What is Easter?

Many Christians are aware that the word “Easter” does not occur in the original Hebrew and Greek manuscripts. As a matter of fact, the only place it can be found in an English version of the Bible is in the King James Version, which reads:

Acts 12:4 (KJV)
And when he had apprehended him, he put him in prison, and delivered him to four quaternions of soldiers to keep him; intending after Easter to bring him forth to the people.

This passage describes Herod’s plan to have Peter put to death “after Easter.” The Greek word for “Easter” is pascha, which refers to the Jewish Passover festival celebrated from the 14th to the 21st of Nisan (Exod. 12:18). In the case of the KJV, it seems that “the Acts of the Apostles had fallen into the hands of a translator who acted on the principle of choosing, not the most correct, but the most familiar equivalents.” [1] In this case, the fact that Easter was familiar to 17th century readers explains how the word got into the KJV, but it does not help us understand that the Passover and Easter are two different things, and that what Acts refers to is the Passover, not “Easter.” Modern versions of the Bible all translate pascha as “Passover.”

What we know today as the Easter festival developed after the New Testament period. The New Testament does not mention a Christian festival in which the death and resurrection of Christ were celebrated, but what we do see is that some of the earliest Christians continued to hold the Passover feast. As late as Paul’s trip to Jerusalem in which he was arrested and jailed, which was in the late 50’s A.D., or 30 years after the birth of the Christian Church, many Christians in Jerusalem were proud of the fact that they kept the Law.

Acts 21:20
When they heard this, they praised God. Then they said to Paul: “You see, brother, how many thousands of Jews have believed, and all of them are zealous for the law.

It was common for these “zealous” Christians to maintain their adherence to the Law by observing the Passover feast, which became a feast of commemoration. It was no longer a time of waiting for future atonement with God, but of remembering that He had provided the payment for the sins of His people through Christ. This was a very sensitive topic for early Christians, because not all Jews who converted to Christianity were comfortable with the idea that Christ had fulfilled the Law. The Church Epistles later given by the Lord to Paul made clear that participating in the Jewish feasts was no longer necessary (Col. 2:16-17). Paul had ruffled a few feathers by teaching things like “neither circumcision nor uncircumcision means anything” (Gal. 6:15). The charge that Paul was teaching converts to “turn away from Moses” put the whole city of Jerusalem in an uproar and resulted in his arrest (Acts 21:21).

While many Jews who became Christians retained the custom of keeping the Passover feast, it was less likely that the Gentile converts would be attracted to keeping a festival that was not actually required by God. As Christianity began to spread through the ancient world, Gentile Christians began to celebrate the death and resurrection of Christ in a less Jewish way. Unfortunately, as was often the case with Jewish-Gentile disputes, many of the forces guiding Christianity were radically opposite of those desiring to maintain the Jewish roots of Christianity. Eventually, the celebration of the death and resurrection of Christ was infused with elements that have little to do with the Jewish feasts or the actual events of Christ’s death.

Date Controversies

For centuries, the date for the celebration of the resurrection of Christ was hotly disputed. The earliest Jewish Christians, primarily those in Israel, Syria, and the East, naturally wanted to celebrate on the 14th of Nisan, the date of the Passover. “Churches in Asia Minor (following the Johannine tradition that the death of Jesus occurred at the time of the slaying of the Passover lambs) celebrated the Christian Pascha on 14/15 Nisan, regardless of the day of the week on which this date might fall.” [2] This practice presented an interesting situation for the Church. Those Christians who maintained the Jewish date looked to the Jews to determine it. “In Judaism, the calendar is lunar. Each month, Nisan included, includes the phases of the moon, and the Passover falls on the 14th day of the month, that is, the full moon.

Easter EggsThe word “Easter” was essentially
adopted by the Church from paganism.

