27 September 2007

Easter - Christian or pagan?

It has often been claimed in some circles that Christians "stole" Easter from pagans. The claim has been repeated so often that it has become a factoid (a piece of unreliable information believed to be true because of the way it is presented or repeated in print).

I was prompted to write about it because in this month's synchroblog Julie Clawson mentions it in onehandclapping: Rejection, redemption and roots. Since it is not central to the main point of her article (which is very good) I thought it was worth discussing separately.

I first came across this idea in The golden bough by Sir James Frazer, which I read when I was in high school. As the Wikipedia summary puts it:
Its thesis is that old religions were fertility cults that revolved around the worship of, and periodic sacrifice of, a sacred king. This king was the incarnation of a dying and reviving god, a solar deity who underwent a mystic marriage to a goddess of the earth, who died at the harvest, and was reincarnated in the spring. Frazer claims that this legend is central to almost all of the world's mythologies. The germ for Frazer's thesis was the pre-Roman priest-king at the fane of Nemi, who was ritually murdered by his successor
This implies that the disciples of Jesus, some time between his death and the writing of the gospels, decided to apply this myth to Jesus, and to proclaim him as such a dying-and-rising king. The problem of the argument that Christians "stole" it from pagans, however, is that Frazer claims that it is universal to all religions. So if Frazer's argument is true, they all stole it, or at least all but the first one to come up with it, and it is very difficult to know which that one is.

I don't, at this point, want to discuss the historicity of the resurrection. That the resurrection of Jesus was a historic event is central to the Christian faith, but proving by historical methods that that event took place as described is a different matter. What we can discover using historical methods, however, is what Christians believed at various periods. And what we discover is that very early on Christians believed that Jesus rose from the dead, and that this was linked to, and seen as the fulfilment of the Jewish Passover.

As one Easter hymn puts it:
This is the day of resurrection, let us be illumined, O people. Pascha, the Pascha of the Lord. For from death to life and from earth to heaven has Christ our God led us, as we sing the song of victory: Christ is risen from the dead
This may be more familiar to Western Christians in J.M. Neale's paraphrase:

The Day of Resurrection
Earth tell it out abroad
The Passover of gladness
The Passover of God
From death to life eternal
from earth unto the sky
Our Christ has brought us over
With songs of victory.

I've had several debates and even arguments about the topic previously, mainly with fundamentalist Christians who claim to have got the idea from a book called The two Babylons by Alexander Hislop. The first time this happened I could not find Hislop's book, but I checked every historical reference I could find, and found the claim was without foundation. When, some years later, a friend lent me a copy of Hislop's book, I found that Hislop didn't claim it either, at least not in the form that the people who made the claim said he did. They played fast and loose with their own source, never mind any others.

Their argument (which, as I say, went considerably further than Hislop himself did) was based on the word "Easter" itself, and involved the most extraordinary historical distortions and anachronisms, not to mention fanciful etymology, and extraordinary debates about the translation of "Pascha" by "Easter" in Acts 12:4 of the King James English version of the Bible.

Their argument was that since the English word Easter was derived from the name of a pagan goddess, therefore the Christian celebration of the resurrection of Christ was a pagan one -- which brings us right back to Sir James Frazer's point, and the only conclusion of their argument that I could ever discover was that they were saying the Jesus never rose from the dead because the disciples nicked the story from some pagan source, but not even Hislop claims this.

The fact is, however, that Christians celebrated the resurrection of Christ long before the word "Easter" was used, and the word they used for the celebration was Pascha, which is derived from and linked to the Jewish festival of Passover (as the above hymn shows).

So where did the word "Easter" come from?

It's time for a lesson in Christian missionary history.

When part of Britain was ruled by the Roman empire, Christianity spread there, as it did to the other parts of the Roman empire and beyond. Romano-British Christians evangelised Ireland, and Irish Christians sent missionaries to northern Britain to evangelise there among the Picts. Roman Britain was multi-cultural and multi-religious. There were Christians and a variety of local and Roman cults, and mixtures of them. In the 4th and 5th centuries Germanic "barbarians" were invading the Roman empire from the East, and at the beginning of the 5th century Roman troops were being withdrawn from Britain to help defend Italy against the Visigoths. By 410 the withdrawal was complete, and the British were told that they were on their own. The Emperor wrote a letter to this effect to different cities, as there was no longer any central authority. The "barbarians", Angles and Saxons from the continent, the ancestors of the English, arrived in Britain in increasing numbers. Sometimes they settled peacefully among the British, but at other times they embarked on violent conquest (this was the time of the legendary King Arthur), and by the middle of the 6th century they ruled most of what came to be called England, driving the Romano-British and the Celtic population to the north and west -- Cornwall, Wales and Cumbria.

