The season of Lent has garnered a great deal of controversy over the years. Many evangelical Christians simply do not see the need to observe Lent, while others feel that to do so is nothing short of sacrilege. If this season is meant to re-center our focus upon Jesus Christ and grow nearer to Him, why all the fuss?
There are several reasons that have been propounded meant to dismiss or vilify those who make Lent a regular observance in their walk with Christ. In this article, I will be addressing each argument singularly in order to bring to light certain misconceptions pertaining to the issue.
The arguments herein are the following: Lent is not in the Bible, Lent is public fasting, Lent encourages repentance and solemnity, and Lent derives from pagan origins.
LENT IS NOT IN THE BIBLE
Perhaps the most common argument that I come across is that God has not commanded us to observe Lent in the Bible. Therefore, to undergo the 40-day juncture from Ash Wednesday to the Day of Resurrection is to invent a man-made season which brings insult to the perfect and holy Word of God.
Though what this argument seems to miss is that Lent is not a mandatory practice aimed at receiving a gift from God. That is to say, it is not a sort of summoning ritual that demands grace as a result. Rather, it is an opportunity to give the gift of ourselves to God by way of making a more concerted effort to bask in His grace. It is a time of vigorous prayer, reflection, biblical study, thanksgiving, and for some, a time of repentance. Indeed, it is nothing akin to a commandment, but merely a time set aside for those looking to deepen their faith and relationship with Jesus Christ.
By the same token, Christians by and large attend worship services at a set aside time every Sunday despite the fact such a practice has not been clearly spelled out in the Bible. Do not make the mistake of assuming that such a Christian ritual is commanded by God based solely on the fact that we are to respect the Sabbath. For respecting the Sabbath can take on many connotations and has been understood as a day of rest more than a day of gathering.
The reader may remember that Jesus tells us that “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath” (NIV, Mark 2:27). In addition, every day is consecrated to God as Paul explains:
One person considers one day more sacred than another; another considers every day alike. Each of them should be fully convinced in their own mind. Whoever regards one day as special does so to the Lord. Whoever eats meat does so to the Lord, for they give thanks to God; and whoever abstains does so to the Lord and gives thanks to God (Rom. 14:5-6).
To assert that Lent is a petty attempt to force God’s hand to relinquish a blessing is both an unfounded claim and gross misunderstanding. Most Christians who observe the 40-day period never even contemplate such an absurd allegation let alone proclaim it to others. It is true that we should always be open to receiving grace from God, and that applies to Lent as well. But being open to grace does not imply a sort or reward system. Almost all Christians that I know understand the very basics of grace. Namely, that we have been given grace freely without any means of earning or deserving such a blessing (Rom. 11:6; Eph. 2:8-9). It would make little sense to take a contrary position for 40 days out of the year.
Here some may make the comment that the sacrifices and commitments of Lent are things Christians ought to be doing every single day. And to this I whole-heartily agree. But let us not deceive ourselves into assuming that we are in fact displaying this kind of ardent obedience at all times. If, however, you are one of those rare individuals who has reached a state of perfection and the fullness your faith, then you will have nothing to gain from observing Lent.
But perhaps what needs to be considered is how a heartfelt effort to thank, praise, and grow closer to Jesus Christ can be such a bad thing. The Bible clearly encourages us to take time to reflect upon our lives and our faith. Further, we are told to pray, fast, repent, and offer thanksgiving to the Lord for receiving redemption and new lives. All these components of our faith draw us ever nearer to God, and serves to deepen our relationship with Him.
Just because Christians dedicate a season to exercise the power of the Spirit over the flesh in a disciplined and focused way, does nothing to diminish their daily walk with Christ throughout the remainder of the year.
But what about implementing a practice not commanded in the Bible? First, we have to make the distinction between a command and an endorsement. Just because God has not commanded something does not negate an action meant to glorify Him assuming that it is biblical in spirit.
If God commands us not to do something and we ignore that command, then we are guilty of disobedience e.g. if someone engaged in fornication as part of a ritual instituted to glorify God, then it would be erroneous since the Bible clearly condemns sexual immorality. But the Lord says nothing of forbidding a dedicated span of time to grow closer to Him. In fact, it would make more sense to conjecture that the Lord endorses any means of grace and fellowship.
The Old Testament is replete with festivals to remember the saving works of God: Passover (Exod. 12), the Feast of Unleavened Bread (Exod. 34:18), the Feast of Firstfruits also known as Easter (Lev. 23:19-14), the Feast of Weeks (Exod. 34:22), the Feast of Trumpets (Lev. 23:34; Num. 29:1-6), the Day of Atonement (Lev. 23:27-28), and the Feast of Tabernacles (Deut. 16:13).
Moreover, these festivals point towards the redemptive work of Jesus Christ since He arose on the Feast of the Firstfruits, provided atonement, and made us into the new tabernacles of the Holy Spirit. Lent is inspired by the festivals of old and Jesus’ preparation in the desert for His immanent ministry.
