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 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.)
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.
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
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.
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?
6 Replies to “So You Think Easter is Pagan Part 2: The Constantine Conspiracy”
This is an incredible example of jumping through a dozen hoops to excuse the departure of Christianity from it’s original practices which absolutely included the Biblical festivals and the honoring of the Shabbat. If you would simply continue to do the homework you will see how the anti-semitism of the “church fathers” played into the blending of the worship of God with trappings of various other religions. I know “pagan” is a harsh word and I sympathise with how divisive the charge is. Can you not at least acknowledge that Jesus did not come to abolish what God said was eternal and introduce a “new and improved” religion? God forbid as Paul would say.
I appreciate your comment.
There really are no hoops being jumped through in this article series. It is just historical truth. But, first I’d like to first focus on where we agree. I’m so glad that you see the charges of paganism that are levied as harsh and divisive. Most who throw the “pagan’ accusations around are woefully ignorant of Christian history as a whole and therefore really not even aware they don’t know enough to even form an educated view. Paul clearly valued unity extremely highly, and indicated that we should prize unity over any “debatable” issue. Boy have we all failed at that.
Second, I will certainly agree that there was anti-semitism present among some of the early church fathers and that it impacted some of their theological views. Replacement theology is a good example of the latter. However, I would say that this seems also to be, in part, a response to some very strong anti-Gentile sentiment that was expressed from Jewish converts to Christianity. Further, I’d caution about accusing the early fathers of blending or syncretism since many of them speak out quite strongly against such practices and even died martyrs deaths rather than succumb to such.
On to where we disagree…
While I do think it’s fair to say that at the beginning the very first Christians likely did largely continue in their cultural Jewish religious practices, I don’t agree that this is because these practices were still required. Rather, it seems to be because the very first Christians were, for the most part, Jews and this was simply there culture. The way they had always lived and done things. These things don’t seem to become a problem until the number of Gentile converts (for whom these practices are foreign and not part of their culture) begins to rise and eventually surpass the number of Jewish converts. At this point, the some of the believing Jews begin to erroneously teach that these Gentiles must adhere to the Mosaic law. The book of Acts deals with these tensions and clearly indicates that Gentile Christians are not expected to act as proselytes.
I think it is very telling that, while the sacrificial system has explicitly been discontinued (as per Hebrews), the New Testament does not give us any new or updated guidelines for how the OT holy days should be observed. If observance was expected to continue as required, one would certainly think new instructions would have been in order since so very much of the OT observance was centered around appropriate sacrifice. Pages and pages are devoted to describing every minute detail of every aspect of proper sacrifice. Failure to adhere to these strict guidelines had extreme consequences. As it is, today we cannot even properly keep the OT holy days if we try.
I do not believe that Jesus abolished anything. I believe that He fulfilled it. As Matthew 5:17-18 reads (in the ESV):
“Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. 18 For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished.”
Here Jesus says that not a single iota of the law would pass from the law until it is all accomplished. But we clearly see from Hebrews that not just an iota, but a massive chunk of the law (the sacrificial system) has been discontinued. If all were not accomplished this could not be so. Furthermore, Jesus doesn’t just say it is the law he has fulfilled, but the prophets also. We are not looking for Jesus to repeatedly fulfill the same prophecies over and over.
It is true that the phrase “until heaven and earth pass away” seems to be a stumbling block for some who interpret this to mean that the law will not be fulfilled until heaven and earth literally pass away. However, I find the parallel passage in Luke to be illuminating for interpretation here. Luke 16:16-17 reads:
“The Law and the Prophets were until John; since then the good news of the kingdom of God is preached, and everyone forces his way into it. 17 But it is easier for heaven and earth to pass away than for one dot of the Law to become void.”
There are multiple passages indicating that the law was never intended to be eternal. The entire book of Galatians is a good start. But, even back in the OT, in Jeremiah 31 verses 31 and following talk about a new covenant that will be initiated. One that is not like the covenant He made with their fathers.
All of this being said, I fully support the Christian liberty of anyone who feels that they want to observe the OT holy days in the manner they see fit. They are beautiful and full of meaning. As I’ve already mentioned, one cannot do so in accordance with Biblical mandate, so improvisation based on ones own conscience will be necessary. Frankly, as I was raised in a group that did so, I could personally see myself completely comfortable in such a group as long as it wasn’t taught as a requirement or superior to mainstream Christian groups. (Now my husband would be a different matter as he has no such background.)
I have no idea what your background is and which OT law keeping group you are associated with, but I’d like to recommend a youtube channel called “The Beginning of Wisdom.” He originally began the channel as he was coming out from a Biblical Unitarian background, however, he has recently turned much of his attention toward addressing various Hebrew Roots type theologies. Fair warning- he’s a bit monotone and slow to get started in his lengthy discussions. However, if you can get passed that, his content is very good and (of course, in my opinion) Biblically solid. Here’s the link if you’re interested:
Thanks for the great article. I wish my husband, Frank Houtz was still alive to help me make comment on this. He too did enormous research into this topic and discovered many errors in the Easter-Ishtar supposed connection. One thing I was hoping to see in your article was the revelation that the word Easter which is in the letter from Constintine to the bishops is actually pascha in Greek. The word Easter is an English translation, but the Greek word is the word for pesach or in later English, passover. The English word Easter is not evolved until centuries later.
Thank you for your comment! You make an excellent point about the English word Easter.
Thank you for the article.
Maybe the argument should not be on if easter is pagan, but on the keeping of biblical festivals found in Leviticus 23, one of which even Paul commanded that Corinthians to continue in
First Corinthians 5. Meanwhile, encouraging the church in Colosse not to let anyone judge them in regards to meat, drink, festivals, new moons, or sabbaths because they point to Christ.