Christian missionaries then evangelised the English -- Celtic missionaries from Ireland and Scotland in the north, and a Roman mission led by St Augustine of Canterbury in the south, which arrived in 597.

A couple of centuries later the English monastic historian Bede wrote his History of the English Church and people and other works on Christian festivals, about which there had been some contention. Among other things Bede tells us about the origin of the word "Easter". The English word Easter comes from the Anglo-Saxon name for the month of April, which was known as "Eostremonath" in the AngloSaxon tongue, and since Pascha was most often celebrated in Eostremonath, the English Christians began calling it "Easter". Bede surmised that the month was named after a goddess Eostre (nothing to do with "Oestrus", which has another derivation altogether), and there is also no demonstrable connection with "Ishtar". Bede tells us very little about Eostre, and there is nothing about her in earlier or contemporary sources. Bede is the earliest reference.

English missionaries to other places, like Germany, took the term "Easter" with them, and so German Christians called it "Ostern", but the rest of the Christian world called it Pascha, or derivatives thereof. So to claim that Passover/Pascha was "stolen" from pagans because the English called it "Easter" several centuries later is anachronistic nonsense.

Pagans might agree with James Frazer, and say that Christians "stole" the idea of a a dying-and-rising king from pagans, but if they do, perhaps they should stop and ask themselves where they themselves "stole" it from, because Frazer claims that it is universal.

But Christians who accept this factoid as a "fact" would do well to ponder St Paul's words: "if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain" (I Cor 15:14).


The Scylding said...

When it comes to pagan origins of Easter / Christmas / Christmas tree etc etc, I like to repeat something I read (not sure where)- well I used to be pagan too!

Julie said...

Thanks for continuing the conversation on this topic here.

I know that there are those who when they say Christians "stole" Easter from the Pagans mean that the whole Christ story was made up. When I use that term, I in no way deny the historicity or significance of the Resurrection. As I mentioned at my blog, if God choose to set the stage in a way that connected the Passion to other cultural myths that would echo in the hearts of people, then it can just been seen as myth becoming reality.

I was referring to the naming and trappings of the holiday. Placing it near the spring equinox that held association with fertility rites and the return of life meant the Pagan celebrations of such would become intertwined with the religious aspects of the holiday. And that rite has been associated with the archtype of the goddess (her lamenting at the death of her son/consort) the celebration of either his resurrection or his seed giving life to the world. This is a pattern common to goddess worship that passed from culture to culture. The trapping of worship of one goddess became associated with the head goddess in another as history and cultural interaction progressed. Tracing this history is fascinating and has been one of the main topic of my reading these past few months.

So my point is to say that the trapping of the celebration of Easter have Pagan roots which does not negate the truth or Christ, just shows that as Christians we do not exist in an isolated ghetto and have been influenced by other cultures and religions over time.

mahud said...

As a Pagan who believes in the existence of a 'death and rebirth deity,' I believe that this archaic idea was probably drawn form certain observations of natural phenomena, that embodied principles of life and death. Including the cycles of the moon, the death, the rejuvenation of vegetation, the shedding of the snake's skin, and so on, which then became associated with a deity becoming the embodiment of death and life, and somewhere down the line, this deity was also the god who offered new life in one form or another to the community.

I'm not sure that Wikipedia actually gets it right concerning The Golden Bough, unless they are referring to other material James Frazer has written.

Frazer believed in a universal corn or vegetation spirit, not a Sun God, which developed into the widepread practice of sacrificing a tribal king after an alloted time period, or should the kings health and strength become to wane. I don't think he really included into his theory the ancient belief in a Goddess and her son-consort. Admittedly it's been a while since I read the book, so I've likely forgotten a great deal of it.

I do know that many influenced by Frazer's work emphasized the role of the Goddess, such as Robert Graves, in both The White Goddess and The Greek Myths.

I think it's possible that the Death and Resurrection of Jesus may have been influenced by the 'dying and rebirth' deity, but it's also possible that Jesus did in fact rise from the dead. If that is so, then I'm not surprised than the older Pagan myths of death-rebirth gods/goddesses/heroes, and other mythical figures, may of found their way into the Christian tradition.

Julie said: This is a pattern common to goddess worship that passed from culture to culture. The trapping of worship of one goddess became associated with the head goddess in another as history and cultural interaction progressed. Tracing this history is fascinating and has been one of the main topic of my reading these past few months.