I acknowledge that although God does not change, He may change the way in which we serve or worship Him. So, some may point out that we are no longer required to practice certain Old Testament traditions and laws. For example, Christians are no longer required to sacrifice animals for atonement, and to do so would be a costly sin since it disregards the final redemptive work of Jesus Christ.
Though at the same time, the new covenant does not negate the old covenant since it is a perpetual narrative. Point and fact, although we realize that it is impossible to earn salvation through obedience does not nullify the command to be obedient.
This all amounts to understanding that if an action lines up with what we know about God, then even if it is not directly commanded or specified in the Scriptures, it will receive His blessing.
After all, the Bible did not disclose how to compile the inspired books which compose the Holy Book. The Holy Spirit inspired men to discern which books were divinely inspired. So, it would make little sense to assert something along the lines, “The Bible says nothing about which books are inspired, so it would be sinful to read the Bible.” We understand that such a statement is absurd. The reason for that is we intuitively know that the Bible is from God since the Spirit testifies to us in such a way. Similarly, when our hearts are set on God, the Spirit leads us in ways that honor Him — even in ways that are not plainly directed in the Scriptures.
Consider these observances and practices that the Church by and large endorses which are not commands of Holy Writ:
- Altar Calls
- Substituting real wine with grape juice
- Acknowledging the cross as a Christian symbol
- Weekly Gatherings i.e. we are commanded to gather together, but the Bible does not disclose how often
- Weekly Sermons: sermons are needed for edification and conveying God’s message to His people. But again, this is an arbitrary practice of the church that is not specifically described in the Bible as to how often. Indeed, one might propose that some people may need to hear sermons more or less often than others, and that the Holy Spirit does not speak to every minister at the same time, or on the same day, every week, every year, but as is needed for the edification of the Body of Christ.
So, if some Christians are hostile against the practice of Lent, then why are they not holding the same standard for the other practices of the church which are not clearly found in the Bible? There has to be a consistency in theological assertions if one is to broach the issue with integrity.
To reproach someone for striving to grow closer to Jesus because Lent is not expounded upon in the Bible is dangerous, and akin to legalism. To be sure, it may even be likened to acting as a stumbling block. We would be wise to remember these words found in the Scriptures pertaining to such erroneous judgement:
Therefore do not let anyone judge you by what you eat or drink, or with regard to a religious festival, a New Moon celebration or a Sabbath day (Col. 2:16).
LENT IS PUBLIC FASTING AND BOASTING
Another argument that I often notice is that Jesus rebuked those who drew attention to themselves for their fasting:
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. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that it will not be obvious to others that you are fasting, but only to your Father, who is unseen; and your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you (Matt. 6:16-18).
The argument goes that since Lent is recognized at the same time every year, it is a public display of self-sacrifice likened to the very act Jesus criticized.
The reason that this argument falls short is because it is understood on a superficial level. For example, the key theme in this passage of scripture is the condemnation of hypocrisy, not to be misunderstood as the condemnation of public fasting in and of itself. True, a conscious effort to fast in public denotes hypocrisy. That sort of fasting is an intentional effort to attract attention from mankind rather than God. But what we are talking about is biblical fasting with righteous intentions.
A more scrutinized reading of the first half of Matthew 6 reveals that each point Jesus makes both warns us not to seek glory for ourselves, and teaches us how to do good for the right reasons. It is a matter of motives. In verses 1-4, Jesus commands us not to give to others with the intention of seeking praise for ourselves; in verses 5-8, Jesus warns us not to pray with the intention of being recognized and respected; and in verses 16-18, Jesus explains how fasting for attention is also hypocritical and futile.
Particular attention should be paid to Matthew 6:6 when Jesus says, “But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen.” If we are to be honest with ourselves, how many of us do this? Most of us pray in the presence of our church and home families. We do this because there is a spiritual instinct that compels us to pray together as a unit. If some strive to demean those who fast because someone has become privy to their sacrifice, then they must take the same literal approach with prayer, and ensure to keep their time spent with God secret at all times no mater the cost.
The crux of Jesus’ teaching on fasting is to “not be obvious to others that you are fasting” (Matt. 6:18). Of course it is always good practice to be as private as possible when fasting as not to draw attention to yourself. But sometimes it is not possible, and the most important practice is to ensure that you are not sullen or telling of your sacrifice.
Certainly, there are inferences that Jesus and the disciples may have fasted in the presence of one another. Consider the following passage of Scripture:
For truly I say to you, if you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, “Move from here to there,” and it will move; and nothing will be impossible to you. But this kind does not go out except by prayer and fasting (NASB, Matt. 17:20).
