Is “Easter” Really Pagan?

The best place to learn the origin of English words is the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), often available freely through a local public library. I looked up the etymology of Easter in the OED and learned that there are two theories about the origin of the word.

The first theory, and that preferred by the OED, is that it is related to the Old Saxon, Dutch, and German words for ‘east’ (ostar). In the data offered for this theory, the OED notes that the Old Saxon word for “paschal lamb” (Passover lamb) was ostarfrisking. I don’t know enough about the relationship between English, Old Saxon, and German to know if ostar also meant Passover, but it is an intriguing connection.

The second theory comes from an English scholar, Venerable Bede, who lived from AD 672-735 in the kingdom of Northumbria of the Angles (forebears of the English). He is best known for his Ecclesiastical History of the English People and for working to compute the date of Easter.

In his book The Reckoning of Time, Bede claimed that the word Easter was borrowed from the month during which Easter fell: Eostur-monath (Easter-month). According to Bede, Eostur-monath was the month during which a festival to the goddess Eostur was celebrated by the Anglo-Saxons.

In other words, Bede claimed that Easter was originally the name of a dawn goddess worshipped by his pagan ancestors. The problem with this theory, according to the OED, is that there is no evidence of such a goddess in English or German sources.

No other historian confirms this theory, leaving Bede as its only witness. Just for the sake of making a point, let me assume that Bede’s theory is correct. Would pagan associations from the AD 500-600s be relevant to our use of the word “Easter” today?

The answer is definitely not! Consider, for example, the English word “nice.” In the 14th century, the word “nice” meant “stupid.” Should we tell our children, “Don’t say, ‘Have a nice day!’” because someone might be offended and think you are wishing them to have a stupid day? I hope you see the absurdity of such a position.

Just as “nice” has completely lost any sense of “stupid” from its modern usage, so “Easter” long ago shed any pagan associations it may or may not have had at one time.

Here’s one other example: Sunday. Our English word “Sunday” comes from German, which derived its names for weekdays from Latin. According to the OED, “the Latin days of the week in imperial Rome were named after the planets, which in turn were named after gods…. In the case of Sunday…the name of the planet (which the sun was considered in the classical period to be) and the god were the same.”

Does the fact that some Romans worshiped the sun god and our word “Sunday” is derived from Latin mean that we shouldn’t use the word Sunday because of its pagan origins? Hardly! Such reasoning is committing the genetic fallacy, the fallacy of assuming that where something comes from determines its meaning.

This isn’t true in any language. All languages evolve. Words gain and lose meanings because of use or non-use. You may also wonder how long the Church has celebrated the resurrection of Jesus.

The New Dictionary of Theology’s article on Easter cites Eusebius (EH 4.24.1–8) as indicating that the celebration of what we call Easter “can certainly be traced back to the time of Anicetus and Polycarp (c.155) and probably to the time of the birth of Polycrates (c.125)…. It is likely that the festival arose at Antioch c.110, out of the weekly commemoration of Christ’s resurrection on Sunday.”

Although there has been controversy throughout Church history about when Easter should be celebrated, that it should be celebrated has never been an issue. He is risen! Alleluia!

Originally posted in the Ministry Library of God’s Bible School & College.