So You Think Easter is Pagan Part 3: Modern Easter Tradition

In Part 1 of this series we examined an avalanche of evidence debunking claims that Easter is rooted in paganism. We traced the origins of the fallacious narrative that “Easter” was an ancient pagan observance, either in honor of the goddess Ishtar or of the obscure, (possibly fictitious goddess) Eostre. We debunked mounds of questionable associations and, frankly, shoddy research and logic to uncover the source- a late 19th century Scottish minister with a flair for conspiracy theories named Alexander Hislop. Hislop’s biggest fan even abandoned his manufactured mythology, publishing a retraction of his support and detailing Hislop’s poor research in his 1997 work The Babylon Connection. The most necessary of Hislop’s assertions in order to tie modern tradition to pagan worship (that eggs and rabbits were associated with the worship of these goddesses) was discovered to be a complete fabrication as neither of these things can be found to be historically associated with either.

In Part 2 we tackled the controversial Emperor Constantine, the claim that he “changed Easter to represent Jesus,” and led the Council of Nicea to mandate this new “Easter” to all of Christendom. We learned that the Nicene “Easter” controversy was not new, but merely take three of an argument that had been swirling since long before Constantine was even born (dating back to at least 155 AD) called the Quartodeciman controversy. The decision of the Council of Nicea, far from being a “Roman” mandate, was actually voted on by anywhere from 250 to 318 bishops- the vast majority of which hailed from the east. These bishops were hardly likely to vote to paganize Christianity since some still bore the scars of the extreme persecution that they lived through (not being willing to compromise their faith) 14 years prior.

Now that we know what the word “Easter,” eggs, and rabbits are not associated with, we are still left with this question: Where did modern Easter tradition come from?

Where did the name “Easter” come from?

Phonetics play absolutely no linguistic role in equating the words “Ishtar” and “Easter” because they aren’t based on the same root language. However, at least those who attempt to associate “Eostre” and “Easter” were on the right track since they are both Anglo-Saxon and specifically Germanic. Nick Sayers writes in his article Why We Should Not Passover Easter:

Because the English Anglo/Saxon language originally derived from the Germanic, there are many similarities between German and English…The English word Easter is of German/Saxon origin and not Babylonian as Alexander Hislop falsely claimed. The German equivalent is Oster. Oster (Ostern being the modern day equivalent) is related to Ost which means the rising of the sun, or simply in English, east. Oster comes from the old Teutonic form of auferstehen / auferstehung, which means resurrection, which in the older Teutonic form comes from two words, Ester meaning first, and stehen meaning to stand. These two words combine to form erstehen which is an old German form of auferstehen, the modern day German word for resurrection.”

I know- much less riveting than the fanciful conspiracy theory version, but there you have it. Does this bear out historically? Let’s see.

Roger Patterson explains in his article for Answers in Genesis:

In the Hebrew, Passover is Pesach. The Greek form is simply a transliteration and takes the form Pascha. Virtually all languages refer to Easter as either a transliterated form of pascha or use resurrection in the name. English and German stand apart in their use of Easter (Ostern) to refer to the celebration of the Resurrection.”

Here are a few examples: Latin- Pascha; French- Paques; Italian- Pasqua.

Go ahead. Check the wiktionary links. You will find that each one traces the etymology as a form of the ancient Greek paskha (“Passover”), Hebrew pesakh. First noun listing is: Easter.

Patterson notes Martin Luther’s transliteration in his 1522 German New Testament, “…he chose the word Oster to refer to the Passover references before and after the Resurrection.” He also notes William Tyndale’s translation, “William Tyndale translated the Bible into English from the Greek and Hebrew. His New Testament (1525) uses the word ester to refer to the Passover… The usage of ester was retained in the 1534 revision of the New Testament, and it was not until later that it was known as Easter, adding the a. Luther and Tyndale were the first to use a translation of pascha rather than a transliteration.”

Since I’ve been using the church that I was raised in as a case study in this brand of erroneous reasoning, I’ll include an example of the level of logical inconsistency in Mr. Armstrong’s Plain Truth About Easter. Referring to Acts 2:1 and 12:3-4, Mr. Armstrong includes this parenthetical note, “remember the word ‘Easter’ here is a mistranslation in the King James Version—originally inspired ‘Passover,’ and so corrected in the Revised Standard Version.” Mr. Armstrong has a problem with the word “Easter” so claims that the KJV use of the word is a “mistranslation,” yet refers to the term “Passover” as “inspired.” The irony is that the term he views as “inspired” was actually invented by Tyndale. Patterson writes, “In fact, we owe our English word Passover to Tyndale. When translating the Old Testament (1530), he coined the term to describe how the Lord would ‘pass over’ the houses marked with the blood of the lamb (Exodus 12).” Apparently, the word “Passover” can be considered “inspired” because Mr. Armstrong didn’t harbor an aversion to it based on a conspiracy theory that he adopted. However, the term “Easter” is vilified.

What About Eggs and Bunnies?

The incorporation of eggs and bunnies into Easter observance is decidedly a modern phenomenon. Obviously, the Bible doesn’t discuss eggs and rabbits in terms of commemorating the death and resurrection of Christ. Neither were these elements present in any phase (Polycarp vs Anicetus, Polycrates vs Victor, or Nicene Council) of the Quartodeciman controversy which centered around the Easter topic. That leaves only one option: these elements are modern additions. This fact in and of itself is enough to turn some against these new traditions. When it comes down to it, each and every one of us must do our own research, our own due diligence, and prayerfully come to a decision which honors our own convictions. With that being said, it’s important not to judge another individual’s decision on this topic based on our own personal convictions (which may or may not be Biblically and logically sound). Furthermore, it is of utmost importance that we be aware of potential hypocrisies within our own belief systems. I’ll cover this last point after we examine some historical associations of eggs and bunnies.

Non-Christian Associations with Dyed Eggs

Both eggs and rabbits (or hares) appear in the traditions of various people groups. While they are not tied to the worship of pagan dieties, they appear in both “pagan” and Christian symbolism. Eggs and rabbits are associated with Spring which is a season of rebirth. Christ’s death and resurrection also occurred in the Spring. That makes eggs and rabbits prime candidates for non-Christian seasonal associations with rebirth and fertility as well as Christian seasonal associations with Jesus’ resurrection.

One such non-Christian association is the Egyptian Spring festival, Sham el Nessim. This festival occurs around the vernal equinox and is related to agriculture. The festival’s name comes from the root word “Shamo” meaning “renewal of life.” Heba Bizarri notes that certain foods were offered to their dieties on that day- salted fish, lettuce, and onions. Colored boiled eggs, though not offered to the dieites, were a traditional food to be eaten during the festival. These dyed eggs were also hung in temples as a sign of regenerative life. Green onions were also stuffed in the eyes of mummies and drawn on tomb walls to “keep the evil eye away and prevent envy.”

Many cultures involve eggs in their creation mythologies. The Egyptians and Greeks are two examples. An Egyptian deity named Thoth, who was considered a creator god, was said to have hatched the world from an egg and that the sun, moon, and creatures came from the egg. Similarly, the Greek god Protogonos/Phanes was said to come from a “cosmic egg formed from darkness and primordial elements.”

Ancient Ukranians made beautifully carved and colored ostrich eggs called “pysansky.” These are hypothesized to have some type of meaning associated with “rebirth” since they are found in burials.

traditional pysanka from Kosmach in Carpathian, Ukraine

Christian Association with Dyed Eggs

Eggs also appear in early Jewish tradition. Joseph Abrahamson notes, “In the celebration of the Passover meal, which Christ celebrated the night before He was crucified, a roasted whole egg is placed as one of six food items on the Passover plate. The egg, called Beitzah symbolizes the Passover sacrifice that was offered in the Temple in Jerusalem and was then eaten as part of the meal on Seder night. The egg was introduced to the Passover meal after the Temple was destroyed in 70 A.D. The egg was the first dish served at Jewish funerals in the time of Christ’s ministry on earth. The egg was also used as a symbol of mourning the loss of the Temple where the Passover Lamb was sacrificed. It is usually eaten dipped in salt water which symbolizes the bitter tears of the people.”

One likely origin of the use of dyed eggs in modern tradition dates back to the early Christian observance called Lent. In order to delegitimize Lent, Hislop claimed that the 40 day Lenten fast was derived from the Babylonian worship of Tammuz, which was followed by a period of weeping. However, Irenaeus (recall that Irenaeus was the disciple of Polycarp, who was the disciple of the apostle John) prevents this association when he mentions the varying fasting traditions in his writings relevant to the Quartodeciman controversy:

For the controversy is not merely as regards the day, but also as regards the form itself of the fast. For some consider themselves bound to fast one day, others two days, others still more, while others [do so during] forty: the diurnal and the nocturnal hours they measure out together as their [fasting] day. And this variety among the observers [of the fasts] had not its origin in our time, but long before in that of our predecessors, some of whom probably, being not very accurate in their observance of it, handed down to posterity the custom as it had, through simplicity or private fancy, been [introduced among them]. And yet nevertheless all these lived in peace one with another, and we also keep peace together.” (emphasis mine)

Furthermore, this “weeping for Tammuz” did not correspond to a period of 40 days, nor did it coincide with Easter, but took place months later in what would be called July on our modern calendars.