The determination of this date was a secret process jealously guarded in the Jewish Temple and later, synagogues, and it was according to this calculation that Christ observed the feast.” [3] In order to celebrate the death and resurrection of Christ on the actual Passover date for a given year, the Church would have to rely on the Jews, something they were not willing to do. Not only would the Church have to acquire the date from the Jews, but the fact that the 14th of Nisan could be on any day of the week did not appeal to them either.

“The Hebrew Passover falls on any day of the week, and this did not suit the Christians. They wanted a Holy Week beginning with Palm Sunday, proceeding to Good Friday and ending on Easter Sunday, commemorating the resurrection.” [4] Those Christians who fought to celebrate Easter on the 14th of Nisan were known as “Quarto-decimanians,” most of whom lived in the Eastern part of the Roman Empire. “The Western Christians observed Easter on a Sunday, the Eastern in many cases were Quartodecimanians and preferred the 14th day of the lunar month. It was a foretaste of the schism that was to split the Eastern Orthodox Church from the Roman Catholic.” [5] The date for celebrating the resurrection was thus included amidst the great Christological controversies at the Council of Nicaea in 325. When Jesus Became God, by Richard Rubenstein, describes the atmosphere of the Nicene council.

“One underlying question was this: To what extent were the values and customs of the ancient world still valid guides to thinking and action in a Christian empire? Some Christians, among them were Arius and Eusebius of Nicodemia, had a stronger sense of historical continuity than others…By contrast, the strongest anti-Arians experienced their present as a sharp break with the past. It was they who demanded, in effect, that Christianity be ‘updated’ by blurring or even obliterating the long-accepted distinction between the Father and the Son.” [6]

In the same spirit of breaking with the past, the council unanimously decided that the Resurrection celebration would not be on the Jewish date, but would fall on the Sunday following the full moon after the vernal equinox. Interestingly, the Sunday celebration actually still allowed for the possibility that the Church would celebrate on the same day as the Jews. Once again, the East and the West handled the situation differently. The West established a rule that if the date matched the Jewish Passover, the Church would wait another week to celebrate. Conversely, the East continued to celebrate even if the day coincided with Passover.

To this day there is still disagreement concerning the date of the Easter celebration. The Protestant and Roman Catholic dates of Easter coincide, but, due to a different method of calculation, the Eastern Orthodox Church’s observance can be up to five weeks different than the Western churches. Desire for Christian unity has in recent years brought forth the idea of a universal fixed date for all Christian churches.

Pagan Elements

It is no secret that much of the modern Easter celebration has developed from pagan sources. The word “Easter” itself was essentially adopted by the Church from paganism.

The English word Easter and the German Ostern come from a common origin (Eostur, Eastur, Ostara, Ostar), which to the Norsemen meant the season of the rising (growing) sun, the season of new birth. The word was used by our ancestors to designate the Feast of New Life in the spring. The same root is found in the name for the place where the sun rises (East, Ost). The word Easter, then, originally meant the celebration of the spring sun, which had its birth in the East and brought new life upon earth. This symbolism was transferred to the supernatural meaning of our Easter…” [7]

Another common view taught by Bede, the English historian of the early 8th century, is that the word derives from “Eastre,” a Teutonic goddess of Spring who received offerings in the month of April. While both explanations are plausible, it is clear that the word “Easter” is anything but biblical.

The Encyclopedic Dictionary of Religion states that the custom of Easter eggs may be based upon ancient fertility cults (Indo-European), the Persian association of eggs and spring, or the fact that some early Christians abstained from eggs during Lent. [8] It is not hard to see how Christians could have adopted the egg as a symbol of the tomb of Christ, or even their new life in him. Further, the rabbit is pre-Christian and represents fertility due to its rapid rate of reproduction. The rabbit has not actually been adopted as a part of the “Christian” celebration of Easter, but it has become a common symbol of the day in many cultures. Much like Christmas, the celebration of Easter has diverged greatly from the original remembrance of our Lord’s death on the 14th of Nisan.

