A few years ago I first saw an infographic running around Facebook about Easter and its “pagan origins”. I was intrigued by this accusation. I knew that it often came from Messianic and Hebraic Roots communities, but since I try to entertain other views, I did some serious digging.
I want to add that Josh and I have been in a Messianic bible study for the last two years (a more balanced one than most), so I am familiar with the arguments for Jewish feasts instead of church holidays. But as always, I like to read original sources for myself. This podcast episode is the summation of that research, the sources for which are all compiled in the Easter ebook.
Hey, friends. I’m recording this right before our Easter celebration. In fact, it’s Good Friday today, one of the most special, powerful days in Christian history. Some would argue it is the most powerful day but church history shows us that Resurrection and Easter day was the ultimate clincher in that regard. Is that the first time we’ve ever heard Resurrection day referred to as a clincher? Maybe, but it’s the truth and I’m excited to join you today to talk about the history of Easter. So, if you grabbed my Easter eBook, The Celebration Guide that I released in the last Every Woman A Theologian shop, then you already know a lot of this. But if you didn’t, this will be new to you probably, a little history of Easter, where it came from, why we celebrate it, how it used to be celebrated, and a little bit about the bunnies and the eggs.
I am super passionate about celebrating the holidays that are part of Christian history and legacy. I think so much of the richness of these holidays has been forgotten in the past due to denominational conflicts, due to corruption in church history, and even due to ignorance and the lack of church history education today. Many people don’t actually know the origins of these holidays. So, it’s really easy to get sucked in by posts on Instagram about their pagan roots, and how they’re not actually Christian at all without realizing that even those posts have a very specific theological bias, often towards celebrating Jewish holidays, not recognizing the roots in biblical authority and Christian church history that the Christian holidays have.
In this little discussion of Easter, I want to hopefully encourage you by the end of it to see that this holiday has been distinctly Christian from the beginning, distinctly gospel centered, and what’s even better, it still is, every Easter. Even as people run around chasing eggs in their yards and talking about the Easter Bunny, ultimately, they’re celebrating a holiday that is all about Jesus. For the entire world to recognize something like this is really quite powerful and I think it’s something for us to celebrate. In fact, it’s something I think of every Christmas too. That whether people recognize it or not, Christmas is a time that celebrates the birth of Jesus Christ. Easter is a time that celebrates His Resurrection. That means that the gospel from the beginning of Jesus life to the end of it is being celebrated by the entire world. Wow, that’s amazing.
Let’s look at a little bit of this history, because if you’re like I was a few years ago, you probably are wondering how we got from Resurrection Sunday to bunnies and eggs. Let’s start with the Last Supper. The Last Supper was Jesus’ last Passover. This is pretty basic. It’s pretty obvious in the text, that this meal that was shared with Jesus’ disciples right before His betrayal was the Passover that Jesus would have been celebrating as a Jewish man. Since early Christians were mostly Jewish, they naturally continued to celebrate Passover, but tended to integrate the celebration of Christ’s death and Resurrection into the holiday. So, this would be much like we see Messianic Jews do today.
However, it didn’t take very long into the first century for controversy to arise. So, this is in the first 100 years to 300 years after Jesus ascended. As so many Gentiles began to join the church, there came to be a divide between those who celebrated a Messianic Passover with the Jewish traditions, and those who observed the resurrection without the Jewish traditions. So, clearly, there’s a lot of influence from the original Jewish holiday over and on the Easter holiday right from the beginning. In fact, we see really strong similarities right out of the gate such as a short three-day fast before the meal, a vigil the night before the celebration, and a feast. These things are all characteristics of Passover or as it was celebrated in the first century, and they carried over to the Christian celebration of Jesus’ Resurrection.
In fact, one of the earliest glimpses we have of an Easter celebration is found in the writings of Melito, who was a Jewish convert to Christianity, and he wrote about Easter in his work on Pascha. So, Pascha comes from the Hebrew Pesach, which is a term for the Passover sacrificial lamb. Now, this is obviously centered around that first century celebration of Easter, its differences and its divergence from the Jewish Passover. But a couple hundred years after that, we came to see a controversy in the church that eventually caused a pretty distinct split over Easter itself. This controversy was called the quartodeciman controversy or the 14th controversy, and it had to do with the date that Easter was celebrated. The quartodeciman controversy was a turning point for the church’s treatment of Passover. It had to do with the date the holiday was celebrated. Christians at that time were celebrating Easter according to the Jewish Passover date, the 14th of Nisan. Other Christians, however, were celebrating Easter a week later. So, the quartodecimans were celebrating Pascha on the 14th. They weren’t celebrating Passover in the Jewish sense. They were still celebrating the Resurrection of Christ. So, they had echoes of Passover in their celebration, but it was not a Passover Seder.
