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Paganism, Easter, and Anti-semitism : Letter to the Editor

A Mr Nevin of Bangor, County Down, wrote a letter to the Daily Mail urging that the term Easter is pagan and should be dropped as offensive and implicitly anti-semitic.  I replied, although I don’t know whether it will be published or not.  Also, since the letters are not widely available, I have set out Mr Nevin’s letter as published on Good Friday 2017 (April 14th), and added a few comments that I could not put in my letter for space reasons.  The reason I do this is because Mr Nevin’s letter is an example of some false arguments that are very commonly made.  Anyway, he wrote:

Last Monday was the Eve of Passover – Erev Pesach in Hebrew – when most Jewish families meet for an annual Seder meal recounting the story of the people of Israel being led by god from slavery and bondage in Egypt to the Promised Land.

The prayers of those Jews who were later forced from that Promised Land by the Romans in AD135 are expressed at the end of the Passover Meal with the words ‘Next year in Jerusalem!’ It was this that Jesus, or Yeshua, as a Jew, shared with his disciples before His death on Passover Even and at which He asked His followers to remember Him ‘as often as ye do this’.

So far, so good (although I should point out that Jesus certainly didn’t celebrate a Passover that followed the format of post AD135 Passovers!).

Recent reports had Prime Minister Theresa May bewailing the loss of the word ‘Easter’ in a chocolate egg hunt at National Trust venues in England.  The organisers deny they have banished the word ‘Easter’.  But has anyone ever thought where the word comes from or what it means?  It has no connection with Jesus or His death.  It’s the name of a pagan deity celebrating fertility, quoted by the Venerable Bede as ‘Eastre’ or Eostre’, appearing in different cultures at different periods as ‘Ishtar’, ‘Astarte’ and even in the Bible as ‘Ashtoreth’.  Is this a suitable title for what is claimed to be the Church’s most important feast?  Surely the Biblical word for this event should be Passover.

However, if we are to counter anti-Christian trends that sideline the central Christian feast, then I don’t think it will be any more effective to snipe at those who try to defend it.  The opponents of the Christian faith will certainly not mind if instead of a unified focus, there is internal civil war – or even just sniping – over an obscure etymological debate.  Easter is about Jesus’ resurrection, and Easter being sidelined is an issue that all Christians should be lining up shoulder-to shoulder about.

It would appear that the change suited anti-Jewish sentiments within the Church at the time, as Passover was too closely connected with the Jews – though this is hardly surprising in that Jesus was a circumcised Jew and the New Testament states ‘Christ (Messiah) is our Passover – therefore let us keep the feast’ (Passover). Rather than an outcry at the term ‘Easter’ being dropped, we should welcome it.  Pagan fertility symbols like Easter bunnies and eggs have nothing to do with the Biblical story of Jesus and it’s time the two were separated to avoid further confusion or offence.

In my reply below, I wasn’t able to address the issue of ‘pagan fertility symbols’.  These seem to have been German in origin, that in the 19th Century spread to the English speaking world and other Western cultures.  However, claims that say the symbol of Eostre were the rabbit or hare are more than a tad dubious since even if there was a goddess by that name (see below), we know next to nothing about her.  As I understand it, much of the ‘evidence’ for such links came out of the research of the Grimm brothers regarding traditional folk practices in what is now Germany.  They may well be ancient holdovers from paganism, and they certainly can these days be a distraction from the real meaning of Easter, but to say that just because they are now associated with Easter, the term Easter must be tainted is nonsensical.  The Greek church uses the term ‘Pascha’ or Passover, yet has similar customs – should we then say that the term ‘Passover’ should not be used because of this?

One further interesting point that came up in my research on Easter and Passover, that I had never realised before.  It actually came from a King James only advocate, one who talked a surprising amount of sense – in my experience, most King James only people talk a load of nonsense over the term Easter and tie themselves in knots, trying to justify the translation of Pascha in Acts 12.4 as Easter.  I’m not saying I agreed with this guy, but it was refreshing to see calm and rational thought on the matter.  Anyway, he pointed out that the early church called the celebration of what we in English call ‘Easter’ by the name Pascha, or Passover, but deliberately distinguished it from the Jewish Passover by calling it ‘the Saviour’s Passover’, which is consistent with the idea that they also changed the date to a Sunday, rather than following the Jewish Passover.  Not only that, but he pointed out there are signs of this in the New Testament, including the qualification of the Passover as ‘the Passover of the Jews’ in John’s gospel at several places.  This guy said that Acts 12.4 referred to the Christian ‘Passover’, implying it happened after the Unleavened Bread festival (that happens after the Jewish Passover proper).  I don’t really buy that – I think that ‘Passover’ was used colloquially to refer to the whole week long associated feast of Unleavened bread – but if it is so, it proves that a separation of ‘Easter’ and Passover happened in New Testament times, under the authority of the Jewish apostles – hardly anti-semitic in motivation, that’s for sure.  (Ironically, quite a lot of the association of ‘Ishtar’ and ‘Easter’ stems from King James only people trying to justify the King James’ use of Easter in Acts at this point.)

However, moving on; this is my reply, focusing on Eostre and claimed associated goddesses, and the claim that Easter is due to anti-semitism:

Mr Nevin states something as indisputable fact which is not.  Despite frequent claims to this effect, Ishtar and Oestre are not the same goddess – slight similarity in names across completely different languages from cultures over a thousand miles and centuries apart does not prove identity.  Ishtar came from a word meaning ‘flock’ or ‘increase’ and was a fertility goddess.  If Oestre existed (see below) then the root word had to do with ‘dawn’ and ‘East’.  There is, in fact, considerable doubt as to whether there was a goddess called Oestre – the evidence is rather thin and mostly conjectural, and a number of scholars think that Bede may have been mistaken.

Scholars have suggested several other possible origins of the word Easter – including a corruption of the Latin for ‘in white’, or a root word meaning ‘shine’ or an old-Germanic  term for the month of April meaning ‘the month of opening / budding’.  Since the celebration of Jesus’ the opening of his tomb to new life usually fell in that month, in English and German, the festival took on the name of the month.  Similarly, a root word to do with ‘shining’ would fit very well the symbolism of the resurrection of Jesus from out of dark death. Early church thought often used the sun as symbolism for Jesus, so associating dawn imagery with Jesus’ resurrection would come very easily.  Even if Bede was right, he never says that Easter was taken directly from goddess worship, but that the month that was then called Easter was originally named after such a goddess.   To claim that the term ‘Easter’ is offensive because it may have come from a month named after a goddess is as silly as saying we should not use the days  Monday through Saturday as they are all named after pagan gods.

More to the point, Nevin asserts that a ‘change’ from Passover to Easter suited the church of the (unspecified) time, due to anti-Semitism and trying to get away from Jewish Passover.  However, in Latin, as in most European languages, the word for Passover is used, and still occasionally in English (paschaltide).  It is only German and English that use the term ‘Easter’.  Whilst the early church did come to partially separate the celebration of Jesus’ resurrection from Passover, the main reasons had to do with serious slippage in the Jewish calendar in the 2nd and 3rd centuries (later corrected, so that they are never too far away from each other now).  Saying that it was simply due to anti-semitism is historically grossly inaccurate.

As a theologian involved in my local Messianic Jewish community, I have no problems at all in celebrating Easter, or using the term.  Nor should Mr Nevin or anyone else.

Well, they certainly shouldn’t if they are basing their opposition on arguments such as these, anyway….