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Is Easter “Pagan”?

I grew up in the Church. My father was a Lutheran pastor. Through a number of interesting events I am now a member of a messianic synagogue, where Jews and Gentiles worship the God of Abraham and his messiah, Yeshua (Jesus).

I find it common in the messianic world that people find fault with “the Church” for various beliefs and practices, either because they have “abandoned the Torah”, or because they have not abandoned their former “pagan” practices. Some feel that there is nothing redeeming in the Church at all. I agree that there are some areas where the Church is not following the scripture as they should, and some areas where extra-biblical and perhaps un-biblical practices have crept in, but not everything the Church does is wrong or “pagan”.

One area where in which I have been defending the Church is the celebration of Easter.

“What?! Certainly Easter is pagan. Easter comes from the worship of the goddess Ishtar! The date is based on the spring equinox. Rabbits and eggs are symbols of fertility! It’s an unbiblical, pagan, fertility festival that has NOTHING to do with Jesus.”

Or does it?

The Name “Easter”

It is a common claim that the word “Easter” comes from the name of a Mesopotamian goddess, Ishtar. I’ve even heard that “Ishtar” is pronounced “Easter” (or vice versa.) The problem with this claim is that it is a false etymology, a popularly held belief about an origin of a word that just isn’t true. Ishtar is a middle eastern word having to do with the harvest. According to etymonline.com, Easter is from:

“Old English Easterdæg, from Eastre (Northumbrian Eostre), from Proto-Germanic *austron-, “dawn,” also the name of a goddess of fertility and spring, perhaps originally of sunrise, whose feast was celebrated at the spring equinox, from *aust- “east, toward the sunrise” (compare east), from PIE root *aus- (1) “to shine,” especially of the dawn.” (www.etymonline.com)

Now, I will concede that the word Easter, while not related to Ishtar, was the name of a pagan goddess of fertility and spring. However, it is also a word that just means “dawn,” so it isn’t necessarily pagan. It is also a German word, that has come into English, and is only used by German and English-speaking people, or in countries that were primarily evangelized by English and German-speaking missionaries.

The rest of Christendom uses a word that comes from the Greek word Πάσχα (Pascha). Pascha is a transliteration of the Aramaic word פסחא, which is a cognate of the Hebrew word פֶּסַח (Pesach). Pesach is the Hebrew word for, wait for it… PASSOVER! Most of the Church (language wise) celebrates “Passover”! Here are some examples:

French – Pâques
Italian – Pasqua
Latin – Pascha
Basque – Pazko
Portuguese – Páscoa
Greek – Pascha (Πάσχα)
Spanish is a little different: “Pascua de Resurrección”

Why “Passover”? Jesus didn’t raise from the dead on Passover, he died on Passover. He rose from the dead on one of the days of the “Feast of Unleavened Bread”. Biblically, Passover is a single day, followed by a seven-day Feast of Unleavened Bread. In Modern Judaism, though, the term “Passover” has come to mean both as a combined eight-day feast. This may date back to the time of Ezekiel 45:21

In the first month on the fourteenth day you are to observe the Passover, a festival lasting seven days, during which you shall eat bread made without yeast.

In first century Judea, when Christ was on Earth, the terms “Passover” and “Unleavened Bread” seem to be used interchangeably. For example, Matthew 26:17 ‘On the first day of the Festival of Unleavened Bread, the disciples came to Jesus and asked, “Where do you want us to make preparations for you to eat the Passover?”‘ Here, Passover is considered the first day of Unleavened Bread. In Luke 22:1, the entire festival is called Passover “Now the Festival of Unleavened Bread, called the Passover, was approaching,”. 

Jesus died and then rose from the dead during the week-long festival that the people called Passover. In Judaism, the most important part of Passover is the seder meal on the first night celebrating Israel being freed from slavery in Egypt. In the Church, the first night of Passover would be a mournful time, as they remember the death of Jesus Christ. The celebratory part of Passover would be remembering the day that He rose from the dead! This came to be the primary meaning of the word “passover” in the Church.

So, if Easter in other languages is “Pascha” (Passover), what word do they use for what we call Passover in English? Well, some just use the same word “Pascha”. In some languages, it is called “Hebrew (or Jewish) Passover”! [Italian – Pasqua ebraica. Greek – εβραϊκό Πάσχα (evraïkó Páscha)] In Spanish, Passover is the jewish one, and Passover of the Resurrection is the Christian one.

