Easter: Of Pagan Origins?

It is Easter again, time to celebrate the most important event of human history: the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. This event is not only the heart and soul of the Christian faith, but it is also the decisive point of history. Without it none of us would be the same, and Western civilisation as we know it would be radically different, if it existed at all.

But sadly Easter has also of late become a time when some well-meaning but rather uninformed Christians start making a big stink, seeking to argue that the whole affair is just one big pagan celebration, and we should have nothing to do with it.

The great majority of these folks likely do not have much expertise in history, ancient languages, linguistics, theology or biblical studies to be making such claims, but instead rely on the work of a few others who have made a bit of a name for themselves pushing all this. I find the whole controversy an unnecessary distraction to this great Christian commemoration, but since it keeps cropping up, I suppose I must deal with it.

Fortunately several scholars have recently done just this, so there is no need for me to reinvent the wheel. It will suffice for me to refer you to their excellent work, and quote some of it here for you. The first article comes from Anthony McRoy, a Fellow of the British Society for Middle East Studies and lecturer in Islamic studies at Wales Evangelical School of Theology in the U.K.

He begins: their “argument largely rests on the supposed pagan associations of the English and German names for the celebration (Easter in English and Ostern in German). It is important to note, however, that in most other European languages, the name for the Christian celebration is derived from the Greek word Pascha, which comes from pesach, the Hebrew word for Passover. Easter is the Christian Passover festival.

“Of course, even if Christians did engage in contextualization — expressing their message and worship in the language or forms of the local people — that in no way implies doctrinal compromise. Christians around the world have sought to redeem the local culture for Christ while purging it of practices antithetical to biblical norms. After all, Christians speak of ‘Good Friday,’ but they are in no way honoring the worship of the Norse/Germanic queen of the gods Freya by doing so.

“But, in fact, in the case of Easter the evidence suggests otherwise: that neither the commemoration of Christ’s death and resurrection nor its name are derived from paganism.”

He continues,

“The Nordic/Germanic peoples (including the Anglo-Saxons) were comparative latecomers to Christianity. Pope Gregory I sent a missionary enterprise led by Augustine of Canterbury to the Anglo-Saxons in 596/7.

“The forcible conversion of the Saxons in Europe began under Charlemagne in 772. Hence, if ‘Easter’ (i.e. the Christian Passover festival) was celebrated prior to those dates, any supposed pagan Anglo-Saxon festival of ‘Eostre’ can have no significance. And there is, in fact, clear evidence that Christians celebrated an Easter/Passover festival by the second century, if not earlier. It follows that the Christian Easter/Passover celebration, which originated in the Mediterranean basin, was not influenced by any Germanic pagan festival.”

As to the claim — first made by the Venerable Bede — that the name “Easter” comes from a purported pagan fertility goddess named “Eostre”, he says that

“there is no evidence outside of Bede for the existence of this Anglo-Saxon goddess. There is no equivalent goddess in the Norse Eddas or in ancient Germanic paganism from continental Europe.”

I am leaving out a lot of important detail here along the way, so the reader is encouraged to read his entire piece, but he concludes this way:

“So Christians in ancient Anglo-Saxon and Germanic areas called their Passover holiday what they did — doubtless colloquially at first — simply because it occurred around the time of Eosturmonath/Ostarmanoth.

“A contemporary analogy can be found in the way Americans sometimes refer to the December period as ‘the holidays’ in connection with Christmas and Hanukkah, or the way people sometimes speak about something happening ‘around Christmas,’ usually referring to the time at the turn of the year. The Christian title ‘Easter,’ then, essentially reflects its general date in the calendar, rather than the Paschal festival having been re-named in honor of a supposed pagan deity.

“Of course, the Christian commemoration of the Paschal festival rests not on the title of the celebration but on its content — namely, the remembrance of Christ’s death and resurrection. It is Christ’s conquest of sin, death, and Satan that gives us the right to wish everyone ‘Happy Easter!’”

Dr Jonathan Sarfati, who until recently lived in Australia, but is now in the US doing great work with CMI, also has penned a lengthy piece on this. It also is too long to properly summarise here, but a few snippets nonetheless can be offered. He begins,

“We are occasionally rebuked for using the word Easter, on the grounds that it is allegedly derived from the Babylonian goddess Astarte, equivalent to the Assyrian goddess Ishtar. This comes from an oft-cited 19th-century book, The Two Babylons, by the Scots reverend Alexander Hislop.”

He continues,

“The Hebrew word for Passover is pesach, which comes from the verb pasach which means to pass over. When the Old Testament was translated into Greek, this word was basically unchanged, becoming the Greek pascha. In some English Bibles, this is translated Easter, and other times Passover, but it’s the same word. Most other languages have the same word for both, e.g. Latin Pascha, French Pâques, Italian Pasqua, and Dutch Pasen. English also retains this word in expressions such as ‘pascal lamb’. So where did the word ‘Easter’ come from?

