Is Easter a Pagan Holiday?

While rabbits and eggs have nothing to do with Jesus, the word “Easter” is actually based on the ancient German word for “rise” so it is synonymous with resurrection. This is the reason we call the direction the sun rises in, “east” in English. English is a Germanic language, not a Latin one so it uses a different word for Easter from Latin languages like Spanish, French, etc. Latin languages use a variation of Pascha, the Latin/Greek translation of Pesach. Pesach is the Hebrew word for Passover a.k.a “The Festival of Unleavened Bread”. Some say Easter is a pagan holiday because it is related to the Babylonian fertility goddess Ishtar. The Ishtar connection with Easter is a false cognate. Those language groups aren’t even in the same family, since the word Easter is from English and German.

First thing, Passover is the true holiday from the bible. Jesus’ last supper was the Passover cedar, and Jesus rose on the day of the First Fruits offering. He called himself the bread of life (John 6:32-40) which is a reference to unleavened bread. Leaven is often used as an analogy for sin (Gal 5:7-10, 1 Cor 5:5-7), so Jesus is saying that he is a sinless person, which sets him apart from the rest of humanity like unleavened bread (matza) is distinguished from leavened bread (chametz). Passover points to Jesus’ blood being the agent that liberates believers from sin and removes their leaven saving them from the consequences of sin which is death. Just like how God spared the firstborn sons of Israel from the final plague with the blood of lambs on the doorpost, because of Jesus’ blood we are spared condemnation for our sins. In addition, the Israelites were instructed to eat the Passover lamb without leaving anything behind, burning up anything that isn’t eaten. (Ex 12:10, Ex 23:18). This is like how God’s presence inside of believers (the holy spirit), purifies them daily by burning away sin (or yeast) and making them like Jesus, the unleavened bread. Lastly, the Israelites had to eat the lamb without breaking its bones (Exodus 12:46, Num 9:12, Ps 34:20), which points to the fact Jesus, was crucified without breaking any bones (John 16:26). With all that being said it is not sinful to celebrate Easter when it is put in a biblical context and points to Jesus alone. Rabbits and eggs have nothing to do with Passover so those things are not necessary and for some believers, those things are considered sinful because of their pagan origins, much like Santa Claus and pine trees on Christmas. Eggs were adopted by early Christians because of their association with phoenix legends, and the Phoenix “rises” from the ashes like Christ rose from the dead. It seems more like cultural appropriation rather than pagan worship. Pagans worshipped everything under the sun, including the sun, so it’s really hard to find anything that wasn’t worshipped by somebody in history.

Our word ”Easter” comes from the Saxons and is similar to the German cognate “ostern”, which is derived from the old Teutonic form of “auferstehn”, which means resurrection. English is a Germanic language meaning its main words are derived from German. So Easter coming from the German word Ostern makes sense. Ishtar, Astarte, and other names are Babylonian and are a part of the Akkadian language and Semitic language family, not the German one. In Hebrew, Passover (The Festival of Unleavened Bread) is called Pesach (פֶסַח). This is transliterated into the Greek word Páscha (Πάσχα). It maintains the form Pascha in Latin, so Latin-based languages and a few others, refer to the holiday Easter with a transliterated form of Pascha. In Latin languages: Portuguese it’s Páscoa, Italian is Pasqua, in Spanish it’s Pascua, and in French it’s Pâques. There are other non-Latin Languages like Finnish (Pääsiäinen), Dutch (Pasen), and Indonesian (Paskah) that also use variants of Pascha. English and German use Easter/Ostern to refer to the celebration of the Resurrection. There are other languages that use the native word for resurrection to describe easter, like Serbian (Uskrs or Vaskrs), Vietnamese(lễ Phục sinh), Chinese(Fùhuó Jié/复活节), and Korean(Buhwalchol/부활절). These are the native words for the “rise” or “resurrection” in these languages.

As for the English translations of Pesach in the Bible, John Wycliffe, the earliest translator to publish a complete New Testament in English (1382), translated from the Latin Vulgate, Pascha to Pask. In addition, when Martin Luther translated the Bible into German (New Testament in 1522), he used the word Oster to refer to Passover. Lastly, William Tyndale who translated the new testament into English from Greek (1525) uses the word “ester” to refer to the Passover. He coined the term Passover to describe how God “passed over” the houses marked with the blood of the lamb (Exodus 12). The usage of “ester” was retained in the 1534 revision of the New Testament. Later the “a” was added to “ester” and it became Easter. Luther and Tyndale were the first to use a translation of Pascha into a different word rather than transliteration from it.

