Exegeting Easter’s Origins: Neither Biblical nor Pagan (but Important to Consider)

Easter Exegesis_1

Normally around this time of year, if someone who is not a member of the church of Christ finds out I’m a minister, they’ll say something about Easter. More than once someone has said, “This must be a busy time of year for you.” This gives me the opportunity to point out that, “Actually, we don’t usually do anything different at this time of year. A lot of other people hold special services to celebrate Easter, but celebrating Easter isn’t talked about in the Bible, so it’s not something we do. We try our best instead to celebrate the Resurrection of Jesus every Sunday.” This usually results in an, “Oh, that’s interesting,” and even once, “I like that.” I’ve never had anyone get upset at me.

I had the privilege of growing up attending the worship services of the churches of Christ. As far as I knew, this approach to Easter was the common approach. I never attended an Easter service and occasionally would hear explanations given as to why we didn’t celebrate this or other religious holidays. Sometimes these explanations were drawn from the Bible, but sometimes they were drawn from a belief that Easter and other holy days were pagan in origin.

In more recent years, I’ve heard a growing chorus of Christians saying and doing things differently. These Christians have learned that the “pagan origin” belief surrounding Easter is not entirely accurate. They’ve seen the devotion of people to Jesus and His Resurrection at Easter-time and asked themselves, “How can this be a bad thing?” They’ve turned to Romans 14, a passage which discusses the observance of special days in private and extrapolated (somewhat contrary to the text) that special days could in liberty be observed publicly. More and more churches of Christ have held publicized Easter services. More and more preachers and leaders have argued, “I can sing/teach/preach the Resurrection any day, so why not do so on Easter?” Some have even taken to social media to denounce those who still approach Easter the way preachers and leaders did when I was young.

Let me pause for a moment and say that observing the Resurrection is a good thing. Like many in the church who have moved to do so on Easter itself, I think it’s wonderful that the world’s attention turns to my resurrected Lord once each year. It’s better than nothing! However, before I change my practice or uphold the changes that I see in others, I’d like to direct our minds to something a bit odd about this whole Easter thing and use it as a jumping board for what I feel is an important discussion.

Different Easters

The odd detail is this: if I were to go somewhere dominated by the Orthodox faith, say, Russia or Greece, and look at a calendar, I would find that the date of Easter would be different for them than what it is for most of the rest of the world. Why?

The difference in date today relates in part to the fact that much of the world celebrates Easter based on the Gregorian calendar while the Orthodox Church uses the Julian calendar. The Gregorian calendar is the most commonly used calendar in the world today; surprisingly, it is even used in nations where the Orthodox Church dominates. While not a perfect calendar (it’s off by one day every 3236 years), it is far more accurate than the Julian calendar (off by 1 day every 128 years).

So why would the Orthodox Church use a less accurate calendar which was first ordered into usage by Julius Caesar in 45 B.C. when most of the world gave up on it over 300 years ago? Well, I’d hazard a guess that it’s due in no small part to the fact that the Gregorian calendar was first ordered into existence via papal bull by Pope Gregory XIII.

Yes, you read that right: the Orthodox Church would rather have a less accurate calendar created by a pagan than a more accurate calendar created by a pope. The division and animosity that this decision reflects makes up the other major part of the different date equation. Though they worked together sporadically for over a millennium after Christ’s death, burial and resurrection until the Great Schism of A.D. 1054, the Western (Catholic) Church and the Eastern (Orthodox) Church have rarely seen eye to eye.

And one of the things that divided these regions long before Gregory XIII’s new calendar was the date of Easter.

Examining Easter’s Origins – Neither Pagan Nor Biblical

The history of Easter is not as straightforward as some think, and a whole lot concerning it is unknown. It’s not uncommon for non-denominational Christians and atheists alike to say that Easter was a Christian accommodation to the pagan world. They’ll cite several examples of supposed pagan influence, one of which tends to be the term “Easter” itself. Easter, they argue, was derived from the Anglo-Saxon goddess Eostre (aka Eastra or Oostra). However, there’s probably a better argument to be made that the term relates etymologically to an old German word for resurrection (that may or may not have anything to do with that goddess). Either way, it doesn’t really matter: the first time the term “Easter” appears in literature is in the 8th century, six centuries after people began celebrating it.