Even within Constantine’s letter, he scoffed at the idea of Jews keeping Passover twice in one biblical calendar year. Personally, this was a prime example of his ignorance on the clarity of scripture where the Lord gives provision for a second Passover to occur for those who were unable to attend for varying reasons. God literally gave a second chance to remember the Lord’s sacrifice in Numbers chapter 9, and Constantine thought it was wrong. That alone should give us pause when we are seeking to do something in the name of the Lord while speaking in utter ignorance of His word.
God’s word is not wrong, and His Spirit does not speak against His instructions.
Romans 14 starts as follows:
As for the one who is weak in faith, welcome him, but not to quarrel over opinions.
Are God’s instructions a matter of opinion? Are the words that come from the mouth of God disputable matters?
The biblical calendar should be remembered as a whole, and not abrogated. Remember, we are forbidden in Deuteronomy 4 to add to or take away from His instructions.
So maybe it’s not about eggs and bunnies but seeing that these festivals point to him and the work he has done and the work he has yet to complete.
I can tell you firsthand that seeing Christians worship our Savior through his festivals does provoke many Jews to jealousy.
Besides, why would we say he’s fulfilled the festivals so we don’t have to remember them, but make up Christmas wars over his birth, which he already fulfilled as well? If his birth points to him, so do his biblical festivals.
Again, thank you for the article and your work. I pray you are well and having a great day.
I appreciate your thoughtful comment. I truly understand where you’re coming from in framing the argument as not whether or not Easter is pagan, but rather focusing on the keeping of the OT feasts, or festivals. However, I don’t think looking at the issue from that angle is sufficient to address it, and I’ll explain why. Essentially, one cannot construct a convincing case (in my opinion) that the NT advocates the continuation of the observance of the OT festivals, regardless if one is talking about the ones that were fulfilled versus the ones that are still awaiting fulfillment.
We already know that the majority of believers at first were Jews, so it’s not surprising that they would continue to observe these feasts. We seem to understand the meaning of Colossians 2 differently though. From Col 1:21, it certainly seems that the believers in Colossae whom Paul is addressing are Gentile converts. Therefore, it really doesn’t logically follow that we’d assume they were observing the Jewish feasts, etc. Col 2:16 seems to me to be very clearly indicating that the false teachers mentioned are the ones advocating for the necessity of the continuation of the Jewish observances listed, to which Paul responds not to let anyone pass judgement on them regarding what they are eating and drinking (likely reference to the Colossians not following Jewish dietary restrictions), nor with regard to festivals or Sabbath that they are apparently not observing. After all, those were merely shadows of the substance, which is Christ. This interpretation certainly aligns with other NT writings which make clear that there was a big problem with ethnically Jewish Christians demanding that the new Gentile converts be required to keep the Mosaic Law in its entirety. An entire council is called to discuss this in Acts, the results of which are clear: no, Gentiles are not expected to do so. I see no reason why the Jewish Christians couldn’t continue to do so if they wanted, but it certainly wasn’t required. I see no reason it would be different in modern times.
Furthermore, the argument that hinges on the concept that “God’s word is not wrong, and His Spirit does not speak against His instructions” also fails in this instance. Going back to Leviticus 23 and reading the very detailed instructions for festival observance will reveal the undeniable reality that an essential part of the proper observance of these festivals revolves around the sacrificial system. For that matter, the sacrificial system was an integral part of the Mosaic Law as a whole. Did God speak against the sacrificial system? Well, no. It served its purpose, then it ceased to be valid. There are virtually no Christian sects, even among the “law-keeping” ones, that argue that the sacrificial system applies today. The truth is, the festivals absolutely *cannot* be kept in accordance with God’s instructions without the appropriate sacrifices. If these were intended to carry over as required for NT Christians, we’d need brand new instructions for how to keep them, otherwise we’re just making it up as we go along: and that’s exactly what “law-keeping” sects do. They make up alternatives to keeping those festivals that aren’t outlined anywhere in the New or Old Testaments. The NT does not offer us any new instructions for keeping these feasts. On the other hand we do get instructions on how to observe the Lord’s Supper.
You point out that we are forbidden from adding to or taking away from His instructions in Deut 4. But if you are interpreting that passage accurately in believing that it applies to the OT feasts, then we’re in big trouble for all the reasons I just mentioned above. We’ve completely altered the way the festivals are observed, based only on what we assume they should look like without the integral sacrificial system.
I would like to point out one area in which we are in agreement. Constantine clearly held many anti-Semitic views. He did some good things for the Church, and he also did some things that were bad for the Church. Furthermore, as the church grew and became more Gentile and less Jew, the antagonism reversed from the Jew on Gentile antagonism that we see in so many places in the NT, to the opposite. Both were and are wrong. We should certainly reject the anti-Semitism that was present in the early church. However, that doesn’t mean that everything about the early church was anti-Semitic and we should disregard everything from that period. God was working there with those believers, just as He was working prior to that period with the primarily Jewish believers, and as He is now working with us.
With respect to Romans 14:1, I believe that is very applicable to this entire argument. It seems to be legitimately an area where a diversity of opinions are acceptable considering neither are rejecting the Gospel (although I know several law keeping sects do consider it a Gospel issue). I’ve seen and experienced the good and the bad of attempting to keep the OT festivals. I’ve also seen and experienced the good and bad of current mainstream Christian observances. Perhaps God is using those who take either of these avenues in His plan for different purposes in that plan. In that case, who am I to judge another? Just a few verses later in Romans 14, verse 4, Paul says: “Who are you to pass judgment on the servant of another? It is before his own master that he stands or falls. And he will be upheld, for the Lord is able to make him stand.”