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Holidays - Easter

The History of Easter
Joe R. Price


A number of years ago while I was taking care of some banking, one the tellers who knew me to be a preacher asked if I was "ready for the big day?" I paused a moment, trying to figure out what "big day" she meant. Then it hit me - she was talking about Easter. Like most people, she saw Easter Sunday as one of the "big" religious days of the year. When I told her that the church I work with did not do anything different on this "big day" I am sure she must have been surprised. She went on to observe that many people only "go to church" on Easter and Christmas. I certainly agreed with her on that one. I told her we try to help people see the need to worship God every Sunday, not just on Easter and Christmas. Her reply? "Maybe you need to have more Easters and Christmases!"

That pretty well sums up the attitude of many toward religious worship and service. Only when a "big" day comes along is it important enough to them to participate in religious activities. This certainly is not worship in spirit and truth (John 4:23-24; Hebrews 10:25).

Fat Tuesday. Ash Wednesday. Lent. Palm Sunday. Good Friday. Easter Sunday. These are among the "holy days" celebrated by Catholic, Orthodox and Protestant Churches every spring.

The Bible does not regard these days as high or holy. Consequently, faithful churches of Christ do not, either. This is but one mark of distinction identifying and separating NT Christians from those who have "a form of godliness" but have denied its power by advocating the acceptance of the doctrines of men as the will of God (2 Timothy 3:5).

The Resurrection of Jesus Christ

New Testament Christians do not observe Easter as a religious holiday. This does not mean we do not believe in the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Far from it. Without the resurrection of Christ there would be no salvation from sin and we would be without faith (1 Corinthians 15:14-19). We oppose and resist any man and doctrine attempting to persuade others that Christ Jesus was not raised from the dead!

To admit the feast of Easter is of human origin is not to put the resurrection of Jesus in doubt or force us to conclude it began in the fertile imaginations or deceptions of men. We vigorously affirm the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead as the very keystone of the gospel (Acts 2:24-31; Romans 10:9):

    "And if Christ is not risen, then our preaching is empty and your faith is also empty. Yes, and we are found false witnesses of God, because we have testified of God that He raised up Christ, whom He did not raise up — if in fact the dead do not rise. For if the dead do not rise, then Christ is not risen. And if Christ is not risen, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins! Then also those who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. If in this life only we have hope in Christ, we are of all men the most pitiable. But now Christ is risen from the dead, and has become the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep." (1 Corinthians 15:14-20; cf. 15:1-4; Luke 24:1-12; Romans 4:25).

No one should conclude that because the Easter holiday originated in human traditions, so did the resurrection of Jesus. It did not. The resurrection of Jesus is the basis of the Christian's hope, faith and confidence in the apostolic truth (1 John 1:1-4).

"Well then, if you believe in the resurrection of Christ, why don't you celebrate Easter as the day of His resurrection?" we can hear someone ask. The answer is simple: the New Testament of Christ does not direct us to have such a celebration. It does not name and ordain such a "holy day" for man's remembrance.

The New Testament does ordain and establish the first day of the week the day on which our Lord was raised from the death as the day on which the people of God assemble to worship and praise His name (Luke 24:1-8; Acts 20:7; 1 Corinthians 16:2; Revelation 1:10). Each and every first day of the week the saints of God partake of the Lord's Supper, thereby memorializing His death until He comes (1 Corinthians 11:20-26). The Lord's day is not Easter Sunday, but every Sunday.

Easter: An Historical Addition

Easter is a man-made religious holiday. It was not instituted by Christ. His apostles did not direct its observance. It was not celebrated by New Testament churches. This fact is acknowledged by both religious and secular scholars. "There is no trace of Easter celebration in the NT." (H. Porter, International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, II:889) "There is no indication of the observance of the Easter festival in the New Testament or in the writings of the apostolic fathers. The sanctity of the special times was an idea absent from the minds of the first Christians." (The Encyclopedia Britannica, 14th ed., II:859) Historical references of a special feast to honor the death and resurrection of Christ are lacking until about 155 AD, far too late to be attributed to Christ and His apostles.

