The Surprising History of Easter

How did the name and practices of Easter—devoted to a pagan goddess of fertility—become linked to a holiday supposed to honor the resurrection of Christ?

Religious and secular sources plainly show that many cherished traditions of today’s Easter celebration are not Christian in origin. In fact, they are a shocking departure from the teachings of Jesus, the apostles and the first-century Church.

They are borrowed from the pagan, polytheistic world, which the first-century Christians were called out of (1 Peter 2:9), were told to be separate from (2 Corinthians 6:17), and were to have no fellowship with (Ephesians 5:11).

“For you were once darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Walk as children of light,” wrote the apostle Paul (Ephesians 5:8). Concerning the moral state of the pagan society they were once part of, he said, “Have no fellowship with the unfruitful works of darkness, but rather expose them” (verse 11).

What the early Christians came out of

For the earliest Christians, called out of spiritual darkness and the empty worship of idols, to continue in the very practices they were leaving behind would have been unthinkable. To tarnish the name and worship of God with things associated with idols was fundamentally contrary to the calling of God.

Paul taught the Corinthians that there is no association between our worship of God and the worship of pagan idolatry.

“For what fellowship has righteousness with lawlessness? And what communion has light with darkness? And what accord has Christ with Belial? Or what part has a believer with an unbeliever? And what agreement has the temple of God with idols? For you are the temple of the living God. As God has said:

“‘I will dwell in them and walk among them. I will be their God, and they shall be My people.’

“Therefore ‘Come out from among them and be separate, says the Lord. Do not touch what is unclean, and I will receive you’” (2 Corinthians 6:14-17).

In 1 Corinthians 10:14 Paul wrote directly, “Therefore, my beloved, flee from idolatry” (emphasis added throughout).

It is hard to imagine that someone who is dedicated to fleeing from idolatry would continue to engage in traditions learned from the practice of idolatry!

How is it possible that admittedly pagan practices—and even the name of the holiday itself—became entwined with so significant a Christian event as the death and resurrection of Jesus?The Jamieson, Fausset and Brown Commentary writes on this verse, “Flee—Do not tamper with it by doubtful acts, such as eating idol meats on the plea of Christian liberty. The only safety is in wholly shunning whatever borders on idolatry (2 Co 6:16, 17).”

You shall not worship God in that way

The writings of Paul in the New Testament echo the instruction that God had given to His people Israel when they were about to enter the Promised Land:

“When the LORD your God cuts off from before you the nations which you go to dispossess, and you displace them and dwell in their land, take heed to yourself that you are not ensnared to follow them, after they are destroyed from before you, and that you do not inquire after their gods, saying, ‘How did these nations serve their gods? I also will do likewise.’ You shall not worship the LORD your God in that way” (Deuteronomy 12:29-31).

Yet we find that is exactly what happened in the Christian world when they adopted the practices of Easter. Even the name Easter comes from Eostre, or Eostrae, the Anglo-Saxon goddess of spring and fertility, according to the English monk Bede the Venerable.

“Despite its significance as a Christian holy day, many of the traditions and symbols that play a key role in Easter observances actually have roots in pagan celebrations—particularly the pagan goddess Eostre” (History.com, article “History of Easter”).

How is it possible that admittedly pagan practices—and even the name of the holiday itself—became entwined with so significant a Christian event as the death and resurrection of Jesus? And when did this begin to occur?

The earliest records of Christian spring festivals

“There is no indication of the observance of the Easter festival in the New Testament, or in the writings of the apostolic Fathers . . . The first Christians continued to observe the Jewish festivals, though in a new spirit, as commemorations of events which those festivals had foreshadowed. Thus the Passover, with a new conception added to it of Christ as the true Paschal Lamb and the first fruits from the dead, continued to be observed” (Encyclopaedia Britannica, 11th edition, article “Easter”).

Thus, we find the apostle Paul writing instructions to the Christians at Corinth—instructions he “received from the Lord” (1 Corinthians 11:23) about keeping the Christian observance of the Passover. He explained how to observe it in a proper manner, with the unleavened bread as a symbol of His body, and the wine as a symbol of His blood that was shed in sacrifice for our sins (verses 23-27).

