What do rabbits and eggs have to do with the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ? Where did the name Easter originate? This holiday isn't even mentioned in the Bible—so where did it really come from?
As a boy attending a mainstream church with my family, I was always surprised to see people at services on Easter Sunday who didn't come any other time of the year, not even at Christmas. Embarrassed and somewhat fearful, a few of them told us they hoped that God would forgive their sins and absences because they made the special effort to come to church on Easter Sunday, which to them was the most sacred time of the year.
Others felt that a special measure of sanctification, purification and holiness was imparted to them by their attendance at Easter services.
However, these people likely didn't know or even wonder about Easter's real origins. They probably would've been surprised to know the truth of the matter!
Idolatrous beginnings of the holiday
Many people are amazed to find that the Bible does not mention Easter at all. Neither Jesus nor the apostles ever indicated or directed that it should be observed. The word Easter in Acts:12:4 in the King James Version is an incorrect translation of the Greek word pascha , which refers to Passover , not Easter. This mistake has been corrected in modern translations of the New Testament.
Also not generally known is the fact that Easter did not originate with the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Encyclopedias and dictionaries trace the term Easter variously back to Eostre , the name of the Anglo-Saxon goddess of spring; to Eostur , the Norse word for the spring season; or to Ishtar , the ancient spring goddess of Near Eastern countries, also known as Astarte , or, in the Bible, Ashtoreth .
All are connected to the spring season and springtime fertility festivals that represented rejuvenation, reproduction and the life-enriching qualities of the sun. Customs and symbols associated today with Easter observance can be directly traced back to Easter's pre-Christian origins.
The New Encyclopaedia Britannica , 15th edition, in its article on Easter, describes these customs and symbols as "hav[ing] been handed down from the ancient ceremonial and symbolism of European and Middle Eastern pagan spring festivals." One symbol, the Easter bunny, is called the modern replacement for "the hare, the symbol of fertility in ancient Egypt."
Another source reveals the origin of two other popular Easter customs. Regarding one it states, "Also popular among Europeans and Americans on Easter is ham, because the pig was considered a symbol of luck in pre-Christian European culture" ( The Encyclopedia of Religion , 1987, "Easter").
And concerning the other, the egg, it explains: "In traditional folk religion the egg is a powerful symbol of fertility, purity, and rebirth. It is used in magical rituals to promote fertility and restore virility; to look into the future; to bring good weather; to encourage the growth of crops and protect both cattle and children against misfortune, especially the dreaded evil eye. All over the world it represents life and creation, fertility and resurrection . . .
"Later [customs concerning eggs] were linked with Easter. The church did not oppose this, though many egg customs were pre-Christian in origin, because the egg provided a fresh and powerful symbol of the Resurrection and the transformation of death into life" ("Egg").
Pre-Christian resurrection celebrations
Celebrating the resurrection of a deceased deity in a springtime festival also long predates Christianity. Chief among such celebrations were those in honor of Tammuz, the Babylonian "god of pasture and flocks . . . and of vegetation. He was husband and brother of Ishtar (Asherah), goddess of fertility. Babylonian epics preserve the saga of the annual dying of Tammuz in the autumn when vegetation withered; his departure to the underworld; his recovery by the mourning Ishtar; and his springtime return to the fertilized upper world" ( Harper's Bible Dictionary , 1961, "Tammuz").
The Babylonians taught that Tammuz was mystically revived from death in the spring by the anguish and crying of Ishtar, who, as already noted, was the same as the pagan goddess Ashtoreth referred to in Scripture (Judges:2:13; 10:6; 1 Kings:11:5). This ancient custom of mourning for the return of a dead god is mentioned in Ezekiel:8:14, where we read of women "weeping for Tammuz." His supposed resurrection marked the end of winter and the beginning of spring, with its new life and vegetation.
