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?
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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.