We are occasionally rebuked for using the word Easter, on the grounds that it is allegedly derived from the Babylonian goddess Astarte, equivalent to the Assyrian goddess Ishtar. This comes from an oft-cited 19th-century book, The Two Babylons, by the Scots reverend Alexander Hislop:
‘Then look at Easter. What means the term Easter itself? It is not a Christian name. It bears its Chaldean origin on its very forehead. Easter is nothing else than Astarte, one of the titles of Beltis, the queen of heaven, whose name, as pronounced by the people Nineveh, was evidently identical with that now in common use in this country. That name, as found by Layard on the Assyrian monuments, is Ishtar. The worship of Bel and Astarte was very early introduced into Britain, along with the Druids, “the priests of the groves”. Some have imagined that the Druidical worship was first introduced by the Phoenicians, who, centuries before the Christian era, traded to the tin-mines of Cornwall. But the unequivocal traces of that worship are found in regions of the British islands where the Phoenicians never penetrated, and it has everywhere left indelible marks of the strong hold which it must have had on the early British mind.’
So the main question is, how reliable is this connection? A secondary question is: would it be so serious anyway? But first, what did the original God-breathed manuscripts say?
The Hebrew word for Passover is פֶּסַח (pesach), which comes from the verb פָּסַח (pasach) which means to pass over. When the Old Testament was translated into Greek, this word was basically unchanged, becoming the Greek πάσχα (pascha). In some English Bibles, this is translated Easter, and other times Passover, but it’s the same word. Most other languages have the same word for both, e.g. Latin Pascha, French Pâques, Italian Pasqua, and Dutch Pasen. English also retains this word in expressions such as ‘pascal lamb’. So where did the word ‘Easter’ come from?
Easter: common Anglo-Saxon term
Does the word ‘Easter’ come from paganism? The answer is a clear ‘no!’. Hislop’s research is very shoddy in many places (Hislop is refuted in A Case Study in Poor Methodology1). He tries to see paganism everywhere, on even the flimsiest grounds. In this case, he imagines a connection between Easter and Astarte purely on the basis of sound similarity, with not the slightest trace of linguistic connection or any borrowing. By this spurious method, one could connect the Potomac river with the Greek ποταμός (potamos), although there is no connection between the native American and Greek words. Similarly, there isn’t the slightest link between the South African word for ‘treasure’, skat, and the Greek word for ‘excrement’, σκατά (skata).
In reality, the word Easter (sometimes Ester) is really Anglo-Saxon,2 not Babylonian. It was the common word for both Passover and Easter. J.R. Clarke Hall’s A Concise Anglo-Saxon Dictionary provides the following list of related words showing that Easter was used for both:
east—I. adj. east, easterly. II. adv. eastwards, in an easterly direction, in or from the east … Easteraefen—Easter-eve Easterdaeg—Easter-day, Easter Sunday Easterfaestan—Easter-fast, Lent Easterfeorm—feast of Easter Easterfreolsdaeg—the feast day of Passover Eastergewuna—Easter custom (appears only in the 9th century sermons of Aelfric where he is referring to Christian Easter practices) Easterlic—belonging to Easter, Paschal Eastermonath—Easter-month, April Easterne—east, eastern, oriental Easterniht—Easter-night Eastersunnandaeg—Easter Sunday Eastersymble—Passover (lit. Easter gathering) Eastertid—Eastertide, Paschal season Easterthenung—Passover Easterwucu—Easter Week
An example of the word meaning the Jewish Passover comes from a 1563 homily: ‘Easter, a great, and solemne feast among the Jewes.’
Anglo-Saxon itself is a Germanic language, and this is the genuine origin of the term Easter. Germans likewise used the word Oster or Ostern for both Passover and our Easter. E.g. when the Reformer Martin Luther (1483–1546) first translated the Bible into German (1545), he used a number of German words relating to this, such as Osterfest (Passover/Easter), Osterlamm (Passover lamb). E.g. compare Luke 22:1,7
NASB:Now the Feast of Unleavened Bread, which is called the Passover, was approaching. Luther Bibel 1545:Es war aber nahe das Fest der süßen Brote, das da Ostern heißt.
NASB:Then came the first day of Unleavened Bread on which the Passover lamb had to be sacrificed. Luther:Es kam nun der Tag der süßen Brote, an welchem man mußte opfern das Osterlamm.
Describing a Passover at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, compare John 2:13,23: NKJV:Now the Passover of the Jews was at hand, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. Luther:Und der Juden Ostern war nahe, und Jesus zog hinauf gen Jerusalem.
NKJV:Now when He was in Jerusalem at the Passover, during the feast, many believed in His name when they saw the signs which He did. Luther:Als er aber zu Jerusalem war am Osterfest, glaubten viele an seinen Namen, da sie die Zeichen sahen, die er tat.
Compare also 1 Corinthians 5:7, identifying the true Passover Lamb, of which the lambs were types:
NIV: For Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed. Luther:Denn wir haben auch ein Osterlamm, das ist Christus, für uns geopfert.
Even in modern German, the ‘das jüdische Osterfest’ means the Jewish Passover. In turn, this word comes from Ost, or the sunrising, i.e. East. In turn, this is likely to come from the old German word auferstehen / auferstanden / Auferstehung meaning rising from the dead/resurrection. Luther used these words as well, e.g. throughout 1 Corinthians 15.
So the pagan derivation of Easter is conspiratorial fantasy. The word is Anglo-Saxon, and derived from the Germanic Oster meaning Passover, and is related to the words for Resurrection.
