Easter and Good Friday: questions and answers
Does Easter have a pagan derivation? Was Jesus really crucified on a Friday?
First published: 5 April 2008 (GMT+10)
Re-featured on homepage: 15 April 2017 (GMT+10)
Updated 3 January 2017
Dr Tas Walker’s article Genesis and the Cross published on Good Friday (2008) at the beginning of the Easter holidays prompted questions that we receive from time to time. The first concerns the word Easter itself, and the second concerns Good Friday.
We are occasionally rebuked for using the word Easter, on the grounds that it is allegedly derived from the Babylonian goddess Astarte, equivalent to the Assyrian goddess Ishtar. This comes from an oft-cited 19th-century book, The Two Babylons, by the Scots reverend Alexander Hislop:
‘Then look at Easter. What means the term Easter itself? It is not a Christian name. It bears its Chaldean origin on its very forehead. Easter is nothing else than Astarte, one of the titles of Beltis, the queen of heaven, whose name, as pronounced by the people Nineveh, was evidently identical with that now in common use in this country. That name, as found by Layard on the Assyrian monuments, is Ishtar. The worship of Bel and Astarte was very early introduced into Britain, along with the Druids, “the priests of the groves”. Some have imagined that the Druidical worship was first introduced by the Phoenicians, who, centuries before the Christian era, traded to the tin-mines of Cornwall. But the unequivocal traces of that worship are found in regions of the British islands where the Phoenicians never penetrated, and it has everywhere left indelible marks of the strong hold which it must have had on the early British mind.’
So the main question is, how reliable is this connection? A secondary question is: would it be so serious anyway? But first, what did the original God-breathed manuscripts say?
The Hebrew word for Passover is פֶּסַח (pesach), which comes from the verb פָּסַח (pasach) which means to pass over. When the Old Testament was translated into Greek, this word was basically unchanged, becoming the Greek πάσχα (pascha). In some English Bibles, this is translated Easter, and other times Passover, but it’s the same word. Most other languages have the same word for both, e.g. Latin Pascha, French Pâques, Italian Pasqua, and Dutch Pasen. English also retains this word in expressions such as ‘pascal lamb’. So where did the word ‘Easter’ come from?
Easter: common Anglo-Saxon term
Does the word ‘Easter’ come from paganism? The answer is a clear ‘no!’. Hislop’s research is very shoddy in many places (Hislop is refuted in A Case Study in Poor Methodology1). He tries to see paganism everywhere, on even the flimsiest grounds. In this case, he imagines a connection between Easter and Astarte purely on the basis of sound similarity, with not the slightest trace of linguistic connection or any borrowing. By this spurious method, one could connect the Potomac river with the Greek ποταμός (potamos), although there is no connection between the native American and Greek words. Similarly, there isn’t the slightest link between the South African word for ‘treasure’, skat, and the Greek word for ‘excrement’, σκατά (skata).
In reality, the word Easter (sometimes Ester) is really Anglo-Saxon,2 not Babylonian. It was the common word for both Passover and Easter. J.R. Clarke Hall’s A Concise Anglo-Saxon Dictionary provides the following list of related words showing that Easter was used for both:
east—I. adj. east, easterly. II. adv. eastwards, in an easterly direction, in or from the east
Easterdaeg—Easter-day, Easter Sunday
Easterfeorm—feast of Easter
Easterfreolsdaeg—the feast day of Passover
Eastergewuna—Easter custom (appears only in the 9th century sermons of Aelfric where he is referring to Christian Easter practices)
Easterlic—belonging to Easter, Paschal
Easterne—east, eastern, oriental
Eastersymble—Passover (lit. Easter gathering)
Eastertid—Eastertide, Paschal season
An example of the word meaning the Jewish Passover comes from a 1563 homily: ‘Easter, a great, and solemne feast among the Jewes.’
Anglo-Saxon itself is a Germanic language, and this is the genuine origin of the term Easter. Germans likewise used the word Oster or Ostern for both Passover and our Easter. E.g. when the Reformer Martin Luther (1483–1546) first translated the Bible into German (1545), he used a number of German words relating to this, such as Osterfest (Passover/Easter), Osterlamm (Passover lamb). E.g. compare Luke 22:1,7
NASB: Now the Feast of Unleavened Bread, which is called the Passover, was approaching.
