Redeeming Holy Days from Pagan Lies — Ash Wednesday and Lent

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Falat Julian
Ash Wednesday, watercolor, 78 x 113 cm (detail)

So, what are the supposed pagan origins of Ash Wednesday and Lent?

There are two aspects of Ash Wednesday and Lent that need to be emphasized. First is the historical nature of the forty days of Lent; the second is the use of ash on Ash Wednesday.

To put it plainly: the claim that Ash Wednesday and Lent are based on pagan origins is a relatively new fiction that comes out of several different sources.

First is the irresponsible work of Alexander Hislop and those who followed him; both those who claim to be Christian and those who oppose Christianity.

Second is the neo-pagan movement today that falsely imagines that paganism is the most ancient of religions and rejects the Bible totally. But, in fact, Lent and Ash Wednesday have no origins in paganism.

You will find all kinds of websites on the Internet that claim that Ash Wednesday and Lent are not Biblical because Christ never commanded them.

In part this is true. And Satan likes to use truth to give credibility to his lies.

Christ didn’t command any such celebration. Christ did not command His followers to celebrate Ash Wednesday. Nor did he command that we worship on Sunday. Nor did He command that we sing “Rock of Ages.” Nor did he command that we use chairs or pews when we gather.

The false logic is this: If Christ didn’t specifically command us to do something, then it is a sin to do it. So, think about how little sense that logic makes. Take this example: Christ did not command that I have my children wash dishes. Is it therefore a sin to have them do so? No.

What Christ did command and give to His Church was that the Word of God be preached for the remission of sins; that is, that the Law and the Gospel be taught, so people would be brought to repentance; and that faith in Christ would be given to them. He commanded that sins be forgiven in His name through the absolution to penitent sinners and withheld from the impenitent as long as they do not repent. He commanded that all nations, young and old, regardless of race be baptized for the forgiveness of their sins. He commanded that we celebrate the feast of His Holy Supper where He gives us His Body and Blood together with the bread and wine in the Sacrament for the forgiveness of our sins. He gave us the promise that the Father hears our prayers in Christ’s name because He has made us His brothers and sisters through the forgiveness of sins—won for us on the cross and distributed to us through Word and Sacrament. The prayer and celebration of these gifts can be held any day.

The ancient Church recognized that it was free from legalistic obligations, both from the Old Testament Law, and from new invented laws of men.  St. Paul wrote about this in Colossians 2. They also knew from Scripture that they were not to use this liberty as an excuse for sin. (Romans 6) They knew that they were not to let their consciences be bound by new human regulations as if their salvation depended upon them. (Galatians 1-2) Whatever was beneficial for the teaching of God’s word and for the practice of the Christian life-consisting of repentance and forgiveness in the Means of Grace-was encouraged.

And the ancient Church chose to keep a fast during the forty days before Passover/Easter to focus on repentance and the gift of the Resurrection at Easter. St. Athanasius, who led at the Council of Nicea to defeat Arianism—a denial of Christ being truly God and man in one person—was a bishop in Alexandria, Egypt. He wrote annual Festival letters to the Church as they prepared to celebrate Easter. In the year 331 he wrote in order to encourage his congregations in Egypt to keep the Lenten fast for 40 days. Athanasius directs the readers to many Scriptural examples and exhortations to moderation, self-control, and fasting for repentance, Athanasius gives several Bible examples of the 40 day fast, especially of Christ’s 40 day fast, after which Athanasius 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 neighbours.

We learn from this that even at the time the Nicene Creed was written, at the time Constantine the Great ruled, the Western and Eastern Churches practiced a voluntary fast for 40 days before Easter.

That this was practiced in Rome and elsewhere is seen in St. Athanasius’ letter from the year 340 A.D. when he returns from a meeting of pastors/bishops from all around the world, and he encourages his own congregations to continue in the same practice of the 40 day Lenten fast as does “the rest of the whole world.”

In order to count the 40 days of Lent the Sundays of that season are not counted as part of the fast. Rather the Sundays are each a minor feast day. If you add the six feast Sundays to the 40 fast days you get 46 days. That means that the first day of the Fast of Lent is a Wednesday, just as Athanasius explained.

