I have been asked on many occasions through the years, is Easter a pagan holiday? The reason this is an important question and deserves a thorough answer is that there are many critics who seek to destroy the credibility of the Christian faith by discrediting the early church.
These critics can be identified as historical revisionists and liberal theologians, and their logic is this: if you can discredit the early church, then the rest of Christianity will be tainted and flawed, and you won’t have to believe or follow it.
Should Christians Celebrate Easter? Yes, Christians should celebrate Easter. Though some critics claim that Easter was a pagan holiday adopted by the Early Church, there is no actual historical evidence to support this, in fact, evidence shows the exact opposite to be the case. Easter has been a holiday observed and practiced by Christians dating back to the First Century AD.
The Claims of Critics
There are two parties that seek to discredit the Christian faith and claim that Easter has its roots in paganism; the first group is Liberal Theologians, and the second, which is the most zealous in their criticism, is Historical Revisionists.
They claim that Easter was a pagan holiday that had already been around for centuries, then when the Church came on the scene, they later adopted Easter’s pagan rituals and traditions.
Both parties assert that Jesus was certainly a historical figure, but that He died and was not resurrected. They state that Christianity was not a religion founded on resurrection, instead, it wasn’t until centuries later that Christians wanted to make their religion greater than all the others, so they adopted the surrounding pagan beliefs that were centered on the resurrection of their deities.
At the core of their assertions against the Christian faith, they say that the early church fabricated their religion and that Easter was already a well established pagan religious holiday. Then, Christians eventually adopted it as their own. And it is because of this, the Bible should be discredited and Christianity should not be believed.
So, let’s take a look at history and respond to these accusations.
The Origins of Easter
There are many myths surrounding the origins of Easter and the goddess it is believed to be in recognition of, though history and evidence is not certain or clear that these are actually practices observed by pagans.
So let’s dive in and take a look at both the presumed pagan origins as well as the Biblical origins.
Rewind to the First Century, the Roman Empire at this point has been established and there are a lot of Roman gods worshiped throughout the region.
Then comes Jesus.
A ‘new’ faith begins within the Jewish culture, which is centered on a rabbi named Jesus. His followers are claiming that he was raised from the dead, and the Christian religion begins to explode, mostly in the Jewish communities, but then it begins to spread and spill over into the Roman culture.
And because Jesus rose from the dead right after Passover, the Jewish Christians in and around Israel, Palestine, and Asia Minor, began celebrating Christ’s resurrection regularly, mainly by meeting together on a weekly basis to worship.
There is some evidence that many early Christians held a special celebration once a year to commemorate the death and resurrection of Christ. This celebration did not generally take place on a Sunday, but rather, was observed during Passover, on the 14th day in conjunction with when Christ died.
Evidence of Early Church Celebrations of the Resurrection
We also have additional evidence of the celebration and commemoration of Jesus’ resurrection in other parts of the Roman Empire at slightly different times and in different ways. Though we are unsure of how exactly these celebrations looked and what they entailed, we do know that they took place.
In fact, there is evidence of this in Northern Africa amongst the Coptic churches in what is modern-day Egypt, Ethiopia, and Eritrea.
And then we see in the latter parts of the First Century that the resurrection of Christ was being celebrated annually in the Western parts of the Roman Empire, mainly in the city of Rome.
Why Easter is Observed on Sunday
The Western Christians, however, were not Jewish and knew very little of the Jewish people, they didn’t feel an obligation to celebrate it the same way they did. There is actually evidence that shows the Western Christians even wanted to distance themselves from the Jews, mostly because the Jewish people were deeply hated by the Romans.
There had been several wars and uprising from 66AD to the middle of the Second Century, which caused greater division amongst the Jews and Romans. In History, nations who were taken captive by the Romans would generally give up and conform, the Jews, however, refused to conform.
They fought back against the Romans because they believed that the promised Messiah was going to come and overthrow the Roman Empire and make Israel a nation again.
It was because of the great persecutions against the Jews and believers, that the Western Christians began to distance themselves, thinking that this would keep them from also being persecuted. So they then began to meet together on Sundays to worship Jesus and celebrate His resurrection.
In 155 AD there was a man by the name of Polycarp. Polycarp was a respected pastor in Asia Minor was mentored by the Apostle John. After John died, Polycarp became one of the lead pastors of that region.
Polycarp in 155 A.D. set out for Rome in order to urge the Western Christian to stop distancing themselves from the Jewish Christians. He sought to end the division between the Western Christians and the Jewish Christians, and further taught that the Resurrection of Jesus should be celebrated in conjunction with Passover.
193 AD Victor, a Bishop in Rome declared himself to be unassociated with the Jewish Christians and went so far as to demand that all Christians worship God on Sundays only. He fought to have Jesus Resurrection observed only on Sundays, and any Christian who celebrated on a different day should be excommunicated.
Again, in 193 A.D. just a few months later, many Eastern Church leaders came together at what is known as the Council of Ephesus, where they Denounced Victor as Bishop, and essentially agreed to not recognize his authority.