Ishtar, wife of Tammuz, was also worshiped as the "Queen of Heaven" ( Harper's Bible Dictionary , "Asherah"). The Bible shows that idolatry and sun worship connected with Ishtar and Tammuz became so widespread and influential that they were practiced even by people who had once known the true God but had fallen into wrong kinds of worship (Ezekiel:8:12-18; Jeremiah:7:18; 44:17-23).
Worshiped in other areas under the name Adonis, Tammuz was honored with an annual celebration by a cult that "mourned his death and rejoiced at his resurrection. The cult worked its way into the folkways of Christian peasants, who wept over the lost Adonis and participated in lewd festivities" ( Harper's Bible Dictionary , "Tammuz").
Subtle changes introduced
But how did such strange customs and practices become associated with true events recorded in the Bible—the Passover and Jesus Christ's resurrection?
From the start, the Roman government regarded the early Christian Church as a branch of the Jewish religion, because the earliest Christians staunchly observed the same laws and religious celebrations the Jews did. Later, as persecution against Jews increased in the wake of two Jewish revolts against Rome, many groups of professing Christians chose to dissociate themselves from beliefs and practices that were closely identified with Judaism.
During the reign of Emperor Hadrian (A.D. 117-135), Jews were harshly persecuted and practices of Judaism forbidden. These oppressive measures apparently influenced many early Christians in Rome to abandon the biblical Sabbath and festivals and turn to Sunday, historically observed by the Romans as a day of veneration of the sun. Hence, the first day of the week (Sunday) took the place of the seventh-day Sabbath (Friday sunset to Saturday sunset), and "some of the old heathen feasts became church festivals with change of name and of worship" (Jesse Lyman Hurlbut, The Story of the Christian Church , 1954, pp. 43, 45, 77, 79).
In other words, the Sabbath and the festivals of God, outlined in Leviticus 23 and practiced by both Judaism and the early Church (see Acts:13:14, 42, 44; 16:13; 17:2; 18:4, 21; 20:6, 16; 27:9), were supplanted by non biblical traditions and practices. The truth and purity of the early Church of God were corrupted.
Controversy over days of worship
As this early confusion advanced, further disagreement arose as to the days on which Jesus' crucifixion and subsequent resurrection occurred. The pagan festival honoring the goddess of spring (renamed Easter) began to supplant the Christian Passover. "In Rome Easter was celebrated on the Sunday following the full moon after the spring equinox, and was a memorial of the resurrection" (The Oxford Illustrated History of Christianity, 1990, p. 36).
Note that carefully. The Christian Passover, instituted by Jesus to annually commemorate His death, was subtly changed to a celebration memorializing His resurrection. But there is no command in the Bible, by Jesus or His apostles, to solemnize His resurrection.
Instead, Jesus highlighted what was to be accomplished by His death in instituting new symbols for the New Covenant meaning of the Passover (Matthew:26:26-28; Mark:14:22-24; Luke:22:17-20). He was the Lamb of God who offered Himself as the true Passover sacrifice for the sins of the world (John:1:29), and His death fulfilled what had long been foreshadowed by the slaying of the Passover lambs.
The New Catholic Encyclopedia adds: "Originally both observances [Passover and Easter] were allowed, but gradually it was felt incongruous that Christians should celebrate Easter on a Jewish feast, and unity in celebrating the principal Christian feast was called for" (1967, "Easter and Its Cycle").
Thus the Passover ceremony, observed by Jesus Christ and commanded by Him for His followers (1 Corinthians:11:23-26; Luke:22:19; John:13:15), was supplanted by Easter, a day neither He nor the early New Testament Church approved.
Inconsistent and incorrect dating
As part of the mixing of this ancient pagan festival with the death and resurrection of Christ, whether to keep Easter, and if so on what date, was heatedly debated during the second century. A group in Asia Minor known as the Quartodecimans (after the Latin word for 14) rigorously defended the original biblical truths. They insisted on an observance of the Christian Passover on the correct biblical date, the 14th day of the month Nisan on the Hebrew calendar. This was a movable date, meaning it did not fall on the same weekly or Roman calendar day each year.
