Monday, May 19, 2014

Ishtar ≠ Easter: Stop Getting your History from Internet Memes Richard Dawkins

The source of my annoyance today: The Richard Dawkins Foundation Facebook page.  Here’s a meme I wouldn’t mind if I never saw again.  (Thank’s Richard for exposing it to over 75,000 people and contributing to its being shared by 195,000.)


First, let’s review why this piece of puerility has zero correspondence with historical reality. Second, I have a brief sermon to those in the Hebrew Roots movement who most often spread this nonsense:

1)   Is the name Ishtar pronounced Easter?  No.  Here are the vocalizations of the goddess collected from the primary texts within the Brill Dictionary of Deities and Demons in the Bible:

If Easter isn’t a Semitic word what is its etymology?  The answer is Proto-Germanic (if you buy Bede’s highly problematic explanation) or more likely Latin. (Sorry if that bores you.)

2) Are bunnies and eggs symbols of Ishtar?  Nope.  Her primary symbol in the iconography is Venus.  When I recently visited the Oriental Institute, I photographed this image of a lion representing the goddess from the Ishtar Gate.


The lion is one of her most commonly associated symbols from the third-millennium onwards.  The two objects in her hands in the meme are probably a symbol of a ruler and a rope—ANE icons of sovereignty.  There is also a famous Gilgamesh passage that associates her lovers with lions, steeds, a certain variegated bird, and shepherds.  I have never seen an image or text which associates her with bunnies or eggs.  Those symbols have different historical origins.  As a side note, I suppose one could argue the “grass of life” utilized to revive Ishtar’s corpse in the underworld by the fly-like kurgarru and kalaturru might be an etiological candidate for that plastic Easter grass that stops up your vacuum cleaner belt…Perhaps this could be a good thesis for Acharya S.’ next book. (Just make sure I get credit for first thinking of it.)

3) Was Easter a pagan holiday that was Christianized?  The reality is much more boring.  Easter was a development out of the Jewish Passover festival.  To be sure, pagan and secular elements were added, but these were prior additions to the existing holiday and not the origin of the holiday as Gene Vieth of Patrick Henry College mentions here.

The meme claims that Constantine (*groan* Why does Constantine always have to be the deus ex machina of every Christian conspiracy theory?) invented Easter as a Christian holiday.  This is dalse considering the Roman bishop Victor was already riling up arguments over the two diverging dates of Easter in the late 2nd century (cf. Eusebius, Church History 5.23.3).  How exactly did Constantine invent Easter if Christians were already arguing about its proper celebration date over a century before he was born?

A word to the Hebrew roots movement:

Does it really make sense to argue that Christians should not make use of symbols with pagan origins or associations when Christians are either: a) totally unaware of a symbol’s history, or b) using the symbol with no pagan (or completely different) intentions?  My problem with the Hebrew roots movement is that the standard of purity it uses to beat up Christian holidays and symbols cannot even be applied to the Bible.  I’ll give you some examples:

John uses a snake as a symbol for Jesus (John 3:14); it is well known that many of the Biblical proverbs have Egyptian origins and influences (If you don’t believe this you simply haven’t ever picked up an academic commentary on Proverbs.); psalm 104 is very reminiscent of an earlier hymn to Aten; psalm 29 seems to be modeled after Baal texts (for example); both Jesus and YHWH are given the Baal’s deity title “cloud-rider” in both testaments. (Here’s an M.A. Thesis on this); or consider that the book of Revelation is crawling with Greco-Roman astrology. (Ever read Revelation 12?)

What examples like these show is that symbols are not magically evil.  John uses a snake to represent Jesus and it’s totally kosher in his mind.  We talk about Jesus “riding on the clouds” and it’s not an issue that this was a title that originally belonged to Baal.  The history of a symbol or its uses in pagan contexts doesn’t make it evil or unusable by Christians, it’s the intention behind the symbol that makes it good or bad.