If Easter originated from Ishtar/Inanna which comes from Akkadian, then Latin languages would also use a variation of Ishtar rather than Pesach (Passover). This is because Latin gets its alphabet from Greek, and the Greeks got it from the Phoenicians who used the same alphabet as Akkadian, Arabic, Aramaic, Hebrew, Syriac, etc. Instead of Páscha the Latin/Greek would have to be a cognate of Ishtar if it truly came from that source. Since that isn’t the case, there is no direct connection between the Semitic Akkadian word “Ishtar” and the Anglo/Saxon word “Easter”. So the Easter to Ishtar thread is a false cognate from a linguistics standpoint.

The theory connecting Ishtar to Easter was started by a British bishop named Alexander Hislop in the 1800s. He also called Christmas a pagan holiday as well. His argument was based mainly on phonetics because Eostre from Saxony sounded like Astarte, Ishtar, and Ashtoreth. There are many examples of words that seem to be cognates because of similar sounds and meanings but have different etymologies. These false cognates can even be within the same language or from different languages. Even if Easter came from the name of an old Germanic goddess, its use today doesn’t apply to that. Just like how, modern people don’t think about worshipping the sun on Sunday, or the moon on Monday. Nor do we think about honoring Julius Caesar in the month of July. Some words have ancient meanings tied to ancient religions like the days of the week in most Western languages, but that doesn’t mean most English speakers today worship Norse gods on those specific days. No one is complaining about Thursday being a reference to Thor. Likewise, with Spanish speakers and the Roman gods, since their days are named after Roman deities, that’s just linguistics. Every word that isn’t Hebrew is a “pagan” word since all Gentiles worshipped idols and nature-based gods. Easter bunnies and the like may be pagan, but those traditions have nothing to do with Jesus or the bible, so those are not related to Resurrection Day/Easter for a Biblical Christian. Those are simply the “traditions of men” and Jesus scolded the Pharisees for substituting God’s laws with the traditions of men in Matthew 15:7-9.

One final note, the First Fruits celebration occurred during the week-long Passover celebration. The celebration of First Fruits is the first day after the Passover Sabbath, which means this was the day Jesus rose from the dead (Matt. 28:1-10). Paul tells us that Christ is the “first fruit” of those who will be raised from the dead (1 Cor 15:20-23). Passover was the 14th day of the first month of the Hebrew calendar (Lev. 23:4-8), then the next day was the beginning of the seven-day Pesach (Festival of Unleavened Bread). This was the day Jesus was crucified (Good Friday). The first and seventh days of Pesach were Sabbaths. The First Fruits celebration was on the first day after the first Pesach sabbath (Lev 23:9-14), according to Pharisaic tradition, but the First Fruits was given after the weekly Sabbath for Sadduceeic tradition. Since Sadducees were the ruling party in the first century, the official First Fruits celebration was on the 17th day (Sunday) because it is after the weekly sabbath (Saturday). Different sects of Jews had different days for Passover, this may explain why the gospel of John has Passover happen a day after the other Gospels because he is referencing the national Passover (Sadducees) as opposed to the sectarian Passover (Pharisees). Pentecost occurred fifty days after that Sabbath (Lev 23:15-16) so the first of those days started at First Fruits.

Just as the first fruits offered to God under the old covenant anticipated the fuller harvest to come, we can expect the same final harvest in the final resurrections (John 5:25-30, Revelation 20) since Jesus is the “first fruit” of the resurrection (1 Cor 15:20-23). In addition, the holy spirit was distributed to God’s people on Shavuot or Pentecost (Acts 2) so this marks those who are saved for that final resurrection harvest to eternal life. The Feast of Weeks (Shavuot) is 50 days after the first Sabbath of Passover (or 49 days after the First Fruits). This is also known as Pentecost (from the Greek term pentekostos, or fiftieth), which was the grand celebration at the end of the grain harvest (Lev. 23:15-22). So Jesus connects Passover, First Fruits, and Pentecost, together. Easter is just a one-word term that sums them all up into the event of his death as our Passover lamb, resurrection as the First Fruit of all who receive eternal life, and the distribution of the holy spirit on Pentecost. Enough with this “Easter is pagan” nonsense, celebrate Jesus without painting eggs and talking about magic bunnies if it offends you, it’s that simple. If Christians can celebrate Christmas without Santa Claus, pine trees, and Yule Logs, then they can celebrate Easter without bunnies and eggs.

There is a book that explains more by Eusebius of Caesarea, called An Ecclesiastical History to the Twentieth Year of the Reign of Constantine, 4th ed., trans. Christian F. Cruse (London: Oxford Univ. Press, 1847), 221.

Some resources on the subject
Beyond Ishtar The Tradition of Eggs At Easter

In-depth article debunking the Easter Linguistic roots