sort of sound alike, right?).  The comments below, again, celebrated this exposure of Christian lies, with some vehemently stating how Christianity as a whole is based on pagan myths and Easter takes place on the spring solstice.

So, I simply wrote: “Easter takes place during this time of year because Jesus was arrested and crucified during the Jewish Passover.  As any legit historian will tell you, Christianity came from the Jewish religion and started in Jerusalem.”

What did I hear back from the comment-writers?  Silence.

As I’ve heard cops say on TV before: Usually the most obvious suspect – the one you first think of – is the responsible party.  No death-defying acrobatics were needed on my part.

 

Pagan_Ishtar

At Easter time, be prepared to see a lot of memes like this. Click for a better look.

Whether Christianity is a copycat of pagan mystery religions is no longer discussed in the academic world.  The debate is over.  As I stated above, Christianity grew from the followers of Jesus of Nazareth, who was a Jew from Judea, like his followers, the first Christians.

Unfortunately, due to the Internet Misinformation Age, conspiracy documentaries like Zeitgeist, and even (going back a few years) Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code, and even TV personality and outspoken atheist Bill Maher, this myth that Christianity is just a photocopy of pagan myths is still meandering around like a zombie even though it’s long been dead.

But what about some of the things involved in Easter that do appear to come from pagan cultures?  Like eggs?  And bunnies?  Aren’t eggs and bunnies symbols of fertility in pagan cultures?  And what about the word “Easter” itself – where does that come from?  And, while we’re at it, what about Christmas trees?  And where did the date December 25th come from since the Bible doesn’t say the exact date Jesus was born?  In fact, what about some of the things that the Catholic Church practices that sure seem pagan in origin?

rabbit-easter-eggs

Is this the face of the dark underbelly of Christian history?

FIRST, A FEW WORDS ABOUT CATHOLICISM

There are quite a few accusations out there about the Catholic Church adopting many pagan rituals, symbols, and practices.  The Protestant Reformers broke away from the Catholic Church in the 1500’s and declared Sola Scriptura (“by Scripture alone”) because the Catholic Church holds to many practices not found in the Bible.  Whether the Catholic Church has or has not adopted some practices with pagan origins I do not know and it will not be explored here.  Here, I am concerned with the Protestant branch of Christianity and, even more specifically, with Christianity unapologetically dedicated to Sola Scriptura.

THE ORIGIN OF “EASTER”

The reason why Christians celebrate Easter is clear.  Christians believe that God, in order to solve the problem of sin eternally separating us from him, became a man –  Jesus of Nazareth – lived a perfect, sinless life that none of us could live, and then willingly died on a cross to take the punishment we deserve.  Then, three days later, Jesus rose from the dead, as he predicted, to confirm his identify and his message.  Forgiveness of our sins, a free gift from God, is not deserved or earned by anyone; all we can do – as with all gifts – is accept it.  To accept God’s free gift of salvation is to repent of your sins and accept Jesus as your Lord and Savior, believing in his redeeming work.

This is the good news of Jesus Christ.  This is the Gospel.  This is reason to celebrate.

This is clear.

 

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Now, what isn’t so clear is finding solid answers to questions about eggs, rabbits, and the word “Easter.”  Where there is definitely a lot of material available to refute the theory that Christianity has pagan roots (this will be covered in a future article), I’ve so far found information specifically about Easter hard to come by.  Perhaps the reason for this is simply because there isn’t enough hard evidence out there for a lot to be written about it.  (I’ve run into a similar challenge with researching the December 25th date for Christmas.  Click here to read the best explanations I’ve found so far.)

DOES THE ACTUAL WORD “EASTER” HAVE PAGAN ROOTS?

The first known claim that the word “Easter” comes from the name of a pagan goddess is by English monk Venerable Bede (673-735), writer of the first history of Christianity in England and whose writings are the main source of information about early Anglo-Saxon culture.  He wrote that “Easter” comes from the pagan fertility goddess Eostre.

Much later, another claim that “Easter” has pagan origins says the word comes from the Babylonian goddess Astarte, who is called Ishtar in Assyria.  This theory seems to have been started by Alexander Hislop (1807-1865), a minister of the Free Church of Scotland, in his book The Two Babylons.

So, here we have two Christians claiming the name “Easter” comes from pagan goddesses.

Case closed, right?

Well, no.

First, notice they don’t agree with each other.  That’s the first sign that something is wrong.

Next, the big problem with Bede’s claim is that there is no evidence anywhere outside of his writing of an Anglo-Saxon goddess called Eostre.  Further, there’s no evidence of the goddess in Norse or Germanic paganism either.

