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Easter: Of Pagan Origins?

Mar 29, 2013

It is Easter again, time to celebrate the most important event of human history: the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. This event is not only the heart and soul of the Christian faith, but it is also the decisive point of history. Without it none of us would be the same, and Western civilisation as we know it would be radically different, if it existed at all.

But sadly Easter has also of late become a time when some well-meaning but rather uninformed Christians start making a big stink, seeking to argue that the whole affair is just one big pagan celebration, and we should have nothing to do with it.

The great majority of these folks likely do not have much expertise in history, ancient languages, linguistics, theology or biblical studies to be making such claims, but instead rely on the work of a few others who have made a bit of a name for themselves pushing all this. I find the whole controversy an unnecessary distraction to this great Christian commemoration, but since it keeps cropping up, I suppose I must deal with it.

Fortunately several scholars have recently done just this, so there is no need for me to reinvent the wheel. It will suffice for me to refer you to their excellent work, and quote some of it here for you. The first article comes from Anthony McRoy, a Fellow of the British Society for Middle East Studies and lecturer in Islamic studies at Wales Evangelical School of Theology in the U.K.

He begins: their “argument largely rests on the supposed pagan associations of the English and German names for the celebration (Easter in English and Ostern in German). It is important to note, however, that in most other European languages, the name for the Christian celebration is derived from the Greek word Pascha, which comes from pesach, the Hebrew word for Passover. Easter is the Christian Passover festival.

“Of course, even if Christians did engage in contextualization—expressing their message and worship in the language or forms of the local people—that in no way implies doctrinal compromise. Christians around the world have sought to redeem the local culture for Christ while purging it of practices antithetical to biblical norms. After all, Christians speak of ‘Good Friday,’ but they are in no way honoring the worship of the Norse/Germanic queen of the gods Freya by doing so.

“But, in fact, in the case of Easter the evidence suggests otherwise: that neither the commemoration of Christ’s death and resurrection nor its name are derived from paganism.” He continues, “The Nordic/Germanic peoples (including the Anglo-Saxons) were comparative latecomers to Christianity. Pope Gregory I sent a missionary enterprise led by Augustine of Canterbury to the Anglo-Saxons in 596/7.

“The forcible conversion of the Saxons in Europe began under Charlemagne in 772. Hence, if ‘Easter’ (i.e. the Christian Passover festival) was celebrated prior to those dates, any supposed pagan Anglo-Saxon festival of ‘Eostre’ can have no significance. And there is, in fact, clear evidence that Christians celebrated an Easter/Passover festival by the second century, if not earlier. It follows that the Christian Easter/Passover celebration, which originated in the Mediterranean basin, was not influenced by any Germanic pagan festival.”

As to the claim – first made by the Venerable Bede – that the name “Easter” comes from a purported pagan fertility goddess named “Eostre”, he says that “there is no evidence outside of Bede for the existence of this Anglo-Saxon goddess. There is no equivalent goddess in the Norse Eddas or in ancient Germanic paganism from continental Europe.”

I am leaving out a lot of important detail here along the way, so the reader is encouraged to read his entire piece (see link below), but he concludes this way: “So Christians in ancient Anglo-Saxon and Germanic areas called their Passover holiday what they did—doubtless colloquially at first—simply because it occurred around the time of Eosturmonath/Ostarmanoth.

“A contemporary analogy can be found in the way Americans sometimes refer to the December period as ‘the holidays’ in connection with Christmas and Hanukkah, or the way people sometimes speak about something happening ‘around Christmas,’ usually referring to the time at the turn of the year. The Christian title ‘Easter,’ then, essentially reflects its general date in the calendar, rather than the Paschal festival having been re-named in honor of a supposed pagan deity.

“Of course, the Christian commemoration of the Paschal festival rests not on the title of the celebration but on its content—namely, the remembrance of Christ’s death and resurrection. It is Christ’s conquest of sin, death, and Satan that gives us the right to wish everyone ‘Happy Easter!'”

Dr Jonathan Sarfati, who until recently lived in Australia, but is now in the US doing great work with CMI, also has penned a lengthy piece on this. It also is too long to properly summarise here, but a few snippets nonetheless can be offered. He begins,

“We are occasionally rebuked for using the word Easter, on the grounds that it is allegedly derived from the Babylonian goddess Astarte, equivalent to the Assyrian goddess Ishtar. This comes from an oft-cited 19th-century book, The Two Babylons, by the Scots reverend Alexander Hislop.”