The 40 day fast does not come from the so-called “weeping of Tammuz” as claimed by the radical anti-Roman Catholic writer Alexander Hislop in his book The Two Babylons. Hislop made up myths and connections out of thin air because of his hatred for Roman Catholicism. Hislop’s views were adopted whole cloth by the Jehovah’s Witnesses, who continued to republish Hislop’s book until 1987. Hislop’s book was cited in 22 different issues of the Jehovah’s Witnesses periodical The Watchtower from 1950 to 1978, and several times in the 1980s. From 1989 the Jehovah’s Witnesses stopped referring to Hilsop’s book, but they have kept Hislop’s teaching and use other sources.

The month of Tammuz in Old Testament times is roughly equivalent to our July. To the best evidence, that was when the Babylonian pagans, and the fallen Israelites mentioned in Ezekiel 8:14 would “weep for Tammuz”. Also, this weeping took place on the second day of that month, right after the new moon. Not for forty days.

Two basic facts: 1) The weeping for Tammuz was not a 40 day thing. That is Hislop’s fiction. 2) The month of Tammuz is 4 months after Easter. They aren’t even in the same time of year. ( From the The Electronic Text Corpus of Sumerian Literature: Inana and Bilulu: an ulila to Inana: c.1.4.4 English Translation)

Many websites claim that the use of ashes on Ash Wednesday comes from pagan sources.

The ironic thing is that these websites cannot get their own stories straight. Some people assert that the ashes and Lent come from Nordic Odin worship, others that they come from pagan Roman cults, others that they come from ancient Hindu religions—and some try to maintain irrational combinations of the above very different imagined sources.

But ashes for Ash Wednesday do not come from any of these sources. The practice of believers using ashes to represent sorrow and repentance is well testified in the Bible. In the ancient world it was the natural formal response of those who are sorry for their sins:

For example:

  • Tamar’s repentance: 2 Samuel 13:19 Then Tamar put ashes on her head, and tore her robe of many colors that was on her, and laid her hand on her head and went away crying bitterly.
  • Mordecay’s repentance and the repentance of the Jews in exile; Esther 4:1,3 When Mordecai learned all that had happened, he tore his clothes and put on sackcloth and ashes, and went out into the midst of the city. He cried out with a loud and bitter cry. And in every province where the king’s command and decree arrived, there was great mourning among the Jews, with fasting, weeping, and wailing; and many lay in sackcloth and ashes.
  • Job’s repentance: Job 2:8 And he took for himself a potsherd with which to scrape himself while he sat in the midst of the ashes.
  • See also Isaiah 58:5; Jeremiah 6:26; Daniel 9:3; Jonah 3:6; and Christ’s harsh words to the cities of Chorazin and Bethsaida in Luke 10:13.

But didn’t Jesus tell us not to put on a show while fasting? Yes, that’s in Matthew chapter 6:

“Moreover, when you fast, do not be like the hypocrites, with a sad countenance. For they disfigure their faces that they may appear to men to be fasting. Assuredly, I say to you, they have their reward. But you, when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, so that you do not appear to men to be fasting, but to your Father who is in the secret place; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you openly.”

He said the same of prayer and of giving charitable gifts. His point is that these things should not be done as a show of righteousness. He did not prohibit praying in public or as a group in worship. He did not prohibit giving something publicly or to a group. And he did not prohibit using outward symbols of repentance like ashes.

What Christ condemned in these passages is thinking that we can show others how good, how sincere, how devout, and what kind of a Christian we are with these outward symbols. The ash on the forehead is a confession that the person is worth only ashes, has no righteousness, is not better than another, and needs God’s grace if there is to be any hope for him or her.

Can the symbol be abused? Yes, of course it can. But that does not make it a bad symbol. Every gift of God can be abused by sinful people. We should expect that because of sin. So we should recognize that the ways that Christians choose in their freedom to celebrate God’s gifts can also be misused.

So we see, first of all, that neither forty day fast of Lent nor the ashes of Ash Wednesday have anything to do with pagan origins. The use of ashes in the Christian faith as a sign of repentance is as old as Job, and probably older. It certainly is the outward act chosen by believers through out thousands of years, from the earliest times as outward sign to confess unworthiness and sin.

No human can require a Christian to use the fast of Lent as a saving work. A congregation can recommend the practice as a serious self-examination of one’s own sin and sinful appetites; of one’s own weaknesses. No human can require Christians to use ash on Ash Wednesday or any other day as a way of proving their faith.

And neither can any human forbid the use of the Lenten fast or the use of ashes either. Both are legalism, a replacing of the Gospel for a new law. The whole point of Ash Wednesday and the Lenten Fast is to look on ourselves as worthless and utterly needy: to look only upon Christ, to celebrate His feast in the Lord’s Supper, preach His passion and death upon the cross, and proclaim the Resurrection of Christ as the final seal upon our salvation.

