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:

``The annual Christian festival that celebrates the resurrection of Jesus, known in English-speaking lands as Easter, is sometimes said to be named after a Teutonic pagan goddess, Eastre or Eostre. This notion seems to have originated with the eighth-century, English monk, Bede...... and etymological authorities (those who study word origins) have cast doubt on Bede's accuracy.''

  More accurately, the word ``Easter'' is usually said to be named  after the goddess Eostre.  This ``notion'' does indeed go back to the Venerable  Bede, the earliest writer to mention this etymology.  Bede's statements carry  great authority, and thus what he says about Eostre has produced an overwhelming  scholarly consensus that accepts his statements as correct. However, in the  past two centuries a minority of Christian scholars, naturally uncomfortable  with the pagan associations of the word ``Easter,'' have suggested that the  word may actually have had a Christian, or at least non-religious, origin.   For example, in the above-cited article, we find:     

``In a footnote in a circa 1850 edition of Eusebius' Ecclesiastical  History, the translator, Isaac Boyle, suggested that `our word, Easter   , is of Saxon origin, and of precisely the same import with its German cognate      Ostern.  The latter is derived from the old Teutonic form of   auferstehn, auferstehung, i.e. resurrection.' ''         

  Boyle correctly stated that ``Easter'' is of Saxon origin, and that``Ostern''  is its German cognate.  But his claim that these Germanic words derived from  an old form of a German word meaning ``resurrection'' is almost too ludicrous  for words.  Suffice it to say that the science of etymology in the nineteenth  century was then not much beyond its infancy. Boyle's etymology cited here  is almost (though not quite) as bad as the British Israelist derivation of  ``British'' from the Hebrew words meaning``Covenant Man,'' or ``Saxons'' from ``Isaac's Sons.''         

Continuing with last year's Worldwide News article:

  ``The Evangelical Dictionary of Theology (Baker Books, 1984)   article on Easter, after mentioning Bede's account, says it is ``more likely''  that the word Easter `came from a German root for dawn or east (the  time and place of the rising sun).'''             

  The article then mentions the fundamentally authoritative Oxford English Dictionary  (O.E.D.) to support the etymology of ``Easter'' from an old root having to  do with the dawn or morning.  However, it is unclear how this established etymology would necessarily contradict Bede's statement that the Anglo-Saxons had a goddess named Eostre who was worshipped around the same time of year that Christians celebrated the resurrection of Jesus Christ.  Nevertheless, the article concludes that:             

``If these [i.e. the three authorities cited] are accurate, Easter did not derive from the name of a spring goddess Eastre. Rather, both words came from a root that means `dawn,' or `morning/ rising/new light,' or by extension, `resurrection.' More likely than Bede's explanation, it seems possible that the resurrection celebration was named Easter because the word described the promise of new light and new life brought to humankind by the new-risen Son.''

  In the previous issue of Grace and Knowledge, I protested examples  of poor historical scholarship used by my church to buttress the implementation  of liturgical innovations.  In response to these speculations, it is necessary  to point out that in this instance my church seems once more to have committed  that transgression. First, closely observe that the ``resurrection'' etymology  comes from an outdated and irrelevant source.  Most importantly, it is an etymology unrelated to that cited in the other two authorities.  Second, on this point the statements found in The Evangelical Dictionary of Theology  have no independent value, but merely duplicate the hypothesis found in the O.E.D.  In fact, then, the WN article's contentions on this topic rely on only two authorities rather than three.                 

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:

``[Bede] states that the English called their third month Hrethmonath after their goddess Hretha and their fourth month Eosturmonath after their goddess Eostre, `for whom they were accustomed to hold festivals at that season.' Neither name can be explained, and neither appears in any other mythological system. Some scholars regard the goddesses Hretha and Eostre as fictions, invented by Bede in order to give a meaning to the unintelligible names Hrethmonath and Eosturmonath. But other divinities which have never been called in question bear equally obscure names-there is at least no obvious explanation of Erce, the Old English name of Mother Earth-and the popular recognition of goddesses named Hretha and Eostre is strongly supported by the fact that it is reported on Bede's authority. It is incredible that Bede, to whom heathenism was sin, should have invented a heathen goddess in order to explain the name of the month of [the Christian festival] Easter.''

  In other words, there is no good reason to doubt Bede's statements.  His  life extended from the last decades of the 600s A.D. into the first decades  of the 700s A.D.  Christianity first came to the Anglo-Saxons beginning in  597 A.D., and during the 600s by fits and starts gained a foothold in the various kingdoms and chieftaincies of the Heptarchy. When Bede was a child England as a whole had been (officially) Christian for only one or two generations.   That is hardly enough time for popular knowledge and practice of pagan customs  to have completely died out. Furthermore, the close cousins of the Anglo-Saxons  back in Germany were not converted to Christianity at the point of Charlemagne's  sword until the 780s A.D.  These continental Saxon tribes had the same name  for this month as did their insular cousins-Ostarmonath.  Even if we  grant that the insular Saxons got their word ``Easter'' from Christianity,  did the polytheistic Saxons in Germany also derive the name of their month  from the story of the resurrection of Jesus Christ?  Anyway, if Bede was wrong  about Eostre, what do we do with his story about Hretha?  Did Hrethmonath   derive from Christianity too?                     

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.


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