Every Easter I have to brace myself for the onslaught of ridiculous meme’s and factually baseless blog articles claiming that Christianity stole Easter from the Pagans.
A friend of mine contributed a post for my blog on this topic a few years ago which you can find HERE. With this post I am going to aim for a more detailed analysis on a more narrow approach than he did. There is evidence and good arguments out there with original sources for defending the Christian origins of the Bunnies and Eggs which you can find HERE. With this post though I’m focusing on the origins of the holiday itself. To do that I intend to ask and answer the following questions and go from there.
Did the early Christians believe the holy week to have occurred over the Passover?
Did the Early Christians desire to celebrate the resurrection?
Did first century Jews observe the Passover on or around the spring equinox?
To address the first two questions I am going to quote some church fathers. What I found was that they didn’t use the word Easter. The word Easter is the English word for Pascha which has its roots in Passover. Kinda boring to find the answer in the word itself but lets continue anyways for science.
I found the below quotes from David W. Bercot’s A Dictionary of Early Christian Beliefs. I selected the quotes below because you can see an evolving dialogue on the dispute in the early church regarding what day Pascha [Easter] should be observed. In this book the word Easter is used to prevent confusion on the part of the reader but it should be known that this is an anachronism, the writers would have used the term “Pascha”.
The thing they seem to dispute the most is whether or not the Church should observe Nisan 14 every year, the Sunday following Nisan 14 to keep the holy week cycle, or if each church should do as they were taught and just be at peace about it.
“When Servilius Paulus was procounsul of Asia, at the time that Sagaris suffered martyrdom, there arose a great controversy at Laodicea concerning the date of Easter [Pascha] , which had fallen due at that time.” Melito, 170 AD Pg 223
“When the blessed Polycarp was visiting in Rome in the time of Anicetus [c. 155 A.D.], . . . they were at once well inclined towards each other, not willing that any quarrel should arise between them upon this matter [the observance of Easter]. For Anicetus could not persuade Polycarp to forego the observance [of his Easter customs] inasmuch as these things had been always observed by John the disciple of our Lord, and by other apostles with whom he had been conversant. Nor, on the other hand, could Polycarp succeed in persuading Anicetus to keep [Easter in his way], for Anicetus maintained that he was bound to adhere to the usage of the presbyters who preceded him. And in this state of affairs they held fellowship with each other.” Irenaeus, c. 180, Pg 500
“There are some diversities among the churches. Anyone may know this from the facts concerning the celebration of Easter [Pascha]. . . . He may see that here are some diversities among them. All things are not observed alike among the churches, such as are observed at Jerusalem. Similarly, in very many other provinces, many things are varied because of the places and names. Nevertheless, there is no departure at all from the peace and unity of the [universal] church on this account.” Firmilian, AD 256 Pg 500
“As for us, then, we scrupulously observe the exact day, neither adding nor taking away. For in Asia great luminaries have gone to their rest, who will rise again on the day of the coming of the Lord. . . . These all kept Easter [Pascha] on the fourteenth day, in accordance with the Gospel. . . . Seven of my relatives were bishops, and I am the eighth, and my relatives always observed the day when the people put away the leaven.” Polycrates AD 190 Pg 500
“You have sent to me, most faithful and accomplished son, in order to inquire what is the proper hour for bringing the fast to a close on the day of Easter [Pascha]. You say that there are some of the brethren who hold that it should be done at cockcrow. However, others say that it should end at nightfall…. It will be cordially acknowledge by all that those who have been humbling their souls with fasting should immediately begin their festal joy and gladness at the same hour as the resurrection…. However, no precise account seems to be offered in [Scripture] as to the hour at which he rose.” – Dionysius of Alexandria 262 AD Pg 223
“We make the following statement and explanation to those who seek an exact account of the specific hour, half-hour, or quarter of an hour at which it is proper to begin their rejoicing over our Lord’s rising from the dead: Those who are too hasty and give up even before midnight, we reprove as irresponsible and intemperate.” – Dionysius of Alexandra 262 AD Pg 223
“Our predecessors, men most learned in the books of the Hebrews and Greeks (I refer to Isidore, Jerome, and Clement) . . . come harmoniously to one and the same most exact determining of Easter [Pascha] —the day, month, and season meeting in accord with the highest honor for the Lord’s resurrection. But Origen also, the most learned of all, and the most discerning in making calculations, . . . has published in a very elegant manner a little book on Easter [Pascha]. . . . For this reason, also, we maintain that those who . . . determine the fourteenth day of the Paschal season by it make no trivial or common blunder. . . . Therefore, in this concurrence of the sun and moon, the Paschal festival is not to be celebrated. For as long as the [sun and moon] are found in this course, the power of darkness is not overcome. And as long as equality between light and darkness endures, and is not diminished by the light, it is shown that the Paschal festival is not to be celebrated. Accordingly, it is directed that the festival be kept after the equinox.” Anatolius AD 270 Pg 500
“It is your duty, brethren . . . to observe the days of Easter [Pascha] exactly. . . . No longer be concerned about keeping the feast with the Jews, for we now have no communion with them. In fact, they have been led astray in regard to the calculation itself. . . . You should not, through ignorance, celebrate Easter [Pascha] twice in the same year, or celebrate this day of the resurrection of our Lord on any day other than a Sunday.” Apostolic Constitutions, AD 390 Pg 223
There was obviously dispute on the date they all felt Easter should be observed. However, I don’t see any plot detailing how they seek to rob a pagan religion of their Ishtar day or anything like that (by the way ishtar only rhymes with easter in english!). Clearly they all believed that the biblical narrative happened on Nisan 14 and they wanted the Christian tradition to be in keeping with that history however the details worked out.