He continues, “The Hebrew word for Passover is pesach, which comes from the verb pasach which means to pass over. When the Old Testament was translated into Greek, this word was basically unchanged, becoming the Greek pascha. In some English Bibles, this is translated Easter, and other times Passover, but it’s the same word. Most other languages have the same word for both, e.g. Latin Pascha, French Pâques, Italian Pasqua, and Dutch Pasen. English also retains this word in expressions such as ‘pascal lamb’. So where did the word ‘Easter’ come from?

“Does the word ‘Easter’ come from paganism? The answer is a clear ‘no!’. Hislop’s research is very shoddy in many places (Hislop is refuted in A Case Study in Poor Methodology). He tries to see paganism everywhere, on even the flimsiest grounds. In this case, he imagines a connection between Easter and Astarte purely on the basis of sound similarity, with not the slightest trace of linguistic connection or any borrowing. By this spurious method, one could connect the Potomac river with the Greek potamos, although there is no connection between the native American and Greek words. In reality, the word Easter is really Anglo-Saxon (sometimes Ester), not Babylonian. It was the common word for both Passover and Easter.”

And he reminds us how inconsistent these critics can be: “While the above firmly refutes the pagan derivation nonsense about Easter, there are far more familiar things that really are derived from paganism, but about which few people worry. It is illogical to avoid a Christian-based holiday that brings people together in worship because of some perceived tie to paganism, while using everyday products and ignoring their obvious pagan heritage. You might have your muffler replaced by Midas, wear shoes designed by Nike, chew Trident gum, or watch a movie by Orion Pictures.

“Several days of our week and months of our year are named after Norse gods, except for Saturday that comes from the Roman god Saturn, and Sunday and Monday of course. Several months are named after Roman gods. The eight planets and many of their moons are named after Roman deities. Mazda cars are named for a Zoroastrian deity, and many people drive a Saturn, Mercury, Ares, Aurora … etc.

“But even in God’s Word, some of the heroes in the Bible had paganized names. E.g. Mordecai, the real hero of the book of Esther, has a name related to the Babylonian high god Marduk. Consider also Daniel’s three friends who were prepared to be thrown in the furnace rather than worship any but the true God. They were originally named Hananiah, Mishael and Azariah, but are better known by the names the Babylonians gave them: Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego (Daniel 1:7). Abednego means ‘servant of Nebo’, the pagan god.”

Let me offer two concluding thoughts. One, the same sorts of claims are also made about Christmas by some over-zealous believers; that it is merely a pagan festival and we should have nothing to do with it. What Gregory Koukl said about Christmas seems to apply equally here:

“We make things wrong that the Bible doesn’t make wrong. It appears that is what is going on with Christmas. If you celebrate the birth of Christ, then you’re doing something wrong. My point is, this view is legalistic in that it makes things that aren’t Scripturally wrong and it makes them wrong. It makes something a rule to apply to men when God didn’t give them that rule.

“I think the practice of Christmas is fully legitimate even though there may have some pagan elements that were originally associated with a celebration at this time. That doesn’t make our celebration of Christmas the same as that old celebration. In fact, it’s quite different. We are celebrating the birth of Jesus.

“Now, we aren’t obliged to do so. There is nothing in the Scripture that says that we ought to, but it strikes me that it is entirely appropriate. It is appropriate, but not obligatory. If you look back in the Old Testament, one of the things that God did is He arranged for the Jews to celebrate festivals that He established to remind themselves of the significance of that event by participating in these annual festivals year to year.”

There are quite a few other excellent articles on the supposed pagan origins of Christmas, so for those wanting to take this much further, please see here:
carm.org/questions/other-questions/what-are-origins-christmas-and-can-christian-celebrate-it
www.equip.org/articles/should-christians-celebrate-christmas-
www.equip.org/bible_answers/should-christians-celebrate-christmas-
www.equip.org/articles/is-christmas-pagan-
www.ukapologetics.net/holidays.htm
hankhanegraaff.blogspot.com/2007/12/christmas-truths-and-traditions.html
christian-civilization.org/articles/rethinking-the-pagan-origins-of-christmas/
touchstonemag.com/archives/article.php?id=16-10-012-v#ixzz1ga65IfRo
khouse.org/articles/2004/555/
cantuar.blogspot.com.au/2011/12/december-25-is-historical-birthday-of.html

Two, as I already said, I believe most of this is just an unnecessary distraction, a case of majoring in minors, and just so much unfruitful heresy-hunting. Therefore I do not intend to spend much more time on this. Those who have a major bee in their bonnet about this and wish to argue all this out (accusing me of being a pagan heretic along the way) are asked to go elsewhere. You can pour out your spleen on this on your own sites, but not mine thanks.

www.christianitytoday.com/ch/bytopic/holidays/easterborrowedholiday.html
creation.com/easter-and-good-friday-questions-and-answers
www.str.org/site/News2?page=NewsArticle&id=5172

BTW, my companion piece on Christmas can be found here: billmuehlenberg.com/2013/11/12/christmas-of-pagan-origins/

[1709 words]

20 Responses to Easter: Of Pagan Origins?

  • Good and timely article. I have a Christian brother, a few years older than I, who is greatly and basically influenced by the book Pagan Christianity by Viola and Barna. No amount of discussion, scholarship, or historical information with him will bend his insistence that Easter is yet another example of how the church is hopelessly corrupted by pagan influences. It is, of course, and often so but not in ways he imagines. Have a blessed Good Friday, Bill!

