Easter, Passover, Ishtar, and Myths – From Jerusalem Rev. Aaron Eime

Religious Calendars are interesting things. In Jerusalem, we have just celebrated Passover and Easter together. Passover fell on Good Friday, and our community gathered at 1 pm to remember the Crucifixion and then headed to the Dead Sea to celebrate Passover and the Redemption from Egypt. It does beg the question, however, how does Death and Resurrection, Passover, Deliverance, and Redemption go hand in hand with bunnies and eggs? Well, obviously they don’t. There is no connection between Passover and rabbits, and there is also no connection between Easter and pagan ritual. Notwithstanding, Easter does have a strong connection to Passover.

Myths about Easter abound all over the internet, and I am bombarded constantly by many well-meaning believing Christians challenging me on the nature of Easter, Holy Week and its supposed pagan roots. Common claims against any celebration of Easter stem from the misconception that Easter is named after a pagan fertility goddess. The common arch-types are Ishtar of the Babylonian pantheon or of the Germanic goddess of Spring called Eostre. This is simply not true but has become ‘the truth’ essentially through repetition. We keep saying it and hearing it, so it must be true without anyone challenging and verifying the source.

Ishtar is indeed a fertility goddess of the Babylonian and Assyrian pantheon. Note that Babylon is in the East in the lands of Iraq and Iran today. The Christian community that resides in the East is the Orthodox Church. The Orthodox community has been there since the first century, descendants of the first believers in Jesus. In the Orthodox Church, the word used for Easter is not Easter, it’s Pascha. Pascha is the Aramaic of the Hebrew word Pesach (Passover). So the Christians who live in the land where the pagan goddess Ishtar comes from don’t actually call the festival after her at all, they refer to the festival by its Jewish roots, the Pascha or the Passover.

Meanwhile, over in the West the first recorded written account of the spring goddess Eostre hales from the 8th Century. She has nothing to do with rabbits and/or chocolate eggs, which didn’t start getting sold by Cadbury until the 19th Century. However, people in the Christian world were writing about Pascha/Easter long before then. In the 2nd Century, Melito of Sardis, a Jewish believer and Bishop of the community in Sardis, wrote a defense of Pascha in which he argued for the date of Pascha/Easter to be the 14th of Nisan. That is, he was arguing that Pascha should be celebrated at Passover and not the Sunday following Passover. Nisan, by the way, is the Jewish month in which Passover falls and it really is named after a Babylonian god. Interestingly, the majority of the current Jewish calendar is named after Babylonian gods, and the Rabbis don’t seem to mind at all. Perhaps we should learn something from the Rabbis on this one.

Let’s be absolutely clear: Easter is only called Easter in two languages, English and German. Most other languages call the season of Easter after Pascha or Passover. For example, in French, you say Påques, in Dutch its Pasen, in Indonesian its Paskah, etc. Even in Latin, the traditional language of the Catholic Church, Easter is called Pascha. That’s right; the Catholic Church actually does not call Easter – Easter. It’s called Pascha and therefore apparently not named after a pagan god of any sort. Rather, like most languages, it is named after the original Hebrew and Aramaic.

Easter comes from the old German root word for East or Spring. Austria is called in German Østerreich, the East land or Spring land. The festival season of Passover became known as Eastertide, and the word Easter enters our language. Easter is an eight-day holiday from Palm Sunday to Resurrection Sunday. Why eight days? This tradition we inherit from the Jewish People who have eight-day festivals like Succot, Hanukkah, and Feast of Unleavened Bread. The tradition of celebrating the life of the Messiah and His passion for eight days was given to us by the early Jewish Believers in Jesus, and it had nothing to do with a pagan god. The Orthodox Churches mark their calendars to ensure that Resurrection Sunday does not fall before Passover.

Without Passover, Easter makes absolutely no sense. Without the death of the Messiah you cannot have a resurrection, and without a resurrection, you cannot have the Gospel. The Gospel can be stated in one sentence – Messiah rose from the dead. And that is indeed very Good News.

Messiah-Centristic?

Martin Luther King said, ‘With essential positions in life, a Coward asks the question, “Is it safe?” Expediency asks the question, “Is it diplomatic?” And Pride comes along and asks the question, “Is it popular?” But Conscience asks the question, “Is it right?” I would expand this thinking with the question, “Is it Christian?” So then how should we be in this world?
One of the lying strongholds today is the worldview of Naturalism. From its walls, it floods over and under its gates a murky water, into the Kingdom of God. First, let me remind you that the Church is not on the fringe of the world but the opposite the world is on the fringe of the Kingdom of God His Church. Along the fringe of the Kingdom of God, we have these strongholds that fight against God’s Kingdom. This particular stronghold pours out a watery substance over their walls in such volumes that it seeps into Churches and waters down the robust meat of Faith. This water turns the Word that should be taught and preached into a gray watery ugly gruel to what could be the Truth, Light and the Way that is robust for all people.
We won’t build the Kingdom of God by our own efforts in the present; it remains the Father’s gift by His grace and by His power. However, we can produce signs of the Kingdom of love and justice, beauty and healing, life-giving new community work of all sorts everywhere. Thereby, we can celebrate the whole biblical story. Without this whole biblical story, “Cheap Grace” becomes cancerous. The way we lived before grace, we quietly slip back into the patterns of the world, one by one. The churches so watered down, slide one by one and becomes part of the world, which morph into all form and no substance. The tragic element in this process of cancerous thinking is that will begin to grow exponentially with those that hear the lie and believe it wholeheartedly. This is almost our landscape of the current condition of the Church in many places around the world, and I am afraid will become the norm, if we fail to stand and after DOING everything STAND (Ephesians 6:10-20)!
We must not collude with deconstructionism in how we use the Bible, as though a little bit of it here, a tiny bit of it there, will do the business of living as Christians. No, we need the whole story of re-creation, which is the heart of our God’s mission, therefore, our mission. It starts with the imagination, and a promise of a world set free from sin and decay. A world, we get a glimpse of at Easter, and in Eucharist and in this single narrative of His Story we call the Bible. We also are mandated to implement by the Spirit in the arts, music, sound literature, in politics, in theology, in medicine, in business, in relationships, and whatever we do. We are to embody that in the communities which you and I live in and make it happen in our public life and work. Messiah-Centrism — or if you prefer Christ-Centristic.
We all can do so with God’s power which He exerted in Jesus’ resurrection, that is the hope that is within us. You and I can stop that wild flooding growth that seeks to choke out our abilities, gifts and calling to withstand and prosper in our vineyards of the Kingdom/world. For we do not wage war as the world does, we as His sons and daughters demolish these artificial ways of living and breathe His life back into this sterile world.
Stephen