William Tyndale, Easter and his new English Bible
The brilliant and godly scholar William Tyndale (1496–1536) was the first to translate the Bible into English directly from Hebrew and Greek rather than via Latin, which was also the first English Bible to be printed mechanically. He was fluent in many languages—as well as his native English, he could speak French, Greek, Hebrew, German, Italian, Latin and Spanish. But he was determined to produce a Bible in English, as he said, to ‘cause the boy that drives the plow in England to know more of the Scriptures than the Pope himself!’
However, because of persecution, Tyndale had to flee to Lutheran parts of Germany. Here, he completed his translation, which introduced many popular words and phrases into English:
let there be light
the powers that be
my brother's keeper
the salt of the earth
a law unto themselves
it came to pass
gave up the ghost
the signs of the times
the spirit is willing
live and move and have our being
fight the good fight
Much of his work is better known as providing the basis for the KJV (1611) and the Geneva Bible (1560).
Tyndale was also responsible for introducing the word ‘Ester’ into the English Bible. John Wycliffe, who produced the first English Bible in 1382, had translated from the Latin, and left the word pascha basically untranslated and called it pask or paske. Luther occasionally did likewise, using the transliterated form passah. For example, in Lev. 23:5, he rendered ‘the LORD’s Passover’ as ‘des Herrn Passah’, and in Ex. 12:27, ‘It is the Passover sacrifice to the Lord’ was ‘Es ist das Passahopfer des Herrn’.
But when Tyndale prepared the new Testament, he followed Luther’s more common practice and used the most common word in his native language. That is, while Luther most often used Oster and its cognates, Tyndale used Ester and its cognates. For example:
Luke 2:41And his father and mother went to Hierusalem every year at the feast of ester. Luke 22:15And he said unto them: I have inwardly desired to eat this ester lamb with you before that I suffer. John 2:13And the jews’ ester was even at hand; And Iesus went up to Ierusalem, John 6:4(And ester a feast of the jews, was nigh.) John 11:55The jews’ ester was nigh at hand John 19:14(It was the Sabbath even which falleth in the ester feast, and about the sixth hour) 1 Cor. 5:7For Christ our ester lamb is offered up for us.
Note, if the Hislop pagan derivation theory were correct, it would imply that the godly Tyndale and Luther before him were really calling Jesus the ‘Astarte Lamb’ or ‘Ishtar Lamb’.
Tyndale and Passover
But when Tyndale translated the Old Testament, he thought that it was anachronistic to use the word Easter for the Jewish feast. This is because, as above, the derivation of Easter comes from the resurrection, which had yet to happen. So Tyndale went back to the root of pesach, i.e. pasach, meaning ‘to pass over’, and coined the new term Passover.
So it is due to Tyndale, not to paganism, that some English Bibles have two different words, Easter and Passover, to translate a single Hebrew/Greek term. As the KJV was essentially the 5th revision of the Tyndale Bible, and retains about 90% of its wording, it keeps this feature. But it more consistently applied Tyndale’s logic to retain Easter only for Acts 12:4, where the Christian resurrection celebration was in view not just the Jewish feast. For all other occurrences, the KJV translators used Tyndale’s new word ‘passover’. But this obscured the traditional meaning of Easter that included the Jewish Passover. Modern translations generally use only one word, Passover, to translate pesach/pascha.
Does Easter come from a Saxon goddess then?
The above should demonstrate the clear connection of the word Easter with Passover. Nevertheless, some refer to a claim by the Anglo-Saxon monk and historian, the Venerable Bede (673–735):
In olden times the English people—for it did not seem fitting that I should speak of other nations’ 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 … 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. [De temporum ratione (On the Reckoning of Time), c. 730]
There are two major problems with this linkage. The first is the lack of corroboration for this Anglo-Saxon goddess Eostre anywhere else. Nor is there any equivalent in Germanic paganism. So this Eostre seems to be the result of Bede’s own theorising rather than any knowledge of ancient pagan customs. The second is the fact that Christian celebrations of Easter/Passover long predate any missionary activity in Anglo-Saxon England, so could not have derived from them. On the continent, Charlemagne attacked any trace of German Saxon paganism, e.g. in 773, he forced them to cut down their sacred pillar (Irminsul) in Paderborn.
Easter eggs and bunnies
The easter eggs are not pagan, but an early Christian tradition that began in Mesopotamia. In the season of Lent (neither commanded nor forbidden by Scripture), those churches that would observe it would refrain from eating eggs. But the hens were still laying them. To avoid spoilage, the eggs would be hard-boiled. Then they were dyed red to symbolize the blood of Christ. Later on, other colours were used. For some Christians, cracking the egg open would symbolize the opening of Jesus tomb. Much later, they were replaced with chocolate and candy eggs.
The Easter bunny goes back to German Lutherans, not pagans, although it was a hare, probably in the same created kind as the rabbit (laporid). Because of their proverbially high fertility rate, ancient writers such as Pliny the Elder and Plutarch thought it was hermaphroditic and could thus reproduce without fertilization. Then Christians used this as a symbol of the Virgin Mary.
Some have claimed that the hare was the sacred animal of Eostre. But as shown above, it’s most doubtful that any Eostre was ever worshipped, because the only evidence is from Bede. And he never mentioned any animal associated with her. A non-existent association with a non-existent goddess is hardly good grounds for seeing paganism in the Easter bunny!
Would it matter that much?