Luther Bibel 1545: Es war aber nahe das Fest der süßen Brote, das da Ostern heißt.
NASB: Then came the first day of Unleavened Bread on which the Passover lamb had to be sacrificed.
Luther: Es kam nun der Tag der süßen Brote, an welchem man mußte opfern das Osterlamm.
Describing a Passover at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, compare John 2:13,23:
NKJV: Now the Passover of the Jews was at hand, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem.
Luther: Und der Juden Ostern war nahe, und Jesus zog hinauf gen Jerusalem.
NKJV: Now when He was in Jerusalem at the Passover, during the feast, many believed in His name when they saw the signs which He did.
Luther: Als er aber zu Jerusalem war am Osterfest, glaubten viele an seinen Namen, da sie die Zeichen sahen, die er tat.
Compare also 1 Corinthians 5:7, identifying the true Passover Lamb, of which the lambs were types:
NIV: For Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed.
Luther: Denn wir haben auch ein Osterlamm, das ist Christus, für uns geopfert.
Even in modern German, the ‘das jüdische Osterfest’ means the Jewish Passover. In turn, this word comes from Ost, or the sunrising, i.e. East. In turn, this is likely to come from the old German word auferstehen / auferstanden / Auferstehung meaning rising from the dead/resurrection. Luther used these words as well, e.g. throughout 1 Corinthians 15.
So the pagan derivation of Easter is conspiratorial fantasy. The word is Anglo-Saxon, and derived from the Germanic Oster meaning Passover, and is related to the words for Resurrection.
William Tyndale, Easter and his new English Bible
The brilliant and godly scholar William Tyndale (1496–1536) was the first to translate the Bible into English directly from Hebrew and Greek rather than via Latin, which was also the first English Bible to be printed mechanically. He was fluent in many languages—as well as his native English, he could speak French, Greek, Hebrew, German, Italian, Latin and Spanish. But he was determined to produce a Bible in English, as he said, to ‘cause the boy that drives the plow in England to know more of the Scriptures than the Pope himself!’
However, because of persecution, Tyndale had to flee to Lutheran parts of Germany. Here, he completed his translation, which introduced many popular words and phrases into English:
- let there be light
- the powers that be
- my brother's keeper
- the salt of the earth
- a law unto themselves
- filthy lucre
- it came to pass
- gave up the ghost
- the signs of the times
- the spirit is willing
- live and move and have our being
- fight the good fight
Much of his work is better known as providing the basis for the KJV (1611) and the Geneva Bible (1560).
Tyndale was also responsible for introducing the word ‘Ester’ into the English Bible. John Wycliffe, who produced the first English Bible in 1382, had translated from the Latin, and left the word pascha basically untranslated and called it pask or paske. Luther occasionally did likewise, using the transliterated form passah. For example, in Lev. 23:5, he rendered ‘the LORD’s Passover’ as ‘des Herrn Passah’, and in Ex. 12:27, ‘It is the Passover sacrifice to the Lord’ was ‘Es ist das Passahopfer des Herrn’.
But when Tyndale prepared the new Testament, he followed Luther’s more common practice and used the most common word in his native language. That is, while Luther most often used Oster and its cognates, Tyndale used Ester and its cognates.
Luke 2:41 And his father and mother went to Hierusalem every year at the feast of ester.
Luke 22:15 And he said unto them: I have inwardly desired to eat this ester lamb with you before that I suffer.
John 2:13 And the jews’ ester was even at hand; And Iesus went up to Ierusalem,
John 6:4 (And ester a feast of the jews, was nigh.)
John 11:55 The jews’ ester was nigh at hand
John 19:14 (It was the Sabbath even which falleth in the ester feast, and about the sixth hour)
1 Cor. 5:7 For Christ our ester lamb is offered up for us.
Note, if the Hislop pagan derivation theory were correct, it would imply that the godly Tyndale and Luther before him were really calling Jesus the ‘Astarte Lamb’ or ‘Ishtar Lamb’.
Tyndale and Passover
But when Tyndale translated the Old Testament, he thought that it was anachronistic to use the word Easter for the Jewish feast. This is because, as above, the derivation of Easter comes from the resurrection, which had yet to happen. So Tyndale went back to the root of pesach, i.e. pasach, meaning ‘to pass over’, and coined the new term Passover.
