Easter, Is It As “Pagan” As We Think?
By Pastor Lee Hemen
March 25, 2010
Over the years, there has been a lot of stuff, absolute garbage, written about Easter, its origins, and whether or not Christians should observe it. While what I write here will surely cause some consternation with a few folks of the more radically conservatives among us, perhaps it will lay to rest for some of you the history of this holiday and if it is okay to celebrate it or not.
Easter – What’s with that name anyway?
How in the world did the term Easter get started? Yes, the word for Easter has its roots in a pagan deity, but then again so does much of our calendar, namely the name of the days and the months and even the names for the seasons! The term or name “Easter” is speculated to have developed from Old English word Ēastre or Ēostre or Eoaster, which itself developed prior to 899 AD. The name refers to Eostur-monath, a month of the Germanic calendar attested by Bede as named after the goddess Ēostre of Anglo-Saxon paganism. You know, kind of like those folks in the movie Braveheart that painted their bodies differing colors and believed in the wee folk, only the German rendition. The roots of this goddess are also found in Diana and Ashtoreth or Astarte and Ishtar, which the Greeks, Phoenicians, and later the Germans borrowed from the Babylonians. She was the moon goddess which symbolized the female aspect of fertility. Her celebration was in the early spring, often around March or April. (Germans used bunnies and eggs in their observance, but we are not too sure how.)
It’s all Constantine’s fault! Oh, Really?
When we make a broad sweeping exclamation that the rascal Constantine made her a part of the Christian calendar during the Council of Nicaea we are guilty of greatly oversimplifying history and the issue in order to score piety points. Easter is a moveable feast, meaning it is not fixed in relation to the civil calendar. The First Council of Nicaea (325 AD) established the date of Easter as the first Sunday after the full moon (the Paschal Full Moon) following the vernal equinox. It did this because the Hebrew nation was commanded to celebrate Passover in just the same manner! (Exodus 12:2, 14) It was kept in remembrance of the Lord’s passing over the houses of the Israelites (Exodus 12:13) when the firstborn were destroyed. Since the Hebrew calendar is based on phases of the moon, the date of Easter therefore varies between March 22 and April 25.
Now, let’s look at the Early Church History and Easter Celebrations...
We learned that Easter is linked to the Jewish Passover not only for much of its symbolism but also for its position in the calendar. In most European languages, the feast called Easter in English is termed by the words for Passover in those languages. Surprisingly, older English versions of the Bible used the term Easter to translate Passover, even in the King James Bible! Perhaps the earliest extant primary source referencing Easter is a mid-2nd century Paschal homily attributed to Melito of Sardis, (died 180 AD) was the bishop of Sardis, near Smyrna in western Anatolia, and a great authority in Early Christianity, and he characterizes the Easter celebration as a well-established one by that time. That is an exceedingly short period after the early church and well before the established Roman Catholic Church of today. By the later second century, it was accepted that the celebration of Pascha (Easter) was a practice of the disciples and an undisputed tradition.
The Quartodeciman Controversy… the what?
The Quartodeciman controversy, the first of several Paschal/Easter controversies, arose concerning the date on which Pascha should be celebrated. This controversy lingered well into the fourth century and needed to be settled because differing bishops were trying to excommunicate one another over the issue and argued over it insistently. And this can get confusing when you began to argue who excommunicated who first over what. It was kind of like the millennial controversy of its day. The precise date of Easter has at times been a matter for contention. At the First Council of Nicaea (which lasted well over 100 years) in 325 AD, finally decided that all Christian churches would celebrate Easter on the same day, which would be computed independently of any Jewish calculations to determine the date of Passover. However, contrary to popular opinion no method of determining the date was ever exactly specified by the Council. (Say, what?) Even the Catholic Church did not follow the method recommended by Nicaea until 1582 when they fully adopted Gregorian calendar! In determining the date of the Gregorian and Julian Easter, a lunisolar cycle (using the phases of the moon) is followed. In determining the date of the Jewish Passover, a lunisolar calendar is also used, and because Easter always falls on a Sunday, it usually falls up to a week after the first day of Passover (Nisan 15 in the Hebrew calendar). Most evangelical churches celebrate it using this dating system.
Okay, but what about the bunny rabbits?
Certainly many of the customs of Easter, such as colored eggs, bunny rabbits, and such originally come from Pagan sources; few of us recognize them as such nowadays. Nor do we give any credence to them. Many of those that have distaste with using the term Easter or giving any credence to it usually do so because they are living under more of a works oriented faith rather than giving God the glory. They usually have no problem with using the terms for the days of the week and the months of the year without being too revolted at these paganisms. I mean, if you truly have a problem with this then why do you say, “I worship on Sunday,” which is a direct reference to the pagan son god, which is really hilarious when some say they only worship on the Sabbath, Saturday, which is a direct reference to and recognition of the mythical god Saturn! I digress…
So, should good pious Christians allow their innocent little children to eat chocolate rabbits and hunt for Easter Eggs? Only if they do not have allergies or you do not want them to have a sugar high and heart disease – just kidding! Many Christians use the hardboiled eggs to teach the concept of the trinity: Decorated shell, pure colored whites, and the yolk corresponding to the one God made of up of the three personalities of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Others use them to teach the newness of a person’s new life in Christ when they accept him as Savior and Lord. Old life is equated with the egg not yet hatched, the new life is the new chick that now has to mature and grow as new believers do in the Lord. Personally, I refer to Easter as Resurrection Day and Easter, and I always focus on the empty tomb. Frankly, I use the chocolate as a means to enjoy myself and bunnies are so cute!
We can get so caught up in the sliver in someone else’s eye, celebrating or using the term “Easter”, and thinking that somehow paganism might rub off on us if we celebrate Easter, that we forget about the timber sticking out of our own and what it is truly all about: The empty tomb and the resurrection! Because Jesus lives, we too can live for eternity as well! And, besides, the next thing you know, people will have a problem with Halloween, Santa Claus, and Christmas…
Pastor Lee Hemen has been the outspoken pastor of the same church for 25 years in Vancouver, WA. He writes regularly on spirituality and conservative causes and maintains several web blogs. This article is copyrighted © 2010 by Lee Hemen and is the sole property of Lee Hemen, and may not be used unless you quote the entire article and have my permission. You now have my permission…