Easter is one the most important holidays in Christianity. It is a festival to celebrate Jesus Christ’s resurrection from death by crucifixion. Today, many Christians go to the “sunrise services” in church on Easter Sunday, followed by Easter brunch with cakes, and children hunt for Easter bunny eggs. But what is the true origin of Easter? Is it truly a religious practice commanded by Jesus in the Bible or is it an ancient pagan tradition? What is the connection between Jesus’ resurrection, Easter bunnies and decorated eggs?
HOW IS EASTER DETERMINED?
According to the New Testament, Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection took place around the Jewish Passover.
Now the Passover and the Festival of Unleavened Bread were only two days away, and the chief priests and the teachers of the law were scheming to arrest Jesus secretly and kill him.
(NT: Mark 14:1, also in Matthew 26, Luke 22 and John 18)
What is the Jewish Passover?
The Jewish Passover or “Pesach” in Hebrew is the commemoration of the Israelite's liberation from slavery in Egypt lead by Moses. This event is also known as the Exodus, which took place at ca. 1525 BCE (the date varied, some say ca. 1400 BCE, 1300 BCE or 1200 BCE).
The Book of Exodus tells that God inflicted 10 plagues upon the ancient Egyptians before the Israelites finally could depart en masse from the slavery in Egypt. The last and the worst plague was the death of the Egyptian first-born males (of both humans and beasts). Before their departure, the Israelites were instructed to slaughter a spring lamb and use its blood to mark the doorposts of their homes so the Spirit of the Lord knew to pass over (and not kill) the first-borns in these homes. This is the origin of the English name of the holiday, i.e. Passover. (In Hebrew, according Rabbi Dr. Ari Zivotofsky, Pesach means “to have compassion for”).
According to the Book of Exodus 23:15, this event took place “in the month of Aviv”. The Jewish month of Aviv (or more commonly known today as the month of Nisan) typically falls in March or April of the Gregorian calendar (our today’s calendar). Passover is celebrated as an eight-day spring festival that begins on the dusk of Nisan 14 on the first full moon following the vernal equinox.
What is the Vernal Equinox?
Equinox comes from the Latin words “aequus” (equal) and “nox” (night), the simplest meaning to understand this word is “the day when day and night time are of equal duration”. There are two equinoxes in a year:
* Vernal equinox (or spring equinox at around March 20 – in the Northern hemisphere)
* Autumnal equinox (or autumn equinox at around September 22 – in the Northern hemisphere)
During the early years, Christians did not observe Easter, they observed Passover.
There is no indication of the observance of the Easter festival in the New Testament, or in the writings of the apostolic Fathers...The first Christians continued to observe the Jewish festivals, though in a new spirit, as commemorations of events which those festivals had foreshadowed. Thus the Passover, with a new conception added to it of Christ as the true Paschal Lamb and the first fruits from the dead, continued to be observed.
(Encyclopaedia Britannica 1910 from Harvard University Digitized Jul 24, 2008, p. 828)
So how did the Jewish Passover become Christian Easter? The history is long, complicated and quite confusing. Here is the simplest explanation that I can gather:
From Jewish Passover To Easter Sunday
The change most likely took place after the Bar Kokhba Revolt - a Jewish rebellion against the Roman Empire in Judea Province led by Simon bar Kokhba. After the revolt, the Roman Emperor Hadrian rebuilt the ruins of Jerusalem and changed its name into Aelia Capitolina. Jews were persecuted and barred from Jerusalem.
At that time, Christianity was still seen as a branch of Judaism and although Christians were permitted to stay in Jerusalem they had to adjust and changed some of their religious practices in order to differentiate themselves from the Jews:
The actual introduction of Easter-Sunday appears to have occurred earlier in Palestine after Emperor Hadrian ruthlessly crushed the Barkokeba revolt (A.D. 132-135)...
The fact that the Passover controversy arose when Emperor Hadrian adopted new repressive measures against Jewish religious practices suggests that such measures influenced the new Gentile hierarchy to change the date of Passover from Nisan 14 to the following Sunday (Easter- Sunday) in order to show separation and differentiation from the Jews and the Jewish Christians...