We should reject any fictionalizing about pagan origins of Lent or Ash Wednesday with both the truth of Scripture and real history.

About Pastor Joseph Abrahamson

Pastor Joseph Abrahamson serves Faith Ev. Lutheran Church, Clara City, Minnesota (E.L.S.). He and his wife, Mary, have 10 children. Pastor Abrahamson is a graduate of Bethany Lutheran Theological Seminary, and of the University of Wisconsin-Madison's Department of Hebrew and Semitic Studies. He has served on the Faculty/Staff at Bethany Lutheran College teaching Religion, Linguistics, Archaeology, and Self-Defense; and was on Staff at the University of Wisconsin as an Information Processing Consultant (Computer Geek) while doing graduate work in Semitics. Pastor Abrahamson served Clearwater Lutheran Parish (ELS) from 2001 to April 2015.


Redeeming Holy Days from Pagan Lies — Ash Wednesday and Lent — 14 Comments

  1. I can’t thank you enough for this series. Back in my fundagelical days, I used the whole “historical Christianity is pagan” argument (although calling it an argument is a bit generous) constantly. These posts have been incredibly helpful.

  2. You note the ashes and sackcloth of the king of Ninevah. But note too that the fast of Ninevah was a 40 day fast. Yet 40 days and Ninevah shall be destroyed, and they fasted, and it wasn’t.

    So in one sense one could legitimately say that the custom of fasting 40 days as penance for sins is both Biblical and with the example of the pagan Ninevah folks and also that it works. I like this because everyone gets to be correct.

    Another aspect, which you are likely aware, is that mark the tau which was the lazy X in the old way of writing, which is the cross.

  3. Pastor Abrahamson, I have so appreciated your articles in this area for their clarity and cutting through the lies about the origins of Christian practices and for giving the sources. It’s so helpful! This one is no exception.

    I do, however, disagree with one of the Scriptures you say connects the use of ashes to repentance. Tamar, when she put ashes on her head and tore her clothes, was not doing so out of repentance, but out of great grief that her brother Amnon had raped her and then cast her out of his home in disgust. She had done nothing to repent of in this case.

    I am quite certain that you did not mean to imply that Tamar had anything to repent of in regards to being raped. Perhaps there is a more appropriate reference you could use or clarify that the ashes represented great sorrow rather than repentance in her case?

    Thank you again for your immensely helpful articles!

  4. @Deac. Kimberly #3

    The articles are, indeed, good stuff!

    However – I would suggest that Fr. Abrahamson is onto something with Tamar.

    The sad fact of sin in this world is that there are both those who perpetrate sin, and those who suffer from the same said sin. It is the very condition of the world in its sin, death and devilish-ness. But “repentance” properly speaks of a change occurring from without to us – so be one either perpetrator or victim of sin, to cry out to God that we are but ashes to ashes and dust to dust and to completely expect His mercy and peace in whatever situation in this life – is the height of true faith. It is the “change/repentance only faith can bring about.

    Granted – she had nothing to be “contrite” about in the rape, but she instead turned to God and in a clear sign of faith that she knew from whence she had come and her flesh must go, she by faith made it clear in her actions that she believed in the mercy of God regardless. Pax . . .

  5. @jb #4
    I hope that you are correct about Pastor Abrahamson’s reasoning for including Tamar as an example of repentance. In so far as she turned to God in faith to redeem her from her brother’s sin that had destroyed her life, it is a good example. Thank you for sharing that line of reasoning.

    My concern is mainly that in the context of the article Tamar’s example is right after a line stating “it was the natural formal response of those who are sorry for their sins”. For survivors of sexual abuse the inherent shame of being so sinned against can lead them to question whether God truly loves them and if there is any way to be washed of the sin done to them. I would hate for someone–woman or man–to read that line and come to the false conclusion that they must repent of the sin of being raped when they are, in fact, innocent in God’s eyes.

    May we all seek God’s mercy, forgiveness, and healing through repentance for the evil we have done and the evil done to us.

  6. Deac. Kimberly,

    Thank you for bringing this point out. While I was focusing narrowly on the example of the use of ashes for sorrow and repentance the misuse and misinterpretation of Tamar’s repentance was not as present in my mind as it should have been.

