Happy Easter (and why ‘Good Friday’ is called good)

Happy Easter.

A friend recently shared a page on Facebook about how Easter was originally a pagan festival to the goddess Ishtar, which accounts for the chocolate and eggs.

Plausible, you might say, especially if you have read the Da Vinci Code.

Plausible, but entirely incorrect. I mention this, because it illuminates some of the difficulties modern people (or post-modern, if you like) have in coming to terms with something which is so radical that it is beyond revolutionary.

Let’s deal with the word ‘Easter’ first. Nobody really knows where it comes from. It enters written English through the venerable Bede, who comments in De Temporum Rationes that the Anglo-Saxon name for the month we call April is Eosturmonaþ, which he presumes to be a month in which the pagan Saxons held feasts in honour of Eostre. This had entirely died out — if it ever occurred — by his time, and the Christians used the word purely as a fixture in the calendar.

Was Bede right? Is this a fossil of a forgotten deity? Is this Ishtar? Probably not. Only possibly. Not possible at all.

The problem with Bede’s account is that we have no other references to any such goddess in any extant Germanic mythology. Casual readers can get confused because they read about *Ostara in discussions by scholars. Starred forms, such as *tunaz as the origin of Dutch tuin (garden) and English town (originally meaning village) are reconstructed forms: they are not attested anywhere, and are merely etymological conjecture. Our knowledge of Anglo-Saxon deities is relatively limited, but names are quite well preserved, both in the Chronicle, in poems, and in place names. Eostre is not among them.

If we look for parallels among East Germanic mythology, about which we have a wealth of knowledge, we find nothing at all. We might speculate that Eostre is the same as Freja, but, really, that is idle speculation.

What about the identification with Ishtar? Not at all possible. Ishtar was an East Semitic goddess, not an Indo-European goddess at all. Although divinity iconography and stories happily transmute from one culture to another, the names of the gods do not. As importantly, ‘Ishtar’ only sounds a bit like the modern form Easter. It sounds much less like ‘Eostre’, and even less like the putative reconstructions.

Why is this important? Well, to some extent it isn’t, but, in another sense, it is indicative of a widespread desire to explain Easter as something else than what it is: an exclusively Christian festival, though based upon the calendar of Jewish Passover, with an exclusively Christian component: resurrection.

One might imagine that resurrection is a common theme in ancient mythology. After all, the desire to live for ever is well attested among the Greeks and the Babylonians. If Death is the ultimate enemy, one would imagine a whole range of beliefs about resurrection.

But this is not the case. If we consult Kittel, the seminal 20th century Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, compiled predominantly by liberal, German scholars who had no brief to defend orthodoxy, we find that the only usages of the word ‘anastasia’ — resurrection — in classical Greek were in phrases such as ‘Resurrection is impossible’. One of the most famous Greek myths of them all, Orpheus and Eurydice, hammers home this point: you cannot bring someone back from the dead. The doctor-god, Asclepius, is described as raising Hippolytus from the dead, for which he was slain by Zeus. In other versions of the story, he is punished for similar crimes.

Even Asclepius does not resurrect. Gods in mythology can travel to the land of the dead and return, but this is only in the context of the land of death as a physical, though mythological, place.

We may look on the people of the ancient world as scientifically uninformed, but there were a couple of things they were more certain of than we are: babies are not born to virgins, and people don’t come back from the dead.

The resurrection of Jesus — a man who was dead, was put in a tomb, and 48 hours later was alive again, without the intervention of any medicine or miracle worker — is, in any case, not presented as a mythological account. In Matthew, Luke and John, Mark if you count the disputed final section, and all of the rest of the New Testament, the various writers are adamant that this was a physical resurrection, placed in the very physical and utterly brutal context of a Roman execution and a Jewish burial chamber.

A dead man came back to life.

People have been working for almost two-thousand years to somehow explain this away. All of the explanations so far, however, have stumbled on their own illogicality. Resurrection may be a unique phenomenon, but the explanations are simply analytically false.

The centre-piece of the Christian faith is that its founder died, rose, and did not die again. There were people in the Bible elsewhere raised from the dead: two in the Old Testament, several in the ministry of Jesus and in the rest of the New Testament. All these people, though, had relapses: they died again.

Atheists, naturally, dismiss all this as hokum. But that is to beg the question. One cannot simply dismiss an event which is presented as unique in all of human history and say ‘it is impossible’. Actually, what is more troubling is why modern science has not found the secret of reversing necrosis. Speculatively, resurrection ought to be extremely possible, but, aside from reviving people whose hearts have stopped beating, which is scarcely the same thing, death remains an obstinately final enemy.

Which brings us to Good Friday. Etymological speculation is that ‘Good’ is from the equivalent of ‘godly’ — a Holy Day. However, since we don’t have any other ‘good’ days in our calendar, this is little more than speculation.

Like all such things, no matter what its etymology, ‘Good’ Friday only continued to be used because it resonated with what people thought.

Christianity is the only faith which commemorates the death of its founder with a ‘Good’ anything. Good Friday was clearly one of the outstanding documented injustices of the ancient world. And yet Christians are resolute in calling it ‘Good’.

Why?

Simply, because without Good Friday, there is no Easter Sunday. Without death, no resurrection. Without Jesus suffering — as Christians believe — on a cross to save mankind, there is no Christianity, no saving, no hope of eternal life.

Of course, if death is all there was, then it wouldn’t be much of a Good Friday. It is the resurrection and Easter which hammers home victory over death, the confirmation of every promise that Jesus made.

Happy Easter.

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