Eostre in a manuscript of Bede’s De ratione temporum in Berlin

Chapter 15 of Bede’s De ratione temporum, written in 723 AD, is headed “De mensibus Anglorum” – About the Months of the English – and contains fascinating details of the Old English months.  Most famous of these is April, known as Eosturmonath in Anglosaxon, and derived from an otherwise unknown goddess Eostre, which is the origin of our English-only word “Easter.”  Easter is called passover (pasch) in most languages, however, which seems to surprise many.  I have written about this passage before here.

Yesterday I learned via Twitter that a manuscript of this work has newly appeared online.  This one is in Berlin, in the Staats Bibliothek, and has the shelfmark “Ms. Phill. 1832.”  I think it must be 9th century. That shelfmark tells us that this is one of the vast and improbable collection amassed by the bibliomaniac Phillips at Cheltenham, some of which were bought at auction by the Germans.

I don’t tend to think of German manuscripts when I think of online manuscripts.  But this is really a very fine example of how to place a manuscript online.  Here’s the link to the page.  And you can download the whole thing as a PDF, at various resolutions.  Interestingly the online image zooms in to a higher resolution still, which is very helpful for marginal notes.  in fact the online browser is rather good.  You can maximise the image full-screen too.  It’s all fairly obvious and intuitive.

In fact I’m rather impressed by the “Digitalisierte Sammlungen der Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin.”  You go to the home page, and you can switch it into English very nicely.  The search box actually works.  I tried entering “Beda”, and got stuff; and then some very nice tabs on the right to restrict the results to manuscripts, and how many.  I tried again with “Vita Sanctorum” and likewise got good things.  I tried looking for the Life of St Nicholas that I knew was there, and found it.  I tried a partial shelfmark, and found it.  Really very good!  What I cannot see, tho, is any way to browse the collection.  It ought to have a list of collections (fonds), and a list by shelfmark of the mss within each.  In the way that the Wiglaf site does.  Another marvel – every page shows a yellow “feedback” tab on the right, so I’ve written and suggested it!

I’ve already downloaded a copy, and added a bookmark to the page that I want in case I need to come back to this later.  It’s folio 27r.  Here’s the start of the chapter:

Berlin MS Phill. 1832, fol. 27r: beginning of chapter 15 of Bede, de ratione temporum

On the next page we find the famous passage about Eostre:

Berlin MS Phill. 1832, fol. 27r: end of chapter 15 of Bede, de ratione temporum, with mention of Eosturmonath

Interestingly someone has written “April” over “Eusturmonath.”  As a reminder:

Eosturmonath, qui nunc paschalis mensis interpretatur, quondam a dea illorum quae Eostre vocabatur, et cui in illo festa celebrabant, nomen habuit, a cujus nomine nunc paschale tempus cognominant, consueto antiquae observationis voca­bulo gaudia novae solemnitalis vocantes.

Eosturmonath has a name which is now translated ‘‘Paschal month’’, and which was once called after a goddess of theirs named Eostre, in whose honour feasts were celebrated in that month. Now they designate that Paschal season by its name, calling the joys of the new rite by the time-honoured name of the old observance.  (Faith Wallis translation with correction as here).

Note also that the name of the goddess is “Eostre.”  It is curious how often and how pompously it is given as “Ēostre” online, when no source adds any such marker.

It’s still simply wonderful to see these things appear online!


Easter: A translation error in Bede, De Ratione Temporum

The word “Easter” is used only in English for the Christian commemoration of the death and resurrection of Christ.  In most languages the word is passover (pasch), or some version of it.  This is indeed what Easter is, the Christian version of passover.  That’s why it moves: Jesus was Jewish, and lived in Judaea, and the events of his life are based around the Jewish lunar calendar, which gives passover as the full moon after the equinox.  Jesus died on passover and rose on the Sunday after, so Easter is in principle the Sunday after passover.  The Julian calendar was not in use in Judaea, unfortunately.  None of this is known to the general public, and in the anglophone world it is widely assumed that every language calls it Easter.

Where does the English word “Easter” come from?  Our information on this comes from a single source, Bede De ratione temporum, (CPL 2320) on the reckoning of time, dated 723 AD.  Chapter 15 of this contains a list of the Anglosaxon months, which is full of interest and reads as follows:

Antiqui autem Anglorum populi (neque enim mibi congruum videtur, aliarum gentium annalem obser­vantiam dicere, ct mese reticere) juxta cursum lunae suos menses computavere; unde et a luna Hebraeorum et Graecorum more nomen accipiunt. Si quidem apud eos luna mona, mensis monath appellatur. Primusque eorum mensis, quem Latini Januarium vocant, dici­tur Giuli. Deinde Februarius Solmonath, Martius Hredmonath, Aprilis Eosturmonath, Maius Thrimylchi, Junius Lida, Julius similiter Lida, Augustus Weodmonath, September Halegmonath, October Winterfylleth, November Blodmonath, December Giuli, eodem quo Januarius nomine, vocatur. Incip­iebant autem annum ab octavo Calendarum Janua­riarum die, ubi nunc natale Domini celebramus. Et ipsam noctem nunc nobis sacrosanctam, tunc gentili vocabulo Modranicht, id est, matrum noctem, ap­pellabant, ob causam; ut suspicamur, ceremoniarum quas in ea pervigiles agebant. Et quotiescunque communis esset annus, ternos menses lunares singulis anni temporibus dabant. Cum vero embolismus, hoc est, XIII mensium lunarium annus occurreret, superfluum mensem aestati apponebant, ita ut tunc tres menses simul Lida nomine vocarentur, et ob id annus ille Thrilidi cognominabatur, habens IV menses gestatis, ternos ut semper temporum caete­rorum. Item principaliter annum totum in duo tempora, hyemis, videlicet, et aestatis dispartiebant, sex illos menses quibus longiores noctibus dies sunt aestati tribuendo, sex reliquos hyemi. Unde et men­sem quo hyemalia tempora incipiebant Winterfylleth appellabant, composito nomine ab hyeme et plenilunio, quia videlicet a plenilunio ejusdem mensis hyems sortiretur initium. Nec ab re est si et caetera mensium eorum quid significent nomina interpretari curemus. Menses Giuli a conversione solis in auctum dici, quia unus eorum praecedit, alius subsequitur, nomina accipiunt. Solmonath dici potest mensis placentarum, quas in eo diis suis offerebant; Hredmonath a dea illorum Hreda, cui in illo sacrificabant, nominatur; Eosturmonath, qui nunc paschalis mensis interpretatur, quondam a dea illorum quae Eostre vocabatur, et cui in illo festa celebrabant, nomen habuit, a cujus nomine nunc paschale tempus cognominant, consueto antiquae observationis voca­bulo gaudia novae solemnitalis vocantes. Trimilchi dicebatur, quod tribus vicibus in eo per diem pecora mulgebantur. Talis enim erat quondam ubertas Bri­tanniae, vel Germaniae, de qua in Britanniam natio intravit Anglorum. Lida dicitur blandus, sive naviga­bilis, quod in utroque mense et blanda sit serenitas aurarum, et navigari soleant aequora. Weodmonath mensis zizaniorum , quod ea tempestate maxime abundent. Halegmonath mensis Sacrorum. Winterfylleth potest dici composito novo nomine hyeme-plenilunium. Blotmonath mensis immolationum, quia in ea pecora quae occisuri erant diis suis vove­rent. Gratias tibi, bone Jesu, qui hos, ab his vanis avertens, tibi sacrificia laudis offerre donasti.

