As a boy attending a mainstream church with my family, I was always surprised to see people at services on Easter Sunday who did not come at 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.
But they were wrong, failing to realize that their faith practice was based on falsehood. None of them knew or even wondered about Easter’s origins. They would have been shocked to know the truth of the matter!
Easter’s pre-Christian origins and symbols
Many people are amazed to find that the Bible does not mention Easter as part of Christian worship. Neither Jesus nor the apostles ever directed that it should be observed. The word Easter appears only once in the Bible, in Acts 12:4 Acts 12:4And when he had apprehended him, he put him in prison, and delivered him to four squads of soldiers to keep him; intending after Easter to bring him forth to the people.
American King James Version×in the King James Version where it is an incorrect translation of the Greek word pascha—which refers to Passover, not Easter. This mistake has been corrected in more recent translations of the New Testament.
Also not generally known is 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 which 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 having been “handed down from the ancient ceremonial and symbolism of European and Middle Eastern pagan spring festivals.” One symbol, the Easter rabbit, is called the modern replacement for “the hare, the symbol of fertility in ancient Egypt.”
Another source reveals the origin of two Easter customs: “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”).
“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 [Roman Catholic] 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” (article “Egg”).
Ancient pagan resurrection celebrations led to Easter
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 was the same as the pagan goddess Ashtoreth referred to in the Bible in Judges 2:13 Judges 2:13And they forsook the LORD, and served Baal and Ashtaroth.
American King James Version×. This ancient custom of mourning for the return of a dead god is mentioned in Ezekiel 8:14 Ezekiel 8:14Then he brought me to the door of the gate of the LORD’s house which was toward the north; and, behold, there sat women weeping for Tammuz.
American King James Version×, where we read of women who are “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 worshipped 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 idolatrous worship (Ezekiel 8:12-18 Ezekiel 8:12-18  Then said he to me, Son of man, have you seen what the ancients of the house of Israel do in the dark, every man in the chambers of his imagery? for they say, the LORD sees us not; the LORD has forsaken the earth.
 He said also to me, Turn you yet again, and you shall see greater abominations that they do.
 Then he brought me to the door of the gate of the LORD’s house which was toward the north; and, behold, there sat women weeping for Tammuz.
 Then said he to me, Have you seen this, O son of man? turn you yet again, and you shall see greater abominations than these.
 And he brought me into the inner court of the LORD’s house, and, behold, at the door of the temple of the LORD, between the porch and the altar, were about five and twenty men, with their backs toward the temple of the LORD, and their faces toward the east; and they worshipped the sun toward the east.
 Then he said to me, Have you seen this, O son of man? Is it a light thing to the house of Judah that they commit the abominations which they commit here? for they have filled the land with violence, and have returned to provoke me to anger: and, see, they put the branch to their nose.
 Therefore will I also deal in fury: my eye shall not spare, neither will I have pity: and though they cry in my ears with a loud voice, yet will I not hear them.
American King James Version×; Jeremiah 7:18 Jeremiah 7:18The children gather wood, and the fathers kindle the fire, and the women knead their dough, to make cakes to the queen of heaven, and to pour out drink offerings to other gods, that they may provoke me to anger.
American King James Version×; 44:17-23).
Worshipped 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 biblically recorded true events such as 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 following Jewish rebellion against Roman rule, many groups of professing Christians chose to dissociate themselves from any appearance of Jewish religious practices.
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 festivals of God, outlined in Leviticus 23 and practiced by both Judaism and the early Church (Acts 13:14 Acts 13:14But when they departed from Perga, they came to Antioch in Pisidia, and went into the synagogue on the sabbath day, and sat down.
American King James Version×, 42, 44; 16:13; 17:2; 18:4, 21; 20:6, 16; 27:9), were supplanted by unbiblical traditions and practices. As time passed, the truth and purity of the early Church of God were corrupted.
Controversy over worship
Accompanying this transformation was early confusion over the timing and focus of Christian observance. “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. What was instituted by Jesus to annually commemorate His death was subtly changed to a celebration of His resurrection. Although Christ’s resurrection itself is an important part of God’s plan (see 1 Corinthians 15 and 1 Peter 1:3 1 Peter 1:3Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, which according to his abundant mercy has begotten us again to a lively hope by the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead,
American King James Version×), there is no command in the Bible, by Jesus or His apostles, for Jesus’ followers to have a particular ceremony or service to celebrate His resurrection.
Instead, in terms of an instituted special service, Jesus highlighted what was to be accomplished by His death by directing us to partake of the symbols of the New Covenant meaning of the Passover (Matthew 26:26-28 Matthew 26:26-28  And as they were eating, Jesus took bread, and blessed it, and broke it, and gave it to the disciples, and said, Take, eat; this is my body.
 And he took the cup, and gave thanks, and gave it to them, saying, Drink you all of it;
 For this is my blood of the new testament, which is shed for many for the remission of sins.
