One thing that I have found is that in all camps, from people who fully bought on to their religious system to skeptics of religious systems, is that many ideas seem like they connect because of limited information, but when you pick apart the facts at a more robust research level, the ideas fall apart. Unfortunately with the rise of YouTube videos, people can watch conspiracy documentaries or informational videos that are full of half-truths and missing pieces. It doesn’t help that we live in a world of self-proclaimed experts where true experts and researchers are not valued. These are shaping so much about how we think (and don’t think).
Back in 2007, there was a documentary called “Zeitgeist” that came out and many people thought it would shoot down the accuracy of Christianity. Many skeptics jumped on it as if it was truly full of the answers that no one had heard before because it was loaded with some half trues. It compared the story of Jesus to the story of Horus the Egyptian god (Horus was said to be born on December 25th). It also made sure to highlight the names of Horus and other deities and sovereigns to say that they are the same as in Christianity. It seemed to many skeptics that this was the nail in the coffin of Christianity. They thought that Christianity was a copy of these other ideas.
At a deeper glance, when looked at through the lens of Christian historical research, no one believed that Jesus was born on December 25. December 25 was landed on in the four-century as Christianity was invited to share and take over the festival “Saturnalia” turning it to Christ Mass. Also, you will see the Biblical authors used language, ideas, and titles of the time like “Prince of Peace” to subvert the emperors and belief systems of the time that went by the same titles. If these things were not understood, it would be easy to allow these half baked and skeptically shaped ideas to cause you to question the beliefs in Christianity.
Back in 2019, I posted this image after an Ash Wednesday service at an Anglican Church where I was a pastor.
Right away I received comments asking me about it. The most notable is a friend of mine who is a militant atheist. Now he is very intelligent. This guy wrote the code that we now use to receive open and engagement receipts on email clients.
At a glance, and with some looking into it, you will find that Ashes were used in Norse culture, and some people have used them as a way to take shots at this Christian practice.
Here is what my friend wrote:
Maybe you have heard this. Maybe you have thought about this. Maybe you don’t know what Ash Wednesday is, and you feel like it is maybe some strange ritual.
I wanted to take the time and share my response to the comment to help explain some of the details around this argument and also explain what Ash Wednesday is.
Here is my response:
Thanks for chiming in. Let me offer a different perspective. Some affirm what you are saying, and some challenge parts of your statement.
The church calendar exists for the main reason of creating rhythm, practice, and observance of different holy days that help Christians prepare and remember different things that we believe happened or will happen.
-“Advent” is an intentional 24 days where we don’t celebrate Christmas, but we read passages and talk about anticipation so that when Christmas Day comes, it is a giant celebration.
-“Lent” (the season in question) is a 40 day time where we practice lament (which is not something that modern churches practices (everything seems to always have to be happy all of the time), and we realize that we and our world experience pain and suffering. Traditionally there is a call to fast something or give something up to make that time unique.
I want to talk about this statement, “It’s actually a carryover from Norse holidays (read: Christmas, Easter, etc…) that Christians have taken on. The original idea was to protect yourself from Odin.”
There is some half-truth in this, but there is some missing information that makes it sound accurate, but the information tells us that it is not fully accurate. There is a ton of overlap of religious practices on the calendar for multiple reasons. This is not just Norse holidays. You see overlap on dates with different religious systems from Egypt to Greece to Rome to Germany and in Christianity. It is easy to read a poorly sourced blog or YouTube video online of a conspiracy theorist, or without all of the facts look at what we see and say, “They stole it from _(insert religious view here)” but that is not always the case, because of how the year breaks up with astronomy, etc. You have to look at the nuances and not just some information at 30,000 feet.
Here is an example… Christians were celebrating the birth of Jesus in the early church as early as the second century in December. To them, what better way to celebrate the light of the world coming to earth than by doing it on the day that has the longest night. Christmas became a hodgepodge of many cultures that came together into what we see it now, it wasn’t that way in the early church.