People originally used the Greek term pascha, a term frequently translated “Passover,” as their word for the holy day. This makes sense because Christ is our Passover (1 Corinthians 5:7) and because our Lord was crucified on Passover (according to the Hebrew way of reckoning days as starting with nighttime and ending with daytime). It’s that latter fact that seems to have driven early Easter celebrations. While early Christians celebrated the Lord’s Supper weekly, the actual time frame of Jesus’ death (and subsequent resurrection) eventually came to prompt reflection, sometimes fasting, and an observance of the Supper that was in some way special. It’s difficult to say if Pascha originally meant anything more than that, and without a doubt, all of the things that people use to form a pagan link (bunnies, eggs, etc.) came long after Easter was an established practice.

I hope you did your math earlier and know a little about the origin of the church. In case you didn’t and/or don’t, 8 (as in “the 8th century”) minus 6 (as in “six centuries”) equals 2 (as in “the 2nd century”), and the 2nd century is not when the church began. The church instead began around A.D. 30, the early part of the 1st century. In the entire inspired record of its history (the New Testament) as well as in what little records we have outside of the Bible from the century after the church’s establishment, there is no mention whatsoever of Easter and no evidence that Christians celebrated it.

This of course doesn’t mean that early Christians didn’t care about the Resurrection. The Resurrection was everything to them. In fact, Paul said,

“…if Christ is not risen, then our preaching is empty and your faith is also empty” (1 Corinthians 15:14).

One could accurately say that the Resurrection was actually too important to these early Christians for them to emphasize it only once a year. The very reason Christians met on Sunday was because of the Resurrection; their gathering made sure they honored and memorialized it each week.

Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence, but in the case of Easter, the absence is quite profound. If God intended for His followers to venerate the day Jesus was resurrected, He probably would’ve recorded the date (like Jesus’ birth, no one knows the exact day of Jesus’ resurrection), given some command, or recorded some instance of a Christian celebration. It’s interesting that on a couple of occasions where significance is tied to a day in the New Testament, Paul seems to overlook Passover/Easter, and instead tie significance to Pentecost, the day the first Gospel sermon was preached and souls were added to Jesus’ church (Acts 20:16, 1 Corinthians 16:8).

Easter’s Origins: Conflict over Communion

Ask, “When did people start celebrating Easter?” and you won’t get a reliable answer, at least not one that can be confirmed with the historical evidence we currently have. When historical documents finally do mention Easter, they don’t mention when it started and don’t primarily focus on how it was celebrated. In fact, celebration is not a concept that travels with the earliest references; these documents record division that eventually prompted a bitter debate over Easter.

This ancient debate might not be what you think it is: it is not a debate over whether or not Easter should be celebrated. Remember, Easter had fairly humble origins and, for the Western churches at least, didn’t signify anything that different from what they normally did. Early writers either say nothing about an Easter celebration or are in favor of it as far as I have studied. The debate instead is about the role of the Lord’s Supper in those ancient Easter celebrations, and, foreshadowing the modern Orthodox/Catholic debate, the day of celebration.

You might have noticed before that Jesus instituted His Supper on the eve of His crucifixion, i.e. on a Thursday night, which also happened to be the night of the Passover and thus the beginning of the day of His death. As best as we can tell, early Christians never understood the day Jesus instituted the Supper to be the day He intended for it to be observed. Without exception in those first hundred years or so of the church’s existence, the Lord’s Supper was observed on Sunday. We even have a record of Paul delaying his journey a full week so he could partake of the Supper with the church at Troas (Acts 20:7).

Again, no one knows how a special observance of the Supper around Passover (aka Easter) arose. What we do know is that it arose in two different ways in two different regions. In both regions, churches waited for the coming of the 14th of the Jewish month Nisan. This was the day that Jesus was crucified, though it fell on a different day every year as the Jewish calendar was even more inaccurate than the Julian calendar (The Jewish calendar was a lunar calendar that lagged behind more accurate solar calendars; Jewish leaders in the post-Biblical age randomly inserted a “leap month” whenever they felt the observance of Passover was getting too early in the year).

What happened when 14th Nisan arrived differed depending on the region. In the West (think Rome and Italy), churches that wanted to observe the occasion held a special observance of the Supper on the Sunday following the 14th, believing that the Supper must always be observed on Sunday. In the East (think Syria and Asia Minor), where there were closer ties in language and culture to Palestinian Jews, some churches made a once-a-year exception and determined they would observe the Lord’s Supper on whatever day the 14th fell. Their observance on the 14th earned them the nickname, “Quartodecimans,” from the Latin quatra decima, or “fourteenth.”