While the above firmly refutes the pagan derivation nonsense about Easter, there are far more familiar things that really are derived from paganism, but about which few people worry. It is illogical to avoid a Christian-based holiday that brings people together in worship because of some perceived tie to paganism, while using everyday products and ignoring their obvious pagan heritage. You might have your muffler replaced by Midas, wear shoes designed by Nike, chew Trident gum, or watch a movie by Orion Pictures. Several days of our week and months of our year are named after Norse gods, except for Saturday that comes from the Roman god Saturn, and Sunday and Monday of course. Several months are named after Roman gods. The eight planets and many of their moons are named after Roman deities. Mazda cars are named for a Zoroastrian deity, and many people drive a Saturn, Mercury, Ares, Aurora … etc.
But even in God’s Word, some of the heroes in the Bible had paganized names. E.g. Mordecai, the real hero of the book of Esther, has a name related to the Babylonian high god Marduk. Consider also Daniel’s three friends who were prepared to be thrown in the furnace rather than worship any but the true God. They were originally named Hananiah, Mishael and Azariah, but are better known by the names the Babylonians gave them: Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego (Daniel 1:7). Abednego means ‘servant of Nebo’, the pagan god.
Was Jesus crucified on Good Friday?
Some readers argue that in Matthew 12:40, Christ said that he would be ‘three days and three nights’ in the tomb, so if Jesus was crucified on Good Friday and rose on Sunday, it couldn’t have been three full 24-hour periods. Thus, they say, the crucifixion occurred on a Wednesday or a Thursday.
However, as I covered in Refuting Compromise pp. 79–80, in Jewish counting, a part of a day was counted as a whole day (a figure of speech known as synecdoche). So while X days and X nights can mean what it means in English, this was only a subset of its semantic range in Jewish idiom. The Jewish Encyclopedia explains (as cited in the Tektonics Apologetics article on this topic3):
‘In Jewish communal life part of a day is at times reckoned as one day; e.g., the day of the funeral, even when the latter takes place late in the afternoon, is counted as the first of the seven days of mourning; a short time in the morning of the seventh day is counted as the seventh day; circumcision takes place on the eighth day, even though of the first day only a few minutes remained after the birth of the child, these being counted as one day.’
To demonstrate this, 1 Samuel 30:12 says, ‘he had not eaten bread or drunk water for three days and nights’, and this is equated in the next verse with hayyom shelosha (three days ago) , which could only mean the day before yesterday. Another example is 1 Kings 20:29 (NIV):
‘For seven days they camped opposite each other, and on the seventh day the battle was joined.’
In English counting, if they started fighting on the 7th day, it means they were only camping for six whole days. But in Jewish reckoning, the partial days are counted as wholes, so the text says they were camping for seven days. See also Genesis 42:17–18.
So the above shows that X days and X nights need not mean X 24-hour periods. So how should 3 days and 3 nights be understood in the Gospels? As we should interpret Scripture by Scripture, we should see what other passages say about the same event. One website has made a helpful table of all the references.4
Interchangeability of terms : (All Bible data on Resurrection)
Duration in grave
Until the third day
Mt 27:64 give orders for the grave to be made secure until the third day
In three days
Mt 26:61 rebuild it in three days
Mt 27:40 rebuild it in three days
Mk 14:58 in three days I will build another made without hands.
Mk 15:29 rebuild it in three days
Jn 2:19–20 in three days I will raise it up
On the third day
Mt 16:21 raised up on the third day
Mt 17:23 raised on the third day
Mt 20:19 on the third day He will be raised up
Lk 9:22 be raised up on the third day
Acts 10:40 God raised Him up on the third day
1 Cor 15:4 raised on the third day
The third day
Lk 18:33 the third day He will rise again
Lk 24:7 the third day rise again
Lk 24:21 it is the third day since these things happened
Lk 24:46 rise again from the dead the third day
Three days later
Mk 9:31 rise three days later
Mk 10:34 and three days later He will rise again
After three days
Mt 27:63 After three days I am to rise again
Mk 8:31 after three days rise again
Three days and three nights
Jonah 1:17 in the stomach of the fish three days and three nights.
Mt 12:40 for just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the sea monster, so shall the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.
To take Matthew 27:63–64:
Sir, they said, we remember that while he was still alive that deceiver said, ‘After three days I will rise again.’ So give the order for the tomb to be made secure until the third day. Otherwise, his disciples may come and steal the body and tell the people that he has been raised from the dead. This last deception will be worse than the first.’
Note that even His enemies understood that ‘after three days’ meant that they only had to secure the tomb ‘until the third day’. If three full 24-hour periods were meant, then they would want to secure the tomb until the fourth day to make sure. So for Jews, the phrases ‘on the third day’, ‘after the third day’, ‘until the third day’ and ‘three days and three nights’ were synonymous.
So, on what day was Jesus crucified? The best explanation is that Christ was buried before about 6pm Good Friday (Luke 23:54). Since the Jewish day started at sunset, the late afternoon of Good Friday was the first day; Friday sunset to Saturday sunset was the 2nd day; the 3rd day began on Saturday at sunset, and Jesus had risen from the dead by early Sunday morning.
It is important to realize that when we attempt to work out difficult portions of Scripture, we cannot approach it as if we were reading a modern newspaper. We have to not only allow Scripture to interpret Scripture, but should allow for the understanding of the time period in which it was written. Our preconceived notions of ‘how it should be’ should be left out of the equation. See also Should Genesis be taken literally?
Thank you for clearing this up. Very good, informative article. Much Appreciated :-)
Hans G., Australia, 14 April 2017
I understand the 3 days but where are the 3 nights?
The night of Friday -Thursday/Friday - had happen already before the Crucifixion.
Jonathan Sarfati responds
As article shows, “while X days and X nights can mean what it means in English, this was only a subset of its semantic range in Jewish idiom.” That's the key: idiom. I think the best now might be to show how the CEO-Emeritus of CMI-Australia, Dr Carl Wieland explained the data to a friend:
Your email has helped things to finally ‘click’ regarding this whole idiom thing …. Let me try to explain what has taken me a while to ‘click’.
