Pascha, Easter, and Paganism

It's the season of Easter, a time to celebrate the resurrection of Jesus. You might be thinking, "but Eric, you're late! Easter already happened!" Only for some us. The Eastern Orthodox still use the Julian Calendar for its liturgy, and their Easter is this weekend. So I'm posting this on a Good Friday.

Not only is it a time to celebrate the resurrection of Jesus, but it's also that time of year that people come out and start talking about how Christian Easter is the takeover of a pagan holiday. If you do a quick search on Google, you will find plenty of people saying so. If you're curious and want to know what they're saying, go ahead and take a look, but then come on back. You'll see people writing about how Christian Easter is based on pagan Eostre, or perhaps Ishtar, about Easter eggs, the Easter bunny, and hot cross buns. It all very effectively taps into that part of our brains that loves conspiracy theories.

However, it's wrong. For a resource, I generally recommend Peter Gainsford's posts Easter and Paganism Part 1 and Easter and Paganism Part 2. For a takedown of the idea that Easter is based on Ishtar, I recommend Spencer McDaniel, No, Easter Is Not Named after Ishtar. These are good posts, but I feel like one aspect of Gainsford's presentation needs to be seriously tweaked. As far as I know, he's not factually incorrect on anything, but he (and many) aren't quite looking at something correctly. Here's the paragraph I want to call out:

Easter was being celebrated by Christians in Rome by the mid-100s CE. In the 150s there was a dispute between the Roman Christians, led by pope Anicetus, and an Anatolian group called the Quartodecimans, led by Polycarp. The disagreement was over whether Christians should celebrate the crucifixion according to the Hebrew lunar calendar, at the Jewish Passover (on the 14th day of the Hebrew month of Nisan: quartodecimani = ‘14th-ers’). The Roman Christians, who were predominantly gentiles, preferred to have Easter fall on the right day of the week. Anicetus and Polycarp didn’t settle the matter, but they agreed to disagree.

The source he is pulling this from is Eusebius' Church History, book 5, chapter 23 and 24, if you want to read it for yourself.

But here's the thing: if someone asks "When did Christians first celebrate Easter?", they're already looking at it wrongly. Why? When Anicetus and Polycarp were chatting, they would have been using the word πάσχα/pascha. Understanding why helps a great deal.


What is Pascha? Let's see it in use.

In this manner you shall eat it: with your belt fastened, your sandals on your feet, and your staff in your hand. And you shall eat it in haste. It is the Lord’s Pesach/Passover/Pascha. Exodus 12:11

This "Passover" is an event that the Jews were commanded to observe yearly in remembrance of their exodus from bondage in Egypt. It was to be celebrated on the 14th day of the Hebrew month of Nisan (Exod 12:6). If you were reading that and other texts about the Jewish Passover in Hebrew, you would see the word pesach/פסח, not "Passover" (English). If you check your Septuagint, you'll generally see pascha/πάσχα. If you check your Latin Vulgate, you'll either see pascha or you'll see them translate it (rather than transliterate it) as something like transitus Domini, or "passing over of the Lord." And just in case you're wondering about it, the Greek and Latin πάσχα/pascha is more closely related to the Aramaic pascha/פסחא, which is why you have the vowel differences between pacha and pesach. So the Hebrews have this annual event called Pascha that they are supposed to remember, established hundreds of years before Christianity was born.

Now we fast forward a long time so I can ask a question. When do you think the apostle Peter was present at his first Pascha? I assume it was before he turned one year of age. He wasn't an apostle at that point, but since the Jews had been celebrating Pascha for hundreds of years, this seems likely. What about James, John, Philip, Simon, and Jesus? Probably the same. For example, as setup for a story, In Luke 2:41 we have the statement that Jesus' parents went up to Jerusalem every year to celebrate the Passover. This is something we would expect.

Pascha occurs several times in the Gospels. The last occurrence is extremely important. Let's look at Luke's account.

14 And when the hour came, he reclined at table, and the apostles with him. 15 And he said to them, “I have earnestly desired to eat this Pascha/Passover with you before I suffer. 16 For I tell you I will not eat it until it is fulfilled in the kingdom of God.” 17 And he took a cup, and when he had given thanks he said, “Take this, and divide it among yourselves. 18 For I tell you that from now on I will not drink of the fruit of the vine until the kingdom of God comes.” 19 And he took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to them, saying, “This is my body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” 20 And likewise the cup after they had eaten, saying, “This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood. (Luke 22:14–20, ESV)

So we have this very important religious event happening, and Jesus celebrates it with his disciples. The Hebrews had been celebrating this event for hundreds of years. That Jesus would celebrate this with his disciples is exactly what we should expect. But this particular celebration is not typical at all. In fact, in the middle of this Pascha, Jesus sets up a new rite, or practice, for his disciples. And not only that, he is betrayed later that night, and then crucified. This is an unusual Pascha! And then three days later, the disciples start saying that they've seen Jesus alive and believe that he was raised from the dead! This is an extremely unusual Pascha.

When Did The Christians First Celebrate Pascha?