Balance

As modern Christians, we must decide how to engage a world that has lost interest in the true origins of our faith. Should we condemn modern holidays as pagan abominations? Or should we wholeheartedly accept our culture with an attitude of concession? As with so much in our modern world, we are to find a balance that allows us to exercise true spirituality and yet still engage the culture in which we find ourselves.

Imagine telling your loved ones at Christmas, “I’m sorry, I don’t give gifts because I’m a Christian.” Or on Easter, “I don’t celebrate the resurrection of the Lord on Easter because I’m not a pagan.” Clearly, there is some level of absurdity that can be reached by trying to avoid all the non-Christian elements of our culture. For example, in an article published by The Restored Church of God titled “The True Origin of Easter,” the author correctly identifies the pagan elements of the modern Easter celebration, but we believe he goes too far in his zeal to avoid them. Concerning sunrise services, he states, “Observing sunrise services is serious to God! He so hates this vile practice that he will ultimately destroy all who persist in it (Ezek. 9)!” [9] Can this be the same God who inspired the following scripture?

1 Corinthians 8:7 and 8
“…Some people are still so accustomed to idols that when they eat such food they think of it as having been sacrificed to an idol, and since their conscience is weak, it is defiled. But food does not bring us near to God; we are no worse if we do not eat, and no better if we do.

God has revealed that it is not an outward demonstration that He requires, but the inward dedication of the heart. We know that God did not raise Jesus from the dead on Sunday morning (it was actually Saturday between 3pm and sunset), but does God not honor the hearts of people who trouble themselves to get up in the dark on Easter Sunday, get dressed, and go to a gathering place to pray, sing, and affirm the resurrection of the Lord? We believe He does.

The Bible uses an interesting word to refer to our ability to relate to things it does not specifically mention—freedom (1 Cor. 8:9)! Remember, with freedom comes responsibility. It is not a sin to have a Christmas tree, or to hide some eggs out in the back yard for the children to find. Please understand, we are not saying that knowing the truth is not valuable, but we feel you can know the truth and still celebrate many modern customs. For example, a Christian can know that Christ was not born in December and that no early Christians had Christmas trees, and still have a Christmas tree of his own. He can know that Christ was crucified on the Jewish Passover but still show his devotion to the Lord in a Sunrise Service. What we as Christians must do is to teach ourselves and others the true freedom that Christ has given us. Many Christians are very blessed to take the opportunity that Easter provides to honor the Lord and his resurrection, and we think that is just fine with God (and the Lord Jesus).

As we consider what honoring the Lord will look like this season, it may be helpful to remember the words of Paul in Romans.

Romans 14:5 and 6
One man considers one day more sacred than another; another man considers every day alike. Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind. He who regards one day as special, does so to the Lord.

God has given us freedom from all kinds of bondage. Do not let the true meaning of this Easter season be lost to you in a secular sea of eggs and rabbits (and chocolate—which early Christians did not have), but remember that much of the true meaning of the death and resurrection of the Lord is about the freedom we now have to celebrate that from our hearts, and pray and sing to bless and honor him, even if we do it on a day that is not actually “Passover.” May we praise the Lord every day, forever and ever.

Endnotes

[1] H. B. Hackett, D.D., Ed., Dr. William Smith’s Dictionary of the Bible (Baker Book House, Grand Rapids MI, 1981) p. 637.
[2] Watson E. Mills, Ed., Mercer Dictionary of the Bible (Mercer University Press, Macon GA, 1990), p. 224.
[3] The Encyclopedia Americana (Americana Corporation, New York NY, 1947) pp. 506,507.
[4] Ibid.
[5] Ibid.
[6] Richard E. Rubenstein, When Jesus Became God (Harcourt, San Diego CA, 1999) pp. 73,74.
[7] Francis X Weiser, Handbook of Christian Feasts and Customs (Deus Books Paulist Press, New York NY, 1963) pp.130, 131.
[8] Encyclopedic Dictionary of Religion (Corpus Publications, Washington D.C., 1979) p. 1139.
[9] David C. Pack, “The True Origin of Easter” (The Restored Church of God, Feb. 8, 2004).

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