The various comments about pagan origins of the virgin birth, Christmas, etc., are examples of the fallacy called in formal logic post hoc, ergo propter hoc, “After which, hence by which.” The Christian event occurred after the pagan event, so it must have been copied from the pagan event.
Holy Mother Church exists to make us saints. Sometimes she uses pagan metaphors to teach pagans the Gospel in ways that they understand. Sometimes she uses metaphors that pagans used for very different purposes. Sometimes she uses metaphors that pagans later adopted. And sometimes she uses metaphors that had no pagan origins but that someone later claimed as pagan. She stands on the solid historical evidence of Rabbi Yeshua’s life, death and resurrection, and on the continuous teaching of her core doctrines over two thousand years, not on whether some pagan once used or did not use a similar metaphor.
By that standard, the Torah was copied and adapted from the Code of Hammurabi. Hammurabi wrote his Code in Babylon about 1780 BC. It addresses many of the same issues as the Torah, which was written about 1200 BC. The Code of Hammurabi, like the Torah’s 613 mitzvot, deals with theft, agriculture (or shepherding), property damage, women’s rights, marriage rights, children’s rights, slave rights, murder, death, and injury. The Code of Hammurabi was displayed for all to see, and Moses read the Law to all of the people Israel. “Moses came and told the people all the words of the Lord and all the ordinances; and all the people answered with one voice, and said, ‘All the words which the Lord has spoken we will do.’ And Moses wrote all the words of the Lord” Lev 24:3.
The Code of Hammurabi was written in stone, so it would be unchangeable. The laws (numbered from 1 to 282, but numbers 13, and 66-99 are missing) are inscribed in Old Babylonian on an eight foot tall stela of black basalt currently on display at the Louvre Museum in Paris, France. The Ten Commandments, too, were written in stone. “The Lord said to Moses, ‘Come up to me on the mountain, and wait there; and I will give you the tables of stone, with the law and the commandment, which I have written for their instruction’” Ex 24:12.
Some Jews use evidence no better than that to declare that some Christian event is of pagan origin. Yet both Jews and Catholics know that the Torah was not an adaptation of the Code of Hammurabi. If the God of Israel did not exist, the whole history of the people Israel would be false. We have abundant evidence from the experience of our people that it is true.
In the same way, it has been widely observed that Rabbi Yeshua was born in an obscure village and grew up in another obscure village. He was a carpenter until he was thirty and then for three years an itinerant preacher. He never owned a home, raised a family, set foot in a big city, or traveled as much as two hundred miles from where he was born. He never held an office or wrote a book. His friends ran away. His enemies tried him and had him nailed to a cross between two thieves. After he died, he was taken down and placed in a borrowed tomb. If ever an ancient man was destined for obscurity, this was the man.
Yet twenty centuries have passed since that time. Nearly two billion people in every country on earth revere him as the living Christ. From an airplane flying over North America, South America, Europe, Africa and Australia, we can see church steeples holding high the cross of Christ in every city and town and village. No one else’s name is on so many buildings. No one else’s birthday is so widely or joyfully celebrated. The power of Christ’s divinity split not only the Temple curtain Mt 27:51 but history itself: Every event in the world is dated so many years before his coming, or so many years after his coming.
Is there any other example, anywhere in the world and at any time in history, of so obscure a man dying so obscure a death who has become so well known and loved?
So let us respect one another’s Scriptures as authentic history.
A less well known but related fallacy is cum hoc ergo propter hoc, “with which hence by which.” Sometimes the similar pagan tradition had more recent origins than the Christian event. We often hear that December 25 is the Christianization of a Roman feast, Dies Natalis Solis Invicti (Nativity of the Invincible Sun). However, that feast was instituted by Emperor Aurelian in AD 274. The earliest evidence we have that Christians celebrated Rabbi Yeshua’s birth on December 25 appears in AD 336. But that does not tell us when the celebrations began.
Second Exodus explains the Christmas dates.
Ash Wednesday as a time of penitence, with ashes on the forehead as its principal sign, actually originated among the ancient Hebrews, though in different forms.
Initial Appearance in a Historical Document
Ash Wednesday in its present form dates, as far as we know, back to about AD 900. But it may have been in use as Ash Wednesday centuries earlier. The first time we’ve seen something in a historical document sets a “no later than” date for the practice, but it may have been in force for centuries before that. The word Catholic itself first appeared in St. Ignatius of Antioch’s Epistle to the Smyrnaeans, chapter 8, about AD 107. “Wherever the bishop shall appear, there let the multitude [of the people] also be; even as, wherever Jesus Christ is, there is the Catholic Church.” But there are reasons to believe it was in use much earlier.