Clearly this alternative fasting tradition, while not considered “accurate” by Irenaeus, was also not considered to be of pagan origin and the early church (according to the example of Polycarp, disciple of the apostle John) chose to accept and live in peace with these individuals- not excommunicate them or vilify them.

On Lent tradition, Joseph Abrahamson writes:

In both the eastern and western Church this meant fasting from meat and bird flesh–including eggs. Eggs were used to break the Lenten fast on Easter Morning. In preparation for this breaking of the fast the eggs were decorated to commemorate the sacrifice of Jesus Christ as the Paschal Lamb of God Who takes away the sins of the world. The breaking of the shell became a symbol of Christ’s rending of the tomb.”

So, it appears that those who observed Lent would boil their eggs to preserve them for eating after the fast rather than waste them. They decorated them and used them symbolically in the subsequent Easter celebrations to illustrate Christ’s death and resurrection.

Abrahamson notes, “What is interesting about the rabbit or hare is that it has been used by all kinds of religions around the world as a symbol. Each religion fitting its own teaching on the symbol of the rabbit. But in most cases the symbol refers to new life.” Abrahamson also points out that the rabbit has been featured in Christian art throughout the ages. A few of his examples include: the three hare window in Paderborn, Germany and Martin Shongauer’s The Temptation of Jesus (1470).

Dreihasenfenster- three hare window in Paderborn, Germany

Jonathon Safarti notes that German Lutherans used the rabbit (or to be more accurate, the hare) as a symbol for the Virgin Mary. This association is derived from “ancient writers such as Pliny the Elder and Plutarch” who “thought it was hermaphroditic and could thus reproduce without fertilization.” This may very well be the root of the American concept of the “Easter bunny” since its introduction to America seems to accurately date back to the Pennsylvania Dutch. Stephen Winick writes, “Alfred Shoemaker, the pioneering Pennsylvania Dutch folklorist, wrote in his book Eastertide in Pennsylvania that the tradition of the Easter Bunny in the U.S. goes back to ‘the very first [Pennsylvania Dutch] settlement at Germantown in the late 1680s…’”

Winick cites Johann Conrad Gilbert’s artwork as the “first hard evidence of an American Easter Bunny.” He writes, “As Gilbert’s artwork makes clear, the early Pennsylvania Dutch tradition, like that of Germany, typically featured a hare, known as the ‘Oschter Haws’ or ‘Oster Haas,’ rather than a rabbit. In Pennsylvania, the word ‘haws’ or ‘haas,’ was mostly translated as ‘rabbit’ rather than ‘hare,’ so when speaking in English, the Pennsylvania Dutch often referred to the ‘Easter Rabbit.’”

Courtesy, Winterthur Museum, Fraktur drawing: Easter bunny with eggs by Johann Conrad Gilbert, 1800-1810, Berks County, PA, Watercolor, Ink, Laid paper, Museum purchase with funds provided by the Henry Francis du Pont Collectors Circle, 2011.10

Shoemaker recounts the basic tradition, “ Sometimes the children built their nests in the house (usually hiding the nest in a secluded spot, the egg-laying rabbit being somewhat on the shy side) or out in the yard, even sometimes, in the country, out in the barn. Generally speaking the children set their headgear as a nest for the Easter rabbit, the boys their woolen caps or hats and the girls their bonnets. In some families the Oschter Haws was less timid and laid his nest of colored eggs on the child’s plate set at the table. And the boldest of Easter rabbits merely deposited his eggs on the window sills.” Winick notes that apparently there was an element similar to that of Santa Claus at Christmas- “well-behaved” children were rewarded whereas the “naughty” might receive “rabbit droppings, coal, or even horse dung.”

As it turns out the tradition even varied from family to family. “The ‘rationalists’ among us tell the children that the bunny ‘brings’ them. Among our strictest religionists, especially the Plain People, children are sometimes not told about the Easter bunny, just as they are not told about Santa Claus, ‘because,’ as they say, ‘this would be lieing (sic).’”

So, there you have it. Whether you agree with the development of a particular tradition or not is beside the point. We do not- and should not- have license to assign false origins to traditions we don’t personally approve of. While varying traditions of non-Christians and Christians have similar elements, it cannot be said that Christian tradition is “copied” from pagan. Rather, it would be more accurate to say that shared associations arise from common observations about eggs and rabbits.

This brings us to another relevant subject…

If something has been utilized in a pagan tradition, is it off limits for Christian tradition?

The short answer is no and this concept is clearly evidenced Biblically. Many of the practices that God approved of for Israel pre-existed in pagan tradition. The article Is It a Sin to Observe Easter lists several: “sacrifices, prayers, temples, priests, harvest festivals, music in worship, circumcision and tithing.” The same article highlights the obvious parallels between the timing of pagan festivals and God’s Old Testament appointed festivals:

The annual festivals or holy days God gave Israel as part of the old covenant were based on the cycle of the moon. The festival of Trumpets came on the new moon of the seventh month. Israelites even had a new moon celebration with a blowing of trumpets (Psalm 81:3). Yet, the moon was regularly worshipped as a god or goddess in nearby cultures. That’s where we get our name for ‘Monday.’ It was the day of the moon’s worship. Even though pagans worshipped the moon god on the day of the new moon, the Israelites could worship the true God on the same day. Just because pagans did something does not automatically mean that God’s people cannot do it…Even the sun, worshipped as a god by many pagan cultures, God used to symbolize an aspect of Jesus’ glory. Luke called him ‘the rising sun’ (Luke 1:78). Jesus is also called the ‘bright Morning Star’ in Revelation 22:16.”

In fact, pagan traditions are inescapable in our modern day lives and those who condemn Easter usually take no issue with these. The names of four of the seven days of the week are derived from pagan Norse dieties. Wedding rings and in fact wedding ceremonies as a whole are rooted in pagan custom (AND not commanded in the Bible). Michael Morrison discusses modern funeral tradition and even our modern décor:

Funerals include pagan customs, too, based on erroneous ideas about the afterlife. Scripture says nothing about putting flowers on graves, etc. Egyptian mythology said that the dead should be embalmed, and Joseph participated in this custom (Gen. 50:2-3) despite its pagan origin… Pagans created statues — of animals and people, both life-size and miniatures. They had statues in their flower gardens and statues in their homes. But statues have lost their ‘pagan’ connotations because people do not believe in such gods and goddesses anymore.”

The word “cereal” comes from the pagan goddess of agriculture Ceres. Shooting fireworks can be traced back to annual pagan fire festivals- yet even as a young Worldwide Church of God member I was allowed to enjoy this Fourth of July festivity. The popular brand, Nike, takes its name from the Greek goddess of victory. Maybe the name of the vehicle you drive has a pagan association such as the Saturn or Taurus.

There are (and always have been) certain Christian groups which go to extremes in the name of exclusivity. For example, sites such as this one advocate that “true Christians” will abandon the Gregorian calendar as a whole:

The Gregorian calendar is now in use as the civil calendar throughout most of the world. The solar calendar in use throughout most of the world, sponsored by Pope Gregory XIII in 1582 as a corrected version of the Julian calendar...that he may change times and laws. The ‘correction’ was…to correct an error in the Julian calendar…and it was adopted by Great Britain (Gog and Magog) and the American colonies in 1752 (great eagle…of wicked eagle).”

Do you see how ridiculous this gets? Groups claiming to have “special revelation of God’s truth” date back to the ancient Gnostics. Gnosticism is a heresy (a Christian heresy which took varying forms) that has been roundly denounced since the time of Paul. The particular group above has apparently associated Great Britain with Gog and Magog and the United States with some random, obscure verse about a “great eagle…of wicked eagle.” Other groups would use the same verses and come up with completely different associations. The only thing consistent among these groups is the constant competition to “out holy,” “out righteous,” and “out special divine knowledge” each other.

But What About Deuteronomy 12:30-31?

Many individuals (who are very sincere in their intentions to obey God) have taken these verses out of context by interpreting them to mean that no element of a pagan religious custom can be utilized in Christian worship. We’ve already seen above that this interpretation doesn’t bear out in Scripture in light of practices that God clearly approves and even mandates. Contextually, what practices were the Israelites supposed to abhor based on these verses?

Deuteronomy 12:30-31 ESV “30 take care that you be not ensnared to follow them, after they have been destroyed before you, and that you do not inquire about their gods, saying, ‘How did these nations serve their gods?—that I also may do the same.’ 31 You shall not worship the Lord your God in that way, for every abominable thing that the Lord hates they have done for their gods, for they even burn their sons and their daughters in the fire to their gods.”

Reading chapter 12 in its entirety, the answer becomes clear. This author sums it up well:

The context of Deuteronomy 12 is God’s command to utterly destroy the many pagan sacrificial sites that existed within the Promised Land (verses 1-3). The Canaanites, like many other pagans, had many sacrificial sites because they thought that various gods had power in various places…Human sacrifice and temple prostitution were parts of their religion.

