OF THE WORD ``EASTER''
|by Jared L. Olar|
In the secular English-speaking world, the Springtime celebration of Easter primarily consists of the participation in puzzling traditions that involve dyed eggs and rabbits. Those traditions are also a large part of the Easter celebrations in the Christian English-speaking world, though within this culture the primary emphasis is more usually upon theSpringtime resurrection of Jesus Christ. There has long been tension between the Christian celebration of Christ's resurrection and the secular (I might almost say ``modern pagan'') celebration of the return of Spring. In the past my church, the Worldwide Church of God (WCG), resolved this tension by renouncing Easter altogether in favor of the biblical Passover and Feast of Unleavened Bread. As we saw it, Easter was nothing more than a slightly Christianised pagan fertility rite, having little or nothing to do with Jesus' fulfillment of the typology of Passover. Although we in the WCG, like all Christians, believed in and were grateful for the Messiah's resurrection, we did not believe that there was any explicit biblical directive to observe a holy day in honorof that event.
However, in the past few years, the WCG has come to learn that there is after all biblical precedent for an annual celebration of Christ's resurrection. Thus, we have engaged in liturgical experiments intended to work such a celebration into the observance of the Feast of Unleavened Bread. But simultaneously, the mainstream Christian Easter celebration has gradually been incorporated into the liturgical calendar of the WCG. These innovations have naturally brought about stress on the WCG community, due to the fact that for so long we had rejected everything to do with Easter celebrations as base idolatry and paganism.
In this particular article, I do not wish to debate the biblical, liturgical, or moral merits of these two rival observances. Rather, my interest is to clarify a particular aspect of history related to this debate, and then discuss some practical consequences of this clarification. The pagan origin of the popular customs associated with Easter-and indeed of the very word ``Easter''-has long been recognised. However, last year my church in one of its publications asserted that the pagan origin of certain Easter customs is irrelevant. That is something I will leave to the reader to decide. But going further, my church in the same publication also attempted to argue that the word ``Easter'' is not of pagan origin. What can we determine about the truth or falsity of this last claim?
In the ``Personal from Joseph Tkach'' (The Worldwide News, Feb. 24,1997, pp.6-7), my church's senior ecclesiastical dignitary correctly pointed out that ``Easter is not a time when Christians honor Eostre, an Anglo-Saxon goddess.'' But he then made the parenthetical assertion that``[t]here is no proof that the term Easter is derived from the name of a goddess.'' For evidence of this remarkable claim, Mr. Tkach referred the reader to another article in that issue of The Worldwide News , writtenby one of our elders, Mr. Don Mears, and entitled ``Celebrating the Resurrection of Jesus'' (pp.20-21). In my judgment this article is riddled with various errors and inaccuracies, and a response article correcting those problems would be quite lengthy. However, for the purposes of this article, we need only concern ourselves with the following passage:
Continuing with last year's Worldwide News article:
Now, it should not be necessary to say that if Boyle's etymology is correct, then that found in the O.E.D. cannot be correct, and viceversa . They are mutually exclusive hypotheses. If ``Easter'' comes from``auferstehen'' then it cannot have anything to do with ``east,'' and if itis related to ``east'' it cannot have anything to do with ``auferstehen.'' The above association of ``east,'' ``dawn,'' and the allegorical ``new light''of Jesus' resurrection is apparently not drawn from sources, but evidently was merely the conclusion of the author of the article under discussion.
Several years before my church put forth the above arguments, I encountered this scenario and rejected it. I hold to the majority view on this point, for the reasons mentioned by Sir Frank M. Stenton in his landmark volume Anglo-Saxon England (1971, 1989), p.98. Stenton wrote:
It is not impossible that ``Easter'' is related to ``east.'' But that would not necessarily mean that there was never any Springtime fertility cult of a goddess named Eostre. For instance, mythological study can show examples of gods and goddesses whose names are personifications of natural elements. In any case, if ``Easter'' derives from the same root as the word ``east,'' then what does the suffix ``-er'' mean? Indeed, how do we know that ``Easter'' comes from ``east'' and not vice versa? Again, perhaps both words came from the same ultimate root but are otherwise unrelated. Finally, they may well be false cognates. That is, the words``Easter'' and ``east'' may originally have had nothing directly to do with each other, but in time came to be spelled similarly.
