The foundational belief of Christianity is that Jesus was resurrected from death, an event that is commemorated at Easter each year. As the most important celebration in Christendom, Easter is focused on the risen savior as a guarantee of everlasting life for believers.
The 10 themes enumerated below provide the historical, cultural and theological context for understanding the Easter observance.
• The name Easter derives from the Anglo-Saxon goddess of spring — Eostre or Ostara — whereas the Christian festival that celebrates Jesus’ resurrection developed from the Jewish Passover and includes prominent vestiges of Roman paganism.
• The annual Christian commemoration of the resurrected savior is held on the first Sunday after the first full moon that occurs on or after March 21 and before April 25, a method of calculation that was decreed by the First Council of Nicaea in 325 CE.
• The Easter celebration evolved from the Jewish Passover observance, which was adapted from earlier Canaanite festivals that included the slaughter of a lamb, which was related by the Hebrew priests to deliverance of the Jews from bondage in Egypt, i.e., they were saved by the blood of the lamb.
• Jesus died on Passover after sharing a “Last Supper” or Passover meal with his disciples, thereby serving as a redeeming blood sacrifice represented as the Paschal Lamb or the Lamb of God. Jesus instructed his followers to observe the Lord’s Supper on that day in remembrance of him.
• The Christian observance also incorporates major elements of the festival of Attis, which was celebrated in March by Roman pagans. The yearly ritual included the crucifixion of an effigy and the enactment of an empty tomb, demonstrating that Attis was resurrected and providing assurance that devotees would achieve immortality.
• Crucifixion was invented by the Phoenicians and subsequently adopted by the Assyrians, Egyptians, Persians and later by the Romans. The original procedure entailed securing the criminal to a vertical stake and allowing him to die slowly of thirst and exposure.
• Some scholars assert that Jesus was crucified on a vertical stake, not a cross, because the Greek words used in the bible translate as “torture stake” or “execution stake.” Christian tradition says it was a cross because a dozen pagan savior gods were crucified on crosses, two of them between two thieves.
• The cross was a widely used religious symbol found in various early cultures, including Egyptian depictions of their gods, as well as by Hindus in India, Buddhists throughout Asia and by some American Indian tribes. There is no evidence of use of the cross by early Christians.
• The empty tomb story presented in the Gospels is not the first report of the Easter event, nor is it conclusive evidence of the resurrection claim. Two decades earlier, Paul described a series of appearances of the risen Jesus to more than 500 followers.
• Jesus’ resurrection was not a unique biblical occurrence, because at least eight and possibly 10 or more scriptural characters died and were subsequently restored to life by Jesus, his apostles, Hebrew patriarchs or some unspecified agent. Of course, the dozen pagan savior gods were also resurrected.
Brian Bolton, Texas, is an FFRF Lifetime Member who is a retired psychologist, humanist minister and university professor emeritus at the University of Arkansas. He endows FFRF’s graduate/mature student essay contest.