Posted by: Andrew Webb | December 18, 2009

On the Origins of Easter

I noted in a previous post that Samuel Miller, the first professor of ecclesiastical history and Church Government at Princeton, New Jersey had been asked by the Presbyterian Board of Publication to write a book on what Presbyterians believed. When that book was published in 1835 it included Miller’s detailed explanations for why, as he put it, “Presbyterians do not observe Holy Days.” With those explanations, Miller also included a scholarly explanation of the origins of two of the most widely celebrated Holy Days amongst Christians – Christmas and Easter. Having previously included an explanation of the origins of Christmas, I thought it would be worthwhile to also include an explanation for the origins of Easter, drawing on what Miller, the early British church historian the Venerable Bede (673- 735), and Socrates of Constantinople  (b.380 – d.?) wrote on the subject:

Miller writes: “The festival of Easter, no doubt, was introduced in the second century, in place of the Passover, and in accommodation to the same Jewish prejudice which had said, even during the apostolic age, “Except ye be circumcised, after the manner of Moses, ye cannot be saved.” Hence, it was generally called pascha, and pasch, in conformity with the name of the Jewish festival, whose place it took.  It seems to have received the title of Easter in Great Britain, from the circumstance, that, when Christianity was introduced into that country, a great Pagan festival, celebrated at the same season of the year, in honour of the Pagan goddess Eostre, yielded its place to the Christian festival, which received, substantially, the name of the Pagan deity.  The title of Easter, it is believed, is seldom used but by Britons and their descendants.”

Miller is correct regarding the origin of the odd name “Easter” as the Venerable Bede confirms below:

“15.  The English Months

In olden time the English people — for it did not seem fitting to me that I should speak of other people’s observance of the year and yet be silent about my own nation’s — calculated their months according to the course of the moon.  Hence, after the manner of the Greeks and the Romans (the months) take their name from the Moon, for the Moon is called mona and the month monath.

The first month, which the Latins call January, is Giuli; February is called Solmonath; March Hrethmonath; April, Eosturmonath; May, Thrimilchi; June, Litha; July, also Litha; August, Weodmonath; September, Halegmonath; October, Winterfilleth; November, Blodmonath; December, Giuli, the same name by which January is called. …

Nor is it irrelevant if we take the time to translate the names of the other months. … Hrethmonath is named for their goddess Hretha, to whom they sacrificed at this time.  Eosturmonath has a name which is now translated “Paschal month”, and which was once called after a goddess of theirs named Eostre, in whose honour feasts were celebrated in that month.  Now they designate that Paschal season by her name, calling the joys of the new rite by the time-honoured name of the old observance. “

Miller continues: “As there were no holy-days, excepting the Lord’s day, observed in the Christian Church while the Apostles lived; and no hint given, that they thought any other expedient or desirable; so we find no hint of any such observance having been adopted until towards the close of the second century. Then, the celebration of Easter gave rise to a controversy; the Asiatic Christians pleading for its observance at the same time which was prescribed for the Jewish Passover, and contending that they were supported in this by apostolic tradition; while the Western Church contended for its stated celebration on a certain Sunday, and urged, with equal confidence, apostolic tradition in favour of their scheme. Concerning this fierce and unhallowed controversy, Socrates, the ecclesiastical historian, who wrote soon after the time of Eusebius, 439 AD and begins his history where the latter closes his narrative; speaking on the controversy concerning Easter, expresses himself thus:

“Neither the ancients, nor the fathers of later times, I mean such as favoured the Jewish custom, had sufficient cause to contend so eagerly about the feast of Easter; for they considered not within themselves, that when the Jewish religion was changed into Christianity, the literal observance of the Mosaic law, and the types of things to come, wholly ceased. And this carries with it its own evidence.  For no one of Christ’s laws permits Christians to observe the rites of the Jews.  Nay, the Apostle hath in plain words forbidden it, where he abrogates circumcision, and exhorts us not to contend about feasts and holy-days.  For, writing to the Galatians, he admonishes them not to observe days, and months, and times, and years. And unto the Colossians, he is as plain as may be, declaring, that the observance of such things was but a shadow.  Neither the Apostles nor the Evangelists have enjoined on Christians the observance of Easter; but have left the remembrance of it to the free choice and discretion of those who have been benefited by such days.  Men keep holy-days, because thereon they enjoy rest from toil and labour.  Therefore, it comes to pass, that in every place they do celebrate, of their own accord, the remembrance of the Lord’s passion.  But neither our Saviour nor his Apostles have any where commanded us to observe it.” Socrates, Lib. 5, cap. 21.”

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