Now, of course, with this controversy, you’ve got some Christian celebrating a week after Passover, some following the Jewish calendar to determine when Easter should be, and this created such a controversy within the church that it eventually led to the Nicene Council making a firm statement about which date it actually had to be. It was decided that Easter’s date would be determined to be the first Sunday after the full moon, after the spring equinox. So, today, Eastern Christian, so Eastern Orthodox Christians use the Julian calendar to calculate Easter’s date. So, they have a little bit of a different Easter date, and even though the succession of Holy Week events is the same, but otherwise, Christians as a whole use this same method for determining Easter state each year, and it goes all the way back to the 300 CE.
So, what was different than after this date change? What was the big problem here? Why were people fighting about this? A lot of it had to do with the separation of Jews and Gentiles. There’s no question that there was antisemitism happening in the early church and throughout church history, it has happened, and it is a stain on the church’s legacy, something that we have to wrestle with, and we have to reconcile, and understand that it is not God’s heart for us to be antisemitic towards the Jews. It breaks His heart, it’s resulted in great cruelty and pain, and it’s something that has to be reconciled, it has to be wrestled with. However, antisemitism was probably at play in some of these instances. There was also the simple fact that the Christian religion is and was different from Judaism, and the Jews were not appreciative of the Christians co-opting their Passover and making it into a celebration of Jesus. Further, as the Christians and the Jews noticed this divergence and saw what was happening, it became very difficult for fellowship to happen. And so, quickly as the Gentiles came into the church, the Jewish influence tended to fall away and this Easter celebration became to be a distinct church holiday. Now, it wasn’t called Easter, it was still called Pascha, which is the word that goes back to the Jewish Passover. But we’re going to get to where Easter came from in a second.
What was this original Easter celebration like? According to Melito, we just talked about, Exodus 12 was read, very similar to the Jewish celebration, and sometimes the Old Testament prophets. There was a vigil that was kept to you, you actually stayed up till midnight. Can you imagine doing a midnight vigil for Easter? We don’t do that that much in Protestant churches anymore, at least nonliturgical ones. The celebration then began to break the fast. The date again at that time was the same as Passover, and it was distinct because for people like Melito, the death of the Lord at the same time as in in the place of the death of the Passover lambs was the fulfillment of the Passover to Christians at that time. They believed that Jesus was the fulfillment of Passover. This continues to be the Christian view for the most part today, that Easter is the fulfillment of so much of what we see in the Old Testament, which would be the Jewish Scriptures. This is why there is such a distinction between the celebration of Easter as a very distinctly Christian holiday and Passover among the Jews. There are Christians, who have in recent years, in the last century or so, begun to celebrate Passover, and I’m not talking about Messianic Jews, but I’m talking about Gentiles, who have begun to adopt a Passover as a part of their holiday celebrations.
I’m not going to get too much into the history of this on this particular podcast, but one thing that I would encourage is if you know anyone who is Jewish, especially, someone who is not a Christian and Jewish, I would just encourage you to ask them their perspective on this. Because in the work that I do, I am blessed to be able to talk with a range of people surrounding issues like Christian celebrating Passover. While I think many Christians today are very eager to jump in with both feet and connect to the Jewish roots of Christianity, it would behoove us to stop first and talk to our Jewish friends about how they feel about this. Certainly, Messianic Jewish friends would probably be wholeheartedly excited to welcome you into that. But before you go and start practicing Passover in your own home or adding Christian elements to it, look at the whole conversation. Do a little research into how the Jews feel about this as a whole, because it’s a much bigger conversation than you might think, and more complicated than you might think. I know many of you are like, “What? We need to talk about this more,” but that’s not why I’m here. We’re not talking about Messianic Christianity here. I just want to encourage you to do a little more research and talk to a variety of people about that before integrating it into your home culture, just to get the full range of views on the topic.