A whole body of Against the Jews literature was produced by leading Fathers who defamed the Jews as a people and emptied their religious beliefs and practices of any historical value. Two major causalities of the anti-Jewish campaign were Sabbath and Passover. The Sabbath was changed to Sunday and Passover was transferred to Easter-Sunday.
Scholars usually recognize the anti-Judaic motivation for the repudiation of the Jewish reckoning of Passover and adoption of Easter-Sunday instead. Joachim Jeremias attributes such a development to "the inclination to break away from Judaism." In a similar vein, J.B. Lightfoot explains that Rome and Alexandria adopted Easter-Sunday to avoid "even the semblance of Judaism".
(Bacchiocchi S. God's Festival in Scripture and History. Biblical Perspectives. Befriend Springs (MI), 1995, pp. 101,102,103)
So then the Jewish Passover that was celebrated on Nisan 14 was changed into the first Sunday after the first full moon occurring on or after the vernal equinox (i.e. the first Sunday on April). However, the transition itself was not a smooth one. For even over a century later, many Christians still chose to observe Easter on Nisan 14.
At ca. 312 CE, the Roman Emperor Contanstine (who was originally a pagan sun-worshipper) converted to Christianity. Constantine was not pleased about the Jewish religious traditions still practiced by the Christians, as seen by his words that were quoted by the Roman Christian historian Eusebius:
Let us then have nothing in common with the detestable Jewish crowd; for we have received from our Saviour a different way.
(Eusebius’ Life of Constantine, Book III chapter 18)
Before Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire, the sun god Sol Invictus (“Unconquered Sun”) was the prominent god in their religion.
Invictus (“Unconquered, Invincible”) was an epithet for several deities of classical Roman religion, including the supreme deity Jupiter, the war god Mars, Hercules, Apollo, and Silvanus.
(Hijmans, S.E.- The Sun Which Did Not Rise In The East (2009), p. 124)
The god was favored by emperors after Aurelian and appeared on their coins until Constantine I.
(Halsberghe, "The cult of Sol Invictus", p.155)
Now, the Greeks named the days of the week as the “days of the gods” and this is adopted by the Romans. Sunday is sun-day, which is ruled by the god of the sun. Although Emperor Constantine declared himself a Christian at the same time he maintained ties to the older religion and with that he gained many supporters. On March 7, 321 CE Constantine decreed Sunday (dies Solis – day of the Sun) as the Roman day of rest (Codex Justinianus 3.12.2).
This is why he also insisted that the Easter day must fall on the Sunday, the day the pagan Romans observed for the adoration of the sun god. Meanwhile, both the Old and the New Testaments never mention Sunday as the day of worship.
For in six days the LORD made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested the seventh day. Therefore the LORD blessed the Sabbath day and hallowed it.
(OT: Exodus 20:11)
Therefore the Son of Man (i.e. Jesus) is also Lord of the Sabbath.
(NT: Mark 2:28)
What day is the Sabbath?
The Jewish Sabbath is observed from sundown on Friday until the appearance of the three stars in the sky on Saturday night. (Ref: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sabbath)
Then, at the Council of Nicea (325 CE), Emperor Constantine presided over a group of church bishops and established the above mentioned date of Easter.
And finally, after Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire, a later roman Emperor decreed death penalty for those who did not accept this Sunday decree:
Edicts of Theodosius against the heretics, A.D. 380-394...Theodosius...decreed that...by the death of the offender; and the same capital punishment was inflicted on the Audians, or Quartodecimans, who should dare to perpetrate the atrocious crime of celebrating on an improper day the festival of Easter.
(Gibbon E. Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Volume III, Chapter XXVII. ca. 1776-1788)
This is why on Easter many churches still observe the “sunrise services” - the same day when the pagan Romans gathered in their temples to worship their pagan gods, particularly the rise of the invincible Sun-god in the morning, contrary to the Jewish Passover which is supposed to begin on Nisan 14, after dusk.
Spring equinox is the time when the Sun-god finally “resurrected” again after having shined for shorter period during the days in winter. This is the time when the Earth becomes fertile once again.
WHAT IS THE ORIGIN OF THE NAME “EASTER”?