Paul quoted Christ saying, “Do this in remembrance of Me,” and added, “For as often as you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death till He comes.”

The Passover was observed annually on the 14th day of the first month (Nisan) of the Hebrew calendar, corresponding to our spring season in the northern hemisphere. It was immediately followed by the seven-day Feast of Unleavened Bread, when God’s people were to remove all leavened bread from their homes and eat unleavened bread instead.

(Leaven is used in Paul’s letters as a symbol of sin, while unleavened bread represents humility and righteousness.)

Writing about the Christian observance of these days, Paul said to the Corinthian brethren, who were suffering with the problem of pride, “Your glorying is not good. Do you not know that a little leaven leavens the whole lump? Therefore purge out the old leaven, that you may be a new lump, since you truly are unleavened. For indeed Christ, our Passover, was sacrificed for us. Therefore let us keep the feast, not with old leaven, nor with the leaven of malice and wickedness, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth” (1 Corinthians 5:6-8).

For a full explanation of the seven annual festivals given by God, with their inspiring meaning, see our article “The Seven Feasts of the Lord.”

There is no record of Easter, or anything like it, being observed in the early Church for 100 years after the death of Christ.

A new tradition arises

However, in the second century a controversy arose that is known in history as the Quartodeciman Controversy, from the Latin word for “fourteenth.” The debate was about when and how to observe the Paschal festival. No one used the word Easter to describe what they were arguing over. And no one was arguing over Easter bunnies and colored eggs at this time.

The apostle Paul had raised up congregations throughout the region of Asia Minor (modern-day Turkey), visiting them and strengthening them in the faith over multiple missionary journeys.

The apostle John, who lived the longest of the 12 original disciples of Christ, is said to have died around the year 100 in the city of Ephesus, a chief city in Asia Minor.

Polycarp, who knew John and was taught by him, became the bishop of Smyrna. He was respected by the brethren and bishops of the region, who were faithful to the tradition of observing the Passover on the 14th.

But another tradition was gaining ground. This new tradition, championed by Anicetus, the bishop of Rome, was a springtime feast on a Sunday in honor of the resurrection of Christ—instead of the Passover on the 14th (which could occur on almost any day of the week) as a memorial of His death.

Though the historical records do not indicate that Polycarp objected to a celebration of Christ’s resurrection, he vehemently refused to abandon the observance of Passover on the 14th.

The church historian Eusebius, writing in the early 300s, is our main source of information about the controversy between Polycarp and Anicetus. Eusebius, in his Ecclesiastical History, chapters 23 to 25 of Book 5, tells us that the churches in Asia Minor, focusing on the crucifixion as of primary importance, argued for observing Pascha (Passover) on Nisan 14 according to the Scriptures, but Anicetus, bishop of Rome, favored observing a spring festival honoring Christ on a Sunday.

Eusebius records that:

“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 . . .

If we are truly sincere in worshipping Him, we will want to worship Him in the way He has clearly instructed—not according to the traditions of men, however well-intentioned they may be.“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.”

The Eucharist is a term referring to the bread and wine, the symbols of the Christian Passover service.

Irenaeus, a bishop and historian who lived during the second century and who knew Polycarp, wrote that Polycarp was “instructed by apostles, and conversed with many who had seen Christ.” He stated that Polycarp “always taught the things which he had learned from the apostles, and which the Church has handed down, and which alone are true” (Against Heresies, Book 3, chapter 3, paragraph 4).

But the Sunday observance of the Paschal feast continued to gain ground in the West and in the regions outside Asia Minor.

Polycrates defends the faith

In A.D. 195 the controversy reached a crisis between Polycrates, bishop of Ephesus in Asia Minor, and Victor, bishop of Rome. (In Catholicism, “bishop of Rome” is synonymous with the title “pope.” Beginning with Peter, the Catholic Church designated all bishops of Rome as popes even though the term didn’t come into use in Rome until much later. So Victor is often referred to as a pope. We do not believe Peter was the first pope. See our article “On What Rock Did Christ Build His Church?”)

