Busting Six Easter Myths

1. Easter is a pagan moon or spring festival that Christians took over.

One of the more persistent myths about Easter is about its origins; particularly because of the weird, inconsistent, timing of the long weekend, which is based on phases of the moon. Now. There are lots of religious festivals from lots of cultures based on times, the cycles of the sun (and seasons), and the moon… but the origins of Easter, especially the way it operates as a ‘movable feast’ are something we can be very clear on because the way the date is calculated is deeply connected to an ancient, Biblical, practice.

On the night Jesus was betrayed and put on trial (the night before Good Friday) he celebrated a special religious meal with his friends, a Jewish meal. The Passover. Like the rest of Christianity, the origins of Easter are Jewish… Christianity claims to be the fulfilment of the Jewish tradition. The Old Testament is the Jewish Bible. At Passover a lamb was cooked up and people retold (and still retell) the story of the Exodus — of God rescuing Israel from Egypt at the first ‘Passover’…

Solar and Lunar calendars

In the western world we use a ‘solar calendar’; we mark days and seasons based on the sun, in the ancient world lots of cultures has a ‘lunar calendar’ (the word ‘months’ is still derived from the word ‘moons’). The date for Passover is calculated by finding the first full moon after the (in the northern hemisphere) spring equinox… so if you were going to have a pagan festival, that’d be a good time to do it, but Easter itself, as Christians mark it, has nothing to do with co-opting pagan dates and everything to do with marking Jesus’ death and resurrection on the Friday and Sunday in Passover week; interestingly, in almost every other language where Easter is celebrated, a local derivative of the Greek translation of the word ‘passover’ (pascha) is used (the other exceptions are in German speaking and Slavic countries). How we got the name Easter is hotly contested, it is possible that it came from the month Easter most commonly landed on in England (April, or “Ēosturmōnaþ”… and it is possible though contested, that this month came from the name of a pagan goddess of fertility (and Spring) — but only two major historical sources think that, one is a passing reference from a church historian named ‘The Venerable Bede’ the other is one of the Grimm brothers of Grimm fairytale fame (Grimm wrote about a goddess called ‘Ostara’); there’s no other evidence of worship practices for this goddess (or her existence) but there’s a theory that there’s a common pagan-god ancestor in English and German cultures, named Austriahenae.  Here’s the one mention in all of history of ‘Eostre’ (and it’s connection to Easter).

“Eosturmonath has a name which is now translated “Paschal month”, and which was once called after a goddess of theirs named Eostre, in whose honour feasts were celebrated in that month. Now they designate that Paschal season by her name, calling the joys of the new rite by the time-honoured name of the old observance.” — The Venerable Bede

It wasn’t uncommon for Christians to take and reclaim the practices of cultures where the Gospel gained influence; Jesus himself did it when he claimed all the divine titles Caesar Augustus was running around applying to himself (and the word Gospel), so even if there is something to Bede’s theory, the pagan roots are vastly overstated (given the date chosen is Biblical), and understandably consistent with Christian practice.

2. Easter eggs and bunnies are about fertility gods

The date is one thing — the symbols around Easter are another potential myth… especially bunnies and eggs (chocolate not so much, it’s clearly an attempt by businesses to commercialise the Easter experience and make their own consumer driven holy-days, according to their own ‘sacred calendar’ — which makes the point that different religions always co-opt the symbols and icons of the religions they’re hoping to bring on board their cause).

When you drill down into the meaning of Passover, and its fulfilment in Easter, it’s hard to suggest it isn’t about God’s provision of new life — the end of death and the dawn of a new season. Perhaps it’s not too long a bow to draw to suggest that God in his sovereignty thought spring (in the northern hemisphere) would be a good time to give birth to the nation of Israel, and to the kingdom of God launched in Jesus’ death and resurrection. If we want to understand why the early church didn’t do away with the pagan symbols from their spring festivals, but co-opted them and filled them with new meaning (mmm, filled eggs…) then we can look at some early reflections on the practice, and the way symbols like eggs were used in Easter rituals. There are two views on why the church didn’t do away with eggs; one is Grimm’s, that they ‘had to tolerate’ them:

“The heathen Easter had much in common with May-feast and the reception of spring, particularly in matter of bonfires. Then, through long ages there seem to have lingered among the people Easter-games so-called, which the church itself had to tolerate” — Jacob Grimm

The other is slightly more complicated, complicated enough that the question of origins starts to not be so open and shut. It seems that the practice of eggs for Easter was common in the early Mesopotamian church, where real eggs were died red (to symbolise the blood of Jesus) and were cracked against each other as a symbol of the empty tomb and new life. Eggs are also a traditional part of the Jewish Passover meal, and used to retell the Passover story (especially ‘new life’). The use of the egg as a symbol is recorded in the Mishnah. The Mishnah is the written record of the oral traditions that emerged to described faithful Judaism after the Old Testament (the sort of things the Pharisees taught). These oral tradition were put in writing after the destruction of the Temple in 70AD with the fear that the Jewish community would be scattered, and lose the ability to pass it on. The details about when the egg was added to the Seder plate (the Passover meal) is a bit sketchy, but it seems after the Temple was destroyed they started eating ‘two sacrifices’ as part of Passover, not one, one, the Passover lamb, and the other, the ‘Korban Chagigah’ — a sacrifice made to mourn the destruction of the temple. At some point it became traditional for this second sacrifice to be represented with an egg.

That the egg was used as a symbol in the eastern church (the Mesopotamian one) means it is unlikely to be predominantly associated with western paganism, and the Jewish origins (and meaning), or that eggs have always been used symbolically and the death and resurrection of Jesus bringing new life made the symbolic use of eggs around Easter meals a natural step for Christians to take. What’s fascinating, with this Jewish background, is that for first and second century Jews living after the destruction of the temple, the egg was both a sign of sorrow and hope, regarding the destruction of God’s dwelling place and his commitment to bring new life to his people. It’s the same for Christians; only Jesus is God’s temple (and he was destroyed and rebuilt after three days), and the Easter Egg became a picture of the empty tomb that brings new life — like a cracked egg.

Bunnies are a bit trickier to nail down than eggs (literally… they’re fast and eggs don’t move). Jacob Grimm, in his book on German myths in 1835, said:

“The Easter Hare is unintelligible to me, but probably the hare was the sacred animal of Ostara … Ostara, Eástre seems therefore to have been the divinity of the radiant dawn, of upspringing light, a spectacle that brings joy and blessing, whose meaning could be easily adapted by the resurrection-day of the Christian’s God.”

The words “probably” and “seems” are key words here. It’s a total guess. When it comes to bunnies, there’s an obvious association with spring, but nobody knows. There are symbolic intertwined hares in churches throughout England and Europe dating back to the 6th century (in Europe) and the 15th century (in England). There’s a 16th century painting ‘The Madonna of the Rabbit’ by a Venetian artist named Titian depicting Mary holding both a rabbit, and Jesus… so they’re not totally removed from Christian use… but their meaning is hotly contested. When it comes to Easter, some people, like Grimm, think the ‘Easter rabbit’ is German, where stories about an Easter bunny who would give eggs to good children is part of the folklore (and this was exported to the U.S). Easter bunnies are really a symbol in need of a good explanation, at least the attempts to create an ‘Easter Bilby’ in Australia around the conservation of native animals had a clear point…

We western, protestant, Christians tend to be sceptical about the use of symbolism as though it is always a pagan superstition, but for the early church everything God created was symbolic and sacred (Romans 1:20), this view of the world held right through to the medieval age and up to the dawn of what people call ‘the secular age,’ it was the most natural thing in the world for Christians to come up with their own symbols or find things that had symbolic meaning in other religions and redirect them to Jesus.

3. Christians must be worried about the word ‘Easter’ being removed from chocolate eggs in supermarkets

Each Easter I spot at least one meme worried about the loss of the word Easter from the chocolate eggs on sale in our supermarkets. To be honest, neither of these are reasons to protest or boycott or write angry Facebook statuses…

We don’t have to worry about the word ‘Easter’ being removed, but it is an opportunity to enter the conversation in a surprising way and to ask what meaning these symbols have in a secular world driven by consumerism. It’s about selling chocolates to as many people as possible.