When did the Christians first celebrate Pascha? After the launch of this new thing that would later be called "Christianity," when do you think the disciples decided to start celebrating Pascha? Since the earliest followers were Jews, these people had been celebrating Pascha their entire lives. Answer: they would have celebrated it the next year. This is especially true since their Lord had imbued it with new significance the previous year by the establishment of the Lord's Supper, and had died, and been raised from the dead during Pascha week. Would they have celebrated it the same way that they had always celebrated it before? Unlikely. Can I prove this by documentary evidence? No. But to me it's inconceivable that this isn't the case. It's unreasonable to think that these Jewish Christians stopped celebrating Pascha.

In other words, asking when the Christians first celebrated Pascha doesn't even make sense as a question. You might ask how their celebration of Pascha changed over time. That's a great question. You might ask at what point some decided to stop celebrating on the 14th of Nisan and make sure it's celebrated on a Sunday, the change that caused the discussion between Anicetus and Polycarp mentioned above. Phenomenal question. When did they begin celebrating Pascha? I submit to you that this is not a good question because the answer is obvious.

Okay, Now Easter

As Gainsford (and others) very helpfully point out, our first record of Pascha being called something like Easter is roughly seven hundred years later in Bede's On the Reckoning of Time, and you can read the chapter here in English or in Latin, whichever you prefer. Here's the relevant part:

We do not stray away from the topic if we now deal with interpreting the name of all others of their months. The months called Giuli get their name from the return of the sun towards the increase of the day, because one of them comes before and the other follows it. Solmonath can be told to be the months of cakes, which they then offered to their gods; Rhedmonath is named after their god Rheda, to whom they sacrificed at that time; Eosturmonath, which is now interpreted as the month of Easter, once held its name from their goddess called Eostre, for whom they then celebrated festivals, and by whose name they now refer to the time of Easter: they call the joys of the new solemnity by the customary name of the old observance. Thrimilchi was thus named because the beasts were then milked thrice a day. For such was then the of fruitfulness of Britain or of Germany, whence the English nation came into Britain. Lida means “gentle” or “navigable” because on both these months the quiet breezes are gentle, and they then used to sail the calm seas. Weodmonath is the month of tares, because there are great plenty of them at that time. Halegmonath is the month of holy rites. Winterfylleth can be expressed by a new compound name, the winter-full-moon. Blotmonath is the month of immolations, because they then devoted to their gods the beasts that were to be slaughtered. Thanks to thee, good Jesus, who turned us away from this nonsense and granted us to offer thee praises in sacrifice.

Note that Bede doesn't say "we picked up some great ideas from this pagan festival" or "now that I am here, I can see our celebration was stolen from this pagan festival." What he actually says is that this month already had a name based on a god they worshipped, and they decided to keep that name even if they don't worship that goddess. And to this day, it's apparently only the English and Germans who use a name derived from Eostre. Everyone else still use Pascha or a derivative thereof. So this is mostly nonsense that us English and German speakers have to put up with.

Also, Bede lived in Northumbria in England. First century Judea, the birthplace of Christianity, is separated geographically from this place and temporally by a great distance. This is our only ancient record of this. That's it. There is no evidence that Christianity created Easter out of a pagan ceremony.

It is absurd.

So where did Christianity's observation of Pascha come from? Easy. Pascha, the Jewish Passover. It's in the name. Christian Pascha/Easter is a transformation of the Jewish Pascha.


So what about Ishtar? Even though the modern popular connection between Ishtar of antiquity and Easter seems to be the fault of the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason & Science , the source of this connection is apparently a 19th century Protestant named Alexander Hislop fishing for ways to critique to the Catholic Church. I looked this one up, and you can see a later edition of this fellow's book on Being nice, I even linked you directly to the page in which he begins his discussion of Easter. I'll just quote the first three sentences.

Then look at Easter. What means the term Easter itself? It is not a Christian name. It bears its Chaldean origin on its very forehead.

In other words, our Easter comes from Ishtar because they sound the same. This is absurd. I won't waste any more of my time on this. Read the pieces by Spencer and Gainsford above.

In Conclusion

Unfortunately, this all comes from people repeating nonsense because they haven't taken the time to look at this historically. And since it's repeated a lot, people assume it's true. Unfortunate. For all the less important items, like Easter bunnies and eggs, read the linked items above. They're very interesting. But even if it were true that Easter was the takeover of a pagan festival, it wouldn't bother me too much. It would be a trophy of just one of the many gods that Jesus has put under his feet.

Two final notes. If you're interested in some good reading on the Pascha chronology in the Gospel accounts and language about the celebrations, I cannot more highly commend Brant Pitre's Jesus and the Last Supper. Chapter four alone is worth the cost of the book.

And finally, this whole issue is a good but small reminder of the importance of knowing something of these ancient languages. Nothing in this post requires great language skill, but just some exposure helps. The worlds of the ancient Hebrews, of early imperial Rome, and early medieval England are very different than our own. Language study helps break down those barriers to understanding.

And with that I will end. Happy Pascha!

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