Scholars debate which came first: the Quartodeciman observance or the Western observance. There’s actually a really good case to be made that the Quartodeciman observance was the original one, even though the Western observance is the one that lives on today in the denominational world. Whatever the case, highlight this fact in your mind: Easter resulted in a divided practice in the Christian world and a departure from the pattern of the New Testament surrounding the Lord’s Supper.

The Quartodeciman Controversy

Historians can track the following major developments in what they call the Quartodeciman Controversy through the records that have survived of that period. At some point in the 2nd century, some Christians moved from Asia Minor to Rome, bringing with them their Quartodeciman observance. According to Irenaeus, who wrote in the second half of the 2nd century, this prompted a friendly exchange between Anicetus, a church leader in Rome, and Polycarp, a church leader in Ephesus. Anicetus kept the peace even though he must have been troubled by the departure of the Quartodecimans from the pattern for the Lord’s Supper.

The peace that Anicetus kept was broken toward the close of the second century by another church leader named Victor. By this time in church history, some congregations had already accepted the idea that “bishop,” rather than merely being a synonymous term with “elder” as in the New Testament, referred to someone who had authority over multiple congregations. One of the things that a bishop did was to distribute the elements of the Lord Supper to the various congregations under his care. However, Victor refused to send communion to the Quartodeciman congregations because of their willingness to observe the Lord’s Supper on a day other than Sunday.

News of Victor’s behavior quickly travelled to the East. These eastern churches, led by Polycrates and Irenaeus, wrote to Victor in defense of their brethren in Rome. Victor threatened to withdraw his fellowship from all of them unless they repented of their beliefs and/or practices regarding Quartodecimanism. However, Victor was eventually convinced by eastern church leaders to back down.

At some point over the next 150 years, Quartodecimanism simply died out in both the East and the West. By the time of Nicean Council (325), the churches present were united on 1) the need to celebrate Easter and 2) the fact that it ought to be celebrated on Sunday. The discussion at the council merely surrounded how to figure out which Sunday to observe it on. And, as you might have guessed from what I said earlier, the matter was never truly settled. Easter is celebrated on at least two different days even to this day.

Lessons for Us Today

Examining history without reflecting upon its meaning for us is a useless exercise (with apologies to my history teachers over the years!). What can we learn from the creation of Easter and the Quartodeciman Controversy?

1. Both the modern observance of Easter and the Quartodeciman Controversy illustrate that God knows best. When the practice of Easter arose, people were almost immediately (as far as the record of history is concerned) confused over the day it should be observed; people are still confused about that today. Confusion divided Easter worshippers then, and it (among other things) continues to divide them now. Paul said, “God is not the author of confusion,” and, importantly adds, “but of peace,” the opposite of confusion and division (1 Corinthians 14:33). There is absolutely nothing confusing about the New Testament practice, which drives home the importance of the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus each Sunday.

2. Easter’s unknown origin provides us a warning about exercising liberty. Liberty in the sense that I’m using it describes our freedom to do a multitude of things in life without disobeying our Lord. The realm of liberty encapsulates potentially unwise behaviors as well as behaviors that can actually enhance our godliness. Paul’s advice is to exercise liberty in such a way so as to avoid the former and achieve the latter:

“For you, brethren, have been called to liberty; only do not use liberty as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another” (Galatians 5:13).

Depending on what Easter means to you, observing it could lie entirely in the realm of liberty. If our observance *doesn’t* involve shifting the Lord’s Supper away from Sunday to another day of the week or some sort of pageantry that departs from God’s pattern of worship, it’s hard to see how it could be wrong. What some say about it is true: it’s never wrong to preach the Resurrection, sing songs about the Resurrection, or pray about the Resurrection, and it’s hard for me to see how doing all three things in a worship service could ever be wrong.

Yet what did the exercise of liberty yield in the case of our fore-bearers? What could be done became what should be done and, over the centuries, what must be done. Is Easter seen as an “optional” observance in the denominational world? Many faith groups would likely say it’s not. And what has the exaltation of a day the Bible *doesn’t* exalt yielded? Among other things, it has yielded people who sometimes make Easter their only period for reflecting on Jesus in a calendar year besides perhaps Christmas, another exalted day. I don’t fault those people; I fault those who encouraged them to elevate one day over another rather than demonstrating the equal importance of each Sunday assembly.

The exercise of liberty also created an opportunity. As I said before, no one knows how Easter arose, but it’s not hard to figure out how it might have arisen and very quickly resulted in the Quartodeciman departure. Perhaps a Christian said, “Wouldn’t it be cool [or whatever ancient expression they might have used] if we reflected upon the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus at the time of year when it happened?” Perhaps then someone else suggested having a special service on the very day Jesus died. And finally, perhaps someone said, “Hey, what if we had a special Lord’s Supper service on that day?” Steps taken in liberty led to a step taken out of step with Christ’s Law.

