Adventists, and others such as the Jehovah’s Witnesses and those groups continuing Herbert Armstrong’s legacy, often claim that Easter is derived from a pagan festival. In fact, there are two important points to raise in response to them – a) whether or not Easter is pagan, and, for the Armstrong followers, b) which days of the week the Crucifixion and Resurrection were. The latter will have to wait for now.
What about Easter has pagan origins?
The intention of Christians is to celebrate the resurrection of Christ. Nothing pagan about that. Unless you reject the entire Christian religion as just copying paganism (and there are good arguments why that is wrong which I won’t go into here.)
Did Christians adopt Easter from pagans? Did they Christianise an existing pagan fertility festival and adapt it to celebrate Christ’s resurrection? No. There is nothing pagan about the timing of the celebration of Easter. It’s all based on the Old Testament which sets the times for Passover, and there are several New Testament statements that would contribute to determining the time.
The name “Easter”? Probably not pagan in origin at all, and even if it is, this criticism only applies in English-speaking and German-speaking communities. All other Christian cultures use different words, not of pagan origin, and mostly derived from the Hebrew “Pesach”. To condemn Easter as pagan because the name “Easter” is pagan would ignore most of the Christian world for 2000 years, who have never used that pagan name as a reference to this celebration, and who got their dates for the celebration from the Jews. Stop the use of the word “Easter” in English and German communities, and they can just go back to using a word based on the Hebrew. Pascha. That’s the term the Catholic Church uses. It’s Latin, and derived from Hebrew. So certainly the Catholic Church cannot be accused of celebrating a holiday with a pagan name – neither English nor German is the official language of the Catholic Church.
And is the word “Easter” of pagan origin at all? It may be, but it is seriously doubted by many. The existence of a pagan goddess called Eostre ultimately depends on one single source – the Venerable Bede. There is significant doubt that he got his facts right, and good reason to believe that there was no such goddess, or that her name was something else.
It is equally likely that the word “Easter” comes from an Old High Germanic word for dawn. In the Latin Church, newly baptised Christians wore white (“in albis”) during the week after Pascha [Internet Archive link for 2015 version here]. The term “white week” developed from this practice, and today we still talk about the Sunday after Pascha as “White Sunday” – the Sunday when the white robes, a week after Pascha, were removed and normal clothes resumed. This practice arrived in Germany, and the Germans saw the word “albis” and thought it was the plural of “alba”, which is another Latin word entirely, but which means “dawn.” A not entirely illogical conclusion if one is not completely literate in Latin, and if one realises that the Bible shows that Jesus rose from the dead early on the Sunday morning, it’s very easy to make that mistake. So, the Germans thought “white week” referred to the resurrection at/before dawn, and so they simply used their own word for dawn – “eostarum”. This word comes from the same Proto-Germanic word that eventually became our English word “east” – where the sun rises at dawn. And hence “Easter” followed from “eostarum”. (On the other hand, although yeast rises, the word “yeast” comes from a completely different root.)
There is yet another theory [via IA here] that the word comes from the one of the Teutonic words “auferstehung” or “erstehen” which mean resurrection. In South Africa we’re lucky enough to have many languages, and those who understand Afrikaans will see the etymological links there. Eerste = first. Stehen is a little less clear, but means to stand up. What did Jesus do first thing in the morning on the first day of the week? He stood up. Simple. Auferstehung! Erstehen! Resurrection!
Is there anything wrong with using a standard word from German, or any other language, that may or may not have had, in the even more distant past, origins that may or may not be vaguely connected to paganism? Hardly … otherwise in English we would also have to stop the use of the words God, Amen, holy, Monday, and medicine.
So why do we celebrate the resurrection of Christ when we do?
According to the New Testament, the resurrection of Christ took place on the first day of the week (Matthew 28:1-10, Mark 16:1-8, Luke 24:1-12, Luke 24:21,46). So, when that time of year came round again and Christians wished to celebrate the Resurrection annually, it would be natural that some would choose a Friday/Saturday/Sunday on which to do it. After all, there is a lot of symbolism in Jesus’ being in the tomb, resting, on the Sabbath, and even more symbolism in his rising after his rest the next day. The old creation was restored and turned into the new (2 Corinthians 5:17). God rested after the initial creation (Genesis 2:2). That creation turned to sin (Genesis 3). Christ restored the balance in a life-long event that that ended in his death and resurrection, resulting in a new creation, enabling us to be part of that new creation (Colossians 3:9-10, 2 Corinthians 5:17) and have our relationship with God restored. One week ends with Jesus in the tomb; the next week begins with him rising out of the tomb. One might not agree with the symbolism, but tell that to the people who, in those early centuries, wanted to celebrate this amazing event every year. Right or wrong, the symbolism is not pagan; it’s applied from the Bible. Early Christian writers attribute this practice to the Apostles Peter and Paul, and it became the predominant timing of the celebration in the west, and later throughout the Christian world.