According to history, the Roman church began to persecute those who believed in what Jesus and the early apostles taught. Victor attempted to excommunicate Polycrates from the Roman church along with anyone who agreed with him about keeping Passover on the 14th, but other bishops in Rome protested Victor’s heavy-handed approach and so Victor’s attempt to excommunicate Polycrates failed.

Polycrates maintained emphatically that he was following the Passover tradition passed down to him, and it was very clear he did not accept the new belief coming out of the Roman church:

“We observe the exact day; neither adding, nor taking away. For in Asia also great lights have fallen asleep, which shall rise again on the day of the Lord’s coming . . . All these observed the fourteenth day of the passover according to the Gospel, deviating in no respect, but following the rule of faith. And I also, Polycrates, the least of you all, do according to the tradition of my relatives, some of whom I have closely followed. For seven of my relatives were bishops; and I am the eighth. And my relatives always observed the day when the people put away the leaven.

“I, therefore, brethren, who have lived sixty-five years in the Lord, and have met with the brethren throughout the world, and have gone through every Holy Scripture, am not affrighted by terrifying words. For those greater than I have said ‘We ought to obey God rather than man’ [Acts 5:29]” (as quoted by Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History, Book 5, chapter 24, paragraphs 1-7).

So Polycrates clearly stated that he was faithfully observing the Passover (on the 14th) and the Feast of Unleavened Bread (“when the people put away the leaven”), according to the Word of God.

Others, though—led by the bishop at Rome—had abandoned this practice for the observance of a Sunday festival of the resurrection.

This was just one controversy among many that embroiled the church during this time. Heresies abounded. (See our article “Church History: Polycarp and Polycrates.”)

By the 300s, the false ideas coming from the Roman church were dominant. In 325 Emperor Constantine, newly converted to the Roman faith and wishing to establish Roman Catholicism as the official religion of the Roman Empire, convened a council of bishops to settle the controversies in the church.

The primary issue had to do with questions about the divinity of Christ, but the Nicene Council—so called because it was convened in the city of Nicaea, not far from the emperor’s royal city of Constantinople—also addressed issue of the Quartodeciman position. The bishops decreed that Christians should celebrate Jesus’ resurrection on a Sunday, and Emperor Constantine issued a stinging attack against the Quartodecimans. He ordered a persecution of those who refused to comply.

What had begun, apparently innocently enough, as a desire to honor the resurrection of Christ with an annual remembrance, had grown to compete with, and ultimately replace, the practice established by Christ and taught faithfully by the apostles Paul and John and the bishops Polycarp and Polycrates. With the decree of Constantine, those who would continue to observe the 14th would suffer persecution.

The Christian observance of the New Testament Passover would have to go underground, and a spring festival on a designated Sunday, in honor of the resurrection, was now deemed orthodox.

But was this “Easter”?

But no contemporary documents refer to this new festival as “Easter.” It was still referred to as the Paschal feast at that time (pascha). The focus of the spring feast had been changed from the sacrificial death of Christ to the resurrection of Christ, and the date for its observance had been changed, but the name had not yet been changed.

Later writers and historians would freely use the word Easter, however, instead of pascha to describe the day. Translators of the King James Version of the Bible even substituted Easter for the word pascha (Passover) in Acts 12:4, but this is anachronistic and most modern translations correct this error. (See our article “Easter in the Bible? Translation Error!”)

The use of the word Easter for any reference to pascha gives the erroneous impression that the modern Easter celebration and traditions have an ancient, biblical and apostolic origin, when in fact they do not.

Even at the time of the Nicene Council in A.D. 325, when the Sunday resurrection celebration was adopted as the formal and official practice of the Roman church, it was not yet called Easter and its celebration was not encumbered with the trappings of the pagan fertility goddess.

That would soon change.

When was the name Easter first used for the celebration of the resurrection of Jesus?

