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UCGia Bible Insights Thursday, March 07 2024

What are the real origins of Easter?

The word ‘Easter’ appears only once in the King James Version of the Bible (and not at all in most others). In the one place it does appear, the King James translators mistranslated the Greek word for Passover as "Easter".

The verse in question is Acts 12:4: "And when he [King Herod Agrippa I] had apprehended him [the Apostle Peter], 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.” The Greek word translated Easter here is pascha, properly translated everywhere else in the Bible as "Passover." Referring to this mistranslation, Adam Clarke's Commentary on the Bible says that "perhaps there never was a more unhappy, not to say absurd, translation than that in our text."

Easter is a major religious holiday, but it wasn’t observed by the Apostles and early Church. Many credible sources substantiate the fact that Easter became a substitute festival for the Passover and Feast of Unleavened Bread. There is no mention of it in the book of Acts, which covers several decades of early Church history, except for that one incorrect translation already mentioned. It is also not referred to in any of the New Testament epistles, which were written over a span of 30 to 40 years after Jesus Christ's death and resurrection.

Also, the Gospels, which appear to have been written from about a decade after Christ's death and resurrection to perhaps as much as 60 years later (in the case of John's Gospel), contain no indication of anything remotely resembling an Easter celebration. Early Christians, even after the times of the Apostles, continued to observe a variation of the biblical Passover. (It differed because Jesus introduced new symbolism, as the Bible notes in Matthew 26:26-28 and 1 Corinthians 11:23-28).

Vine's Complete Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words, in its entry "Easter," states: "The term ‘Easter' is not of Christian origin. It is another form of Astarte, one of the titles of the Chaldean goddess, the queen of heaven. The festival of Pasch [Passover] held by Christians in post-apostolic times was a continuation of the Jewish feast…From this Pasch the pagan festival of ‘Easter' was quite distinct and was introduced into the apostate Western religion, as part of the attempt to adapt pagan festivals to Christianity" (W.E. Vine, 1985).

The Catholic Encyclopedia defines Easter as follows: “The English term, according to the [eighth-century monk] Bede, relates to Eostre, a Teutonic goddess of the rising light of day and spring…" (1909, Vol. 5, p. 224). Eostre is the ancient European name for the same goddess worshiped by the Babylonians as Astarte or Ishtar, goddess of fertility, whose major celebration was in the spring of the year.

Author Greg Dues, in his book Catholic Customs and Traditions, elaborates on the symbolism of eggs in ancient pre-Christian cultures: "In ancient Egypt and Persia friends exchanged decorated eggs at the spring equinox, the beginning of their New Year. These eggs were a symbol of fertility for them because the coming forth of a live creature from an egg was so surprising to people of ancient times. Christians of the Near East adopted this tradition, and the Easter egg became a religious symbol. It represented the tomb from which Jesus came forth to new life" (1992, p. 101). The same author also explains that, like eggs, rabbits became associated with Easter because they were powerful symbols of fertility: "Rabbits are part of pre-Christian fertility symbolism because of their reputation to reproduce rapidly" (p. 102).

These symbols demean the truth of Christ's death and resurrection. Easter, a pagan festival with its pagan fertility symbols, replaced the God-ordained festivals that Jesus Christ, the Apostles and the early Church observed. But this didn't happen immediately. Not until A.D. 325—almost three centuries after Jesus Christ was crucified and resurrected—was the matter settled. Regrettably, it wasn't settled on the basis of biblical truth, but on the basis of anti-Semitism and raw ecclesiastical and imperial power.

As The Encyclopaedia Britannica explains: "A final settlement of the dispute [over whether and when to keep Easter or Passover] was one among the other reasons which led [the Roman emperor] Constantine to summon the council of Nicaea in 325….The decision of the council was unanimous that Easter was to be kept on Sunday, and on the same Sunday throughout the world, and ‘that none should hereafter follow the blindness of the Jews'" (11th edition, p. 828, "Easter" pp. 828-829).

Those who did choose to "follow the blindness of the Jews"—that is, who continued to keep the biblical festivals kept by Jesus Christ and the Apostles rather than the newly "Christianized" pagan Easter festival—were systematically persecuted by the powerful church-state alliance of Constantine 's Roman Empire. With the power of the empire behind it, Easter soon became entrenched as one of traditional Christianity's most popular sacred celebrations.

British historian Sir James Frazer notes how Easter symbolism and rites, along with other pagan customs and celebrations, entered into the established Roman church: "Taken altogether, the coincidences of the Christian with the heathen festivals are too close and too numerous to be accidental. They mark the compromise which the Church in the hour of its triumph was compelled to make with its vanquished yet still dangerous rivals [the empire's competing pagan religions] (The Golden Bough, 1993, p. 361).

In short, to broaden the appeal of the new religion of Christianity in those early centuries, the powerful Roman religious authorities, with the backing of the Roman Empire, simply co-opted the rites and practices of pagan religions, relabeled them as "Christian" and created a new brand of Christianity with customs and teachings far removed from the Church Jesus founded. The authentic Christianity of the Bible largely disappeared, forced underground by persecution because its followers refused to compromise.

Easter does not accurately represent Jesus Christ's suffering, death and resurrection. The ancient religious practices and fertility symbols associated with the cult of Astarte, the Babylonian goddess, existed long before Christ, and have regrettably largely replaced and obscured the truth of His death and resurrection.