Perplexing History of Easter

posted by Jeffrey on Sunday, April 16, 2006 at 9:57 AM


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Easter is a celebration with quite an interesting origin. It is different from Christmas in that we know that the celebration is at least close to the actual date on which the events took place. The fact is, we don't (and can't) actually know the exact date that Christ was crucified. The gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke put the last supper, a Passover seder, on the 15th of Nissan with the execution following that next day. John's gospel, however, places the last supper early in the day on the 14th of Nissan with Jesus' crucifixion later that same day. Most scholars hold to Matt, Mark, and Luke's accounts. Since the Jewish calendar doesn't stay exactly consistent with our calendar from year to year, we can at least figure out the approximate date of Christ's death and resurrection.

Since we know the crucifixion was during Passover (Pesach in Hebrew), why did the Church choose to celebrate it in correspondence with pagan fertility rituals? Yeah, that's right, in Western traditions we celebrate Easter on the first Sunday after the first full moon since the spring equinox. By the way, did anyone else actually notice how awesome and bright the moon was last night?

The name Easter comes from a pagan goddess called Eastre (or Eostre) who was worshipped by the Saxons of Northern Europe. When second century Christian missionaries wanted the Saxons to accept Christianity, they decided to use the name Easter for this holiday so that it would match the name of the Saxons own spring celebration, and likewise, the name of their goddess. This was supposed to make it more comfortable for them to accept Christ (now there's some theology for ya). The goddess Eastre's symbol on earth was the rabbit, which for obvious reasons, was a sign of fertility.

Similar goddesses were known by other names in ancient cultures around the Mediterranean and were also celebrated in accordance with the spring equinox. Some of those goddesses were Aphrodite, Ashtoreth, Astarte, Demeter, Hathor, Ishtar, Kali, and Ostara.

So whether we observe Christ's death and resurrection but only one time a year, every single day, or somewhere in between, may we do so that our faith will not be, as the apostle Paul stated, futile (1 Corinthians 15:12-19).

Some sources: 1, 2, 3, 4

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