A few months back, I talked about those “He Gets Us” ads that try to make Jesus seem super cool. And a lot of you wanted me to know that I made a huge mistake: Jesus never actually existed. The writers of the New Testament just…made him up out of whole cloth. Huh.
That’s not actually true: it’s one of those little “fun facts” that atheists and other non-Christians pass around completely uncritically. I understand why, since I was raised as a Christian and when I grew up and realized it was all just a modern myth, I assumed everything I was taught was a lie. Jesus didn’t have supernatural powers…in fact I bet he didn’t even exist! Sure.
But this is a topic that actual historians have looked into, and the vast majority of Biblical scholars, both Christian and otherwise, overwhelmingly agree that Jesus most likely existed. Bart Ehrman, an antiquities scholar who has written about this question many times, points out that there are about 30 independent sources. He writes:
“We have four narrative accounts of Jesus’ life and death, written by different people at different times and in different places, based on numerous sources that no longer survive. Jesus was not invented by Mark. He was also known to Matthew, Luke, and John, and to the sources which they used (Q, M, L, and the various sources of John).
“All of this was within the first century.
“This is not to mention sources from outside the New Testament that know that Jesus was a historical figure – for example, 1 Clement and the documents that make up the Didache. Or — need I say it? – every other author of the New Testament (there are sixteen NT authors altogether, so twelve who did not write Gospels), none of whom knew any of the Gospels (except for the author of 1, 2, and 3 John who may have known the fourth Gospel).
“By my count that’s something like twenty-five authors, not counting the authors of the sources (another six or seven) on which the Gospels were based (and the sources on which the book of Acts was based, which were different again).”
He goes on to describe more of the evidence, but I’ll leave it at that for now. Even people who argue that Jesus didn’t exist, like Bob Price, admit that they are in the minority of historians who support a fringe theory.
I was thinking about this recently because this weekend is Easter, a holiday that I honestly really like. Yeah, I’m an atheist, but I have really sweet memories of celebrating Easter as a kid: a basket full of fake pink grass, a big chocolate egg filled with M&Ms, running around outside finding the eggs we decorated, and I even enjoyed going to church because I got new white patent leather shoes that I would inevitably get grass stains on. And I love the idea of welcoming spring, and even the metaphor that Jesus’s story offers, of rebirth and forgiveness and love. It’s all pretty nice considering the fact that the holiday kind of centers on torturing a guy to death. I guess the morbid part of me likes that, too.
But just like a lot of atheists uncritically believe that Jesus never even existed, a lot of them also have some unsupported ideas about the holiday celebrating his supposed death and resurrection.
Just like with Christmas, Easter has become less of a religious holiday and more of a commercial holiday over the decades. Walk into any Walgreens this weekend and you’ll see all the stuff I still like to celebrate: bunnies, chicks, eggs, chocolate, flowers, and pastel colors galore. What does any of that have to do with Jesus? And just like with Christmas, the easy answer is “the pagans”! As I mentioned in a video last year, all successful religions “borrow” from other religions in order to get popular or stay relevant, and the Christians did get a lot of stuff from the religions of the people they took over.
So it seems like a good story that we call it “Easter” and do weird pagan stuff because the holiday is REALLY based on a prior god, like, say Ishtar. That kinda sounds like Easter, right? And apparently there’s a meme that goes around this time of year claiming that there’s tons of evidence for this connection, though I only saw the version that has already been corrected by an Assyriologist named Megan Lewis: Ishtar is pronounced “Ishtar,” not “Easter,” she was the goddess of warfare, not fertility, and her symbols were the lion and the star, not the egg and bunny, but besides that I’m sure that meme is totally correct.
Seeing that reminded me that I always heard that Easter’s pagan origins actually point to a goddess called Eostre, or Ostara. The story I heard was that there was a bird who laid beautiful eggs, but her bragging about it caused the goddess Ostara to turn her into a hare. The now-hare was so upset that Ostara felt bad, and so gave her the ability to lay her colorful eggs once per year in Ostara’s honor.
The only problem with that story? It’s (probably) not true. In fact, while atheists often falsely claim that there are no real contemporaneous sources that point to the existence of Jesus, we could accurately say that about the Ostara story. Like, we have pretty much no evidence that Ostara ever existed. I mean, obviously she never existed, she’s a magical goddess, but I mean we have scant evidence that anyone actually believed in, worshiped, or even wrote stories about any goddess named Ostara or Eostre or anything similar, and we have no evidence that she is connected in any way to our present day Easter traditions.
I’ll admit that I fully bought into the Ostara story and I was honestly shocked to learn that this story has only one single source, and it’s NOT from anyone who worshiped her, and maybe not even someone who lived in a time when anyone worshiped her. We know of Ostara only because of an 8th century English Christian monk named Bede, who wrote that the local pagans used to hold festivals in Ostara’s honor each Spring, but that with the Christianization of the area, the practice died out before his time. That’s it! A THOUSAND YEARS LATER, Jacob Grimm (of the famous Brothers) took that description and ran with it, asserting with no evidence that Ostara’s festivals directly connect with Easter and are the reason why we do so much weird shit to celebrate Jesus dying, like how we all love to eat “pastry of heathenish form.” That’s a direct quote from Grimm’s Deutsche Mythologie, and FYI it is now a permanent part of my family’s Easter traditions.
“This binding on of the ‘Easter seax’, or sword-knife, leads us to infer that a sword of peculiar antique shape was retained; as the Easter scones, ôsterstuopha (RA. 298) and moonshaped ôstermâne (Brem. wtb.) indicate pastry of heathenish form.”
Note that in the late 19th century, 150 inscriptions were found in Germany that related to three goddesses that seem to have been known as the Matronae Austriahenae , which linguists say could be related to Ostara, but there’s no proof of it.
With that in mind, maybe this goddess DID exist as a thing that some pagans worshiped, and maybe Bede was right that they held festivals in the spring in her honor, but we have no evidence that any of that is at all connected to present day Easter traditions, especially considering that even Bede said it died out before even his time. It seems that the idea of Easter being based on ancient pagan rites started in the early 19th century with Grimm. If you’d like to know more, Stephen Winick at the Library of Congress went down the, er, rabbit hole on the history of this misconception.
So, why DO we eat eggs laid by bunnies to celebrate a demigod being tortured and killed every spring? Well, it’s probably because all the things we associate with Easter are associated with spring in general, and with rebirth, which is the entire theme of the Christian holiday: eggs have been a symbol of rebirth for at least two thousand years, rabbits emerge into people’s gardens in the spring, lambs are born in the spring, and as for where the bunny laying the egg came from, nobody really knows! But English folklorist Richard Sermon came up with a guess that I quite like, which is that “a hare’s scratch or form and a lapwing’s nest look very similar, and
both occur on grassland and are first seen in the spring.” Maybe it all started with one hilarious parent pulling a prank on their kids.
To sum up, Jesus was probably real even if he probably wasn’t magical, Easter traditions are weird but probably not based on a pagan goddess named Eostre, or an Assyrian goddess named Ishtar, and the real holiday we should all be celebrating anyway is the day after Easter Sunday, known to the ancient pagans as “Half-priced Candy Day.” Amen.