The religious observance of Easter was initiated by human tradition and not the word of God (Colossians 2:8, 20-23, 2 Timothy 3:5). By the fourth century this human tradition was entrenched in the worship of churches. Although the Council of Nicea (325 AD) tried to bring unity and conformity to the many resurrection feasts then occurring, controversy over the exact date of observance continued for hundreds of years. It now falls between March 22 and April 25. (The Sunday after the full moon that occurs on or after March 21. If the full moon occurs on a Sunday, Easter is the following Sunday.) You will not find any such designations in the New Testament.

When Pharisees introduced and bound their traditions upon men, Jesus called their worship vain (Mark 7:1-9). For centuries past men have established their religious traditions of Easter, trying to honor the resurrection of Jesus. Many people call it a holy day (or, as the teller called it, a "big" day). However, Jesus called all such human innovations "vain," having been sanctioned by men and not God.

If one may add to and thereby change the worship established by the authority of Christ and revealed by His apostles, he may change anything he wants in the name of Christ. But, such is done without Christ's approval. The authority of Christ has never taught us to do such things (Mathew 28:18; Colossians 3:17). We must follow the divinely-given pattern in all things, including how we honor Him in worship (Hebrews 8:5; Colossians 3:17; Galatians 1:8-9; Revelation 22:18-19; John 4:23-24).

The Name "Easter"

The term "Easter" traces its origin through a pagan ancestry to "a Saxon word (Eostre), denoting a goddess of the Saxons, in honour of whom sacrifices were offered about the time of the Passover. Hence the name came to be given to the festival of the Resurrection of Christ, which occured at the time of the Passover." (Easton's Revised Bible Dictionary) Other variations of the root word from which "Easter" is derived have been offered, including "Estera," "Eastre" and "Ostern." The I.S.B.E. agrees with this etymology when it states "The English word comes from the Anglo-Saxon Eastre or Estera, a Teutonic goddess to whom sacrifice was offered in April, so the name was transferred to the paschal feast." (ibid.)

Philip Schaff refers to Easter as the "feast of the resurrection" and designates it as a part of the "Christian Passover" (History of the Christian Church, II:206-208). That Jesus was crucified during the Jewish Passover makes this terminology understandable, although it is not scriptural. The scriptures are completely silent in establishing a resurrection feast for Christians to observe. In fact, just the opposite: "So let no one judge you in food or in drink, or regarding a festival or a new moon or sabbaths, which are a shadow of things to come, but the substance is of Christ" (Colossians 2:16-17). The binding of days upon Christians is the tempter's seduction to draw saints away from the gospel of Christ (Galatians 4:9-11).

The King James Version translators arbitrarily inserted the word "Easter" into Acts 12:4 when they chose to translate pascha with that English term. The other twenty-eight (28) times pascha occurs in the New Testament they uniformly translated it "Passover," the correct translation. Acts 12:4 makes no reference at all to the celebration of Easter we see every year in the Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant churches around the world. Albert Barnes cites Clark for additional information on the corrupt translation of pascha:

    "In the old Anglo-Saxon service-books the term Easter is used frequently to translate the word Passover. In the translation by Wicliffe, the word paske, i.e., passover, is used. But Tindal and Coverdale used the word Easter, and hence it has very improperly crept into our translation. (Clark.)" (Barnes New Testament Notes, Acts)

Even those who religiously keep Easter must admit the word itself cannot be properly found in the text of the New Testament.

Incorporating Paganism

History teaches us the traditional, secular festivals of pagans were often merged with the observances of religious men (1 Timothy 4:1-3; Colossians 2:8, 20-23). The intent of these mergers was to help new converts more easily adapt to their new faith in the face of pressures from their old pagan practices. And, by offering corresponding "Christian festivals," the incentive to convert became more attractive. So it was with the pagan influences of the goddess Eastre and the apostate religious observance of the Easter festival.

