It’s been over a year since I posted anything on this blog, so I figured that Easter would be a good day to resurrect it, as it were. It’s also appropriate because Easter was the subject of one of my favorite posts from my old blog Soul In Isolation, and I had meant to repost it last year but didn’t get around to it. So here is my original post from 5 years ago:
I haven’t talked much about religion on this blog, for much the same reason that people don’t talk about religion in “polite conversation.” Like politics, it is likely to rub up against some very strongly held beliefs and devolve into doctrinal and denominational bickering that is of little use to anyone. But aside from music, which I talk about profusely on this blog, and mathematics, which I try to avoid talking about outside of the classroom because it tends to put people to sleep, religion and politics are the two things I’m most interested in talking about.
Today is Easter, and I’d like to delve into some of the issues I have with the holiday. I have no problem with the mostly pagan symbols that are commonly associated with the day (eggs and rabbits primarily) that have more to do with the coming of spring than anything remotely Christian. I also have no problem with the supernatural nature of the story of Easter. Christianity is by no means the first religion to incorporate death and resurrection into its mythology (see Egypt and Osiris for a much earlier example). My primary issue with Easter is what it means, or at any rate is supposed to mean.
The message of Easter is absolutely central to Christianity, so it is essential that we understand where it comes from and why it arose in the first place if we wish to understand the Christian religion. I am not a scholar of religion or theology, but I have read a number of books on early Christianity so I will attempt to piece an explanation together from what I have read.
The people living in Palestine (the Greek name for the region) in the time of Jesus were living in the midst of several different cultures. The majority of the population of Judea and Galilee in particular was of Jewish descent and practiced Jewish rituals like the Sabbath, Seder, and various purity laws which restricted what one could eat among other things. The region also had significant exposure to Greek culture, including the language and modes of education, largely due to the Hellenistic Empire founded by Alexander the Great. Finally, at the time of Jesus, the area was under the control of the Roman empire, which mostly collected taxes, built roads and kept the peace.
The confluence of these cultures led to conflicting ideas about how to live one’s life, and who or what served as an authority both in the legal and religious sense. This led to a lot of questions, debates, and other intellectual activity, some of the fruits of which can be seen in the sayings, parables, and pronouncements of Jesus in the gospels. Two of the most important topics of discussion were power and purity.
In the near-eastern temple state, of which the Jewish kingdom centered around Jerusalem was one, there were two separate authority systems. The king was at the center of power, and was responsible for executing the laws of the land. The high priest in the temple was responsible for arranging rituals and adjudicating matters of purity, such as who or what was unclean and what needed to be done in the case of violations of the purity laws. These systems were challenged intellectually by the Greeks and politically by the Romans.
This was the context in which the early Christians came to terms with the life and death of Jesus. Most of the early Christian traditions were oral, though by the 50’s and 60’s written works began to appear as well. Some of these were collections of sayings like the Gospel of Thomas, the Dead Sea Scrolls, and the source of the material common to Matthew and Luke but not found in Mark (known by New Testament scholars as “Q”). Some of these were collections of stories reminiscent of those in the Old Testament about Moses and Elijah (walking on water, the loaves and fishes). Others were pronouncements, healings, and other challenges to the interpretation of the purity laws made by competing sects such as the Pharisees.
None of these writings contained references to the crucifixion and resurrection that are central to the story of Easter. This is not all that surprising as it was likely somewhat embarrassing that the founder of the schools of thought that generated these writings was tortured and executed by the hated Roman occupiers.
Through the letters of Paul, however, there is evidence of yet another group of early Christians that commemorated the death of Jesus in the manner of a Greek hero cult, and formulated some of the earliest versions of the kerygma or proclamation of the death and resurrection of the Christ. I use the title “Christ” here instead of the name “Jesus” because that is how this group referred to Jesus, using the Greek word “khristos” which means “anointed one” and is a literal translation of the Hebrew word “messiah”. A messiah in the Jewish tradition was a person chosen by God to lead the Jewish people to defeat whoever happened to be oppressing, enslaving, or occupying them at the time.
Paul went a step further in his Epistle to the Romans by arguing that through the life and death of the Christ, the followers of Jesus were made righteous by their faith. This wouldn’t have made much sense if the Christian movement had stayed exclusively Jewish, since Jews were made righteous by following the laws of purity as set down by the temple authorities. Due largely to Paul, the movement had expanded to include gentiles as well as Jews. This caused quite a stir with the so-called “pillars” of Jerusalem, notably Peter and James. Paul and Peter managed to come to a sort of truce where Peter would preach to the circumcised (the Jews) and Paul would preach to the uncircumcised (the gentiles).
Preaching to the gentiles meant dealing with the sticky issues of the purity laws. Paul’s loophole for the gentiles was that they did need to obey the Jewish purity laws to be righteous. Instead, they could be made righteous through their faith in God and in Jesus as the messiah. This concept of righteousness by way of faith is a key part of the meaning of the story of Easter.
