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Every year elaborate Easter programs are prepared commemorating the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ often involving Easter sunrise services and colourful baskets of chocolate eggs and rabbits. But if this celebration is so important, why didn’t Jesus teach His apostles and the early Church to observe it?
The books of the New Testament were written decades after Jesus Christ’s death and resurrection, yet nowhere is any kind of Easter celebration described! Some cite Acts 12:4 as authority for celebrating Easter, but Easter isn’t really mentioned there at all.
The King James Bible translators substituted “Easter” for the Greek word ‘Pascha’, which means “Passover.” The vast majority of Bible translations recognize the error in the King James Version and rightly translate the word in Acts 12:4 as “Passover”. The truth is, “there is no trace of Easter celebration in the [New Testament]” (The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, 1986, Vol. 2, “Easter”).
So where exactly did Easter and its customs come from? The Encyclopaedia Britannica correctly records that: “At Easter, popular customs reflect many ancient pagan survivals—in this instance, connected with spring fertility rites, such as the symbols of the Easter egg and the Easter hare or rabbit” (15th edition, Macropaedia, Vol. 4, p. 605, “Church Year”).
Many ancient pagan peoples marked the coming of spring with the worship of their gods and goddesses, particularly those associated with fertility. Among such deities were Baal and Astarte (or Ashtoreth) where the ceremonies included ritual sex to promote fertility throughout the land and the symbols of fertility—such as eggs and rabbits, which reproduce in great numbers.
“Associated with Ishtar was the young god Tammuz [mentioned in Ezekiel 8:14 . . . In Babylonian mythology Tammuz died annually and was reborn year after year, representing the yearly cycle of the seasons and the crops...” (Nelson’s Illustrated Bible Dictionary, 1995, “Gods, Pagan,” p. 509).
Alan Watts, an expert in comparative religion, wrote: “It would be tedious to describe in detail all that has been handed down to us about the various rites of Tammuz . . . and many others . . . But their universal theme—the drama of death and resurrection—makes them the forerunners of the Christian Easter, and thus the first ‘Easter services.” (Easter: Its Story and Meaning, 1950, p. 58).
Early Catholic Church leaders merged customs and practices associated with this earlier “resurrected” god and spring fertility celebrations and applied them to the resurrected Son of God. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church explains in the section titled “The Liturgical Year,” “At the Council of Nicaea in 325, all the Churches agreed that Easter . . . should be celebrated on the Sunday following the first full moon . . . after the vernal equinox” (1995, p. 332).
Up until this time, many believers had continued to commemorate Jesus’ death through the biblical Passover as Jesus and the apostles had instructed (Luke 22:19-20; 1 Corinthians 11:23-26). However, after the decision at the Council of Nicea, with the power of the Roman Empire behind it, the Catholic Church enforced its preference for Easter Sunday. Those who wished to continue to observe the biblical Passover had to go underground to avoid persecution.
We should ask ourselves that if Jesus were on earth today, would He celebrate Easter or rather would He observe the biblical Passover as Scripture teaches and as He practiced and taught (John 13:15-17; 1 Corinthians 5:7-8). In fact, Christ specifically said that He anticipated observing the Passover with His followers “in My Father’s kingdom” after His return (Matthew 26:26-29).
Beyond Today magazine