As with Christmas, we 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, in this case 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").
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 comes from the Greek word pascha, meaning Passover. Modern translations correctly translate this word this word "Passover"—as even the King James Version does in other verses (see Matthew 26:2-19; 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 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; Jeremiah 44:24-28).
Francis Weiser, professor of philosophy at Boston College, provides 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 fore-fathers 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 22).
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 began to be viewed as gods, goddesses and supernatural powers to be worshipped 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. (As discussed earlier, 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 (this also giving us the word east, the direction of the sunrise).
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. 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. (For more details, see "The Resurrection Connection" on page 20).
Throughout the Old Testament, God expressed His anger with His people when they served these false gods (Judges 2:13-14; Judges 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 (Matthew 26:26-29). 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 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 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 worshippers into 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 R.K. Bishop: "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 Nicaea adopted the annual Sunday following the full moon after the vernal equinox (March 21)" (Walter Elwell, editor, Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, 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 Lyman 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 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 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). These Christians of the second century were still following the example of Jesus Christ in observing the Passover (compare 1 Corinthians 11:1; 1 Peter 2:21; 1 John 2:6).
Several decades later another church leader in Asia Minor, Polycrates, argued with a new bishop of Rome, Victor, over the same issue. Eusebius wrote of the continuing debate:
"There was a considerable discussion raised about this time, in consequence of a difference of opinion respecting the observance of the paschal [Passover] season. The churches of all Asia, guided by a remoter tradition, supposed that they ought to keep the fourteenth day of the moon for the festival of the Saviour's passover, in which day the Jews were commanded to kill the paschal lamb ...
"The bishops ... of Asia, persevering in observing the custom handed down to them from their fathers, were headed by Polycrates. He, indeed, had also set forth the tradition handed down to them, in a letter which he addressed to Victor and the church of Rome. ‘We,' said he, ‘therefore, observe the genuine day; neither adding thereto nor taking therefrom. For in Asia great lights have fallen asleep, which shall rise again the day of the Lord's appearing, in which he will come with glory from heaven, and will raise up all the saints ...
"Moreover, John, who rested upon the bosom of our Lord;... also Polycarp of Smyrna, both bishop and martyr. Thraseas,... Sagaris,... Papirius; and Melito ... All these observed the fourteenth day of the passover according to the gospel, deviating in no respect, but following the rule of faith. Moreover, I, Polycrates, who am the least of all of you, according to the tradition of my relatives, some of whom I have followed. For there were seven, my relatives [who were] bishops, and I am the eighth; and my relatives always observed the day when the people (i.e., the Jews) threw away the leaven.
"I, therefore, brethren, am now sixty-five years in the Lord, who having conferred with the brethren throughout the world, and having studied the whole of the sacred Scriptures, am not at all alarmed at those things with which I am threatened, to intimidate me. For they who are greater than I, have said, ‘we ought to obey God rather than men'" (pp. 207-209).
Regrettably, people's reasoning won out over the directions of God and the example of Jesus Christ and His original disciples.
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, neither God the Father, Christ nor Scripture has ever explicitly directed us to celebrate 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.
Mankind's need for a Savior
There is more to consider. The Bible discusses sin and our need for forgiveness and reconciliation to God (the theme of the biblically commanded Passover and the Days of Unleavened Bread) far more often than the subject of the resurrection. Within the King James Version of the Bible, the word sin is used 447 times compared with the word resurrection being used only 41 times. Don't forget that sin was the cause of Christ's death. Only by repenting of our sins and being reconciled to God by the death of Christ can we be assured of being resurrected (Acts 2:38; John 5:29; John 11:25).
This is not to minimize the importance of Christ's resurrection. It, too, is a crucial step in the salvation process (1 Corinthians 15). After being reconciled to God the Father by the death of His Son, ultimately we are saved by Christ's life as He pleads for us in the role of our High Priest and lives in us through the Holy Spirit, helping us to overcome sin (Romans 5:10; Hebrews 4:14-16; 1 John 2:1; Galatians 2:20). The process of our coming out of sin is pictured in the biblical feast immediately following Passover, the Days of Unleavened Bread, during which Christ's resurrection occurred.
Again, though, the Bible nowhere instructs Christians to keep a special celebration of Christ's resurrection, nor is there a biblical record of early Christians doing so. But it is clear that both Jesus Christ and the apostle Paul expected Christ's followers to commemorate His sacrificial death on our behalf in a special ceremony (Matthew 26:26-28; 1 Corinthians 5:7; 1 Corinthians 11:23-28).
Nonetheless, the celebration of Easter prevailed. Those who remained faithful to Christ's example of keeping the Passover and the Days of Unleavened Bread decreased in number and were persecuted by those favoring Easter.
Although how God views humanly devised changes in the worship He commands will be considered in a later chapter, let's now examine how the traditions of this holiday fail to match the biblical record.
Sunday morning resurrection?
The choice of a Sunday date for Easter is based on the assumption that Christ rose from the grave early on a Sunday morning. The popular belief is that Christ was crucified on a Friday and rose on a Sunday. But neither of these suppositions is supported by the biblical record.
Matthew 12:38 shows some of the scribes and Pharisees asking Jesus for a sign to prove He was the Messiah. 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" (Matthew 12:40).