To discourage Israel from adopting the polytheism and immorality of paganism, God commanded Israel to have only one place of sacrifice, the tabernacle. It was only to the tabernacle that Israel was to bring their sacrifices, offerings and tithes (verses 4-18). God expanded on this thought in verses 19 through 28. He told Israel where and under what circumstances certain meats were to be eaten. He emphasized that Israel was not to eat blood, and that they were to pour the blood of their sacrifices beside the tabernacle’s altar, not just anywhere that they pleased (verse 27).Then in verses 29 through 31 God repeated his intent to destroy the pagan nations occupying Canaan. He commanded Israel not to worship God in the pagans’ way of worship (verse 31). The reason? Because their way of worship included vile and hateful things, such as child sacrifice. This was not a blanket condemnation. The passage does not condemn the adoption of things that by nature are not evil…God did not forbid prayer, even though that was a part of pagan worship. He did not forbid sacrifices or harvest festivals, although the pagans had them.” (emphasis mine)

The author then goes on to give an undeniable example of this Biblical truth:

Take, as an example, the temple. Pagans built temples more than a thousand years before Moses. At Sinai God instructed Israel to build a tabernacle, not a temple. Four hundred years later David decided to build a temple, though God had not instructed him to do so. David reasoned that since he was going to live in a palace of cedar, then the ark of God should be in a temple. In response, God reminded David that he never had asked Israel for a house (2 Samuel 7:6-7). Furthermore, David’s plan would set aside much of the letter of the law (those portions concerning the tabernacle, its construction, maintenance and transportation). In principle, what David proposed was noble. God was to be given greater honor than the king. However, a temple was so alien to Israel’s thinking that Solomon had to rely on craftsmen from the pagan kingdom of Tyre. They had experience in temple construction. Nonetheless, God blessed this and other worship innovations.”

Beware of Hypocrisy

While the intentions of “Easter detractors” are usually good, it is quite common that in examining the traditions of others with a microscope, their own hypocrisies escape unnoticed. Again, since I’m relying on my own personal experience, I’ll illustrate using a Worldwide Church of God example.

Mr. Armstrong had strong words regarding adding elements to Biblical observance:

Why do people who believe themselves to be Christians dye eggs at Easter? Do they suppose the Bible ordained, or commands, this heathen custom? There is not a word of it in the New Testament. Certainly Christ did not start it, and the apostles and early Christians did none of it! Then why should you do it today? Why follow heathenism and try to convince yourself you are a Christian? God calls such things abomination!”

He continues later in his article by emphasizing the correct “manner” of observance. Though this next quote refers specifically to the Lord’s Supper, if born out to its logical conclusion, it is applicable to ALL God ordained observances:

It is speaking of the manner in which it is done. We take it unworthily if we take it wrongly, in the wrong manner. Once we learn the truth about its observance, and yet take it at any other time than when God says, then we take it unworthily.”

Now, let’s compare this wrong “manner” policy to the Worldwide Church of God’s traditional Feast of Tabernacles observance. Leviticus 23:33-44 specifically lays out the commands for the authorized elements of this observance.

Comparison 1:

Biblical command: God commands the Israelites in verse 42 to dwell in “booths” for seven days. What is a booth? “The Hebrew word sukkōt is the plural of sukkah, “booth” or “tabernacle“, which is a walled structure covered with s’chach (plant material such as overgrowth or palm leaves). A sukkah is the name of the temporary dwelling in which farmers would live during harvesting, a fact connecting to the agricultural significance of the holiday stressed by the Book of Exodus. As stated in Leviticus, it is also intended as a reminiscence of the type of fragile dwellings in which the Israelites dwelt during their 40 years of travel in the desert after the Exodus from slavery in Egypt. Throughout the holiday, meals are eaten inside the sukkah and many people sleep there as well.

Traditional Worldwide Observance: Rather than booths, church members are given the option of multiple “feast sites” from which they choose one to attend. These sites also happen to be, in most cases, desirable vacation destinations in which members are housed in varying levels of luxurious accommodations depending on their personal financial situation.

Comparison 2:

Biblical Command: According to verses 37-38 and 40, specific offerings (burnt, grain, drink etc) are to be given- each on its appropriate day. Also Israelites were to “rejoice” with the branches of leafy trees.

Traditional Worldwide Observance: No sacrifices are given (they believe the sacrificial system has been fulfilled whereas the rest of the law has not). In the years of feasts I attended, I cannot recall the incorporation of leafy tree branches in any way shape or form. However, it was traditional for the children to receive “feast presents.” While this element is not present in Scripture, it is certainly reminiscent of Christmas gift giving (which they definitely consider a pagan practice).

The goal of this comparison exercise is not to disparage the church that I was raised in. They are free to worship as their conscience leads them as long as it isn’t prohibited in Scripture- and nothing I have described above is prohibited. The point is- in order to avoid an embarrassing hypocrisy- the same courtesy should be extended to those whose worship tradition differs from their own when it comes to the death and resurrection of Christ. The traditions Mr. Armstrong initiated do not even meet his own stated standards- they weren’t “ordained” or commanded in the Bible. They are not present in the New Testament. “Christ did not start” them and the the apostles and early Christians did not adhere to his brand of tradition either. Yet, he does not apply his own outrage to the license he took with Scripture. The traditions of the Worldwide Church of God represent merely one of many varying groups which self-identify as Christian and build a tradition based on personal interpretation which deviates from what is considered “orthodoxy.”

Conclusion

Easter- neither the word nor the elements that have evolved into modern tradition- are intrinsically “pagan.” As the author of the Is It a Sin to Observe Easter article above notes, “The ancients were not wrong in understanding the key role of fertility in life, nor in knowing that sex and reproduction are gifts of God. What they erred in was worshipping the created rather than the Creator, and then worshipping in ways that were abominable to God — such as in fertility revelry and temple prostitution.”

Attempting to trace the origins of a particular custom is sometimes impossible! Luckily, there is no reason for us to be terrified of accidentally offending God by engaging in a practice that seems innocuous, but may have possibly been associated with pagan individuals at some point in ancient history. As the author of Once Pagan Always Pagan points out, “…we can live and worship without worrying about what pagans did or did not do. If the behavior is wrong, it is wrong for us to do it whether or not pagans did it. If it is not wrong, we may do it whether or not the pagans did it first.” There is really no need to complicate the issue further.

If a particular activity offends your conscience- simply don’t participate. There will certainly be times when we must choose to divide over non-negotiable doctrinal differences. However, the hypocrisy illustrated in the comparison above and the complete lack of a historical case for the “pagan Easter” assertion establishes that this issue does not fall into that category.

The most detrimental aspect of the unnecessarily exclusionist belief system is its self-imposed isolation from fellowship with true brothers and sisters in Christ. Looking back over my younger years I cringe over the wedge I needlessly (and harmfully) drove between myself and those I should have whole-heartedly embraced. Countless individuals who so clearly embodied the Galatians 5:22-23 fruits of the Spirit! Fruits that my adoption of false theology rendered me blind to. If only we could follow the early church example of the apostle John’s disciple Polycarp! When he and Anicetus could not agree on the proper method of commemorating the death and resurrection of our Savior- they agreed to disagree. Neither renounced the other as a false Christian. They took the Lord’s Supper together and set an example of unity in Christ.

It is my sincere hope that this So You Think Easter is Pagan series has enabled someone like my “old self” to do the following: 1) question “truths” that you have accepted without question; 2) examine the evidence prayerfully; and 3) ultimately follow your individual convictions (whatever they may be) without sacrificing the unity that we are instructed to share with our brothers and sisters in Christ.

 

So You Think Easter is Pagan Part 2: The Constantine Conspiracy

In this series we are fact checking the oft repeated, yet rarely researched claims of “Easter is pagan!” which make their rounds each and every year without fail. In the first installment, So You Think Easter is Pagan Part 1: Ishtar, Eostre, Eggs, and Bunnies, we addressed the claims that Easter (both the name and the observance) originate from either the Babylonian goddess Ishtar, or the Germanic goddess Eostre.

The arguments are summed up well in the meme below:

In part 2 of this series we are addressing the following claim: “After Constantine decided to Christianize the Empire, Easter was changed to represent Jesus.”

We’ve already established in Part 1 that there was no such thing as a pagan observance in honor of either Ishtar (who definitely did exist in mythology) or Eostre (whose existence cannot even be confirmed) by the name of “Easter” that involved eggs and bunnies. If a pagan observance called “Easter” featuring eggs and bunnies did not exist, it logically follows that Constantine could not have “changed it to represent Jesus.”

So, on what grounds are these charges against Constantine levied? They are entirely based on an early church disagreement called “The Quartodeciman Controversy” for which a decision was decreed at the Council of Nicea called by Constantine in 325 AD. Now, I know many people find early church history to be a very boring topic- especially if you prefer legitimate sources over fanciful ones (such as Dan Brown’s The DaVinci Code or Hislop’s The Two Babylons). Reality is usually far less entertaining than fiction. However, even just a superficial acquaintance with actual church history goes a long way in arming yourself against ill conceived claims such as the one above. With that being said, let’s learn a little background history on Constantine.

Constantine- Every Conspiracy Theorist’s Favorite Scapegoat

Constantine, Roman Emperor 306-337 AD

Constantine is a very polarizing historical figure. Some love him. Some hate him. Some think he single handedly hijacked the faith and created a paganized form of Christianity. He’s accused of creating the concept of the trinity, introducing new and paganizing existing Christian observances, changing the Sabbath from Saturday to Sunday, and even deciding what books are contained in our Bibles. Most of these things he supposedly pulled off at the Council of Nicea. I once spoke to someone who thought he created the Roman Catholic Church and declared himself the first pope. (No and No- he was never a pope at all.) Who was Constantine in reality?

