Some Say “Easter” Is Pagan. Is it Really?


Some of the angriest comments I’ve ever received came on a post I wrote about Easter. I honestly forgot that some Christians are very upset about the use of a(n allegedly) “pagan” word to describe the preeminent Christian holiday. Here’s what one commenter wrote:

Easter is a bad translation of a word that does not appear in the original language.… Easter is a carryover from the Greco-Roman world; which was engulfed in sun-worship…. The holiday and the word should be changed back to Passover.

This was one of the best comments from the say-no-to-Easter perspective: it was clear, avoided ad hominem, and was written in lower case. But you should have seen the abuse I got behind the scenes. I am a closet pagan; I am destroying the Christian faith; I am the most ignorantest person ever (that last one may be true, I’ll admit, but not the other two).

Now, I do understand: we as believers don’t want our holy days to be sullied by association with idolatry. And I want to state at the outset that no one should call Easter Easter against his or her conscience. But I don’t think we ought to be upset about the word Easter. Here’s why.

1. We’re not sure that “Easter” was a pagan word.

The most sober and reliable source out there, the Oxford English Dictionary, dutifully cites the Venerable Bede’s contention from 1,300 years ago that Easter is derived from a pagan holiday. But that holiday was not Greco-Roman; it was Anglo-Saxon—Easter (Bede says) was the goddess of spring.

And yet the OED says that this view

is not confirmed by any other source, and the goddess has been suspected by some scholars to be an invention of Bede’s. However, it seems unlikely that Bede would have invented a fictitious pagan festival in order to account for a Christian one.

This is what you get with scholars, and this is what you should get: an on-the-one-hand followed by an on-the-other-hand—an admission that the evidence is not sufficient for making a determination. We simply don’t know the history of the word Easter. So why fight about it? If you discovered that 38% of scholars believed that O.K. was an ancient curse derived from Ο Κύριος! (O Kurios, “O Lord!”)—would you refuse to hit the Okay button in a computer dialogue box?

2. Words mean what we use them to mean.

It’s usage, not etymology, that determines the meaning of English words. In my work as a writer and Bible teacher, I’m always underscoring this fact. (So don’t learn this lesson too well or I’ll be out of a job.)

But let me illustrate what I’m arguing with a word that doesn’t occur in Scripture: spinster. The word spinster is now a derogatory way to refer to an unmarried woman who is, shall we say, “past the flower of her youth.” It doesn’t matter that the word spinster once used to mean “a woman who works a spinning wheel.” It doesn’t matter that the word had an in-between stage, too, when it just meant “unmarried woman.” Official census records in the seventeenth century could list a woman this way: “Sarah Harris, Boston, spinster.” We wouldn’t do this nowadays, because words mean what people use them to mean, and that changes over time.

What do English speakers mean when they use the word Easter? Who among all the countless English speakers who used the word Easter this very day had any idea that the word might possibly have a pagan origin? The “authorial intention” of every one of them was to refer to the Christian celebration, I promise you. Why should one set of sounds (PAS-soh-vr) be superior to another one (EE-str) to name something, as long as everybody understands just what EE-str means? EE-str has no associations with paganism anymore, if it ever really did.

We all say Thursday despite its very clear pagan origins (Thor’s Day). All the days of the week in English draw their names from paganism. The Easter alternative “Resurrection Sunday,” then, is just as guilty of pagan associations as Easter supposedly is, because Sunday derives from sun worship. Thankfully, no one means sun worship when they say Sunday. We all know what we all mean by that word, and sun worship is not included.

If the true meaning of a word were found in its etymology, we’d have endless word fights about what we were all really saying without knowing it. I encourage people to revel in their ignorance of what words used to mean and work instead to be sure of what people use them to mean now.

3. Word fights distract us from the substantive issues.

“Word fights” are explicitly condemned by Paul in the pastoral epistles (1 Tim 6:4; 2 Tim 2:14). If you can truly say of an argument, “It’s all semantics,” then it’s a mere quarrel and we’re not supposed to engage in it. (So what am I doing writing about it? Well, I’m trying to get everybody to stop fighting—so I’m okay. I hope.)

