Of all the Christian holidays, Easter is the most solemn and ancient. But what is it, and where did it come from?
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According to religious doctrine, Easter celebrates the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. The account as it appears in the Christian Bible varies from book to book, but, using broad brushstrokes, the story can be told like this:
Jesus and his followers arrive to partake in the Paschal sacrifice in the Jerusalem Temple on Passover, most likely in April of the year 30 or 33 C.E. As they are sitting and eating the traditional Passover meal, Jesus announces that one of those present will betray him. Each in turn says they would never do such a thing.
As they eat, Jesus blesses the matza and wine, and turns to his disciples saying, “This is my body which is given for you: this do in remembrance of me.” After they partake in the matza, he takes a glass of wine and says, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood, even that which is poured out for you.” (Luke 22:19-20) This is the basis of the Eucharist – that tradition by which Catholics are given wafers by their priests that turn miraculously into Jesus’ flesh in their mouths.
After the meal, Jesus and his disciples go for an evening stroll in Jerusalem.
As they walk, talk and pray, Judas, one of Jesus’ disciples, suddenly appears with a group of Jerusalem dignitaries and armed men. He kisses Jesus, thus marking him: Jesus is placed under arrest. After some fighting and miraculous healing, Jesus is taken to the council of Jewish elders, the Sanhedrin.
The next day a trial is held. Jesus is interrogated by the high priest, Joseph Caiaphas. Next, Jesus is taken before the Roman governor, Pontius Pilate, who is urged to condemn him for claiming to be King of the Jews.
Pilate interrogates Jesus, who is not very responsive. When Pilate discovers that Jesus is a Galilean, Pilate decides that there is a jurisdictional issue and that he should be tried by King Herod. Jesus is promptly taken before the king, who interrogates him some more, but Jesus is even less responsive. Herod sends him back to Pilate, who finds him not guilty but condemns him just the same.
Giving the man his last chance, he presents Jesus together with another man, a murderer named Barabbas, to a crowd of Jews and allows them to pick whom they would like to pardon for Passover. The mob chooses Barabbas, and Jesus is taken to be crucified, a punishment reserved for rebels under Roman law.
Jesus is crucified on a hill outside Jerusalem, and is buried in a tomb that is sealed with a boulder and guarded. Three days later, his disciples go to the tomb and discover it to be empty. Jesus makes a number of miraculous appearances, instructs his apostles to propagate the faith and ascends to Heaven.
Death and rebirth of a god
So goes the biblical account. The small group of Jesus’ disciples grew with time, gaining more and more adherents at first among Jews and later among non-Jews as well. These early Christians observed the Jewish rituals and holidays, including Passover.
However, over time, the Christian version of Passover became closely associated with the death and resurrection of Jesus, thus taking on new significance beyond that of the Jewish Passover. We first have evidence of a Christian holiday distinct from the Jewish holiday of Passover but having the same name – Pascha – in the mid-second century B.C.E.
At first, the holiday was celebrated according to the Jewish lunar calendar, on the 14th day of month of Nisan. But with time and after some controversy, the first Sunday after the Spring Equinox was chosen as the date. The celebration of the holiday involved mostly lighting candles, reading biblical passages and singing hymns related to the Exodus from Egypt and the death and resurrection of Jesus, as well taking sacraments and executing baptisms.
Pretty much every Middle Eastern and Mediterranean culture had a spring celebration involving a god or goddess who cyclically dies and is reborn in the spring, and who is a savior of humanity, before Christianity took shape. Of these, the most strikingly similar to the story of Jesus were Tamuz, the Babylonian god, and Mithras, a Persian god. (Mithras later garnered a wide following in Rome as Sol Invictus.) Other myths of striking similarity to Jesus' tale include that of the Sumerian goddess Inanna and the Egyptian god Horus, not to mention the Greek deity Dionysus.
The goddess of dawn
Even if one ignores the similarities between the story of Jesus and other reborn gods, Easter has a number of other aspects that are clearly pagan. First and foremost among them is the name, "Easter."
Most languages call the holiday "Pascha" – derived from the Hebrew name for the Passover holiday and also by coincidence from the Greek word for suffering, as in the suffering of Christ.
However, English and German call it Easter and Ostern, respectively. These names are derived from ostre, the Germanic goddess of dawn who gave her name to the month of April and thus to the holiday. Many parishes hold services at dawn on Easter Sunday: this may harken back to the ancient goddess of dawn.
In antiquity, the goddess ostre – as well as many pagan spring rituals – were associated with the hare. Another symbol of spring and rebirth is the egg, though the association between eggs and Easter may have come from Judaism, since it has been customary to eat eggs at the Passover seder. Traditionally, Easter eggs are supposed to symbolize the empty tomb of Jesus.
The tradition of an Easter hare bringing baskets of Easter eggs to children comes from the 17th century. Not much later, the hare became a rabbit. And in the latest modern twist on these ancient traditions, rather than blow out the content of the egg and decorate the shell, Easter eggs have become industrialized – but in the sweetest of ways. They're made of chocolate.