We are fortunate to have an excellent English translation of this long volume (1988, p.53-4) by Faith Wallis in the Liverpool University Press series “Translated Texts for Historians.”  Here is the corresponding passage.

In olden time the English people – for it did not seem ¢tting to me that I should speak of other nations’ observance of the year and yet be silent about my own nation’s – calculated their months according to the course of the Moon. Hence, after the manner of the Greeks and the Romans, [the months] take their name from the Moon, for the Moon is called “mona” and the month “monath”.

The first month, which the Latins call January, is “Giuli”; February is called “Solmonath”; March “Hrethmonath”; April, “Eosturmonath”; May, “Thrimilchi”; June, “Litha”; July, also “Litha”; August, “Weodmonath”; September, “Halegmonath”; October, “Winterfilleth”; November, “Blodmonath”; December, “Giuli”, the same name by which January is called. They began the year on the 8th kalends of January [25 December], when we celebrate the birth of the Lord. That very night, which we hold so sacred, they used to call by the heathen word “Modranecht”, that is, ‘‘mother’s night’’, because (we suspect) of the ceremonies they enacted all that night.

Whenever it was a common year, they gave three lunar months to each season. When an embolismic year occurred (that is, one of 13 lunar months) they assigned the extra month to summer, so that three months together bore the name ‘‘Litha’’; hence they called [the embolismic] year ‘‘Thrilithi’’. It had four summer months, with the usual three for the other seasons. But originally, they divided the year as a whole into two seasons, summer and winter, assigning the six months in which the days are longer than the nights to summer, and the other six to winter. Hence they called the month in which the winter season began ‘‘Winterfilleth’’, a name made up from ‘‘winter’’ and ‘‘full Moon’’, because winter began on the full Moon of that month.

Nor is it irrelevant if we take the trouble to translate the names of the other months. The months of Giuli derive their name from the day when the Sun turns back [and begins] to increase, because one of [these months] precedes [this day] and the other follows. Solmonath can be called ‘‘month of cakes’’, which they offered to their gods in that month. Hrethmonath is named for their goddess Hretha, to whom they sacrificed at this time. Eosturmonath has a name which is now translated ‘‘Paschal month’’, and which was once called after a goddess of theirs named Eostre, in whose honour feasts were celebrated in that month. Now they designate that Paschal season by her name, calling the joys of the new rite by the time-honoured name of the old observance. Thrimilchi was so called because in that month the cattle were milked three times a day; such, at one time, was the fertility of Britain or Germany, from whence the English nation came to Britain. Litha means ‘‘gentle’’ or ‘‘navigable’’, because in both these months the calm breezes are gentle, and they were wont to sail upon the smooth sea. Weodmonath means ‘‘month of tares’’, for they are very plentiful then. Halegmonath means ‘‘month of sacred rites’’. Winterfilleth can be called by the invented composite name ‘‘winter-full’’. Blodmonath is ‘‘month of immolations’’, for then the cattle which were to be slaughtered were consecrated to their gods. Good Jesu, thanks be to thee, who hast turned us away from these vanities and given us [grace] to offer to thee the sacrifice of praise.

Interesting stuff, but clearly belonging to a time past even in Bede’s day.

All the same there appears to be an error in the Eosturmonath translation, where the translator has split the sentence in two and in the process introduced a confusion.

Eosturmonath, qui nunc paschalis mensis interpretatur, quondam a dea illorum quae Eostre vocabatur, et cui in illo festa celebrabant, nomen habuit, a cujus nomine nunc paschale tempus cognominant, consueto antiquae observationis voca­bulo gaudia novae solemnitalis vocantes.

Eosturmonath has a name which is now translated ‘‘Paschal month’’, and which was once called after a goddess of theirs named Eostre, in whose honour feasts were celebrated in that month. Now they designate that Paschal season by her name, calling the joys of the new rite by the time-honoured name of the old observance.

Parsing this word by word:

et cui in illo festa celebrabant – and for whom, in that (month), feasts they used to celebrate.

nomen habuit, a cujus nomine nunc paschale tempus cognominant – (Eosturmonath) has a name, by which name now the paschal season they designate

consueto antiquae observationis voca­bulo, gaudia novae solemnitalis vocantes –  of the accustomed ancient observance by the name, the joys of the new rite calling

The translator has treated “cuius”, “of whom/which” as referring back to “dea … Eostre”.  Well it could.  “cuius” could refer to either a feminine or a neuter noun.  But the curious position of the “nomen  habuit” – “it has a name”  – seems designed solely to avoid this.  The whole bit about Eostre is put between “Eosturmonath” and “nomen habuit”, precisely to keep it out of the way of the rest of the sentence.  So I suggest that “cuius” should be understood to refer to “nomen”, i.e. to the season, not the goddess.

This would mean that the TTH should read “now they designate the paschal season by its name”.

This means that – unsurprisingly – the word “Easter” comes from “Eosturmonath”, not directly from “Eostre”.  According to Bede, the name Eostre gave rise to the season Eosturmonth (April) which in turn was used by the Christian English to mean the Christian festival of pasch.

So “Easter” is merely a worn down form of “Eosturmonath”.


A brief yet very nice description of the calculation of the date of Easter from … a PHP manual!

Computer programs need to calculate the date of Easter sometimes.  In the PHP programming language, there is a function, easter_date, which is used for the purpose.  The manual page is here, and is really rather good!

The date of Easter Day was defined by the Council of Nicaea in AD325 as the Sunday after the first full moon which falls on or after the Spring Equinox. The Equinox is assumed to always fall on 21st March, so the calculation reduces to determining the date of the full moon and the date of the following Sunday. The algorithm used here was introduced around the year 532 by Dionysius Exiguus. Under the Julian Calendar (for years before 1753) a simple 19-year cycle is used to track the phases of the Moon. Under the Gregorian Calendar (for years after 1753 – devised by Clavius and Lilius, and introduced by Pope Gregory XIII in October 1582, and into Britain and its then colonies in September 1752) two correction factors are added to make the cycle more accurate.

Well, we’ve all seen very much worse explanations than that!