"In the mid-second century, however, some Gentile Christians began to celebrate [Easter] on the Sunday after 14 Nisan, with the preceding Friday observed as the day of Christ's crucifixion, regardless of the date on which it fell. The resulting controversy over the correct time for observing the Easter festival reached a head in A.D. 197, when Victor of Rome excommunicated those Christians who insisted on celebrating Easter [actually the Passover] on 14 Nisan. The dispute continued until the early fourth century, when the Quarto-decimans . . . were required by Emperor Constantine to conform to the empire-wide practice of observing Easter on the Sunday following 14 Nisan, rather than on the date itself.
"Currently celebrated on the first Sunday after the first full moon following the vernal equinox [the Council of Nicea fixed this date in A.D. 325], Easter falls differently for [Eastern] Orthodox Christianity which, unlike Western Christianity, did not accept the Gregorian calendar reform in 1582" (Harper's Bible Dictionary, 1985, "Easter").
We therefore see that the world's observance of Easter is a curious mixture of ancient mythological and idolatrous practices and arbitrary dating that actually obscure and discredit the proof of Jesus Christ's messiahship and resurrection. The Passover was discarded and replaced with Easter.
This gives some of the background on how Friday came to be observed as the time of Jesus' crucifixion, and the following Sunday as the date of His resurrection. However, another problem with all this is that these observances are refuted by the details of the biblical record.
Jesus' sign of the Messiah
Matthew:12:38 shows some of the scribes and Pharisees asking Jesus for a sign to prove He was the Messiah. But Jesus told them that the only sign He would give was that of the prophet Jonah: "For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the great fish, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth" (verse 40).
Many people justify their belief in a Friday burial and Sunday resurrection by reasoning that this segment of time does not require a span of three 24-hour days, or 72 hours. They argue that a part of a day can be reckoned as a whole day. Hence, since Jesus was buried just before sunset, they feel the few remaining moments of the daylight part of Friday constituted the first day, Friday sunset to Saturday sunset was the second and Saturday night through Sunday morning was the third.
What they fail to take into consideration is that at most only two nights can be accounted for in this explanation, and really only one full daylight period (as a few moments of daylight at the end of Friday is not a day). So we are at least one day and one night short of Jesus' words even by this interpretation.
Something is obviously incorrect about this commonly calculated conclusion.
Jonah:1:17 states specifically that "Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights." There is no reason to think that these days and nights were fractional. Nor is there any basis for thinking that Jesus meant only two nights and one day when He described the length of time He would be in the grave. Such rationalization undermines the integrity and clear meaning of Jesus' words.
Was Christ's sign fulfilled?
If Jesus were in the grave only from late Friday afternoon to sometime before dawn on Sunday morning, then the only sign He gave that He was the prophesied Messiah was not fulfilled. The claim of His messiahship rests on the fulfillment of His words—it's that serious a matter!
Let us carefully examine the biblical details of those fateful days. Each of the Gospel writers gives an account of the events, but each presents different aspects that we need to correctly synchronize and harmonize to produce a clear sequence and understanding of what happened (see "The Chronology of Christ's Crucifixion and Resurrection," page 29).
The Bible does not contradict itself (Psalm:119:160; John:10:35), and we will see that not one of the Gospel accounts contradicts what the other Gospels reveal.
John:19:31 preserves a crucial point that provides insight into the other narratives. The "preparation day" on which Jesus was crucified is described as the day before the Sabbath. But John clarifies it by stating that this approaching Sabbath "was a high day." This does not refer to the regular weekly Sabbath (Friday sunset to Saturday sunset) but to the first day of Unleavened Bread, which is one of God's annual high days, or holy feast days (Exodus:12:16; Leviticus:23:6-7), which could fall on any day of the week.
Some have argued that this high day fell that year on the seventh day of the week, making it doubly a Sabbath, with the preparation day being on Friday. But Luke's account shows that this was not the case.