    Steve Swartz

  • Thanks Steve. Yes that was a pretty bad book. See this excellent review of it by NT scholar Ben Witherington:

    http://benwitherington.blogspot.com/2008/06/pagan-christianty-by-george-barna-and.html

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  • Dear Bill, Thank you for the article. I wish you and your family a happy and holy Easter. Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again.
    Regards, Franklin Wood

  • May God the almighty put peace in all your hearts.
    Daniel Kempton

  • If ‘Easter’ has nothing to do with the fertility goddess Astarte, why the eggs, which seem to be a fertility sign?
    Patricia Rogers

  • Thanks Patricia

    Eggs are of course a universal symbol of new life, which is exactly what the resurrection is all about. But obviously for me to defend Easter does not mean I support the genuinely non-Christian and secular/commercial features such as chocolate bunnies or chocolate eggs. Of course they are not part of the biblical story, but I also do not mind if people want to enjoy those things, as long as they realise they are quite separate from the Christian meaning of Easter.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  • Please forgive me if this is going too off topic, but i think there is important relevance because these issues link closely to what you write here Bill.

    In my experience, a massive emphasis on the pagan elements often leads us nowhere productive.

    However, I do believe that the is a need and significance in connecting Jesus death and resurrection to God’s feasts and the biblical calendar. My studies and participation in these seasons have brought me precious understanding of who Jesus is and of his Word, creating an important rhythm in my walk with Jesus.

    I see that this can be very beneficial in our efforts to evangelise and demonstrate Jesus as the Messiah promised throughout the finest details and prophecies of the Torah and the prophets and also to provoke the Jews who do not yet know the Messiah to jealousy. Furthermore, it has helped me to theologically counter the replacement theology that stands as a wall between parts of the Church and betweens us and the Orthodox Jews. Remembering God’s faithfulness in Israel’s history as part of my own history has been really powerful and it has connected me to Paul’s inner desire for Israel to know Messiah.

    As our culture identifies the parts of Christmas and Easter that do have no biblical place or value and seek to criticise us, and they are doing this with increasing ferocity every year, it is encouraging to understand the history and be able to biblically defend what we do choose to celebrate and emphasise, as well as being able to explain the detailed prophecies that Jesus fulfilled long after they were written, while pointing to the ones yet unfulfilled.

    I have experienced offence from some Chrisitians for highlighting and celebrating Jesus fulfilment of the Feasts and have had to wrestle in my heart in choosing not to embrace many of the traditions related to Easter and Christmas. The accusation of legalism because of my choices has been a painful one but, like everything we seek to do in Jesus, I aim to do it in response to his love rather than give room to a Pharisaic spirit of self-justification that Jesus condemns. These differences are, I believe, another theological area in which we will need to grow in humility as we grow in understanding, lest yet another wall be thrust up between believers.

    On a final note, there is much to consider in the Fall Feast season and how these will potentially be fulfilled when Jesus returns. There is a lot of great studies around now that can strengthen us in the hope of his appearing and fill out our understanding of what this may look like in relation to Jesus fulfilling this final Feast season. As our society descends into the messed our making, his coming seem all the more immanent. It wisdom for us to be as ready as possible in spirit and understanding.

    May we all be reminded of God’s goodness and grow in the knowledge of his love in the crucifixion and resurrection this year!

    Simon Fox

  • I don’t have an issue with when we celebrate Easter. It’s celebrated at the correct time.

    I do wish we would celebrate Christmas at the time of the Feast of Tabermacles though. The Jews expected their Messiah to come at this time and considering the month Zechariah was on duty and the stage of Elisabeth’s pregnancy when she was met by Mary and other factors this time would be far more likely than December 25th.

    However we should celebrate Jesus’ birth, death, burial, resurrection, ascension, return and judgment all year round. While it is good to have specific occasions to especially remember some of them.

    We may remember Jesus’ birth and death, and to a lesser extent his resurrection but we tend to not pay as much attention to other important events such as the ascension. This is what should concern us much more.

