Many of us have read articles or seen memes floating around the internet that attempt to tie the celebration of Christ’s resurrection to some form of paganism. It seems to me that these rumors are perpetuated by a lack of knowledge regarding ancient Christianity, history, linguistics, and paganism.
THE ORIGIN OF THE NAMES
First of all, according to all ancient accounts of which I’m aware, Jesus Christ was crucified during the time of the Jewish Passover, which in Hebrew is called Pesach, and in Aramaic Pascha. The timing of the Jewish festival is tied to the cycle of the moon, but always lands somewhere in the spring. Christians from the most ancient times have seen Jesus’ death and resurrection as the fulfillment of the Passover holiday and have therefore kept the transliterated name for Passover, which is usually a derivative of the word “Pascha.”
Therefore, nearly every culture around the world (unless heavily influenced by German or American missionaries) calls this holiday something similar to “Pascha.”
So, why the name Easter? Is it a reference to some form of paganism? Sort of. To put it simply, the English language evolved from German. In ancient times, the month in which the Passover (Pascha) would occur was called Eostur-monath by English and Germanic peoples, which in modern English would be “Month of Eostur.” Eoster (also spelled Ēostre or Ostara) was a pagan goddess and her festival was celebrated during this month in the spring.
The oldest historical reference for this pagan goddess comes from a British Christian author named Bede who was born during the 600’s. He writes,
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.
Outside the above quote, there is nothing known about the goddess Eostre. In fact, until a recent archaeological discovery that hints at the name of Eostre, some scholars thought that Bede invented this goddess. So, whatever you read in memes or various articles about her, know that most of it has been fabricated in the last couple of centuries.
In America, we celebrate the Fourth of July. The month of July was named in honor of Julius Caesar, but the American holiday has nothing to do with the Roman Emperor of ancient times. The name Easter is much the same and its celebration has nothing to do with ancient paganism, but it just happened to land during the same month as the pagan celebration was taking place. The Christian celebration gradually took the place of the pagan one since pagans could see that their ancient festival found its fulfillment in Christianity.
PAGAN SPRING RITES AND CHRISTIANITY
God created this world with a cycle of seasons that naturally teaches us about death and resurrection. As the Apostle Paul writes in Romans 1:20,
For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even His eternal power and Godhead, so that they are without excuse.
In other words, through nature God has always been teaching people the truth. Natural religions are often an attempt to honor the truth observed in creation (with a dose of hedonism thrown in there). Ancient Christian missionaries never tried to crush all forms of natural religion that they observed among pagans. Rather, they looked for truth within these religions and showed people how Christianity was the fulfillment of what they were already celebrating in nature.
The movement from winter to spring shows us the truth: that there is a resurrection from the dead. We find that truth coming to its culmination in the person of Jesus Christ. In Him, we allow our old selves to die off so that we may find resurrection in Him.
So, it is not that Christianity is copying paganism, it is that all of the truth in natural religion throughout the world was pointing to Christ, it was preparing the people and leading them to the truth revealed in our Lord Jesus Christ who, through His life-giving resurrection, brought all truth to its culmination in His own being.