Notice the sequence of events outlined in Luke 23. Jesus' moment of death, as well as His hasty burial in the tomb because of the oncoming Sabbath, is narrated in verses 46-53. Verse 54 then states, "That day was the Preparation, and the Sabbath drew near."
Two Sabbaths described
Many have assumed that it is the weekly Sabbath mentioned here. But this is not the case. Instead, it was the "high day" mentioned by John, a Sabbath that occurred on Thursday that year. We know that because verse 56 shows that the women, after seeing Christ's body having been laid in the tomb just before the Sabbath began, "returned and prepared spices and fragrant oils" for the final preparation of the body.
Such work could have been done only on Friday, since it would have been considered a violation of the law if it were done on the Holy Day, and that would not have been allowed. This is further verified by Mark's account, which states, "Now when the Sabbath was past, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices [which would not have been purchased on a Sabbath] that they might come and anoint Him" (Mark:16:1, emphasis added throughout).
This conclusively proves that the Sabbath mentioned here and in the other narratives was the first Holy Day of the biblical Feast of Unleavened Bread (Leviticus:23:4-8), which, in A.D. 31, fell on a Thursday. The women had to wait until this high-day Sabbath was over before they could buy and prepare the spices, on Friday, to be used for anointing Jesus' body.
Then, after these activities, "they rested on the Sabbath according to the commandment," which would have been the regular weekly Sabbath (Luke:23:56).
After this rest, the women then went to Jesus' tomb early on the first day of the week (Sunday), while it was still dark (John:20:1), and found that He had already been resurrected (Matthew:28:1-6; Mark:16:2-6; Luke:24:1-3; John:20:1).
Therefore, if we allow the Scriptures to interpret themselves, an accurate harmonization of all four Gospel accounts demonstrates the accuracy and validity of Jesus' statements.
Further proof of the accuracy of this sequence and explanation is found in Matthew:28:1. Most translations render "Now after the Sabbath" as if the word Sabbath were singular. This is not correct. Sabbath here is sabbaton in the Greek text, which is plural. Some Bible versions, including Alfred Marshall's Parallel New Testament in Greek and English and Ferrar Fenton's translation, translate it properly as "after the Sabbaths," which again demonstrates that there was more than one Sabbath that week.
The wording of Mark:16:1-2 is also confusing to some because it seems to suggest that the spices were purchased after the weekly Sabbath rather than before it, on Friday.
However, this is explained by Luke:23:56, which clearly shows that the women bought the spices before, and not after, the weekly Sabbath, "and they rested on the Sabbath according to the commandment." Mark did not mention this weekly Sabbath rest in his account, but Luke did.
Some also stumble over Mark:16:9, not taking into account that there is no punctuation indicated in the original Greek. Therefore, to be in harmony with the material presented in the other Gospels, a better translation would be: "Now having risen, early the first day of the week He appeared first to Mary Magdalene . . ." These verses are not saying that Jesus rose early on Sunday morning, but that He appeared on Sunday morning to Mary Magdalene, having risen some time earlier.
Three full days and nights in the tomb
Be assured that the precise fulfillment of Jonah's sign of three days and three nights, which Jesus gave as verification of His authenticity and messiahship, did happen. Jesus rose not Sunday at sunrise, but instead late Saturday afternoon around sunset—which was precisely three days and three nights after He was placed in the tomb just before sunset on Wednesday. He had already risen hours before the women came to the tomb—before sunrise —on Sunday morning.
We should be grateful that God has preserved the genuine, incontrovertible proof of Jesus' resurrection so we can have the absolute confidence and certainty that Jesus is indeed the prophesied Messiah and Savior of the world. Christ has paid the full penalty of human sin by His sacrifice and death, and He rose from the dead and now lives in heaven as our Helper, High Priest and Intercessor.
Let's no longer cling to fables such as Good Friday and Easter Sunday. Instead, as Jesus instructs us in John:4:23-24, let us worship God "in spirit and truth." GN