This is a reposting of a pair of articles published last year on the origins of Easter and some Easter traditions. The sources are given so that the reader can better be able to debunk the popular “historical” nonsense about the origins of Easter.
The whole series is available at Diatheke Christianity and Paganism.
Easter is the English/Germanic name for the Festival of the Resurrection of Jesus Christ. This particular Feast Day is the heart and center of the whole liturgical practice of the Christian Church Year.
Because it is at the center it is under great attack by those seeking to discredit this liturgical festival. If these people can maintain that Easter is really originally pagan, then they undermine Christ, His Passion, death and Resurrection.
In this article we will look at:
- Passover as the historical Biblical origin of the Christian liturgical Church Year;
- The historical development of the date of Easter/Resurrection/Passover;
- Claims of Pagan Origin or Influence, including:
- The origins of the pagan goddess Eostre;
- The historical Lenten Fast that lead to the use of Eggs in association with Easter;
- And the particularly Christian use of the hare/rabbit as a symbol for the Trinity and the Resurrection.
Passover as The Origin of the Christian Church Year
The three High Festivals of the Christian Church Year are Christmas, Easter, and Pentecost. All of these days are were established in the early Church on the basis of the biblical dating of Passover. Any festivals that are tied to the dates of these Holy Days are derived from their relationship to Passover.
This means that, contrary to claims from many different sources, the choice of dates for these Festivals and those tied to them have nothing to do with pagan origins.
Let us say that again and more clearly: The dates for Christmas, Easter, Pentecost, and all those church holy days that are directly tied to the dates of those holy days are all based originally on Passover. None of these days were chosen due to pagan influences. None! The actual choice for the date was based on what God declared to Moses in about 1,440 B.C. on Mt. Sinai.
There are Christian festivals that are not directly tied to these dates, those are dates such as the the commemoration of Saints. Those days were chosen for their own reasons: usually to commemorate the calender day on which a person was born or died.
But the relationship between the Passover, Easter, Pentecost, and Christmas is an historically demonstrable fact through the writings of the Church Fathers.
And this relationship to Passover is essential to understanding the theology of the Promise and Fulfillment in Christ as well as the establishing of the First Covenant and its fulfillment in the New Covenant.
About 1,470 years before the Son of God instituted His Holy Supper, that same Son of God commanded Moses and the Congregation of Israel saying:
12 Now the Lord spoke to Moses and Aaron in the land of Egypt, saying, 2 “This month shall be your beginning of months; it shall be the first month of the year to you. 3 Speak to all the congregation of Israel, saying: ‘On the tenth of this month every man shall take for himself a lamb, according to the house of his father, a lamb for a household. 4 And if the household is too small for the lamb, let him and his neighbor next to his house take it according to the number of the persons; according to each man’s need you shall make your count for the lamb. 5 Your lamb shall be without blemish, a male of the first year. You may take it from the sheep or from the goats. 6 Now you shall keep it until the fourteenth day of the same month. Then the whole assembly of the congregation of Israel shall kill it at twilight.
The ordinance for this festival and the Festival of Unleavened Bread is that the month of Abib become the first month of the religious calendar. The Passover and the Feast of Unleavened Bread are the basis in the Books of Moses for calculating the two other major festivals of the liturgical year:
- the Feast of Weeks (Pentecost) 7 weeks and one day, which marks remembering God’s revealing of the Covenant at Mt. Sinai at the end of those weeks (Exodus 19). The remembrance is tied together with the harvest of the Firstfruits and the requirement to offer the best of the firstfruits to God.
- the Feast of Tabernacles is calculated being the full moon seventh month (a sabbath month) from the first month. All the congregation was required to gather before the tabernacle each year on these three festivals.
And just as the Passover Lamb was selected on the 10th of the First Month, the scapegoat and the sacrificial goat for the Lord were selected on the 10th of the Seventh Month–The Day of Atonement.
Everything in the liturgical year is keyed upon Passover in the Old Testament. This key event does not get put aside in the New Testament. Rather, the Passover takes on even greater significance as it is fulfilled in the Passion and Resurrection of Christ.
While Clement of Alexandria attests to the fact that there were a handful of different days of the year that people thought the world was created, the view expressed by Clement (c.150 – c. 215), Hippolytus (170 – 235), Julius Africanus (c.160 – c.240) and others at the close of the 2nd century A.D. were the most widely accepted. That view was that the world was created March 25th, Christ was conceived March 25th, and Christ was crucified March 25th. March 25th also was the equinox. Which made this date easy to calculate.
Thus we can see that the choice of this date was also a public confession of the Hypostatic Union of the Two Natures in Christ. Observing Creation, Incarnation, and Passion on the same day confessed that it is the Son of God, the Creator, who became human and so intimately united Himself with humanity by suffering as a man in humanity’s place.
We are not evaluating whether March 25th was the actual date that these events truly happened, we are demonstrating the early rationale for and the early widespread acceptance of this date in the teaching and practice of the Church.
