About a decade ago I did a deep dive into why we have eggs and bunnies as symbols for the resurrection of Jesus. At its face it seems insane. Also, just FYI, no matter which gospel you read, Jesus was coherent upon his resurrection so there’s no substance to the zombie Jesus rumors that pop up this time of year. Oddly, in the grand scheme of things, “zombie Jesus” is the least problematic. After all, despite the trappings we all know, not a single gospel mentions Jesus’ ability to poop eggs or anything like that. Still, a quick look at the Internet or any TV station tells you that bunnies, baskets, and eggs are all the rage. There’s not a single ad for a large stone “You too can roll away!!!” or do-it-yourself stigmata kits for the kids. In other words, something happened to get us from there to here. Now, was that something wildly subversive? Pure evil complete with the obligatory maniacal laugh? Or was it just the way things worked out? Read on and find out.
(orig. 03/30/2012 – edited for clarity)
Please enjoy our History of Easter a week early.
There once was this guy named Jesus. He spent an inordinate amount to time trying to get people to be nice and respect each other. A good example would be found in this bon mot; “If anyone says, I love God, but hates the brothers or sisters, he is a liar … Whoever loves God must also love the brothers and sisters.” (I John 3:20, 21). He also tossed off these nuggets in Matthew 5:0, “Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy. Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.” In return for his troubles he was nailed to a cross and killed. Then this guy named Joseph of Arimathea wrapped the body in a piece of linen cloth and buried him in a cave. Three days after that He either rose from the grave and went to the right hand side of His Father (Mark’s version) or He hung out for a few weeks and did dinners and parlor tricks with wounds (John’s version).
Either way a couple hundred years later this cat named Eusebius claimed he had transcribed and translated a letter in the Syriac chancery documents written by the king of Edessa. Don’t worry, this will all tie together in the next few sentences. The letter written, allegedly, by King Abgar of Edessa was to Jesus, asking him to come cure him of an illness, purportedly a venereal disease. Jesus apparently replied by letter, saying that when He had completed His earthly mission and ascended to heaven, He would send a disciple to heal Abgar. We do know that King Abgar was healed and ruled for many years after this. Tradition says that, although none of the letters mention it, he was healed by touching the burial cloth that bore the image of Jesus. Currently known as the Shroud of Turin.
Now you can clearly see why the holiday is celebrated with bunnies and candy.
Wait, what? You can’t? Believe it or not the seeds of bunnies and candy are in those opening paragraphs.
Confused? That’s okay. Lots of people are.
See, the cat I mentioned before, Eusebius, was one of those people who was a convert to this new religion. He was a convert because the evangelical wing of Christianity was venturing into realms they’d never been to before. Unlike the days when Saul who became Paul was preaching to the great unwashed and saying that circumcision was just a state of mind, the Christians of this later day were wandering into areas where no one had the slightest clue about monotheism. Jesus was a Jew and Jews only have one God which is what monotheism means. Many Roman citizens knew about Zeus and he was the one big god over all the lesser gods. Not really monotheism but close enough for rock and roll. It got the conversation started. And when the Caesar of the day had Mark write his gospel so they could understand what Peter was going on about, they laid the groundwork for their own conversion.
But what is now Eastern Europe was populated by a wide variety of pagan tribes. And many of them worshiped this goddess named Ostara a/k/a Eastre. She was the goddess of fertility. Not just human reproduction, but flowers blooming, sheep making lambs, crops being planted and so on.
Now we get to step to the side for a moment and talk about, oddly enough, menstrual cycles.
Don’t worry, it’s nothing creepy or weird.
You see Jews, and many pagans, follow a Lunar calendar, just like the menstrual cycle. It’s a nice, holistic, way to stay in tune with the planet, know when to plant your crops, gauge your wife’s fertile times and so on. It also moved dates around a bit since the full moon’s appearance, no matter how predictable, isn’t exactly strictly repetitive clockwork. It was exactly this kind of mamby pamby stuff that the Christians of that time were trying to stop with their adherence to a solar calendar and conversion, occasionally forced, of pagans into believers.
So, while Eusebius was transcribing his famous letters, missionaries were trying to convert a large group of Germanic pagans to the faith. The problem they had was that, instead of the theological battle they expected, the pagans really thought the whole Jesus thing was great. But, and this was a big BUT for the Catholic Church, they saw no reason that Jesus and His Father couldn’t hang out with all the other gods they’d been introduced to. Amon Ra? Come on down! Zeus and Apollo? Party on guys! And so on.
And Eastre. Especially her. You see, to the pagans, Jesus’ resurrection was the same as what happens every spring to the land. It is reborn. And they celebrated that rebirth every year with festivals and symbols. And no symbols more clearly say “Let’s have lots of sex and populate the lands” better than rabbits and eggs.
And since they were already celebrating rebirth, adding a resurrected Jesus to their party just made sense. To them anyway. To the Church it was a horror. And the Church spent a couple hundred years trying to make them stop.
As you walk through your local Wal-Mart and see the baskets full of bunnies and colored eggs and so on you can tell how successful they weren’t.
It didn’t help that Passover tends to fall around the time of their spring rites. Nor did it help that the Church needed bodies for taxes and military support. To keep everything moving forward the occasional blind eye, as it were, got turned.
So, just like Valentine’s Day and Christmas, pagans are responsible for some of the most enduring symbols of modern religious holidays. There are those who argue, and I think rightly, that had the Church not let the pagans add their celebrations to the standard religious holidays there may not have been any church at all. Or, if it did exist, it would be more of a novelty religion like Zoroastrian.
Also a monotheistic religion, and older than Judaism, in case you’re curious.