Every year around Easter my inbox starts to get flooded with questions germane to the holiday. I have noticed that each year there is typically a “soup du jour” question that is most popular within our culture. For example, a few years ago the questions were all related to whether or not the remains of Jesus had been discovered in an ossuary (burial box). And, no, such a discovery was not made. This year I am receiving a number of questions and observing quite a bit of traffic on the Internet and social media as to whether or not Easter is actually a pagan holiday.
Before I address that question, let me make it clear that the biblical accounts crucial to Christianity (e.g. the virgin birth, death on a cross, and resurrection of Jesus) in no way are metaphorical products from supposed earlier, pagan religions. I recently read a piece in the British paper The Guardian that claims Christianity is nothing more than symbolic imagery borrowed from paganism. The death of Jesus comes from a Sumerian goddess who hung naked on a stake and was raised from the underworld; the virgin birth relates to a belief in the ancient Cybele Cult, etc. However, the evidence reveals such a perspective to be nothing more than presumptive conjecture. To say that Christian holidays are actually pagan holidays in a way that means Christianity is actually an offshoot of paganism is not correct and furthermore is not even honest. The death and resurrection of Jesus are documented by eyewitness accounts in ancient texts that withstand the scrutiny of credibility far better than any other ancient text of that time.
With that understood let me return to the question: Does Easter have roots in a pagan holiday? Research the topic and you will find a wide divergence of opinion even in conservative, evangelical circles. Many believe that the term “Easter” comes from the early Anglo-Saxon word “Eostre” which was used for both the name of a goddess who represented fertility and the arrival of spring as well the name for the month of April. When the first Christian missionaries arrived on the British Isles they simply took the pre-existing pagan holidays and attempted to “Christianize” them (incidentally the same thing was done with Christmas and the holiday for the pagan god Saturnalia on Dec. 25). Personally, I don’t find fault with the approach of these missionaries. They arrived and saw everyone worshipping a pagan deity on a certain day and thought of a way to get people to worship the one, true God on that day instead. This undermines the notion that Christian tenets arose form paganism. No, early Christians wanted to supplant the worship of false gods with worship for the true God. Over the centuries, this is exactly what happened. The celebration of Jesus’ Resurrection overtook Eostre in popularity, although the name stuck as “Easter.”
However, there are many that believe the connection of Easter to the pagan goddess Eostre is overstated. The Venerable Bede, a seventh century monk thought to be the first English church historian, connected the celebration of Easter with the holiday for Eostre. However, some scholars argue that Bede’s findings were flawed, perhaps due to confusion of etymology of the terms, and no other ancient historians make the same connection of Easter to Eostre. Rather, they argue that the term “Easter” is related to the name of the month of April, “Eastre” (West Saxon) or “Eostre” (Northumbrian), rather than directly connected to the pagan goddess (even though they concede that the name of the month probably, but not certainly, derived from the name of the goddess). In addition, these scholars note that the term “Easter” is only used in English and other Germanic languages while the remainder of the world uses some derivative of the term “Pascha,” which derives from the Hebrew word for “Passover.”
So, what should Christians make of all this? The most important thing is what has already been mentioned. Even if the term “Easter” derives from pagan roots, that in no way implies Christianity is a highly evolved product of paganism. If Christmas and Easter do in fact share the same dates/terms with pagan traditions, it is only due to early Christians trying to “redeem” these pagan observances to lead people to worship the one, true God of the Bible. I find it interesting that many people want to cry foul that “Easter” is a pagan term and thus must have pagan inferences. The reality is that we use terms that have their origins in paganism everyday and yet never make associations to occultic religions. For example, Sunday in the Roman calendar was for the worship of the sun. January comes from the Roman god Janus, the god of beginnings and doorways. The reality is that hundreds of millions of Christians use “Easter,” and have done so for centuries, with the meaning of “the celebration of the resurrection of Jesus” not to celebrate a pagan goddess of fertility.
Let me close this post by quoting Seattle pastor Mark Driscoll who addressed this issue in an article that appeared in the Washington Post. “Some Christians, rather than celebrate the fact that a day that was once devoted to the celebration of a pagan god and is now devoted to Jesus, wish to be the conscience police and go around telling everyone how they should stop having fun and celebrating because of the day’s origins. If someone has a conscience issue with celebrating the holiday, they should abstain, but to rail against kids eating candy and having fun sounds more like the religious types who murdered Jesus than the kids who hung out with him… When it comes to cultural issues like this, we as Christians should view them through a simple rubric: reject, receive, or redeem? In this case, the early missionaries to the British Isles sought to redeem Easter rather than reject it or simply receive it. As a result, it became one of the centers of Christianity for many centuries and Eostre the goddess was all but forgotten.”