  • The date is the first full moon after the equinox.
  • The “equinox” is deemed to be March 21st (it wobbles a bit in reality).
  • The phases of the moon are calculated based on a 19-year cycle.
  • Dionysius Exiguus produced the modern version of the calculation, for the Julian calendar.
  • The Gregorian calendar tweaked it for accuracy.

I could only wish that our succinct author had also stated what are these “correction factors” in the Gregorian system.

The big omission from that page is any indication of why we want the first Sunday after the full moon after the equinox.  The reason is that the first full moon after the equinox is passover.  This festival predated the solar calendar, so is calculated by the moon.  Jesus was executed on passover, and rose on… the Sunday after.  Easter celebrates that event.

It is so uncommon to see all these details put together, that there are many people who suppose that a weird date based on the moon must be prehistoric pagan or something.  Nobody is taught this.  It is never explained.

Of course the PHP function is purely concerned with the mathematics.  But at least it states these very correctly.

It is rather a delight to see a clear and concise statement of the main points of the calculation.


Did Theophilus of Caesarea in 190 AD state that Christmas must be observed?

Now here’s an interesting claim! It is rather seasonal, and was posted on Christmas Day, and is here:

Theophilus (A.D. 115-181), bishop of Caesarea in Palestine writes: “We ought to celebrate the birthday of Our Lord on what day soever the 25th of December shall happen. – Magdeburgenses, Cent. 2. c. 6. Hospinian, De origine Festorum Christianorum.”

The same words with the same references float around the web, and also in book form, but they are much older.  It appears word-for-word in ‘Pastor Fido’s (= Allan Blayney’s) Festorum Metropolis (1652: downloadable from 25thdec.info, here), p.16.[1]  There are all sorts of fake claims that circulate.  When a quote is only referenced to early modern sources, and no ancient source is ever mentioned, then it is usually wise to be suspicious.  Not infrequently even the references are wrong in these things.

Firstly, Theophilus of Caesarea is historical, although those dates are uncertain, and I have seen as late as 195 AD mentioned.  He’s mentioned by Jerome (De viris illustribus 43), who got a short quotation from Eusebius of a now lost work on Easter (HE 5, c.23, 25).  But we have no works of this Theophilus.  So how can the quote be genuine?

The answer is a slightly strange one.  I’ve looked up the references, and they are real.  But neither reference indicates where the words come from.  With a lot of googling, I have discovered that there is an early medieval forgery, written in Ireland around 600 AD, which purports to be the record of a synod at Caesarea, led by this Theophilus, discussing how to calculate the date of Easter.  These words come from one version of this obscure text.

There is no agreed title for this work.   We might call it pseudo-Theophilus, De Pascha; or maybe De ordinatione feriarum paschalium per Theophilum episcopum Caesariensem, (On the arrangment of Easter festivals by Theophilus, bishop of Alexandria) since that is the title under which a shorter version of it was first published, back in 1537.  The title does not seem to correspond to anything in the manuscripts, so was presumably dreamt up by the editor.  It’s not in the Clavis Patrum Latinorum, because the editors gave up once they reached the spuria of the Venerable Bede, among which it is sometimes found.

So that is our source.  The quote is not genuine – Theophilus never said it -, but it is not modern either.  This material is an abbreviated quote from a 7th century Irish text on the date of Easter.

That’s the conclusion.  So what is it based on?

The references

Let’s start with the references.  They are quite genuine, and they are reputable sources, although very elderly.

The first source is none other than the mighty Centuriae Magdeburgensese, the Magdeburg Centuries. This early modern history of Christianity dedicated a volume to every century of Christian history. It appeared between 1559-74.  The work was  rather a pioneer in the use of primary sources.  Volume 2 (1759) covered the second century, and in chapter 6, page 126-7, we find a section De festis Christianorum, ac primum de Paschate(On Christian holidays, and first, on Easter).  It’s online here.

The relevant section reads as follows:

Cum contra Galli diem vnum anniuersarium, qui fuit VIII. calend Aprilium, obseruarent, in quo pascha celebrarent dicentes, vt THEOPHILVS indicat: Quid nobis necesse est ad lunae computum cum Iudaeis pascha facere? Quin sicut Domini natalem quocunque die VIII Calendarum Ianuarii venerit: ita et VIII Calend Aprilis quando resurrectio accidit, Christi debemus pascha celebrare.

While on the other hand the Gauls were observing one day annually, which was the 8 kalends of April (March 25), on which they were celebrating Easter, saying, as Theophilus indicates, “Why is it necessary for us to make an Easter calculation of the moon with the Jews?  In fact, just as we ought to celebrate the birthday of the Lord on whatever day the 8 kalends of January  (25 December) shall fall, so also (we ought to celebrate) the Easter of Christ on the day of 8 kalends of April, when the resurrection happened.

The second source is Rudolf Hospinian, in his Festa Christianorum (1593), chapter 25, De Natali Domini ac Servatoris.  His account of starts on folio 109v – for the book is not paginated but foliated.  On f.110 here he writes:

Celebrata fuit à nonnullis 25 die Decembris, iam inde ab antiquißimis temporibus. Intelligitur hoc ex Theophilo Cæsareae Palestinae Episcopo qui docet, Gallos diem vnum anniuersarium qui fuit 8 Calend Apriliam in celebratione Paschatis obseruasse idque, hac ratione defendisse: “Sicut Domini Natalem quocunque die 8 Calend. Ianuari venerit, ita & 8. Calend. Aprilis, quando resurrectio accidit, Christi debemus Pascha celebrare.” Ex Caßiani verò argumento Epistolarum Theophili libris Paschalibus praefixo, apparet, Ægyptios Natiuitatem Domini & Baptismum eiusdem, eodem die quem Epiphaniam appellat, celebrasse: quod etiam Hugo in cap 1 Matthaei de Armenijs testatur.

It has been celebrated by some on the 25th December, indeed, from the most ancient times.  This is understood from bishop Theophilus of Caesarea in Palestine who teaches that the Gauls observed one day annually which was the 8 kalend April in celebration of Easter, and defended it by this reason: “Just as (we ought to celebrate) the nativity of the Lord on whatever day the 8 kalends of January shall fall, so also we ought to celebrate Easter on the 8 kalends of April, when the resurrection happened.”  However from Cassian, from the argument of the letters of Theophilus prefixed to the Paschal Books, it appears that the Egyptians celebrated the nativity of the Lord and also his baptism on the same day called Epiphany: as also Hugo gives as evidence in chapter 1 of Matthew to the Armenians (?).

Hospinian, then, is the immediate source of our quotation.  Most likely he is just paraphrasing the Magdeburg Centuries.  But neither the Centuriators nor Hospinian give any primary source for this text.