Let’s label a full three days and nights in our understanding as W3DN (Western way of understanding three days and nights, i.e. three full days and nights). The Eastern way we’ll label E3DN. You’ve said you have ‘no problem’ with it, so I’ll presume that you mean that you accept, as … demonstrated from its usage elsewhere in the Bible, that it is a common idiom for the time/place.
As you yourself indicate, the E3DN is not an alternative to W3DN, but incorporates or subsumes W3DN within its range of understanding. So let’s say for simplicity that the range of meaning of E3DN is fourfold:
Now when someone in that culture says 3DN, it is automatically E3DN. So, you ask, ‘How could they tell you it was a literal three days or nights?’ I.e. ‘How could they specify, if they needed to, that it was No 2, not any of the others?’ What you’re really asking is, how can the range of possibilities be narrowed down? Your question is semi-rhetorical, but the answer is—a number of different ways—IF it is important for the hearer to have the range narrowed down, that is. E.g.
By spelling out the days of the week. I.e. from noon on the nth day of the week to sunset on the mth day of the week, etc.
By giving you a context which will rule out one or more of the other options.
By not using that expression in the first place, but another which is not subject to the same range of meanings.
So I would argue now that the context itself in the case of the Crucifixion is given to specifically rule out option 2).
So when you ask
“Does it not behoove us to find the explanation that fits the given facts with the least number of secondary assumptions?”
you are implicitly arguing that the idiomatic explanation is a ‘secondary assumption’ made to fit the Friday interpretation. But I would argue that it is not, rather, the following appears to be the case:
The primary meaning of the passage is the E3DN, with its full range of possibilities (which at this stage tells you nothing about whether it is Wed, Thu or Friday). This is simply proper exegesis, understanding the passage how it was meant to be taken (mind I didn’t say that the Friday crucifixion is THE way it is to be taken). This is further confirmed by the fact that other parts of the Bible understand it that way, i.e. allow for that range of meaning. Scripture used to interpret Scripture.
It is the other bits of information given in the Bible about the Crucifixion which then logically exclude the W3DN from the phrase’s semantic range. The problem arises because of people trying to apply the W3DN as the only way to understand E3DN (when it is only one of the ways). Because of their limited exegetical understanding, they then are the ones forced to rely on secondary assumptions and tricky explanations that the people to whom it was written would never have had to trouble themselves with. When they hear the phrase on its own, they realize it has the full range of meanings. So when they come across the additional information, they automatically know what is happening. If one is then asking, which is the explanation that fits the facts (given naught but the proper exegetical information as above) most directly, the Friday crucifixion would seem to win hands-down.
Frank B., Australia, 15 April 2017
That “night” of 3 hours of darkness (when “our sins were borne in His body on the tree”) must have seemed of infinite duration to Him! — Just a point if somebody quibbles about the 3 nights.
William M., Australia, 15 April 2017
My grandmother was born at Easter Gellett farm in Fife, Scotland. Unsurprisingly, it’s only a 10-minute walk to Wester Gellett farm, thus showing the word ‘easter’ in the Scots tongue conveyed a direction, rather than worship of a pagan god.
Renate T., South Africa, 15 April 2017
Thank you so much for this article! I recently heard the "three days and nights means the crucifixion happened on Thursday" argument and wasn't sure how to respond.
The origin of the word Easter also confused me for a long time, and I never knew the bunny and the eggs were originally Christian symbols!
This just shows how easy it is to believe that we in the modern era somehow have more knowledge or discernment than the centuries of Christians before us ... ouch.
Mitch C., United States, 15 April 2017
For many years, archaeologists failed to unearth evidence to support the Biblical testimony concerning the Davidic kingdom, yet that kingdom actually existed, and recent finds now support it.
Similarly, is it possible that Bede and Hislop were actually consulting reliable sources that are no longer available to us today? Why should we discount these witnesses, just because we do not currently have other supporting witnesses?
And even if your conclusions are correct, are we truly worshiping God in the way He commands in Scripture to create a “liturgical calendar” and add to it various human-instituted holidays such as Lent, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, Easter, All-Saints Day, Christmas, etc.? Who has the God-given authority to impose these institutions on the church? Are we now expected to bow to the Roman magisterium or the Holy Synod of the Eastern Orthodox church on such matters?
Does the addition of such holidays to the church’s worship not constitute a deviation from the God-ordained system of worship he has given us? Matthew 15:9, Revelation 22:18, Deuteronomy 12:32, Isaiah 29:13, etc. warn us not to impose human traditions on the people of God.
We are often told that CMI does not take a stand on “secondary issues” like this, but it seems that you are opposing the Regulative Principle taught by the Westminster Confession (11:1) and the 1689 London Baptist Confession (22:1). These standards are adhered to by many of your Baptist and Presbyterian supporters.
Has CMI changed their policy? Should we now expect to see articles taking a position on eschatology, ecclesiology, water baptism, and other ‘secondary’ issues?
Jonathan Sarfati responds
One obvious difference is that Bede and Hislop never claimed to be God-breathed scripture. Also, surely the onus is on those claiming a pagan derivation to present reliable sources. Hislop is demonstrably unreliable, while Bede’s claim about Eostre cannot be corroborated (although he, like nearly scholars in the church throughout its history who commented on the issue, affirmed a global earth). Yet another article on the issue explains:
There are several problems with the passage in Bede. In his book, The Stations of the Sun, Professor Ronald Hutton (a well-known historian of British paganism and occultism) critiques Bede's sketchy knowledge of other pagan festivals, and argues that the same is true for the statement about Eostre: “It falls into a category of interpretations which Bede admitted to be his own, rather than generally agreed or proven fact.”