What is important to note here is that Jesus had just left the mountain where He was transfigured in the presence of the Inner Circle (Peter, James, and John). Upon leaving the mountain, He finds His way to a crowd where a man pleads with Him to heal his son who is possessed by a spirit. Since the disciples cannot heal the boy themselves, and Jesus explains that this kind of healing requires prayer and fasting, one may assume that Jesus had in fact been fasting while with His disciples.
Moreover, it can be further inferred that the early church fasted openly by taking a close look at the book of Acts. At the church of Antioch, we read that “While they were worshiping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, ‘Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.’ So after they had fasted and prayed, they placed their hands on them and sent them off” (emphasis mine, NIV, Acts 13:2-3).
Again this takes place in the proceeding chapter as Paul and Barnabas appoint elders for the church “with prayer and fasting” and “committed them to the Lord, in whom they had put their trust” (Acts 14:23).
It is no certain fact that Jesus or the early church fathers fasted in the presence of one another. It could be argued that they lodged in separate rooms and kept their fasting private. But considering the emphasis put on the Christian community, it seems more likely that this was something shared or known by those within the covenant of faith.
For example, all other sacraments and traditions were usually shared and practiced in the presence of the church community: baptism, the Eucharist, prayer, singing, worship, study, and service. It seems rather odd that fasting would be excluded from communal harmony while these other means of grace were not.
I bring this up because some accuse Ash Wednesday as being a counterproductive service that invalidates the purpose of Lent since everyone present is aware of the shared dedication each Christian makes in preparation for The Day of Resurrection. But isn’t engaging God as the Body of Christ what you would expect from a community of faith? God did not create us to be grow in faith alone (Acts 1:14, 2:46-47; Heb. 10:24-25).
Another point worth considering is that most believers do not know exactly when their brothers and sisters are fasting during Lent. The only thing known is that fasting is encouraged. In saying that, there is no difference between the general practice of fasting, and the fasting that takes place during Lent. We know that Christians are fasting somewhere in the world at any given time. So, does that awareness invalidate their sacrifice? I should hope not since fasting would be fruitless. Yet, we know that fasting can be good by remembering that Jesus endorsed it and is our paradigm.
LENT ENCOURAGES REPENTANCE AND SOLEMNITY
It is often posited that Christians who observe Lent embrace a self-sacrificing attitude that takes the joy out of salvation. The charge compares fasting and repentance with something akin to mortification of the flesh. All of this leads some to surmise that the Lenten season erroneously promotes guilt instead of thankfulness.
But the truth of the matter is that Lent does not focus upon repentance. In brief, the focus is solely on Jesus Christ which in turn provides renewal, grace, joy and thankfulness. The means of both deepening and strengthening that relationship comes from repentance, sacrifice, fasting, prayer, biblical study, worship, service and mediation. So, Jesus is the reason and cause, the spiritual experiences are effects, and the practices are the means.
It is the same throughout the year and life of any believer. However, since it is unrealistic to be steadfast in our faith at all times, Lent provides an opportunity to slow down, delve into introspection, and analyze our walk with Jesus. From here, the season can take on different shapes depending on the person and their spiritual condition. Nevertheless, people become closer to Jesus and thereby restore or magnify the joy of their salvation, which reaches its culmination on the Day of Resurrection.
Now, many have a hard time understanding how sacrifice and repentance often draw Christians nearer to the Lord. It is often incorrectly assumed that repentance is evoked to summon guilt or superficial piety. But repentance is prioritizing the Spirit over the flesh. Although Christians have the means to reach perfection through the Holy Spirit, the power of the flesh becomes a snare which often causes us to disappoint God. By repenting we show the Lord our desire to overcome the flesh due to our love for Him. In that moment, the light of Jesus Christ so shines within us that all guilt and darkness are inevitably dispelled, and our joy is renewed.
And it is through sacrifice that we are reminded that there is nothing we need more than Jesus Christ. Further, through such spiritual exercise and discipline, the Christian becomes stronger by learning to surrender to the Lord. It is an acknowledgement of our weakness and invitation to the Spirit to work within us (2 Cor. 12:9-10).
Sacrificing denotes surrendering, not to be confused with an offering to appease God in order to glean a special blessing from Him. Oswald Chambers explains it well:
Our Lord replies in effect that abandonment is for Himself, and not for what the disciples themselves will get from it. Beware of an abandonment which has the commercial spirit in it — “I am going to give myself to God because I want to be delivered from sin, because I want to be made holy.” All that is the result of being right with God, but that spirit is not of the essential nature of Christianity. Abandon-ment is not for anything at all. We have got so commercialized that we only go to God for something from Him, and not for Him (Chambers, March 12).
Repentance and sacrifice are not selfish endeavors meant for the glory of the Christian. They are means to glorify the Creator by telling our flesh “No, I will not stand for it any longer. I will continue to cut you out until there is nothing left but the Spirit who lives within me.”