    "Modern-day Easter is derived from two ancient traditions: one Judeo-Christian and the other Pagan. Both Christians and Pagans have celebrated death and resurrection themes on or after the Spring Equinox for millennia. Most religious historians believe that many elements of the Christian observance of Easter were derived from earlier Pagan celebrations." (Easter: Origins, Meanings, & Current Practices, religioustolerance.org/easter.htm)

Eastre was the Saxon goddess of spring and fertility. Her festival was celebrated by her worshippers on the vernal equinox. As the pagans watched springtime break forth and overtake the frozen death of winter they would make sacrifices to Eastre in honor of the life she brought to the earth and its people.

Eventually, missionaries encountered and tried to combat the ritualistic milieu of paganism, including worship to Eastre. Mani Niall observed,

    "How this pagan festival came to be supplanted by a solemn Christian holiday attests to the ingenuity of second century Christian missionaries.

    "These missionaries traveled among the Teutonic tribes north of Rome. Whenever possible, they transformed local pagan customs to harmonize with Christian doctrine. On a practical basis, this prevented local converts from being persecuted by the pagan traditionalists. Since the Eastre festival to celebrate spring coincided with the time of the Christian observance of the resurrection of Christ, this crossover was achieved smoothly. Some doubt remained as to the exact day of the celebration." ("The History of Easter & Its Custom")

So, what we have in the modern-day observance of Easter is the blending of man's religious traditions with pagan rituals. But, where is the "thus saith the Lord?!" (Colossians 3:17)

Conclusion

The history of a "feast of the resurrection" or Easter is simply not found in the Bible. It is extra-biblical in its origin, development and observance. The scriptures teach us of, and persuade us to believe in, the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus Christ (1 Corinthians 15:1-8). The scriptures teach us that the day of His resurrection - the first day of the week - is the approved day of our memorial worship and praise. Nowhere in the pages of the inspired text are we taught to celebrate an annual holy day in celebration of Christ's resurrection. While the New Testament records the events of the last week of Christ's life, nowhere does it instruct us to observe them as holy days of a holy season (Lent, Palm Sunday, Shrove Tuesday, Ash Wednesday, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, Easter Sunday).

Easter and its associated "holy days" are human additions to the word of God. As such, the religious observance of these days does not have God's approval. Those who seek the Lord's approval and blessings will not engage in such rituals of men (Mathew 7:21-23; Colossians 3:17; 2 John 9; Galatians 1:6-10).


Bibliography

_____, About Easter, A Scriptographic Booklet published by Channing L. Bete Co., Inc.

Albert Barnes, "Acts," Barnes New Testament Notes, Online Bible CD-ROM

_____, "Easter," Easton's Revised Bible Dictionary, Online Bible CD-ROM

_____, "Easter: Origins, Meanings, & Current Practice"
  (http://www.religioustolerance.org/easter.htm)

_____, "Easter," Smith's Revised Bible Dictionary, Online Bible CD-ROM

_____, Encyclopedia Britannica, 14th ed., II:859

Eusebius, "On the Keeping of Easter," The Life Of Constantine, Book III, chap. XVIII-XX; "Of the Disagreement Respecting the Celebration of Easter," The Life Of Constantine, Book III, chap. V; (The Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, I:524-525, 520-521)

Grover Stevens, "Lent and Easter," Caprock Church Bulletin, Feb. 28 & March 7, 1990

H. Porter, The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, Vol. II, p. 889

Hefele, "Excursus on the Subsequent History of the Easter Question," History of the Councils, Vol. I, pp. 328 et seqq. (http://www.bible.ca.history/fathers/NPNF2-14/Npnf2-14-29.htm)

Hoyt H. Houchen, "Palm Sunday and Easter," Truth Magazine, January 5, 1978

Mani Niall, The History of Easter & Its Custom (http://www.pastrywiz.com/season/easter5.htm)

Philip Schaff, History of the Christian Church, Vol. II., pages 206-208

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