It is worth noting the mention of the customs of Gaul as if they were a source of authority.  A bishop of Caesarea in Palestine would not tend to see things this way.   This is a first sign that something is not quite right with this text.

My next step was to start googling for the Latin words quoted.  This led me to the Bainton article in JSTOR – of which more below.  But Bainton was extremely vague about just what text it was that he was quoting.  He referenced a book by a 19th century independent scholar, Paul de Lagarde, and his too brief reference – “Mitteilungen” – was a mis-spelling of the actual printed title, “Mittheilungen”, which effectively concealed the source.  The curse of poor referencing had struck again.  But once I had de Lagarde, then I learned that this text belonged to a group of texts, all forged, created in Ireland around 600 AD.

The Irish computistical forgeries.

To understand what we are dealing with here, we have to spend a bit of time on these texts as a group, and the circumstances that created them.

In early Dark Ages Ireland there was great interest in computus, the study of the calculations of Easter.  But in the same period, a new method for calculating the date was being propagated from Rome, based on the methodology of Dionysius Exiguus.  This caused disputes, which were resolved in the end at the Synod of Whitby, in 689.  There the Roman method prevailed.

In order to create a dossier to support the existing local Irish traditions, around 600 AD somebody composed a number of short works, attributed to early fathers of the church.  The texts are known as the “Irish forgeries” – although Irish scholars such as Daniel McCarthy and Dáibhí Ó Cróinín, who have done a great deal of excellent work in this area,[2] tend to resist the term “forgery”.[3]  The works include those known as pseudo-Anatolius, pseudo-Athanasius, the letter of pseudo-Cyril, and one referred to as pseudo-Theophilus, our own text.

I can’t go into these computistical texts, not least because I don’t understand computus.  But I notice that another of the text, pseudo-Anatolius, also refers to practices in Gaul,[4] and also was  built around a short quotation from Jerome (using Eusebius) from the genuine but obscure Anatolius, which the forger modified for his cause.

There is no reason why real ancient authors in the civilised Greek eastern Mediterranean would appeal to the customs of little backward old Gaul.  But there is every reason why a forger in Ireland, Christian only for a short time, and outside the Roman empire, would see Gaul as the nearest point of the civilised world.  The presence of this in both texts seems suspicious.

It is only fair to add that there was recently a valiant attempt by Daniel P. McCarthy to assert that the Liber Anatoli de ratione paschalis is genuine, and that it is Eusebius’ quotation that is corrupt.  As a layman I cannot really evaluate this, but it seems improbable, because this text appears to link closely to other texts of precisely the same sort.[5]

Just to digress a moment, it is a common situation with falsifications, that the texts rely on not being compared with other works of the same kind.  Individually they can deceive.  Once seen as a group, they are nothing.  Thus Edgar Goodspeed did rightly to collect and study together the “modern apocrypha” in his book of the same name.  Individually these modern fake gospels seemed impressive.  Once they were lined up in a row, it became obvious that each was an example of a genre, with a common set of methods and characteristics.  They had a certain smell about them, a certain common way of doing things, once you’d seen a few.  Another example is modern books about “the real Jesus”.  Back in the 90s I remember searching a CDROM of reviews in the Times for books about Jesus.  I read a number.  After a while, it became clear that the books reviewed were really all the same.  The claims made in the books varied wildly, but each and every one used the same tactics to advance their cause and dodge investigation.

The editor of the Annals of Ulster vol. 4, had occasion to discuss the Irish computistical forgeries, which he did with verve.  From him I learn that these little texts were known to, and used by the Venerable Bede, in his De ratione temporum (On the Reckoning of Time) in 725 AD.  Indeed when we look at the manuscripts, we find that these forgeries often accompany works of Bede or Isidore.  Bede uses pseudo-Theophilus in chapter 47.  The pseudo-Anatolius text caused some real trouble ( p.cxv f.):

For textual distortion, resourceful invention and vituperative scorn, the spurious Anatolius stood peerless in the field of fabrication. Nor was his triumph confined to his own time. Columbanus quoted his dicta as binding on a Pope; the defenders of rival Paschal methods appealed to him in support of their respective contentions ; Bede(5) vainly taxed his skill to reconcile the contradictions of the “holy man”….

5. Bede.—De temp. rat. vi., xiv., XXX., XXXV., xlii. ; Ep.ad Wic. PL. 90. 599sq.

I won’t go further into the other texts, but that editor notes:

As the Acts of the Caesarean Council, convened at the instance of Victor by Theophilus, in the matter of the Quartadecimans, are lost, the fabricator may have known that his work was not likely to be detected by collation with the original. Be that as it may, he fatally betrayed himself in one particular: March 25 was the Roman, not the Eastern, equinoctial date.

What does Pseudo-Theophilus say?

The pseudo-Theophilus text is extant, we are told, in four different versions, and at least 36 manuscripts.  I’ll look at these in a moment. They do not all include the words in which we are interested.  In fact these words come from recension A, the long version

Here is the start of the A-text, as reprinted by wild-boy independent scholar Paul de Lagarde who printed both the A-text and the B-text on facing pages:[6]

Cum omnes apostoli ex hoc mundo transissent, per universum orbem diversa erant ieiunia. nam omnes Galli unum diem anniversarium VIII. Kal. April. Pascha celebrabant dicentes: Quid nobis est ad lunae computum cum Iudaeis facere Pascha? sed sicut domini natalem, quocunque die venerit, VIII. Kal. Ianuarii, ita et VIII. Kal. Aprilis, quando resurrectio traditur Christi, debemus Pascha tenere, orientales vero, sicut historia Eusebii Caesariensis narrat, quocunque die mense Martio quartadecima luna evenisset, Pascha celebrabant. In Italia autem alii plenos quadraginta dies ieiunabant, alii triginta: alii dicebant, septem diebus, in quibus mundus concluditur, sibi sufficere ieiunare: alii, quia dominus quadraginta diebus ieiunasset, illi horas quadraginta deberent, cum haec ergo talis diversa esset observatio, maeror erat sacerdotum, quod ubi erat una fides, dissonarent ieiunia. Tunc papa Victor Romanae urbis episcopus direxit, ut daret auctoritatem ad Theophilum Caesariensem Palaestinae provinciae episcopum, quia tunc non Hierosolyma metropolis videbatur, ut inde paschalis ordinatio proveniret ubi Christus fuisset in corpore versatus.

