How Did Passover Become Easter?

Although the Christian Easter was born out of the Jewish Passover, the two holidays have very little in common. How did we get from the Temple sacrifice to rabbits and chocolate?

By David Lazarus | | Topics: Passover
Christian pilgrims in the Palm Sunday procession on the Mount of Olives commemorating Jesus entry into Jerusalem. Photo by Erik Marmor/Flash90
Christian pilgrims in the Palm Sunday procession on the Mount of Olives commemorating Jesus entry into Jerusalem. Photo by Erik Marmor/Flash90

With the destruction of the Temple, it became necessary to make a fundamental reform of the Passover holiday because it was no longer possible to celebrate with a sacrifice in the Temple. Beginning in the second century, a tradition developed among the Tana’ite Jews to celebrate Passover Eve at the Hellenistic Symposium, where they eat symbolic foods and talk about the Exodus from Egypt. This holiday gradually developed into the Seder night, which we celebrate today. Around the same time, a new way of celebrating the Passover – Easter – developed among Christian communities.

We find the first evidence of the existence of Passover in a composition written by Melito of Sardis, considered an Apostolic Father, around the year 175 AD. His “On the Passover” is a kind of midrash on Exodus 12, the chapter that tells about the Passover meal eaten by the Israelites in Egypt. In a way reminiscent of the Jewish midrashes, Malito does not read the chapter as an ordinary text, but as a text in which a deeper truth is encoded: Jesus is the Passover sacrifice, the Israelites are his believers, and the holiday marks the suffering of Jesus through which he redeemed mankind. We do not know exactly how the early Christians celebrated Easter, but it seems that at the beginning they did so on the same day that Jews celebrated Passover Eve.

In the third century, the custom changed to celebrate Easter not according to the lunar calendar of the Jews, but according to the solar calendar – and above all, to celebrate the holiday on Sunday, the day on which, according to the New Testament, the empty tomb was discovered: the day on which Jesus rose from the dead.

Christianity in those days was a divided and persecuted religion, and different Christian groups could not meet openly and make common decisions. But after Emperor Constantine converted to Christianity in 312 AD and made the Christian religion legal, the situation changed. In 325, the First Council of Nicaea was held and important decisions were made regarding the principles of the Christian religion, among other things on the date of Easter. The holiday was finally separated from Passover. Over the years, further reforms have taken place in the way of determining the date of Easter, and different churches now celebrate the holiday at different times.

The connection between the word “Easter” and the Canaanite goddess Ashtoreth or Astarte, also known as Ishtar in Mesopotamia, is a subject of debate among scholars, but there is no definitive evidence to support this connection.

While it is true that some early Christians adopted elements from pagan festivals and incorporated them into their own celebrations, there is no direct link between the word “Easter” and the goddess Ashtoreth.

The word “Easter” is believed to have originated from the Old English word “Ēastre,” which was the name of a pagan festival celebrating the spring equinox and the goddess of fertility and rebirth. When Christianity arrived in England, the term was later adopted to refer to the Christian holiday commemorating the resurrection of Jesus Christ, which coincided with the pagan festival.


Messiah with eggs

Over the generations, the celebration of Easter has developed as a community holiday celebrated in the church with a mass, a ritual that recreates the story of Jesus’ death and coming back to life in prayer and the reading of texts that vary among the different streams of Christianity. But the main ceremony of Easter is the Holy Liturgy, or the Eucharist, sanctified in the Christian sacraments: eating a wafer and drinking wine, which according to some Christian traditions are transformed into the flesh and blood of Jesus (Mark 4:22).

If at first Easter was a one-day holiday, over time additional days were added to it, which are not really Easter but a kind of preparation for it. On the Saturday evening before Easter, a tradition developed to hold a special night during which the community stays up all night praying and reading texts for the holiday that begins at dawn on Sunday. The main ceremony at night is the lighting of the Easter candle, a special candle that is lit in a ceremony when the church is completely empty.

Each day of the week before Easter has special rituals that vary between the different factions of Christianity. Each day is linked to a different station in the last week of Jesus’ life according to the New Testament: Good Friday, for example, is associated with the Last Supper, and Palm Sunday commemorates Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem. In addition to the “Holy Week” ceremonies, all 40 days before Easter are fasting days, during which the Christian believer abstains from various pleasures according to the laws of his community. The most common custom these days is to avoid eating meat.

The first day of Lent is always Wednesday and is called Ash Wednesday. In different parts of the world, a tradition has developed to hold a celebration the day before or a few days before. In Brazil and Venice, the celebration was called Carnival – from the Italian words carna (“meat”) and barra (“to remove”). In French, this day is called “Fat Tuesday,” or Mardi Gras, as everyone already knows from the well-known celebration in New Orleans.

And of course, you can’t do without the familiar symbols of the holiday: the Easter bunny and the decorated eggs. The link between rabbits and Easter was first documented in Germany in the 17th century in a book that mentions a rabbit that brings gifts to children, a sort of spring version of Santa Claus. The link between Easter and eggs is earlier, but it is difficult to place it precisely: the first evidence of this can be found in a prayer that appears in the first edition of the “Roman Ritual,” a kind of official prayer book of the Catholic Church from 1610 but containing earlier texts.

The egg appears as a symbol of spring and rebirth in different cultures for thousands of years, among others in ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia. It is difficult to determine, therefore, from which culture and how this tradition penetrated into Christianity. Either way, in the 20th century, candy manufacturers recognized the business potential and created a new tradition: instead of emptying eggs, decorating the shell and giving it as a gift – they simply sell chocolate eggs for Easter.


Israel Today Membership

Read all member content. Access exclusive, in-depth reports from Israel! Free Zoom events. Connect with Israel right from your home! Raise a voice of truth and hope. Support Faith-based journalism in Jerusalem!


/ month
Full access to Israel Today's Member-only content on all Digital Platforms.
Become a Member


/ year
Full access to Israel Today's Member-only content on all Digital Platforms.
Save 18% Per Month.
Become a Member

Six Months

every 6 months
Full access to Israel Today's Member-only content on all Digital Platforms.
Save 9% Per Month.
Become a Member

One response to “How Did Passover Become Easter?”

  1. Disciple 1978 says:

    Because fertility symbols like rabbits and eggs are such a big part of Easter they must be regarded as pagan. This suggests that a pagan feast was Christianised to make it acceptable. It is more sure that the Roman feast celebrating the rebirth of the Sun, Saturnalia, was Christianised to replace Tabernacles as Constantine was a lifelong Sun worshipper. The oracles of God (Rom 3:2) were given to Israel so it’s the Jewish practice of Passover that should direct Christianity in understanding the new covenant relationship God has cut with mankind that became the memorial known as Holy Communion. Jesus Last Supper was a Passover. (Matt 26:17) Apostolic teaching makes clear Jesus became the Passover Lamb. (1 Cor 5:7) “Easter” only occurs once at Acts 12:4 in the KJV, everywhere else and in the NKJV it’s translated Passover. Christianity departed from biblical ways, it’s slowly made its way back since the Reformation.

Leave a Reply

Israel Today Newsletter

Daily news

FREE to your inbox

Israel Heute Newsletter

Tägliche Nachrichten

KOSTENLOS in Ihrer Inbox

Subscribe to our Daily Newsletter