Is Easter a Pagan Holiday? The Origins and History of Easter Traditions
- Jay Ryan Classical Astronomy
- 2009 8 Apr
Discover the history of Easter and whether this holiday has Pagan influences.
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 with 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 commemorate 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.
Easter and the Emperor Constantine
Not many people today have studied church history. In the place of factual history, many people - Christians and unbelievers alike - subscribe to unsubstantiated "urban legends" of church history. Many of these urban legends feature Emperor Constantine, who is alleged to have mingled pagan Babylonian practices with pure Christian worship to fashion Easter into a false holiday of Satan rather than a commemoration of Jesus' victory over death and sin.
The primary source for these historical fabrications is a 19th-century book called Two Babylons or the Papal Worship Proved to be the Worship of Nimrod and his Wife by Bishop Alexander Hislop. This book is an anti-Catholic screed intended to show that every little aspect of Roman Catholicism is actually derived from Babylonian Baal worship.
Over the last 150 years, Hislop's book has been the source for the common allegations of pagan influences in early Christianity. Hislop's work appears authoritative on the surface, including numerous footnotes citing various historical sources. However, if one actually reads a sample of the cited sources, it quickly becomes clear that Hislop misrepresents what the sources actually do teach. Also, Hislop makes some very oblique associations, drawing vague similarities as "proofs" of his argument. Consequently, Hislop is discredited and not considered authoritative and reliable. A detailed discussion of Hislop is beyond the scope of this article, but The Babylon Connection by Ralph Woodrow offers a critical analysis of Hislop's book and its method.
In spite of all the nasty things that are usually said, the historical sources portray Emperor Constantine as a hero of the fourth-century Christian church. The son of a pagan father and a Christian mother, Constantine followed his father's pagan ways until the LORD got his attention. Prior to confronting his rival in battle, Constantine saw a vision of the cross:
About that part of the day when the Sun after passing the meridian begins to decline toward the west, he saw a pillar of light in the heavens, in the form of a cross, on which was inscribed the words, BY THIS CONQUER. - Ecclesiastical History of Socrates (circa A.D. 440)
Except for the inscribed words, this description sounds suspiciously like an elaborate set of "sun dogs," a very rare parahelic halo phenomenon, a natural occurrence. Whether a natural or supernatural apparition, Constantine defeated his enemy, thus becoming emperor, for which he gave glory to God and became a Christian. Constantine ended the centuries of persecution against Christians and is remembered as a great patron and benefactor of the Christian church. Socrates goes on to relate:
Now Constantine, the emperor, having thus embraced Christianity, conducted himself as a Christian in his profession, rebuilding the churches, and enriching them with splendid offerings: he also either closed or destroyed the temples of the pagans, and exposed the images which were in them to popular contempt.
Among other things, Constantine convened the Council of Nicaea in A.D. 325. This Council condemned the heretic Arius, who taught that Jesus was a creature and not the pre-existent Son of God. From this Council emerged a formulation of the doctrine of the Trinity, which has been affirmed by all orthodox Christians ever since.
The Council of Nicaea also considered the issue of a common celebration of Easter. Many local churches celebrated it on a Sunday while some churches in Asia Minor celebrated Passover in the Jewish manner, on the first Full Moon of spring, regardless of the day of the week:
Another local source of disquietude had pre-existed there, which served to trouble the churches - the dispute namely in regard to the Passover, which was carried on in the regions of the East only. This arose from some desiring to keep the Feast more in accordance with the custom of the Jews; while others preferred its mode of celebration by Christians in general throughout the world. This difference, however, did not interfere with their communion, although their mutual joy was necessarily hindered. - Socrates
The Council of Nicaea resolved this issue by establishing a common Sunday celebration of Easter, and the eastern churches agreed to adopt this in place of the Jewish practice:
We have also gratifying intelligence to communicate to you relative to unity of judgment on the subject of the most holy feast of Easter: for this point also has been happily settled through your prayers; so that all the brethren in the East who have heretofore kept this festival when the Jews did, will henceforth conform to the Romans and to us, and to all who from the earliest time have observed our period of celebrating Easter. - Letter of the Synod, as reported by Socrates
At the Council of Nicaea, it was the gathered bishops themselves, not the emperor, that agreed to adopt Sunday as the Pascha rather than the Jewish time of Passover. So for better or worse, we see that Christian and Jewish practices simply diverged from each other over the centuries, and that the Emperor Constantine did not actively impose a syncretistic version of Easter on the church.
