Aren’t rabbits & eggs pagan symbols for fertility? Isn’t the word “Easter” from a pagan goddess? Didn’t Christianity just borrow from earlier pagan myths and practices?
THE AGE OF MISINFORMATION
It’s inevitable. During this time of year in the (Mis)Information Age, skeptics are going to start posting blog articles and memes declaring that Easter is a pagan holiday high-jacked by the oppressive, monotheistic Christians.
In one such blog article I read at this time last year, the author performed the most death-defying acrobatics I’ve ever read to attempt to show how Christianity is just a bootlegged copy of pagan religions. The comments below the article praised the author’s brilliance. One comment that stayed with me was a woman who unabashedly wrote: “There you go making sense again!” Sadly, the article wasn’t just death-defying but logic- and history-defying too.
Around the same time, I came across a meme showing the goddess Ishtar and claiming Easter originated with her (because, hey, the names sort of sound alike, right?). The comments below, again, celebrated this exposure of Christian lies, with some vehemently stating how Christianity as a whole is based on pagan myths and Easter takes place on the spring solstice.
So, I simply wrote: “Easter takes place during this time of year because Jesus was arrested and crucified during the Jewish Passover. As any legit historian will tell you, Christianity came from the Jewish religion and started in Jerusalem.”
What did I hear back from the comment-writers? Silence.
As I’ve heard cops say on TV before: Usually the most obvious suspect – the one you first think of – is the responsible party. No death-defying acrobatics were needed on my part.
At Easter time, be prepared to see a lot of memes like this. Click for a better look.
Whether Christianity is a copycat of pagan mystery religions is no longer discussed in the academic world. The debate is over. As I stated above, Christianity grew from the followers of Jesus of Nazareth, who was a Jew from Judea, like his followers, the first Christians.
Unfortunately, due to the Internet Misinformation Age, conspiracy documentaries like Zeitgeist, and even (going back a few years) Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code, and even TV personality and outspoken atheist Bill Maher, this myth that Christianity is just a photocopy of pagan myths is still meandering around like a zombie even though it’s long been dead.
But what about some of the things involved in Easter that do appear to come from pagan cultures? Like eggs? And bunnies? Aren’t eggs and bunnies symbols of fertility in pagan cultures? And what about the word “Easter” itself – where does that come from? And, while we’re at it, what about Christmas trees? And where did the date December 25th come from since the Bible doesn’t say the exact date Jesus was born? In fact, what about some of the things that the Catholic Church practices that sure seem pagan in origin?
Is this the face of the dark underbelly of Christian history?
FIRST, A FEW WORDS ABOUT CATHOLICISM
There are quite a few accusations out there about the Catholic Church adopting many pagan rituals, symbols, and practices. The Protestant Reformers broke away from the Catholic Church in the 1500’s and declared Sola Scriptura (“by Scripture alone”) because the Catholic Church holds to many practices not found in the Bible. Whether the Catholic Church has or has not adopted some practices with pagan origins I do not know and it will not be explored here. Here, I am concerned with the Protestant branch of Christianity and, even more specifically, with Christianity unapologetically dedicated to Sola Scriptura.
THE ORIGIN OF “EASTER”
The reason why Christians celebrate Easter is clear. Christians believe that God, in order to solve the problem of sin eternally separating us from him, became a man – Jesus of Nazareth – lived a perfect, sinless life that none of us could live, and then willingly died on a cross to take the punishment we deserve. Then, three days later, Jesus rose from the dead, as he predicted, to confirm his identify and his message. Forgiveness of our sins, a free gift from God, is not deserved or earned by anyone; all we can do – as with all gifts – is accept it. To accept God’s free gift of salvation is to repent of your sins and accept Jesus as your Lord and Savior, believing in his redeeming work.
This is the good news of Jesus Christ. This is the Gospel. This is reason to celebrate.
This is clear.
Now, what isn’t so clear is finding solid answers to questions about eggs, rabbits, and the word “Easter.” Where there is definitely a lot of material available to refute the theory that Christianity has pagan roots (this will be covered in a future article), I’ve so far found information specifically about Easter hard to come by. Perhaps the reason for this is simply because there isn’t enough hard evidence out there for a lot to be written about it. (I’ve run into a similar challenge with researching the December 25th date for Christmas. Click here to read the best explanations I’ve found so far.)
DOES THE ACTUAL WORD “EASTER” HAVE PAGAN ROOTS?
The first known claim that the word “Easter” comes from the name of a pagan goddess is by English monk Venerable Bede (673-735), writer of the first history of Christianity in England and whose writings are the main source of information about early Anglo-Saxon culture. He wrote that “Easter” comes from the pagan fertility goddess Eostre.
Much later, another claim that “Easter” has pagan origins says the word comes from the Babylonian goddess Astarte, who is called Ishtar in Assyria. This theory seems to have been started by Alexander Hislop (1807-1865), a minister of the Free Church of Scotland, in his book The Two Babylons.