The Council of Nicaea
In 325 AD, one of the greatest events in Christian history took place––The Council of Nicaea.
During this council, early Church leaders gathered together to discuss and establish exactly what Christians believe in order that they would not stray from the truth. Among many of the topics that were discussed was the celebration of the Easter holiday and how it should be celebrated by Christians.
The council came to an agreement on a standardized way to celebrate the resurrection of the Lord. And they determined that Easter would be celebrated on the first Sunday of every year after the first moon of the Spring season.
How We Know All of This happened
We know because it was well documented. There have been many different locations in which documents have been found that thoroughly recorded these conflicts in the Second Century.
And if there were discussions and disagreements about how this holiday was being celebrated, then that means it was already well established long before the Second Century.
This means that those who claim that the celebration of Christ’s resurrection came centuries later and that it was fabricated and influenced by pagan religions are inaccurate in their claims.
Again, there are many known documentations of these early squabbles in the Second Century, but one of the greatest sources is from one of the most prolific writers of that time––Irenaeus.
Irenaeus was one of the greatest Christian thought leaders and theologians of that period, and he recorded much of the conflicts that took place surrounding the celebration of Christ’s resurrection.
Rewind to 2200-2400 B.C.
During this ancient era, there was a goddess who was worshiped in various nations and she was a very lustful and sensual deity known for being the goddess of fertility and war.
We often see that in parts of the world where people worship many different gods, there is generally an overlap. And I believe it is because they all originated from the same place, and when people began to spread throughout the world, they took pieces of their traditions with them.
Take a look at ancient Babylon, ancient Greece, and ancient Germanic Saxon tribes and as far East as India, they all have different frameworks of their religious beliefs, but every now and then you see the same gods being worshiped.
Pagan Roots of the Name Easter
So now, back again to the end of the Third Century, during this time Christians in various regions are celebrating the resurrection of Jesus Christ in slightly different ways and times.
At the same time, throughout the world, there are still slight remnants of the worship of the pagan goddess, and in Germanic tribes, she was known as Eostre, which roughly translates to “Easter.”
At this point in history, the goddess of fertility would have been considered an old god, and the worship of this deity was not what it would have been in more ancient times. Therefore, early Christians did not attempt to emulate a pagan celebration by naming our Christian holiday Easter, but rather it was because of the meaning behind the name and its heavy ties with new life.
In other words, the early Christians would not have thought “pagan goddess,” but would have been thinking of the actual meaning and connotation. Thus, it became normal and spread very quickly.
A good comparison would be the month of January. January was named after the Roman god Janus, he was the god of new beginnings, transitions, and gates. The first month of the year was named after this deity because the Romans wanted to both honor him and symbolize the beginning of a new year.
Through hundreds of years, however, the actual meaning and reasoning were lost and now this is not something the average person is aware of or even considers when they say January. It’s simply the name of the month.
In the same way that we do not think of the month of January as anything more than a mere name, the early Christians did not associate the name Easter with the goddess of fertility. But rather with the concept of new life.
The Easter Bunny and Easter Eggs
So what about the Easter Bunny and Easter eggs?
We don’t know much about where these traditions came from, and there is much speculation involved that does not have much if any, evidence to support it.
One speculation is that the Easter Bunny is representative of fertility and reproduction. This is in connection with Eostre who, as we know, was the goddess of all things lustful and sensual, and was literally identified, among other things, as the goddess of fertility.
A second speculation, which is surrounding the dyeing of eggs, is that there is some limited evidence in ancient Persia, that eggs were dyed during pagan festivals. And thus, it is speculated that Christians would have been familiar with this practice.
Both speculations have very limited evidence, not enough to lead to a solid conclusion. We do know, however, that before 800 AD, there doesn’t seem to be any ties to the Easter Celebration. But somewhere between 800 and 1300 AD, they became connected.
But because documentation during that era is so limited, it is difficult to say where exactly that they came from or why.
Should Christians Celebrate Easter?
So, we have gone over an extensive amount of both world and Church history, what does all of this information tell us?
It is clear from history, that the claims of liberal theologians and Historic Revisionists are unsupported. Nowhere in history can we find solid evidence that this goddess ever even had an annual celebration in her honor.
The celebration of Jesus Christ’s resurrection, however, is well documented, and not only this, the documentation is within the first 100-200 years of it taking place, which gives further evidence to it being rooted not in paganism, but in honor of Christ.
And although the name Easter may have some pagan roots, this is the only thing that can be linked to paganism, and again, it does not mean that the early Christians adopted it because of its link to the goddess of fertility.
Many people have differing opinions and convictions on this matter, and some church leaders refuse to call the holiday ‘Easter,’ instead, referring to it as, ‘Resurrection Sunday.’
But the bottom line is yes, Christians should absolutely celebrate Easter.
This holiday was established because Jesus Christ, our Lord, died and rose again three days later. It is a day to thank Him for His great sacrifice and to rejoice with other believers, and that is something we should never stop observing.
If you are a nerd like me and would like to do further research on this topic, I have listed a few nerdy books that will help you gain a deeper knowledge of church history and the origins of Easter.