English translation of this by Roland H. Bainton from 1923, who also translated the start of the B-text:[7]

When all the apostles had gone from this life, fasts were differently observed throughout the world, for all the Gauls kept the Pascha on one day, March 25th, saying: “Why should we keep the Pascha with the Jews according to the moon? But as the birth of the Lord on whatever day it falls is kept on December 25th, so we ought to keep the Pascha on March 25th, when Christ is said to have risen.” The Orientals indeed, as the history of Eusebius relates, keep the Pascha on the fourteenth day of the moon on whatever day of March it might fall. But some in Italy fasted full forty days, some thirty; others said that seven days in which the world was made would do; others because the Lord fasted forty days kept forty hours. Since there was such variety of observance, the clergy were astonished that where there was a unity of faith there should be such diversity of practice in fasting. So Papa Victor, bishop of Rome, ordered that authority should be given to Theophilus of Caesarea, bishop of the province of Palestine, because Jerusalem was not then the metropolis, that the paschal rule might come from that region in which Christ lived.

The text continues, as the Acts of the Council of Caesarea, around 190 AD.  Indeed some of the literature refers to the text as such.

This, clearly, is where the Centuriators got their text, even though they did not say so.

Mind you, they were clearly hot stuff.  At the time of the Centuries, the A-text was unpublished.  One of the Centuriators must have been aware of a manuscript of the A-text, probably in Switzerland, and used that.  It is hard not to be impressed by this.

The other common version, the B-text, does not contain this remark about the nativity.

The versions of the text and where they may be found

It’s now time to talk about the various versions of the text.  In our internet-enabled age, much may be found online.

The classic study is that of B. Kursch, Studien zur christlich-mittelalterlichen Chronologie: der 84jährige Ostercyclus und seine Quellen, Leipzig (1880), p.303 f. (Online here)  In his time three versions of the text were known.  I will summarise what he says, and add a few bits of my own.  Here are the recensions that he gives.

  • A (the long version).  This was first printed by Baluzius, Nova Collectio Conciliorum (1683), in columns 13-16 (online here).  The text begins with these words (the “incipit”): “Cum omnes apostoli ex hoc mundo transissent…”.  Baluzius based his text on 1) a manuscript from St Gall.  Krusch thought this was St Gall 251, a 9th century MS., but that is in fact a B-text, as may be seen below.  2) a “codex Colbertinus”, which must be in the French National Library, if we could identify it.  He also knew of a third manuscript, from England, through a scholarly contact.  The same recension of the text also appears in Ms. Bern 645, from the end of the 7th century, on folios 72-74, where it is headed “incipit tractatus ordinis”.  Sadly this is not online.

Although most of our versions are transmitted with the works of Bede, another witness to the A-text can be found in volume 3 of the 1798 Arevallo edition of the works of Isidore of Seville.  This appears in his manuscript, after book 6, chapter 18, title 10, on p.272, where he gives a note about the “Acta concilii Caesariensis” interpolated at this point. Arevallo prints the interpolation – a text of ps.Theophilis – on p.515 here. In his edition it is appendix 8, “Ad lib. 6. cap. 17 Synodus Caesariensis de Paschate”.  He is using manuscripts from Rome; a “codex Albanius 4” (not sure what that is), Ms. Ottobonianus lat. 221 (sadly not online), and an unspecified “Caesenatum recentiorem”.  He also has compared it to the text printed by Muratori, the C-text, but this is clearly not the Muratori text.  And here it has the first sentence, missing from the Baluzius edition but found in the B-text.  I did look at at couple of online Isidore manuscripts (St Gall 237, f.98, and Karlsruhe Aug. pap. 103, f.122v), but these did not contain the interpolation.

  • B (the short version).  This was first printed by Johannes Bronkhorst, who called himself Noviomagus, as you would if you had a name like that.  The title is Beda Venerabilis: Opuscula complura de temporum ratione diligenter castigata, Cologne (1537) (online here).  Our text is on folio xcix, here, with the title “De ordinatione feriarum paschalium per Theophilum episcopum Caesariensem ac reliquorum episopum synodum”.  The opening words are: “Post resurrectionem uel/ac ascensionem domini saluatoris…”.  The editor worked from two Cologne manuscripts, 103 (9th c. – online here, ff.190v) and 102 (11th c.).  The first has no title in the manuscript, and it looks as if the title was invented by Mr Bronkhorst-Noviomagus.  This being the case, there seems no reason not to use it for the text generally.

The B-text was reprinted by Bucherius, De doctrina temporum, Antwerp (1633) on p.469, online here. On the previous page he lists the work as “Philippi cuiusdam de concilio Caesariensi, anno Christi vulgari 296 habito”.  He heads the text “Epistola Philippi de pascha”, and says that in the MSS it was called the “Epistola Philippi”, but he doesn’t know who that might be.

Krusch suggests that this “Philippus” must be a mistake for “Theophilus”.  I would like to suggest that perhaps “Theophili” became abbreviated to “Phili” by a scribal error, and was then “corrected” to this otherwise unknown and irrelevant “Philippi” by another copyist.

Nothing further is known of the manuscript of Bucherius.  But it is interesting that a Google search reveals another B-text manuscript, Ms. Geneva 50 (ca. 825 AD), fol. 132r (online here; catalogue here) which has this title “Epistola Philippi de pascha”, and even has a modern marginal note to the page number of the Bucherius edition!

Ms. Geneva 50, f.132r. Epistola Philippi de pascha

Krusch reports on another manuscript of the B-text, Vaticanus Reginensis lat. 586 (online here), second half of the 10th century.  Folio 1 begins with “Incipit epistola thophili epi | Post resurrection & ascensionem dni salvatoris”.  The text ends with “vobis iustum est celebrare”.

A google search reveals that St Gall 251 page 14 here contains the B-text:

St Gall 251, page 14: epistola philippi de pascha

Further google searches reveal B-text copies at:

  • Vaticanus lat. 3123 (13th c., online here) on fol. 32v also has an (untitled) copy of the B-text.
  • British Library Cotton Caligula A XV (1073 AD) on fol. 80v, here.
  • Paris, BNF lat. 16361 (12th c.), page 240 here.  The title is written in the  margin in a modern hand – there is a division but no title in the main text.
  • A catalogue online here tells me that the St Gall 459 manuscript also contains a copy of the B-text, with the usual incipit, on pages 112-4 and 127-142 (?).

These catalogues also reference a “Clavis Patristica Pseudepigraphorum Medii Aevi” – “CPPM III A vol. A n. 656, 722, 832”, but this is something to which I have no access.

There are doubtless many more manuscripts of the B-text.

  • C (interpolated version).  This is a copy of the A-text, into which phrases from the B-text have been interpolated.  Krusch lists all three texts in parallel on p.306, which demonstrates this nicely.  It was printed by Muratori, Anecdota Latina 3 (online here), p.189-191, based on Ms. Ambrosianus H. 150 inf, fol.64-66.  This is a 9th century manuscript from Bobbio – an Irish foundation – containing computistical texts.  Sadly it is not online.
Kursch, Studien, p.325. Comparing the A-text, B-text and C-text.
  • D – A fourth version, which I venture to call “D”, was discovered by Dom André Wilmart.[8]  Sadly I have no access to this – why is Studi e Testi not online? – so I can say nothing about it.