Some early Christians thought differently, and followed a practice attributed to the Apostle John (I recall it being attributed to John as well as Andrew or Philip but I can’t find anything about that now). By the time we reach 160 AD we see a dispute arising between the two parties – one, following Peter and Paul, having Pascha on a Sunday, and the other, following John, celebrating Jesus’ death on 14 Nisan and resurrection on 16 Nisan, with the focus more on Jesus’ death correlating with the Passover (hence the name Quartodeciman – 10+4=14.) Polycarp, one of John’s disciples, met with Anicetus, bishop of Rome, and discussed their different practices. They departed unable to convince each other to change, but happy to keep their respective practices and respect each other’s. (Much like modern Catholics, who celebrate Pascha at different times – most with the Western date, but some, with the go-ahead from Rome, with the Orthodox. In fact, all of Israeli Catholics – Latin rite and Eastern rite – will celebrate Pascha on the Orthodox date from 2015.) Eventually the Quartodeciman controversy unfortunately became less civil, and the minority Quartodeciman practice died out.
Calculation of the date of Pascha
This is a complex topic better suited for the thesis for a PhD in calendrical mathematics, so I will be brief here. Initially the date was simple. Jesus died on 14 Nisan (or 15 Nisan, depending on which scholars you ask. See Pope Benedict XVI’s view here.) Jesus rose from the dead on the Sunday after 14/15 Nisan. That was the Sunday during the Days of Unleavened Bread. Therefore the Christians looked to see when the Jews observed Passover, figured out which Sunday fell in the week after Passover, and then they knew which day they would use. Later the Christians objected to being dependent on the Jews for determining a Christian date, and objected to the fact that the Jews sometimes got it wrong. Simply put, Nisan was supposed to start with the new moon after equinox, but that didn’t always happen, so in 325 AD the Christians dropped their dependence on the Jews, and calculated for themselves when Pascha should occur. Their calculations were not always accurate either, but at least they were united. A simple formula for calculating Pascha today is as follows: Pascha Sunday is the first Sunday after the first full moon on or after the March equinox. Keep in mind that the March equinox is set at 21 March because that was the date of equinox in 325 AD; actual astronomical equinox is usually on 20 March these days. Also note that the full moon is also determined by calculation, and not by astronomical determination or by visual sighting of the full moon or new moon. Clearly, there was no pagan practice involved here that needed Christianisation. It is worth noting that the Council of Nicaea that decided on the date for Pascha was particularly averse to things that even looked pagan or was contrary to established Christian practice and thought. Christianity at that time did not like to adopt external non-Christian practices – much to the amazement of anti-Catholics of today. Of note is the Council’s decision to ban kneeling between Pascha and Pentecost – canon 20 states: “Forasmuch as there are certain persons who kneel on the Lord’s Day and in the days of Pentecost, therefore, to the intent that all things may be uniformly observed everywhere (in every parish), it seems good to the holy Synod that prayer be made to God standing.” The pagan Byzantines and Christians had very different ideas about kneeling, and some Christians wanted to avoid that, while some had no problem with it because pagan nonsense was irrelevant to them. Kneeling during the Eucharistic liturgy was therefore scrapped in 325 AD, and this practice remains prominent in the Eastern Catholic and Orthodox Churches – some do allow it in modern times, when the memory of the Councils reasoning had faded, but they still maintain the stricter practice of no kneeling between Pascha and Pentecost.
Various customs have developed over time amongst Christians, and Easter eggs and the Easter bunny are two of those often noted for their pagan origin. That is fine, but they are only of peripheral importance to the Pascha celebration, and were added much later. If they are indeed pagan – and there is good reason to doubt this – then they certainly cannot invalidate the actual core celebration of Pascha. Throw away the eggs – they just make people fat. Throw away the rabbits (not live ones, that’s cruel.) In most modern Christian cultures, there is little significance found in these things anyway – it’s commercialism, only on a lesser scale than Christmas. Either way, the Resurrection of Christ remains the centre of Pascha celebrations.
Easter eggs first appear in Christian history in the Middle East, where Christians dyed eggs red as a sign of Christ’s blood. Dyeing or painting eggs can be found in many cultures, many of which were pagan. It is therefore easy to claim, without much effort, that Easter eggs were a pagan custom adopted by Christians.
However, eggs can also be found in Jewish culture, and long ago, as well as today, eggs were traditionally [IA link here] brought to funerals and gatherings of mourners. There is a pious legend that Mary Magdalene brought such eggs to the tomb for the mourners to eat on the morning of Jesus’ resurrection – the eggs turned red as a sign of Jesus’ blood. There is no historical evidence to support that, however, but it does show that eggs and Jewish customs need to be taken into account when judging whether or not Easter eggs come from paganism, or from Jewish culture. Given the geographic origins of Easter eggs, this suggested origin is far from unlikely.
