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Exposing the pagan roots of Easter

Professor Keel has been studying the Bible for more than 50 years swissinfo.ch

On Sunday Christians celebrate the day when they believe Jesus Christ rose from the dead. But for most people Easter is just a spring holiday.

This content was published on March 23, 2008 - 11:00

Leading Swiss theologian Othmar Keel tells swissinfo why people struggle to understand the Easter story, and says the main religions have more in common with paganism than they would care to admit.

The emeritus professor of Old Testament studies at Fribourg University has written more than 40 books, including an encyclopaedic history of biblical Jerusalem published last year.

His research has focused on the cultural and historical links between the monotheistic faiths – Judaism, Christianity and Islam – and the polytheistic religions that preceded them.

swissinfo: What does Easter mean to you personally?

Othmar Keel: Easter, like every important feast, has many layers. The original layer is a spring feast. Everybody is somehow touched by it. After the winter the flowers come back and it's more pleasant to go out. Then you have the Jewish level of Easter, the exodus from Egypt, and the Christian level, relating to life after death. It depends a little on my mood: sometimes the first layer is more important, sometimes other layers are more important.

I usually go to Mass and in the afternoon go for a long walk in the woods. I cultivate both layers: the Christian, which includes the Jewish, and what you can call the pagan layer of the spring feast. I think both are important and for me it's a kind of coherent tradition.

swissinfo: Eggs and rabbits are things people associate with Easter. Are we reverting to a pagan society?

O.K.: We are already pagan. I think it relates to a saying by Baruch Spinoza, the Jewish philosopher: Deus sive natura. God is another word for nature.

I think for many people nowadays the ultimate horizon they relate to is nature. And even for Christian believers it is becoming more important. If you look at devotional literature, it's full of rainbows and woods and rivers and so on. They are not aware of it, but nature has become very important. But for me it is part of this Jewish-Christian and even Islamic tradition: these faiths have a base in polytheistic religions.

The egg started to be part of Easter in mediaeval times when they were very strict about fasting. And when the fast was over, at Easter, the Church blessed all kinds of foodstuffs including eggs of course. In Egypt the egg has been a symbol since time immemorial for the beginning, and of course Christ sprung from the tomb and the little chicken springs from the egg. It is one symbol which relates to the different layers of Easter: the pagan and the Christian.

swissinfo: Easter is the most important date in the Christian calendar and yet very few outside the Church seem to have any idea what it's about...

O.K.: Easter is a complex feast in contrast to Christmas. At Christmas you have the birth of a child, an experience which many, many human beings can relate to. But who has lived through resurrection? I think that's the reason. For centuries biblical tradition had no hope of a life after death. It's difficult to believe because it's not normal.

swissinfo: But isn't the hope of life after death, which Jesus represents, something that people would want to cling to?

O.K.: Yes, but we have no guarantee. It makes sense if you have a very intimate relationship with God and the belief He will not let you fall into death without any hope.

The basic belief of resurrection is to be accepted by God. Being accepted is a fundamental hope all through life. And being accepted is basic for happiness, I think. Being accepted by God is the ultimate acceptance.

swissinfo: Do we neglect our Christian traditions because we're afraid of upsetting minorities and other religions?

O.K.: No, I think it's that we don't have belief any more. Many people don't invest much in their Christianity. What do they spend their time and money on? They spend it on travelling, experiencing the world, building a nice house... for all kinds of earthly things. This shows what is important.

In medieval times they built churches and monasteries, to guarantee eternal life. But nowadays who spends their money on building a church or chapel or paying a priest to say Mass?

swissinfo: Islam is on the rise in traditionally Christian western Europe. How far should religious tolerance go?

O.K.: People say 'we are not allowed to build churches in Riyadh, why should we allow minarets in Switzerland?' But do we want to be like the Saudis? We don't want to be so intolerant.

Usually a creator likes his creations. So if you hate some of them, you are not on the side of your God. We cannot prescribe to others what their beliefs should be. Muslims can build minarets and can cover their hair or not. As long as it doesn't harm other people, I don't mind.

swissinfo: You've been a theologian for 50 years and have grappled with many different issues, most recently the female dimension of God. What are you focusing on now?

O.K.: I'm always talking about what I call vertical ecumenism, in particular the close relationship between the pagan religion and the monotheistic religions. If you look closely, you see that many beliefs of paganism have survived in monotheistic religions and it is important to be aware of that because many people in our society believe in nature. And I think it's always important to stress what we have in common.

With Christianity and Judaism, people have learned to look at what we have in common and you have a Jewish-Christian ecumenism, which didn't exist before the Holocaust.

The big problem for all the monotheistic religions is to find a relationship with pagans, or naturalists, or whatever you want to call them. This preoccupies me most from a theological point of view.

swissinfo-interview: Morven McLean

Othmar Keel

Born December 6, 1937 in Einsiedeln

Studied theology, history of religion, Egyptology and ancient oriental art in Zurich, Fribourg, Rome, Jerusalem and Chicago.

From 1967 to 2002 taught Old Testament studies in the theology faculty of Fribourg University and is now emeritus professor.

In 2005 won the Benoist Prize, considered the Swiss equivalent of the Nobel Prize, for his work aimed at a better understanding of the historic and cultural context of the Old Testament.

Married with two children and lives in Fribourg.

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