And can there be any greater joy than putting the Spirit at the center of the Christian life? It takes a lifetime to mature in our faith and Lent is but one part in that process.
LENT DERIVES FROM PAGAN ORIGINS
The most complex misconception to diffuse is the charge that Lent is a Christianized pagan tradition. The difficulty discussing this allegation is due to conflicting historical documentation and varying conclusions based on the data.
A couple of comments before delving into the historical accuracy of this issue:
It should be noted that there are similar allegations against the Christmas and Easter seasons. In fact, I would argue that these allegations are more prevalent, and yield more connections to pagan rituals than Lent. Therefore, again, it is not just to condemn observing the season of Lent on one hand, while continuing to celebrate Christmas and Easter on the other. If one of these seasons is to be criticized based on similar pagan dates and rituals, then you must do away with the whole lot less you find yourself embracing ignorance and hypocrisy.
The second thing that I want to point out is that regardless of whether or not pagan rituals spurred the church to replace them with more meaningful Christian holidays, does nothing to invalidate the sacredness of the seasons we have come to love in the name of Jesus Christ.
To claim that Christians are dishonoring God because there might be pagan influences pertaining to the dates we celebrate Jesus Christ, is to belittle the majesty, power, and grace of God. For no pagan date or connection can tarnish or usurp the mighty power of the Lord. It would be a different argument if the contention had to do with honoring a pagan god or goddess, but that is not what takes place on Lent regardless of any influences that may be attributed to its origins.
Let us take this line of logic a little further. Every day of the week is named after a pagan god and yet everyone has adopted those names as an authentic description. Thus, if celebrating a season based on pagan influences or dates bothers you, then you might want to consider that every day you worship God, Monday through Sunday, you are worshiping Him on days that have been dedicated to pagan gods. So, whenever you mention that you yearn to worship God on Sunday, you are essentially saying, “I long to worship God on Sun’s Day,” a day primitively dedicated to worshiping the sun or pagan gods of the sun.
Now most us should be able to see the silliness of this line of thinking. Of course we are not worshiping a pagan deity merely because a day of the week happens to be named after said god or goddess. But in saying that, it should be equally understood that we are not worshiping a pagan deity simply because possible dates or practices seem similar. Every day is the day God has made (Ps. 118:24). And therefore every day dedicated to Him takes precedence over any supposed pagan origins.
The Bible actually reveals this truth to us through example and teaching i.e. embalming has been attributed by some as a pagan practice since it interferes with the word of God by hindering the natural process of returning to dust. Yet in Genesis we read that Joseph participated in the custom of embalming the dead practiced by the Egyptians:
Then Joseph directed the physicians in his service to embalm his father Israel. So the physicians embalmed him, taking a full forty days, for that was the time required for embalming. And the Egyptians mourned for him seventy days (50:1-2).
Paul explains the matter clearly in the New Testament. Indeed, this passage alone should suffice in rendering the pagan argument as misguided:
If an unbeliever invites you to a meal and you want to go, eat whatever is put before you without raising questions of conscience. But if someone says to you, “This has been offered in sacrifice,” then do not eat it, both for the sake of the one who told you and for the sake of conscience. I am referring to the other person’s conscience, not yours. For why is my freedom being judged by another’s conscience? If I take part in the meal with thankfulness, why am I denounced because of something I thank God for? (1 Cor. 10:27-30)
The point Paul is making is that regardless of any supposed pagan attribution to the life of the Christian, it is rendered meaningless in the face of God. No longer do such sacrifices or rituals hold special meaning. The Lord is perfect and holy, and cleanses everything that is offered with a heart of thanksgiving.
Nothing pagan can hold any power over us and our faith unless we allow it to have power. God is supreme, and what is important is that we seek and love Him with all of our hearts, souls, minds, and strength.
Now, the claim that Lent borrowed from a pagan ritual stems from a Mesopotamian religion. In particular, from a season known as The Weeping of Tammuz dedicated to a Sumerian demigod named Tammuz. The mythology of Tammuz eventually influenced other cultures and he took on different names: in Egypt he is attributed to Osiris, and in Greece as Adonis.
The Babylonian myth portrays Tammuz as a beautiful shepherd who caught the eye of a fertility goddess by the name of Inanna (also known as Ishtar). Several accounts diverge here as the story takes different shapes depending on the source. One tale spins that Tammuz was killed by a boar. Inanna, mourning and in despair, descended to the underworld to liberate her love from death.
Another popular account suggest that Tammuz and Inanna had a falling out. Meanwhile, Inanna ventured to the underworld to commandeer the throne of her sister Ereshkigal. However, found lacking, she was sentenced to death by the judges of the underworld known as the Anunnaki, and her corpse was hung on a stake by a nail or hook. However, since she was the goddess of sexuality, all sexual relations ceased on the earth, and Tammuz’ father Enki had to resurrect her on the condition that she found a replacement. As she scoured the land for someone who had neglected to mourn her, she found her husband Tammuz who seemed impartial to her absence, sitting on her throne.