In fact, it is not impossible that a Middle Eastern fertility goddess known as Ashtart among the Canaanites and as Ishtar among the Assyrians and Babylonians was brought into Europe by migrating tribes and merchants. If Eostre was not originally a Germanic goddess, this may well account for modern scholars' frustration in discerning the meaningof the word ``Easter.'' On the other hand, there may be a relationship between these goddesses' names and the Indo-European root whence our word``star'' is derived. Among the Greeks and Romans, it was the planet Venus-the goddess of sex-that was their dawn star. It may only be a coincidence that the Anglo-Saxons worshipped a fertility goddess whose name is similar to the word ``east,'' which is a word that refers to thedawn. Or it may well be that Eostre was a Germanicised Ashtart/Ishtar. But one thing we may certainly say: Bede can be trusted for proof that``Easter'' came from the name of a sex goddess. Even apart from the evidence and considerations shown above, Bede's testimony is sufficient to settle this controversy.
In English- and German-speaking lands, the season of Christ's resurrection unfortunately bears the name of a half-forgotten sex goddess. Why did the ancestors of the English and Germans who were first converted to Christianity use her name for this season? More likely than not, simple inertia. For the same reason we today still use the names of gods and goddesses for the months in our calendar and the days in our week-habit. I observe the biblical Sabbath, known as Saturday in English-speaking lands-but I would never try to come up with a Christian etymology for ``Saturday,'' nor do I fear that by keeping the Sabbath somemight mistake me for a member of the cult of the god Saturn. In the same way, before making the mistake of trying to deny that Eostre ever existed, my church very appropriately began to emphasise that saying``Easter'' is not the same as worshipping Eostre.
As another example, in those nations whose languages were heavily influenced by the Latin language, the name for this season derives not from a sex goddess but from the old Greek and Latin name for Passover-Pascha . In the same way, when the Latin liturgies mentioned Quadragesima -the ``forty days'' of fasting prior to Pascha-English liturgies referred to Lent, which merely means ``springtime.'' Therefore, to call the celebration of Christ's resurrection ``Easter'' is not to worship false gods. Rather, it's just the perpetuation of an old, habitual mistranslation. Despite the misleading habits of his translators, Bede himself always used the word Pascha when he referred to this Christian observance, not ``Easter.''
For accuracy's sake, I personally make it a point to call this holy season by its proper name: ``Passover,'' or the Paschal season. In this way I can emphasise the continuity between the ancient Hebrew Pesach and the later Christian commemoration of the atoning work of theMessiah. Sadly, far too many Christians have down through the centuries been unaware of this continuity. Regrettably, for the WCG the word``Easter'' obscured the connection between other Christians' Paschal celebrations and the biblical Passover. For decades, most if not all of us had no idea that the majority of Christians did not use the word``Easter.'' Thus, unlike us, they had no associations of Jesus' resurrection with sex goddesses. On the other hand, often they were unaware of the historical link between their Paschal observances and the biblical Passover. Ignorance of this sort resulted from the prevailing use of the word ``Easter'' for an observance that is as far removed from pagan Germanic sex rituals as the biblical Sabbath is from mythological cannibalism and infanticide practicised by the grandfather of the Roman gods. In my opinion, if more Christians began to celebrate ``Passover Sunday'' instead of ``Easter Sunday,'' I dare say more members of the Church might be able to acquire a better understanding of the gospel-and our affinity with the House of Judah would be underscored as well.
I am fully aware that eggs, rabbits, and the word ``Easter'' are meaningless relics of a regrettable and well-forgotten idolatrous past. They have never and can never have anything to do with God's Truth, but have often distracted Christians from it. The solution is simple: ignore and abandon those unimportant traditions, and make the center of our Paschal observances the passion, death, and resurrection of the Messiah of Israel. When it comes to preaching the gospel, emphatic denunciation of pagan traditions-which once were one of my church's specialties-are nowhere near as effective as proclaiming the central truths of Israel's New Covenant.
About the Author: Jared Olar grew up in the WCG and was baptized in 1988. He received a B.A. in history from the University of Illinois at Springfield in May 1996 and plans to do graduate work in history in thefuture. He is especially interested in biblical, ecclesiastical, and medieval history. Jared and his wife Christina live in Pekin, Illinois and attend the Peoria, Illinois WCG congregation, where he has recently been leading a series of small group Bible studies about messianic prophecy, based on Walter Kaiser's The Messiahin the Old Testament. Jared and Christina are expecting the arrival of their first child in July 1999.