Nor is this all.  A google search reveals yet another very short version of the text, in Vatican Palatinus lat. 277, from Lorsch (8th c.).  The text begins on f.90v (online here), under the title “Item Computus”.  Extensive details are here.  The text differs again from the standard A-text, beginning “Cum omnes apostoli de hac luce migrassent, error erat in populo: alii ieiunabant XX diebus, alii uero VII, alii XL horas … “.  It seems to derive from the A-text, but chunks have been omitted, thereby creating a bishop “Eusebius of Jerusalem”.

Ms. Vatican Palatinus lat. 277, f.90v.

Critical edition

There is supposedly a critical edition of the text, based on the A-text, in Kursch’s Studien.  But Kursch produced no stemma, and I rather doubt that he had access to more than a handful of manuscripts and early editions. He does not describe the manuscript tradition.  He does not mention the Isidore tradition.  His text looks very much to me like a conflation of the Baluzius edition and a B-text.

Clearly it is time that a proper edition needs to be made, using a wider range of manuscripts.  I have read in a 2017 article that Leofranc Holford-Strevens is preparing one.[9]  Let us hope that it is so.


In conclusion, we have travelled from a supposed quote from the second century into the scholarship of the 17th century and the science of the 7th.  I think it was a worthwhile journey, don’t you?

Merry Christmas, everyone.

Update (8 May 2023): Kurt Simmons has made a text and translation of the letter of Theophilus, which is very welcome.  Thank you!  It’s here.  He has prefaced it with an essay giving his own thoughts on this subject.

  1. [1]A modern transcription is online here.  Blayney refers to a work in two volumes by “Perkins”, but I don’t know what this was.
  2. [2]D. Ó Cróinín, “Archbishop James Ussher (1581–1656) and the history of the Easter controversy”, in: Late Antique Calendrical Thought And Its Reception In The Early Middle Ages (2017), p.318 f.  Online here.
  3. [3]See also O.M.Cullen, A question of time or a question of theology: A study of the Easter controversy in the Insular Church, PhD: Maynooth (2007), online here, p.135, n.75: “… see James Kenney, The Sources for the Early History and Bartholomew MacCarthy, Annals of Ulster, Vol. IV, for a discussion of the Acts of the Council of Caesarea, both these writers claim that the texts are deliberate Irish falsifications. It seems likely today that these texts were never intended to be deliberate falsifications. For the purpose of this work, it is the theological ideas that they contain that are of interest. Bede obviously thought of these documents as genuine.”  The Annals of Ulster vol 4, p.cxv, may be found online here and provides an excellent discussion of these curious texts.
  4. [4]Daniel P. McCarthy, “The council of Nicaea…”, p.188.
  5. [5]Daniel P.McCarthy, “The council of Nicaea and the Celebration of the Christian Pasch” in: Young R. Kim, The Cambridge Companion to the Council of Nicaea (2021), p.177-201.Google books preview here.
  6. [6]Paul de Lagarde, Mittheilungen (1889), vol. 4, p.274.  Online here.
  7. [7]Roland H. Bainton, “Basilidian Chronology and New Testament Interpretation”, Journal of Biblical Literature Vol. 42, No. 1/2 (1923), pp. 81-134. See p.112.  JSTOR.
  8. [8]André Wilmart: Un nouveau texte du faux concile de Césarée sur le comput pascal, in: Analecta Reginensia. Extraits des manuscrits latins de la reine Christine conservés au Vatican (Studi e testi 59), (1933), p. 19-27.
  9. [9]Dáibhí Ó Cróinín, “Archbishop James Ussher (1581–1656) and the history of the Easter controversy”, in: Late Antique Calendrical Thought And Its Reception In The Early Middle Ages (2017), p.318, n.45.

John Zonaras on the date of Easter

Most of us think of John Zonaras as a Byzantine epitomator of Cassius Dio.  This he certainly did, as part of composing his own history.  Even in brief, that history was pretty long, running up to the reign of Alexius I Comnenus.  We’re still dependent on the old Bonn CSHB text for access to this work.  A good chunk of it was translated recently into English by Thomas Banchich, covering the period from Alexander Severus up to Theodosius the Great.  I also today found a bunch of earlier material translated on the Sententiae Antiquae blog here.

But Zonaras also left us a work commenting on ecclesiastical canon law; and one part of that affects the life of millions, by way of the “Zonaras Proviso”.  I learned of this recently from a very interesting article on Easter at the OrthodoxWiki site.

In the Orthodox world, there is a subtle difference in the calculation of Easter: that Easter or Pascha must always follow the Jewish Passover.  This rule is unknown in the west, with the effect that Easter can sometimes precede Passover.  For a lucid explanation of this, let me refer the interested reader to an article at Roads of Emmaus blog.

But our interest is the text of Zonaras, Commentary on Apostolic Canons, canon 7, which appears in the PG 137, cols. 49-50, in the middle of a combined commentary by Theodore Balsamon, Zonaras and Aristenus.  The canon reads “If any bishop, presbyter or deacon celebrates the holy day of Pascha before the spring equinox with the Jews, let him be deposed.”

Here’s Zonaras:

ZONAR. Ἐαρινὴν ἰσημερίαν τινὲς τὴν κε᾽ φασὶ τοῦ Μαρτίου· τινὲς δἐ τὴν κε᾽ τοῦ Ἀπριλλίου. Οῖμαι δὲ μήτ᾽ ἐκείνην μήτε ταυτην τὸν κανόνα λέγειν· ὡς ὲπι τὸ πολὺ γὰρ τὸ Πάσχα πρὸ τῆς κε᾽ τοῦ Ἀπριλλίου ἑορτάζεσθαι είωθεν· ἔστι δὲ ὅτε καὶ πρὸ τῆσ κε᾽ τοῦ Μαρτίου, ὡς συμβαίνειν (εἰ οὔτως νοοϊτο ἡ ἐαρινὴ ἰσημερία) παρὰ τὸν κανόνα τοῦτον τὸ Πάσχα ἑορτάζεσθαι. Ἔοικεν οὐν ἄλλο τι ἐαρινὴν ἰσεμερίαν τοὺς συνετοὺς ἀποστόλους ὀνομάζειν. Ἡ δὲ πᾶσα τοῦ κανόνα, διαταγὴ τοῦτό ὲστι, τὸ μὴ μετὰ Ἰουδαίων (ἤγουν κατ᾽ αὐτὴν τὴν ἡμέραν) ἑορτάζειν τὀ Πάσχα Χριστιανούς. Χρὴ γὰρ προηγεϊσθαι τὴν ανέορτον ἐκείνων ἑορτὴν, καὶ οὕτω τὸ καθ᾽ ἡμᾶς τελεϊσθαι Πάσχα. Ὁ δὲ μὴ τοῦτο ποιῶν ἱερομένο, καθαιρεθήσεται. Τοὺτο δὲ καὶ ἡ ἐν Ἀντιοχείᾳ σύνοδος ἐν πρώτῳ κανόνι διετάξατο, λέγουσα τῆς ἐν Νικαίᾳ πρώτης συνόδου ὄρον εὶναι περὶ τῆς ἑορτῆς τοῦ Πάσχα· εἰ καὶ μὴ εὑρισκεται ὲν τοῖς κανόσι τῆσ ἐν Νικαίᾳ συνόδου τοιοῦτος κανών.

