Easter: Something Borrowed, Something New?

Every Easter those who oppose the Christian biblical faith surface the notion that Christians borrowed the celebration of Easter from pagan sources.  Accordingly, they say Christians developed their own traditions that buried the pagan sources and resurrected the story of Christ.  Consequently, the entire Christian religion, according to them, stands on pagan sources as a relatively new holiday for Christians to use for their claim of the resurrection of Jesus Christ.  For pagans who deny the resurrection, they claim Christians raise up Easter from something borrowed and something new.  However, is this notion true?  Additionally, how does such a notion affect Christian faith in the claim that Jesus did rise from the dead that first Easter morning?

First, consider the origin of Easter.  Many have attributed Easter to the ancient English monk and historian, Bede (673-735 AD).  In identifying names to the months of the year ancient cultures assigned to them, Bede wrote the following in his work De temporum ratione,

“In olden time the English people — for it did not seem fitting to me that I should speak of other people’s observance of the year and yet be silent about my own nation’s — calculated their months according to the course of the moon.  Hence, after the manner of the Greeks and the Romans (the months) take their name from the Moon, for the Moon is called mona and the month monath.

The first month, which the Latins call January, is Giuli; February is called Solmonath; March Hrethmonath; April, Eosturmonath; May, Thrimilchi; June, Litha; July, also Litha; August, Weodmonath; September, Halegmonath; October, Winterfilleth; November, Blodmonath; December, Giuli, the same name by which January is called.  …

Nor is it irrelevant if we take the time to translate the names of the other months.  … Hrethmonath is named for their goddess Hretha, to whom they sacrificed at this time.  Eosturmonath has a name which is now translated “Paschal month”, and which was once called after a goddess of theirs named Eostre, in whose honour feasts were celebrated in that month.  Now they designate that Paschal season by her name, calling the joys of the new rite by the time-honoured name of the old observance.”

Bede points to a particular goddess for the month of Eosturmonath (April) as the origin for the name of Easter.  Those who wish to associate the Christian celebration of Easter seem to have a case for their claim that paganism is its source.  Such a claim, according to Anthony McRoy is suspect, speculation, and far from the truth (“Was Easter Borrowed from a Pagan Holiday?”  Christianity Today, http://www.christianitytoday.com/history/2009/april/was-easter-borrowed-from-pagan-holiday.html).  He points out that Bede’s claim of Easter deriving from the goddess Eostre has no substantiation anywhere else in history.  He also points out a timeline conflict,

“The first question, therefore, is whether the actual Christian celebration of Easter is derived from a pagan festival.  This is easily answered.  The Nordic/Germanic peoples (including the Anglo-Saxons) were comparative latecomers to Christianity.  Pope Gregory I sent a missionary enterprise led by Augustine of Canterbury to the Anglo-Saxons in 596/7.  The forcible conversion of the Saxons in Europe began under Charlemagne in 772.  Hence, if “Easter” (i.e. the Christian Passover festival) was celebrated prior to those dates, any supposed pagan Anglo-Saxon festival of “Eostre” can have no significance.  And there is, in fact, clear evidence that Christians celebrated an Easter/Passover festival by the second century, if not earlier.  It follows that the Christian Easter/Passover celebration, which originated in the Mediterranean basin, was not influenced by any Germanic pagan festival.”

Not only did Augustine celebrate Easter in Britain, but earlier Christian authors also affirmed its celebration well before pagan stories surfaced, showing that Easter could not have arisen from pagan stories.  Gregory Naziansus (329-390 AD) gave an Easter homily (Second Oration 45.5, Thomas Oden, Classic Christianity: A Systematic Theology, 132).  In the beginning of the 4th century, Christians sang an earlier Easter hymn (Oden, 273).  Cyril of Alexandria (378-444 AD) gave a sermon called On the Incarnation in his Easter Homily 1.6).  Even farther back, Chrysostom (349-407 AD) narrates Paul’s written account of Christ’s resurrection (1 Corinthians 15:3; Homily on Corinthians, 38.2, Oden, 479) on the first Easter.  Before him, Eusebius of Caesarea (263-339 AD) wrote “On the Celebration of the Pascha [Easter].”

The actual name of the event does not really rise to the level of significance as the event itself.  Words pass through many languages, alphabets, cultures, and time periods.  Some point to Bede as the source of the word Easter from pagan sources.  Yet others, including Wycliffe, Tyndale, and Luther in their translations brought the word for Easter from the word Pascha, signifying that Christ was the lamb sacrificed for all humanity.  While Bede speculated about the connection between Easter and the goddess Eostre, he associated the month named after Eostre as “Paschal month,” demonstrating that the earliest celebration of Easter dates to the original biblical truth and not to pagan sources.

More could be cited of early church Fathers who preached Easter sermons.  Suffice to say, these early Church Fathers give overwhelming evidence of Easter’s celebration and the event it commemorated – Christ’s resurrection.  Oral tradition of actual events precedes their written authorship showing that Christians of earlier centuries dating back to the Apostles passed on to the next generation what they learned from the original eyewitnesses through hymns and actual historical oral accounts.

What do we then learn from all of these authors dating to the earliest centuries after Christ?  Easter arose from the actual event, Christ’s resurrection, and not pagan sources. Easter signified the earliest remembrance of Jesus rising from the dead!  Eyewitnesses (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John) recorded what they saw and heard from Jesus after His resurrection.  They passed this good news to their disciples in the gospels they wrote some 20-30 years later.  Paul also saw Jesus and recorded his encounter of Jesus even earlier (Galatians, 53-55 AD) than when the Apostles wrote their gospels.

Eyewitnesses and subsequent authors recorded actual historical events about Christ’s resurrection.  They put to rest any fictitious notion of pagan sources for it.  Speculations cannot overturn historical fact.  Rather, they highlighted that behind the myths lie actual events.  We only need to view contemporary celebrations of Christian remembrances to see how rapidly pagan innovations occurred.  The mind stirs up fanciful creations consisting of bunny rabbits hiding eggs for little children to find.  These mimic actual events with changes to align with fresh ways of expressing paganism.  They bring to mind celebration of the freshness of the earth’s resurrection from a wintery dead state and the correlation to Christ’s resurrection from death.

The truthful themes of the first resurrection surface in the fanciful pagan rites of the contemporary.  The wretchedness of the human condition splashes across theater screens.  One need only turn to Hollywood to view resurrection played out in one movie after another.  Deus ex-machina (God of the machine) descends from the heavens in the form of humanity (Superman).  Captain AmericaThe X-Men, and the salvation of Frodo and Sam on Mount Doom in Lord of the Rings provide one fictitious example after another of resurrection and redemption.  They supply deliverance from human tragedy.  In such cases, paganism depends on established Christian truth and its preservation and not the other way around.  The evidence for the foundational truth of Christ’s resurrection is overwhelming.  Paganism uses and twists historical truth for its own means and message.

Christians need not fear fables, fiction, and allegations of the pagan sources for Easter.  These pagan sources do not exists. Paganism rests on speculation and novelty resulting from becoming “futile in their thoughts” (Romans 1:21, NKJV).  Pagans borrow from the truth to create their own myths for their leap of faith.  Given the continuous line of written testimony from the first century forward, we can take heart and have hope in the resurrection of Christ as we also celebrate Easter.  Paganism cannot just brush aside truth having its foundation in history.  We can rest in Christ’s promise that as He rose from the dead and went to be with His Father, He will come again and take us with Him to be with His Father and ours (John 14:1-3).

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