The Rise of Constantine- “Cliff Notes Version”

Beginning in 303 AD, Christians entered a period of tremendous persecution in which churches were destroyed, Scriptures were seized and burned, and Christian services were prohibited. However, in 311 AD, Galerius (one of the church’s most extreme persecutors) took a shocking action on his deathbed. He issued the Edict of Toleration in which he legalized Christianity.

With the throne now empty, two men emerged to claim it- Constantine and Maxentius. Battle ensued. As Constantine and his army were marching to meet Maxentius, Constantine claims he saw a cross of light in the sky and then either read or heard (sources differ) the words “in this sign conquer” in Latin. Later, Constantine claims that Jesus appeared to him in a dream and showed him the cross sign again and he subsequently marked his soldiers shields with this sign and converted to Christianity. The sign he claims to have been shown are the Greek letters Chi and Ro (which mean Christ.)

Chi Rho

Long story short, he won the battle and became Emperor of Rome. Are the miraculous portions of the story true? Who knows?

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

Early Christians loved him and if you lived back then, you probably would have to. Christianity had been illegal (Judaism incidentally was NOT illegal), but he legalized it. When Constantine came to power, he granted freedom and official status to Christians and issued the Edict of Milan in 313, which granted religious freedom in Rome. (The Edict of Toleration 2 years prior had done the same, however, in the Roman Empire new Emperor meant new rules.) PLEASE NOTE, he did NOT declare Christianity the official faith of Rome. This is the Encyclopedia Britannica entry for the Edict of Milan:

a proclamation that permanently established religious toleration for Christianity within the Roman Empire. It was the outcome of a political agreement concluded in Milan between the Roman emperors Constantine I and Licinius in February 313. The proclamation, made for the East by Licinius in June 313, granted all persons freedom to worship whatever deity they pleased, assured Christians of legal rights (including the right to organize churches), and directed the prompt return to Christians of confiscated property. Previous edicts of toleration had been as short-lived as the regimes that sanctioned them, but this time the edict effectively established religious toleration.”

Below is an excerpt, but you can read it in its entirety at Early Church Texts:

and that it was proper that the Christians and all others should have liberty to follow that mode of religion which to each of them appeared best; so that that God, who is seated in heaven, might be benign and propitious to us, and to every one under our government. And therefore we judged it a salutary measure, and one highly consonant to right reason, that no man should be denied leave of attaching himself to the rites of the Christians, or to whatever other religion his mind directed him…”

Though Constantine began by being very neutral to Christianity, he certainly evolved from this stance to a more supportive one later on by ending state funding of pagan cults, establishing government salaries to be paid to bishops and preachers, etc. Constantine is not, however, responsible for “Christianizing” Rome. You could certainly say that he made the climate favorable for people to convert to Christianity for the first time in history, but his successors are the ones who took the steps to actually make Christianity the favored religion. It was not until 380 AD that Emperor Theodosius made Christianity the state religion, which was almost half a century after Constantine’s death.

While Christians were no doubt overjoyed that they weren’t facing persecution any longer, this did end up having a negative impact on the church because it introduced a new set of problems. Formerly, no one in their right mind would profess to be a Christian unless they truly meant it. Now, being Christian could be socially advantageous. Unfortunately, these advantages also paved the way for false converts and corruption. Arguably the most dangerous of the changes that Constantine was responsible for (or at least in the top of the list) is his conflating government with the church. One of my favorite commentators, David Guzik, has a lecture series on early church history (which I highly recommend) and on this issue he states, “In the long run this was very harmful to the church. It became much more like a corporation and the emperor of Rome was the CEO.”

We’ve acknowledged the good and the bad. Now it’s time for the ugly. Constantine was horribly anti-Semitic. In fact, following the decision of the Council of Nicea, Constantine penned a letter to those who had not been present. This letter is found in Eusebius’ Vitra Constantini (Life of Constantine) which can be viewed in its entirety at this online source: Eusebius Life of Constantine. The letter begins on page 146 (page 127 of the actual book- book 3, section 16-20 Constantine’s report to the churches).

Upon reading Constantine’s letter, one will immediately realize why selective quotes are quite easily used to corroborate a revisionist conspiratorial agenda. He unabashedly demonstrates vile, anti-Semitic language throughout his entire correspondence. He harbored this very un-Christian view due to the fact that he held the Jews responsible for Jesus’ death which led him to prefer to have nothing he considered to be “in common” with non-believing Jews. Clearly, he didn’t have a very good understanding of Christianity.

Here are some examples from the letter linked above:

In the first place it was decreed unworthy to observe that most sacred festival in accordance with the practice of the Jews; having sullied their own hands with a heinous crime, such bloodstained are as one might expect mentally blind.”

Let there be nothing in common between you and the detestable mob of the Jews! … when after that murder of the Lord, that parricide, they have taken leave of their senses, and are moved, not by any rational principle, but by uncontrolled impulse, wherever their internal frenzy may lead them?”

Quotes like these are often used to claim that Constantine persecuted Jews or Jewish Christians that preferred to live according to Jewsh traditions (keeping the Sabbath on Saturday, etc). While his successors certainly did, I have been unable to find any persecution commanded by Constantine. Most sources that claim that he did, simply state it as if it were fact, citing no source. I was able to find one article which provided the following as proof of Constantine’s alleged persecution:

Laws of Constantine the Great, October 18, 315: Concerning Jews, Heaven-Worshippers, And Samaritans

We wish to make it known to the Jews and their elders and their patriarchs that if, after the enactment of this law, any one of them dares to attack with stones or some other manifestation of anger another who has fled their dangerous sect and attached himself to the worship of God [Christianity], he must speedily be given to the flames and burn~ together with all his accomplices. Moreover, if any one of the population should join their abominable sect and attend their meetings, he will bear with them the deserved penalties.” (emphasis mine)

The author that cited this in corroboration of Constantine’s alleged persecution linked Fordham University’s Jewish History Sourcebook: Jews and the Later Roman Law 315-531 CE as her source. The irony is that upon visiting the site, you will see that the law above is the ONLY Roman law instated by Constantine in relation to the Jews. However, notice the words that I have emphasized in bold. The only Jews who were in danger of receiving the death penalty were those who were stoning or attacking people who had converted to Christianity. This is NOT the same as banning Judaism or forbidding Jewish traditions and doesn’t actually sound like persecution at all.

Some will say, “But heaven-worshippers were not Jews they were Christians!” The term “heaven worshippers” refers to two sects within Christianity which were considered “Judaizers”- the Donatists and the Coelicolae. According to some sources, the Coelicolae mixed elements of paganism into an odd combination of Judaism/Christianity. I’ve linked information about each sect for those that are interested in learning about them, though the Coelicolae are quite obscure. However, the fact remains that according to Roman law, these groups were free to worship as they preferred, but not to stone or attack other Christians.

Jewish persecution did ensue after Constantine under Constantius and Theodosius.

Whether or not Constantine was truly a Christian is often debated. He certainly had both positive and negative effects on Christianity. If he was truly Christian, his letter is an abysmal testimony. (Of course, the vast majority of Christians in history have been an abysmal witness at some point during our lives.) Fortunately, it isn’t up to us to levy the final judgment on Constantine’s sincerity or his heart.

As an interesting side note, Constantine’s mother, Helena, also converted to Christianity. She is well known for embarking on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land to identify the specific locations for various Biblical events. In fact, Guzik notes in his lectures, that most of the traditional sites in Jerusalem attributed to specific events are dated back to Helena’s search.

“Helena of Constantinople” by Cima da Conegliano

By now I’m sure you’re thinking, “For the love, let’s get on with breaking down how Constantine is implicated in a secret Easter perversion!”

The Quartodeciman Controversy

To say that this controversy revolved around Easter vs Passover (which is exactly what is claimed) is a gross misrepresentation. No one was arguing over bunnies or eggs, or what was being celebrated (the death and resurrection of Christ), or what the observance was named, or even on which day of the week the resurrection occurred- the argument was only over when the resurrection should be celebrated and when the fast should end. On top of that, the controversy had been swirling since 155 AD- long before Constantine was even born.

Early church historian, Eusebius, documents this controversy in chapters 23-25 of his Ecclesiastical History. A common tactic of those who wish to misrepresent the controversy is to quote excerpts of Eusebius out of context. I’m going to quote excerpts that provide context for what is actually being said. In the interest of full disclosure, I will do what those who misrepresent the text fail to do- I have linked the text in its entirety above so that you can read it for yourself.

Eusebius on the controversy:

A QUESTION of no small importance arose at that time. For the parishes of all Asia, as from an older tradition, held that the fourteenth day of the moon, on which day the Jews were commanded to sacrifice the lamb, should be observed as the feast of the Saviour’s passover. It was therefore necessary to end their fast on that day, whatever day of the week it should happen to be. But it was not the custom of the churches in the rest of the world to end it at this time, as they observed the practice which, from apostolic tradition, has prevailed to the present time, of terminating the fast on no other day than on that of the resurrection of our Saviour. Synods and assemblies of bishops were held on this account, and all, with one consent, through mutual correspondence drew up an ecclesiastical decree, that the mystery of the resurrection of the Lord should be celebrated on no other but the Lord’s day, and that we should observe the close of the paschal fast on this day only.”

