You can read your Bible cover to cover and you’ll find that the popular customs associated with the Easter celebration—rabbits, Easter-egg hunts and sunrise services—have nothing to do with the biblical record of Christ’s life or His rising from the dead.
Where, then, did these practices originate?
The Encyclopaedia Britannica tells us, “As at Christmas, so also at Easter, popular customs reflect many ancient pagan survivals—in this instance, connected with spring fertility rites, such as the symbols of the Easter egg and the Easter hare or rabbit” (15th edition, Macropaedia, Vol. 4, p. 605, “Church Year,” emphasis added throughout).
The word Easter appears once in the King James Version of the Bible, in Acts 12:4, where it is a mistranslation. Reputable scholars and reference works point out that the word Easter in this verse is a gross mistranslation of the Greek word pascha, meaning Passover. Modern translations correctly translate this word “Passover”—as even the King James Version does in other verses (see Matthew 26:2, 17-19; Mark 14:12; 1 Corinthians 5:7).
Notice what Vine’s Complete Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words says about the term Easter here: “Pascha . . . mistranslated ‘Easter’ in Acts 12:4, KJV, denotes the Passover . . . The term ‘Easter’ is not of Christian origin. It is another form of Astarte, one of the titles of the Chaldean goddess, the queen of heaven. The festival of Pasch [Passover] held by Christians in post-apostolic times was a continuation of the Jewish feast . . . From this Pasch [Passover] the pagan festival of ‘Easter’ was quite distinct and was introduced into the apostate Western religion, as part of the attempt to adapt pagan festivals to Christianity” (1985, p. 192, “Easter”).
Easter’s ancient history
The roots of the Easter celebration date to long before Jesus Christ’s life, death and resurrection. Various Easter customs can be traced back to ancient spring celebrations surrounding Astarte, the goddess of spring and fertility. The Bible refers to her as “Ashtoreth the abomination of the Sidonians” (2 Kings 23:13) and, as Vine’s mentions, “the Queen of Heaven,” whose worship God condemned (Jeremiah 7:18; 44:24-28).
Francis Weiser, professor of philosophy at Boston College, has provided these facts: “The origin of the Easter egg is based on the fertility lore of the Indo-European races . . . The Easter bunny had its origin in pre-Christian fertility lore. Hare and rabbit were the most fertile animals our forefathers knew, serving as symbols of abundant new life in the spring season” (Handbook of Christian Feasts and Customs, 1958, pp. 233, 236). (For more information about these symbols, see “Fertility Symbols: Beneath the Dignity of God” on page 13).
Fertility rites and customs were incorporated into religious practices early in history. After Adam and Eve rejected God in the Garden of Eden (Genesis 3), humanity looked for other explanations for life. Forces of nature and seasons that could not be controlled came to be viewed as gods, goddesses and supernatural powers to be worshiped and feared. Man soon created his own gods, contradicting God’s instruction against idolatry (Exodus 20:3-6; Deuteronomy 5:7-10).
“The pagan nations made statues or images to represent the powers they worshiped. Most of these idols were in the form of animals or human beings. But sometimes the idols represented celestial powers, like the sun, moon, and stars; forces of nature, like the sea and the rain; or life forces, like death and truth . . .
“In time an elaborate system of beliefs in such natural forces was developed into mythology. Each civilization and culture had its own mythological structure, but the structures were often quite similar. The names of the gods may have been different, but their functions and actions were often the same. The most prominent myth to cross cultural lines was that of the fertility cycle. Many pagan cultures believed that the god of fertility died each year during the winter but was reborn each year in the spring. The details differed among cultures, but the main idea was the same” (Nelson’s New Illustrated Bible Dictionary, 1995, “Gods, Pagan,” p. 508).
In pagan mythology the sun represented life. The sun supposedly died around the winter solstice, the shortest day of the year (the date set for Christmas celebrations is rooted in this myth). Complementing the rebirth of the sun were spring fertility rites, whose surviving symbols thread their way throughout Easter celebrations.
In addition to rabbits and eggs, another popular Easter custom had pre-Christian origins: “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, p. 558, “Easter”).
Sex rites in ancient cultures
Ancient fertility rites revolved around overt sexual immorality and perversion. Such rites are referred to throughout the Bible under a variety of names and descriptions.
The Babylonian and Assyrian fertility goddess was Ishtar, from which derives the names Astarte and Ashtoreth and very likely the Anglo-Saxon Eostre or Germanic Ostara, goddess of spring, the origin of the word Easter. (The word east, the direction of the sunrise, comes from this same word.)
Ishtar symbolized Mother Earth in the natural cycles of fertility on earth. Many myths grew up around this female deity. She was the goddess of love, and the practice of ritual prostitution became widespread in the fertility cult dedicated to her name.