Inanna opted to have Tammuz take her place and unleashed her demons to bring him to the underworld. However, she eventually felt remorse, and an agreement was made to allow Tammuz and his sister Geshtinana to alternate places in the underworld for six months at a time.
For the sake of brevity, I will not go into the symbolic meaning of the mythology of Tammuz. Our interest is to compare the similarities and differences to Lent, so now we turn to the ritual that ensued in response to this myth.
The Cult of Tammuz celebrated two festivals: the first to commemorate the marriage of Inanna and Tammuz, and the other to commemorate his death and captivity in the underworld. The latter has become known as the aforementioned Weeping of Tammuz.
During this time, followers of this cult summoned up tears in a state of sorrow and wept for the loss of Tammuz since he was recognized as an agricultural god. It was believed that it was imperative to mourn him as he returned to the underworld or else he may become indignant and refuse to bless the upcoming crops. It has also been suggested that the tears produced from weeping watered the seeds in a mystical and symbolic ritual acknowledging the death and rebirth of Tammuz.
In the Bible we read Ezekiel recording how angry God was at this practice:
Then he brought me to the entrance of the north gate of the house of the Lord, and I saw women sitting there, mourning the god Tammuz. He said to me, “Do you see this, son of man? You will see things that are even more detestable than this” (Ezek.8:14-15).
It is clear that God wants nothing to do with worshiping Tammuz. But is that what Christians are really doing during Lent? Some seem to believe so, and in order to understand this argument more fully, alleged historical accounts that may have led to the mythology of Tammuz should be considered.
Many trace the story of Tammuz and Inanna to Nimrod from the Old Testament. Eusebius (an early church father and historian) wrote that Semiramis (Inanna) was the wife of Nimrod. The reader will recall that Nimrod comes from the lineage of Noah’s son Ham who received a curse in lieu of a blessing. He eventually established the first empire after the flood and became the ruler of Babylon.
Tradition suggests that Semiramis and Nimrod were married and ruled the kingdom together. However, Nimrod eventually died and Semiramis grew concerned she would lose her esteem and power over the kingdom. Subsequently, she had an illegitimate child, either due to an affair prior to Nimrod’s death, or intentionally to propel a cleverly devised plan. The child’s name was Tammuz.
Semiramis brazenly asserts that her conception came about from rays of sunlight, and that Nimrod (Tammuz) had been resurrected as the sun god. Nimrod is described as a mighty hunter – unfortunately for Tammuz he fell a little far from the tree and was killed by a boar as mentioned earlier.
The argument is made that Tammuz died at the age of 40 and his wife (and mother) instituted a 40-day period of weeping for him in the underworld. Each day of the 40-day ritual was meant to represent a year of Tammuz’ life. In time, it is said, this became the Christianized adoption known as Lent inaugurated by Rome in order to either oppose a pagan holiday, or assimilate heathens into Christianity.
If you endeavor to research this topic, you will find prolific accounts stating this pagan heritage as a matter of an unquestionable fact. But what you will not find is well documented and scholarly sources to authenticate their claims. In fact, nearly every source seems to trace back to a book written in 1858 by a Scottish theologian by the name of Alexander Hislop. The book is titled The Two Babylons: Or, the Papal Worship Proved to Be the Worship of Nimrod and His Wife.
It is important to first address the title of the book. The mention of two Babylons is in reference to both the historical Babylon and the Roman Catholic Church. It is clear that Alexander Hislop wrote his book with a parallel agenda to critically accuse and condemn Catholicism. Indeed, one may assume that this was his primary objective. The reason this has bearing on the issue is due to the fact that any conversation that is emotionally charged risks propagating biases that lend to an unconscious fabrication of facts which in turn leads to premature conclusions.
Many are now coming to understand that Hislop’s assertions are unfounded. Indeed, it seems that it was only through pseudo-archaeology and whimsical conjecture that he reached the conclusions propounded in his book. I have yet to find any historical text that discloses the age of Tammuz or the institution of a ritual lasting 40 days. If the contrary is brought to my attention, then I will promptly amend this article.
There are also discrepancies in the dates that The Weeping of Tammuz and Lent fall upon. Lent is always 46 days before The Day of Resurrection (40 days excluding Sundays). This means that Lent typically begins sometime around the middle of February or March. But The Weeping of Tammuz does not clearly line up with this time of the year.
It is true that there is an account that this ritual took place from March to April. But other sources date The Weeping of Tammuz taking place in June through July in Assyria during the 7th century B.C.E. This would seem to be more accurate dating considering the agricultural season was ripe for harvest in the second half of May or early June.