Easter bunnies? – no, Eostre / Ishtar / Astarte / <whatever name you choose> was not symbolised by a rabbit. The evidence for that is incredibly specious – relying in embellishments of embellishments of one single dubious source – Bede. That the egg custom did not begin in the geographical regions of either Eostre or any rabbit goddess just shows how desperate the anti-Pascha arguments have become, having to join together bits of mythology unrelated geographically or historically in order to arrive at an accusation. The most likely reason that rabbits entered the Pascha picture is because hares (which look like rabbits) were thought to lay eggs by some in early times. No, they don’t really lay eggs. Unlike rabbits, hares nest above ground in grass or depressions in the ground. Plovers, which are birds and do lay eggs, often take over these hare nests after the hares are finished with them, and lay their eggs there. People without degrees in biology, or without even high school biology, sometimes reached the conclusion that these eggs were from the hares. Hence the mistaken idea that hares lay eggs. And so the link between eggs in spring (Pascha time) and rabbits. It may be erroneous, but it’s not pagan. Another theory is that in ancient times, people thought hares were hermaphrodites, and could therefore have babies without mating with another hare. So, mistaken biology led people to use the hare as a sign of the Virgin Mary, who had Jesus without a human father. Mistaken biology is not the same thing as paganism. There are very good reasons to believe that Easter eggs and Easter bunnies grew out of early Christian culture and Jewish culture of the time. We can’t blame them for their lack of biology – St Augustine thought that maggots and flies developed de novo from rotting meat. We can say they had strange ideas about biology, but we can’t blame them for adopting pagan practices when the evidence is as specious as it really is.
Fertility symbols are widespread, and encompass a huge range of animals, plants, and other natural elements. There is little solid ground on which to stand when accusing Christians of adopting fertility symbols when it comes to Pascha. In fact, there is more solid evidence to link the original Passover and Feast of Unleavened bread to contemporaneous Babylonian spring pre-harvest festivals, and similarly later in the year with post-harvest festivals (Sukkot.) Just because there is pre-Mosaic evidence of such festivals in the Semitic cultures does not mean that it was wrong for the Israelites to have similar events decreed for them to observe by God. After all, harvest festivals are obvious – so just because pagans thanked their gods for the harvest, doesn’t mean God’s people shouldn’t thank him for theirs.
So it is with Christianity. We didn’t go around adopting pagan holidays and pagan customs and pagan beliefs. Ours developed as natural expressions of the Christian faith, and originated in Judiasm where there was an origin outside of Christianity. Similarity to pagan customs does not mean that we adopted them from pagans any more than it means the Israelites adopted their practices from pagans.
So, should Adventists celebrate the Resurrection of Christ? Yes. It’s a celebration that dates back to the earliest Christians. Should they do so on Pascha Sunday? Why not? The paganism claim is patently false. Even the pagans are fed up with the claim that Easter is pagan! [Original link here, one of the two may be broken … and IA link here]
Yes, to us, Pascha is Catholic, but it does date back to the earliest Christians, whom Adventists don’t recognise as Catholic (even though their beliefs and practices were). Celebrating Easter Sunday has nothing to do with Eostre or Ishtar, but everything to do with when and how and why Jesus rose from the dead.
Some Adventists recognise this truth. Some don’t, but use their celebration of Easter as a tool to spread their beliefs to other Christians. Some don’t celebrate Easter at all. These Adventists should reevaluate their rejection of Easter and cast aside their preconceptions that anything Catholic must be bad.
Samuele Bacchiocchi is one example of an Adventist who rejects the celebration of Easter. His arguments are very interesting, as they highlight the mistakes typical of how historical evidence can be misused in order to create a false impression about something. I’ve dealt with his arguments in a separate post here.
Further reading / references:
8 things you need to know about Easter Sunday … by Jimmy Akin
Is Easter a Pagan Holiday? … by Jimmy Akin
Is Easter Pagan? … by Jimmy Akin
Is Easter Pagan? … by Jimmy Akin on YouTube
Is the Name “Easter” of Pagan Origin? … by Roger Patterson
Religious Celebrations: An Encyclopedia of Holidays, Festivals, Solemn Observances, and Spiritual Commemorations, edited by J. Gordon Melton
Latin Patriarchate will celebrate Easter 2013 according to the Julian Calendar … Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem
First Council of Nicaea (A.D. 325) … Catholic Advent
Hundreds of Adventist Churches Plan Easter Events this Coming Weekend … Adventist Today
Adventists and Easter … by George W. Reid, Adventist Review