Devoted to the Propagation and Defense of New Testament Christianity
April 5, 1951
NUMBER 47, PAGE 5-6b

"Easter" In History

Thomas Allen Robertson, Mclean, Texas

The world has just come through the Catholic festival of "easter," which was preceded by "Ash Wednesday," "Lent," "Palm Sunday," "Maunday Thursday," and "Good Friday." All of these days have religious meaning for Catholics; and not a one of them is found in the Bible. Not a single translation of the Bible known to us mentions a single one of these days, with one exception.

The word "easter" is found in the King James translation of Acts 12:4. Commentators and encyclopedists agree that it should not have been used there. "The occurrence of this word in the A. V. of Acts 12:4 — 'intending after Easter to bring him forth to the people' —is chiefly noticeable as an example of the want of consistency in the translators. In the earlier English versions Easter had been frequently used as the translation of "pascha," but "passover" was substituted in all passages but this in the King James Version." (Popular and Critical Bible Encyclopedia, Vol. 1, page 556).

Adam Clarke says, "Perhaps there never was a more unhappy, not to say absurd, translation than that in our text every view we can take of this subject shows the great impropriety of retaining a name every way exceptionable, and palpably absurd." (Commentary, Vol. 5, page 774). That this passage refers to the Jewish passover is evident to all thinking people. Herod was not a Christian. Even if "easter" had been a Christian festival (which it wasn't), Herod would not have respected it; neither would the Jews have observed it.

Christians And "Days"

The New Testament has no mention of any "easter" festival at all. No instructions are given as to how to carry out such a celebration; no examples are found of any observance of the day. The apostolic church did not observe special days. The apostle Paul condemned those who were inclined to do so, "Ye observe days, and months, and times, and years. I am afraid of you, lest by any means I have bestowed labor upon you in vain." (Gal. 4:10, 11)

Christians celebrate the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ upon the first day of each and every week. The apostolic church met together upon that day to break bread, and in doing so, to show forth the Lord's death until he comes again. The New Testament is clear as to how this was to be done. For those wanting specific instructions on the matter we refer you to Acts 20:7-12; 1 Cor. 10:16, 17; 11:2-30; 16:2; Heb. 10:25, 26.)

Origin Of Easter

But, someone asks, where did Easter come from? How did Christians get started observing it? Years before the Catholics ever borrowed Easter from the pagans, and the Protestants in turn from the Catholics, the pagan peoples of Europe had been observing a spring festival in honor of their pagan gods. The very name "Easter" is derived from the Anglo-Saxon "Ostara" or "Eastre", the name of the goddess of spring and dawn. (See article EASTER in the New Shaff-Herzog Encyclopedia of Religious Knowledge, Vol. 5, page 43).

Apparently the Egyptians were the first to observe such a festival. The story goes that the beautiful god, Osiris, was slain by Set, god of darkness and decay.

Whereupon Isis, wife of Osiris, finding the body of her husband, wept until her tears formed streams which fed the Nile to overflowing. The Nile, overflowing its banks, watered the dry bottoms of the Nile valley, supplying a rich coat of upland silt; and out of Isis' tears sprang new life—abundant crops that nourished Egypt.

Meanwhile, Isis buried the body of her God-husband. But once again decay and darkness covered the world, for Set found the grave of his foe, dug up the body, dismembered it, and scattered the parts over all the land. Once again Isis wept while she patiently reassembled the torn flesh of her spouse and re-entombed him—this time in a vault beyond the reach of Set. Her tears again flooded the valley, bringing life to the crops that were there. Then later, says the myth, Osiris rose from the dead—whole, beautiful, and sound. And so, each spring, at the festival of Abylos, the drama of the "passions" of Osiris—his death and resurrection—was re-enacted in Egypt. The death of a god had saved Egypt and had given civilization its first "Easter."

Other Pagan "Easters"

The Romans had a myth concerning their god, Attis, who was miraculously conceived, and self-immolated at the base of a tree to save the world. Attis, so the Romans believed, killed himself on Friday—"Black Friday"—and arose on Sunday—"Day of Joy." It was the custom of the pre-Christian Romans to re-enact the death agonies and resurrection of their mythical god, much as the paganizing Christians later were to stage their famed "passion plays" depicting the death and resurrection of Christ.

The Greeks worshipped Dionysus or Bacchus, god of spring and the vineyard. Bacchus had no myth of sacrifice, but there was the annual resurrection of life each spring; and the event was celebrated in wild orgiastic ceremonies (not too much unlike the wild celebrations of the Mardi Gras), which were supposed to invite fecundity in both the peoples and the soil.

The Celts had their "Easter" in the festival of Beltane, which was observed on the eve of May. This was likewise a celebration of orgiastic nature, intended to induce the pagan gods to grant fertility and fecundity.

We might also mention the Germans who also worshipped Ostern and the Anglo-Saxons who worshipped Eastre, but time would fail to tell of all the pagan gods and the rites that were used in their worship. These formed the background of the modern Christian (?) festival of Easter. Perhaps the most important from the standpoint of influence on Roman Catholicism and the modern pagan festival was the Indo-Iranian god, Mithra, imported by the Romans approximately a hundred years before Christ.

Mithra, according to the myth, was a god of light and goodness who battled triumphantly against the forces of darkness and evil, and who, in the end, gave his life for the world. Mithra died on Friday and arose the following Sunday. Immaculately conceived, his birth, incidentally, was attended by wise men, and was supposed to have occurred on December 25. For a while Mithraism threatened to sweep the world with its new religion.

Renan, the French historian, thinks it would have succeeded except for two things: (1) Mithraism was paganism, and it had no "gospel" for a world that was hungry for salvation, and (2) Christianity was so much more powerful that it swept Mithriasm out of the picture. Renan says, "If Christianity had been arrested in its growth by some mortal malady, the world would have been Mithraistic." (Schaff-Herzog Encyclopedia of Religious Knowledge, Vol. 7, page 419)

But when did "easter" become a Christian (?) festival? The answer is that some time after 300 A. D. it began to be observed by the apostate church. At first it was very lightly regarded, and it took many hundreds of years before the pagan rites and ceremonies were fully introduced. But the pagan rituals have become firmly imbedded now, and Catholicism has perpetuated into modern times this most common of all heathen and non-Christian observances.


George R. Long, Elizabeth, West Va.: "I am now working with the church at Elizabeth, West Va., which promises to be a great year. A finer congregation cannot be found. Brother William Daines of Cambridge, Ohio, just closed a good meeting with two baptisms—aged people. A great field and great preachers to labor with."