So a LOT of this “Easter is Pagan” thought simply comes out of the fact that we speak English. Being raised Lutheran, I’m going to blame Martin Luther himself for this language problem. He was probably the first one to translate the word to Easter for his German language Bible.

My recommendation to the English (and German) speaking Church is to stop calling it Easter. It may or may not be pagan, but it isn’t the best word. Using the word “Pascha” would be more in unity with the rest of the Church.

The Date of Pascha (Easter)

Pascha (Easter) is the first Sunday after the first full moon after the vernal equinox. Wow, how pagan can you get? I mean, it certainly sounds pagan. There are pagan celebrations on the vernal equinox, after all. Since “Pascha” means “Passover”, lets look at how the date of “Hebrew Passover” is determined.

The Biblical calendar is a lunar / solar calendar. The months are based on the phases of the moon, with the month beginning on the new moon. (Our english word “month” comes from the word “moon”.) The year is based on the orbit of the earth around the sun. However, 12 lunar months do NOT equal one solar year. A lunar month is between 29 and 30 days long. A 12 month lunar year is about 11 days shorter than the solar year. To adjust for this, another month must be occasionally added to the year.

In Jesus’ time, a month was added to the year based on observation of natural events.The Sanhedrin would observe the state of the barley harvest, the fruit trees, and the spring equinox to determine if a month needed to be added to that year. According to the Talmud b. Sanh. 1:1, VIII.7

Our rabbis have taught on Tannaite authority: B. On account of three signs do they intercalate the year, because of the [premature state of] the grain, because of the condition of the produce of the tree[s], and because of the lateness of the spring equinox.

They would observe these things at the end of the twelfth month. If two of these criteria were met, they would declare the next new moon to be the new year. If not, they would add a thirteenth month to the current year. The reason for this is that Passover is in the first month, and is supposed to happen in the spring. It had to actually be spring (the equinox), with spring like conditions (the grain and the trees).

(There are those that believe that biblically one should only look at the state of barley crop, which is a different subject. I believe that Genesis 1:14 shows that you can use astronomical observance for calculating the year.)

The modern Jewish calendar, however, is NOT the one used in Jesus’ time. It was published by Rabbi Hillel II in the year 359 C.E. It does not use naturally observable events, but a calculated 19 year cycle during which there are 7 “leap years”. Why did Hillel publish this calendar in 359, and what was Judaism doing between the time of Jesus and Hillel?

In Jesus’ time, the Sanhedrin, based in Jerusalem, was the sole authority over the calendar. It was their observations that determined when the new year began, and therefore the date of passover. After the Roman destruction of Jerusalem in 70 C.E., that authority was eventually lost. Diaspora communities took authority over their own calendars. Some communities would declare the new year had begun, and some would add another month. This resulted in two distinct Passovers being celebrated in Judaism. [Sasha Stern, Calendar and Community , pg 83] The publishing of the Hillel calendar brought unity to Judaism’s calendar, so that the entire diaspora would agree on the date of Passover.

During this period between Jesus and Hillel II, the Church had been relying on the Jewish calendar for their celebration of Pascha. Since there wasn’t unity in the Jewish calendar, there was also a lack of unity in the Church. In an effort to bring unity, Constantine I called for a council of bishops to be held in the city of Nicaea in 325 C.E. One of the agenda items of this council was authoritative establishment for the date of Pascha. (The word “Easter” can be found nowhere in the documents produced by this council, since they are in Latin and Greek.) The council decided to no longer rely on the Jewish calendar, which was in disarray at that time, but to establish the date on their own.

The equinox was used to determine the beginning of the year, because it was one of the conditions used by Judaism to establish the new year. It was also the most practical condition, as the Church was not growing barley in Israel. The full moon was used to determin the date of Passover, on 14 Aviv (Nissan). Since the Biblical month is based on the phases of the moon, Passover will always fall on a full moon, being the 14th day after sighting the new moon. However, Jesus wasn’t raised on Passover, but on the first day of the week after Passover, which we call “Sunday” in English. So, Pascha would be the first Sunday after the first full moon after the vernal equinox. This determination my not be perfect, but it is very reasonable, and certainly NOT pagan.