“Temples to Ishtar had many priestesses, or sacred prostitutes, who symbolically acted out the fertility rites of the cycle of nature. Ishtar has been identified with the Phoenician Astarte, the Semitic Ashtoreth, and the Sumerian Inanna. Strong similarities also exist between Ishtar and the Egyptian Isis, the Greek Aphrodite, and the Roman Venus.
“Associated with Ishtar was the young god Tammuz (Ezek[iel] 8:14), considered both divine and mortal. In Babylonian mythology Tammuz died annually and was reborn year after year, representing the yearly cycle of the seasons and the crops. This pagan belief later was identified with the pagan gods Baal and Anat in Canaan” (Nelson’s New Illustrated Bible Dictionary, “Gods, Pagan,” p. 509).
It was believed that Ishtar brought about the rebirth or resurrection of Tammuz in the spring, coinciding with the blossoming of nature.
Throughout the Old Testament, God expressed His anger with His people when they served these false gods (Judges 2:13-14; 10:6-7; 1 Kings 11:5-11; Ezekiel 8:14-18).
Easter was no part of early Church worship
The New Testament does not mention an Easter celebration. Early Christians had nothing to do with Easter. Instead, they kept the Passover, instituted by God centuries earlier at the time of the Exodus (Exodus 12:13-14; Leviticus 23:5). Jesus Christ personally kept this festival (Matthew 26:17-18) and gave it a clearer meaning under the New Covenant with His institution of the symbols of bread and wine for His beaten body and shed blood, signifying His suffering and death on our behalf (verses 26-29). He is the Lamb of God, offered as the true Passover sacrifice for the sins of the world (John 1:29; 1 Corinthians 5:7).
Jesus told His followers to continue this observance in remembrance of Him and His death (1 Corinthians 11:23-26). Soon, however, pressure to replace Passover with popular Easter customs began to build. This movement was the basis for much contention over the next three centuries.
Notice how The Encyclopaedia Britannica describes this period: “The earliest Christians celebrated the Lord’s Passover at the same time as the Jews, during the night of the first full moon of the first month of spring (Nisan 14-15). By the middle of the 2nd century, most churches had transferred this celebration to the Sunday after the Jewish feast. But certain churches of Asia Minor clung to the older custom, for which they were denounced as ‘judaizing’ (Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History, Book 5, chapters 23-25). The first ecumenical Council of Nicaea in [A.D.] 325 decreed that all churches should observe the feast together on a Sunday” (15th edition, Macropaedia, Vol. 4, pp. 604-605, “Church Year”).
“After long and fierce controversies over its date (which is governed by the lunar calendar), the date for Easter set by the Council of Nicaea in 325 is the first Sunday after the full moon that follows the spring equinox. Easter became the centre of a fixed liturgical structure of times and festivals in the church year” (ibid., p. 499, “Christianity”).
Pressure against the biblical Passover
Why did Easter replace the biblical Passover?
Though Easter was clearly pagan in origin, Christian leaders of the first two centuries after Christ’s crucifixion employed the same philosophy in establishing the new holiday that they later applied to Christmas. Believing that people are free to select their own times and customs of worship, they went about gradually replacing the biblically commanded Passover with their humanly devised celebration of Easter.
It was easier to draw pagan worshipers into this new version of Christianity and maintain their devotion by identifying the time-honored spring resurrection feast of the pagan mystery religions with the resurrection of Christ.
Anti-Jewish prejudice also seems to have been a major factor in the church leaders’ decision to make such changes. According to the Evangelical Dictionary of Theology: “The early development of the celebration of Easter and the attendant calendar disputes were largely a result of Christianity’s attempt to emancipate itself from Judaism. Sunday had already replaced the Jewish sabbath early in the second century, and despite efforts in Asia Minor to maintain the Jewish Passover date of 14 Nisan for Easter [or, rather, the true Passover] (hence the name Quartodecimans [meaning ‘Fourteeners’]), the Council of Nicea adopted the annual Sunday following the full moon after the vernal equinox (March 21)” (Walter Elwell, editor, 1984, “Easter”).
Before A.D. 70, Christianity was “regarded by the Roman government and by the people at large as a branch of the Jewish religion” (Jesse Hurlbut, The Story of the Christian Church, 1954, p. 34). Christianity and Judaism shared the biblical feast days, although Christians observed them with added meanings introduced by Jesus and the apostles.
However, two Jewish revolts against the Roman Empire, in 64-70 and 132-135, led to widespread persecution of Jews and suppression of Jewish religious practices. Jews were even driven from Jerusalem and forbidden to return on pain of death. As pressure mounted, some Christians began to abandon beliefs and practices perceived as being too Jewish. Over time many abandoned their weekly Sabbath day of rest and worship in favor of worship on Sunday, the pagan day of the sun, and abandoned the Passover in favor of Easter to distance themselves from Jews.
The New Catholic Encyclopedia explains: “Originally both observances [Passover and Easter] were allowed, but gradually it was felt incongruous that Christians should celebrate Easter [which they wrongly called Passover] on a Jewish feast, and unity in celebrating the principal Christian feast was called for” (1967, Vol. 5, p. 8, “Easter Controversy”).