All right, back to Easter. I want to read to you a little bit from Father Michael Sadgrove who is talking about Easter’s date and the importance of Easter day. I thought this was a fascinating quote from him. It’s a little bit long, but I think it gives us a little bit of intriguing information regarding why the date of Easter is important. The reason that Father Sadgrove was talking about this was because Pope Francis in 2016 was talking about having Easter’s date permanently fixed in the calendar, and Father Sadgrove disagreed. So, I thought I’d read some of his perspective on why we need to keep the date of Easter the way it is now. He says, “Firstly, Easter’s origins go back centuries before the Christian era itself. Easter day falls on the first Sunday after the Paschal moon which is the first full moon after the spring equinox. It’s the Paschal moon that determines the date of the Jewish Passover on the night following 14 Nisan. So, the Christian Easter is hardwired to Judaism and the Festival of Passover. This is made much of in the New Testament where the passion and resurrection accounts are shot through with Passover imagery. It’s not too much to say that the entire biblical theology of Jesus’ death and resurrection is premised on it, we should not sacrifice it.
Second, this close relationship between the Jewish and Christian calendars is a vital link between our two faith traditions. Holy Week and Easter texts have always had a special regard for Jewish rites and ceremonies taking place at precisely the same time of year. Our two faiths are uniquely held together by Scripture, history, covenant, and also by our common observance of time. It would be a bad mistake to weaken the calendar goal and liturgical threads that bind us together.
Third, the calculation of Easter involving as it does the movements of Sun, Moon, and Earth gives our feasts and fasts a dimension that is nothing less than cosmic astronomy and our concept of time comes into things. It tells us what we do as a people of faith is intimately connected to physical science and mathematics. You could say that the universe is aware of and interested in when and how we celebrate the Passion and Resurrection of Jesus. That is to say, Easter is of cosmic importance. It involves the whole of creation. It isn’t any old date in springtime that happens to sue us. I believe our capacity for religious imagination is at stake here, the prosaic second or third Sunday in April could never capture the rich theology that I’ve outlined. Easter would be cut adrift from a truly ancient religious history.”
I thought that was a beautiful perspective on this, especially given how far back this date goes, deciding the date in including keeping it connected to Passover in this intimate way, even though it’s not determined by the Jewish calendar.
We’ve already discussed how the Paschal or Easter celebrations began. But you might be wondering, “Well, why did Easter change its name or how has it changed over the years?” We have seen some changes to the celebrations. At the beginning, it was the three day fast, the vigil and the feast. So, similar to Passover. But as time went on, it developed very quickly into a 50-day event. Yes, 50 days, and this was even before Lent. Well, Lent developed to go into more of a holiday in the Middle Ages, where the emphasis left Jesus’ Resurrection and emphasized more His death and the mourning surrounding that period, there came to be these elaborate middle age or medieval plays that depicted his suffering, and this all fed into the drama of Lent in those years.
If you’re not a Catholic, you’re looking back on that as a pretty distinctly Catholic practice, and because of the Catholic overtures with the holiday, most of the reformers such as Martin Luther, Calvin, Zwingli rejected the celebrations after the reformation. The Puritans did not celebrate it, Baptists did not celebrate Easter before the 20th century. One Baptist pastor even said, “We have no such holiday.” This shocked me when I found this out, you guys. I was like, the Baptists have probably been dressing up in their pink suits and hats for a long time. Easter’s been around as long as the Baptists have been around, right? No, it was actually the Women’s Missionary Union, which brought Easter to American denominations, particularly Baptists to raise money for evangelism, and that wasn’t until I believe the 1930s. So, pretty, pretty late.
Meanwhile, the liturgical traditions in churches preserved those ancient Passover type celebrations and the holidays connected to that. So, at first, it was a tritium, the three-day holiday, like I just mentioned with that prayer vigil. Then, it became that 50-day holiday with the longer fasts to commemorate Jesus’ time in the wilderness and to mourn His crucifixion. This eventually is what became Lent. But during this period of Lent, this was so cool, they use that time to train new converts and Christian doctrine leading up to their baptism on Resurrection Sunday. Yes, it was a time for discipleship. What’s super awesome is that, Easter was a huge day for baptisms. I didn’t grow up where churches used Easter as a day for baptisms, and I super, super love this concept. The church we attend now is baptizing on Easter, and I think that is just amazing, because it’s returning back to how Easter was originally meant.
As time continued on, the Catholic church added a holiday, Fat Tuesday, which you may also know as Mardi Gras, and this is when you would use up all the meat and dairy products that would be fasted during Lent. So, you’re basically bingeing on all the good stuff, and then taking that fast during Lent. Then you also of course had Ash Wednesday. It launches you into Lent. So, these two parts of the Easter celebration were done away with for the reformers. The reformers got rid of those two, and they kept the holy weekdays. So, Monday, Thursday, that’s when the crucifixion happened or when Jesus started his walk to the crucifixion, Good Friday, and then you have, of course, Resurrection, Sunday. Holy Saturday and Resurrection Sunday.