Moreover, Hislop’s claims have also been shown to be unfounded by scholars.  Hislop was a vehement critic of the Catholic Church and seems to have been a 19th Century conspiracy theorist long before the current heyday of Internet nuts that somehow see conspiracies in every possible place imaginable.  (Had someone been able to get Hislop a really powerful wireless connection to the 21st Century, it sounds like he would’ve fit right in.)

Hislop makes many of the same errors as those who try to promote the Christian/pagan copycat theories today (more about this in a future article), making large jumps in logic to try to show connections where none exist and basing much of his theory simply on the idea that if words sound similar, they must be related.  This overlooks the fact that many languages that have no influence on each other make similar sounds.

ANOTHER THEORY

So, is there another theory of the origin of the word “Easter” – one that has nothing to do with paganism?

I’m not a linguist, but I do have a basic understanding of the evolution of the English language and knowledge of the history of the translation of the Bible from the original languages of ancient Hebrew and Greek into early English.  This helped with understanding this theory.

FIRST, A BRIEF LESSON ON THE HISTORY OF THE ENGLISH LANGUAGE

The modern English language is a Germanic language, a branch of the Indo-European language family, so it is related to other modern languages such as German, Dutch, Yiddish, and Norwegian.  So far, English has moved through 3 major stages of development:

Old English, Middle English, and Modern English.

One may think that English-speakers today could read Old English, but Old English is nothing like English today; though related to Modern English it is, for all practical uses, another language.  The epic poem Beowulf (written about 1,000 years ago) was originally written in Old English.

OldEnglish_Beowulf

Old English on the left. Modern translation on right. Click on pic for a much better view.

Middle English is closer to the English we use today, so if you were to read, say, The Canterbury Tales (written in Medieval England) in the original Middle English, you may recognize many words, probably even be able to figure out the meaning of some sentences, but it is still essentially a different (though related) language.

MiddleEnglish

Example of Middle English. Click for a better view.

Finally, we get to Modern English, what we speak today.  Despite what some who bemoan the difficultly of reading Shakespeare think, Shakespeare, in fact, wrote and spoke in Modern English.

HE IS RISEN!  HAPPY “ESTER”!

The theory about the origin of the word “Easter” says Old English (also called the Anglo-Saxon language) is the origin of the word.

Jesus Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection took place during the Jewish Passover, and early Christians appear to have simply referred to this time in the same terms – meaning they referred to what we call Easter today as Passover.  So, in a way, we could say early Christians simply thought of Jesus’ death and resurrection as the Christian Passover.

The Hebrew word for Passover is pesach from the verb pasach, to pass over.  When the Old Testament was translated into the Greek, it remained basically the same, pascha.  The punk rock, power-to-the-people John Wycliffe (1330-1384), who translated the first English Bible in 1382 (getting him declared a heretic), continued to use a form of the same word pascha (pask, paske) in his translation for the word Passover.

But when the equally punk rock William Tyndale (1494-1539) produced the first printed English Bible (which got him strangled and burned on a stake), he used the most common word of his native language of Old English for Passover, Ester.  Germans used the word Oster or Ostern for Passover, such as when Martin Luther (1483-1546) first translated the Bible into German in 1545.

So, where Tyndale used the English Ester, Luther used the German Oster.  Sounds a lot like the Modern English word Easter, doesn’t it?

Thus, the word “Easter” comes from the Germanic language, from the Old English word meaning Passover.

What makes more sense: Christians, who are often criticized by pluralists and polytheists for holding strictly to biblical teachings, for declaring their faith as being the one true religion and all others as false, would borrow and absorb into their strictly monotheistic faith other religions?  Or the word “Easter” simply comes from a natural progression of the ever-changing English language?

ONE LAST POINT

The Anglo-Saxon and Germanic culture may have influenced the word we use today to refer to the celebration of Christ’s death and resurrection, but there is no possibility that those cultures influenced, inspired, or originated the celebration itself.  The Nordic and Germanic people, including Anglo-Saxons, were not introduced to Christianity until almost 600 AD.  There is undeniable evidence that the Christian Passover/Easter/Resurrection celebration was practiced in the Second Century, and even evidence of it as early as the First Century.

CONCLUSION

So, next time someone says the word “Easter” has pagan roots, tell them that this is far from conclusive, and more likely, it’s simply the Old English word for the Passover, which is when Christ was crucified and resurrected.

*Read PART 2 here: Is there a connection between Jesus and pagan gods? and PART 3 here: Aren’t Easter eggs & Christmas trees pagan?

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