American King James Version×; Mark 14:22-24 Mark 14:22-24  And as they did eat, Jesus took bread, and blessed, and broke it, and gave to them, and said, Take, eat: this is my body.  And he took the cup, and when he had given thanks, he gave it to them: and they all drank of it.  And he said to them, This is my blood of the new testament, which is shed for many.
American King James Version×; Luke 22:17-20 Luke 22:17-20  And he took the cup, and gave thanks, and said, Take this, and divide it among yourselves:  For I say to you, I will not drink of the fruit of the vine, until the kingdom of God shall come.  And he took bread, and gave thanks, and broke it, and gave to them, saying, This is my body which is given for you: this do in remembrance of me.  Likewise also the cup after supper, saying, This cup is the new testament in my blood, which is shed for you.
American King James Version×). He was the Lamb of God who would offer Himself as the true Paschal sacrifice for the sins of the world (John 1:29 John 1:29The next day John sees Jesus coming to him, and said, Behold the Lamb of God, which takes away the sin of the world.
American King James Version×), and His death fulfilled what had been foreshadowed by the slaying of the Passover lambs.
The New Catholic Encyclopedia, 1967 edition, in the article “Easter and its cycle,” 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.”
The Passover ceremony, observed by Jesus Christ and commanded by Him for His followers (1 Corinthians 11:23-26 1 Corinthians 11:23-26  For I have received of the Lord that which also I delivered to you, That the Lord Jesus the same night in which he was betrayed took bread:
 And when he had given thanks, he broke it, and said, Take, eat: this is my body, which is broken for you: this do in remembrance of me.
 After the same manner also he took the cup, when he had supped, saying, This cup is the new testament in my blood: this do you, as oft as you drink it, in remembrance of me.
 For as often as you eat this bread, and drink this cup, you do show the Lord’s death till he come.
American King James Version×; Luke 22:19 Luke 22:19And he took bread, and gave thanks, and broke it, and gave to them, saying, This is my body which is given for you: this do in remembrance of me.
American King James Version×; John 13:15 John 13:15For I have given you an example, that you should do as I have done to you.
American King James Version×), was supplanted by Easter, a day neither He nor the early New Testament Church approved.
Inconsistent and incorrect dating
The date of Easter, as part of the mixing of the ancient fertility and resurrection celebrations with the death and resurrection of Jesus, was heatedly debated during the 2nd century after Christ, especially by a group in Asia Minor known as the Quartodecimans (from the Latin word for 14). They insisted on observing Passover on the 14th of Nisan on the Hebrew calendar.
“In the mid-second century, however, some Gentile Christians began to celebrate it 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 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 [of the actual Passover].
“Currently celebrated on the first Sunday after the first full moon following the vernal equinox [as fixed by the Council of Nicaea 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”).
Putting all this together, we see that the world’s observance of Easter is a curious mixture of ancient mythological practices and arbitrary dating, which actually obscures and discredits the proof of Jesus Christ’s messiahship and resurrection. The Passover He observed and commanded was discarded and replaced with a very different celebration—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 or anniversary of His resurrection. However, another problem with all this is that these Friday and Sunday observances are actually contradicted by the details of the biblical record!
Jesus’ sign that He was the Messiah
In Matthew 12:38 Matthew 12:38Then certain of the scribes and of the Pharisees answered, saying, Master, we would see a sign from you.
American King James Version×we find 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 crucifixion and Sunday resurrection by arguing that this segment of time does not require a span of 72 hours. They reason that a part of a day can be reckoned as a whole day. Hence, since Jesus died around 3 p.m. (Matthew 27:46 Matthew 27:46And about the ninth hour Jesus cried with a loud voice, saying, Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani? that is to say, My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
American King James Version×), they feel the remainder of Friday constituted the first day, Saturday the second and part of Sunday the third.
What they fail to take into consideration is that only two nights—not three—are accounted for in this explanation and that Jesus had already risen before the daylight portion of Sunday (John 20:1 John 20:1The first day of the week comes Mary Magdalene early, when it was yet dark, to the sepulcher, and sees the stone taken away from the sepulcher.
American King James Version×).
Something is obviously incorrect about this commonly accepted assumption!
Jonah 1:17 Jonah 1:17Now the LORD had prepared a great fish to swallow up Jonah. And Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights.
American King James Version×, to which Jesus referred, 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, plus parts of two days, when He described the length of time He would be in the grave. Such rationalization undermines the integrity of Jesus’ own words.
Was Christ’s sign fulfilled?
If Jesus were in the grave only from late Friday afternoon to sometime very early 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! Either He meant what He said, or He didn’t!
Let’s 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 (see accompanying chart on the facing page). The Bible does not contradict itself (Psalms 119:160 Psalms 119:160Your word is true from the beginning: and every one of your righteous judgments endures for ever.
American King James Version×), and we will see that not one of the Gospel accounts contradicts what the other Gospels teach.
For instance, John 19:31 John 19:31The Jews therefore, because it was the preparation, that the bodies should not remain on the cross on the sabbath day, (for that sabbath day was an high day,) sought Pilate that their legs might be broken, and that they might be taken away.
