Easter – Christian or pagan?
It has often been claimed in some circles that Christians “stole” Easter from pagans. The claim has been repeated so often that it has become a factoid (a piece of unreliable information believed to be true because of the way it is presented or repeated in print).
I was prompted to write about it because in this month’s synchroblog Julie Clawson mentions it in onehandclapping: Rejection, redemption and roots. Since it is not central to the main point of her article (which is very good) I thought it was worth discussing separately.
I first came across this idea in The golden bough by Sir James Frazer, which I read when I was in high school. As the Wikipedia summary puts it:
Its thesis is that old religions were fertility cults that revolved around the worship of, and periodic sacrifice of, a sacred king. This king was the incarnation of a dying and reviving god, a solar deity who underwent a mystic marriage to a goddess of the earth, who died at the harvest, and was reincarnated in the spring. Frazer claims that this legend is central to almost all of the world’s mythologies. The germ for Frazer’s thesis was the pre-Roman priest-king at the fane of Nemi, who was ritually murdered by his successor
This implies that the disciples of Jesus, some time between his death and the writing of the gospels, decided to apply this myth to Jesus, and to proclaim him as such a dying-and-rising king. The problem of the argument that Christians “stole” it from pagans, however, is that Frazer claims that it is universal to all religions. So if Frazer’s argument is true, they all stole it, or at least all but the first one to come up with it, and it is very difficult to know which that one is.
I don’t, at this point, want to discuss the historicity of the resurrection. That the resurrection of Jesus was a historic event is central to the Christian faith, but proving by historical methods that that event took place as described is a different matter. What we can discover using historical methods, however, is what Christians believed at various periods. And what we discover is that very early on Christians believed that Jesus rose from the dead, and that this was linked to, and seen as the fulfilment of the Jewish Passover.
As one Easter hymn puts it:
This is the day of resurrection, let us be illumined, O people. Pascha, the Pascha of the Lord. For from death to life and from earth to heaven has Christ our God led us, as we sing the song of victory: Christ is risen from the dead
This may be more familiar to Western Christians in J.M. Neale’s paraphrase:
The Day of Resurrection
Earth tell it out abroad
The Passover of gladness
The Passover of God
From death to life eternal
from earth unto the sky
Our Christ has brought us over
With songs of victory.
I’ve had several debates and even arguments about the topic previously, mainly with fundamentalist Christians who claim to have got the idea from a book called The two Babylons by Alexander Hislop. The first time this happened I could not find Hislop’s book, but I checked every historical reference I could find, and found the claim was without foundation. When, some years later, a friend lent me a copy of Hislop’s book, I found that Hislop didn’t claim it either, at least not in the form that the people who made the claim said he did. They played fast and loose with their own source, never mind any others.
Their argument (which, as I say, went considerably further than Hislop himself did) was based on the word “Easter” itself, and involved the most extraordinary historical distortions and anachronisms, not to mention fanciful etymology, and extraordinary debates about the translation of “Pascha” by “Easter” in Acts 12:4 of the King James English version of the Bible.
Their argument was that since the English word Easter was derived from the name of a pagan goddess, therefore the Christian celebration of the resurrection of Christ was a pagan one — which brings us right back to Sir James Frazer’s point, and the only conclusion of their argument that I could ever discover was that they were saying the Jesus never rose from the dead because the disciples nicked the story from some pagan source, but not even Hislop claims this.
The fact is, however, that Christians celebrated the resurrection of Christ long before the word “Easter” was used, and the word they used for the celebration was Pascha, which is derived from and linked to the Jewish festival of Passover (as the above hymn shows).
So where did the word “Easter” come from?
It’s time for a lesson in Christian missionary history.
When part of Britain was ruled by the Roman empire, Christianity spread there, as it did to the other parts of the Roman empire and beyond. Romano-British Christians evangelised Ireland, and Irish Christians sent missionaries to northern Britain to evangelise there among the Picts. Roman Britain was multi-cultural and multi-religious. There were Christians and a variety of local and Roman cults, and mixtures of them. In the 4th and 5th centuries Germanic “barbarians” were invading the Roman empire from the East, and at the beginning of the 5th century Roman troops were being withdrawn from Britain to help defend Italy against the Visigoths. By 410 the withdrawal was complete, and the British were told that they were on their own. The Emperor wrote a letter to this effect to different cities, as there was no longer any central authority. The “barbarians”, Angles and Saxons from the continent, the ancestors of the English, arrived in Britain in increasing numbers. Sometimes they settled peacefully among the British, but at other times they embarked on violent conquest (this was the time of the legendary King Arthur), and by the middle of the 6th century they ruled most of what came to be called England, driving the Romano-British and the Celtic population to the north and west — Cornwall, Wales and Cumbria.
Christian missionaries then evangelised the English — Celtic missionaries from Ireland and Scotland in the north, and a Roman mission led by St Augustine of Canterbury in the south, which arrived in 597.
A couple of centuries later the English monastic historian Bede wrote his History of the English Church and people and other works on Christian festivals, about which there had been some contention. Among other things Bede tells us about the origin of the word “Easter”. The English word Easter comes from the Anglo-Saxon name for the month of April, which was known as “Eostremonath” in the AngloSaxon tongue, and since Pascha was most often celebrated in Eostremonath, the English Christians began calling it “Easter”. Bede surmised that the month was named after a goddess Esostre (nothing to do with “Oestrus”, which has another derivation altogether), and there is also no demonstrable connection with “Ishtar”. Bede tells us very little about Eostre, and there is nothing about her in earlier or contemporary sources. Bede is the earliest reference.
English missionaries to other places, like Germany, took the term “Easter” with them, and so German Christians called it “Ostern”, but the rest of the Christian world called it Pascha, or derivatives thereof. So to claim that Passover/Pascha was “stolen” from pagans because the English called it “Easter” several centuries later is anachronistic nonsense.
Pagans might agree with James Frazer, and say that Christians “stole” the idea of a a dying-and-rising king from pagans, but if they do, perhaps they should stop and ask themselves where they themselves “stole” it from, because Frazer claims that it is universal.
But Christians who accept this factoid as a “fact” would do well to ponder St Paul’s words: “if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain” (I Cor 15:14).