The Hebrew month of Tammuz also takes place at the same time. Moreover, the 17th of Tammuz marks the beginning of The Fast of Tammuz (Shivah Asar B’Tammuz) which is a period of national mourning for Orthodox Jews known as “The Three Weeks of Sorrow.” The Fast of Four Months is mentioned in Zechariah 8:19:
Thus says the Lord of hosts: The fast of the fourth month and the fast of the fifth and the fast of the seventh and the fast of the tenth shall be to the house of Judah seasons of joy and gladness and cheerful feasts. Therefore love truth and peace.
This time of fasting was meant to recall tragedies that resulted from idolatry, and to move the Jewish people to repent and re-center on the one true God (much like our common day observance of Lent). It would seem that based on these facts, that The Weeping of Tammuz may have been infringing upon this biblical time of fasting and mourning rather than leading Christianity astray by encouraging the adoption of a similar ritual.
Since it is common for Christians to have a cross placed upon their foreheads during Ash Wednesday, it should be noted that the cross of Jesus Christ is likewise charged as deriving from the pagan god Tammuz. As shocking as this may seem, the issue has been bitterly vociferated with no short supply of condemnation for cross bearers.
The accusation is again spearhead by Alexander Hislop in his book The Two Babylons. Therefore, the reader will excuse me from broaching the subject no more than necessary as his credibility has been found wanting.
It is first alleged that the cross predates Christianity as a religious symbol, therefore it loses its power and credibility. Hislop argues that “there is hardly a Pagan tribe where the cross has not been found” (Hislop 361). He then goes through pains to convince his readers that the early church grafted the pagan worship of Tammuz in their recognition of the cross of Jesus Christ. By explaining that the original Babylonian letter “T” used to take the shape of a cross, which just so happens to be the first letter in Tammuz, he interprets the connection as the incorporation of pagan symbolism into the community of faith.
The problem with this premise is that he undermines himself by asserting that the cross is both a universal religious symbol and at the same time derivative of Tammuz. Conversely, many symbols can seem similar when their very shape is of a simple nature. The cross is a modest two strokes of a pen, and can be seen as an “X” or a “+” among other things depending on the culture. So is it really so hard to imagine that such a simple symbol can be found throughout history in reference to different religions without connection or possessing the same meaning?
What is more, the letter associated with Tammuz is tau, and had the form of the Greek “T”. But tau is derivative from the last letter of the Proto-Sinaitic alphabet known as taw (Pflughaupt 119). And the letter taw either took a cruciform shape of the Christian cross, the modern day plus sign, or in some inscriptions the shape of an “X” (Sacks 305). The Maccabean period has provided scholars with coins which confirm that tau originally took the cruciform shape (Stookey 111). So here we can understand that the symbol of the cross actually predates the symbol of tau.
This carries profound significance when you juxtapose the history of the cross symbol with the Scriptures. Paul tells us that when we believe in Jesus Christ, we have received the seal of the Holy Spirit (Eph. 1:13). A seal is a mark of great importance and evidence of approval e.g. kings would seal documents with their signet rings.
The Old Testament offers several occasions in which a seal was used for the purposes of God, such as the mark given to Cain, and the marking of the doorframes during the Passover (Gen. 4:15; Exod. 12:7, 12-13). The New Testament also reveals the sacredness of being marked with the seal of Christ (Rev. 7:3, 9:4, 14:1).
In particular, in Ezekiel 9:4, God instructs the prophet to “Go throughout the city of Jerusalem and put a mark on the foreheads of those who grieve and lament over all the detestable things that are done in it.” Here God is enacting another Passover event where the righteous are spared the punishment of the wicked. The similarity of placing of a cross on the foreheads of Christians during an Ash Wednesday service should not be lost on the reader.
It is also interesting to note that the definition of taw is mark in Hebrew, and has the shape of an “X”. The seal of the cross on the forehead bears a double Christological meaning:
The sign of the cross in its Greek form is employed; this indicates even more the importance of incorporation into Jesus’s death. The Greek cross, having four arms of equal length, is an “X” turned on its side; thus it is also an abbreviation for XPISTOS, the Greek form of Christ (Stookey 111).
Hence, when Ezekiel marked the foreheads of the righteous for their protection, he was unknowingly placing the mark of God upon them — that is, the name and cross of Jesus Christ. It is awesome to read the unfolding of God’s grand narrative which began in the Old Testament and culminated in the New Testament through Jesus Christ.
But there is yet another reason the early church incorporated the cross for its symbolic power during sacraments such as baptism:
The name [and cross] of Christ imposed on the forehead at baptism was related to the fact that Christians frequently assumed new names of their own at baptism. Those coming from pagan religions were particularly urged to change their names and to assume the name of biblical persons, or of Christians of previous generations (Stookey 111).
So early Christians did not assume the symbol of the cross to pay homage to Tammuz or other pagan deities, but instead, for the purpose of abolishing paganism from Christianity! Keep in mind that there are biblical references to receiving new names found in Revelation (2:17; 3:12).