Today, we’ve seen a bit of a return to Lent as a celebration to prepare our hearts for Easter day. I believe this draw back to the liturgical traditions is a good thing in many ways. I believe that it’s showing us that we as Christians have a fantastic, and beautiful, and rich legacy that many of us have no idea about because so many Protestant churches, so many non-Catholic or non-liturgical churches, don’t talk about our history. And I don’t think that’s necessarily intentional or anyone’s fault. I think the focus is on other things, but as you guys know and I say constantly, when we know our history, it explains so much of where we are today, and it connects us to the theology that makes up our faith.
So, you may be asking, “Where did Easter eggs come from?” So, we’ve got this rich, beautiful history, but where did the Easter eggs come from? Well, Lent had a lot to do with that. As we’ve talked about, fasting was a big part of the Easter celebration early on, and the fasts varied in duration from church to church, but most were just a few days prior to Easter, and then that was expanded of course, to be the season of Lent, those 40 days.
In the medieval times, Lent and fasts were very strict. You would abstain from all meat and dairy products including eggs. But eggs could be boiled to preserve them longer, and then when you broke the fast on Easter, what did you use to break your fast? Eggs. Painting of eggs came later, that came from other sources. We see it as a celebration of Easter in Ukraine as one example. My daughter just recently got a gift in the mail from a friend of mine, who recently traveled to Ukraine– or not recently, but before COVID traveled to Ukraine, and she sent Adeline some gifts from Ukraine, including a little box of chocolates, and on the package, it talked about how Easter eggs are a celebration of resurrection in Ukraine. They are a symbol of new life. So, they came to represent resurrection, new life being born, being something new, being born out from this old shell breaking free from that shell. And because of the fast from eggs as well, eggs came to be associated with Easter.
Here is the elephant in the room question. Is Easter pagan? Perhaps you’ve seen these little graphics going around Instagram, going around Facebook saying that, Easter is a pagan holiday, that it’s for Goddess worship, that it’s not rooted in Scripture at all, and I hope by now, you guys have seen that, that’s not true. That Easter has all along been a holiday that is rooted in Christian tradition, is rooted in Scripture, in the story of the gospels and connected to Passover in many ways. So, where then does this accusation come from? Well, it has to do with the word ‘Easter’ itself. Because the word ‘Easter’ is connected to the name. Eostre, it’s E-O-S-T-R-E-, a Goddess in Anglo-Saxon pantheons. The first mention of this is by the Venerable Bede, who was a monk in somewhere in Anglo-Saxon-y Britain area, and he wrote this in about the 800s, mentioning this Goddess and how Easter as a holiday was associated with the month that is in Her name. Because of this mention, people have taken this to mean that Easter itself as a holiday, is a pagan holiday, it is not Christian, and it should not be celebrated.
When I was doing research for the eBook on Easter and for this episode, you guys, I dug through so many scholarly articles and books to get an answer on this, because I wanted to be sure. I wanted to be sure that what I was communicating to you was true. There is absolutely no doubt that Easter as it is rooted in church history is a Christian holiday. There are absolutely no grounds for this accusation that it is a pagan holiday. In fact, what is super fascinating is that the only places where Easter has this name rooted in the Goddess Easter or Eostre are in countries that have been affected by that Anglo-Saxon pantheon. So, Britain, Germany, areas in that portion of the world. Anywhere else you go, if you were to go to the Netherlands, or Sweden, Albania, Spain, Italy, France, Wales, all of their names for Easter as a holiday go back to the original word for the holiday, which is Pascha taken from Hebrew. That should tell you something. That should tell you that if every person who’s celebrating Easter in all of these different countries has a word for Easter that actually goes back to the original Hebrew in the Passover connection, that should tell you something about that holiday, that it is not a pagan holiday. It is a holiday rooted in the biblical truths about the Resurrection of Jesus right at the Jewish Passover.
