Spring is here again, and we all have reason to enjoy the season. But judging from the press, the weeks following the vernal equinox appear to be the almost exclusive property of those who believe that a savior-god rose from the dead.
We are not all Christians. The "resurrection" of the soil, sun, and the vitality of life have been celebrated since long before biblical times. Christians have simply borrowed most of these pagan fertility rituals for themselves.
"Easter" was a pagan spring goddess (Eastre, Astara), and inadvertently became inseparable from Christianity because of a King James mistranslation of "Passover" (pascha) in Acts 12:4. Easter bunnies, eggs, and cuddly chicks point to animal fecundity, and flowers such as the Easter Lily symbolize the long-awaited renewal of the earth.
Most ancient cultures, dependent on crops, had a concept of the death of the old year and the resurrection of the new. Many symbolized this cycle with animal sacrifice. A few groups sacrificed humans, and some even executed the king. Jews and Christians copied this idea of blood sacrifice to appease the fickle deities.
Chrishna was a Hindu god born Dec. 25 to a royal virgin named Maia and adopted by a father who was a carpenter. Since 1200 BC his followers celebrated his crucifixion, resurrection and ascension. Tammuz of Syria rose from the dead for the salvation of the world. Prometheus (547 BC) was nailed by the hands and feet to Mount Caucasus, with arms extended, and resurrected after a great earthquake. The Persian sun god Mithra (born Dec. 25 of a virgin, worshiped by first-century Roman soldiers) was executed and rose from the dead. It is easy to see that the Jesus story was cut from the same fabric as these ancient fertility myths.
There is no historical confirmation for the Christian resurrection outside the New Testament in the first century. The earliest possible (and quite dubious) extrabiblical mention of Christianity comes from Tacitus in the 2nd century, and he ignores the resurrection altogether. (The much heralded paragraph in Josephus was a 4th-century Christian interpolation.)
About 180 AD the highly respected Church father Irenaeus wrote that Jesus was not crucified, but lived to be about 50 years old.
The biblical resurrection accounts are wildly contradictory. Christian scholar A. E. Harvey said "it is impossible to fit their accounts together into a single coherent scheme." Albert Schweitzer said "[t]here is nothing more negative than the result of the critical study of the life of Jesus."
How many of us on the eve of the 21st century believe that dead bodies emerged from the graveyards of Jerusalem, as Matthew reports happened at the crucifixion, parading around like the Living Dead? Such an event should have caught the attention of someone.
And what about the reported darkness at the crucfixion? Passover is near the full moon: a solar eclipse can only occur during the new moon.
Mythology aside, Christians and non-Christians alike have plenty to celebrate this season: another year of promise, opportunity, and joy. Spring is here, and life is good!
Dan Barker is the author of Losing Faith In Faith: From Preacher To Atheist and works for the Freedom From Religion Foundation in Madison, Wisconsin.