American King James Version×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 term does not refer to the weekly Sabbath (Friday evening to Saturday evening) but to the first day of the Feast of Unleavened Bread, which is one of God’s annual “high”—or holy—days (Exodus 12:16 Exodus 12:16And in the first day there shall be an holy convocation, and in the seventh day there shall be an holy convocation to you; no manner of work shall be done in them, save that which every man must eat, that only may be done of you.
American King James Version×; Leviticus 23:6-7 Leviticus 23:6-7  And on the fifteenth day of the same month is the feast of unleavened bread to the LORD: seven days you must eat unleavened bread.  In the first day you shall have an holy convocation: you shall do no servile work therein.
American King James Version×), which could fall on any day of the week.
Some try to get around this by arguing that this high day fell that year on the seventh day of the week, making it a double 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 chapter 23. Jesus’ moment of death, as well as His hasty burial 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 different Sabbath days described
Many have assumed that it is the weekly Sabbath mentioned here. But this is not the case. Instead, it was a Sabbath that occurred on Thursday, since verse 56 shows that the women, after seeing Christ’s body having been laid in the tomb, “returned and prepared spices and fragrant oils” for the final preparation of the body.
In this sequence, such work could have been done only on Friday, since it would have been considered a violation of the Sabbath if it was done on that 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 Mark 16:1And when the sabbath was past, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome, had bought sweet spices, that they might come and anoint him.
American King James Version×, emphasis added).
This conclusively proves that the Sabbath mentioned here and in the other narratives was the first Holy Day of the Feast of Unleavened Bread, which in that particular year fell on a Thursday. The women had to wait until this first 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 seventh day Sabbath (Luke 23:56 Luke 23:56And they returned, and prepared spices and ointments; and rested the sabbath day according to the commandment.
American King James Version×).
The sign of the Messiah fulfilled!
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 John 20:1The first day of the week comes Mary Magdalene early, when it was yet dark, to the sepulcher, and sees the stone taken away from the sepulcher.
American King James Version×), and found that He had already been resurrected (Matthew 28:1-6 Matthew 28:1-6  In the end of the sabbath, as it began to dawn toward the first day of the week, came Mary Magdalene and the other Mary to see the sepulcher.  And, behold, there was a great earthquake: for the angel of the Lord descended from heaven, and came and rolled back the stone from the door, and sat on it.  His countenance was like lightning, and his raiment white as snow:  And for fear of him the keepers did shake, and became as dead men.  And the angel answered and said to the women, Fear not you: for I know that you seek Jesus, which was crucified.  He is not here: for he is risen, as he said. Come, see the place where the Lord lay.
American King James Version×; Mark 16:2-6 Mark 16:2-6  And very early in the morning the first day of the week, they came to the sepulcher at the rising of the sun.  And they said among themselves, Who shall roll us away the stone from the door of the sepulcher?  And when they looked, they saw that the stone was rolled away: for it was very great.  And entering into the sepulcher, they saw a young man sitting on the right side, clothed in a long white garment; and they were affrighted.  And he said to them, Be not affrighted: You seek Jesus of Nazareth, which was crucified: he is risen; he is not here: behold the place where they laid him.
American King James Version×; Luke 24:1-3 Luke 24:1-3  Now on the first day of the week, very early in the morning, they came to the sepulcher, bringing the spices which they had prepared, and certain others with them.  And they found the stone rolled away from the sepulcher.  And they entered in, and found not the body of the Lord Jesus.
American King James Version×; John 20:1 John 20:1The first day of the week comes Mary Magdalene early, when it was yet dark, to the sepulcher, and sees the stone taken away from the sepulcher.
American King James Version×). Therefore, if we allow the Scriptures to interpret themselves, an accurate harmonization of all four Gospel accounts confirms the validity of Jesus’ statements.
Further proof of the accuracy of this sequence and explanation is found in Matthew 28:1 Matthew 28:1In the end of the sabbath, as it began to dawn toward the first day of the week, came Mary Magdalene and the other Mary to see the sepulcher.
American King James Version×. 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 genitive 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 Mark 16:1-2  And when the sabbath was past, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome, had bought sweet spices, that they might come and anoint him.
 And very early in the morning the first day of the week, they came to the sepulcher at the rising of the sun.
American King James Version×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 Luke 23:56And they returned, and prepared spices and ointments; and rested the sabbath day according to the commandment.
American King James Version×, 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 later, did.
Some also stumble over Mark 16:9 Mark 16:9Now when Jesus was risen early the first day of the week, he appeared first to Mary Magdalene, out of whom he had cast seven devils.
American King James Version×, 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 [Jesus] 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 days and three 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 late Saturday afternoon around sunset—not Sunday at sunrise—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, while it was still dark, Sunday morning.
We should be grateful that God has preserved the genuine, incontrovertible proof of Jesus’ resurrection so we can have the confidence and certainty that He is indeed the prophesied Messiah and Savior of the world, who has paid the full penalty of human sin by His sacrifice and death, and that He rose from the dead and lives in heaven as our Helper, High Priest and Intercessor!