So it is due to Tyndale, not to paganism, that some English Bibles have two different words, Easter and Passover, to translate a single Hebrew/Greek term. As the KJV was essentially the 5th revision of the Tyndale Bible, and retains about 90% of its wording, it keeps this feature. But it more consistently applied Tyndale’s logic to retain Easter only for Acts 12:4, where the Christian resurrection celebration was in view not just the Jewish feast. For all other occurrences, the KJV translators used Tyndale’s new word ‘passover’. But this obscured the traditional meaning of Easter that included the Jewish Passover. Modern translations generally use only one word, Passover, to translate pesach/pascha.
Does Easter come from a Saxon goddess then?
The above should demonstrate the clear connection of the word Easter with Passover. Nevertheless, some refer to a claim by the Anglo-Saxon monk and historian, the Venerable Bede (673–735):
In olden times the English people—for it did not seem fitting that I should speak of other nations’ 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 … 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. [De temporum ratione (On the Reckoning of Time), c. 730]
There are two major problems with this linkage. The first is the lack of corroboration for this Anglo-Saxon goddess Eostre anywhere else. Nor is there any equivalent in Germanic paganism. So this Eostre seems to be the result of Bede’s own theorising rather than any knowledge of ancient pagan customs. The second is the fact that Christian celebrations of Easter/Passover long predate any missionary activity in Anglo-Saxon England, so could not have derived from them. On the continent, Charlemagne attacked any trace of German Saxon paganism, e.g. in 773, he forced them to cut down their sacred pillar (Irminsul) in Paderborn.
Easter eggs and bunnies
The easter eggs are not pagan, but an early Christian tradition that began in Mesopotamia. In the season of Lent (neither commanded nor forbidden by Scripture), those churches that would observe it would refrain from eating eggs. But the hens were still laying them. To avoid spoilage, the eggs would be hard-boiled. Then they were dyed red to symbolize the blood of Christ. Later on, other colours were used. For some Christians, cracking the egg open would symbolize the opening of Jesus tomb. Much later, they were replaced with chocolate and candy eggs.
The Easter bunny goes back to German Lutherans, not pagans, although it was a hare, probably in the same created kind as the rabbit (laporid). Because of their proverbially high fertility rate, ancient writers such as Pliny the Elder and Plutarch thought it was hermaphroditic and could thus reproduce without fertilization. Then Christians used this as a symbol of the Virgin Mary.
Some have claimed that the hare was the sacred animal of Eostre. But as shown above, it’s most doubtful that any Eostre was ever worshipped, because the only evidence is from Bede. And he never mentioned any animal associated with her. A non-existent association with a non-existent goddess is hardly good grounds for seeing paganism in the Easter bunny!
Would it matter that much?
While the above firmly refutes the pagan derivation nonsense about Easter, there are far more familiar things that really are derived from paganism, but about which few people worry. It is illogical to avoid a Christian-based holiday that brings people together in worship because of some perceived tie to paganism, while using everyday products and ignoring their obvious pagan heritage. You might have your muffler replaced by Midas, wear shoes designed by Nike, chew Trident gum, or watch a movie by Orion Pictures. Several days of our week and months of our year are named after Norse gods, except for Saturday that comes from the Roman god Saturn, and Sunday and Monday of course. Several months are named after Roman gods. The eight planets and many of their moons are named after Roman deities. Mazda cars are named for a Zoroastrian deity, and many people drive a Saturn, Mercury, Ares, Aurora … etc.
But even in God’s Word, some of the heroes in the Bible had paganized names. E.g. Mordecai, the real hero of the book of Esther, has a name related to the Babylonian high god Marduk. Consider also Daniel’s three friends who were prepared to be thrown in the furnace rather than worship any but the true God. They were originally named Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah, but are better known by the names the Babylonians gave them: Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego (>Daniel 1:7). Abednego means ‘servant of Nebo’, the pagan god.
Was Jesus crucified on Good Friday?
Some readers argue that in Matthew 12:40, Christ said that he would be ‘three days and three nights’ in the tomb, so if Jesus was crucified on Good Friday and rose on Sunday, it couldn’t have been three full 24-hour periods. Thus, they say, the crucifixion occurred on a Wednesday or a Thursday.