(This date is not universally recognized in the Church. The Orthodox use a different method from the Catholic and Protestant denominations. Orthodox Pascha falls after the entire week of Passover is finished.Since the Council of Nicaea happened before Hillel published the modern Jewish calendar, they don’t always agree on the date of Passover.)

Some would say that Pascha is an extra-biblical holiday, and that we are not to add anything to God’s calendar. This is just not true. Pascha, although not the biblically correct word, is a commanded holiday in Leviticus 23.

The Lord said to Moses, 10 “Speak to the Israelites and say to them: ‘When you enter the land I am going to give you and you reap its harvest, bring to the priest a sheaf of the first grain you harvest. 11 He is to wave the sheaf before the Lord so it will be accepted on your behalf; the priest is to wave it on the day after the Sabbath. 12 On the day you wave the sheaf, you must sacrifice as a burnt offering to the Lord a lamb a year old without defect, 13 together with its grain offering of two-tenths of an ephah[a] of the finest flour mixed with olive oil—a food offering presented to the Lord, a pleasing aroma—and its drink offering of a quarter of a hin[b] of wine. 14 You must not eat any bread, or roasted or new grain, until the very day you bring this offering to your God. This is to be a lasting ordinance for the generations to come, wherever you live.

This day is listed between Passover and Pentecost in Lev 23, and is also the starting day for counting up to Pentecost. The day came to be known as Yom haBikkurim, or “day of first fruits”. The apostle Paul uses this term in 1 Cor 15:20 “But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep.” All the feasts of the Lord point to the Messiah. Jesus died on Passover, because He is our passover sacrifice. He rose from the dead on “first fruits”, because He is the first fruits of the resurrection!

The Traditions of Easter

The Easter Bunny is a distinctively German tradition. It was brought to America by German immigrants. There are obvious pagan possibilities with this character. Rabbits are a sign of fertility, and there are pagan fertility festivals. The goddess Eostre is often depicted with rabbits. There used to be a belief that rabbits could reproduce and remain virgins. This is because hares (often confused with rabbits) have the ability to start a new pregnancy while still carrying the first. Because of this, the rabbit became a symbol for Mary, the mother of Jesus, and the virgin birth. It is possible, therefore, that the Christian use of the “easter bunny” has nothing to do with the rabbits association with goddess Easter, but grew out of their association with Mary.

Using eggs during the celebration of the resurrection is more universal. The Germans, Russians, and Greeks all have their version of the “easter egg”. The Greek version is not ornate, but simply an egg colored red to represent the blood of Christ. Eggs are a symbol of fertility, but they are also used on the traditional Passover Seder plate symbolizing the festival sacrifice. In the Church, eggs were not eaten during Lent, so eating of eggs on Pascha was a celebratory thing. It is actually a complicated matter which may or may not be pagan.

The Easter Basket is also complicated. Some feel that it is a pagan tradition, based on the spring equinox fertility festivals. However, it is also possible that the First Fruits offering was brought to the temple in a basket. Another possible Jewish influence is the Purim Basket. On years when the Jewish calendar doesn’t line up with the Church calendar, Pascha can fall during the holiday of Purim. During Purim, Jewish families give each gifts of food, often in a basket. Of course, the Purim basket may have been influenced by the Easter basket.

In practice, however, these three things are secular. Bunnies, eggs, and baskets were never part of any worship service in the Church when I grew up. We had them, but not in Church.

What we did have in Church was a Sunrise Service on “easter” morning. I remember getting up with my father at 5:30 a.m. to prepare for the service. We often had a special breakfast as part of the celebrations, so my mother would already be in the kitchen at the restaurant where she worked preparing food. Some say that having a service at sunrise is pagan, because that is the time when pagans would worship the sun. However, sunrise was the time that the women went to the tomb and discovered that Jesus had risen!

Chocolate isn’t pagan.

Conclusion

The name “Easter” and some of the traditions may indeed be pagan. Feel free to not use those things. The date for the celebration of the resurrection (Pascha) is very appropriate, and NOT pagan at all. It is a day that we can and SHOULD celebrate, according to scripture.

If you feel the date is erroneous, and want to follow a different calculation, that’s fine. In the messianic movement, we would follow the Hillel II calendar. This year (2018) the calendars agree. Other years they do not. Neither calendar is better than the other, and neither is “pagan”.

The bottom line is this. CHRIST IS RISEN! HE IS RISEN INDEED! HALLELUJAH!

