THE ORIGIN OF EASTER

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The most common lie that the anti-Catholics have regarding the ancient origin of Easter is its alleged derivation from an ancient teutonic goddess of spring named Ēostre. Because of this, the Catholic great feast has been tagged as paganic and unbiblical. But is it true?

First, be reminded that Easter (also known as Pasch) is the great feast and commemoration of Christ’s resurrection, the foundation and centerpiece of Christian faith. According to St. Paul, “if Christ has not been raised, then all our preaching is useless, and your faith is useless” (1 Corintians 15:14). Therefore, without Easter there is no Christianity.

WHERE DID THE TERM EASTER COME FROM?

The anti-Catholics persistently argued that the paganic origin of Easter was even confirmed by St. Bede the Venerable (673–735 AD), a Doctor of the Church, in his book “De Temporum Ratione”. There he recorded the names of several of the goddesses worshipped by the early Anglo-Saxons. He identified Eostre as one whose festivals were celebrated in the month given her name, to wit:

“The first month, which the Latins call January, is Giuli; February is called Solmonath; March Hrethmonath; April, Eosturmonath; May, Thrimilchi; June, Litha; July, also Litha; August, Weodmonath; September, Halegmonath; October, Winterfilleth; November, Blodmonath; December, Giuli, the same name by which January is called… Hrethmonath is named for their goddess Hretha, to whom they sacrificed at this time. Eosturmonath has a name which is now translated “Paschal month”, and which was once called after a goddess of theirs named Eostre, in whose honour feasts were celebrated in that month.” (chapter xv)

Notice that in the afore-mentioned passage, St. Bede only explained the origin of the months’ nomenclature for the Anglo-Saxons, but has nothing to do with the celebration of Christ’s resurrection. It just happened that the Christian Pasch also falls on that same month which the old English called Eosturmonath. Remember that the Anglo-Saxons called the spring equinox “Eostre”; but they didn’t borrow the name of a goddess for the feast of Christ’s resurrection. They simply denoted it by the name of the natural phenomenon, since the Christian feast is calculated by marking the spring equinox.

Hence, the eostre (spring equinox) falls usually in Eosturmonath (April) which determines the great feast of auferstehung (resurrection). In a footnote to his translation of the work of Eusebius, Christian F. Cruse, an Episcopalian minister, defended the usage of the word Easter: “Our word Easter is of Saxon origin, and of precisely the same import with its German cognate Ostern. The latter is derived from the old Teutonic form of auferstehn, Auferstehung, i. e. resurrection. The name Easter is undoubtedly preferable to pascha or passover, but the latter was the primitive name.”

On the other hand, the name “Eastre” or “Eostre” also comes from the proto Indo-European root “aus/eas” meaning “to shine” and “the east” (since the sun shines from the east). The word “east” clearly derives from this root. 

IS IT BIBLICAL?

Remember that the holy Catholic Church does not formally call the feast “Easter” but rather “Pascha” – a word derived from the Aramaic word for “Passover”. Only English and Germanic lands use the term related to “Easter”. Thus, many old English and German translators of the Bible used interchangeably the words Easter (Oster/Ester) and Pascha both referring to the time of the Passover feast, and had no association to any pagan goddess.

In the Acts of the Apostles (12:4 KJV), it reads: “And when he had apprehended him, he put him in prison, and delivered him to four quaternions of soldiers to keep him; intending after Easter to bring him forth to the people.”

Notice that in the verse, the word Easter was used by the translators of the King James Version and not pascha. When Martin Luther, a Protestant reformer and former Catholic friar, translated the Bible into German (New Testament in 1522), he chose the word “Oster” to refer to the Passover references before and after the Resurrection. In one of his works, he wrote: “Da er ihn nun griff, legte er ihn ins Gefängnis und überantwortete ihn vier Rotten, je von vier Kriegsknechten, ihn zu bewahren, und gedachte, ihn nach Oster dem Volk vorzustellen” (Acts 12:4).

Meanwhile, William Tyndale, an English scholar and Protestant reformer, used the word “ester” to refer to the Passover in his New Testament (1525) translation. The usage of “ester” was retained in the 1534 revision of the New Testament, and it was not until later that it was known as “Easter”, adding the “a”. In his translation of the Acts 12:4, it reads: “And when he had caught him he put him in preson and delyvered him to quaternios of soudiers to be kepte entendynge after ester to brynge him forth to the people.”

Luther and Tyndale were the first to use a translation of pascha rather than a transliteration. In 1 Corinthians 5:7, Christ is referred to be as the sacrificial Passover lamb. Hence, below are the translations of KJV, Luther and Tyndale:

⚫ Luther — “Denn wir haben auch ein Osterlamm, das ist Christus, für uns geopfert.”

⚫ Tyndale — “For Christ oure esterlambe is offered up for us.”

⚫ KJV — “For even Christ our passover is sacrificed for us.”

BUT HOW OLD IS THE CELEBRATION?

The anti-Catholics also argued that the Easter celebration started only in 325 AD at the Ecumenical Council of Nicea which decreed that Easter should be celebrated by all on the same Sunday, which Sunday shall be the first following the paschal moon (and the paschal moon must not precede the spring equinox). Remember that the decree made by the Nicene council was only a response to settle the controvery of the Easter celebration between the churches of West and East. In fact, it is one of the ancient Christian celebrations, even before 325 AD, which are still being observed at the present times.

At some point in the first two centuries of Christianity, however, it became customary to celebrate the resurrection specially on one day each year. But the specific day on which the resurrection should be celebrated became a major point of contention within the church. First, should it be on Jewish Passover no matter on what day that falls, or should it always fall on a Sunday?