    Matt Vinay

  • Why did the King James Bible translate ‘Pesach’ as ‘Easter’ in Acts 12:4? Was there already an Easter celebration in Roman times that coincided with the Passover? Or was that a reference to the Anglo-saxon, German word for the celebration of the Resurrection?

    Sibyl Smith

  • For me Easter means, The Lord has Risen. As Christians we must constantly do battle to retain the true meaning of the festive events on the Christian calender. What a great pity that we have to contend with so much commercial hype these days. Never mind we truly enjoyed a blessed Easter with our fellowship and family.
    Trust you may have a safe journey back to our shores Bill.
    Bill Heggers, Perth

  • If Easter has pagan origins, I think we, the church, have taken possession of it. It’s fairly well established on the Christian calendar. Even unbelievers enjoy the chocolate and holidays. Is there any profit in abandoning it now?

    Tony Morreau

  • It is all much of a muchness. A pagan is someone from the countryside. Pagan philosophers like Aristotle and Socrates are often cited positively. Then Yahuah himself in the Torah make use of pagan gold from the Egyptians to make the tabernacle, pagen food and pagan employment to look after his people while they prepared to enter the land. He then told then Egyptians could enter the congregation of Yahuah in the third generation because they had looked after Israel. When Israel asked for a king Yahuah allowed Israel the pagan system of kingship and turned it into the davidic reign where the possibly pagan system of nebiism worked alongside the pagan system of a military melekh. David was still a man after Yahuah hearts and Israel were still his people. There are aspects of “paganism” which are used for his glory and their are aspect which are removed for his glory. At the end of the day we must hear what the commands of Yahuah says on an issue and in the end the gods who did not create the heavens and the earth will disappear from the heavens and the earth, and Yahuah alone and his justice will be established, his righteousness maintained. (Joseph had a pagan wife and Ephraim and Manesseh were Egyptians by birth on their mothers side! Moses was married to a daughter of a polytheist and got advice from him when establishing the justice system!) Yahuah is cleaning it all up now in Jesus name!
    Michael Adi Nachman

  • Seems to me like a clear case of throwing the baby out with the bath water. It is a subterfuge, a smoke screen thrown up by those who want to discredit Jesus and everything that is connected with Him and sadly taken up by Christians who are more eager to please the axiom of the self church of self-criticism than they are to follow their Lord and saviour. Of course, the church and all other institutions are at this point in time not perfect and won’t be until Jesus returns. They say “Marriage has been corrupted, let’s get rid of marriage. Government has been corrupted, let’s get rid of politics etc.” When Jesus however was asked to pay the temple tax, which he was not meant to pay, he pointed this out to his disciples and then sent them to find the coin in the fishes mouth and pay it anyway. What a different way of dealing with these obvious discrepancies.
    Many blessings
    Ursula Bennett

  • I have finally gotten around to writing my own piece on Christmas:

    https://billmuehlenberg.com/2013/11/12/christmas-of-pagan-origins/

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  • The not-so-wise Ishta-phobics. So, who’s the Easter bunny now then?

    Driving past closed shops today, I was praising God to think that Australia’s No 1 and No 2 holidays both happen to be directly connected to the carpenter who died in Israel 2000 years ago.
    It just so happens that His name is Jesus Christ of Nazareth, and not only did He die, but also rose again to be exalted above every name.
    What a magnificent blessing is our Christian heritage – let us seize the day.
    Nice work Bill – keep it coming!

  • Jesus is the Passover Lamb, he was the sacrifice, which all previous sacrifices pointed to and prefigured. He is now in Glory and we are with and in him for we are “crucified with Christ”. It is finished.

    Yes we have so much to celebrate.

  • I’m very pleased you’ve written this, Bill, as I’m sick of hearing the ignorant make this claim with no evidence and stick with it even once presented with the evidence.

    And I used to be one of the ignorant and might not have listened to the more knowledgeable me back then!

    But as you rightly point out, it is a major distraction. And I thank God that I am free from this nit-picking (and inaccurate!) legalism now.

    Thank God that Jesus Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures and that He was buried and rose again according to the scriptures.

  • Thank You Bill for an excellent article. I have also had discussions in the past with people about Easter and Christmas being of Pagan Origin and honouring Pagan Gods. Many Christians are caught up with this and have refused to celebrate or acknowledge these days. I don’t really care when Jesus was born nor am I concerned about the date or time of his death and resurrection. I know that he was born, he died and rose again. That’s enough for me to celebrate him.
    Have a good Easter Bill, with your Family. Blessings.

  • Thank you so much for this! I am tired of being told I am not to use the word EASTER!!! Its nuts!! Good Grief! I’m gonna say EASTER!!!

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