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.
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).
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.’”
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.
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.
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.”
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.