The Secret History of Easter

What do the Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science and the far-right conspiracy-driven Last Trumpet Ministries have in common? Both insist that Christians who celebrate Easter are actually performing a Babylonian fertility ritual. 

Last year, the Dawkins Foundation posted an Internet meme claiming that Easter is named after the Babylonian goddess Ishtar, which was dragged out again by contrarians who reposted it to remind everyone what Easter is reallyabout. This secret history of Easter is a bit like the childhood myth that consuming Pop Rocks and Coke at the same time causes your stomach to explode: It doesn’t matter if it’s true, it’s fun to tell people because it makes you feel smart. These smug proclamations are not only irritating, they’re a disturbing index of our level of discourse about religion. Surrounding the Easter/Ishtar conspiracy theory is a toxic brew of anti-intellectualism, heresiological claims masquerading as historical ones, and simple sadism and incivility facilitated by new media.

Last year, a blog called Bell Jar wrote a nice piece qualifying and largely debunking the claim that Easter is a Pagan holiday. It is true that the English word Eastertakes its name from a Germanic goddess. (The Romance languages use some form of the Latin Pascha,which is derived from the Hebrew Pesachmeaning Passover.) It’s also true that Pagan fertility customs used in vernal equinox celebrations (eggs and rabbits) were incorporated into Easter festivities. 

But Christians are hardly ignorant of this history. As early as the Protestant Reformation there were debates about purging Pagan elements from Easter. Furthermore, the idea that Pagan influences somehow supersede Easter’s significance as a commemoration of Christ’s death and resurrection is patently absurd. However, the Bell Jar piece is still generating comments claiming that Easter really is about Ishtar. Lengthy diatribes invoke the Indo-Aryan migration, archaeogenetics,and theories about Proto-Indo-European dawn goddesses (Any and all citations are from Wikipedia).

New Testament scholars have noted that since The DaVinci Code became a cultural phenomenon, there’s been a surge of conspiratorial claims about Jesus, the early church, and the influence of Pagan mystery religions. Authors such as Craig Evans and Bart Ehrman have written with bewilderment at the revival of mythicisttheories of Jesus and nineteenth-century philosophical hokumthat was long ago dismissed by serious scholars who read Greek and Hebrew.

All religious traditions change over time. However, to tell people of a different religion that they don’t know what their religious rituals actually mean is ipso facto not a historical argument but a sectarian one. The claim that Christians unknowingly practice a Pagan mystery religion has a long history combining sectarian claims with goofy pseudo-scholarship. It was Protestant Reformers, in fact, who first accused their Catholic rivals of adulterating Christianity with Paganism. 

However, it was during the French Revolution that the mythicistclaims first surfaced. Constantin Francois Volney, in his 1791 essay Ruins of Empire,claimed that all religions are derived from sun worship and that Christis cognate with the Hindu Krishna. Charles Francois-Dupuis built on this idea in The Origins of All Religions (1795) and introduced discussion of Babylonian religion, including the resurrected god Tammuz. 

Since the eighteenth century, mythicists have gotten even lazier about their use of similar-sounding words as arguments. Contemporary mythicist Archarya S. claims that the theological position that Jesus is the son of Godproves that Jesus is actually the sun;that the word gospelis derived from ‘God’s spell’ as in magic, hypnosis and delusion,and that Peter is not the rock but the cock or penis of the Church. These nonsensical claims make the Ishtar/Easter argument seem sensible by comparison.

These kinds of arguments are politically useful to anti-clerical movements like the French Revolution (and Lenin, who became a mythicist after reading Arthur Drew’s The Christ Myth). But they’re especially popular with right-wing Protestant conspiracy theorists, such as Jack Chick, who claims that Catholic communion wafers are actually “death cookies” that take their shape from Egyptian sun worship. The Dawkins Foundation’s claim about Easter being a survival of the cult of Ishtar was also promoted by Final Trumpet Ministries founder David J. Meyer who also claimed that the architecture of Manhattan is modeled after Stonehenge and is likewise a form of Pagan idolatry hidden in plain sight.

What does it mean when New Atheists and far-right evangelicals spout the same conspiracy theories while actual New Testament scholars are ignored? There are at least four factors to blame for how the Ishtar/Easter conspiracy theory is invoked. 

Joseph Laycock is an assistant professor of religious studies at Texas State University. His forthcoming books include The Seer of Bayside: Veronica Lueken and the Struggle for Catholic Tradition (Oxford University Press, 2014) and Dangerous Games: What the Moral Panic Over Role-Playing Games Says About Religion, Play, and Imagined Worlds (University of California Press, 2015).

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