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Jesus, Hot Cross Buns, Easter Eggs, Ishtar and Constantine: Is Easter Pagan? Tim McGrew says No!

April 6th, 2012 by Madeleine

Easter can be annoying.  My kids all want chocolate, this year the hot cross buns sold out and Matt brought crumpets home from the supermarket instead. People who don’t normally have any time for Christianity suddenly feel they must go to church, whilst some of my Christian friends refuse to let their children eat chocolate because Easter is a pagan festival. Navigating it does my head in sometimes.

Easter

In the past week we’ve had people phone, email, text and raise in conversation that Easter was invented by Constantine, that the bunnies and the buns are pagan and thus consuming them is an offence against God. We’ve heard that the dates are wrong and that Easter dates do not coincide with Passover, that it is a Roman festival, while others say that Easter is tied up with Ishtar. This wasn’t limited to people coming to us; Matt was on the Pat Brittenden Mornings Panel earlier in the week and because of that we heard that talkback radio was full of this too. So, it was very cool that Matt and I were able to have a word with the producers at Radio Rhema after the Panel, and put them in touch with Dr Tim McGrew whose interview as to Whether Easter is Pagan aired on Tuesday – click the link to listen.

Tim is a good friend, a world renowned scholar whose expertise on miracles and particularly the historical accuracy of the resurrection qualifies him as an authority on some of these Easter-is-pagan claims. While he does not touch on all of the above in the interview he debunks a lot of it.

Normally Matt and I try to do a Passover-ish meal – we do lamb, rosemary and red wine – and the kids all get to choose a king size block of chocolate each (they reason they get more chocolate for the money than buying Easter Eggs) and I try to ensure indulgement in a decent hot cross bun. Throughout the weekend we focus on Christ, his death and resurrection. We read relevant passages, we have conversations about the Passover and the fact that Christ is the fulfillment of it, in years gone by when the kids were younger we’ve made Easter story cookies. Basically we enjoy the food, the public holiday and we weave learning opportunities and ways to focus on Christ in as we go so that the thrust of Easter is on him.

We are not worried about taking this approach because Christ conquered all and our focus and heart and intent is on him. Don’t get me wrong, it is important to pause and check that one is not engaging in Paganism but just because something at some point had something to do with Paganism does not mean it is Paganism presently. Tree worship is common among Pagans so must we eschew wood? What about Pythagorus’ theorem? If Easter was just Ishtar worship then we would not be celebrating it; how many of us wanting the spiritual side of Easter are heading to the local Ishtar temple this weekend? As for Constantine inventing Easter, direct evidence for Easter being celebrated by Christians can be identified in the 2nd century, some couple of hundred years prior to Constantine – Wikipedia can tell you that much.

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  • The whole easter / ishtar thing really annoys me. It is an annoying coincidence of language brought about by speaking English. Virtually everyone else in the world calls Easter some derivative of the hebrew word for pass-over Pesach, hence words like pascal, paschal or even in english Passion as inthe film “the Passion of the Christ”.
    The fact that passover just happens to fall in the same time of year known in old germanic languages as eostur-monath is completely irrelevant to anything to do with Easter as we now know it.

  • I know. It is easy to be ignorant on such things though.
    I always thought the eggs aspect of Easter were pagan in origin but then I found last night that they originated in the practice of Lent. One used up one’s eggs prior to Lent, abstained from eggs during it so then afterwards there were an abundance of uncollected eggs from the chickens at Easter which were often hardboiled during Lent so they would not go off….
    The Easter bunny thing is really recent, again nothing to do with Constantine, it got added in only about 200 years ago.

  • I am pretty sure (ie. certain) that “passion” has Latin roots an has nothing to do with the Hebrew word! Jeremy before you fault other people’s faulty etymological reasoning check your own!

  • Max i did not fault anyones etymological reasoning, the name Easter is indeed derived from Eostur and maybe Ishtar , Astarte etc. The fact that this time of year as named in old germanic languages coincides with jewish passover is the unrelated coincidence.
    And you appear to be right, a little research did show that passion and pesach are wholely unrelated etymologically, however the word passion derives from the latin passio used to describe Christs suffering, and also from the greek pashco , to suffer. My mixing up the latin pascha [passover] and the greek [to suffer] was ignorant on my part, but at least they are on the same subject and referring to the same events in christian history.

  • The name “Easter” originated with the names of an ancient Goddess and God. The Venerable Bede, (672-735 CE.) a Christian scholar, first asserted in his book De Ratione Temporum that Easter was named after Eostre (a.k.a. Eastre).

    She was the Great Mother Goddess of the Saxon people in Northern Europe. Similarly, the “Teutonic dawn goddess of fertility was known variously as Ostare, Ostara, Ostern, Eostra, Eostre, Eostur, Eastra, Eastur, Austron and Ausos.” Her name was derived from the ancient word for spring: “eastre.”