Helpfully the OrthodoxWiki writer has translated it, humbly adding, “Please note, this text has been translated into English from the Latin parallel translation found in Migne, PG 137.”  I’ve amended it in places.

ZONAR. Some say the Spring equinox is the 25th day of March; others, the 25th day of April. I deem that the canon refers to neither the one nor the other. For Pascha is often celebrated before the 25th of April.  There are even times when it is celebrated before the 25th of March; so that, (if “Spring equinox” were so understood) Pascha would happen in violation of this canon. Whence it appears that the wise apostles call something else the “Spring equinox.” So the whole thrust of the canon is this, that Christians should not celebrate Pascha with the Jews (that is, on the same day). For it is fitting that their feast (which is no feast) is done first; and thus we do our Pascha. If one consecrated to God does this even once, he is removed from orders. The synod in Antioch also ordered this, in their first canon, where they stated that this was decreed concerning the feast of Pascha by the synod of Nicea, although no such canon is found in the canons of the Nicene synod.

I have never known anything about canon law.  I find that there is a volume on Greek canon law which tells us about this side of Zonaras.[1]  From this we learn the following details:

The work of commentary was completed after 1159, and Zonaras also included brief legal treatises within his text.  It is found in a “rich manuscript tradition”, sometimes combined with Balsamon, and sometimes by itself.  The work was translated into Old Slavonic.

The Zonaras material was edited by G. Beveregius, otherwise W. Beveridge, Synodikon sive Pandectae Canonum, Oxford 1672 in two volumes, and this was reprinted as we have seen in the PG, volumes 137 and 138.  There is, however, a newer edition by Rhalles-Potles in 6 volumes,[2] although, since this was printed in Athens, I imagine that few have access to it.

Apparently there are other works by Zonaras, which are theological, and remain largely unedited.

Clearly there is work to do on Zonaras.

  1. [1]Wilfried Hartmann, Kenneth Pennington, The History of Byzantine and Eastern Canon Law to 1500, Catholic University of America (2012), p.176-7.
  2. [2]Georgios A. Rhalles and Michael Potles, eds., Σύνταγμα τῶν θείων καὶ ἱερῶν κανόνων (6 volumes; Athens 1852–59, reprint Athens 1966).

An unexpected tale for Good Friday: The House on Lake Minnetonka That Never Existed

Today is Good Friday, and also the start of Passover; the slight divergence in the calculations this year makes for an unusual coincidence.   Good Friday is a bank holiday today, so there is peace and quiet here.  It is good to remember what the Lord did for us this day.

I thought that I would point you to an article that somehow seems appropriate to the season.  It comes from a rather unusual place, the “Captain Capitalism” blog.  The Captain is not a Christian, I should add.

The article is called The House on Lake Minnetonka That Never Existed.  It’s long, but it’s worth the read.

Many years ago, when the Captain was but a wee corporal, he was attending the University of Minnesota-Minneapolis.  Close to the campus was “the lakes.” “The lakes” included four lakes that were chained together and formed the “crown jewel” of the Minneapolis parks system.  These lakes were:

Cedar Lake
Lake of the Isles
Lake Calhoun, and
Lake Harriet.

These lakes served as the hub of nearly all outdoor summer activity in Minneapolis and to this day remain the most popular part of the Twin Cities to be during summer.  But of the four lakes “Lake of the Isles” was the most prestigious.  Here the “old money” captains of industry built their Minneapolis mansions in the 1880’s and 1900’s, and thus Lake of the Isles is perimetered by beautiful mansions and even some modern day ones as well.

Because of its proximity to the campus me and my friends would regularly bike and run around this lake.  Not only for the beauty of the lake, but the architecture of the houses that surrounded it.  And even though one would prefer to run around this lake during summer, one of my fonder memories of the Twin Cities was running around Lake of the Isles at night during winter.

Even though it may have been -5 outside, I still enjoyed running around Lake of the Isles because it gave me my goal, my inspiration, and my incentive to work hard and study hard in school.  I did not come from wealth, but at night (and not in a creepy, stalker type sense) many of the mansions would have their lights on allowing me to kind of peer into these homes and wonder about what life was like on the inside.

What was it like to have a nice warm home and not sleep in a basement?
What was it like to have so much wealth you didn’t have to worry about student loans?
Is that a wall oven I see?  Is the wife of that home making dinner?  Gosh, a home cooked meal would be great.
And forget dinner, I bet those people have nothing to worry about. They’re RICH.  They got it made.

It also helped that while running during winter it was usually Christmas time, allowing my mind to further wander and dream, speculating about awesome Christmas gifts, nuclear family meals, perhaps sitting down and watching the Charlie Brown Christmas Special.  And adding to this spectacle was that (at least in the 90’s) nearly every house would put up an impressive display of Christmas lights.  I may had been the only fool running around Lake of the Isles at 10PM in -5 degree weather, but it was and remains today one of my fondest memories….More



Debunking idiotic myths about Easter. No, it isn’t pagan. No the Easter bunny doesn’t signify anything

At Easter every year the web witnesses an upsurge of smug howling of idiotic anti-Christian nonsense, about Easter, Ishtar, the Easter Bunny and heaven knows what.  Most of us ignore it for the rubbish it is.

A couple of months ago I came across some extremely capable responses to this from a certain Adrian Bott, who blogs at cavalorn.livejournal.com and tweets as @cavalorn.  Paradoxically his thoughts are captured far better in the series of tweets than in his blog posts, or his article at the Guardian.  I believe that he posts something on this every year; so let’s help a bit, by adding this to the Google search results.

His first Twitter thread concerned how we know that Easter was not a hijacked pagan festival. (Twitter link).

“Let’s start with the basics. How do we know Easter was not a hijacked pagan festival? Paradoxically, we can do this by trying to prove that it *was.*”

Now, we know there was no one people known as ‘the pagans’. There was, rather, an abundance of non-Christian polytheistic belief systems, differing from region to region. The Anglo-Saxon pagans, for example, would not have worshipped the same Gods as the ancient Irish pagans.

So the first question is, if Easter is a stolen pagan festival, then which specific pagans was it stolen from? Going by the name – Easter, allegedly derived from the Anglo-Saxon goddess Eostre – the only possible candidate is the Anglo-Saxons.