When it comes to Christianity and paganism combining at Christmas, it happened in the 300’s. Christians already were celebrating the birth of Jesus in December. Rome had a festival called Saturnalia. This happened as a giant drunken orgy leading up to the winter solstice, and then they would open presents. In 313 A.D. Christianity became the official religion of the empire. It was Rome for political reasons (not Christians) that joined Saturnalia with the Christians (because they didn’t want division) and they renamed “Saturnalia” “Christ-mass”. It remained a drunken week-long orgy up until the 1800s. It was even illegal to celebrate in Massachusetts in the 1600s until America became more of a melting pot and not just Puritans.
There is a similar overlap with other holidays. Many (including Alexander Hislop) have even likened Lent to the Babylonian “Tammuz” referred to in Ezekiel 8:14.
I see how people can see a correlation to some of the accounts (which even historians don’t get along with details of the accounts of Odin). Now Norse culture lasted from about 400 or 500 BC to about 1000ish AD. Their mythological beliefs were pretty much wiped out by the 12th century. The accounts of Oden show up in the 500’s A.D.
In Norse culture fizzled out through the 1000’s-1100’s, it is easy to think that Ash Wednesday as a Christian observance was stolen from Odin myth (which again not all historians agree with Odin accounts), because Ash Wednesday was made official on the church calendar in 1091 A.D.
The only issue is that just because something is made official, doesn’t mean that it wasn’t observed before. As a matter of fact, the Odin myth came on the scene in the 500’s (I am aware that this idea evolved from culture going back to the Bronze Age – but track with me because Odin, as we understand him, wasn’t depicted until the 500’s), but there were practices of ashes before that in both the early church and in ancient Judaism (literally 23 verses about lamenting while wearing ashes in public in the Old Testament).
What I find most interesting is how this evolved in the early church and the practice of ashes and the practice of Lent for lament carried on.
-Tertullian (160-225), “On Repentance” (chapter 9) said, “confession of sin should be accompanied by lying in sackcloth and ashes.”
-Eusebius (260 – 340) said, “a repentant apostate covered himself with ashes when begging Pope Zephyrinus to readmit him to communion.”
The one that I find most compelling though (and shows how Lent began to take shape) is one of my favorite early church writers named Athanasius. He oversaw the church in Alexandria shortly after the Council of Nicaea. In the year 331AD, he wrote an order to encourage his congregations in Egypt to keep the fast for 40 days.
Here is what he wrote:
“The beginning of the fast of forty days is on the fifth of the month Phamenoth (we call Ash Wednesday); and when, as I have said, we have first been purified and prepared by those days, we begin the holy week of the great Easter on the tenth of the month Pharmuthi (Palm Sunday), in which, my beloved brethren, we should use more prolonged prayers, and fastings, and watchings, that we may be enabled to anoint our lintels with precious blood, and to escape the destroyer (Exod. xii. 7, 23.). Let us rest then, on the fifteenth of the month Pharmuthi (Easter Sunday Eve), for on the evening of that Saturday we hear the angels’ message, ‘Why seek ye the living among the dead? He is risen (Luke xxiv. 5).’ Immediately afterwards that great Sunday receives us, I mean on the sixteenth of the same month Pharmuthi (Easter Sunday morning), on which our Lord having risen, gave us peace towards our neighbors.”
Here is why it is a 40 day fast that leads Christians into Easter:
Before Jesus started his ministry, he fasted in the wilderness for 40 days and was even tempted.
It mimics the Jewish calendar of 40 days between “Rosh Chodesh Elul” and “Yom Kippur”. Now, this could be a whole long comment in and of itself. “Yom Kippur” is the “Day of Atonement” that was practiced every year. This is what Romans 3:25 said that Jesus was on the cross. He was the “hilasterion” (greek) “Kippur” (Hebrew).
Lastly, Matthew 6:16 does say, “When you fast, do not look somber as the hypocrites do, for they disfigure their faces to show others they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full.” This is not referring to Ash Wednesday. It is referring to the way that Pharisees would try to look sick, malnourished, and uncomfortable. Ash Wednesday isn’t about fasting. It is about lament and ashes have always been worn in a public way for this in Judaism and the early church.
Lent is a period where fasting is invited, but I have never heard anyone brag publicly about fasting or what they are fasting in this time. I am sure it happens, but it is not the norm.
Again, thanks for chiming in. You are literally one of the smartest people that I know. I hope this gives another perspective to think about for both you and readers on this thread.
This is an updated edition of a post originally published on David Ruybalid