It still surprises me when careful teachers and preachers of the Word give us "false history" when trying to present a message to us. Recently, I was watching a video blog of one of my favorite teachers when he made very inaccurate, and even deceptive, historical claims. I do not mean he was purposely deceptive, but it doesn't matter because the effect is the same. We are led to believe things that are not true and draw erroneous conclusions from them. Sometimes this is harmless but other times it undermines the message itself.
This particular teacher was making the assertion that the church today ought celebrate the Jewish feasts. I have addressed that in my previous blog so I will not repeat what I wrote here. Of course, this teacher quoted the OT commands about keeping the feasts. Those were addressed to the Jews though I do commend him for showing us how Jesus fulfills them and transforms our understanding of them. That is good.
But his reasoning regarding the church celebrating these feasts was largely based on the historical "facts" that he put forth. He said that in the first few centuries of the church, all Christians celebrated these 7 feasts. Then in the fourth century the emperor Constantine changed that, substituting the pagan Easter celebration instead. He also persecuted the Jews and destroyed the Jewish Church. He also made Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire.
We have to sort out fact from fiction here. Sadly, there is more fiction than fact.
CLAIM: Constantine made Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire.
FACT: This is false. Constantine made Christianity legal where it had formerly been severely persecuted. In 313 AD, Constantine signed the Edict of Milan making Christianity legally tolerated even where his rivals ruled. This lifted the church from great oppression. Christianity was made the official religion in 380 AD decades after the death of Constantine.
CLAIM: Constantine changed church practices like getting rid of the Jewish Feasts and replacing them with a pagan Easter.
FACT: No such thing occurred nor was it possible for him to do so. The church had endured much persecution and would not have allowed an emperor, even a professing Christian emperor, to change anything in the church. Even on the face of it, it seems an absurd claim. Why would a Christian emperor who hated paganism introduce that same paganism into the church? It makes no sense.
What Constantine did do was call for a general church council at Nicea (where we get the Nicean creed) in 325 AD. There was a controversy regarding the nature of Christ's divinity. A bishop name Arius said that Christ was a created being, the highest and most exalted of God's creation, but He was not eternal deity. He was not equal with the Father. Most disputed this, but it caused a great controversy in the church. Arius was rejected and his ideas were condemned at this council. Interestingly, Constantine was himself Arian. So much for his great influence over the church.
CLAIM: Constantine persecuted the Jewish people and closed the Jewish churches.
FACT: Sadly, this was true. Constantine shamefully persecuted the Jews and basically put an end to the Jewish church which was small but vibrant. He made no distinction between the Jews who accepted Jesus as Messiah and those who did not. As a result, orthodox Judaism developed in opposition to the church, even making converts to Judaism renounce Christ.
CLAIM: All churches kept the 7 Feasts until Constantine.
FACT: Only the Jewish churches kept these feasts as they were a part of their heritage. The Gentile churches never kept these feasts. Paul made sure that the Gentiles were not circumcised and were not made to keep kosher or observe any sabbath or feast. Of course, some may have done so, but it was rare.
CLAIM: Easter was a pagan holiday not celebrated until the 4th century.
FACT: "Easter" was celebrated in the second and third centuries. It was common for churches to insist that their pagan converts receive instruction for a year or more to rid them of pagan notions and make them understand what they were committing to. Then, on Easter, they would be baptized and become full members of the church. It was not a fourth century innovation.
FACT: Despite the English term "Easter", we are not celebrating anything but the resurrection of the Son of God. The Latin term for "Easter" is "Pascha" which is derived from Passover. This indicates that the church was well aware of the connection between Passover and the Resurrection. This does not mean that they had previously celebrated Passover instead of "Easter".
The origin of the English word "Easter" is a bit obscure. I, too, used to believe that it was derived from the Babylonian goddess "Ishtar", but it is not. Other languages use some form of "Pascha" as the word for Easter so the English word did not get passed through to English through French or even German. It is extremely doubtful that the English language used the name of an ancient Babylonian goddess as the word for day we celebrate Jesus' resurrection. Babylonian paganism was far away in time and distance. But the English word "Easter" is pagan in origin. It is from an English fertility goddess called "Eoster". The word actually referred to the time of year (spring) when life burst forth from the earth. Now before you say, "I knew it was pagan", consider what other English words have pagan origins. Take the days of the week, for instance. Our days are named after various pagan gods. And our months. Most of them are named after pagan gods. Does this mean that we are doing pagan worship when we use our names for days or months? Decidedly not! It is not "pagan" to use the English names of the days of the week or months of the year or for Easter either.
Now on the whole Easter egg/Easter bunny thing - I choose to remain neutral. Decide for yourselves if you want to use eggs or bunnies or any other fertility symbols at Easter. I will say, though, that I have fond memories of getting a solid chocolate Easter bunny on Easter morning. I doubt that eating that chocolate bunny was some kind of pagan worship. So, I will enjoy some chocolate and you can do as you wish.
Happy belated Pascha!