I think that satisfies the first two questions. We have evidence that the Early Christians observed Easter in one form or another. We also see that they were quite passionate about doing it right. So I don’t think there is any basis to say they got it from Pagans. Why the association with the Equinox though?
The first month of the Jewish Lunar calendar happens to be in the spring. Though the specific means have changed over time, a lot of care has been given to ensure that it remains in the spring by adding leap years to the Jewish Calendar. When Leviticus was written the name of the month was different, but today it is called the month of Nisan.
“These are the appointed feasts of the Lord , the holy convocations, which you shall proclaim at the time appointed for them. In the first month, on the fourteenth day of the month at twilight, is the Lord ‘s Passover. And on the fifteenth day of the same month is the Feast of Unleavened Bread to the Lord ; for seven days you shall eat unleavened bread. On the first day you shall have a holy convocation; you shall not do any ordinary work. But you shall present a food offering to the Lord for seven days. On the seventh day is a holy convocation; you shall not do any ordinary work.” ‘ Leviticus 23:4-8 ESV
The only reason then that Passover happens around the equinox in my estimation is because Nisan does. When did Nisan 14 land when Jesus would have been crucified? We don’t know for sure which year he was crucified. According to tradition it was 33 AD, but there are other historic possibilities.
This article gives details on making the best guess that we can though. There is a give and take of a few days on each as the determination of the beginning of a new month at the time was visibility of the moon. Such a thing is highly subjective as we don’t know today which nights were cloudy and which were not in the first century.
Jesus crucifixion would have been in March or April. Also, since it’s impossible to nail it down to the precise date then that means arguing over exactly which one of these we should observe it on is a waste of time. We don’t know. The point is though that Easter is a christian tradition not a pagan one. The date for the Passover is rooted in scripture, which means the date for the resurrection is too. The source of the tradition itself is completely biblical in it’s origins.
Okay but why the Equinox?
The truth is this isn’t a question one has to answer. There are many reasons one may establish a holiday based on the equinox that do not require appropriating pagan traditions. For example, they didn’t have digital calendars back then and people wanted to share the same dates for things. I can see how using the equinox or the solstice as a starting point for framing a calculation on a holiday would be pretty handy.
Even if that isn’t the reason though you don’t need one to object to the pagan origins assertion. Just because two things are similar doesn’t mean one was caused by the other. If someone is throwing this at you then you should actually just point out the underlying flaw in their logic. You don’t need to even go any further than that.
Origin of the Modern Dates
I found a good article on this which you can read yourself HERE. The two paragraphs most pertinent though are quoted below for your convenience.
“Easter is the day members of the Christian faith recognize the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. It is a celebration of life and new beginnings. In 325 AD the church held the First Ecumenical Council known as the Council of Nicea. Prior to the council meeting, churches around the world celebrated Easter at various times. In order to bring unity among the churches, council members created a formula that would calculate the date for Easter celebration around the world. They established Easter to be held on the first Sunday that occurs after the first full moon, which follows the vernal equinox, but always after Jewish Passover. To avoid any confusion in the date, it was also determined that the vernal equinox would fall on March 21. This system would guarantee that all churches would celebrate Easter together on the same day.”……
“Although the churches were split among several doctrinal views, they both still believed Easter should be celebrated on the first Sunday after the first full moon to follow the vernal equinox. The Catholic Church, however, no longer found that it had to fall after Passover. Added to this was the Catholic Church’s switch over from the Julian calendar to the Gregorian calendar, which was presented in 1582. The Orthodox Church still held to the original Nicean Council’s formula for Easter as well as following the original calendar system of the Julian calendar. By using two different calendar systems, the vernal equinox now fell on March 21 under the Gregorian calendar and April 3 on the Julian calendar. The two churches now celebrated the same Easter holiday on two different days.”
It’s perfectly rational to assert from history that Easter is thoroughly Christian in it’s origins. Whether you observe on the Western date or the Eastern one is just as valid as it would seem that arguing about the date is part of our heritage too. What you don’t have to deal with is those silly meme’s telling you it’s a pagan day. Please feel free to drop a link to this blog post in any of those that you see.