The Venerable Bede wrote in De temporum ratione (The Reckoning of Time, 725) that Easter comes from Eostre, the name of an ancient Germanic goddess. He wrote that this goddess had a month of celebration devoted to her, and that Anglo-Saxon Christians in early medieval England appropriated that name for their celebration of the resurrection:

“Eosturmonath has a name which is now translated ‘Paschal month,’ and which was once called after a goddess of theirs named Eostre, in whose honour feasts were celebrated in that month. Now they designate that Paschal season by her name, calling the joys of the new rite by the time-honoured name of the old observance” (chapter 15).

So, by the 8th century, the holiday had come to be known by the nonbiblical name “Easter.” It soon followed that the symbols and traditions associated with the goddess of spring and fertility were also included in the observance of the festival.

Of course, these practices had to be transformed in some way to associate them more closely with a Christian theme. The resurrection was seen as representing new life and rebirth, and thus lent itself to associations with pagan traditions linked with rebirth, spring and fertility. A hodgepodge of nonbiblical traditions, stories and myths flooded into the Easter observance. Items with long traditions in paganism began to be attached to the Easter celebration.

“The most widely-practiced customs on Easter Sunday relate to the symbol of the rabbit (‘Easter bunny’) and the egg . . . A hare was a symbol associated with Eostre, representing the beginning of Springtime. Likewise, the egg has come to represent Spring, fertility, and renewal. In Germanic mythology, it is said that Ostara healed a wounded bird she found in the woods by changing it into a hare. Still partially a bird, the hare showed its gratitude to the goddess by laying eggs as gifts.

“The Encyclopedia Britannica clearly explains the pagan traditions associated with the egg: ‘The egg as a symbol of fertility and of renewed life goes back to the ancient Egyptians and Persians, who had also the custom of colouring and eating eggs during their spring festival.’ In ancient Egypt, an egg symbolised the sun, while for the Babylonians, the egg represents the hatching of the Venus Ishtar, who fell from heaven to the Euphrates” (Ancient-origins.net, “The Ancient Pagan Origins of Easter”).

Be sure to read our articles “Origin of Easter” and “Is Easter Pagan?

Does it matter?

Many freely acknowledge the nonbiblical traditions associated with the modern Easter celebration, but excuse them as irrelevant to the purpose and intent of the day. Millions sincerely observe the day in honor and celebration of Christ’s resurrection, with no thought of worshipping a pagan goddess.

So, what is wrong with adding some fun to a deeply meaningful celebration?

A sincere desire to serve and honor God is indeed to be commended. To recognize the importance and miracle of the resurrection is something every Christian must esteem. But the fact is that by adopting the practices of Easter, mainstream Christianity has done two things:

  1. They have abandoned the holy days and festivals God specifically commanded for His people, along with the inspiring meaning and deep instruction God desires as the focus for His people’s observance (read our article “Holy Days vs. Holidays”). This is a huge loss!
  2. They have taken practices and traditions from the worship of other gods and applied them to the worship of the true God—something God specifically commanded His people not to do (Deuteronomy 12:29-31; 2 Corinthians 6:14-17).

God desires that we worship Him in “sincerity and truth” (Joshua 24:14; 1 Corinthians 5:8). If we are truly sincere in worshipping Him, we will want to worship Him in the way He has clearly instructed—not according to the traditions of men, however well-intentioned they may be.

Jesus said to the people of His day, “All too well you reject the commandment of God, that you may keep your tradition” (Mark 7:9). Would He say the same today?

Learn the wonderful blessings of worshipping God according to the holy days He ordained. Discover the powerful and inspiring messages contained in the biblical spring festivals of the Passover and Feast of Unleavened Bread. Read our articles “What Is the Passover, and Why Is It Important?” and “Should Christians Celebrate Passover?” You’ll be glad you did.

About the Author

James Capo

James Capo

James Capo has served in the ministry of Jesus Christ for more than 30 years, and currently pastors the Tucson, Prescott Valley and Phoenix, Arizona, and Homer, Alaska, congregations of the Church of God, a Worldwide Association.

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