One of the most common arguments people make against Christianity is that several essential elements of our faith come from ancient pagan religions. For example, there are many books that contend that the entire story of Jesus is more or less plagiarized from earlier pagan stories, and many argue that our most important holidays, such as Christmas and Easter, are simply recycled pagan festivals.
Since it is the Easter season, you might encounter more of these claims than at other times of the year, so let’s take a look at some of them. In particular, let’s look at three of the most common ways that people try to argue that Easter is really just a recycled pagan holiday, and when we do that, we will see that they are little more than smoke and mirrors.
First, we have the argument based on the etymology of our English word “Easter.” Many people say that it comes from the name of the old Germanic goddess Eostre, which supposedly shows that it is just a recycled version of an ancient pagan festival celebrating her. Now, I don’t know enough about the history of the English language to assess the etymological claim here, but even if it is true, this argument still has a huge, gaping hole: the early Christians didn’t speak English.
In the earliest centuries of the Church, Christians spoke Aramaic, Greek, and Latin, and in those languages (as well as all of the Romance languages I am aware of), the word for “Easter” actually comes from the word for “Passover,” the Jewish feast that falls around this same time (and this is exactly what we should expect, since the death and resurrection of Jesus is our new Passover). To take just one example, the Greek word for “Easter” is pascha, which is the exact same word they use for “Passover.”
This shows that even if our English word “Easter” does come from the name of a pagan goddess, that is not the origin of the holiday itself. Christians were celebrating the resurrection of Jesus long before the advent of the English language, so the name “Easter” came about well after the feast was instituted. Consequently, as the names for the holiday in those older, more relevant languages shows, its origin lies elsewhere. The potential etymological link between our English name for it and the goddess Eostre is simply a linguistic curiosity with no relevance whatsoever to the origin of the holiday or the truth of the resurrection.
Another common argument you will often hear is that many of our favorite Easter traditions come from paganism. For instance, people point out that bunnies and eggs, which have nothing to do with the story of Jesus, come from paganism, so once again, Easter is essentially a pagan holiday. But just like the first argument, the logic here just doesn’t hold up.
This argument confuses the substance of the holiday with the way we celebrate it. Sure, we may have borrowed some customs from paganism and incorporated them into our Easter celebrations, but that doesn’t mean that the holiday itself is essentially a pagan feast or that the resurrection never really happened. This has nothing to do with the origin of the feast itself. It simply means that somewhere along the line, some Christians saw some pagan celebrations that they liked, and they chose to incorporate them into their celebration of an already existing Christian holiday.
Finally, we come to the only argument that has any real chance of being more than just smoke and mirrors. Many people claim that the whole idea of Jesus’ resurrection was simply plagiarized from stories about ancient pagan gods and goddesses, so it never really happened. For example, they often point to the stories of Osiris, Adonis, and Attis, who, according to these claims, died and rose just like Jesus. Now, if these claims are true, and if the Christian belief in the resurrection of Jesus is just a cheap knockoff of these pagan stories, then yes, this argument would be very strong, and our faith would be in serious trouble. But is that the case?
Not at all. There are a few problems here. First, even if all of these ancient pagan gods were said to have died and risen, that does not prove anything. The mere fact that there is a similarity here does not mean that there is any causal relationship between them. Instead, there is a much more likely background for the Christian belief in the resurrection of Jesus: the Jewish belief in the resurrection of all the dead.
Already in the time of Jesus, the Jews believed that at the end of what they called “this age” (basically what we would consider normal human history), the dead would rise and get their bodies back (Daniel 12:2; 2 Maccabees 7:9, 11, 14, 23), and the first Christians believed that Jesus’ resurrection was simply the beginning of that general resurrection (1 Corinthians 15:12-23, 1 Thessalonians 4:13-16). Now, since Christianity grew out of Judaism, this is a much more likely background for our belief in Jesus’ resurrection than any pagan stories about dying and rising gods.
Moreover, once we start looking a bit more deeply at the alleged pagan parallels to Jesus’ resurrection, the argument becomes even less convincing. These stories are actually not all that similar to the Christian story of Jesus’ resurrection, and the vast majority of them come to us from sources that are later than the rise of Christianity.1
For example, the story of the Egyptian god Osiris ends with Osiris becoming the ruler of the underworld, which is very different from a real resurrection.2 On the other hand, the Greek god Adonis became connected to a resurrection only after the rise of Christianity, so even if his story presents a real parallel to Christian belief, the influence goes in the wrong direction for the argument to work properly. His story was almost certainly influenced by Christianity, not the other way around.3
Smoke and Mirrors
At the end of the day, when we look at the alleged pagan roots of Easter, we can see that the arguments are little more than smoke and mirrors. While they may sound convincing at first, a little scrutiny will bring them tumbling down. For one, the etymology of our English word “Easter” doesn’t prove anything; Christians were celebrating Jesus’ resurrection way before English was even a language.
Secondly, the pagan origin of some common Easter symbols is equally irrelevant. So what if some Christians liked a few pagan customs and decided to incorporate them into her Easter celebrations? That tells us absolutely nothing about the origin of the holiday itself. And finally, the alleged parallels with dying and rising pagan gods fare no better. Not only is there a much better background for the Christian belief in Jesus’ resurrection, but the parallels themselves don’t actually hold up.
So when we look at all this evidence, we have no choice but to conclude that Easter is exactly what most people think it is. It is a Christian holiday that celebrates a Christian belief, and the roots of this holiday contain nothing that disproves our faith in any way.
- 1) Gregory A. Boyd and Paul R. Eddy, Lord or Legend? Wrestling with the Jesus Dilemma (Grand Rapids, MI: BakerBooks, 2007), 53-54.
- 2) Paul R. Eddy and Gregory A. Boyd, The Jesus Legend: A Case for the Historical Reliability of the Synoptic Jesus Tradition (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2007), 143-144.
- 3) Ronald H. Nash, The Gospel and the Greeks: Did the New Testament Borrow from Pagan Thought? 2nd ed. (Phillipsburg, N.J.: P & R Pub., 2003), 272, n. 30.