    It is well worth the time for the benefit of those who may misunderstand what scars remain on those of us who have been violated personally by rape or sexual abuse. When I say “personally” I mean not only those individuals who have suffered first hand at the predator, but also each of us who have had our family members and close friends violated in this way. The nature of the crime disrupts the close bond of love–which before the crime is expressed by a wide variety of close personal contact in both word, behavior, and physical contact. The nature of the sexual crime itself undermines even the closest relationships with respect to the choice of words, behaviors, and especially the physical contact that all had previously been expressions of love.

    Not only may the direct victims of sexual crimes deprived of the ability to trust such expressions, but those closest to them most often are left struggling with their alienation from the victim to find ways of helping, supporting, and fostering healing in their close loved one in the savage aftermath.

    For those who have not had direct dealings with this crime, even a touch of the hand or a hug meant in earnest love can trigger traumatic body memories of the crime.

    And such is the case also in using Tamar’s repentance as an example in this article. I apologize that I didn’t consider this when writing this example into the article.

    And just so that the readers can understand, Tamar is not represented in Scripture as repenting for a sin that she committed. She is devastated by what was done to her, but Tamar’s faith goes deeper than her concern for herself and what happened to her own person. She is the shining example of Faith enduring horrible tribulation in the account of 2 Sam 13. Her explicitly expressed concern is the impact of her half-brother’s crime on the house of Israel, the Church.

    Tamar’s brother, Absalom, used Tamar in a plot to kill his half-brother Amnon; thus removing him as a threat to Absalom’s claim to the throne.

    Tamar’s words are very important to understanding what she did. Tearing robes was a cultural sign of grief, sorrow, outrage, and also repentance. Some times some of these meanings were combined, sometimes only one specific reason is meant. Through the Scriptures the use of ashes was for humility and self-contempt and repentance together. It is possible that this particular episode represents the exception rather than the common practice. But if we assume that Tamar used ashes consistently with cultural practice, then her own words are emphasized by her actions.

    The account says:

    11 Now when she had brought them to him to eat, he took hold of her and said to her, “Come, lie with me, my sister.”

    12 But she answered him, “No, my brother, do not force me, for no such thing should be done in Israel. Do not do this disgraceful thing! 13 And I, where could I take my shame? And as for you, you would be like one of the fools in Israel. Now therefore, please speak to the king; for he will not withhold me from you.”

    Tamar certainly cries out about her shame and the violation. But that is not all she cries out against. This particular crime is not just an offence against her but against the People of God. She knows her position as a daughter of the King. She knows Amnon’s position as the son of the King. Even in the face of rape she pleads for marriage approved by the King. Her concern is not just for her own body and self, but for the reputation of God’s people. This does not minimize the affects and effects of this crime had upon her. Rather, it shows her loving dedication as a believer to her half-brother Amnon even though his weakness and sin was a threat to her own person.

    14 However, he would not heed her voice; and being stronger than she, he forced her and lay with her.

    15 Then Amnon hated her exceedingly, so that the hatred with which he hated her was greater than the love with which he had loved her. And Amnon said to her, “Arise, be gone!”

    Amnon raped her. And among all the things that could be done to my children (sons and daughters) or which have happened to women who are among my closest friends, this crime is one for which I personally would find it hard not to want to extract justice physically from the perpetrator with the power of my own hands.

    Then he despised her. This is important, and often missed. The fact is that this is not just a narrative about Tamar’s rape. While the violation of her body is undeniably important. These words point out that that was not the only thing going on. Amnon had “loved her” (???????? ????? for any readers who are hooked on the false etymologizing notion of AGAPE love–but that’s another article.). Now Amnon despised her. Why is that important? Because it shows that it is not just as a conquest or an act of aggression in Amnon. He despised her and what she stood for.

    16 So she said to him, “No, indeed! This evil of sending me away is worse than the other that you did to me.”

    Why? He already raped her. What was Tamar trying to do? She was still seeking a way to protect Amnon’s reputation and the reputation of Israel.

    But he would not listen to her. 17 Then he called his servant who attended him, and said, “Here! Put this woman out, away from me, and bolt the door behind her.” 18 Now she had on a robe of many colors, for the king’s virgin daughters wore such apparel. And his servant put her out and bolted the door behind her.

    19 Then Tamar put ashes on her head, and tore her robe of many colors that was on her, and laid her hand on her head and went away crying bitterly. 20 And Absalom her brother said to her, “Has Amnon your brother been with you? But now hold your peace, my sister. He is your brother; do not take this thing to heart.” So Tamar remained desolate in her brother Absalom’s house.