“Does the word ‘Easter’ come from paganism? The answer is a clear ‘no!’. Hislop’s research is very shoddy in many places (Hislop is refuted in A Case Study in Poor Methodology). He tries to see paganism everywhere, on even the flimsiest grounds. In this case, he imagines a connection between Easter and Astarte purely on the basis of sound similarity, with not the slightest trace of linguistic connection or any borrowing. By this spurious method, one could connect the Potomac river with the Greek potamos, although there is no connection between the native American and Greek words. In reality, the word Easter is really Anglo-Saxon (sometimes Ester), not Babylonian. It was the common word for both Passover and Easter.”

And he reminds us how inconsistent these critics can be:

“While the above firmly refutes the pagan derivation nonsense about Easter, there are far more familiar things that really are derived from paganism, but about which few people worry. It is illogical to avoid a Christian-based holiday that brings people together in worship because of some perceived tie to paganism, while using everyday products and ignoring their obvious pagan heritage. You might have your muffler replaced by Midas, wear shoes designed by Nike, chew Trident gum, or watch a movie by Orion Pictures.

“Several days of our week and months of our year are named after Norse gods, except for Saturday that comes from the Roman god Saturn, and Sunday and Monday of course. Several months are named after Roman gods. The eight planets and many of their moons are named after Roman deities. Mazda cars are named for a Zoroastrian deity, and many people drive a Saturn, Mercury, Ares, Aurora … etc.

“But even in God’s Word, some of the heroes in the Bible had paganized names. E.g. Mordecai, the real hero of the book of Esther, has a name related to the Babylonian high god Marduk. Consider also Daniel’s three friends who were prepared to be thrown in the furnace rather than worship any but the true God. They were originally named Hananiah, Mishael and Azariah, but are better known by the names the Babylonians gave them: Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego (Daniel 1:7). Abednego means ‘servant of Nebo’, the pagan god.”

Let me offer two concluding thoughts. One, the same sorts of claims are also made about Christmas by some over-zealous believers; that it is merely a pagan festival and we should have nothing to do with it.

What Gregory Koukl said about Christmas seems to apply equally here:

“We make things wrong that the Bible doesn’t make wrong. It appears that is what is going on with Christmas. If you celebrate the birth of Christ, then you’re doing something wrong. My point is, this view is legalistic in that it makes things that aren’t Scripturally wrong and it makes them wrong. It makes something a rule to apply to men when God didn’t give them that rule.

“I think the practice of Christmas is fully legitimate even though there may have some pagan elements that were originally associated with a celebration at this time. That doesn’t make our celebration of Christmas the same as that old celebration. In fact, it’s quite different. We are celebrating the birth of Jesus.

“Now, we aren’t obliged to do so. There is nothing in the Scripture that says that we ought to, but it strikes me that it is entirely appropriate. It is appropriate, but not obligatory. If you look back in the Old Testament, one of the things that God did is He arranged for the Jews to celebrate festivals that He established to remind themselves of the significance of that event by participating in these annual festivals year to year.”

Two, as I already said, I believe most of this is just an unnecessary distraction, a case of majoring in minors, and just so much unfruitful heresy-hunting. Therefore I do not intend to spend much more time on this. Those who have a major bee in their bonnet about this and wish to argue all this out (accusing me of being a pagan heretic along the way) are asked to go elsewhere. You can pour out your spleen on this on your own sites, but not mine thanks.

By the way, my companion piece on Christmas can be found here.


Originally published at CultureWatch.
Photo by Jessica Lewis on Unsplash.

By |2021-04-05T16:24:54+10:00April 5th, 2021|Faith|1 Comment

About the Author:

Bill Muehlenberg is married with three sons, and he is an apologist and ethicist in Melbourne, Australia. He has written several books and has numerous articles printed in most mainstream Australian newspapers, as well as being the main drafter of the Canberra Declaration. Bill has a BA with honours in philosophy (Wheaton College, Chicago), an MA with highest honours in theology (Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, Boston) and is currently completing a PhD in theology. He is a prolific author, and a much sought-after media commentator; he has been featured on most Australian television and radio current affairs programs. Bill teaches ethics, apologetics and theology at several Melbourne Bible Colleges. He has his own blog, CultureWatch, which features Christian commentary on the issues of the day.

One Comment

  1. Warwick Marsh April 6, 2021 at 10:55 am - Reply

    Bills article is a brilliant expose on the truth of both Christmas & Easter. Yes there are pagan words and customs that have attached themselves to these two great Christian festivals but that does not mean celebrating the birth of Jesus and celebrating his death and resurrection at Easter are wrong. The issue is one of the heart and not overt legalism. Proverbs 4:23 springs to mind: “Guard your heart above all else, for it determines the course of your life.”

    Paul’s pragmatic response to the eating of food offered to idols in 1 Corinthians 8:4 is very relevant to these spurious controversies. The challenge as always is to keep the main thing the main thing. JESUS is the main thing and Christmas & Easter give me the chance to proclaim the good news of Christ’s love to everyone.

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