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Is Easter a Pagan Holiday? Part Two

  • Jay Ryan Classical Astronomy
  • 2009 9 Apr
Is Easter a Pagan Holiday? Part Two

EDITOR'S NOTE: This is part two of an article. You can read PART ONE here.

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 the 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 the 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 a 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 the 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 also 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