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A Christian Nation

I comment often on news articles of interest to me concerning social ills and faith in God. Of recent I have seen some people comment that we are a Christian nation, or a nation founded on Christian principles. A popular rebuttal to those comments is the fact that the Constitution of the United States does not mention God at all. On the surface, this seems like a valid argument. If we are a Christian nation, then the Constitution should explicitly state that fact. However, there is a major problem with this line of reasoning. The Constitution of the United States of America is not the founding document of our nation. It is the founding document of our federal government. (Note that we celebrate July 4, not Sept 17.) We are a Christian nation with a non-religious government.

A nation is a group of people sharing historical, cultural, language, etc. experiences, living in a geographically defined area. We the people of the United States are a nation. Our national language is English, even if it isn’t the official language of our government, and even if not everyone speaks it. We have a Christian culture, even if it isn’t the official religion. We celebrate Christmas, even if we don’t all believe Jesus was born on that day, or even existed. Even with the supposed Separation of Church and State, the White House has a Christmas tree. They have dozens of them this year. We have a shared history predating the Constitution by over 200 years. Not everyone in our nation is Christian, but it is our history. The colonization of North America was a venture of the English Crown, a kingdom and government that most certainly acknowledged Almighty God as the source of its authority. One of the titles of the King was “defender of the faith”. There was an official church of England. Many of the charter documents of the original colonies reflect that Christian heritage.

The first settlement, Jamestown, although primarily created for business purposes, has stated in its charter “We, greatly commending, and graciously accepting of, their Desires for the Furtherance of so noble a Work, which may, by the Providence of Almighty God, hereafter tend to the Glory of his Divine Majesty, in propagating of Christian Religion to such People, as yet live in Darkness and miserable Ignorance of the true Knowledge and Worship of God, and may in time bring the Infidels and Savages, living in those parts, to human Civility, and to a settled and quiet Government: DO, by these our Letters Patents, graciously accept of, and agree to, their humble and well-intended Desires;” (http://avalon.law.yale.edu/17th_century/va01.asp)

The Mayflower compact of 1620 states “IN THE NAME OF GOD, AMEN. We, whose names are underwritten, the Loyal Subjects of our dread Sovereign Lord King James, by the Grace of God, of Great Britain, France, and Ireland, King, Defender of the Faith, &c. Having undertaken for the Glory of God, and Advancement of the Christian Faith, and the Honour of our King and Country, a Voyage to plant the first Colony in the northern Parts of Virginia;” (http://avalon.law.yale.edu/17th_century/mayflower.asp)

Other colony charters have similar language.

Readers may aptly point out that we fought a bloody war to overthrow English rule. This is most certainly true. The Declaration of Independence, however, does not mention the Church of England in its list of grievances against the crown. It does not mention Christianity either, although it does acknowledge that all rights come from a Creator. One could argue that this would make us a Deist nation. However, we did not, as a nation, throw off the bonds of Christianity, as reflected by the newly freed stated constitutions.

Deleware required that every member of the legislature make the following declaration “” I, A B. do profess faith in God the Father, and in Jesus Christ His only Son, and in the Holy Ghost, one God, blessed for evermore; and I do acknowledge the holy scriptures of the Old and New Testament to be given by divine inspiration.” Maryland, Georgia, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, and Vermont required that all representatives be Christian. New Jersey protected the religious principles of all Protestants. Maine exempted ministers of the Gospel from military service (as did New York), and stated “All men have a natural and unalienable right to worship Almighty God according to the dictates of their own ship. conscience:” (not just any God, but the Almighty). Many state constitutions state that it is the DUTY of all men to worship the Almighty God, Supreme Being, etc.

Some states, such as South Carolina, even had an official state religion “That all persons and religious societies who acknowledge that there is one God, and a future state of rewards and punishments, and that God is publicly to be worshipped, shall be freely tolerated. The Christian Protestant religion shall be deemed, and is hereby constituted and declared to be, the established religion of this State.”

These independent states formed a Union, called the United States of America. This union established a limited federal government, first via the Articles of Confederation, and later by the Constitution. These documents do little homage to God or religion, except to protect the right(s) to it. These documents, however, did not establish our nation, just our federal government.

The preamble of the constitution begins with “We the people…” We the people were a nation before the Constitution. Our nation was founded on Christian principles, even if our Federal Government was not.