    Absolom accomplished his goal. Tamar is devastated. She is devastated not only by being raped, but that her attempts to rescue the reputation of her rapist and the reputation of God’s people have been shattered.

    Her act of grief, sorrow, and repentance is not in any way an admission that she is responsible for being raped. Her use of ashes, consistent with biblical precedent, is similar to what we do when we have a national day of humiliation and repentance. She is admitting to God that no matter how good or innocent she has been, she deserves nothing from God and would in this humble position beg God to answer her prayer.

    And Absolom doesn’t care. He goes on with his plot, not wanting to hear what his sister had to say. He was responsible in part, after all. And now he has what he needs to kill Amnon–to remove a threat to his own claim on the throne, while his father is so shocked by what happened he doesn’t seem to know how to react.

    So, Deac. Kimberly, this is how I understand Tamar’s repentance. And I agree that it is too much to assume of a casual reader, though my interpretation is not new or unique. And I agree that too many have wrongly attributed guilt to Tamar, that she was somehow responsible for being raped. And it is wrong for anyone to use this text as a justification for claiming that any woman, man, or child was “asking for it.”

    I have close friends who are survivors of rape and sexual abuse. And I regret that what I wrote might be used to cause them or others to feel guilt about what they had to endure at the hands of others.

    And I hope that this extended explanation will show why I believe it is appropriate to classify Tamar’s use of ashes as an act of repentance, not for herself as the victim of rape, but as one concerned for the spiritual well being of her half-brother and for the people of God. In retrospect, I would not have included this example without explanation. But now I have given an explanation: which I pray will be beneficial to others.

    Pr. Joseph Abrahamson

  7. OK, the ???????? didn’t come through right, I’ll try again. The words describing Amnon’s love are:

    HGAPHSEN AUTHN (trying UTF-8 Greek -> ???????? ?????.)

    The fact that AGAPH is used here of Amnon’s “love” for Tamar demonstrates the hollowness of the Root Fallacy used in talking about AGAPE love. And like I said, that’s another article.

  8. Pastor Abrahamson,

    Thank you for taking the time to write such a graciously pastoral and thorough exegetical response to my concern. Connecting Tamar’s use of ashes and repentance to her deep concern for the spiritual ramifications of the rape for Amnon and for God’s people gives the act a profoundly different character, one that testifies to a faith so firmly grounded that not even horrific abuse can shake it. Praise God for such a witness in Scripture and that He gave Tamar strength to endure!

    I also pray that your explanation is beneficial to others and a comfort to the men, women and children who have suffered at the hands of others. Thank you for bringing out God’s merciful hand and the Gospel in an otherwise sin-benighted account. God’s blessings to you.

  9. Enjoyed your interview on Issues, Etc., regarding this issue. In it, you made a passing reference to fundamentalist evangelist Ralph Woodrow’s book, Babylon Mystery Religion. I read it several years ago, and it certainly was indicative of the mindset innappropriately advocated by Hislop’s The Two Babylons. However, it was apparent to me that you were not aware that Ralph Woodrow, after writing the book, learned better and wrote a follow-up book to correct his previous errors, called The Babylon Connection? Here’s a link to his site and new book:

  10. @John D. Chitty #10
    Thank you. Yes I am aware that Woodrow has repudiated and recanted for his book Babylon Mystery Religion. I mentioned that in the article on Juvenalia .

    During the radio interview I failed to mention that. But I think I also didn’t recall Woodrow’s name at the time, just the title of his book. I was trying to give examples while being extremely brief in the interview time limit. And Woodrow himself wants his old book to be rejected.

    Thanks for bringing this up.

  11. I thoroughly enjoy these posts! Very informative, enlightening, and thought-provoking. Will you be doing one on Easter vs. Spring Solstice? I have a family member who loves to post anti-Christian, pro-pagan themes throughout the year and, true to form, has just posted the claim that Easter was an attempt by the Christian church to overshadow the pagan Ostara festival. I would love to link to information that could correct this ridiculous notion.

  12. Deac. Kimberly :

    I do, however, disagree with one of the Scriptures you say connects the use of ashes to repentance. Tamar, when she put ashes on her head and tore her clothes, was not doing so out of repentance, but out of great grief that her brother Amnon had raped her and then cast her out of his home in disgust. She had done nothing to repent of in this case.

    I have to agree with you. Repentance is not the right word to use for Tamar here. It should be grief and sorrow. Ashes were used to symbolize grief and sorrow, not just repentance (which includes grief and sorrow).

    And I see Pr Abrhamson has already addressed this, most excellently. 🙂

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