Why Easter Was Never Anything But A Christian Holiday

March 24, 2016
Beth Allison BarrBeth Allison Barr courtesy photo

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WACO, Texas (March 24, 2016) – The approach of Easter each year marks many things: an annual resurgence of bunnies, eggs and pastel colors, the beginning of spring and the end of Lent, to name a few. Most importantly, of course, the Easter holiday serves as a reminder of the resurrection of Jesus Christ.

However, there are people who insist the Easter holiday was not created to celebrate Christ's sacrifice but rather that it has roots in ancient pagan tradition, specifically Babylonian.

Misunderstandings about the changing date of the Easter holiday, the historical timeline, where the name Easter comes from and even the use of eggs and rabbits in modern-day celebrations all contribute to this misconception.

"Christians have always celebrated the resurrection of Christ," said Beth Allison Barr, Ph.D., associate professor of history. "First-century Christians celebrated weekly on Sundays, as both biblical evidence, such as Acts 20:7, and extra-biblical evidence, such as the Didache, suggest."

D.A. Carson, research professor of the New Testament at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, said that the early biblical church likely chose Sunday as their day of worship because they connected it with the Lord's resurrection.

The Bible says that Jesus' death and resurrection occurred around the time of the Jewish Passover that year, which is celebrated on the first full moon following the vernal equinox (the Last Supper was on the first day of Passover, and Christ's crucifixion occurred on the second day, resulting in today's recognition of "Holy Thursday" and "Good Friday"). Therefore, Christians today celebrate Easter on the Sunday following the first full moon on or after the spring equinox.

This system for choosing the day on which Easter is celebrated was established at the First Council of Nicaea in 325 A.D. The shifting date of the Easter holiday is merely a reflection of the varied dates of the first full moon on or after the spring equinox.

The date on which Easter is celebrated clearly has nothing to do with any kind of pagan lunar worship or vernal equinox celebration, Barr said. However, there is still the theory that the holiday itself is derived from a pagan celebration of a goddess of spring and fertility, although no such event is known that predates the first Christian celebrations of Easter.

"Easter was clearly being celebrated by Mediterranean Christians during the second century, and probably in the first century as well," Barr said. "As such, there is no way that it is derived from a Nordic or Germanic pagan festival that, if it historically existed, postdates the Christian celebration. By the second century, we have clear evidence that the Christian community was celebrating an annual commemoration of Christ’s Resurrection: Easter. Indeed, because of the quarrel over exactly when the precise date for this celebration should be, known as the Quartodecimanism controversy, it is clear that celebrating Easter was already a long-established custom by early Christians."

The idea of the existence of a pagan celebration forming the roots of Christian Easter came from an eight-century scholar known as the Venerable Bede. Bede claimed in his work "The Reckoning of Time" that there was a celebration of the goddess Eostre which took place each April that was replaced by the Christian celebration of the Resurrection of Christ.

However, there is no mention of this goddess in any other literature from the time outside of Bede's work. Therefore, we are unable to confirm the existence of such a pagan deity. The lack of evidence makes it unlikely that any kind of celebration in the goddess' honor existed, Barr said.

The issue is also one of etymology. Bede suggested that the term "Easter" was derived from the name of the month in which the goddess was supposedly celebrated, which was the equivalent of April.

A more modern theory, though, is that the word "Easter" originated from a mistaken interpretation of the early Latin-speaking Christians' designation of Easter week as hebdomada alba, or "the week of albs," because of the white robes worn by baptismal candidates during that time. Although in this context "alba" serves as the feminine form of "albus," meaning "white," some thought it was the word "alba" meaning "dawn."

Old High German speakers took the word "alba" to mean "dawn" and started referring to the holiday as "eostarun," which meant "dawn" in their language. "Eostarun" eventually evolved into the contemporary German word for Easter, "Ostern," and then the English "Easter."

Before the fourth century, the holiday was referred to as Pascha for its associations with Passover. The word for Easter in many European languages derives from Pascha, such as French (Pâques), Spanish (la Pascua de Resurrección), Dutch (Pasen) and Italian (Pasqua).

"The name Easter is clearly related to the word Pascha, and is more likely associated with the time that the Resurrection is celebrated than any sort of vague pagan deity," Barr said.

Outside of the date, historical timeline and name, some individuals point to the use of eggs and bunnies in today's celebrations of Easter as remnants of pagan tradition.

"Many religions and traditional customs have used eggs and even rabbits," Barr said. "But this doesn’t mean that the Christian use of these symbols, especially eggs, is 'pagan.' Historical parallels do not equal historical evidence."

The Easter bunny was not used in Easter celebrations until the early modern world, and therefore the use of the rabbit has no historical or significant connection to any pagan festivals.

"I have seen arguments connecting Easter eggs to Babylonian and even Zoroastrian traditions," Barr said. "But the medieval European world had no knowledge of these customs or celebrations; historians didn’t learn about them until very recently. The most historically logical roots for Easter eggs is their use during Medieval Easter traditions. Eggs were prohibited during Lent, and so in preparation for their return to eating eggs, people decorated eggs and used them as part of their Easter celebrations. This is the most reasonable source for the traditions we continue today."

In today's celebrations, eggs are used to commemorate new life, specifically, the new life of Jesus.

"Easter is and has always been a celebration of the Resurrection of Christ," Barr said. "Even if Bede was correct that the name for the time of celebrating the resurrection derives from an unrelated Anglo-Saxon goddess, it still doesn’t affect the content of Easter. The only reason Easter exists as a holiday is because of the Resurrection. It is a shame that modern – and, I would argue, unsubstantiated – debates about its pagan roots have so distracted Christians from the purpose of Easter: celebrating the risen Christ."

by Jenna Press, student newswriter, (254) 710-6805

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