Ashes as a Sign of Penitence
The use of ashes as a sign of penance goes far back into the Old Testament. In Biblical Hebrew, an ish was a man. Ancient Hebrew conveyed “all men” as adam. An isha was a woman. “Eve” comes from khava, the mother of all living. Together, Adam and Khava were our first parents. Esh, from the same Hebrew root as ish and isha, was fire, suggesting the fiery love of a husband and wife in the heat of passion. And what is left after the ish and isha have been in the esh of passion? The ashes, the time of quiet reflection.
God’s terrifying denial of body immortality to man was, “You are dust, and to dust you shall return” Gen 3:19. The Hebrew words for dust and ashes are nearly the same. Afaris dust and efer is ashes. The first Hebrew letter of afar is an ayin, while the first Hebrew letter of efer is an aleph.
God commanded the man clothed in linen, “Go through the city, through Jerusalem, and put a mark upon the foreheads of the men who sigh and groan over all the abominations that are committed in it” Ezek 9:4. The Hebrew word for “mark” in that verse is tav, the last letter of the Hebrew alphabet, which in ancient Hebrew was written + as a cross.
Just as the man clothed in linen, a type of Rabbi Yeshua Mt 27:59, marked the tav on the foreheads of the remnant of Israel to save them, destruction, so on Ash Wednesday each priest marks a cross in ashes on the foreheads of his congregation. Ash Wednesday begins Lent, the season of preparation for the Paschal Triduum when Rabbi Yeshua completed his Final Sacrifice on the Cross to offer us salvation. This is by far the most probable origin of Ash Wednesday.
Paschal Triduum is the most sacred three days in the Church calendar, from Holy Thursday sundown to Easter Sunday sundown. The Church’s Triduum liturgy follows the Hebrew calendar, so that Good Friday, Holy Saturday, and Easter Sunday each begin at sundown on the preceding day. The same is true for all Sundays and Holy Days of Obligation, so that we may attend either the anticipatory Mass the night before or the Mass on the day itself. However, for obligations such as Sunday abstinence from work or Friday abstinence from meat, the Church calendar runs from midnight to midnight.
The Old Testament
In the Old Testament we find Abraham’s cry, ”Behold, I have taken upon myself to speak to the Lord, I who am but dust and ashes” Gen 18:27. Ashes, of course, are a public sign that, after a time of fiery activity we are returning to humble obedience. Rabbi Eliyahu Hoffman explains how Abraham’s sign of dust and ashes led ancient Israel straight to the parah adumah (red heifer), one of the karbanot, offerings for the forgiveness of sins necessary for holy communion with God, just as Ash Wednesday is the front entrance to Lent, which prepares us for Holy Communion with the Risen Rabbi Yeshua.
From the sages’ reflections on Abraham’s cry of dust and ashes emerged the placing of ashes on the forehead as a sign of penance. “And Tamar put ashes on her head, and rent the long robe which she wore; and she laid her hand on her head, and went away, crying aloud as she went” 2 Sam 13:19. The deuterocanonical writings contain a similar reference. “And all the men and women of Israel, and their children, living at Jerusalem, prostrated themselves before the temple and put ashes on their heads and spread out their sackcloth before the Lord” Judith 4:11.
The New Testament
The Gospels show us that sackcloth and ashes for penitence were also recognized in Rabbi Yeshua‘s time Mt 11:21; Lk 10:13. And the Book of Hebrews recognized the parah adumah, purification by the ashes of a red heifer Heb 9:13.
Second Exodus View
Second Exodus firmly holds that the name Easter comes by way of the Hebrew pesakh, Passover. When God instructed his people Israel, he called it Pesakh L’Adonai, the Passover of the Lord Ex 12:11. The Septuagint transliterated Pesakh directly into Greek as pascha. When Rabbi Yeshua rose from the tomb Mt 28:6 it confirmed him as the Son of God, but the early Christians continued to call the whole experience of Rabbi Yeshua’s death and Resurrection the Paschal Triduum. Even today we speak of the Church’s § 571 “Paschal mystery.”
The English language came originally from the Anglo-Saxon spoken in England shortly after Rabbi Yeshua’s life, death and Resurrection. Our word Easter is of Saxon origin. Its German cognate, Ostern, comes from the old Teutonic Auferstehung, Resurrection. Its modern form, auferstehn, literally means “rise again.” Ostern, is related to Ost, which in German means the rising of the sun, and in English, east.
The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church
The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church says, “The derivation of the name ‘Easter’ is uncertain. Acc. to *Bede, it is connected with an Anglo-Saxon spring goddess ‘Eostre’. At any rate it seems clear that, as in the ease of Christmas (q.v.), the Christian feast of Easter has superseded an old pagan festival. The popular custom of exchanging ‘Easter eggs’ is of very ancient origin.”
