On a Sunday morning long ago, when the disciples of Jesus first encountered their risen Lord, they “came to him, clasped his feet and worshipped him” (Matthew 28:9). Since that time, Christians have set aside time each year to commemorate the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus. This observance has been known in other languages as the (Christian) Passover. English-speaking peoples refer to it as Easter.
By the middle of the second century, different dates had emerged in different Christian communities for the annual celebration of the resurrection of Jesus.
The traditions of some Christians in Asia Minor was to have their annual celebration on the same calendar date each year (the Jewish date of Nisan 14). They ended a period of fasting on Nisan 14 and celebrated the Lord’s resurrection. These communities claimed to have received this tradition from the apostle John.
Most Christians outside of Asia Minor had their own early tradition regarding the celebration of the resurrection of Jesus. This was based on the Roman calendar, rather than on the Jewish calendar. The tradition of most Christians from the second century forward was to have their annual celebration of the resurrection of Jesus on a Sunday, near the time of the spring equinox. They claimed to trace their tradition to Peter and Paul.
Eventually discussion arose between those Asian churches that followed the Nisan 14 tradition (known in church history as Quartodecimans [fourteeners]) and the rest of Christianity, which followed the Western tradition, as to how best to determine the date for the Christian celebration of the anniversary of the Lord’s resurrection.
Around A.D. 154, Polycarp, bishop of the church at Smyrna in Asia Minor, visited Anicetus, bishop of the church at Rome. They discussed their different practices, and each recognized that the other had a legitimate tradition. They agreed to respect one another’s customs.
A generation later, about A.D. 190, Victor, bishop of Rome, tried to impose the Western tradition on the churches in Asia Minor that still followed the Nisan 14 tradition. Polycrates, bishop of Ephesus, resisted this, and his appeal to fellow Christians for tolerance was supported by some Western bishops, including Irenaeus, bishop of Lyons in Gaul (modern France), even though these bishops did not follow the Nisan 14 tradition. Victor was persuaded not to insist, and the two traditions regarding the resurrection celebration continued together for another 150 years (Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History, chapter 24).
The council of Nicea (in Asia Minor) resolved the differences in A.D. 325. In the interest of uniformity, the Council decreed that the churches of Asia Minor would abandon the Nisan 14 tradition and adopt the majority tradition, that of the Western churches. Henceforth all Christian churches would be expected to celebrate the resurrection of Jesus on the Sunday following the full moon after the equinox of March 21. The practice of celebrating the resurrection of Jesus on Nisan 14 persisted for a while in a few areas of Asia Minor.
Both ways of understanding the date for celebrating this festival trace back to apostolic traditions. One focused on the day of the month (as determined by a Jewish calendar). The other traditional observance, known today in English-speaking nations as Easter (nations using French, Spanish, Italian and Greek still refer to this observance of the resurrection of Jesus as Passover), focused on a day of the week determined by the Roman calendar.
The Roman calendar, since its reform by Pope Gregory XIII in 1582, is the basis of the calendar we use today. To continue the Nisan 14 tradition today is to follow an ancient Christian tradition based on a Jewish liturgical calendar. But there is also something to be said for celebrating the crucifixion and resurrection of our Lord at the same time, measured by the same calendar, as the rest of our fellow Christians in the Western world. The purpose is to commemorate a sacred event—not to make a particular day sacred.
Easter—Festival of Ishtar?
The annual Christian festival that celebrates the resurrection of Jesus, known in English-speaking lands as Easter, is sometimes said to be named after a Teutonic pagan goddess, Eastre or Eostre. This notion seems to have originated with the eighth-century English monk Bede.
Alexander Hislop, in his book The Two Babylons, mistakenly equated the goddess Eostre with the Babylonian-Assyrian fertility goddess Ishtar, and with the Phoenician fertility goddess Astarte. Questionable word-origins and the mistaken research of Hislop has led some to conclude that the festival of Easter is pagan in its name and its origins.
However, the annual spring celebration of the resurrection of Jesus was not called Easter until centuries after Christians began celebrating it, and etymological authorities (those who study word origins) have cast doubt on Bede’s theory.
In a footnote in a mid 19th century edition of Eusebius’ Ecclesiastical History, the translator, Isaac Boyle, suggested that “our word, Easter, is of Saxon origin, and of precisely the same import with its German cognate Ostern. The latter is derived from the old Teutonic form of auferstehn, auferstehung, i.e. resurrection.”
The Evangelical Dictionary of Theology (Baker Books, 1984) article on Easter, after mentioning Bede’s account, says it is “more likely” that the word Easter “came from a German root for dawn or east (the time and place of the rising sun).” The Oxford English Dictionary relates Easter and the east to a common root meaning dawn or morning. If these are accurate, Easter did not derive from the name of a spring goddess Eastre. Rather, both words came from a root that means “dawn,” or “morning/rising/new light,” or by extension, “resurrection.”
More likely than Bede’s explanation, it is possible that the resurrection celebration was named Easter because the word described the promise of new light and new life brought to humanity by the new-risen Son.
Eggs—not just for pagans?
Some pagan religious practices involved sin, error, distortion and sometimes horror. However, pagan religious philosophies also contained what C.S. Lewis called “good dreams”— hints and shadows of truth given by God to the pagans to prepare their minds for the fulfillment that would one day come in Jesus Christ.
The early Christians appear to have been alert for any sign of these hints in pagan belief and practice that in some way could be seen as foreshadowing the work of Christ. Such practices provided Christians with points of contact that enabled them to present the gospel of Jesus Christ in terms familiar to the pagans.
When Paul was in Athens, he noticed an altar “to an unknown god.” He must have realized that here was a symbol of a god whose existence the pagan Athenians suspected but who they realized they did not know. That was the God he wanted to tell them about! So he took their familiar symbol and drew out of it a new and unfamiliar significance. What might have been an obstacle to the gospel became a bridge for the gospel.
Paul’s genius for bridge-building is seen again in his letter to the church at Corinth. Christians there could not understand the idea of a bodily resurrection from the dead, so Paul used the analogy of a seed to explain the concept. Just as a seed falls to earth and “dies” only to rise again in a different form, he explained, so it is with the human body, which dies then rises renewed to eternal life.
The Greek Corinthians were familiar with Adonis, a “corn god” who died and rose again every season, symbolically parallel to the grain sown in the field to “die” and “rise again” the next spring. So Paul made use of the kernel of truth in their symbology, to build a bridge to Jesus, the true fulfillment of their symbol.
How did eggs and rabbits come to be associated with the celebration of Christ’s resurrection? Pagan philosophies had great interest in new life, in renewed life and fertility, visible in and symbolized by the fertility and life of nature and the seasons. They used symbols such as eggs and rabbits to represent that new life. This interest in new life was recognized by early Christians as something God had given them that might help pagans understand the concept of the new life offered through the gospel.
In a similar way as Paul used themes familiar to pagans such as the altar to the unknown god and the image of a seed “dying” to bring forth new life, so Christians from the first century forward have used motifs familiar to pagans, but have shown how Jesus Christ was the true fulfillment dimly foreshadowed in pagan observances and symbols. In this way symbols of new life such as rabbits and eggs became associated with the festival of Easter, which was a festival celebrating the risen Christ, who brings new life to redeemed humankind.