This leads us to the next problem: there is no evidence outside of Bede for the existence of this Anglo-Saxon goddess. There is no equivalent goddess in the Norse Eddas or in ancient Germanic paganism from continental Europe. Hutton suggests, therefore, that “the Anglo-Saxon Estor-monath simply meant ‘the month of opening’ or ‘the month of beginnings’,” and concludes that there is no evidence for a pre-Christian festival in the British Isles in March or April.
There is another objection to the claim that Eosturmonath has anything to do with a pagan goddess. Whereas Anglo-Saxon days were usually named after gods, such as Wednesday (“Woden’s day”), the names of their months were either calendrical, such as Giuli, meaning "wheel”, referring to the turn of the year; metereological-environmental, such as Solmónath (roughly February), meaning “Mud-Month”; or referred to actions taken in that period, such as Blótmónath (roughly November), meaning “Blood Month”, when animals were slaughtered. No other month was dedicated to a deity, with the exception (according to Bede) of Hrethmonath (roughly March), which he claims was named after the goddess Hrethe. But like Eostre, there is no other evidence for Hrethe, nor any equivalent in Germanic/Norse mythology.
Another problem with Bede's explanation concerns the Saxons in continental Europe. Einhard (c. 775–840), the courtier and biographer of Charlemagne, tells us that among Charlemagne’s reforms was the renaming of the months. April was renamed Ostarmanoth. Charlemagne spoke a Germanic dialect, as did the Anglo-Saxons in Britain, although their vernacular was distinct. But why would Charlemagne change the old Roman title for the spring month to Ostarmanoth? Charlemagne was the scourge of Germanic paganism. He attacked the pagan Saxons and felled their great pillar Irminsul (after their god Irmin) in 772. He forcibly converted them to Christianity and savagely repressed them when they revolted because of this. It seems very unlikely, therefore, that Charlemagne would name a month after a Germanic goddess. (Anthony McRoy, Was Easter Borrowed from a Pagan Holiday? The historical evidence contradicts this popular notion, Christianity Today, April 2009)
Nothing in my article can remotely be construed as advocating forcing anyone to celebrate ‘Easter’. It was pointing out the frankly bad linguistic and historical analysis around the word Easter. Also, CMI can’t take a stand on the Regulative Principle of Worship vs the Normative Principle of Worship. And both of these are about what happens in churches, not what people do outside.
Joy P., United States, 16 April 2017
Thank you for this! I speak a little German, and had always wondered at the apparent ‘coincidence’ that the German word for Easter (Ostern) just happened to have the root for the word East (Ost) just as it is in English. Now I know! It's not a fluke at all, it makes perfect sense that it is a poetic metaphor for the sunrise on Resurrection Sunday.
Brian V., United States, 16 April 2017
Are we missing the forest for the trees, I don’t think it is disputed that this is the “Christian Passover Celebration”, we are just split on what to call it and how to celebrate it. As a new protestant, ex Catholic, I am a little disgusted by the whole back and forth. There are so many great sermons on the symbolism of the O.T. festivals and how they all point to Jesus as our Lord and Savior. So Christians are not honoring the Passover, they are hiding eggs; WHY? Seems to me the fact that the Romans outlawed all things Jewish way back when is not a very solid reason to not celebrate Passover, unless you like being under Rome
Jonathan Sarfati responds
I would hope that Christians recognize that Jesus is the ultimate Osterlamm (Luther) or Ester Lamb (Tyndale), i.e. Passover Lamb, as per 1 Corinthians 5:7.
Mitch C., United States, 16 April 2017
One does not have to read Hislop to realize that eggs and rabbits have been used as fertility symbols since long before the birth of Christ, and that Spring has been the time of year when fertility festivals have typically been celebrated. Is it mere coincidence that eggs and rabbits play such a central role in the observance of Easter?
To avoid the scandal of this, Catholic and Orthodox apologists have contrived stories about surplus eggs at Lent, or alleging some dubious connection between rabbit fertility and miraculous conception. Such contrived explanations cannot hide the obvious fact that the unbiblical symbolism surrounding the celebration of Easter just happens to mimic the fertility symbolism of pagan cultures.
A better explanation is that, when the Edict of Thessalonica (AD 380) made Christianity the official faith of the Roman empire, it was expedient to give Christian names and meanings to the pagan festivals that were so common at the time.
There is no reason to imagine that the name ‘Easter’ has any connection with the direction ‘east’ or the time of sunrise. John 20:1 states that it was still dark when Mary Magdalene went to the tomb and found the stone rolled away, so our Lord had already risen during the night, prior to sunrise.
Nor is there any good reason to reject the testimony of Bede who lived closer to the time when the name was adopted. Jacob Grimm, in his 1835 work Deutsche Mythologie argues for a Germanic goddess named Ostara or (Saxon) Eastre. Charles J. Billson (in The Easter Hare 1892), wrote “… one is inclined to agree with Grimm, that it would be uncritical to saddle this eminent Father of the Church (i.e. Bede), who keeps Heathendom at arms’ length and tells us less of than he knows, with the invention of this goddess.”
Jonathan Sarfati responds
However, when it comes to actual historical documentation, the origins of Easter eggs and hares are to be found in various church customs. A pagan connection is definitely unproven and seems implausible as well.