While Paul spoke often of the death and resurrection of Jesus, the story of Easter does not appear in any of his letters, which were probably written in the 50’s, around the same time as the first drafts of the various sayings collections mentioned earlier. It wasn’t until after the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem in 70 C.E. at the end of the first Jewish-Roman war that the first version of the Easter story was written, in the Gospel According to Mark.
The Jewish revolt in 66 C.E. and the ensuing war with the Romans culminating in the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem was a tremendous crisis for the Jewish people. When the Romans occupied Palestine they diminished the authority of the Jewish King, the center of power in the temple state. When they destroyed the temple they diminished the authority of the Jewish High Priest, the center of purity in the temple state. Everything that defined the lives of the Jewish people had been upended, and they needed a new way to establish their identity without the temple. This was the moment in which Christianity and modern Judaism were born.
The Gospel of Mark attempted to combine earlier oral traditions of sayings, pronouncements, and miracles into a “bios” or biography of Jesus, centered around the story of the arrival, capture, crucifixion, and resurrection of Jesus in Jerusalem. Up until that point, Jerusalem had not played a significant role in the stories of Jesus, other than the fact that Peter, James, and others were based there, according to Paul. All of the stories of Jesus had taken place in Galilee, where he grew up and spent the majority of his life. After the destruction of the temple, Jerusalem became much more relevant.
Here is where, after all this background (which turned out to be much longer than I had anticipated), we get to the meaning of Easter. The current Christian dogma, which may be the only thing that unites the disparate sects and denominations of the Christian church, is that Jesus died for the forgiveness of our collected sins, and through his resurrection and our faith we are saved from eternal punishment and rewarded with eternal life. This dogma is actually a collection of a number of different ideas that were developed over the history of the early Christian church, and in the humble opinion of the author is complete and utter nonsense.
I hold this position for two reasons. First, the rationale behind and context of the story of Easter in the Gospel of Mark has been completely misrepresented by this modern formulation. Second, the consequences of this assertion have caused a great deal of unnecessary suffering throughout the history of the various branches of the Christian Church. I have already established most of the context of Mark, it remains only to explain the rationale, and consider the effects.
The rationale behind the story in Mark is that Jesus was unrighteously persecuted, and was made a martyr by the Romans. Much like the Maccabean Martyrs two centuries earlier, his wrongful death was interpreted as a sacrifice which conferred righteousness upon his followers. This interpretation fit in nicely with Paul’s concept of righteousness by faith as a justification for including gentiles in the Christian church. It also served as an explanation and a reaction to the destruction of the temple. The destruction was tied to the collusion of the Jewish temple authorities with the Romans who tortured and executed the Christ. More importantly, Mark set up Jesus as a replacement for both the King (who had great power) and the High Priest (who had great purity). All of these things positioned the Christian movement with Jesus as it’s founder and authority figure as a replacement for the temple state system of the past.
Here’s the real sticking point: the forgiveness of sins that we associate with the story of Easter was a way of expanding the membership of the Christian movement to include those who did not follow the Jewish laws of purity. It was a means of defining righteousness in terms of something other than the traditions and taboos of the Jewish people. This is what allowed Christianity to spread throughout the world, as it was no longer tied to a single ethnic group. While this notion is very enlightened and commendable, it should not be confused with the concept of forgiveness in general, which is also very enlightened and commendable, but not relevant to the original story of Easter.
What is not enlightened or commendable is the way in which this story and the message behind it has been twisted and turned on its head to create a new division based not upon ethnic lines but upon doctrine. As the Christian church became more powerful after Constantine’s conversion and the Edict of Milan in 313 C.E., it began to persecute those who did not accept the dogma of the resurrection, be they Muslim, Jew, Hindu, Buddhist, Animist, or Atheist. Those who believe will go to Heaven to receive their eternal reward, and those who do not believe will go to Hell to receive their eternal punishment. This is not only inconsistent with the vision of the early Christians, it is inconsistent with common sense. Are those who commit terrible crimes, yet repent at the end of their lives rewarded in Paradise, while those whose lives are defined by charity and good will who don’t subscribe to the dogma damned to eternal torment?
But what of the more progressive denominations of Christianity that do not hold to these dogmatic beliefs? While I have great respect and admiration for Christians who adhere to the teachings of Jesus to give aid to the poor and sick and treat others with kindness, I have to ask: are these qualities uniquely Christian? Is it really necessary to retell a story which was constructed in a completely different context, and embellished with supernatural events (OK I guess I do have a problem with that part too) in order to get these points across?
It is my personal opinion, though it is shared by others, that the story of Easter is ultimately a distraction from the more important and universal principles espoused by Jesus and his early followers: treat others with compassion and strive to make this world more just. Everything else is just window dressing.