Eusebius says that the churches in Asia Minor (the East) according to their apostolic tradition, broke their fast on the 14th of Nisan (the day that the Jews observe Passover) no matter what day of the week it fell on. These people came to be known as “Quartodecimans” or “Fourteenthers.” The rest of the churches, according to their apostolic tradition, did not break their fast until the Sunday (the Lord’s day) after the 14th of Nisan. This was agreed upon by bishops from all over the Empire and not any kind of invention of a “central head of the church” in Rome. Both traditions are apostolic, not in any way “new.” Both celebrate the resurrection of Christ. There is absolutely no discussion about replacing Passover with a celebration that used to occur in commemoration of a pagan goddess.

Where did the tradition of the rest of the Empire come from?

Anatolius of Alexandria (early 3rd century to 283 AD) discusses this very subject in his Paschal Canon. The following are excerpts from chapter 10:

not acquiescing, so far as regards this matter, with the authority of some, namely, the successors of Peter and Paul, who have taught all the churches in which they sowed the spiritual seeds of the Gospel, that the solemn festival of the resurrection of the Lord can be celebrated only on the Lord’s day…And the other party, passing the day of the Lord’s Passion as one replete with sadness and grief, hold that it should not be lawful to celebrate the Lord’s mystery of the Passover at any other time but on the Lord’s day, on which the resurrection of the Lord from death took place, and on which rose also for us the cause of everlasting joy. For it is one thing to act in accordance with the precept given by the apostle, yea, by the Lord Himself, and be sad with the sad, and suffer with him that suffers by the cross, His own word being: ‘My soul is exceeding sorrowful, even unto death; ‘ and it is another thing to rejoice with the victor as he triumphs over an ancient enemy, and exults with the highest triumph over a conquered adversary, as He Himself also says: ‘Rejoice with Me; for I have found the sheep which I had lost.’” (emphasis mine)

Here we see that the tradition of celebrating the resurrection of Jesus on Sunday (“the Lord’s Day”) comes from the successors of the apostles Peter and Paul. Just as the tradition of the 14 of Nisan comes from the successors of the apostle John. Furthermore, these believed that the Lord was resurrected on Sunday, which is apparently the basis of the apostolic tradition.

Quartodeciman Controversy Take # 1: Polycarp vs Anicetus

Polycarp (the bishop of Smyrna) is said to have personally known the apostle John and is indeed considered by many to have been John’s disciple. Around 155 AD, Polycarp went to visit Anicetus (the bishop of Rome) in order to convince him to observe Nisan 14 rather than the Sunday following Nisan 14. Eusebius writes in chapter 24 (linked above):

And when the blessed Polycarp was at Rome in the time of Anicetus, and they disagreed a little about certain other things, they immediately made peace with one another, not caring to quarrel over this matter. For neither could Anicetus persuade Polycarp not to observe what he had always observed with John the disciple of our Lord, and the other apostles with whom he had associated; neither could Polycarp persuade Anicetus to observe it as he said that he ought to follow the customs of the presbyters that had preceded him. But though matters were in this shape, they communed together, and Anicetus conceded the administration of the eucharist in the church to Polycarp, manifestly as a mark of respect. And they parted from each other in peace, both those who observed, and those who did not, maintaining the peace of the whole church.” (emphasis mine)

The most important thing to notice about this entire passage is that Polycarp, although he was not persuaded by Anicetus to adopt his apostolic tradition, did not think that Anicetus’ tradition was pagan or heretical. In fact, they decided to agree to disagree and even took the Lord’s Supper together. This is the fact that is usually censored by those who wish to misrepresent this controversy. Note, in this entire matter, nowhere does Polycarp lodge a disagreement with Anicetus on the validity of his differing apostolic tradition, nor does he voice any disagreement as to whether or not Jesus was resurrected on Sunday. Instead, they each continue to adhere to the traditions that were handed down to them respectively.

Just to give a little background on Polycarp- he was not one for compromise. Polycarp’s disciple Irenaeus said this about his mentor, “Polycarp had learned from apostle John to flee from those who change the divine truth. One day he met in the streets of Rome the heretic Marcion who, resenting that Polycarp did not greet him, said: ‘Do you know me?’ The saint replied: ‘Yes, I know you, the first-born of Satan.’”

If Polycarp had considered Anicetus and the tradition of observing the Sunday after the 14th of Nisan rather than the 14th of Nisan itself a heretical belief of pagan origin, he most certainly would not have agreed to disagree and take the Lord’s Supper with him. More likely, he would have rebuked him as satanic.

Quartodeciman Controversy Take #2: Polycrates vs Victor

40 years later, the same controversy between Polycrates (bishop of Ephesus) and Victor (bishop of Rome) did not end so amicably. Victor tried to command a resolution and force the eastern churches to follow the western tradition. When Polycrates would not agree, Victor tried to excommunicate him. However, many bishops opposed Victor’s arrogance and his attempt at excommunication failed. While those who misrepresent history claim that Rome was already “running the show,” this episode clearly demonstrates that this was not this case- yet. While this was an obvious power play, at this point, Christians did not feel obligated to obey the bishop of Rome.

Eusebius records the response of the other bishops and specifically Irenaeus:

But this did not please all the bishops. And they besought him to consider the things of peace, and of neighborly unity and love. Words of theirs are extant, sharply rebuking Victor. Among them was Irenæus, who, sending letters in the name of the brethren in Gaul over whom he presided, maintained that the mystery of the resurrection of the Lord should be observed only on the Lord’s day. He fittingly admonishes Victor that he should not cut off whole churches of God which observed the tradition of an ancient custom and after many other words he proceeds as follows: ‘For the controversy is not only concerning the day, but also concerning the very manner of the fast. For some think that they should fast one day, others two, yet others more; some, moreover, count their day as consisting of forty hours day and night. And this variety in its observance has not originated in our time; but long before in that of our ancestors. It is likely that they did not hold to strict accuracy, and thus formed a custom for their posterity according to their own simplicity and peculiar mode. Yet all of these lived none the less in peace, and we also live in peace with one another; and the disagreement in regard to the fast confirms the agreement in the faith.’” (emphasis mine)

Do not miss this fact: Irenaeus (the bishop of Gaul) who was himself a disciple of Polycarp (bishop of Smyrna and disciple of John) agreed that the resurrection of the Lord should be observed on the Sunday following Nisan 14. Yet, he opposed Victor’s attempt to cut off churches who disagreed with him. Furthermore, Irenaeus acknowledges that there are a variety of competing traditions regarding the actual fast which likely arose from inaccurate observances. Still, he calls for peace and unity citing the example of Polycarp and Anicetus.

Quartodeciman Controversy Take # 3: The Council of Nicea

“16th-century fresco depicting the Council of Nicaea” via Wikipedia

The primary reason that Constantine called the Council of Nicea was not to resolve the Quartodeciman controversy. The most important issue at hand was the Arian Heresy- a movement that had arisen and garnered a large following which taught that Jesus was not divine as God the Father is divine. Constantine called over 300 bishops to Nicea to come to a unifying decision among themselves that would be binding on the church as a whole. The ultimate decision of these bishops was that Christians should uniformly celebrate the resurrection of Jesus on Sunday.

At this point in history, the death and resurrection of Jesus was being observed on multiple varying dates- not just Nisan 14 versus the Sunday after Nisan 14. There were major calendar differences as well. The Jews used a lunar calendar to calculate the date for the Passover as opposed to the Julian calendar that was used by everyone else. Therefore the Quartodecimans were reliant upon the Jews to set the date for their observance which was increasingly difficult to do. (Every few years the Jews had to add an extra month to the calendar called an intercalary month in order to maintain accuracy.) This had resulted in Christians in various geographical locations observing the same events at different times based on different calendars. It was a mess. Some Christians were mourning Jesus’ death and fasting at the same time others were joyously feasting in celebration of His resurrection. You can read about these varying controversies at this Encyclopedia.com entry and in Roger T. Beckwith’s book, Calendar and Chronology, Jewish and Christian.

Constantine’s Letter Reaffirms That This Controversy is Exactly the Same as the Other Two

We already discussed Constantine’s post Nicea anti-Semitic letter. No need to rehash the ugly. Reading his letter without knowledge of the history of the Quartodeciman controversy prior to Constantine certainly lends itself to inaccurate assumptions. However, now that we have the proper historical background provided by the first two Quartodeciman controversy events, we can reasonably reject many of the historical reconstructions and insinuations Constantine invited.

I’ll include some excerpts from the letter which corroborate that there was nothing “new” in the Nicene version of the Quartodeciman controversy. It is simply more of the same:

Thereupon, since a controversy had broken out on the subject on the most holy day of Easter, it was unanimously decided that it would be best for everyone everywhere to celebrate it on the same day. For what could be better for us, and more reverent, than that this festival, from which we have acquired our hope of immortality, should be observed invariably in every community on one system and declared principle?” (emphasis mine)

Even though Constantine uses the trigger word “Easter,” it is clear from this quote that the focus is still on adopting a “standard” observance for all Christian churches when it comes commemorating Jesus’ death and resurrection. Not commandeering a date or observance that had once been devoted to a pagan deity.