It's also notable that many of the “Easter is pagan” claims are also found on village-atheopath websites as well. Actually, over the weekend, Australian atheistic historian Tim O’Neill published a helpful article Easter, Ishtar, Eostre and Eggs on his ‘History for Atheist’ site devoted to refuting many “New Atheists getting history wrong”. Elsewhere we have referred to another article on that site, The Great Myths 1: The Medieval Flat Earth. Another article dealing with similar bad New Atheist history to that about Easter is The Great Myths 2: Christmas, Mithras and Paganism. In the Easter article, O’Neill writes (emphasis in original):
Grimm was very good, however, at finding Germanic gods and festivals in the most fragmentary and obscure of evidence and the Old High German cognates for the month name and festival days may indicate something pre-Christian, they don't necessary add up to a goddess. The very cautious modern scholar of all things pagan, Ronald Hutton, accepts that Bede and Grimm may have been right, but we can't be very sure:
"[T]he Anglo-Saxon eastre, signifying both the festival and the season of spring, is associated with a set of words in various Indo-European languages,signifying dawn and also goddesses who personified that event, such as the Greek Eos, the Roman Aurora, and the Indian Ushas. It is therefore quite possible to argue that Bede’s Eostre was a German dawn-deity who was venerated at this season of opening and new beginnings. It is equally valid, however, to suggest that the Anglo-Saxon “Estor-monath” simply meant “the month of opening”, or the “month of beginning”, and that Bede mistakenly connected it with a goddess who either never existed at all, or was never associated with a particular season, but merely, like Eos and Aurora, with the Dawn itself.” (Hutton, Stations Of The Sun, p.180)
The etymology seems to trace back to the Indo-European root "*aus-" meaning "to shine" which in turn is the root for the modern English word "east" and a range of cognates referring to "the dawn", to "shining" and to the "sun". So "Eostremonath" could refer to an otherwise totally unattested goddess, a goddess not associated with Easter or it could be a reference to the month when the sun shines again as winter gives way to spring. We simply don't know.
O’Neill notes the final irony that these New Atheist assertions seem to be traceable to Hislop, whom they would all detest.
Matthew B., Canada, 16 April 2017
Thanks for the article. But even though Hislop used some poor methodology, we need not throw out the baby with the bathwater. Is it proven that the Europeans had no spring festival celebrating a goddess Eostre, or is it an argument from the silence of all except Bede? He could have been wrong; even so, he lived three times as close to the time under discussion as we do.
The Sumerian Inanna, the Babylonian Ishtar and the Phoenician Astarte/Ashtaroth were connected to the second planet, which sometimes appears as the morning star. Hislop believed Ishtar was later worshiped as Ashtaroth and Venus. These were all connected with the morning star (this lends support to his idea), which still bears the name of the last. Venus rises in the east at dawn. For the etymology of Easter, Hislop would probably have concluded that the planet of Ishtar was called Eostre or Ost by some Europeans, with the names being later applied to the east and the feast of the goddess—if it existed.
This article put forth two other ideas for the origin of the word Easter.
Ostern/Easter could have come from Auferstehung, the German word for Resurrection. But is there any evidence of this change of form in German?
Oster/Easter could have come from Ost, the German word for East. This etymology depends heavily on the premise that Ost originally referred to the sun rising in the east, and the assumption that the rising sun was connected to Jesus the Son rising from the dead. This etymology may be supported by the fact that the Sanskrit word Ushas, similar to Ost, meant dawn.
But these etymologies don’t address the origin of the word Easter; they only discuss why the word was applied to the Resurrection. To say that Oster meant Passover in Luther's time is ignoring the issue of the origin of the word Oster
Jonathan Sarfati responds
Unfortunately, in Hislop’s case, there is no baby! This is far from the only thing he got wrong with his imaginative historical and linguistic reconstructions. See for example Christmas-Why?, comment and reply Mitch C., United States, 28 December 2015.
It is well known that English is a Germanic language (see The development of languages is nothing like biological evolution). The Saxons were a Germanic people who originally came from what is now the northwest corner of modern Germany.
And as I explained to Mitch C. in the comments here, the burden of proof is surely on those who want to connect Easter with paganism. Also, as the article stated, there are undisputed pagan origins of the names of the days of our week, but no one thinks Christians are wrong to use these names.
R. F., United States, 17 April 2017
I only recently became aware that an anti-Easter movement exists within the church, and I have to say that none of their arguments seem like they would make any difference even if they were true. For example, if the word ‘Easter’ came from pagan origins, that is not a valid reason to demand that we stop celebrating Easter since any pagan meaning that it did have is gone and the Christian meaning has taken its place.
Jonathan Sarfati responds
Indeed so, as I pointed out in the article with the names of our week days and a number of other things.
Chandrasekaran M., Australia, 17 April 2017
Thank you, Jonathan Sarfati, for the articles you have been publishing here in CMI for fortifying and not be ashamed of the faith in the Lord Jesus. Now, from this article I understand that the expressions ‘three days and three nights’ and ‘three days’ are essentially the same in terms of what these expressions mean in Jewish culture and that the scripture is written in the culture at the time when it was written.
In Jewish culture, what expression can be used to mean ‘three daytimes and three night-times’? How would it look like? Is not Matthew 12:40 written in Greek and not in Hebrew?
The apostle John used the word Sabbath ten times in the Gospel according to John. But only in John 19:31 he refers to the Sabbath just before Jesus the Lord dies on the cross as ‘for it was the mega day, that Sabbath’. Why would John use the word mega only associated with this Sabbath in John 19:31?
According to Leviticus 23:4-8, the Passover is on Nisan 14th followed by one week of the feast of unleavened bread commencing on Nisan 15th. Both Nisan 15th and Nisan 20th are a holy convocation when no laborious work is done like a Sabbath day. So, can a Nisan 15th fall on a Friday?