However, as I covered in Refuting Compromise pp. 79–80, in Jewish counting, a part of a day was counted as a whole day (a figure of speech known as synecdoche). So while X days and X nights can mean what it means in English, this was only a subset of its semantic range in Jewish idiom. The Jewish Encyclopedia explains (as cited in the Tektonics Apologetics article on this topic3):
‘In Jewish communal life part of a day is at times reckoned as one day; e.g., the day of the funeral, even when the latter takes place late in the afternoon, is counted as the first of the seven days of mourning; a short time in the morning of the seventh day is counted as the seventh day; circumcision takes place on the eighth day, even though of the first day only a few minutes remained after the birth of the child, these being counted as one day.’
To demonstrate this, 1 Samuel 30:12 says, ‘he had not eaten bread or drunk water for three days and nights’, and this is equated in the next verse with hayyom shelosha (three days ago) , which could only mean the day before yesterday. Another example is
‘For seven days they camped opposite each other, and on the seventh day the battle was joined.’
In English counting, if they started fighting on the 7th day, it means they were only camping for six whole days. But in Jewish reckoning, the partial days are counted as wholes, so the text says they were camping for seven days. See also Genesis 42:17–18.
So the above shows that X days and X nights need not mean X 24-hour periods. So how should 3 days and 3 nights be understood in the Gospels? As we should interpret Scripture by Scripture, we should see what other passages say about the same event. One website has made a helpful table of all the references.4
|Interchangeability of terms : (All Bible data on Resurrection)|
Duration in grave
|Until the third day||Mt 27:64 give orders for the grave to be made secure until the third day|
|In three days||
Mt 26:61 rebuild it in three days
Mt 27:40 rebuild it in three days
Mk 14:58 in three days I will build another made without hands.
Mk 15:29 rebuild it in three days
Jn 2:19–20 in three days I will raise it up
|On the third day||
Mt 16:21 raised up on the third day
Mt 17:23 raised on the third day
Mt 20:19 on the third day He will be raised up
Lk 9:22 be raised up on the third day
Acts 10:40 God raised Him up on the third day
1 Cor 15:4 raised on the third day
|The third day||
Lk 18:33 the third day He will rise again
Lk 24:7 the third day rise again
Lk 24:21 it is the third day since these things happened
Lk 24:46 rise again from the dead the third day
|Three days later||
Mk 9:31 rise three days later
Mk 10:34 and three days later He will rise again
|After three days||
Mt 27:63 After three days I am to rise again
Mk 8:31 after three days rise again
|Three days and three nights||
Jonah 1:17 in the stomach of the fish three days and three nights.
Mt 12:40 for just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the sea monster, so shall the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.
To take Matthew 27:63–64:
Sir, they said, we remember that while he was still alive that deceiver said, ‘After three days I will rise again.’ So give the order for the tomb to be made secure until the third day. Otherwise, his disciples may come and steal the body and tell the people that he has been raised from the dead. This last deception will be worse than the first.’
Note that even His enemies understood that ‘after three days’ meant that they only had to secure the tomb ‘until the third day’. If three full 24-hour periods were meant, then they would want to secure the tomb until the fourth day to make sure. So for Jews, the phrases ‘on the third day’, ‘after the third day’, ‘until the third day’ and ‘three days and three nights’ were synonymous.
So, on what day was Jesus crucified? The best explanation is that Christ was buried before about 6pm Good Friday (Luke 23:54). Since the Jewish day started at sunset, the late afternoon of Good Friday was the first day; Friday sunset to Saturday sunset was the 2nd day; the 3rd day began on Saturday at sunset, and Jesus had risen from the dead by early Sunday morning.
It is important to realize that when we attempt to work out difficult portions of Scripture, we cannot approach it as if we were reading a modern newspaper. We have to not only allow Scripture to interpret Scripture, but should allow for the understanding of the time period in which it was written. Our preconceived notions of ‘how it should be’ should be left out of the equation. See also Should Genesis be taken literally?
- Woodrow, R., The Two Babylons, equip.org, accessed 2008. Return to text.
- The following article is very informative: Nick Sayers, Why we should not Pass-over Easter, Contending Earnestly for the Faith 43:2–7, March 2008. Return to text.
- James Buckner on the Bible, tektonics.org, accessed 2008. Return to text.
- Friday crucifixion Sunday resurrection, bible.ca, accessed 2008. Return to text.