However, syncretism of Christianity and paganism did take place in this period, but it was through the efforts of heretics and not emperors. The early church was vigilant in its opposition to such cults, and it had been down through the previous centuries:
A little while before the time of Constantine, a species of heathenish Christianity made its appearance together with that which was real; just as false prophets sprang up among the true, and false apostles among the true apostles.... Now the contents of these treatises apparently agree with Christianity in expression, but are pagan in sentiment: for Manichaeus being an atheist, incited his disciples to acknowledge a plurality of gods, and taught them to worship the Sun. He also introduced the doctrine of Fate, denying human free-will... He denied that Christ existed in the flesh, asserting that he was an apparition... all of which dogmas are totally at variance with the orthodox faith of the church. - Socrates
In spite of being banned by bishops and emperors, Manichaeism was around for centuries afterwards, and was embraced by the Christian writer Augustine of Hippo prior to his conversion to Christ.
Another allegation of the period of Constantine is that politically-motivated mass conversions to Christianity occurred, and that pagan influences crept into Christianity by this avenue. However, this topic is also addressed in another historical source, the Ecclesiastical History of Sozomen:
Others, envious at the honor in which Christians were held by the emperor, deemed it necessary to imitate the acts of the ruler; others devoted themselves to an examination of Christianity, and by means of signs, of dreams, or of conferences with bishops and monks, were convinced that it was better to become Christians. From this period, nations and citizens spontaneously renounced their former opinion.... Many other cities about this time went over to religion, and spontaneously, without any command of the emperor, destroyed the adjacent temples and statues, and erected houses of prayer. - Sozomen (circa A.D. 440)
Syncretism - Is it Really a Big Deal?
Christianity has been around for 20 centuries, and many cultures have entered in over this time, bringing their own influences. Consequently, many Christian traditions are cluttered up with cultural baggage. For example, it's quite clear to anyone that Easter eggs and rabbits are not biblical symbols, and they surely do appear to be fertility symbols.
The "Easter bunny" tradition apparently found its way into America through German immigrants, who brought it over from Europe. These same German immigrants are credited with bringing in Groundhog Day and Christmas trees. The origins of these traditions are mostly lost to history. But rather than being evidence of insidious Babylonian idolatry, they appear to simply be folklore customs associated with the passage of seasons in temperate climates such as Europe and North America.
I had a good chuckle last year on Easter when I saw a rabbit for the first time in that season. In our climate in Ohio, Easter usually falls when the snow melts and the days warm up. At this time, it just so happens that the rabbits become more active. Similarly, the robins reappear at this time of year, and soon begin laying their eggs. It's not hard to understand how illiterate peasant people, living close to nature in pre-industrial Europe, might have developed nominally Christian folklore that associated such seasonal signs with certain religious holidays.
At any rate, Easter bunnies and eggs certainly are cultural accretions that can be easily omitted from Christian worship without discarding the entire Easter celebration. One way or the other, there is no historical basis for supposing that eggs and bunnies were deliberately imported from pagan Babylon by Emperor Constantine to water down and diminish the message of the Gospel.
As far syncretism is concerned in general, our entire modern culture is a product of pagan influences. Our language, our system of education, law, literature, science, history - just about every field of knowledge - owes a great debt to the pre-Christian cultures of the Greeks and Romans, and the Egyptians and Babylonians before them. While missing the ultimate Truth, these pagans discovering some true things about the LORD's world that God's people can legitimately appropriate for the service of the Kingdom.
I'm not here to defend paganism. Indeed, the apostle Paul, in writing of the pagans of his time, says "they are without excuse" (Romans 1:20). But we should consider that pagan worship is simply a consequence of sin, a separation from worship of the true God. We all know from Scripture and personal experience that pagans do not have a monopoly on sin. Even though syncretism has occurred down through the centuries, many unbiblical practices may just as easily have entered Christian tradition through the inherent sin nature of fallen men, well-meaning but misguided while seeking to follow Jesus.
The pagan people themselves were also made in the image of God, and were not subhuman monsters. After all, most of us have ancestors from cultures that were pagan at some time in history. Missionaries today are hard at work to reach tribal people who still practice pagan animistic religion in the 21st century. I'm personally grateful that Jesus, through His resurrection that we celebrate at Easter, made a way for all us pagans to come to Him!
As Christians today, should we be a people that prove their devotion to Jesus by opposing every little thing, and by finding Satan lurking around every corner? Rather, shouldn't we be a people that seek truth and love to learn new things - to "prove all things, hold fast to that which is good; abstain from every appearance of evil" (1 Thess. 5:21-22)? And as homeschoolers, shouldn't we teach our children to do the same, to prepare them for a life of service to the LORD?
In whatever manner your family observes this season, our family wishes you a blessed one.
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.