Jonathan Sarfati responds
Indeed, the inspired Gospel according to Matthew was written in Greek. But the author was a Jew writing first of all to other Jews, so used many Hebraisms. As you note, the article documented various ways to express the same amount of time, and trying to make the Crucifixion fall on Thursday or Wednesday ruins those other time markers.
As for the question about the Sabbaths, this article is helpful: When was the Last Supper? by New Testament specialist Lita Cosner. I have now added this to the Related articles.
PS: to answer your question “In Jewish culture, what expression can be used to mean ‘three daytimes and three night-times’?”, see my response to Hans G. which cited Dr Carl Wieland on the issue.
Bridget M., United States, 18 April 2017
This debate over Easter and Christmas has become a major problem between myself and a friend. On the one hand, I commend her on her desire to draw closer to God; however, I am very concerned about the sources she is ascribing to and following.
She became very caught up in conspiracy theories a few years ago, and that has led to a very extreme, conspiratorial view of the nephilim, ancient history, the Catholic church—and much of what she claims I can see now came directly from Hislop’s book. At the same time, she was following some questionable preachers online, one of which was making the claim that Christians were still under the old law, Satan had initiated Sunday worship to defy God’s Sabbath commands, and Easter and Christmas were pagan holidays, all of which smacked quite loudly to me of Judaism.
I admit I had a very difficult time with it as I couldn’t help but wonder if she was right, which bothered me because I quite enjoyed celebrating those holidays with my family and the focus back on Christ that they brought to my life. So I started digging into it myself, trying to find reputable Christian scholars (and not the obscure ones she was listening to). Prayer and study brought me to Paul's words: “he that observes the day, observes it to the Lord; and he that doesn’t observe it doesn't observe it to the Lord.”
I had to accept that it was a liberty issue: she was free not to celebrate the day just as I was to celebrate it, and that if she truly felt it was pagan, then she shouldn’t celebrate it because doing so without a clear conscious would be sin to her.
It was still frustrating because while she didn't overtly force her viewpoints on me, she always prefaced the discussion that it was still pagan—which really felt like a backwards condemnation to me!
Jonathan Sarfati responds
It sounds like you are handling this in exemplary fashion. You even went to one of the key biblical passages—compare Celebrating Christmas?
Bridget M., United States, 18 April 2017
Also, I have a quick question: are there any good references that discuss Hislop’s claims? I first heard of Two Babylons back when a pastor at a former church mentioned it in a sermon, but I have had some difficulty in locating quality commentaries on the work. A cursory google search on the topic either pulls up many fervent supporters (the kind that don't speak from a reasonable, factual standing but from a conspiratorial one), with the only ones with a conservative voice being Catholic priests using Catholic dogma to debunk him, and Ralph Woodrow who formerly supported the work until, as he claimed, he began looking into Hislop’s claims.
Are there are good, trustworthy sources that I can consult that will explain what Hislop taught, sources that can be either for or against, but who back up their standing with good, sound study and references?
Jonathan Sarfati responds
That Woodrow book is very good, coming as you say from a former supporter who then honestly looked at the work and publicly retracted. In comments under the article Christmas-Why?, I explained a few of Hislop’s fallacies.
There was one sad irony that pointed out about Hislop pointed out in my Genesis 1–11 commentary, The Genesis Account. That is, Hislop, a minister of a church that teaches Sola Scriptura, had to depart from Scripture to invent a history of his own making, with the most tenuous link to any proper sources. However, many of Hislop’s devotees treat his book almost as inspired Scripture.
Mitch C., United States, 20 April 2017
While one can certainly question some of the sources that Hislop cites, and some of the conclusions he draws, it would be irresponsible to categorically reject all of the material he presents as if none of it were factual or relevant.
The evidence for the pagan origin of Easter and Christmas customs is overwhelming. Besides fertility symbols, such as eggs and rabbits, the use of such things as mistletoe, “yule logs”, hot cross buns, evergreen trees, exchanging of gifts, Lent (a period of fasting and weeping for the death of a deity–see Ezekiel 8:14), etc. all have their origins in pagan culture and predate the birth of our Lord.
Neither Jesus nor his apostles commanded us to make an annual celebration of his birth, death or resurrection, nor is there any Biblical example of the New Testament believers observing such holidays. Without either precept or example, we have no Biblical warrant for the making or keeping of such observances. The Jewish feasts, on the other hand, were instituted by the Word of God.
The Roman and Orthodox churches have been notorious for adding unscriptural traditions and teachings to the simple apostolic faith. Wycliffe, Hus, and the Reformers rightly decried the false doctrines of indulgences, purgatory, papal infallibility, Mariolatry, the “treasury of merit”, penance, immaculate conception, the perpetual virginity and assumption of Mary, transubstantiation, and the like.
The multitude of man-made holidays, such as Christmas, Easter, Lent, Michaelmass, All Saint’s day, etc. are symptomatic of the same urge to burden the people of God with human traditions and to turn them from the simple, pure faith of trusting in Christ, fellowshipping with the saints, and living a life of humility, compassion, truth, justice and gospel witness.
Jonathan Sarfati responds
But since Hislop has been proven to be so unreliable, why should we trust him on anything he writes? If it can be corroborated with reliable sources, then just use those sources—Hislop becomes reduntant. And if they can’t be corroborated, then why use them at all? This includes connecting mourning for Tammuz (Ezekiel 8:14) with Lent, let alone his loopy fantasizing that Tammuz was the son of Nimrod and Semiramis.