One of the problems with word fights is that they distract us from truly substantive issues. As with the Christmas holidays, my problem is not with the label we use but with the cultural practices and symbols and “habits of the heart” now associated with them. The commercialization of Christmas is oft-lamented. How about the commercialization of Easter? It gets lamented, too, but maybe not enough.

Whatever pastels and painted eggs and white rabbits used to mean centuries ago (I, frankly, have no idea), I know just what they mean today: candy. Now, I like candy. There’s no necessary harm in having some of it each spring. My kids get Easter baskets, okay? I gauge the love of relatives by whether my chocolate Easter bunny is hollow or solid. But so far even our best theologians have not been able to figure out what candy has to do with Jesus rising from the dead. And I see a lot more possible harm in my kids losing the significance of the holiday through sugar rushes than through the Easter label. Speaking only for my kids, they are a lot more tempted to worship the god of Mars Bars and to make pilgrimages to Hershey, PA, than to burrow into my OED, discover that Easter may possibly have referred to an ancient goddess they’ve never heard of, and become her pagan devotees.

Maybe your kids are different.

I would like to say to my fellow Christians about Easter what I say to my own kids on a regular basis: You are not going to argue! If you do, I swear I will pull this Internet over to the side of the road and ground you till Mark Zuckerberg is a hundred! One day you’ll thank me.

I would like to say that, but I won’t. We’re all adults here. But you can’t blame me for thinking it. Can’t we all just get along?

* * *

Easter—Christ’s true, physical resurrection—lies at the very heart of Christian faith. I wrote a series of articles that will help you encounter Easter through a recently discovered first-century Jerusalem tomb. Click here to watch and read.

Comments

  1. Andrew Bowdler says:

    Technically, those who claim pagan roots for Easter are correct – the word is a corruption of the name of a Germanic, pagan deity Eostre – the goddess of spring (and hence fertility). However, many of the Christian festivals are based around pre-existing pagan festivals. There is no point ‘going back’ to the name Passover, as your correspondent suggests, because it was never known as Passover – a Jewish festival commemorating the Flight/Rescue from Egypt. The whole point of spring and fertility is the topic of ‘new life’ and this is largely what the Christian festival of Easter is all about – but to a far greater and more intense degree.

    I’d be happy to see a different name, but what might that be? ‘Resurrection Day’? “Death, Where Is Your Sting? Day”?

    • I like those alternatives!

      Please do correct me here, but I think the etymological source of our word Easter traces back through words for east, not necessarily Eostre. Our Easter and Old English Eostre may both come from east. I think that’s what the OED was saying. Am I missing something? I checked three other contemporary dictionaries, and though etymologies can’t always be known with certainty, this is the direction they all pointed.

      • ManilaDave says:

        “I encourage people to revel in their ignorance of what words used to mean and work instead to be sure of what people use them to mean now.” – Mark Ward.

        Excellent article, Mark and, in my view, very right minded. Whenever I hear (or think of) the phrases, “an Easter people” or “an Easter faith” I get goose bumps all over and something resonates deep down in my heart. The associations for me are all Christian. They include the boundaries of human existence opened up to eternity; the horizons of our lives stretching way beyond our earthly existence; new life in Christ, faith in the resurrection of Christ and our resurrections too, etc., etc. The very word, “Easter” generates a myriad of associations, faith building thoughts and inspiring emotions in me and none of them are anything but Christian no matter what the origin of the word is.

        I think an important issue is to look at Biblical practice. Right at the very beginning of Scripture, for example, we have a creation narrative in which the “garden” is now recognized in scholarship to be a temple garden, instantly recognizable as such to Ancient Near Eastern readers because it reflects the pagan religions of the Middle East, but the Biblical author transforms the pagan understandings / beliefs in taking over the basic form and investing it with a different and true meaning. Whatever it’s origin in antiquity for me Easter will always and ever be associated with with our most central Christian truth, the resurrection of the Lord.

    • How about Jesus opened up a #10 can on Satan day? Too unwieldy?

