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Was Easter Borrowed From a Pagan Holiday?

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  • Christopher Orr
    Was Easter Borrowed From a Pagan Holiday? *The historical evidence
    Message 1 of 1 , Mar 24, 2010
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      Was Easter Borrowed From a Pagan
      *The historical evidence contradicts this popular notion.*

      By Anthony McRoy
      Thursday, April 2, 2009
      Christianity Today<http://www.christianitytoday.com/ch/bytopic/holidays/easterborrowedholiday.html>

      From Mystagogy<http://www.johnsanidopoulos.com/2009/04/was-easter-borrowed-from-pagan-holiday.html>
      John Sanidopoulos

      Anyone encountering anti-Christian polemics will quickly come up against the
      accusation that a major festival practiced by Christians across the globe �
      namely, Easter � was actually borrowed or rather usurped from a pagan
      celebration. I often encounter this idea among Muslims who claim that later
      Christians compromised with paganism to dilute the original faith of Jesus.

      The argument largely rests on the supposed pagan associations of the English
      and German names for the celebration (*Easter* in English and *Ostern* in
      German). It is important to note, however, that in most other European
      languages, the name for the Christian celebration is derived from the Greek
      word *Pascha*, which comes from *pesach*, the Hebrew word for Passover.
      Easter is the Christian Passover festival.

      Of course, even if Christians did engage in contextualization � expressing
      their message and worship in the language or forms of the local people �
      that in no way implies doctrinal compromise. Christians around the world
      have sought to redeem the local culture for Christ while purging it of
      practices antithetical to biblical norms. After all, Christians speak of
      "Good Friday," but they are in no way honoring the worship of the
      Norse/Germanic queen of the gods Freya by doing so.

      But, in fact, in the case of Easter the evidence suggests otherwise: that
      neither the commemoration of Christ's death and resurrection nor its name
      are derived from paganism.

      *A Celebration With Ancient Roots*

      The usual argument for the pagan origins of Easter is based on a comment
      made by the Venerable Bede (673-735), an English monk who wrote the first
      history of Christianity in England, and who is one of our main sources of
      knowledge about early Anglo-Saxon culture. In *De temporum ratione* (*On the
      Reckoning of Time*, c. 730), Bede wrote this:

      "In olden times the English people � for it did not seem fitting that I
      should speak of other nations' observance of the year and yet be silent
      about my own nation's � calculated their months according to the course of
      the Moon. Hence, after the manner of the Greeks and the Romans, [the months]
      take their name from the Moon, for the Moon is called *mona* and the month *
      monath*. The first month, which the Latins call January, is Giuli; February
      is called Solmonath; March Hrethmonath; April, Eosturmonath � 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. Now they designate that Paschal season by her
      name, calling the joys of the new rite by the time-honoured name of the old

      The first question, therefore, is whether the actual Christian celebration
      of Easter is derived from a pagan festival. This is easily answered. The
      Nordic/Germanic peoples (including the Anglo-Saxons) were comparative
      latecomers to Christianity. Pope Gregory I sent a missionary enterprise led
      by Augustine of Canterbury to the Anglo-Saxons in 596/7. The forcible
      conversion of the Saxons in Europe began under Charlemagne in 772. Hence, if
      "Easter" (i.e. the Christian Passover festival) was celebrated prior to
      those dates, any supposed pagan Anglo-Saxon festival of "Eostre" can have no
      significance. And there is, in fact, clear evidence that Christians
      celebrated an Easter/Passover festival by the second century, if not
      earlier. It follows that the Christian Easter/Passover celebration, which
      originated in the Mediterranean basin, was not influenced by any Germanic
      pagan festival.

      *What's In a Name?*

      The second question is whether the name of the holiday "Easter" comes from
      the blurring of the Christian celebration with the worship of a purported
      pagan fertility goddess named "Eostre" in English and Germanic cultures.
      There are several problems with the passage in Bede. In his book, *The
      Stations of the Sun*, Professor Ronald Hutton (a well-known historian of
      British paganism and occultism) critiques Bede's sketchy knowledge of other
      pagan festivals, and argues that the same is true for the statement about
      Eostre: "It falls into a category of interpretations which Bede admitted to
      be his own, rather than generally agreed or proven fact."