It is possible, now that their nation has been rejected, by a truer system which we have kept from the first day of the Passion to the present, to extend the performance of this observance into future periods also…We have received from the Saviour another way; a course is open to our most holy religion that is both lawful and proper.” (emphasis mine)

Constantine maintains that the Sunday observance (which he refers to as the “truer system”) is, and always has been (“kept from the first day of the Passion to the present”). It wasn’t a “new” manner of observance in 155 AD and it isn’t here in 325 AD.

since a descent system exists, which all the churches of the western, southern and northern parts of the world observe, and also some of the churches in the eastern areas, and as a consequence all have at this time judged that it is right (and I have personally given my word that it will please your Good Sense), that what is observed with one harmonious will in the City of Rome, in Italy and all Africa, in Egypt, the Spains, the Gauls, the Britains, the Libyas, the whole of Greece, the administrative region of Asia, Pontus and Cilicia, your Intelligence will also gladly embrace,when you reflect that not only is the number of churches in the places mentioned greater… and to put the most important point concisely, by unanimous verdict it was determined that the most holy feast of Easter should be celebrated on one and the same day, since it is both improper that there should be division about a matter of such great sanctity…” (emphasis mine)

Another fact that becomes evident, is that by the time of this council, the Quartodeciman position has become the minority among the churches.

Constantine’s anti-Semitic language notoriously provided just the ammunition necessary to enable those who wish to cast the decisions of the Council of Nicea in a bad light. However, Constantine’s personal preferences for the future of Christian orthodoxy didn’t have any bearing on the decisions of the council. He didn’t get to cast a vote. While there is no doubt that he paved the way for government involvement in the decisions of the church and corruption of the church, he did not have nor wield this power at this point in history. Therefore, conspiracy theorists who wish to vilify the decisions of the Nicene council are left to assert that the bishops who did vote were manipulated by Constantine.

Is this a reasonable claim?

Catholic Church vs the True Church?”

A common tactic of those who wish to misrepresent the nature of this council is to frame the argument as the West or “Catholic church” vs the East or “the true church.” As an example, I’ll use a quote from the founder of the church I was raised in (Herbert W Armstrong of the World Wide Church of God) that appears in his article The Plain Truth About Easter. He is quoting the Encyclopedia Britannica (11th edition). However the “clarifications” in brackets are his own insertions:

Generally speaking, the Western Churches [Catholic] kept Easter on the 1st day of the week, while the Eastern Churches [containing most of those who remained as part of the true Christian Church] followed the Jewish rule. [That is, observing Passover on the 14th of the first sacred month instead of the pagan Easter.]”

The bracketed insertions result in an extremely faulty understanding of the early church and is not in keeping with the Encyclopedia Britannica’s definition of terms. First of all, “Catholic” simply means “universal.” So the early church as a whole was called “Catholic.” “Clarifications” like these are used in order to give the impression that the decision of the Council of Nicea (because it was called by the Roman Constantine) was a “Roman Catholic” one, imposed upon the “True Church” in the East. However, we’ve already seen that as late as Victor’s disagreement with Polycarp, the bishop of Rome did not have the power to make decisions that were binding on the church as a whole. As we’ll see, the collection of bishops that attended the Council of Nicea make this point moot anyway.

Who Were the Bishops that Voted at the Council of Nicea?

A few inconvenient facts that are neglected to be mentioned by those who promote revisionist history are: 1) Constantine didn’t get a vote; 2) he invited all 1,800 bishops of the church and sources document anywhere from 250-318 bishops actually attended; and 3) the vast majority of the bishops that attended were from the East with less than a dozen coming from the West. Point number 3 is perhaps the nail in the coffin for the “Catholic church vs True Church” argument. The majority of the bishops hailed from the geographical area that many conspiracy theorists label the “true church.”

Furthermore, to claim that these bishops would vote in favor of the paganization of Christiaity is ludicrous. James R White writes, “When it (the Council of Nicea) began on June 19, 325, the fires of persecution had barely cooled. The Roman Empire had been unsuccessful in its attempt to wipe out the Christian faith. Fourteen years had elapsed since the final persecutions under the Emperor Galerius had ended. Many of the men who made up the Council of Nicea bore in their bodies the scars of persecution. They had been willing to suffer for the name of Christ.”

So we have bishops, many of whom had been willing to die and had indeed submitted to torture rather than betray their faith, voting on the issues at the Council of Nicea. Does it make sense that these same men would vote to paganize the church fourteen years after they were willing to die for it? No.

What led the bishops at Nicea to set a standardized observance where they had been unwilling to do so in the controversies prior to Nicea? Ralph Orr offers this logical explanation, “Where once churches found unity despite their diversity, some types of diversity were now beginning to be seen as a threat to unity. The passage of several hundred years since John’s death saw the church combat many heresies. Not every diversity had proven healthy to the faith. As persecution became less of a problem, the church spent more time defining orthodoxy.” Though certainly less exciting than a riveting conspiracy to infiltrate paganism throughout Christianity, this certainly has the mundane ring of truth. With less time devoted toward merely being able to survive as a Christian, more time could be devoted to unifying the church through a defined orthodoxy.

Conclusion

Truly, Constantine’s anti-Semitism opened the door wide to those who would besmirch the decisions of the council. But the fact is, while he was certainly more involved with the council that he should have been, the Roman government did not yet have the power to influence the church in the way that conspiracy theorists allege.

In light of the preceding Quartodeciman controversies, we can discern from Constantine’s references that this is the same old disagreement- no elements are new. For example, we know that when Constantine mentions “Easter,” he is not referring to an additional celebration that is being instituted. Rather, he is referring to celebrating the death and resurrection (which both Quartodecimans and everyone else celebrated albeit on different days) uniformly among all Christians. He also makes clear that this unanimous decision to adopt Sunday observance is based on apostolic tradition rather than a “new” custom. We know from the controversies predating the Nicene version that, indeed, the tradition of commemorating the resurrection on Sunday following Nisan 14 was also according to apostolic tradition. Clearly, the Quartodecimans had become the minority by the time of the Nicene Council.

In closing, I’ll include this quote from Orr, “The Roman church apparently did not initiate the celebration of Jesus’ resurrection, and the Asian churches had no objection to this practice. Evidence indicates that they and the apostle John did the same. It was not a matter of ‘false Christians’ at Rome rejecting God’s law, substituting pagan festivals for God’s Holy Days. There is no evidence that the early Roman church chose Sunday as the day of their celebration just to be different than the Jews. They chose Sunday based on their understanding of when the Gospels said Jesus rose from the dead.”

In Part 3 of this series, we’ll tackle the final question pertaining to Easter’s alleged “paganism.” How did we end up including eggs and bunnies in modern Easter observance?

So You Think Easter Is Pagan Part 1: Ishtar, Eostre, Eggs, and Bunnies

When I was growing up, I thought churches that observed Easter were well meaning, but deceived. I felt sorry for them and their lack of knowledge. There they were, thinking they were celebrating the death and resurrection of our Savior, but instead they were unintentionally worshiping an ancient Babylonian goddess named Ishtar. The pretty eggs, some filled with chocolate surprises, that the other kids went out to hunt and the fluffy stuffed bunnies some kids got in their Easter baskets- all of those things were based on elements of the ancient pagan worship of Ishtar herself.

How did I know this? Because that’s what my parents told me. How did they know? Because that’s what they were told by their parents, who had been told by ministers in my church, who had been told by their superiors, who had been enlightened (ultimately) by the founder of our church- Mr. Herbert W. Armstrong. How did he know? Well, he wrote an article explaining the sources of his knowledge in our church’s publication which you can still read here in its original 1973 form: The Plain Truth About Easter.

He opens by writing, “WHY DO you believe the things you believe, do the things you do?

The chances are you never stopped to ask yourself that question. You have been taught since childhood to accept Easter as the chief of the Christian holidays. […] Because of the ‘sheep’ instinct in humans, most of us believe a lot of things that are not true. Most of us do a lot of things that are wrong, supposing these things to be right, or even sacred!”

It wasn’t until decades later, as an adult, that I decided to stop being such a “sheep” and do the research myself- to follow the sources Mr. Armstrong cited in his article and investigate other sources as well. It was this research that led to the realization that his opening statements were the height of irony.

This meme does an excellent job of succinctly stating most elements to the “Easter is pagan” argument (and I’ve already seen it making its rounds among many- including some that share my religious background):

Basically, the entire argument centers around linking a presumed observance of a holiday in honor of Ishtar (who they describe as an ancient sex and fertility goddess) to modern day Easter celebrations by way of similarities. The most important similarities being a) the name; b) eggs; and c) bunnies. For good measure, they tack Constantine onto the end as the villain who is responsible for corrupting Christendom with this celebration.

Without further ado- let’s get to the fact checking!

All Things Ishtar

“The “Burney Relief” which is believed to represent either Ishtar or her older sister Ereshkigal (c. 19th or 18th century BC)”

The background for the meme above does feature the ancient Babylonian goddess Ishtar (most likely). It is an image of the “Burney Relief” circa the 19th or 18th century BC and it is believed to represent either Ishtar or her older sister Ereshkigal. However, the idea that she was the “goddess of fertility and sex” is an extremely oversimplified one. Referring to her Encycolpedia Britannica entry, we learn:

    • Ishtar, (Akkadian), Sumerian Inanna, in Mesopotamian religions, goddess of war and sexual love. Ishtar is the Akkadian counterpart of the West Semitic goddess Astarte. Inanna, an important goddess in the Sumerian pantheon, came to be identified with Ishtar, but it is uncertain whether Inanna is also of Semitic origin or whether, as is more likely, her similarity to Ishtar caused the two to be identified.”
    • In her earliest manifestations she was associated with the storehouse and thus personified as the goddess of dates, wool, meat, and grain… […] She was also the goddess of rain and thunderstorms…”
    • …she evolved, however, into a more complex character, surrounded in myth by death and disaster, a goddess of contradictory connotations and forces—fire and fire-quenching, rejoicing and tears, fair play and enmity.”