  2. Richard A. Bridgan says:

    The Scriptures proclaim an understanding of reality that is very much different than whatever may be trending at the moment. I believe Scripture speaks of those realities that proceed from the Creator and carry into this present age. They also help us to understand the reality which we of this age presently precede (i.e. the future). There is much in Scripture that warns us of realities which oppose the Creator’s plans, purposes, and intentions. Furthermore, we are specifically warned not to have any other “gods” in our Creator’s face, and not to worship other “gods” in the same manner as the heathen do, seeking to learn and emulate their practices.

    Personally I detest the practices often associated with the reality of Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection. I hold a hard line, even with my grandchildren and great-grandchildren, refusing to indulge their wide-eyed delight in Easter baskets, colored eggs, chocolate bunnies, and fanciful associations with “new life”.

    Perhaps I am quite wrong, but that is my personal conviction…I frankly believe those things are too closely associated with the realities that oppose the truth rather than those that proclaim it. The object lessons that the Creator has chosen to proclaim reality as it is and as He wants us to understand it seem to me the best means to proclaim, celebrate and worship. Nevertheless, I am also reminded that God has both promised and demonstrated extreme loving-kindness toward me…He also instructs me to do the same toward others.

    On a final note, I am reminded of the familiar Bible story of Elijah and the prophets of ba’al…”And Elijah came near to all the people and said, “How long will you go limping (hopping/jumping) between two different opinions? If the LORD is God, follow him; but if Baal, then follow him.” And the people did not answer him a word.” (1 Kings 18:21, ESV)

    • A comment written with genuine clarity and skill. I feel similarly regarding another holiday I won’t at the moment name. I don’t name it because it is indeed a personal conviction; I don’t feel strongly enough about the issue to make an attempt to guide anyone else’s practice—except, as you mention, my own children.

      The grace God instructed you to show to others you have shown. Thank you for reading and commenting.

      • Yes, in the Spirit of Christ (in Christ) we are led to humility and compassion, in essence identifying with and experiencing the same compassion…and ultimately, the grace…as God in Christ. Thank you for your words of encouragement and reminder, in truth.

    • Brad Yost says:

      Richard, I certainly agree and could not have expressed my conviction in the same eloquent and gracious manner that you achieved above. I will say that I am bothered about this and see this as a deceptive stronghold that is over our Christian culture that we should be fleeing from, but far too often embrace rather than live under the sola scriptura concept.

  3. Easter may or may not be pagan. But the way the church celebrates it in the 21st century may be pagan in it own right.

  4. Very well spoken (written) and explained. I have recently researched this a little and wrote a post, where my afterthought was “should I escape from being beheaded or burned at the stake? or should I stay?”. The conclusion was, that some conversations/topics/posts are better engaged in certain circles. All in all, this is a very good post. Thank you.

  5. I find your response insensitive and a naive. If you want to get technicle the words repent (Latin word 1500s) and church (old English, Scottish, German) all had their first usages in Geneva and KJV. Like Easter the are corrupt substitutes and offend the true meaning of the Greek terms.

    • Pastor Scott, you bring up some super interesting examples, repent and church. Do you mind if I ask a question out of sheer curiosity? Are you able to avoid those words in your own Bible teaching ministry? Do you have substitutes? If so, what are they?

      It’s okay if you disagree with me; I’m a nobody. But you’ve gone on record disagreeing with the Geneva Bible and the venerable KJV! =) I’d like to hear some more on this topic.

      • Repent comes from re or again with Penance from Greem metanoia.
        The Greek word ekklessia is translated as congregation in the LXX again and again.

        • Scott, it strikes me that method Mark is proposing is the same method used by the writers of the New Testament. They had to use the words the language offered them, and since that language was common Greek, many of their keywords had pagan associations. Take “Lord” (Kurios) as an example. When Paul writes “Jesus is Lord” (Romans 10:9), is he using it in the same way that a Greek might say that ‘Zeus is Lord’?

          No? But the TDNT (#2962) says that “the word κύριος is used of the Greek gods from the classical era right on into the imperial period, first as an adjective, then increasingly as a noun, and specifically when it is desired to state that the gods can control definite spheres.” You say that we should not use the word ‘repent’, but surely this problem with ‘Kurios’ is a much deeper one? Paul (and by extension, the Holy Spirit) chose to use a word to describe an attribute and title of Jesus knowing full well that it had common pagan usage. And yet they chose it anyway.

