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.