So, while she (or they) was associated with fertility and sex, she was also equally associated with war, storehouses, dates, wool, meat, grain, rain, thunderstorms, and contradictory forces such as fire and putting out fire, rejoicing and sadness, fairness and hostile opposition. It’s quite likely you may store foods such as meats and grains (and you may subsequently use those stored goods to prepare a Passover meal), or enjoy rain and thunderstorms. Maybe you have started a fire and put one out; been happy or cried. Maybe you or a family member have defended our country by fighting in a war. As likely as the former are, it is equally unlikely that the ancient pretend goddess Ishtar or Inanna or whatever else she is called had anything to do with your motivation. As a matter of fact, you were probably oblivious to the fact that she was associated with any of those things until you read the encyclopedia.

“Ancient Akkadian cylinder seal depicting Inanna resting her foot on the back of a lion while Ninshubur stands in front of her paying obeisance, c. 2334-2154 BC”

Eggs and Bunnies?

What about her symbols? We have been told that her symbols were eggs and bunnies. The Wikipedia entry for Ishtar/Inanna is surprisingly one of the most complete and thorough sources of information that I came across. This is usually not the case with Wikipedia, but her entry cites an impressive 263 sources from ancient mythology experts. The symbols listed for her across multiple sources agree. They are: a six, eight, or sixteen point star (most commonly being the eight pointed star) which is sometimes accompanied by a crescent moon; “hook-shaped twisted knot of reeds, representing the doorpost of the storehouse, a common symbol of fertility and plenty”; the rosette; a lion (she is sometimes depicted wearing armor and riding a lion in her capacity as a war goddess); gates; and doves. I have been unable to locate even one source that lists either eggs or bunnies as symbols for Ishtar.

“The eight-pointed star was Inanna-Ishtar’s most common symbol. Here it is shown alongside the solar disk of her brother Shamash (Sumerian Utu) and the crescent moon of her father Sin (Sumerian Nanna) on a boundary stone of Meli-Shipak II, dating to the twelfth century BC.”
“Lions were one of Inanna-Ishtar’s primary symbols. The lion above comes from the Ishtar Gate, the eighth gate to the inner city of Babylon, which was constructed in around 575 BC under the orders of Nebuchadnezzar II.”

Elements of Worship?

How was she worshiped? According to the multiple sources cited by Wikipedia, “The cult of Ishtar may have involved sacred prostitution, but this is disputed. Hierodules, known as ishtaritum are reported to have worked in Ishtar’s temples, but it is unclear if such priestesses actually performed any sex acts and several modern scholars have argued that they did not. Women across the ancient Near East worshipped Ishtar by dedicating to her cakes baked in ashes (known as kamān tumri). A dedication of this type is described in an Akkadian hymn. Several clay cake molds discovered at Mari are shaped like naked women with large hips clutching their breasts. Some scholars have suggested that the cakes made from these molds were intended as representations of Ishtar herself.” Does any of that sound like modern Easter tradition to you? Me either. No eggs, no bunnies- no dice. I mean, there was cake. But I’m pretty sure cake in and of itself is not pagan and if anyone served a “naked, large hipped, woman holding her breasts” cake, it wouldn’t have been well-received at any Easter dinner I’ve ever attended.

Definitely not a cake mold I’ve ever seen at Easter dinner.
“Statuette of Ishtar clutching her breasts from Susa (c. 1300 – c. 1100 BC)”

How about the pronunciation of Ishtar? We were told it was “Easter.” First of all, it should be noted that phonetics is an absolutely terrible and unscholarly way of equating words with differing language bases (such as “Ishtar” and “Easter”), but since there is no evidence that “Ishtar” was pronounced “Easter” I thought I’d go ahead and include it. The name Ishtar is of Arabic origin. Click this youtube link and listen to “Ishtar” being pronounced:

It is clear that it is pronounced “Ish-tar,” or you could get away with “Eesh-tar” perhaps, but not “Easter.”

Bottom Line

Let’s do an Ishtar recap: not simply a “fertility and sex” goddess, but the goddess of multiple things, not pronounced “Easter,” doesn’t have eggs or bunnies included in her list of symbols; eggs and bunnies not used in her worship. The entire argument for the Easter/Ishtar connection is based on commonalities between the two observances- associations that simply do not exist.

If one takes the time to read through Ishtar’s mythology, an interesting pattern will emerge. In the hymn Inanna and Utu, Inanna goes down into the underworld and eats the fruit of tree that grows there and becomes knowledgeable. In the poem, Inanna Prefers the Farmer, she chooses between a shepherd and a farmer to become her husband. The theme of the poem is the competition between the farmer and the shepherd for divine favor in which the shepherd ultimately prevails. Ishtar appears in the ancient Epic of Gilgamesh in which a god sends a global flood to annihilate all life on earth. Notice any similarities? The tree of the knowledge of good and evil, Abel the shepherd receiving divine preference over Cain the farmer, the global flood of Noah’s day. There is certainly a lot of “borrowing” going on between pagan mythology and biblical truth, but it’s clear who is doing the borrowing. The moral of the story is that similarities between pagan and modern traditions do not always indicate that the original source of the tradition is pagan. In fact, when we adopt this faulty guideline as our assumption, we play directly into the hands of modern Neopaganism which argues these very points in order to claim that the entire Bible is fiction, merely based on pagan mythology that predates it.

“Original Akkadian Tablet XI (the “Deluge Tablet”) of the Epic of Gilgamesh”

All Things Eostre

Unlike Ishtar, who is well documented in mythology, so as to leave us with no doubt that she was worshiped (there are volumes of written myths, statues, carvings, etc), there is a grand total of one source testifying to the existence of a goddess named Eostre. ONE. This source is an 8th century English monk called the Venerable Bede. Prior to Bede, there is no mention in any Germanic, Celtic, or English ancient literature about this proposed goddess. This is certainly odd considering this literature is otherwise filled with the beliefs and religious practices of these people groups. It should also be noted, that by the time of Bede’s writing, the use of the term Easter or Ostern (in German) was already well established.

The Venerable Bede

“Bede depicted at St. Bede’s school, Chennai.”

In 725 AD, Bede wrote De temporum ratione (“The Reckoning of Time”). The relevant passage reads:

    • Eosturmonath has a name which is now translated “Paschal month”, and which was once called after a goddess of theirs named Eostre, in whose honour feasts were celebrated in that month. Now they designate that Paschal season by her name, calling the joys of the new rite by the time-honoured name of the old observance.” (The Complete Works of Venerable Bede, Bd. VI, London 1843 Corpus Christianorum, Series Latina CXXIII B, Bedae Venerabilis Opera, Bd. VI,2, Turnhout 1977)

This particular passage comes from a section of his work in which Bede is giving his opinion on the etymologies (study of the origin of words) of the Old English names for the months. Professor Ronald Hutton, well-known British paganism and occultism historian, notes the following on Bede’s assessment in his book The Stations of the Sun, “It falls into a category of interpretations which Bede admitted to be his own, rather than generally agreed or proven fact.”

As it turns out, there is another inconsistency with Bede’s conclusion other the fact that Eostre is not mentioned in any work other than his own. Anthony McCroy writes, “Whereas Anglo-Saxon days were usually named after gods, such as Wednesday (‘Woden’s day’), the names of their months were either calendrical, such as Giuli, meaning ‘wheel,’ referring to the turn of the year; metereological-environmental, such as Solmónath (roughly February), meaning ‘Mud-Month’; or referred to actions taken in that period, such as Blótmónath (roughly November), meaning ‘Blood Month,’ when animals were slaughtered. No other month was dedicated to a deity, with the exception (according to Bede) of Hrethmonath (roughly March), which he claims was named after the goddess Hrethe. But like Eostre, there is no other evidence for Hrethe, nor any equivalent in Germanic/Norse mythology.”

Einhardt and Charlemagne

Another source to corroborate an Eostre claim comes from a couple of fake quotes purported to come from Charlemagne’s biographer and courtier Einhard circa 771-840 in his Vita Karola Magni and read as follows:

    • Easter – *Ôstara) was a goddess in Germanic
      paganism whose Germanic month has given its
      name to the festival of Easter. Ôstarmânoth
      is attested as the month-name equivalent to
      ‘April’ that was decreed by Charlemagne,
      but as a goddess Eostre is attested only
      by Bede in his 8th century work De temporum
      ratione. Bede states that Ēosturmōnaþ
      was the equivalent to the month of April,
      and that feasts held in Eostre’s honor…
      replaced the “Paschal” observance of
      Passover.” (Einhard, Life of Charlemagne, §29.)
    • Some scholars have debated whether or not
      Eostre is an invention of Bede’s, and
      theories Einhard, connecting Eostre with records of
      Germanic Easter customs (including hares
      rabbits and eggs).” (Einhard, Life of Charlemagne, §29)

Einhardt’s actual quote is quite lengthy so I won’t quote it all, but you can access and read an English translation of it at at the following link. The relevant portion is Section 29 beginning on page 23 and ending on page 24: http://www.yorku.ca/inpar/eginhard_grant.pdf As you can see, Einhard merely states that Charlemagne chose to keep the Germanic month names. There is absolutely no reference here to a pagan goddess named Ostara or Eostra. Anthony McRoy notes another reason these false quotes are ridiculous, “Charlemagne was the scourge of Germanic paganism. He attacked the pagan Saxons and felled their great pillar Irminsul (after their god Irmin) in 772. He forcibly converted them to Christianity and savagely repressed them when they revolted because of this. It seems very unlikely, therefore, that Charlemagne would name a month after a Germanic goddess.”