Acceptance of Easter over Passover did not come without resistance. Two religious leaders of the mid-second century—Polycarp, bishop of Smyrna in Asia Minor, and Anicetus, bishop of Rome—debated this very point.
Anicetus argued for what became known as Easter while Polycarp, a student of the apostle John, defended observing “the Christian Passover, on the 14th of Nisan, the first month of the Jewish ecclesiastical calendar, regardless of the day of the week” (Encyclopaedia Britannica, 15th edition, Micropaedia, Vol. 8, p. 94, “Polycarp”).
Polycarp taught observance of the Passover as the early Church had observed it. Eusebius said Polycarp did so because this was the way “he had always observed it with John the disciple of our Lord, and the rest of the apostles, with whom he associated” (Eusebius’ Ecclesiastical History, 1995, pp. 210-211). To be clear, Polycarp and other Christians of the second century were still following the example of Jesus Christ in observing the biblical Passover (compare 1 Corinthians 11:1; 1 Peter 2:21; 1 John 2:6). (To learn more about this fascinating episode from history, be sure to read “Would You Stand With Polycarp?” beginning on page 17.)
Several decades later another church leader in Asia Minor, Polycrates, argued with a new bishop of Rome, Victor, over the same issue.
Regrettably, people’s reasoning won out over the directions of God and the example of Jesus Christ and His original disciples, and this new holiday of Easter won out over the biblically commanded Passover.
A new worship theme
As Easter replaced Passover, not only was a new date selected (the Sunday after the spring equinox rather than the biblically directed Nisan 14), but a new theme was introduced. Rather than commemorating Christ’s death as directed by the Scriptures (1 Corinthians 11:26), the new holiday was designed to celebrate His resurrection. This new theme easily accommodated the pagan fertility symbols. It also helped distinguish the Christian community from the Jews, a major goal of church leaders of the time.
Although Christ’s resurrection is an important basis of our hope that we, too, can be resurrected (1 Corinthians 15:17; Romans 5:10), and it was critical for God’s plan of salvation to continue, Scripture has never explicitly directed a particular celebration of this event.
Indeed, the love of God is primarily expressed to all humanity through the crucifixion of Jesus Christ (John 3:16; Hebrews 9:28). His death, through which our sins may be forgiven, is the primary focus of the Passover, not His resurrection. Many precise details of His death and events leading up to and encompassing it were prophesied in the Hebrew Scriptures hundreds of years in advance.
The decision of God the Father to willingly give His only begotten Son—and of Jesus Christ to surrender His life to torture and execution as a sacrifice for the sins of humanity—were far more demanding than the demonstration of God’s power over death through the resurrection.
A better way
As we have seen, Easter and its customs originated not from the Bible, but in pagan fertility rites. It is a curious mixture of ancient mythological practices and arbitrary dating that obscures and discredits the proof of Jesus Christ’s messiahship and resurrection.
Having learned the sources and background of this major religious holiday, one might rightly wonder which days, if any, a Christian should observe. God in His Word shows a better way of life with better days of worship He has appointed for His people.
Fertility Symbols: Beneath the Dignity of God
Because reproduction in nature is critical for food and perpetuation of life, mankind has long been intrigued by fertility. Have you ever wondered why eggs and rabbits—the popular hallmarks of Easter—were selected as symbols of fertility?
“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” (The Encyclopedia of Religion, 1987, p. 37, “Egg”).
The Easter bunny is the modern replacement for “the hare, the symbol of fertility in ancient Egypt” (The Encyclopaedia Britannica, 15th edition, Micropaedia, p. 333, “Easter”). It’s no secret that rabbits are extremely prolific. Their does (females) bear several litters of two to eight young each year, and gestation takes about a month. Contrary to God’s instruction, these pagan fertility symbols credit divine powers to the creation (rabbits and eggs) instead of the Creator (Romans 1:21-25).
In contrast to pagan celebrations, God promised to bless His people with abundance in return for their love and obedience. Notice Moses’ words of encouragement to Israel shortly before his death:
“Then it shall come to pass, because you listen to these judgments, and keep and do them, that the Lord your God will keep with you the covenant and the mercy which He swore to your fathers. And He will love you and bless you and multiply you; He will also bless the fruit of your womb and the fruit of your land, your grain and your new wine and your oil, the increase of your cattle and the offspring of your flock, in the land of which He swore to your fathers to give you. You shall be blessed above all peoples; there shall not be a male or female barren among you or among your livestock” (Deuteronomy 7:12-14).
People have the choice of looking to God as their Creator for reproductive blessings or looking to the creation. Given the history of rabbits and eggs as pagan fertility symbols, do you think God is pleased when people include these as symbols of their worship? (See Deuteronomy 12:2-4, 28-32.)