          The problem, however, is only a problem if we import origin, past, and/or different contextual meaning and use it to understand a word in a different time and/or context. Don Carson in his book of the same name calls this kind of thing an ‘Exegetical fallacy’. A misstep in how we do our word studies.

          At the end of the day, the Holy Spirit and the New Testament writers could only use the words that were available to them in the language that they used. If those words (like Kurios) had pagan connotations, nothing could be done to change that, other than to change the connotations. This is true even though, arguably, God, in his sovereignty, could have willed a language into existence that contained only words with non-pagan connotations and use that to write the NT. But that is not what we have in Koine Greek, instead, the writers stripped the words of their original meanings and filled it with new, Christian meanings. Once Christianity spread, the Zeus-usage vanished, and the Jesus-usage dominated. Through the Reformation, the same thing happened to the verb ‘Repent’. It took on new meaning and usage within Protestant Christianity.

          Ultimately, it doesn’t matter all that much where the English word repentance came from, that is not how it is used now, nor what it means today, in Protestant Christianity or protestant bible translations. Blessings.

          • Liam, I have no idea what Lord had to do with the point I was making. You go make in the entomology of a word … I was taking it forward. So then, you would br okay with a translator calling the Cows of Bashan … the cars of the West Bank? I don’t think you understand hermeneutics. Repent does not equate to metenoia because the concept is bot biblical. Metenoia means to have a change of mind.
            Peace and love!

  6. Just wanted to say thanks again Mark for a great blog and discussion. Nothing to add appart from my appreciation this time but i wanted to say thanks at least :-)

  7. Ed Walton says:

    I’ll eat easter eggs, and chocolate rabbits.
    I prefer Resurrection Sunday.
    And I’m not going to change!

  8. Scholarly thinking should be used to build up each other. Since we understand the significance of Christ’s resurrection, lets spend more time spreading this powerful message to those who have never heard. Watch out for the trap that Paul warned Timothy about, 2 Timothy 2:14-18.
    Accurately handling the word truth is every pastor’s/teacher’s responsibility. Sound teaching should reprove, rebuke, and exhort. But it should be done with great patience and instruction. No one is saved by one’s scholastic brilliance. Salvation is by God’s grace alone.

  9. Mark,

    Well-written and with plenty of grace and humor. I found myself smiling and wincing thinking about the many well-meaning and zealous brothers and sisters whom I’ve had conversations with in the past on similar topics.

    There are all sorts of zealous/legalistic crusades related to details of Christian terminology and practice which wind up being misplaced because they miss the key point you brought out so well: One of the problems with word fights is that they distract us from truly substantive issues.

    When Christians, especially brothers and sisters in Christ, get overly animated and confrontational on subtleties while missing the substance (where the heart motive and intended purpose lie), what kind of witness does that provide in the eyes of the watching world?

    Of all people, believers should be the ones extending grace and refusing to add fuel to tempests in teapots. :-)

  10. Hummm…

    How about changing the spelling for the first day of the week to Sonday?

  11. Will Scholten says:

    Let’s let the scripture decide for us!
    Look very close at verses 13-14

    9 Then the LORD said to Moses, 10 “Tell the Israelites: ‘When any of you or your descendants are unclean because of a dead body or are away on a journey, they are still to celebrate the LORD’s Passover, 11 but they are to do it on the fourteenth day of the second month at twilight. They are to eat the lamb, together with unleavened bread and bitter herbs. 12 They must not leave any of it till morning or break any of its bones. When they celebrate the Passover, they must follow all the regulations. 13 But if anyone who is ceremonially clean and not on a journey fails to celebrate the Passover, they must be cut off from their people for not presenting the LORD’s offering at the appointed time. They will bear the consequences of their sin.
    14 “ ‘A foreigner residing among you is also to celebrate the LORD’s Passover in accordance with its rules and regulations. You must have the same regulations for both the foreigner and the native-born.’ ”

    The New International Version. (2011). (Nu 9:9–14). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.