    Similar Goddesses were known by other names in ancient cultures around the Mediterranean, and were celebrated in the springtime.

    Some were: Aphrodite, named Cytherea (Lady of Cythera) and Cypris (Lady of Cyprus) after the two places which claimed her birth; Ashtoreth from ancient Israel; Astarte from ancient Greece; Demeter from Mycenae; Hathor from ancient Egypt; Ishtar from Assyria; Kali, from India; and Ostara a Norse Goddess of fertility.

    An alternative explanation has been suggested. The name given by the Frankish church to Jesus’ resurrection festival included the Latin word “alba” which means “white.” (This was a reference to the white robes that were worn during the festival.) “Alba” also has a second meaning: “sunrise.” When the name of the festival was translated into German, the “sunrise” meaning was selected in error.

    This became “ostern” in German. Ostern has been proposed as the origin of the word “Easter”.
    There are two popular beliefs about the origin of the English word “Sunday.”

    It is derived from the name of the Scandinavian sun Goddess Sunna (a.k.a. Sunne, Frau Sonne).

    It is derived from “Sol,” the Roman God of the Sun.” Their phrase “Dies Solis” means “day of the Sun.” The Christian saint Jerome (d. 420) commented “If it is called the day of the sun by the pagans, we willingly accept this name, for on this day the Light of the world arose, on this day the Sun of Justice shone forth.”

    Pagan origins of Easter:

    Many, perhaps most, Pagan religions in the Mediterranean area had a major seasonal day of religious celebration at or following the Spring Equinox. Cybele, the Phrygian fertility goddess, had a consort, Attis, who was believed to have been born via a virgin birth. Attis was believed to have died and been resurrected each year during the period MAR-22 to MAR-25.

    Gerald L. Berry, author of “Religions of the World,” wrote: “About 200 B.C. mystery cults began to appear in Rome just as they had earlier in Greece. Most notable was the Cybele cult centered on Vatican hill …Associated with the Cybele cult was that of her lover, Attis (the older Tammuz, Osiris, Dionysus, or Orpheus under a new name). He was a god of ever-reviving vegetation. Born of a virgin, he died and was reborn annually.

    The festival began as a day of blood on Black Friday and culminated after three days in a day of rejoicing over the resurrection.”

    Wherever Christian worship of Jesus and Pagan worship of Attis were active in the same geographical area in ancient times, Christians: “… used to celebrate the death and resurrection of Jesus on the same date; and pagans and Christians used to quarrel bitterly about which of their gods was the true prototype and which the imitation.”

    Many religious historians and liberal theologians believe that the death and resurrection legends were first associated with Attis, many centuries before the birth of Jesus. They were simply grafted onto stories of Jesus’ life in order to make Christian theology more acceptable to Pagans.

    Others suggest that many of the events in Jesus’ life that were recorded in the gospels were lifted from the life of Krishna, the second person of the Hindu Trinity. Ancient Christians had an alternative explanation; they claimed that Satan had created counterfeit deities in advance of the coming of Christ in order to confuse humanity.

    Modern-day Christians generally regard the Attis legend as being a Pagan myth of little value with no connection to Jesus. They regard Jesus’ death and resurrection account as being true, and unrelated to the earlier tradition.

    Wiccans and other modern-day Neopagans continue to celebrate the Spring Equinox as one of their 8 yearly Sabbats (holy days of celebration). Near the Mediterranean, this is a time of sprouting of the summer’s crop; farther north, it is the time for seeding. Their rituals at the Spring Equinox are related primarily to the fertility of the crops and to the balance of the day and night times.

    In those places where Wiccans can safely celebrate the Sabbat out of doors without threat of religious persecution, they often incorporate a bonfire into their rituals, jumping over the dying embers is believed to assure fertility of people and crops.

  • There is more to the Ishtar connection that Wikipedia says.
    Watch this then stick to your claims.

  • Paul you write,

    The name “Easter” originated with the names of an ancient Goddess and God. The Venerable Bede, (672-735 CE.) a Christian scholar, first asserted in his book De Ratione Temporum that Easter was named after Eostre (a.k.a. Eastre).

    Three issues here,
    First, Bede said it was named Easter because it occurred in the month bearing that name, Bede noted in previous times pagans had celebrated a festival during that month and so had named the month after it, but the festival no longer existed in his time.
    Second, the festival we call easter is only called easter in anglo saxon cultures, in other cultures this linguistic link is not present, given the festival is practised throughtout the Christian world under a different name its difficult to claim much mileage from this.

