Is Easter a Pagan Holiday? Part One
- Jay Ryan Classical Astronomy
- 2009 4 Apr
The feast of LORD's resurrection, commonly known by the name "Easter," is one of the most ancient observances in Christianity. Most Christians today keep this traditional Sunday holiday as a special day unto the LORD. However, in recent years, there has been an increasing trend among evangelicals to shun Easter as allegedly being derived from a pagan source.
We have grace and liberty from the LORD to either hold a certain day special or not, as long as we do so to the glory of God (Romans 14:5, 6). Notwithstanding, the apostle also instructs us to "not let our good be evil spoken of." Is Easter really built on an evil foundation? How can we know for sure?
However we personally choose to handle the subject of Easter, we need to be a people who abide in truth and prayerfully approach subjects with both eyes open, formulating opinions on the basis of documented fact and not rumor or unsubstantiated "urban legends." This article presents some facts not commonly shared on the subject of Easter, to provide some food for thought for those who love to learn.
The Name "Easter"
One principal objection to this feast is the name "Easter." It is often said that this name is a thinly veiled pagan name drawn from the Babylonian fertility goddess Ishtar, also known as Astarte or Ashtoreth in other pagan cultures encountered by the Israelites in biblical times.
These names are certainly similar to the name "Easter." However, as I note in other articles, the name "Easter" is only known from one single historical source, written by the Venerable Bede, an eighth century English Christian monk. Bede briefly identifies the name as referring to a pagan goddess that formerly had a feast at a similar time, and that the old name was used to celebrate the new Christian feast.
This is a clear example of syncretism, where Christian and pagan elements are mingled, since a pagan Anglo-Saxon name came to be associated the Christian feast. But Bede did not seem troubled by this name, nor did anyone else down through history until fairly recent times. Bede does not provide evidence identifying any pagan practices that were mingled with the Christian feast, nor anything connecting the name "Easter" with the Babylonian goddess. Indeed, it is not clear how Babylonian influence could jump all the way across the Mediterranean and the European continent after many centuries to turn up in Germany and then England with the early Anglo-Saxons. So there are no historical facts that can prove any Babylonian connection between these apparently-similar names.
A look at non-English speaking Christians also shows a disconnect. The name "Easter" is not known in other traditionally Christian languages of Europe. Nearly all other European nations use a variant of the word pascha, which is the New Testament Greek equivalent for the Hebrew word pesach, meaning "Passover." In this way, the etymology of the name shows that the early church considered the resurrection of Christ to be a type of Passover commemoration.
There is an increasing trend in recent years among English-speaking evangelicals to instead refer to Easter as "Resurrection Sunday." Yet we would do better to instead adopt the Greek biblical word "Pascha" (pronounced "pah-ska") and thus connect with Scripture and most of the non-English-speaking world in signifying this Christian commemoration as actually being based on the Old Testament Passover.
Most of the objection to the traditional English name "Easter" seems quite overblown if you consider other examples. In the Old Testament book of Esther, we read of a Jewish girl named Hadassah who became queen of the King of Persia, where she helped save the Jewish people from persecution. Hadassah was given the name Esther, a Persian word that is exactly the same name as Ishtar. So the LORD was pleased to use a woman best known by this pagan name to rescue His chosen people. We once attended church with a family that was very opposed to Easter, yet this same family named their daughter Esther. Go figure! I'm sure the LORD chuckles at these sorts of things!
(Here's some interesting connections. The pagan goddess Ishtar was associated with the morning star Venus. The name Hadassah comes from the Hebrew root hadas, which refers to the flower myrtle. In pagan culture, the myrtle flower was associated with the goddess Venus, and so the names Hadassah and Esther are in fact equivalent translations. There is actually an interesting astronomical basis for the association between Venus and myrtle, but that is another story.)
Easter and the Church Calendar
Over the many long centuries since the time of Jesus and the Apostles, a church calendar was developed for keeping track of important feasts and holidays. The church calendar is maintained in "high church" liturgical traditions, and its intended purpose is to devote large stretches of the year to commemorating the events of the life and ministry of Jesus.
The church calendar includes a schedule of "fixed feasts" and "moveable feasts." The fixed feasts are tied to the seasonal cycle of the solar year, and follow an annual progression where the same holidays land on the same dates every year.
The fixed feasts are strictly New Testament holidays. March 25 is the traditional feast of the Annunciation, commemorating the angel's announcement to Mary that she would be the mother of Jesus. This is the traditional date of the conception of Jesus, and Christmas lands exactly nine months later, on December 25. Christmas is preceded by the season of Advent, a season of anticipation and reflection of the coming of the Savior.