Since it’s possible that the word ‘Easter’ is connected to paganism, and that eggs have always been used by a bunch of other religious ideologies

I’m not worried that these symbols that have been traded around a bunch of different are being traded again, but, I’m keen to refill them with wonder and meaning, and have them point to Jesus and the empty tomb.

I’m more worried about the way that days from the Christian calendar of ‘holy days’ are being co-opted by the west’s new religion — consumerism. Consumerism is what drives chocolate companies to leave off the word Easter lest it cause offense to anybody who just wants symbol free commercialised holiday fun. It, like the Easter Bunny only giving eggs to good children, is a reversal of the good news of Jesus; that he died in order to offer new life free of charge even to the worst of us.

4. Fruitless hot cross buns are good

Myth. Seriously. To find out about how Hot Cross Buns are a great picture of Easter, come along to our Good Friday service tomorrow.

5. Jesus didn’t really die.

The Romans were exceptionally good at crucifying people to death. They didn’t miss. There is a myth that surfaces sometimes that suggests that Jesus didn’t actually die on the cross, but if you were nailed to one by the Roman army (and history, even outside the Bible) suggests this was the case, then you died.

The Roman army had practiced this method of humiliating people and making a public spectacle of them to cheapen their status over many years. History tells us they crucified 6,000 slaves from Spartacus’ army in one go in 73BC, posting crosses every 33 metres on the Appian Way (the road into Rome). They were good at making sure people weren’t just mostly dead.

The symbolic, or ‘public relations’ power of the cross was to depict somebody as utterly worthless.

6. Jesus wasn’t really raised from the dead.

The whole Easter story hangs on this being true. Whether it is or not is up to you to figure out — but what is certainly true is that the earliest Christians believed Jesus was literally and physically raised from the dead, and that he appeared to witnesses. People staked their lives on this — and many of them were also crucified.

The claim that someone could come back from the dead was no more plausible to ancient people than it is today; sometimes we like to picture people in the first century as ignorant and a bit primitive in their thinking; but the philosophers of the Roman world had pretty much ruled out physical resurrection as even a thing in religious belief, for the Greeks and the Romans people believed the soul would escape to some heavenly realm and the idea of a physical resurrection was offensive. But. People still believed.

They believed and worshipped a crucified God. To me it’s always been less plausible that this sort of belief would take off and spread through an empire built on power and might and the humiliating crucifixion of enemies than to accept that the God who made life might be able to remake it beyond death (the central claim of Christianity). I’ve been struck this Easter by this poem by John Updike that deals with this persistent myth — and the idea that a ‘supernatural’ or ‘spiritual’ resurrection works just as well as the real one.

Seven Stanzas At Easter

Make no mistake: if he rose at all
It was as His body;
If the cell’s dissolution did not reverse, the molecule reknit,
The amino acids rekindle,
The Church will fall.

It was not as the flowers,
Each soft spring recurrent;
It was not as His Spirit in the mouths and fuddled eyes of the
Eleven apostles;
It was as His flesh; ours.

The same hinged thumbs and toes
The same valved heart
That—pierced—died, withered, paused, and then regathered
Out of enduring Might
New strength to enclose.

Let us not mock God with metaphor,
Analogy, sidestepping, transcendence,
Making of the event a parable, a sign painted in the faded
Credulity of earlier ages:
Let us walk through the door.

The stone is rolled back, not papier-mache,
Not a stone in a story,
But the vast rock of materiality that in the slow grinding of
Time will eclipse for each of us
The wide light of day.

And if we have an angel at the tomb,
Make it a real angel,
Weighty with Max Planck’s quanta, vivid with hair, opaque in
The dawn light, robed in real linen
Spun on a definite loom.

Let us not seek to make it less monstrous,
For our own convenience, our own sense of beauty,
Lest, awakened in one unthinkable hour, we are embarrassed
By the miracle,
And crushed by remonstrance.

Nathan Campbell
Campus Pastor, South Bank

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