    Now, when is Passover and unleaven bread?

    When is Good Friday and Easter? Yes I know good Friday was on the correct day, this year, Nisan 14, but what about Easter, was on the 16th, 3 days and 3 nights would be the 17th right!!

    Now read verses 13-14 again,

    Remember the devil is an awesome counterfeiter, if you are not following the Creator’s Holydays, whose are you following??

    Here are 2 videos I did using scripture, that prove Passover was on a Wednesday when Yahusha was crucified!

    http://youtu.be/d0-P1ecBSos
    or go to youtube and search “Bible Study Challenge, Name That Verse”
    ( Triumphant Entry, Sunday replaces Sabbath, and Times and Law/Torah changed by Messiah)

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uLY1W4_rkiU
    or go to youtube and search”The Biblical Resurrection.wmv”

  12. Laymond Tucker Jr. says:

    I am amazed at how easily the focus is taken off of the true meaning of Passover. Does it really matter if the term “Easter” is pagan or even has pagan roots ? In some of the remarks in these comments that I have read, it seems that there is emphasis on candy, REALLY ?
    Why are we not keeping the appointed time as instructed by the Bible ? Why do we have to have substitutes for what God has so clearly defined for His people ?
    The fact of Easter being pagan or not does not concern me. What does concern me is being on the same calendar that God instructs. Easter and Passover are not celebrated on the same dates. In fact it seems purposeful that they are separated. Yes, I know that sometimes they are close on the calendar, but when it comes to salvation and my walk with God, close is not good enough for me !
    Paul reminds us in 1 Corinthians 5 that Jesus is our Passover (Lamb) not our Easter bunny.
    Seems to me like we have a historical record (the Bible) of people replacing God’s Appointed times with their own holidays. Is it possible for us to be doing the same thing ?
    I have not posted this to offend but out of concern for TRUTH.

    • Anne Tung says:

      I don’t mind people eating bunny or egg shaped chocolate to celebrate the resurrection. I mind the double standard used against believers who want to return to the celebration of the biblical feasts. Some believers forgive the pagan roots of certain Easter traditions because they deem them sufficiently christianized. Yet they blame those who wish to reconnect Easter with Passover of legalism eventhough Jesus was eager to celebrate Passover, and told His disciples He would celebrate it again with them in the Kingdom.

      • Laymond Tucker says:

        I celebrate the Biblical feasts the best that I can. Thank you for your response !

  13. Excellent article, thank you!

    Interestingly, in Brazil where I now minister the holiday is known as “Páscoa” which is “Passover.” But it is just as commercialized here as it is in the States (chocolate eggs and candy), thus proving your second point.

  14. Joaquin says:

    I couldn’t disagree more. Easter is associated now with a bunny and eggs. Passover is not, and it is unlikely that the aforementioned would appear in the reverent name of “Passover”. “Christmas” is even pronounced “creehs mahs”. If it was named “Christ’s Birth”, I doubt the fat guy with the beard would make a case for himself for being in the spotlight (thanks to those who have watered down Christian meanings, over time). No wonder Jews look at us and wonder why they should embrace Christianity. This is just one of many things wrong with ignoring etymology. It leads to adding other meanings to those which they were to be intended.

    • Joaquin, but see Omar’s comment: using the word “Passover” has not kept people in Brazil from adulterating the holiday. Using the “right” name for a holiday is not going to keep non-Christian people from worshiping other gods during it.

  15. Easter is not named after a Pagan goddess… please stop this nonsense and focus on the reason for Easter. Even if you were to concede that it originally was, it does not anymore (genetic fallacy). Read this article for some more: http://drmsh.com/easter-named-pagan-goddess/

    • Matt, I’m not sure that anyone is saying that Easter is ‘named after a Pagan goddess’; rather, people are saying that Christians in a certain European nation took a name that their non-Christian forebears associated with something different and Christianised it – as Christians and followers of other faiths have done since time immemorial. The US has just continued that practice!! ;-) Interestingly, just about every other European language bases the name for this season on the Passover or the concept of the Paschal Lamb.