One argument often advanced for a pagan view is that Easter is often associated with rabbits, baby chickens, eggs and the like. Pagans say these are fertility symbols, therefore it’s a pagan holiday. However, after a long winter when nature in most climates is, in a sense, asleep, it becomes fertile in the spring. These are, therefore, all spring symbols. Rabbi Yeshua’s Final Sacrifice is associated with the Passover sacrifice which by God’s command occurs each year on the Hebrew calendar date 14 nisan Ex 12:6.
We may speculate that God intentionally chose a spring date for the Passover as a mercy to his people Israel. As reflection on Blessed Virgin Mary ’s visitation to Elizabeth reminds us, in that part of the world winter is a time of strong rainstorms. A winter journey on foot from Egypt to Mt. Sinai with all that the Israelites were carrying with them would have been extremely difficult. By summer the sunbaked desert would also have been extremely difficult. But spring was a time when the air was dry and temperatures were moderate, a perfect time for the journey. God also foreknew that he would make Passover a pilgrim festival, when Jews living hundreds of miles away would have to come to Jerusalem for the festival. He knew that he would offer his second national revelation to the Jewish nation and willed that all the world’s Jews be present for it. For all of these reasons a spring date for Rabbi Yeshua’s Final Sacrifice and Resurrection would also have been perfect.
Some atheists say that Easter comes from an Akkadian goddess, “Ishtar.” Ishtar was of Akkadian origin. Akkadian was a Semitic language spoken in Mesopotamia (Iraq and Syria) from about 2,800 BC to AD 500. By contrast, Easter most likely has Anglo-Saxon origins. The words may sound similar, but that does not imply similarity of meaning.
Atheists then went back to work and found that the Venerable Bede (AD 673-735) Anglo-Saxon goddess story about a goddess Eostre. Do words that sound alike imply the same meaning? Consider the English words run and fast. Everyone knows run as what a clock does, run as what a river does, run as what a horse does, run as what a ferry does, runas what a lease does, run as what a child’s nose does, and run as what a stocking does. Everyone knows fast as something we do on Good Friday, fast as a rate of speed, fast as tending toward immoral behavior, and fast as in colors that stay true. Most people can easily handle even compound homonymic expressions: “He runs fast, or, “He runs with a fast crowd.” These are words spelled and pronounced the same in the same language at the same time that are obviously not similar in meaning.
The Idea of Resurrection
Atheists often then say that the early Christians copied the idea of resurrection itself. There were said to be Greek or Roman myths of men who died and then rose again, but it is not likely the Jews were familiar with them. Less than 200 years earlier Antiochus IV had prohibited Judaism itself and desecrated the Temple, many Jews lost their lives in the three years of persecutions that followed. The Romans held Israel captive during Rabbi Yeshua’s incarnate life. Jews of that era were not very receptive to Greek or Roman culture or mythology. Certainly the idea of consuming God’s body and blood were unknown to the Jews. “The Jews then disputed among themselves, saying, ‘How can this man give us his flesh to eat?’” Jn 6:52. When Rabbi Yeshua completed his explanation the Jews said, “This is a hard saying; who can listen to it?” Jn 6:60.
When the high priestly family, the wisest and most knowledgeable men among the Jews, gathered in Jerusalem, speaking of Rabbi Yeshua’s Resurrection, they said to one another, “What shall we do with these men? For that a notable sign has been performed through them is manifest to all the inhabitants of Jerusalem, and we cannot deny it” Acts 4:16.
Holy Mother Church Uses Metaphors
Let’s look at a modern case to see how older metaphors can be used to explain things or events that are authentically new.
During the mid-twentieth century most people stored information in metal file cabinets. Each individual paper document was called a file. Related groups of paper documents were stored in manila folders.
Then computer companies introduced the radically different paradigm of digital information storage using streams of 0’s and 1’s. They could have called each single document a digital stream and groups of them digital stream aggregations. But they called individual documents files, and related groups of documents folders. The computer files were not groups of papers stapled together, and the folders were not folded as manila folders were. But these familiar metaphors helped people understand the new paradigm. No one says computers are not really digital because they use paper metaphors.
Holy Mother Church exists to make us saints. Sometimes she uses pagan metaphors to teach pagans the Gospel in ways that they understand. Sometimes she uses metaphors that the pagans used for very different purposes. Sometimes she uses metaphors that pagans later adopted. And sometimes she uses metaphors that had no pagan origins but that someone later claimed as pagan. She stands on the solid historical evidence of Rabbi Yeshua‘s life, death and resurrection, and on the continuous teaching of her core doctrines over two thousand years, not on whether some pagan once used a similar metaphor.