In Asia Minor, a group of churches claimed that the St. John and St. Phillip appointed Nisan 14 as the date of the celebration. This group became known as the Quartodecimans (from the Latin for fourteen) because they supposed the celebration should begin at the time when the disciples ate the Passover meal with Christ in the upper room (Luke 22). On the other hand, in the Western Church tradition, broke the fast on the Sunday following the Jewish Passover since this was the day of the week Christ rose from the tomb (Luke 24:1). St. Irenaeus (died c. 202), bishop of Lugdunum in Gaul, recorded an account of St. Polycarp (c. AD 70–155), bishop of Smyrna and a disciple of St. John the Apostle. Irenaeus tells of Polycarp’s visit to Rome where he discussed the issue with Anicetus, bishop of Rome:

“For neither could Anicetus persuade Polycarp to forego the observance [in his own way], inasmuch as these things had been always [so] observed by John the disciple of our Lord, and by other apostles with whom he had been conversant; nor, on the other hand, could Polycarp succeed in persuading Anicetus to keep [the observance in his way], for he maintained that he was bound to adhere to the usage of the presbyters who preceded him. And in this state of affairs they held fellowship with each other” (From a Letter to Bishop Victor of Rome).

Eusebius (260-340 AD), bishop of Caesarea, recorded in his Ecclesiastical History the following:

“A question of no small importance arose at that time [c. 190 AD]. The dioceses of all Asia, as from an older tradition, held that the fourteenth day of the moon, on which day the Jews were commanded to sacrifice the lamb, should always be observed as the feast of the life-giving pasch, contending that the fast ought to end on that day, whatever day of the week it might happen to be. However it was not the custom of the churches in the rest of the world to end it at this point, as they observed the practice, which from Apostolic tradition has prevailed to the present time, of terminating the fast on no other day than on that of the Resurrection of our Saviour. Synods and assemblies of bishops were held on this account, and all with one consent through mutual correspondence drew up an ecclesiastical decree that the mystery of the Resurrection of the Lord should be celebrated on no other day but the Sunday and that we should observe the close of the paschal fast on that day only.”

However, this was not seen as an issue of orthodoxy until the late Pope Victor I threatened excommunication of Quartodecimans around 195 AD — a threat he abandoned at the advice of several synods. Again, the issue was finally settled by the church as a whole at the first Council of Nicea (325 AD). The Letter of the Synod was then sent to the Church of Alexandria as follows:

“We further proclaim to you the good news of the agreement concerning the holy Easter, that this particular also has through your prayers been rightly settled; so that all our brethren in the East who formerly followed the custom of the Jews are henceforth to celebrate the said most sacred feast of Easter at the same time with the Romans and yourselves and all those who have observed Easter from the beginning.”

However, also for those who claim the celebration of Easter was assigned by Emperor Constantine I as an accommodation of pagan practices, they must contend with the records of Irenaeus and others. The desire of the churches as a whole, even prior to the council, was to unite the entire body of Christ on this all-important day of celebrating the Resurrection — the established date had nothing to do with conforming to pagan festivals.

HOW IS THE DATE OF EASTER COMPUTED?

Remember that this is not a date aligned to pagan celebrations but a date aligned to the Jewish date of Passover without being directly tied to it. The date for Easter is determined on a lunisolar calendar similar to the Hebrew calendar. The First Council of Nicaea established the date of Easter as the first Sunday after the full moon (the Paschal Full Moon) following the spring equinox, which is ecclesiastically reckoned to be on March 21. How was it determined?

The Paschal full moon is not an astronomical full moon, but the 14th day of a calendar lunar month. The lunar year consists of 30-day and 29-day lunar months, generally alternating, with an embolismic month added periodically to bring the lunar cycle into line with the solar cycle. In each solar year (1 January to 31 December inclusive), the lunar month beginning with an ecclesiastical new moon falling in the 29-day period from 8 March to 5 April inclusive is designated as the paschal lunar month for that year. Easter is the third Sunday in the paschal lunar month, or, in other words, the Sunday after the paschal lunar month’s 14th day. The 14th of the paschal lunar month is designated by convention as the Paschal full moon, although the 14th of the lunar month may differ from the date of the astronomical full moon by up to two days. Since the ecclesiastical new moon falls on a date from 8 March to 5 April inclusive, the paschal full moon (the 14th of that lunar month) must fall on a date from 21 March to 18 April inclusive. Meanwhile, the astronomical equinox is a natural astronomical phenomenon, which can fall on 19, 20 or 21 March, yet the ecclesiastical date is fixed by convention on 21 March.

For example, the full moon after March 21 in the year 2016 will fall on March 23; thus, the Easter Sunday will be on March 27.

If one does not observe Easter because it is celebrated in the month of Eosturmonath (April) which was named after a pagan goddess; then it is better for him to just create his own calendar with months and days named after him.

Once more, the celebration of Pasch has nothing to do with the month in itself or with any pagan idols honored therein; for the celebration is based on the biblical truth that Christ defeated the power of death by His resurrection on Sunday after the Jewish Passover feast (14th Nissan).

St. Paul said, “The one who observes the day, observes it in honor of the Lord. The one who eats, eats in honor of the Lord, since he gives thanks to God, while the one who abstains, abstains in honor of the Lord and gives thanks to God” (Romans 14:6).

Now, shouldn’t the Resurrection of the Lord be remembered and celebrated?

“OH DEATH, WHERE IS YOUR STING?”
—1 Corinthians 15:55—

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