  16. Al Reinicke says:

    What I find interesting about the whole issue is, that almost every other “germanic” language uses a name that is derived from passover, e.g. pasen in Dutch. Only German uses the same word as English, at least if you translate it (Ostern). And it seems that at least in German the switch to Easter was made relatively late in history (from the word “paschen” used before) at a time, when there was no paganism around any more.
    I’m on the same page as Mark: the word obviously comes from east (in German: ost). And east is the place where the sun rises. As it did on the morning our Lord rose. So no matter what other people say, I use Easter, because it reminds me of the resurrection (the rising of the light of the world).
    And if you want another word for the occasion: why make up a totally new one, when there are so many examples in related languages that obviously derive their word for Easter from passover. So if you want to use a different word, I suggest we use paschah or something similar. Because it brings the event back to the underlying biblical narrative: Jesus as our ultimate passover lamb, that lets the angel of death (Jesus?) pass over us forever, not just for one occasion.
    He is risen! Al

  17. Michelle Desmond says:

    It is refreshing to see civil discourse! I am not a scholar nor a pastor. So, take my thoughts with that in mind. :) Jesus defeated everything that exalted itself as god. The cross and the resurrection won the victory. All things are now under His feet. He made bunnies, eggs, grass. All creation is His. Just like pine trees, holly bushes, and mistletoe are His handiwork. I try not to get worked up over pagan roots. He predates all the twisted stories and myths!

    • A great comment. I love that: Christ predates all the twisted stories and myths. They have no independent existence: they have twisted good gifts he’s given—like the dawn. Like bunnies and eggs and mistletoe. He has already dealt the decisive death blow to the powers who twist these good gifts of his creation. He has put them to open shame—precisely in the resurrection event that we celebrate at Easter.

  18. Jim Wait says:

    This is an excellent and timely article, Mark. I believe you are Spot ( you know how I am using this word!) on. I wish this could be in Time magazine or USA today, etc. For me this, Easter, is the most meaningful day of the year and of all Eternity. Thank you Mark. I really appreciate your thoughtful articles and am very thankful the greatest company in the world, Logos, has your service and gifted dedicated mind. Keep up the good work!

  19. Easter today refers to the Resurrection of Christ. This is what Easter means today. We must lift up Christ in a world that has largely turned away from Him.

  20. Will Scholten says:

    Good timing Mark,

    This is in my logos homepage this morning.

    https://www.logos.com/product/148899/popular-patristics-series-part-3?utm_source=blog.logos.com&utm_medium=blog&utm_content=save30popularpatristics-prepul2018&utm_campaign=promo-prepub2018

    It is “Pascha” by Malito of Sardis.

    the sample pages fit in our topic.

  21. Exo 23:13 And in all things that I have said unto you take ye heed: and make no mention of the name of other gods, neither let it be heard out of thy mouth.

  22. Jeff Marshall says:

    The meaning of Who, how and with what and when is the issue at hand. I am with those who would like to get the focus back on Jesus as the Resurrection Sonday which should fall on the same day as feast of first fruits and not on any pagan affixed holyday. It is a matter also of apologetics and I think so from the beginning of Christendom. How can we relate Messiah’s sacrefice and Resurrection to pagan worshippers. Herein lies the problem. We do not use the Jewish calender to celebrate our holydays but shouldn’t we? Christ is our passover lamb and as Romans & Hebrews teaches there is no need to continue to sacrifice a physical lamb, which would be an insult to Jesus and bring His sacrifice of none effect to you if you would do so. It is no dought the Apostles would be astounded to see the way the Church is today, in how far offbase we are. In that we forge doctrines out of the bible that are clearly not there. Then not content with that, we impose those said same doctrines on mankind that is simply at most conjecture.

  23. Will Scholten says:

    Nathan Garrison brought up Ex. 23:13, great!

    Check this out, what is fortune in Isaiah 65:11

  24. Will Scholten says:

    Besides Isaiah 65, do we know what we are saying in the Creator’s language when we say Heysus in Spanish or Jesus in English.
    Because we need to be careful with what we say in His language, man the church and the devil can say they mean what ever they want.