The Pagan Origins of Easter
Humans possess an extraordinary capacity to make up stories and then invent evidence to believe them. For years it was widely believed that the Norwegian lemming committed mass suicide by every few years mindlessly joining their fellows in huge migrating throngs and pitching themselves off cliffs to die in the sea. This idea seemed to be supported by the wide fluctuations in Norwegian lemming populations commonly observed. Also, large numbers would sometimes be seen migrating from one area to another.
This story became so entrenched that when Disney made the acclaimed documentary “White Wilderness” in 1958 it contains a scene of dozens of lemmings hurtling over a cliff into the ocean. The problem was that the lemmings in the scene were not Norwegian lemmings but brown lemmings indigenous to Canada and the makers of the film had paid the local Natives $1 a piece for the lemmings and then forced them off a truck into the water. As a child, the picture of the little bodies flailing helplessly through the air never left me and I was convinced that lemmings committed mass suicide because I had witnessed it. The problem was the whole idea is a complete myth. It became embedded in many people’s consciousness because they had seen it.
This morning I got up early to check on a heifer that was close to calving. The clear sky sparkled with stars. I looked up and found the Big Dipper and, of course, right next to it the Little Dipper. The tail star on the handle of the Little Dipper is called Polaris or the North Star and has been used for centuries to denote “north” to travelers and sailors. Because of their association this morning I could see that the Big Dipper was slightly west of the Little Dipper. While I observed this with my own eyes I am still dependent on what I have learned from others. The whole identity of the two constellations is something I learned from my big brother when I was quite small. It appears to be confirmed by others but the fact remains that there is no knowledge that is not dependent upon previous observation and identification by other people. Nothing we know is completely independent.
A frightening thing about us humans is our ability to believe falsehood or half-truths and constantly see the world through this distorted prism. A classic example of this is the “blood libel” against Jews. This idea has existed for over 2000 years and has been written down countless times. A classic version comes from Apion who tells of a traveling Greek who was captured by foreigners (Jews) who kept him prisoner and plied him with all kinds of tempting food. He had discovered that the Jews’ intention was to prepare him for an annual ritual feast. “They would kidnap a Greek foreigner, fatten him up for a year, and then convey him to a wood, where they slew him, sacrificed his body with their customary ritual, partook of his flesh, and, while immolating the Greek, swore an oath of hostility to the Greeks. The remains of their victim were then thrown into a pit.” [Josephus, Against Apion]
This lie exists in many forms and iterations and has directly caused the death of thousands if not hundreds of thousands of Jews. Anyone who actually knows Judaism would know their complete antipathy for human sacrifice of any kind and especially the consumption of human blood. But even today millions of humans repeat this calumny in some form and use it to fan their hatred of Jews.
I am happy to confess that I am Messianic, Hebrew Roots—whatever the acceptable contemporary term being used for those who believe in the Hebraic roots of our Messianic/Christian belief and that God’s call to Israel and his instructions (Torah) are eternal. But we are developing some dangerous myths that are corrupting our message and blunting our witness.
One of the most salient of these is the idea that Easter comes from pagan sources and that the Church’s celebration of Easter does not come from the historical celebration of the death and resurrection of Yeshua (Jesus) but carries over from pagan and idolatrous practices. These ideas are so entrenched that one can even find them in supposedly credible sources such as encyclopedias.
One of the pillars of this belief lies in the term “Easter.” It is thought to be an adaptation of the goddess Ishtar or possibly Eostre. The concept is that the term reveals the actual origins of our Easter practice.
I am going to suggest a little research for you. First google the original documents from the Nicaean Council and see the actual term used to describe Easter (the time of Constantine.) Then check out the Latin, Greek, Aramaic, Italian synonyms for Easter. You will note that all of the historic Church languages do not have the word Easter nor any cognate for it. The word is Pasch or Pascha a derivative of the Hebrew Pesach. Easter is an English, Germanic word some believe derived from the goddess Eostre or even just the direction “East.” By the time Tyndale translated the Bible in the early 1500s the word Easter was so associated with the Resurrection he refused to use the word Easter to describe the celebration of Pesach in the book of Exodus and he coined the term Passover which for a lot of reasons is a great approximation of the Hebrew Pesach. English Jews of Tyndale’s day even called their Passover fast “Oesterfesten.” You can check all these facts out.
So Easter is an older word than Passover. Those telling you that Easter is pagan and the Bible prescribes Passover are victims of linguistic manipulation. Because the English, German and Dutch churches use the term “Easter” the next research you can do is to find out if these churches do different things at Easter than the traditional churches based in Rome, Athens, and Istanbul. Check out the liturgical history of Easter observance. You will discover Lent, the stations of the cross, emphasis on Yeshua (Jesus) as the Paschal Lamb and voluminous scripture readings including Exodus 12 where God gave the instructions for Pesach. What you won’t discover is any substantive difference between the churches using the term Easter versus those using Pasch or Pascha. Nor will you find any evidence of Ishtar, Asherah, Semiramis, etc. Scholars such as Tyler Dawn Rosenquist have done extensive research on these so-called associations and debunked all of them.
The association of eggs with both the Jewish Passover Seder and the celebration of Easter is ancient but its exact derivation is unclear. It appears to be associated with the idea of new life. It is not necessarily pagan. The bunnies are a very late addition, not present in all Christian tradition, and obviously a distraction. My suggestion is avoid the distractions.
One of the things that we Messianics ignore is that as believers in Yeshua HaMashiach (Jesus the Christ) our emphasis has shifted. All four gospels expend considerable effort showing Yeshua as the Passover Lamb slain for the sin of the world. Paul corroborates this concept in 1 Corinthians 5:7 where he states “Christ our Passover” before admonishing us to celebrate the Feast. Excoriating Christians for gathering to celebrate the crucifixion and resurrection of the Lamb of God is counterproductive and plain wrong.
We keep the Passover Seder every year on the traditional Jewish dates and have gained much from doing so. The Last Supper of Yeshua looks very much like a Seder admitting that the formal Seder traditions we have now were not present at that time. My point is trashing one tradition to exalt another is counterproductive. It is lashon hara (evil speech) designed to divide the brethren. Those of us who celebrate the Seder realize that we are, at best, merely rehearsing. The Bible dictates that the true celebration of Pesach take place in Jerusalem and requires a functioning Temple.
Finally worship is intentional. We don’t accidentally worship God or idols. One of the sacred names of God is Yah. It is the term we use when we say Hallelujah—praise the Lord. German speakers invoke “ja” numerous times every day saying this exact word. Are they calling upon the Lord? Of course not. There is no worship without intent.
We can do wrong unintentionally or out of ignorance but there are no accidental pagans. Calling something Christians do out of reverence for their Passover Lamb and from the joy they experience celebrating his Resurrection is not only wrong it is hateful and counterproductive. We can disagree with something and not believe the worst about those who practice things we don’t like.
Sadly, the emphasis on the so-called paganism of the early church has robbed us of the church’s real sin—anti-semitism. So much of what went wrong and that has stained our past comes from this great sin. Study of the early church fathers and on down through the generations reveals that this is not an empty accusation. The changing of dates, methods of celebration and a general movement away from Biblical practice is much more connected to our “hatred” for our fathers (the Jews) than paganism. It is probably good to remember that slander is wrong—whether speaking of our enemies or of our friends. In the beatitudes Yeshua tells us that if we want to look like our Father, to truly be his children, we will be peacemakers. My prayer is that we could all become peacemakers in God’s family.
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