Now, the word “Easter” is nowhere to be found in the Bible (both in the Old and New Testaments). Although, one verse in the English translation of the King James Version does use the word “Easter”:
And when he (Herod Agrippa, the King) had apprehended him (Peter), he put him in prison and delivered him to four quaternions of soldiers to keep him; intending after Easter to bring him forth to the people.”
(NT: Acts 12:4)
Other English Bible translations use the word “Passover”, or “Pascha” (Greek) or “Pesach” (Hebrew) and rightly so, since the Book of Acts was originally written in Greek. The Greek word that is translated as “Easter” is most certainly the word “Pascha” which refers to the Jewish Passover and not to the Christian’s Easter as the celebration of Jesus’ resurrection day. On top of that, the word “Easter” on that verse was referring to a festival that was going to be celebrated by Herod Aggripa, a Judean monarch. Obviously, being a Jew he was not referring to a Christian’s festival.
So where does the word “Easter” originated from?
The modern English term Easter, cognate with modern German Ostern, developed from an Old English word that usually appears in the form Eastrun, -on, or -an; but also as Ēastru, -o; and Ēastre or Ēostre.
The most widely accepted theory of the origin of the term is that it is derived from the name of a goddess mentioned by the English monk Bede (672-735 CE), who wrote that Ēosturmōnaþ (Old English 'Month of Ēostre', translated in Bede's time as "Paschal month") was an English month, corresponding to April, which he says:
… "was once called after a goddess of theirs named Eostre, in whose honour feasts were celebrated in that month”.
(Bede, The Reckoning of Time, pg. 54)
Other scholars have identified this German Eostre with an even more ancient goddess called Ishtar:
ISHTAR was one of the most prominent of the deities of the Accadian and Assyrian Pantheon. She was the Assyrian goddess of Love. She was the...Ashtoreth of the Jews or Hebrews. She is the planetary Venus, and in general features corresponds with the classical goddess of Love. Her name Ishtar is that by which she was known in Assyria, and the same name prevailed, with slight modifications, among the Semite nations generally. In Babylonia the goddess was known as Nana...
She may be identified with Eostre of the Germans, or Easter. To this goddess our Saxon or German ancestors sacrificed in April, which was therefore by them styled...Eostur-monath, and from thence arose our word Easter, which the Saxons retained after their conversion to Christianity, so that our Easter-day is nothing more nor less than Ishtar's day...The name became attached by association of ideas to the Christian festival of the Resurrection (of Christ), which happened at the time of the passover...The English name Easter, and the German Ostern, are derived from the name of the Teutonic goddess Ostera (Anglo-Saxon Eostre), whose festival was celebrated by the ancient Saxons with peculiar solemnities in the month of April; and for which, as in many other instances, the first Romish missionaries substituted the paschal feast." The Council of Nice "ordained (A.D. 325) that it should be kept always on a Sunday." Thus we find that it was originally the festival of Ishtar, and occurred on the Sabatu of Elul, or the festival Sabbath of the Assyrians, which occurred in August or harvest time; and that it afterwards became united with the passover or paschal feast of the Jews, and finally adopted by the Christian Church as the Easter Sabbath, changing the date to the spring or seed time, or in April from the harvest month or August. Among the Assyrians it was the feast day of Ishtar and Nergal...
The Phoenician name of Ishtar was Astarte, the later Mendaean form of which was Ashtar. She was called Jeremiah, "the queen of heaven," Jer. vii, 18, and xliv. 17-25...she was sometimes called "the goddess of the chase," corresponding to Diana as well as Venus, the goddess of love. Mr. George Rawlinson says: "The worship of Ishtar was widespread, and her shrines were numerous. She is often called the "queen of Babylon"...It may be suspected that her symbol was the naked female form...
(Hamilton LLC note. Ishtar and Izdubar, the epic of Babylon; or, The Babylonian goddess of love and the hero and warrior king, restored in mod. verse by L.L.C. Hamilton. 1884 Original from Oxford University Digitized Jun 19, 2007, pp. 207-208)
WHAT ABOUT THE EASTER BUNNY AND EGGS?
Here is the answer according to the New International Encyclopaedia:
"The use of eggs in this connection is of the highest antiquity, the egg having been considered in widely separated pre-Christian mythologies as a symbol of resurrection..."