Will the exercise of liberty always lead to binding traditions and/or stepping outside of the Law of Christ? Of course not; God leads us from every path that is always wrong. I actually have little doubt that many worship services that focused exclusively on the Resurrection have been pleasing to God over the years. Some perhaps even fell on Easter. However, we ought to at least pause for thought before buying wholesale into the idea of having an advertised Easter service given the fruit it has borne in the past.

3. We need to reflect on both sides of the “days” issue. As I mentioned earlier, people have been very quick in recent times to run to Romans 14 and in particular verses 5-6 to help them find an answer to the Easter question. Paul says,

“One person esteems one day above another; another esteems every day alike. Let each be fully convinced in his own mind. He who observes the day, observes it to the Lord; and he who does not observe the day, to the Lord he does not observe it” (Romans 14:5-6a).

These verses, which, as I mentioned before, discuss private, personal observances, have been used to justify public, corporate observances. I’m not sure that’s the right link to make, and I’m also not sure that these are the only verses to consider.

Paul brought up the subject of days with the Galatians as well. Rather than emphasizing the liberty that surrounded them, he spoke of their hidden dangers. He wrote:

“But now after you have known God, or rather are known by God, how is it that you turn again to the weak and beggarly elements, to which you desire again to be in bondage? You observe days and months and seasons and years. I am afraid for you, lest I have labored for you in vain” (Galatians 4:9).

For the Galatians, the observance of special days was in some way pulling them away from God and toward “weak and beggarly elements.” It seems to be merely an exercise of liberty, but Paul feared that it would have disastrous consequences for these brethren.

Please do not mistake what I am saying. I said earlier that the resurrection can be preached/sung/prayed about on any day. That’s entirely true. But to justify a corporate assembly using Romans 14 while ignoring what it says about having those convictions and practices as individuals as well as ignoring Galatians 4 seems to be unwise.

4. The church right now is possibly walking in the footsteps of those who have come before us. Social media tends to create an echo chamber, so it’s rarely the best guide of where the world is headed. However, it really seems to me as I become aware of the practice of churches and preachers in other places through social media that 1) more churches are holding special Easter services, 2) more preachers are preaching resurrection sermons on Easter, and 3) the outcry against and mockery of those who determine to take a different path seems to grow greater each year. Does this path mirror the path the church trod in the 2nd century? It’s certainly food for thought.

5. Perhaps the best course of action is to commit being different. I love Easter (as well as Christmas) because it gives me an opportunity to demonstrate to the world, “I’m different, and the church where I worship is different.” We are called to be salt and light; that is, we are called to be noticeably different (Matthew 5:13-16). Believing in the real power of Christ’s rising is a part of that difference. However, to celebrate Easter, a holiday far removed from the humble observances of the 2nd century which has swelled to include secular and, yes, pagan influences, and to do so alongside of countless divided and divisive assemblies which are teaching only part of the power of the Resurrection and withholding or perverting other vital truths seems like a terrible way to be different.

Easter observers in the church are right to say that it is hardly bringing salt and light into people’s lives to preach “5 Reasons We Don’t Celebrate Easter” on Easter. But God help me if I’m not doing something meaningful, impactful, and different, when I lovingly and gently say, “You’ll notice that we’re not having a special service today to honor Easter. This is not because we don’t honor our Lord’s resurrection, but because we do our best to honor it each Sunday and throughout our lives. The fact is that we try our best to follow only the Bible, and the celebration of Easter simply isn’t in the Bible. If you’d like to know more about this and why we do what we do, I’d love to tell you about it.”


6 thoughts on “Exegeting Easter’s Origins: Neither Biblical nor Pagan (but Important to Consider)

    1. Please do! I wrote it in the hopes it would benefit preachers, teachers, and leaders as they make decisions surrounding this time of year.

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  1. Great article!! My reason to tell friends has always been- “It’s not in the Bible as an example or command therefore we don’t celebrate as a special day but we observe his resurrection every Sunday” and have never been shamed for doing so. This is a great article to dig into the meat of it all.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Awesome! I’m glad your experience has mirrored mine. People are *typically* really reasonable with your convictions as long as you are reasonable in sharing them.

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  2. Thank you so much for this clarifying article! There is so much confusion in the Lord’s church, especially in applying Romans 14. I’m so glad I found this site!

    Liked by 1 person

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