I explained where Easter eggs and rabbits came from: church traditions, not pagan fertility symbols. We answered your other claims about pagan derivation a while back at Is there anything about Christmas that’s genuinely Christian?
Your last three paragraphs are addressed in Celebrating Christmas? They conflate extra-biblical with anti-biblical, and a celebration being permitted with being mandatory.
Kevin M., United States, 22 April 2017
Where is the biblical ‘warrant’ that we must have a biblical warrant for celebrating or observing Easter, or doing anything else? Where is the biblical prohibition against it (which amounts to the same thing)?
If there were such a prohibition, how could it not include using the Internet, automobiles, trash compactors, or bowling alleys? Where is the warrant for insisting we have a warrant before we’re allowed to do something, or even for debating about ‘warrants’?
Certain aspects aside, are we really to assume that we’re wrong to find something to celebrate in Christ’s Resurrection? Especially when Philippians 4:4 tells us to “rejoice in the Lord always” and Ephesians 5:20 says to "[give] thanks for all things”? One might come up with reasonable exceptions, like gloating over harm that's come to a friend (or even enemy)—perhaps simply “giving thanks” for such with a vengeful attitude. But surely, if there were any one thing in the world that wouldn't be an exception, it’s the pre-eminent event of all time—the one thing that is most beneficial to the Christian, the one thing that should evoke the most joy in his life: Christ’s Resurrection.
How did it ever come about—and why—that we would need to be told to celebrate the Resurrection of our Lord? And how is it not absolute insanity to think that such celebration shouldn’t come from a Christian spontaneously? Some things don’t need approval and shouldn't require urging—which is likely why neither is expressed regarding Easter in Scripture.
Matthew B., Canada, 26 April 2017
Yes, I am aware that English is based on German because of the Saxon invasion. Also that words develop within languages, but that not all languages (like Babylonian and German) have a common background, thus similar words may not have similar meanings. The exception would be when words were borrowed from another language.
My question was simply, is there linguistic evidence that Ostern came from the word Auferstehung, or is this just a convenient suggestion that gives an alternative to the unpopular Hislop? Was the word created to describe the Resurrection day; or was the word already being used for some other use before it referred to the Christian occasion? When is the first historical appearance of Oster?
I do not believe that Oster originally meant Passover, as the article stated. If the word “Oster” meant “resurrection” or “rising”, it would not be connected to the Jewish feast, which has no direct connection with a resurrection. The word must first have been applied to the Christian feast which did; then later to the Jewish feast, which occurred at the same season.
But the origin of our name for the Resurrection Day should not logically keep anyone from observing it in a godly way. After all, it is in only a few languages that the day is called “Easter”; even if our name for it would have a pagan origin, those of other tongues don't need to abandon the practice of commemorating Jesus' Resurrection. I like how you put it: “It is illogical to avoid a Christian-based holiday that brings people together in worship because of some perceived tie to paganism, while using everyday products and ignoring their obvious pagan heritage.”
Early church writers speak about observing Easter. Irenaeus said “these things had always been observed by John the disciple of our Lord."
David J., United States, 28 April 2017
I don’t have a problem with celebrating pagan holidays like Easter, Christmas, and Halloween, so long as we recognize that’s what they are. My family does. The argument isn't that ancient Anglo-Saxons didn’t celebrate Easter. Clearly they did. It’s that it’s extra-biblical. Easter is cognate with Indo-European words such as asterisk and star, and names derived from those such as Ishtar and Astarte. Passover has nothing to do with stars or the sun rising in the east, as you traced to the German Ost. That is a diversion. The Jews did not worship the stars or the sun, but pagans did. I think you’re defending the fusion of Scripture and paganism. That is the problem with using words like Easter in place of Passover.
Jonathan Sarfati responds
Once again, lots of assertions that are contrary to fact (as documented in the article). Note that the names Ishtar and Astarte are not in the Indo-European language family; rather they are names of the same goddess in different branches of the Semitic language family.
And again, there is the common mistake of confusing etymology with usage, and extra-biblical with anti-biblical. And I still don’t know why using the word ‘Easter’ or cognates—as Luther, Tyndale, and the KJV translators did—is “defending the fusion of Scripture and paganism”, while using ‘Thursday’ (= Thor’s Day) is not.
David J., United States, 28 April 2017
Jonathan, we don't worship Thor or the sun (Sunday). Of course our language has extensive pagan-derived words. The only point I am making is that the religious holiday is Passover, not Easter. The KJV wrote “Passover” some 29 times and “Easter” once, because in that one instance it would not have been logical to say Passover. Herod said he was waiting for Passover to kill Peter, but it was in the days of unleavened bread which come after Passover, so it would be illogical to say he was waiting for something that already occurred. What he was waiting for was the pagan feast of Easter, which presumably came after Passover that year. Conflating Christianity with colored Easter eggs and prolific rabbits (Astarte was a Babylonian fertility goddess) is a disservice to Christianity (and also Judaism, in my opinion). Jesus never warned us against celebrating pagan holidays, so I don’t think it's the end of the world if we do. I’m just saying lets recognize them for what they are not defend them as Christianity.
Jonathan Sarfati responds
The point I amply documented in my article that by Tyndale’s time, the word ‘ester’ had meant Passover for centuries. Tyndale actually invented the word ‘Passover’. The KJV, a revision of the Bishop’s Bible, which in turn was several revisions from Tyndale’s version, retained most of Tyndale's wording, but mostly used his new word, and I have no problem with their choices.
Repeating the pagan feast of Easter doesn't make it any more true, and the original language has the same word that is elsewhere translated ‘Passover’. And you managed to ignore the parts of my article were I explained the non-pagan origins of Easter eggs and rabbits (originally hares).