The moveable feasts are based on the cycles of the moon, and are essentially counterparts to certain Hebrew Old Testament feasts, and follow similar rules. Generally speaking, the time of Easter corresponds to the time of Passover, following the basic rules set forth in Exodus 12. Since they are based on the cycles of the Moon, the moveable feasts land on different dates each year.
In the liturgical cycle, the date of Easter is preceded by Lent, a 40 day season of fasting and repentance, representing Jesus' 40 days of fasting in the desert. On Easter, the fast is broken in a joyous feast of celebrating our salvation. The Easter season continues until Ascension Thursday, commemorating the 40 days Jesus spent with His disciples before ascending to heaven (Acts 1:3).
Some say there is something pagan about basing a calendar system on the annual cycle of the seasons or the phases of the Moon. Yet the LORD made the Sun and Moon specifically to be timekeepers (Genesis 1:14). In a time before modern clocks and calendars, there was simply no other way to maintain any sort of calendar other than the seasonal signposts of the Sun and Moon.
Such concerns notwithstanding, the modern Hebrew calendar is actually a product of "pagan influences," including month names taken from the pagan Babylonian calendar. In the books of Moses, we find the month name Abib for the first month (Exodus 13:4, inter alia). In 1 Kings 6 and 8, we find the month names Zif, Bul, and Ethanim. However, in the books written after the Babylonian Exile -- Ezra, Nehemiah, and Esther, we find the Babylonian name Nisan given as the first month instead of the Mosaic name Abib (Esther 3:7) along with other Babylonian month names including Sivan, Elul, Chisleu, Tebet, and Adar.
While we often hear complaints of pagan influences in connection with Easter, one never hears complaints of pagan Babylonian influences in the Hebrew calendar, as recorded in the later Old Testament narratives. The fact that these names pass in Scripture without comment suggests that the LORD Himself does not consider this sort of thing to be a big deal.
Easter and the Early Church
The earliest historical sources of church history indicate that the Resurrection Feast was celebrated by the earliest Christians alongside a special observance of the Sabbath. This is reported by the first century Christian writer Ignatius of Antioch, who represents the very early days of the church following the book of Acts. According to tradition, Ignatius was the child called by Jesus in Matthew 18:2-3
And Jesus called a little child unto him, and set him in the midst of them, and he said, Verily I say unto you, Except ye be converted, and become as little children, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven.
Ignatius is remembered as an early martyr who served the LORD under the Apostle John. Ignatius wrote:
Let every one of you keep the Sabbath after a spiritual manner, rejoicing in meditation on the law, not in relaxation of the body, admiring the workmanship of God, and not eating things prepared the day before, nor using lukewarm drinks, and walking within a prescribed space, nor finding delight in dancing and plaudits which have no sense in them. And after the observance of the Sabbath, let every friend of Christ keep the Lord's Day as a festival, the resurrection-day, the queen and chief of all the days.
In this way, Ignatius identifies Sunday worship as a type of weekly Easter celebration, in which the LORD's resurrection is commemorated. It should be noted that, though Ignatius indicates that first century Christians abide by the Sabbath, he discourages Christians from following Talmudic Jewish practices common in this period that were over and above the law of Moses.
In the Christian writers of the first several centuries A.D. (known collectively as the Church Fathers), it's clear that tensions increased over time between the Christians and the Jews. Christianity was an illegal religion in the Roman Empire, subject to persecution since the Christians would not worship the Roman emperor as a god.
On the other hand, Judaism had been permitted by Julius Caesar himself, and an exemption to the Roman law had been affirmed by the subsequent emperors. The Church Fathers lamented that the Jews of that time assisted the Romans in rounding up Christians for execution. The following example was written by Justin Martyr, a second century Christian:
You curse in your synagogues all those who are called from Him Christians; and other nations effectively carry out the curse, putting to death those who simply confess themselves to be Christians.
As a result, a widening rift began to grow between Christianity and Judaism in the early centuries A.D. Over time, in part because of this antipathy, Christianity became a predominantly Gentile religion, and Jewish practices such as Sabbath-keeping and Passover apparently either fell away or acquired a distinctively Christian character.
In Part Two of this article, read more about the historical effects the Emperor Constantine had on Easter, and just where the Easter bunny tradition originates!
Jay Ryan is the author of "Signs & Seasons," an astronomy homeschool curriculum. He is also the author of Classical Astronomy Update, a free email newsletter for Christian homeschoolers. For more information, visit his web site www.ClassicalAstronomy.com.