Moreover, for Rome to institute crucifixion which happens to mirror the so called cross of Tammuz is a coincidence that is too fantastical to take serious. That is to say, the early church fathers did not assume tau to appease pagan converts, but due to the awesome reality that Jesus Christ allowed Himself to be crucified upon a cross so that the world may be saved.
More importantly, the underlining difference is that Christians do not worship a symbol, they worship the Lamb crucified on said symbol. Indictments can be made until the Second Coming of Christ and it would make no difference because God judges the heart and is rich in mercy.
But what if Jesus was crucified on a stake instead of a cross? This has been purported by those who hold the theory of pagan influences in the Christian Faith, and is a particular tenet of Jehovah’s Witnesses.
Joseph Franklin Rutherford (the second president of The Watchtower Bible and the Tract Society of Pennsylvania) propounded that the Greek word which we use for cross (stauros) was inaccurately translated, and in fact means a stake or pole used for capital punishment. He claimed that the commonplace rendering of the cross was introduced 300 years after Christ by Constantine due to a prophetic dream he claimed to have had.
First let us address the historicity of this claim. In the first century B.C.E., a Greek historian by the name of Dionysius of Halicarnassus described crucifixion as a method of execution in Rome:
Upon this the senators were filled with fear and everyone was speechless with astonishment, being at a loss to guess what the god’s message meant, and who was the leader of the dance in the procession who appeared unacceptable to him. At least one of them, recalling the incident, related it to the rest and all of them confirmed it by their testimony. It was this. A Roman citizen of no obscure station, having ordered one of his slaves to be put to death, delivered him to his fellow-slaves to be led away, and in order that his punishment might be witnessed by all, directed them to drag him through the Forum and every other conspicuous part of the city as they whipped him, and that he should go ahead of the procession which the Romans were at that time conducting in honour of the god. The men ordered to lead the slave to his punishment, having stretched out both his arms and fastened them to a piece of wood which extended across his breast and shoulders as far as his wrists, followed him, tearing his naked body with whips (Dionysius 7.69.1-2).
It is important to note that the slave was carrying the patibulum (horizontal part of the cross) to his place of execution. This account brings to mind an undeniable similarity to the Gospel accounts of Jesus Christ on His day of crucifixion.
In addition, Irenaeus of Lyons provides a second century C.E. account by explaining that, “the very form of the cross, too, has five extremities, two in length, two in breadth, and one in the middle, on which the person rests who is fixed by the nails” (Irenaeus 395). The fifth extremity supported the one being crucified at the feet in order to prolong the grueling death.
So it is owing to these documents among others, that we can confidently acknowledge that our common understanding of the cross is corroborated by history, and more than 300 years before the birth of Constantine.
If that was not enough to be convincing, perhaps our archaeological records will serve in settling the matter. During the years 40 B.C.E. to 135 C.E., many Jewish people used stone containers called ossuaries as secondary means of burying the dead by enclosing their bones within the receptacle. Numerous ossuaries have recently been discovered which contain Greek and Hebrew names along with the symbol of the cross, and at times the name of Jesus. The significance of this discovery is that no orthodox Jew would associate with the cross. Therefore, it stands to reason that the discovered ossuaries contained the remains of Jewish Christian believers. In fact, one ossuary has been found with the inscription “Jesus Christ, the Redeemer,” and still yet another referring to Jesus as “Jehovah” or “the Lord” (Grant 86, 89).
The dating of these ossuaries are important to our argument. It has already been stated that Jewish ossuaries were typically attributed to 40 B.C.E. to 135 C.E. But we have ossuaries with very specific dates from the first century:
During the fall of 1945, the famous Jewish archaeologist, Professor Eleazar L. Sukenik of Hebrew University, excavated a first-century burial cave discovered near the Jerusalem suburb of Talpiot on the road to Bethlehem, just at the southern end of the Kidron Valley that lies between the Mount of Olives and the Temple Mount… He found many ossuaries with the sign of the cross, two occurrences of the name “Jesus,” Greek inscriptions, and a coin minted in A.D. 41 for King Herod Agrippa I (Grant 88).
The minted coin is evidence that the cave had been sealed between 41-42 C.E. For this reason, it is without question that the cross had been associated with Jesus Christ with a marginal lapse after His death and resurrection. It is interesting to note that it was the false goddess Inanna who was actually killed upon a stake.
Although skepticism related to the cross has been addressed with history and archaeology, let us now turn to our most authoritative and definitive source: the Bible.
In the Gospel of John, the disciple Thomas expresses his doubts connected to the testimony of Jesus’ resurrection. He tells his brothers in the Upper Room, “Unless I see in His hands the imprint of the nails, and put my finger into the place of the nails, and put my hand into His side, I will not believe” (emphasis mine, NASB, 20:25).