    Third, Bede wrote in the 7th to 8th centuries, yet we know from early church writings in the second century that Christians were celebrating a festival to coincide with the Jewish Passover and had been doing so for some time. In the late second century there was debate over wether to time it with Passover or to have it in the weekend immediately after the jewish Passover. The jewish Passover of course had been part of Jewish practise for centuries prior to the time of Christ. The festival therefore in fact had been going on at this time for centuries prior to Bede and the motivation and reasons for it doing so were due to Christianities Jewish origins not its pagan origins.
    It’s hard to see how a festival that had been celebrated by at that time by Christians for 600 years and had been celebrated at that time by Jews for even longer, and was being celebrated around the Christian world at that time for centuries, could have been taken from a pagan festival in one part of the world 600 years latter.

    “Many religious historians and liberal theologians believe that the death and resurrection legends were first associated with Attis, many centuries before the birth of Jesus. They were simply grafted onto stories of Jesus’ life in order to make Christian theology more acceptable to Pagans.

    Others suggest that many of the events in Jesus’ life that were recorded in the gospels were lifted from the life of Krishna, the second person of the Hindu Trinity. Ancient Christians had an alternative explanation; they claimed that Satan had created counterfeit deities in advance of the coming of Christ in order to confuse humanity.”

    No that was the view of some scholars in the 19th century, almost no one takes this line today, even liberal scholars. because the alleged parallels have turned out to be bogus.
    “Most notable was the Cybele cult centered on Vatican hill …Associated with the Cybele cult was that of her lover, Attis (the older Tammuz, Osiris, Dionysus, or Orpheus under a new name). He was a god of ever-reviving vegetation. Born of a virgin, he died and was reborn annually.”

    Actually the Osiris Jesus parallel has been thoroughly refuted. First according to Plutrach Osiris was born but of an adulterous affair between two Gods, Nut and Ceb, nor is Osiris crucified he is drowned in a coffin, nor is he resurrected, he lives in the underworld. In the Attis account, the earlier version in Heroditus does not mention a virgin birth. Attis is conceived when Zeus sees a mountain that looks like a goddess and ejaculates on a mountain his seed becomes first a monster and then ejaculates and the seed becomes aa tree and a nut from the tree falls in her lab. Attis is not crucified; he castrates himself and dies under a tree in one version. In another version he castrates himself and turns into a pine tree. In another version he is killed and his body not found. Doinysus was conceived when his mother had sex with Zeus. Krishna’s mother had seven children before him . Horus is conceived when his mother shags his fathers dismembered corpse.
    Nor are these figures resurrected, something forigen to Greek mythology or thought in general they live on in the underworld, the abode of the dead.

  • Did you listen to the podcast? Tim McGrew shot down the claim as bogus that a Good Friday crucifiction and a Sunday morning ressurrection cannot come out to 3 days and 3 nights.
    Easter does not come from the word Ishtar, it comes from Eostre – read Bede.
    Further Easter is only called Easter in the Anglo Saxon part of the world.
    The egg thing has already been shot down.

  • Cathedra

    Actually that youtube video is spurious. But then again relying on youtube for serious study of Church history general is

    First, the Christian Festival is not called “Easter” its called this in English speaking countries, in most countries it’s called “Passover”. So the alleged link is only applicable in English and only applicable after the 7th century when the festival first was given that name. The festival had been going on for 600 hundred years prior to this. So the linguistic similarity between Easter and Istar really proves nothing. Unless you assume the whole world speaks easter and the festival began to exist in the 7th century which is of course false.

    Second, the early church debated the dating of easter we have copies of these debates, primary source documents not you tube videos, and it was related to the jewish festival of easter. The debates were over wether to eat the Passover at the time it fell or to have it on the weekend given Christs death was over a weekend. All this was related to Jewish dating.

    Third, the discrepancy in the modern jewish dating of Passover and “easter” is due to the debates about when the Passover is correctly calculated, this again is attested by the debates that occurred in the 2nd and third centuries which were over how to correctly date the Jewish Passover and concerns that the Jewish estimation was making mistakes. The month of Nissan is in the torah said to be associated with the harvest and hence in spring. In the 3rd and 4th centuries concern was raised that the Jewish system of dating was leading to mistakes and leading to Passovers before the spring equinox. So there was debate over wether to rely on the jewish communities customs or to make an idependent calculation. Again this can all be determined by looking at the writings of the people who had this discussion rather than on youtube .

  • @ Matt

    Easter may be Christianity’s oldest holiday, but not much of the popular celebrations have anything to do with Christianity and most of the Christian aspects can be traced to more ancient pagan celebrations.

    You neatly forget in your reply that Celtic society can be historically proven as existing in Europe from as early as 9th Century BC and religiously important Pagan sites such as Stonehenge have been estimated to have existed in one form or another as early as 3000 BC

    Its design includes a