Bottom Line

To recap Eostre: While indeed the German month “Eosturmonath,” which is translated “Paschal month” (which refers to “Passover month”), and is thus connected to the English word “Easter,” there is only one, highly dubious connection to a speculative German goddess. If the existence of Eostre cannot be established due to absolutely no historical record, even less can this supposed goddess be connected with any of the things with which she is being attributed- namely eggs and bunnies.

Again, the elements necessary to establish a connection between the worship of a pagan goddess and modern Easter traditions are notably absent.

If you’re like me, all this information leaves you wondering where in the world all of this misinformation linking modern Easter traditions to pagan goddesses comes from. Enter Alexander Hislop.

All Things Alexander Hislop

Hislop was a minister of the Free Church of Scotland who lived from 1807-1865. In his work, The Two Babylons: The Papal Worship Proved to Be the Worship of Nimrod and His Wife published in 1858, Hislop concocts elaborate (yet fanciful) tales of Constantine hijacking what was the “true Christian faith” and replacing it with various pagan errors dating back to Babylon and indeed originating with none other than Nimrod himself who he claimed was married to the goddess Semiramis. His book was very popular in its day (and is indeed still cited today even though modern day scholars have thoroughly refuted most of his outlandish claims).

If you are a member or ex-member of the church I was raised in (or its various offshoots), this information should sound very familiar to you even if you don’t recognize Hislop’s name. Mr. Armstrong (1892-1986) was very influenced by his work. I counted 3 direct quotes from Hislop and at least 2 citations of sources that are re-quotes contained in Hislop’s book in Mr. Armstrong’s article inked above. The issue with re-quoting the source according to Hislop rather than affirming the original source directly is problematic as we will note from Ralph Woodrow’s testimony below, Hislop was notorious for misquoting or misrepresenting his sources.

Ralph Woodrow’s Role

In the 60’s, and evangelist by the name of Ralph Woodrow latched onto Hislop’s work and rekindled interest. Indeed, Woodrow became a ardent promoter of Hilop’s work, even writing his own work based on Hislop’s called Babylon Mystery Religion that achieved international fame. However, when scholars began discrediting Hislop’s claims, Ralph Woodrow began to research Hislop’s work himself. To his credit, when Woodrow became aware of his error, he publicly apologized, pulled his book from publication, and wrote another book (The Babylon Connection) debunking Hislop’s assertions.

The following quotes are excerpts from Woodrow’s article, The Two Babylons, recounting his journey to the truth:

    • Hislop’s ‘history’ was often only an arbitrary piecing together of ancient myths.”
    • The subtitle for Hislop’s book is ‘The Papal Worship Proved to Be the Worship of Nimrod and His Wife.’ Yet when I went to reference works such as the Encyclopedia Britannica, The Americana, The Jewish Encyclopedia, The Catholic Encyclopedia, The Worldbook Encyclopedia – carefully reading their articles on ‘Nimrod’ and ‘Semiramis’ — not one said anything about Nimrod and Semiramis being husband and wife. They did not even live in the same century. Nor is there any basis for Semiramis being the mother of Tammuz. I realized these ideas were all Hislop’s inventions.”
    • While seeking to condemn the paganism of Roman Catholicism, Hislop produced his own myths. By so doing, he theorized that Nimrod, Adonis, Apollo, Attes, Baal-zebub, Bacchus, Cupid, Dagon, Hercules, Januis, Linus, Lucifer, Mars, Merodach, Mithra, Moloch, Narcissus, Oannes, Odin, Orion, Osiris, Pluto, Saturn, Teitan, Typhon, Vulcan, Wodan, and Zoroaster were all one and the same. By mixing myths, Hislop supposed that Semiramis was the wife of Nimrod and was the same as Aphrodite, Artemis, Astarte, Aurora, Bellona, Ceres, Diana, Easter, Irene, Iris, Juno, Mylitta, Proserpine, Rhea, Venus, and Vesta.Take enough names, enough stories, and enough centuries; translate from one language to another; and a careless writer of the future might pass on all kinds of misinformation.”
    • Because Hislop wrote in the mid-1800s, the books he refers to or quotes are now quite old. I made considerable effort to find these old books and to check Hislop’s references; books such as Layard’s Nineveh and Its Remains, Kitto’s Cyclopedia of Biblical Literature, Wilkinson’s Ancient Egyptians, as well as old editions of Pausanias, Pliny, Tacitus, Herodotus, and many more. When I checked his footnote references, in numerous cases I discovered they do not support his claims.”
      • Woodrow gives a sampling of Hislop’s rampant misrepresentation of his sources:
        • Mr. Amstrong quotes this Lent information in the Plain Truth About Easter article linked above: “In another appeal to Wilkinson, Hislop says that a Lent of 40 days was observed in Egypt. But when we look up the reference, Wilkinson says Egyptian fasts ‘lasted from seven to forty-two days, and sometimes even a longer period: during which time they abstained entirely from animal food, from herbs and vegetables, and above all from the indulgence of the passions’ (Wilkinson, Ancient Egyptians, vol. 1, 278). With as much credibility, we could say they fasted 7 days, 10 days, 12 days, or 42 days. Hislop’s claim appears to have validity only because he used partial information.”

Conclusion

A quick google search on the “pagan origins of Easter” will yield a plethora of articles from various sources all repeating this same misinformation over and over and over again. However, the number of times a story is repeated doesn’t increase its veracity and historical information is only as reliable as its primary source. Digging deeper and finding the root of the source is imperative.

We noted at the beginning of this article that the entire case for linking modern Easter traditions to the worship of ancient pagan dieties rests solely on the similarities that can be documented between the two. We have aptly shown that this is a tenuous link in and of itself and Woodrow’s wisdom learned the hard way should be noted, “Gerald Ford, an American president, might be confused with Henry Ford, the car manufacturer. Abraham Lincoln might end up as the inventor of the automobile, the proof being that many cars had the name ‘Lincoln.’ The maiden name of Billy Graham’s wife is Bell. She has sometimes gone by the name Ruth Bell Graham. The inventor of the telephone was Alexander Graham Bell. By mixing up names, someone might end up saying Billy Graham was the inventor of the telephone; or that he invented Graham Crackers. In fact, the inventor of Graham Crackers was Sylvester Graham. Again, similarities could be pointed out. Both men were named Graham. Both men were ministers. But the differences make a real difference: Sylvester was a Presbyterian and Billy a Baptist, and they were from different generations. Building on similarities while ignoring differences is an unsound practice. Atheists have long used this method in an attempt to discredit Christianity altogether, citing examples of pagans who had similar beliefs about universal floods, slain and risen saviors, virgin mothers, heavenly ascensions, holy books, and so on.”

Attempts to identify eggs and bunnies with the worship of these goddesses (one of whom cannot even be confirmed to have existed) come up completely empty. When your case is built on commonality and no commonalities can be established- you have no case.

However, this is the logic Hislop’s argument is built on. Woodrow writes, “Hislop produced his own myths. By so doing, he theorized that Nimrod, Adonis, Apollo, Attes, Baal-zebub, Bacchus, Cupid, Dagon, Hercules, Januis, Linus, Lucifer, Mars, Merodach, Mithra, Moloch, Narcissus, Oannes, Odin, Orion, Osiris, Pluto, Saturn, Teitan, Typhon, Vulcan, Wodan, and Zoroaster were all one and the same. By mixing myths, Hislop supposed that Semiramis was the wife of Nimrod and was the same as Aphrodite, Artemis, Astarte, Aurora, Bellona, Ceres, Diana, Easter, Irene, Iris, Juno, Mylitta, Proserpine, Rhea, Venus, and Vesta.”

Hislop was clearly not doing research to discover truth. He was engaging in mix and match mythology cherrypicking in order to corroborate his predetermined theory. Mr. Armstrong’s admonition in the opening lines of his Easter article are an ultimate irony. Generations of people who have been raised (and are being raised) to believe these fallacious arguments about Easter and its traditions believe simply because this is the “truth” they have been taught. Never questioning. Never researching the claims. Claims that collapse under the weight of the evidence against them.

You don’t have to adopt modern traditions into your personal observance of the death and resurrection of Christ. However, harassing or judging other believers for their choices by claiming that they are inadvertently worshiping pagan goddesses and/or mimicking pagan celebrations is wrong because there is not a shred of historical evidence to support the arguments. At best you are engaging in divisive, non-edifiying behavior. At worst you are undermining the legitimacy of the entire Christian faith by giving credence to Neopagan claims that myths predate our faith and are foundational to it.

In Part Two of this series, we’ll move on to the very polarizing topic of Constantine as he relates to the Easter controversy. Finally, in Part 3 we’ll investigate legitimate origins of various Easter traditions.