This verse records nails in the plural form making it clear that two nails were used, one for each hand. Bearing this in mind, holding to the view that Jesus was killed on a stake makes it difficult to imagine a need for two nails in overlapping hands. Consequently, this account lines up with what history says about the method of crucifixion on a cross.
Further, in the Gospel of Matthew we read the following description pertaining to the titulus (sign) fixed upon the cross: And above His head they put up the charge against Him which read, “THIS IS JESUS THE KING OF THE JEWS” (27:37). The titulus fastened to the cross is described as being placed above the head of Jesus Christ. If our Lord had been killed at the stake, then His hands would have been nailed above His head, and the sign would have been placed above His hands.
The last accusation to set straight has to do with ashes being a pagan symbol. It should be evident by now how easy it can be to assume connections due to the breadth and long history of religions and Christianity.
However, there are ample examples of ashes being used in the Scriptures which acknowledge their place in Christendom. Here are a few to be considered which should serve the reader in gleaning biblical meaning:
- We are but dust: Abraham exclaims that we are nothing but dust and ashes when he appeals to the Lord to spare Sodom and Gomorrah in Genesis 18:27, realizing that he is a mortal man in the presence of a holy and immortal God. This is mentioned once again in Ecclesiastes 3:20 as Solomon says, “All go to the same place; all come from dust, and to dust all return.“
- Ashes were used to repent: The king of Nineveh and his kingdom heeded the warning of God proclaimed by Jonah. To repent, the king and his people put on sackcloth and sat in the dust (Jon. 3:6). Job also repents in dust and ashes when confronted by God for being self-righteous and belittling His good nature (Job 42:6).
- Ashes were used to mourn: In the book of Esther, Mordecai learns about Hamon’s plot to destroy the Jews, and “tore his clothes, put on sackcloth and ashes, and went out into the city, wailing loudly and bitterly” (Esth. 4:2). Tamar likewise mourns with ashes after Amnon raped her (2 Sam. 13:19).
- Ashes were used to seek succor from the Lord: Upon understanding that the desolation of Jerusalem would last 70 years, Daniel pleaded to God in “prayer and petition, in fasting, and in sackcloth and ashes” (Dan. 9:3).
- Ashes were used for purification: In Jeremiah we read, “For the unclean person, put some ashes from the burned purification offering into a jar and pour fresh water over them” (19:17).
- Jesus also seems to imply that using ashes for a righteous sake is accepted when He chastises Chorzain and Bethsaida by explaining, “if the miracles that were performed in you had been performed in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago, sitting in sackcloth and ashes” (Luke 10:13).
In light of the evidence, the reader can confidently acknowledge that Lent is not derivative of paganism. It would make little sense for the church to condone pagan practices while understanding the grave sin of idolatry. Similarly, it would make little sense for a new convert to embrace a monotheistic religion only to cling to polytheistic tenants or rituals. Indeed, this is especially evident when bringing to mind the relentless persecution of Christianity until the meeting of Bishops in Milan (313 C.E.) fostered by the rule of Constantine. If a convert was so bold to face persecution for his or her faith, they would accept Christianity unconditionally.
This article has sought to address the prominent misconceptions about Lent. Indeed, it is beyond the scope of this article to cover all arguments in their entirety. Even so, it should be evident that the church has instituted many practices that are not specifically commanded or directed in the Bible making Lent no different. Nevertheless, there is no direct conflict for such practices as they are biblical in spirit. The Bible provides rich examples of how to live in accordance with God and man which believers can draw from. Conversely, the Holy Spirit often endorses and leads the Body of Christ in ways that honor Him.
The reader can also rest assured that he or she does no disservice to God simply because someone may be aware of their dedication to fasting during the Lenten season, given the heart of the believer is fixed upon the Lord instead of personal recognition. Moreover, the expostulation that Lent ignores the Christian spirit of gratefulness and joy has been explained and shown to be mistaken. And finally, the assumption that Lent stems from paganism has been exposed as folly.
Lent should never be mandated by the church. However, seeing as many Christians strengthen their faith and grow closer to Jesus during the preparation for Pasch, it should not be condemned either. In saying that, I conclude by suggesting that the reader take into account the following passage of Scripture found in Philippians. Here we are admonished to support one another in brotherly love regardless of our differences:
Therefore if you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any common sharing in the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and of one mind. Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others (2:1-4).
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Roberts, Alexander, James Donaldson, A. Cleveland Coxe, Allan Menzies, Ernest Cushing Richardson, and Bernhard Pick. The Ante-Nicene Fathers. Translations of the Writings of the Fathers down to A.D. 325. Buffalo: Christian Literature, 1885. Print.
Sacks, David. Letter Perfect: The A-to-Z History of Our Alphabet. Toronto: Vintage Canada, 2004. Print.
Stookey, Laurence Hull. Baptism, Christ’s Act in the Church. Nashville: Abingdon, 1982. Print.