This dating was the basis for later the work of Dionysius Exiguus (c. 470 – c. 544) , and widely enough established in the late 2nd century to be used as proof by Tertullian (c. 160 – c. 225 AD):
And the suffering of this “extermination” was perfected within the times of the lxx hebdomads, under Tiberius Caesar, in the consulate of Rubellius Geminus and Fufius Geminus, in the month of March, at the times of the passover, on the eighth day before the calends of April [March 25th], on the first day of unleavened bread, on which they slew the lamb at even, just as had been enjoined by Moses.(An Answer to the Jews, 8.18, emphasis added)
This view formed the basis for the Alexandrian Era and held in the ancient Church up to the 7th century A.D.
The Christmas Cycle separates from the Easter Cycle
While the early church equated March 25th (the equinox) with the Incarnation of Christ, all those dates related directly to that date became fixed on the calendar. However, the Passover changed each year because it was based on the lunar cycle.
How Did Easter Get Separated from Passover?
So the problem became, when should Christ’s Passion and Resurrection be celebrated? Should it be held relative to Passover regardless of which day of the week it occurred? Or should it be held on the days of the week named in the Gospel narratives regardless of which day of the week the Passover actually occurred?
The debate is called “The Easter Controversy.” It is actually several different controversies through the centuries about the same issue. Records about this debate and from this debate date back to the early and mid 2nd century. And the question of when Easter should be celebrated and how it should be calculated led to many writings of the early chronographers and calendarists.
There were two main parts to these controversies. First, whether Passover and Resurrection should be observed on the 14th of Abib or on the Sunday following. The controversies following this had to deal with the best way to calculate the Passover accurately.
Why Sunday Weekly Worship
Sunday became the focus of Christian worship because it is the Day of the Resurrection of Christ (Mt. 28:1; Mk. 16:9; Lk. 24:1; Jn. 20:1, 19).
The weekly Sunday worship focused on the Passover given and instituted as the New Covenant fulfilling the Promise (Gal. 4). Paul testifies that the Lord’s Supper was celebrated and tithes were gathered at worship on Sunday (Acts 20:7; I Cor. 16:2). Weekly Sunday worship with the Lord’s Supper is weekly observance of the Passover in Christ, but not the passover of the Old Covenant. It is the partial fulfilment of the Passover with the New Covenant. The complete fulfilment of the original Passover waits until the Return of Christ on Judgement day.
14 When the hour had come, He sat down, and the twelve apostles with Him. 15 Then He said to them, “With fervent desire I have desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer; 16 for I say to you, I will no longer eat of it until it is fulfilled in the kingdom of God.”
Often moderns will make the same claim made by the Sabbath Keepers like Abram Herbert Lewis (1832-1908), that Christians cannot worship on Sunday because that is a pagan day devoted to a pagan God. The Sabbath keepers tried to argue that the early church did not worship on Sunday but that this gradually came about as Christianity gave into paganism and wordliness.
[the above paragraph is corrected. Thank you to those who pointed out my mistake.]
But worship on Sunday was considered a vital confessional practice even while the Apostles were still alive. Ignatius (30 AD – 107 AD) wrote in The Epistle of Ignatius to the Magnesians, Chapter 9 (ANF 1:62-63):
If, therefore, those who were brought up in the ancient order of things have come to the possession of a new hope, no longer observing the Sabbath, but living in the observance of the Lord’s Day, on which also our life has sprung up again by Him and by His death—whom some deny, by which mystery we have obtained faith, and therefore endure, that we may be found the disciples of Jesus Christ, our only Master—how shall we be able to live apart from Him, whose disciples the prophets themselves in the Spirit did wait for Him as their Teacher? And therefore He whom they rightly waited for, being come, raised them from the dead. (emphasis added)
And later in the same chapter:
But let every one of you keep the Sabbath after a spiritual manner, rejoicing in meditation on the law, not in relaxation of the body, admiring the workmanship of God, and not eating things prepared the day before, nor using lukewarm drinks, and walking within a prescribed space, nor finding delight in dancing and plaudits which have no sense in them. And after the observance of the Sabbath, let every friend of Christ keep the Lord’s Day as a festival, the resurrection-day, the queen and chief of all the days [of the week]. Looking forward to this, the prophet declared, “To the end, for the eighth day,” on which our life both sprang up again, and the victory over death was obtained in Christ,(emphasis added)
It was on a Sunday that the Apostle John received the Revelation of Jesus Christ.(Rev. 1:9-10)
Justin Martyr (AD 100–ca.165) bears witness to this unity of dates and practices (also pointing out that the Mithraists copied Christian practice in his time with regard to the ceremonies and sacraments of the Church) [Apology 1:66 –ANF 1:p. 185]. Justin highlighted the significance of the day and the liturgical practice in the following passage:
And on the day called Sunday, all who live in cities or in the country gather together to one place, and the memoirs of the apostles or the writings of the prophets are read, as long as time permits; then, when the reader has ceased, the president verbally instructs, and exhorts to the imitation of these good things. Then we all rise together and pray, and, as we before said, when our prayer is ended, bread and wine and water are brought, and the president in like manner offers prayers and thanksgivings, according to his ability, and the people assent, saying Amen; and there is a distribution to each, and a participation of that over which thanks have been given, and to those who are absent a portion is sent by the deacons. And they who are well to do, and willing, give what each thinks fit; and what is collected is deposited with the president, who succours the orphans and widows and those who, through sickness or any other cause, are in want, and those who are in bonds and the strangers sojourning among us, and in a word takes care of all who are in need. But Sunday is the day on which we all hold our common assembly, because it is the first day on which God, having wrought a change in the darkness and matter, made the world; and Jesus Christ our Saviour on the same day rose from the dead. For He was crucified on the day before that of Saturn (Saturday); and on the day after that of Saturn, which is the day of the Sun, having appeared to His apostles and disciples, He taught them these things, which we have submitted to you also for your consideration. [ibid. 67, ANF 1:186]
The First Easter Date Controversy ( up to 190AD)
So by the time the first main controversy about Easter became and issue, most congregations outside of Asia-Minor already celebrated Resurrection on the Sunday following the Passover.