Dr. Taylor Marshall sums this issue up well. He says, “The Catholic Church does not formally call the feast Easter but rather Pascha, and the word is derived from the Aramaic word for Passover. Only English and Germanic lands use the term related to Easter. The Anglo-Saxons called the spring equinox, Easter. It was an astronomical description. Since pagans ceremoniously celebrate astronomical events as holy days, the natural phenomenon, the spring equinox and the religious feast were indistinguishable. Anglo-Saxons didn’t borrow the name of a Goddess for the feast of Christ’s resurrection. They simply denoted it by the name of the natural phenomenon, the spring equinox, which they called Easter, since the festival is calculated by marking the spring equinox. It happens that the name of the Goddess and the name of the feast are etymologically connected. This would confirm the exact context of the Venerable Bede’s words, Easter month, which is now interpreted as the Paschal month was formerly named after the Goddess Eostre, and it has given its name to the festival.” Does that make sense? I hope so. Basically, the spring equinox was called by the Goddess is named in Anglo-Saxon culture. When the Anglo-Saxons were exposed to Christianity and learned about Easter, and when it was celebrated, they simply denoted the Paschal celebration by the spring equinoxes name, which was Easter. It does not mean that the holiday itself is pagan.
All right, so what about the Easter Bunny? Where does that come from? Have you guys ever seen those like 1960s Easter Bunnies that are super creepy? Because I have. They’ll give you nightmares. But maybe you’re like, “Okay, this makes sense. The eggs make sense, the history makes sense, but where did the bunnies come from?” Good question. What I found my research on this totally blew my mind because I did not expect it to go this direction. Apparently, from very early on, the Virgin Mary has been associated with the hare, which is often mistaken for a rabbit. Yes, you heard right. If you search Virgin Mary art with a rabbit, you will find multiple pieces of art that have her present with a white rabbit. I feel this is a setup for a movie or something. It’s just so fascinating. This may be because of the association between the rabbit’s fertility and Mary’s. It’s also associated with Mary’s purity. Rabbits have been co-opted by other religions and pagan celebrations as a symbol of fertility. So, same as in the celebrations of Ostara or Easter in Anglo-Saxon culture. So, it should not surprise us that Christian symbolism is copied or twisted in other traditions. Also, since rabbits were an additional symbol to Easter’s meaning, not a core value, their presence surrounding Easter does not make the holiday pagan. It just means that Christians took rabbits to reflect a certain principle that’s inherent to Easter, just as pagans took them to represent their own principle.
So, the idea of the Easter Bunny as distinctly pagan or part of folklore was actually popularized by Jacob Grimm in the 18th century. There’s actually no evidence for the statement that he made about it, and it was Grimm’s popularization of the idea of an Easter Bunny plus traditions from German immigrants, which led to the commercialized Easter Bunny that we know today. You guys know things in culture, how things get picked up and added on to and twisted. It’s like Valentine’s Day. If you guys read my Valentine’s Day free PDF for that holiday, where I talked about the history of it and how we celebrate it now, it’s the same exact thing. Where there was this beautiful, rich story of a Christian martyr, and eventually, it gets mentioned off hand by a medieval poet, and suddenly, it’s this holiday about love and romance and cupids. All it took was this one reference from this one person, and it gets completely blown off into something that it never actually was. So, we need to just give some of our forefathers some grace here on this issue, because originally, the rabbits were just a symbol of something. They were not laying eggs to distract from the holiday.
All right, you guys, I hope that this gave you a little bit of background for Easter that perhaps answered a few questions. If you would like to read more or have this in a transcript form plus have tons of links for my favorite Easter books, what we read to our kids, passages to read about Easter, I know that the holiday is over when this episode comes out, but maybe you want to use the rest of this week to still concentrate on it, and still talk about it, and teach it, I’ve actually included a playlist in the Easter eBook that you can use. So, I will link that in the show notes. You can find it on phyliciamasonheimer.com. If you click Shop, it’ll be the first eBook that pops up. It’s only $5, includes all the links to our favorite books, all my favorite Easter crafts, passages, the playlist link, and so much more. I hope that it’s an encouragement to you and to your family to celebrate the beauty of this holiday and the Resurrection of Christ, and what Christ did on our behalf.
Because you guys, this is the big day for Christians. This is, as Paul said in 1 Corinthians 15, this is the turn key point. This is what everything rides on, and in fact, I’m just going to close this out by reading from 1 Corinthians 15, because I think it really points out the importance of what happened on the cross, but more importantly, what happened at the Resurrection. Paul says, “Now, Christ has been raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? If there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain.” I just love that he points this out. And he says in verse 20, “But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep. For as by a man came death, by a man has come also the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive.” That’s our hope you guys. I’ll see you next week.