But how can we fit "three days and three nights in the heart of the earth" between a Friday-afternoon crucifixion and a Sunday-morning resurrection? The traditional view of the crucifixion and resurrection allows for Jesus to have been entombed for only a day and a half.
Some try to reconcile Christ's words with their belief in a Friday crucifixion and Sunday resurrection by rationalizing that Christ's "three days and three nights" statement does not require a literal span of 72 hours. They reason that a part of a day can be reckoned as a whole day. Hence, since Jesus died in the afternoon—around "the ninth hour" after daybreak, or about 3 p.m. (Matthew 27:46-50)—they think the remainder of Friday constituted the first day, Saturday the second and part of Sunday the third.
However, they fail to take into consideration that only two nights—Friday night and Saturday night—are accounted for in this explanation. After all, the Bible is clear that Jesus had already risen before the daylight portion of Sunday (John 20:1). Something is obviously incorrect in this common conclusion regarding when Christ was in the tomb.
Jonah 1:17, to which Christ referred, states specifically that "Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights." We have no reason to think these days and nights were fractional. Nor is there any basis for thinking that Jesus meant only two nights and one day, plus parts of two days, when He foretold the length of time He would be in the grave. Such rationalization undermines the integrity of Jesus' words.
Was Christ's sign fulfilled?
If Jesus were in the tomb only from late Friday afternoon to sometime early Sunday morning, then the 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 details of those fateful days. Each of the Gospel writers gives an account of the events, but each presents different aspects that need to be correctly synchronized and harmonized to produce a clear sequence and understanding of what happened. We will see that, when each account is considered, the chronological details mesh perfectly.
For instance, 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 weekly Sabbath (Friday sunset to Saturday sunset) but to the first day of Unleavened Bread, which is one of God's annual high, or Sabbath, days (Exodus 12:16-17; Leviticus 23:6-7), which could—and usually did—fall on other days of the week.
Some believe that this high day fell that year on the seventh day of the week, making it coincide with the weekly 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 because of the oncoming Sabbath, is narrated in Luke 23:46-53. Luke 23:54 then states, "That day was the Preparation, and the Sabbath drew near."
Two Sabbaths mentioned
Many have assumed that it is the weekly Sabbath mentioned here. But that's incorrect. Instead, it was a Sabbath that occurred on a Thursday, since verse 56 shows that the women, after seeing Christ's body being laid in the tomb, "returned and prepared spices and fragrant oils" for the final preparation of the body.
Such work would not have been done on a Sabbath day since it would have been considered a Sabbath violation. This is 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 they would not have purchased on the high-day Sabbath], that they might come and anoint Him" (Mark 16:1).
The women had to wait until this Sabbath was over before they could buy and prepare the spices to be used for anointing Jesus' body. Then, as Luke 23:56 says, it was after purchasing and preparing the spices and oils on Friday that "they rested on the Sabbath according to the commandment." This second Sabbath mentioned in the Gospel accounts is the regular weekly Sabbath, observed from Friday sunset through Saturday sunset.
By comparing details in both Gospels—where Mark tells us the women bought spices after the Sabbath and Luke relates that they prepared the spices and then rested on the Sabbath— we can clearly see that two different Sabbaths are mentioned. The first was a "high day" (John 19:31)—the first day of the Feast of Unleavened Bread—which in that year, A.D. 31, fell on a Thursday. The second was the weekly seventh-day Sabbath.
Sign of the Messiah
After the women rested on the regular weekly Sabbath, they 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). When we allow the Scriptures to interpret themselves, all four Gospel accounts accurately harmonize and attest to the validity of Jesus' promise that He would be in the grave three days and three nights—not just part of that time.
Several Bible translations recognize that more than one Sabbath is discussed in these events. In Matthew 28:1 some Bible versions, including Alfred Marshall's Parallel New Testament in Greek and English, Ferrar Fenton's Translation and Green's Literal Translation, properly translate this phrase as "after the sabbaths." Young's Literal Translation and The Complete Word Study Dictionary: New Testament (1992, p. 1270) similarly acknowledge that multiple Sabbaths are intended here.
The wording of Mark 16:1-2 is 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, who wrote his account of these events later, 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 early on Sunday morning to Mary Magdalene, having already risen some time earlier.
When we consider the details in all four Gospel accounts, the picture is clear. Jesus was crucified and entombed late on Wednesday afternoon, just before a Sabbath began at sunset. However, that was a high-day Sabbath, falling that year on the fifth day of the week, sunset Wednesday to sunset Thursday, rather than the weekly Sabbath from Friday sunset through Saturday sunset. He remained entombed from Wednesday at sunset until Saturday at sunset, having risen from the dead. Thus, when Mary Magdalene came to the tomb on Sunday morning before sunrise, "while it was still dark," she found the stone rolled away and the tomb empty.
We can be assured that the duration of Christ's entombment before His resurrection, which He foretold as proof of His Messiahship, was precisely as long as He said it would be—equaling the "three days and three nights [Jonah was] in the belly of the great fish" (Matthew 12:40). Thus, Jesus rose late Saturday afternoon around sunset—not Sunday at sunrise—which was exactly three days and three nights after He was placed in the tomb just before sunset on Wednesday.
Christ's prophecy of the time He would be in the tomb was fulfilled precisely. Because most people do not understand the biblical high days kept by Jesus Christ and His followers, they fail to understand the chronological details so accurately preserved for us in the Gospels.
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 backgrounds of two major religious holidays, 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.