But in Asia-Minor there were several congregations that maintained the practice of celebrating the Crucifixion on the 14th of Abib. These people became called “Fourteenthers” [Quartodeciman].
Eusebeus (Hist. 5:24) records the words of Irenaeus at the time:
12. “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.
13. 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.” (NPNF2-01: 243 emphasis added)
Irenaeus stated that the difference in calendar observance was not divisive of fellowship.
There are two important things to note about this controversy:
First: The question of whether 14th Abib or the Sunday following pre-dates this controversy. The practice of a Sunday Easter service is shown by Irenaeus’ and Justin’s letters. The practice of Sunday observance of Easter probably dates back to the Apostolic times.
Second: The issue at hand was when to break the fast for the Resurrection. We have already seen that the 40 day Lenten fast pre-dates Constantine. We see here in Irenaeus that fasting traditions varied from place to place but were considered old traditions.
The choice of the Church to celebrate the Resurrection of Christ on Sundays is very ancient, probably from the Apostolic period. The choice had nothing to do with Roman pagan holidays or any other pagan holiday. It had to do with making a clear Christological confession about the Christ-the suffering Servant, the God-Man incarnate who redeemed us from sin, Satan, and death itself.
The Second Easter Date Controversy (323 A.D)
This debate took place as part of the Council of Nicea where Athanasius worked against Arius. This is the council that the Easter-haters point to claiming that Constantine usurped the church and brought in pagan customs and dates.
Sunday Easter service was already the norm throughout Christianity by this time. The issue at the Council was which is the best way to calculate when Easter would occur.
The desire was to have all the congregations celebrating on the same date. But that could not happen by depending upon the rabbis fixing the month by physical observation. One of the complaints recorded is that dependency on such physical calculations might allow Passover to be celebrated twice in one solar year.
The practice was to wait until the rabbis had “set the month by observation” (קדוש החדש על פי ראיה) or by means of reckoning (קדוש החדש על פי חשבון).
[ From “Mishna Torah, Book of Times, Regulations for the Sanctifying of the Month” משנה תורה – ספר זמנים – הלכות קידוש החודש – הכול פרק ב]
The Council sought to keep the Passover in Christ from being arbitrarily decided and to have the date uniformly kept throughout the church at large. They set the equinox as the earliest possible date of Passover–already established by early tradition as the day of Creation, Incarnation, and the original Crucifixion.
Nothing in their discussions or in any of the surviving evidence suggests that these dates were chosen or influenced by any pagan practice or teaching. All the actual contemporary evidence points to a great concern that the Passover be marked accurately for the sake of confessing the Hypostatic Union of Christ and His saving work in His Incarnation, Passion and Resurrection.
The Third Easter Date Controversy (c. 600 A.D)
Churches in the British Isles which had been established early were using a different method of calculation than were the churches in the Mediterranean area. The calculations used in the British Isles were using the formula from the time of the Roman occupation, the formula that the church at Rome had made improvements to.
The Easter date in the British Isles had nothing to do with pagan worship, but was based on the older method originating with the churches in the Mediterranean area. When this older method was replaced it had nothing to do with pagan practices. The churches in the British Isles were just conforming to what had been established by the Church at large in the Mediterranean world.
[Thurston, H. (1909). Easter Controversy. In The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company. Retrieved March 26, 2013 from New Advent: http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/05228a.htm]
The date of Easter and the rest of the High Holy Days of the Church are rooted in the observance of the Passover and have no roots in any pagan practice. The Passover was established by God nearly 1500 years before the fulfilment of the Promise in Christ’s death and resurrection. The Church sought to clarify how this date chosen in the calendar and help make the practice consistent throughout the Church.
None of the controversies surrounding the dating of Easter had anything to do with pagan practices. Essentially these controversies were either disagreements on whether to observe the 14th of Abib rather than the Sunday following, or disagreements on the best way to calculate when the Biblical 14th of Abib (the Passover) would take place.
Anyone who contends that the dates were chosen on the basis of pagan sources is making a claim contrary to all actual evidence from the actual periods.
What About Other Pagan Influences?
Part 2 coming soon…..