      This leads us to the next problem: there is no evidence outside of Bede for
      the existence of this Anglo-Saxon goddess. There is no equivalent goddess in
      the Norse Eddas or in ancient Germanic paganism from continental Europe.
      Hutton suggests, therefore, that "the Anglo-Saxon Estor-monath simply meant
      'the month of opening' or 'the month of beginnings,'" and concludes that
      there is no evidence for a pre-Christian festival in the British Isles in
      March or April.

      There is another objection to the claim that Eosturmonath has anything to do
      with a pagan goddess. Whereas Anglo-Saxon days were usually named after
      gods, such as Wednesday ("Woden's day"), the names of their months were
      either calendrical, such as Giuli, meaning "wheel," referring to the turn of
      the year; metereological-environmental, such as Solm�nath (roughly
      February), meaning "Mud-Month"; or referred to actions taken in that period,
      such as Bl�tm�nath (roughly November), meaning "Blood Month," when animals
      were slaughtered. No other month was dedicated to a deity, with the
      exception (according to Bede) of Hrethmonath (roughly March), which he
      claims was named after the goddess Hrethe. But like Eostre, there is no
      other evidence for Hrethe, nor any equivalent in Germanic/Norse mythology.

      Another problem with Bede's explanation concerns the Saxons in continental
      Europe. Einhard (c. 775-840), the courtier and biographer of Charlemagne,
      tells us that among Charlemagne's reforms was the renaming of the months.
      April was renamed Ostarmanoth. Charlemagne spoke a Germanic dialect, as did
      the Anglo-Saxons in Britain, although their vernacular was distinct. But why
      would Charlemagne change the old Roman title for the spring month to
      Ostarmanoth? Charlemagne was the scourge of Germanic paganism. He attacked
      the pagan Saxons and felled their great pillar Irminsul (after their god
      Irmin) in 772. He forcibly converted them to Christianity and savagely
      repressed them when they revolted because of this. It seems very unlikely,
      therefore, that Charlemagne would name a month after a Germanic goddess.

      *Spring Holiday*

      So why, then, do English-speaking Christians call their holiday "Easter"?

      One theory for the origin of the name is that the Latin phrase *in
      albis*("in white"), which Christians used in reference to Easter week,
      found its
      way into Old High German as *eostarum*, or "dawn." There is some evidence of
      early Germanic borrowing of Latin despite that fact that the Germanic
      peoples lived outside the Roman Empire�though the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes
      were far very removed from it. This theory presumes that the word only
      became current after the introduction of either Roman influence or the
      Christian faith, which is uncertain. But if accurate, it would demonstrate
      that the festival is not named after a pagan goddess.

      Alternatively, as Hutton suggests, *Eosturmonath* simply meant "the month of
      opening," which is comparable to the meaning of "April" in Latin. The names
      of both the Saxon and Latin months (which are calendrically similar) were
      related to spring, the season when the buds open.

      So Christians in ancient Anglo-Saxon and Germanic areas called their
      Passover holiday what they did � doubtless colloquially at first � simply
      because it occurred around the time of Eosturmonath/Ostarmanoth. A
      contemporary analogy can be found in the way Americans sometimes refer to
      the December period as "the holidays" in connection with Christmas and
      Hanukkah, or the way people sometimes speak about something happening
      "around Christmas," usually referring to the time at the turn of the year.
      The Christian title "Easter," then, essentially reflects its general date in
      the calendar, rather than the Paschal festival having been re-named in honor
      of a supposed pagan deity.

      Of course, the Christian commemoration of the Paschal festival rests not on
      the title of the celebration but on its content � namely, the remembrance of
      Christ's death and resurrection. It is Christ's conquest of sin, death, and
      Satan that gives us the right to wish everyone "Happy Easter!"

      Anthony McRoy is a Fellow of the British Society for Middle East Studies and
      lecturer in Islamic studies at Wales Evangelical School of Theology, U.K.

      [Non-text portions of this message have been removed]
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