Hi, Julie. Do you intend posting any of your studies on your blog? I'd love to read them. :)

Anonymous said...

I can't comment on anything particular to this argument, but I do know that the Cabinet Room (UK) contains a complete edition of the 'Golden Bough' as I visited it last year.

Don't know if you find that interesting at all.

nic paton said...

Like your factoid debunking, a sorely needed ministry.

Having studied the origins of "hell" and "eternal" I have recently read Elaine Pagals "The origin of Satan".

These loaded myths really need to be deconstructed, to get as close as possible to the core truths as we humanly can.

Your disciplined approach to the "problem of Easter" continues this journey for me. Great research, very helpful.

Steve Hayes said...


So were you stolen? Kidnapped from the mead hall, perhaps?


About setting the stage: I can't think of any examples, but I would not be surprised if some Christian preacher somewhere and somewhen, had used one of those stories of a dying and rising god to show that God planted those stories in peoples' cultures to prepare them for the good news of the resurrection of Christ.

Steve Hayes said...


Yes, it's a long time since I read Frazer too, and I'm not sure that all historians of religion would agree with his thesis.

And certainly, because Pascha is celebrated in the northern hemisphere spring, some Christian theologians and hymnographers have used that metaphor. Having grown up in the southern hemisphere, I don't find such imagery quite so compelling.

For example J.M. Neale's paraphrase of another hymn:

'Tis the spring of souls today
Christ has burst his prison
and from three days sleep in death
as a sun hath risen
all the winter of our sins
long and dark, is flying
from his light to whom we give
laud and praise undying.

At one time, in a reaction against Northern Hemisphere cultural imperialism, I changed it to read:

'Tis the dawn of joy today
Christ has burst his prison
And from three days' sleep in death
as a sun has risen
all the night of death and sin
long and dark, is flying
from his light, to whom we give
laud and praise undying.

I even flatter myself sometimes that my metaphor is more consistent than Neale's!

Yvonne said...

There's a good debunking of the Eostre thing from a polytheist point of view at manygods.org.uk.

I believe in the resurrection of Jesus because I've seen him. I don't know if it was in a physical body (not that important from my point of view). It's what you do with that belief that is important.

I am also aware of the dying and resurrecting god themes from earlier cultures, and I think the symbolism of Jesus' death and resurrection in Christianity (the substitute sacrifice idea, for example) may have been drawn from those cultures.

I think also that ideas of cultural theft in this context should just be dropped - after all, "neo"-Pagans could be argued to be committing cultural appropriation by taking ancient pagan ideas out of context. And Wiccans could be accused of stealing the ideas of apostolic succession or communion.

To The Scylding: if by "I used to be pagan too" you mean you didn't have a belief, that is not the same as being a Pagan.

Even though many people feel that Christianity stamped out ancient paganism, at least the church took the trouble to write down a lot of pagan customs and ideas, which might otherwise have been lost even if Christianity hadn't come along.

And for witches, it's worth remembering that the early Christians prevented the pagans of late antiquity from doing witch-burnings.

Thanks for these interesting posts, Steve - I'm thinking of writing a potted history of Christianity from the point of view of Paganism, to set the record straight a bit. There are things to criticise, but if Pagans are going to criticise, we should at least get our facts straight!

Yvonne said...

Ha ha! talking of cultural theft, I'm going to nick the idea of synchroblogging :)

By the way, if you notice any incorrect statements about Christianity in the Pagan theologies wiki, I'd be glad to correct them.

nic paton said...

Steve - is there any particular reason why you often don't respond to my comments on your blog? I find that your writing excellant and evocative but the conversations don't ever seem to progress.

Steve Hayes said...


Yes, indeed a good article on Eostre -- tells it like it is.

And the chocolate thing can also be explained in the same way as the Easter eggs -- Western Christians began giving up chocolate for Lent, rather than eggs, cheese and butter. So naturally they gorged on it at Easter.

If you are going to write something along those lines, Charles Williams's Witchcraft is worth a read.


I've written something on hell in my other blog!

Steve Hayes said...


I'm still trying to catch up after being cut off by Telkom's broadband limits -- happens at the end of every month.

ariel said...

After belatedly reading the article - I am a newcomer to Tumblr - and all of the comments, I have the following to add.

It is no surprise that Christianity is simply a bastardization of the original practice and teachings of Yeshua (Jesus). As the gospel and practices spread throughout the ancient world, Yeshua's original beliefs and practices became more and more indistinguishable from a hodgepodge of polytheistic paganism.

If one really wants to get to the roots of Yeshua's teachings and practice it was nothing other than Judaism...


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