So, here we have two Christians claiming the name “Easter” comes from pagan goddesses.
Case closed, right?
First, notice they don’t agree with each other. That’s the first sign that something is wrong.
Next, the big problem with Bede’s claim is that there is no evidence anywhere outside of his writing of an Anglo-Saxon goddess called Eostre. Further, there’s no evidence of the goddess in Norse or Germanic paganism either.
Moreover, Hislop’s claims have also been shown to be unfounded by scholars. Hislop was a vehement critic of the Catholic Church and seems to have been a 19th Century conspiracy theorist long before the current heyday of Internet nuts that somehow see conspiracies in every possible place imaginable. (Had someone been able to get Hislop a really powerful wireless connection to the 21st Century, it sounds like he would’ve fit right in.)
Hislop makes many of the same errors as those who try to promote the Christian/pagan copycat theories today (more about this in a future article), making large jumps in logic to try to show connections where none exist and basing much of his theory simply on the idea that if words sound similar, they must be related. This overlooks the fact that many languages that have no influence on each other make similar sounds.
So, is there another theory of the origin of the word “Easter” – one that has nothing to do with paganism?
I’m not a linguist, but I do have a basic understanding of the evolution of the English language and knowledge of the history of the translation of the Bible from the original languages of ancient Hebrew and Greek into early English. This helped with understanding this theory.
FIRST, A BRIEF LESSON ON THE HISTORY OF THE ENGLISH LANGUAGE
The modern English language is a Germanic language, a branch of the Indo-European language family, so it is related to other modern languages such as German, Dutch, Yiddish, and Norwegian. So far, English has moved through 3 major stages of development:
Old English, Middle English, and Modern English.
One may think that English-speakers today could read Old English, but Old English is nothing like English today; though related to Modern English it is, for all practical uses, another language. The epic poem Beowulf (written about 1,000 years ago) was originally written in Old English.
Old English on the left. Modern translation on right. Click on pic for a much better view.
Middle English is closer to the English we use today, so if you were to read, say, The Canterbury Tales (written in Medieval England) in the original Middle English, you may recognize many words, probably even be able to figure out the meaning of some sentences, but it is still essentially a different (though related) language.
Example of Middle English. Click for a better view.
Finally, we get to Modern English, what we speak today. Despite what some who bemoan the difficultly of reading Shakespeare think, Shakespeare, in fact, wrote and spoke in Modern English.
HE IS RISEN! HAPPY “ESTER”!
The theory about the origin of the word “Easter” says Old English (also called the Anglo-Saxon language) is the origin of the word.
Jesus Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection took place during the Jewish Passover, and early Christians appear to have simply referred to this time in the same terms – meaning they referred to what we call Easter today as Passover. So, in a way, we could say early Christians simply thought of Jesus’ death and resurrection as the Christian Passover.
The Hebrew word for Passover is pesach from the verb pasach, to pass over. When the Old Testament was translated into the Greek, it remained basically the same, pascha. The punk rock, power-to-the-people John Wycliffe (1330-1384), who translated the first English Bible in 1382 (getting him declared a heretic), continued to use a form of the same word pascha (pask, paske) in his translation for the word Passover.
But when the equally punk rock William Tyndale (1494-1539) produced the first printed English Bible (which got him strangled and burned on a stake), he used the most common word of his native language of Old English for Passover, Ester. Germans used the word Oster or Ostern for Passover, such as when Martin Luther (1483-1546) first translated the Bible into German in 1545.
So, where Tyndale used the English Ester, Luther used the German Oster. Sounds a lot like the Modern English word Easter, doesn’t it?
Thus, the word “Easter” comes from the Germanic language, from the Old English word meaning Passover.
What makes more sense: Christians, who are often criticized by pluralists and polytheists for holding strictly to biblical teachings, for declaring their faith as being the one true religion and all others as false, would borrow and absorb into their strictly monotheistic faith other religions? Or the word “Easter” simply comes from a natural progression of the ever-changing English language?
ONE LAST POINT
The Anglo-Saxon and Germanic culture may have influenced the word we use today to refer to the celebration of Christ’s death and resurrection, but there is no possibility that those cultures influenced, inspired, or originated the celebration itself. The Nordic and Germanic people, including Anglo-Saxons, were not introduced to Christianity until almost 600 AD. There is undeniable evidence that the Christian Passover/Easter/Resurrection celebration was practiced in the Second Century, and even evidence of it as early as the First Century.
So, next time someone says the word “Easter” has pagan roots, tell them that this is far from conclusive, and more likely, it’s simply the Old English word for the Passover, which is when Christ was crucified and resurrected.
*Read PART 2 here: Is there a connection between Jesus and pagan gods? and PART 3 here: Aren’t Easter eggs & Christmas trees pagan?