Did Christians steal Easter and Jesus’ resurrection from pagan traditions and co-opt them as their own? This is the claim that is sometimes made by secularists in an attempt to dismiss Christianity as a myth.
But Dr. Candida Moss, a historian and a professor of New Testament and early Christianity at the University of Notre Dame, believes these accusations generally lack merit.
“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,” Moss wrote in a recent op-ed for CNN. “Don’t believe the hype.”
In the same article, Moss went on to explain that one of the biggest pieces of misinformation that is often spread on the Internet is that Easter stems from a celebration of an ancient Near Eastern fertility goddess named Ishtar — an allegation she flatly denied.
“This idea is grounded in the shared concept of new life and similar-sounding words Easter/Ishtar. There’s no linguistic connection, however,” she wrote. “Ishtar is Akkadian and Easter is likely to be Anglo-Saxon.”
That aside, Moss said that the biggest issue involving the Easter controversy is the charge that Christ’s resurrection — the central underpinning of the Christian faith — has pagan roots and was, thus, stolen. So, at issue is whether Jesus rising from the dead is truly a unique concept or one that was borrowed from previous cultures.
Moss argued that the idea of an individual rising from the dead really isn’t all that unique, though she noted that Jesus is different from others in that he purportedly came back to life and never died again.
The historian went on to present a list of mythical gods who had died and risen prior to Jesus’ life and death and said that while these stories have some similarities to accounts of Christ’s resurrection and sometimes serve as an unsettling comparison, she said there are numerous explanations to consider if one digs deeper.
She noted that lumping these past gods together with Christ doesn’t provide the opportunity to look at the differences between their back stories. While these gods were humans before they returned, Jesus was always believed to be God’s son, Moss wrote.
Additionally, the historian said that many of these alternative resurrection stories actually come from a time after Christianity emerged, making them poor examples when claiming that Christ’s resurrection was a stolen theological sentiment.
And, of course, there’s the question of whether Jesus’ followers would have even known about these previous stories about gods who had died and come back to life.
In an interview with TheBlaze this week, Moss further explained these ideas, noting that something doesn’t necessarily need to be wholly unique to be true.
“If the whole story is just a copy of ancient myth then yes that’s a problem for modern Christians,” she said. “Just because there were stories that are similar to the Jesus story doesn’t mean the resurrection didn’t happen, it just means that the idea of resurrection isn’t a uniquely Christian idea.”
Moss added, “What we should try to get away from is the notion that in order for something to be true it has to be completely unique.”
As far as the authenticity of Jesus’ resurrection goes, Moss said it’s clear that Jesus’ return to life was “one of the earliest proclamations” made about him. She added that it’s clear the disciples believed Jesus’ return had truly unfolded, adding that this is all historians can really say about it based on what’s known.
“Whether or not a person believes in the resurrection comes down to his or her personal religious commitments,” Moss said. “You might say that they were either hallucinating, misunderstanding what they were experiencing, lying, or witnesses to a miraculous world-altering event. At this point it’s really a question of ‘what do you believe?'”
Other faith experts and leaders weighed in on Moss’ comments about Jesus’ resurrection.
Theologian R.P. Nettelhorst told TheBlaze that he appreciated Moss’ article and its refutation “of the silliness from those who try to suggest that the death and resurrection of Jesus is simply ‘stolen’ or appropriated from Roman, Greek myths or the Mithras cult.”
Nettelhorst said that Moss was correct in pointing out differences that existed between Jesus’ story and that of figures in other traditions. He also claimed that it would have been unlikely that the disciples and others connected with Christ would have been influenced by these pagan stories.
“After all, the Jewish people of the first century — and Jesus and his followers were obviously Jewish — did not have a particularly positive relationship with Greek and Roman myth, culture or religion, especially after what Antiochus Epiphanes tried to do to the Jewish people that resulted in the Maccabean revolt less than two hundred years earlier,” he said.
Just because Jesus is said to have died and resurrected like other figures in previous stories, Nettelhorst said that this idea is not enough, in itself, to mean that past stories had any connection at all to what is presented in the Bible about Jesus’ death and return to life.
Pastor Phillip Dennis of New Hope Christian Church in Monsey, N.Y., agreed, calling Moss’ take “thought provoking” and explaining what he believes Jesus’ death and resurrection are unique.
“What makes the resurrection of Jesus uniquely important … is not the fact or idea of resurrection in general but the uniqueness of Jesus’ identity and his work to accomplish the salvation of his people through his death and resurrection,” Dennis said.
The pastor added that Christians believe Jesus’ death “signaled the start of a new age in which the punishment for sins has been exhausted for God’s people and God’s wrath against their sin has been extinguished.”
Dennis added that similarities observed between Jesus’ death and stories in other religious traditions can only be “superficial” and that both ancient literature and archaeology corroborate the biblical account.
Despite these claims, atheists regularly posit that Easter and Jesus’ resurrection are elements derived — or even stolen — from past tradition.
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