And the following is a legend concerning the Easter rabbit and the egg:
According to Babylonian legend, a huge egg fell from heaven, landing in the Euphrates river. The goddess Ishtar broke out of this egg. Later the feature of "egg nesting" was introduced--a nest where the egg could be incubated until it hatched. A “wicker” or reed basket was used to nest the Ishtar egg (hence the Easter egg basket.)
The Easter egg hunt is based on the notion that if anyone found Ishtar's egg while she was being “reborn,” she would bestow a blessing upon that lucky person. Because this was a joyous Spring festival, eggs were colored in bright Spring (pastel) colors.
The Easter Bunny. Among the Celts, custom dictated that "the goddess" totem would lay eggs for the good children to eat...Eostre's hare was the shape that the Celts imagined on the surface of the full moon...
Since Ishtar or Eostre, was a goddess of fertility--and because rabbits procreate quickly – the rabbit became associated with the sexual act, and the egg became a symbol of "birth" and "renewal."
(Chapman TL. God's Law of Love: The Perfect Law of Liberty Jehovah's Ten Commands Still Apply Today. iUniverse, 2010, p. 133)
WHAT DOES THE BIBLE SAY ABOUT ALL THESE?
Clearly then the origin of Easter is not from the Bible. It is a mishmash of many ancient pagan traditions worldwide, that are celebrated among others to honor a goddess that is condemned by the Bible itself.
The children gather wood, the fathers light the fire, and the women knead the dough and make cakes to offer to the Queen of Heaven (i.e. Ishtar). They pour out drink offerings to other gods to arouse my anger.
(OT: Jeremiah 7:18)
(The Day of the Lord)] You, Lord, have abandoned your people, the descendants of Jacob. They are full of superstitions from the East; they practice divination like the Philistines and embrace pagan customs.
(OT: Isaiah 2:6)
You know that when you were pagans, somehow or other you were influenced and led astray to mute idols.
(NT: 1 Corinthians 12:2)
There are many debates concerning the origin of Easter, especially the connection between the word “Easter” and goddess Ishtar. However, it cannot be denied that many ancient pagan traditions worldwide did celebrate their religious festivals around this date.
Is there any connection between the Jewish Passover with the ancient pagan festivals? Author Acharya S surely thinks so. She does an amazing job of researching this topic using ancient texts and many quotes from religious scholars and came with the conclusion that the Jewish Passover too had a connection with (pagan) spring celebrations:
… Passover also is a pre-Judaic spring celebration that has nothing to do with an actual Exodus. The placement of the fictional crucifixion at that time was done to coincide with both spring celebrations.
(Acharya S - freethoughtnation.com/easter-or-ishtar-whats-the-truth/)
Thus, several authors, including Acharya S concluded that Christianity (as well as Judaism) is actually a rehash of ancient Astrolatry or Astrotheology.
Astrolatry is the worship of stars and other heavenly bodies as deities, or the association of deities with heavenly bodies. The most common instances of this are sun gods and moon gods in polytheistic systems worldwide. Also notable is the association of the planets with deities in Babylonian, and hence in Greco-Roman religion, viz. Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn.
The term astro-theology is used in the context of 18th to 19th century scholarship aiming at the discovery of the original religion, particularly primitive monotheism. Unlike astrolatry, which usually implies polytheism, frowned upon as idolatrous by Christian authors since Eusebius, astrotheology is any "religious system founded upon the observation of the heavens", and in particular, may be monotheistic.
If you read the thoroughly researched books of Acharya S (such as Suns of God, Christ in Egypt, etc.) and also The World’s Sixteen Crucified Saviors by Kersey Grave (1875), you will see that it is understandable to come to the above conclusions.
Although, I am really thankful to the above authors that have made me aware to the similarities between pagan, polytheistic and monotheistic religions, my own research actually prove more or less the other around. My conclusion in MythoReligio series is this:
"ALL world myths and various religious stories actually derived from one Mega Story – the true story of human's pre-historical events that have been corrupted by many different nations so they become the fairy tales and hard-to-believe stories we know today. This Mega Story does not belong only to one single nation or religion, but it is the true (pre)history of our common ancestors."