Logically, then, the earliest possible date on which Easter can have been stolen from the pagans is 596, since that was the date on which the first Christian missionaries began to convert the Anglo-Saxons. See Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People, written in 791 CE.

And that’s where our theory falls apart; because Easter was already being celebrated long before 596, under its original name of Pesach. In fact, Easter had been celebrated since the 2nd Century. (See Melito of Sardis, Homily on the Pascha.)

In fact, Pascha was already so well established by the time the missionaries arrived in pagan England that the chief missionary, Augustine, had a major spat with the neighbouring ‘Celtic’ Church about the proper date to celebrate it on. (Also Bede.)

Okay, so why do we call it Easter? That was the name of a Goddess, right? Surely that’s evidence that the Church nicked the name of an existing festival in order to make conversion easier?

Granted, we have documentary evidence that Gregory the Great (who sent the missionaries to England) did indeed recommend a policy of acculturation – but he did *not* recommend the adoption of pagan festivals, and as we’ve seen, Pesach was already long established.

Gregory recommends that well-built pagan temples should be repurposed for Christian use, & converts should be allowed to keep on slaughtering and eating animals on sacred occasions, just not as a sacrifice. But both these things were governed by the existing Christian calendar.

Furthermore, mere missionaries simply did not have the authority to add new festivals to the Church calendar. Regardless of how helpful they might have found it to hijack the feast day of Garthog the Colossally Endowed and rebrand it as Twinklemas, they were not allowed to.

And the Pope did not add a new festival to the Church calendar without adding it for the ENTIRE Church. So why should Christians in, say, Rome have a new festival added for the sake of the new converts in Kent?

Here’s the reason why we English call Pascha ‘Easter’. According to Bede, the Anglo-Saxons DID have a festival called Eostur in honour of the Goddess Eostre. It happened in the fourth lunar month of the year.

Bede doesn’t explicitly say so, but it’s highly likely that the full moon of that lunar month marked the opening of the six months of summer; we know that the full moon of the month Winterfilleth opened winter, and the Eostur-month is six months away.

So the Anglo-Saxons are accustomed to getting together on the full moon of the fourth lunar month for a major festival that they call Eostur. It’s a feast over multiple days; a very big deal to them.

Now, the Christian celebration of Pascha is also linked to the full moon, according to a system of calculation that comes down via an entirely different route, and has its roots in Passover. (The old Hebrew calendar used lunar months, too.)

So the English converts call Pascha ‘Eostur’ through sheer force of habit. It’s ‘the big get-together on the fourth full moon of the year, when we do some religion then eat lots of roast ox.’ (The English are still eating roast meat on Easter to this day; quite pagan of us.)

But why would the English people call a Christian festival by a different name to that which their priests called it? Well, the official language of the Church was Latin, and we spoke Old English. So it makes sense that we’d go on using our old familiar name.

Not everyone in Britain did call Pascha ‘Easter’, of course. In some places it was called ‘Pace’, a much more obvious derivation of Pascha. Hence ‘pace-egging’. So no, Easter wasn’t ‘hijacked’. We English are just creatures of habit. End of thread. Thankyouverymudge.

This, I think we can all agree, expresses concisely exactly what most people need to hear.

His next thread deals with the supposed symbolism of the Easter Bunny. (Twitter link)

It’s funny how nobody ever says ‘the money the Tooth Fairy brings symbolises the rich wisdom of adulthood’, or ‘the Tooth Fairy symbolises the benevolent Goddess’. It’s as if people instinctively know that all these assertions of symbolic meaning are inherently bollocks.

The Easter Bunny does not symbolise a damn thing. None of the egg-bringing animals of legend are in any way ‘symbolic’ any more than the Tooth Fairy is. Not symbolic of ‘fertility’ nor of anything else.

But there is a reason why people are now conditioned to read ‘symbolism’ into things like the Easter Bunny, and it’s worth saying a few words about that reason, because there is an asston of class privilege and erasure involved.

Back in the last century, there was a mania for writing oh-so-learned interpretations of folk customs. It was a superb racket to be in, because the basic premise was that the original meaning of the customs had long been forgotten.

So you, the scholarly researcher, could make up – sorry, cleverly deduce – whatever ‘symbolism’ you liked, and there were no ancient pagans around to tell you you were wrong. Of course, if the silly commoners who actually PRACTICED the customs told you you were wrong…

… then you could condescendingly put them in their place. This actually happened. See Hutton’s ‘Triumph of the Moon’.

So what, you may ask, was the chief obsession of the folklorists? What themes did they persistently read into the folk customs, regardless of what the working class celebrants actually told them?

If you answered ‘pagan survivals’ and ‘fertility’ then congratulations. Have a bun.

So there you go. The reason we are currently drowning in this ‘omg it’s all symbolic of pagan fertility’ stuff is that a bunch of arrogant, well-intentioned, scholarly, superior bods not only believed they knew better than the regular people, but said so again and again.

If you want a good way of deconstructing this stuff and showing just how daft it all is, try reading ‘symbolic meanings’ into any everyday phenomenon. It’s easy to do and yields convincing results.

Here’s Ron Hutton again, from ‘Triumph of the Moon’, which anyone interested in this stuff ought to read.

In 1937, the very learned S L Hooke delivered a presidential address to the Folk-Lore Society in which he proposed that football matches on Shrove Tuesday were actually descended from a ritual combat between the forces of light and darkness.

That is the background to all these ‘Easter was pagan because symbolism!!’ assertions. It’s like a farce. But people eagerly swallowed it and we are collectively still feeling the effects to this day.

(Heckler) So why is there an Easter bunny?

Because parents didn’t want children to know who was really responsible for leaving the decorated eggs for them to find.

Why a bunny? Well, it was originally a hare, probably because hares leave nest-like forms in fields.  https://www.dailygrail.com/2016/03/hares-eggs-for-easter/

Deeply interesting.

Finally Adrian address the question: “why do we care?” (Twitter link)

Here are several reasons why I think it’s important to counter the ‘Easter was pagan’ rubbish with properly sourced & attributed facts. 1. Bogus history obscures real history, and the real history is not just rich and interesting, it tells us who we are and how we got here.

2. The ‘pagan Easter’ tropes diminish, deny or outright ignore the influence of Passover on Easter, and that’s been held up as anti-Semitic.

3. Much of the misunderstanding of Easter’s actual lore and history comes from assuming the English name for the festival – Easter – defines the whole event. That’s an absurd degree of Anglocentrism.

4. The bogus Ishtar/Easter connection was originally made in the context of an anti-Catholic rant (The Two Babylons). So there’s anti-Catholicism baked into the whole ‘Easter was pagan’ argument too.

5. Claiming Easter is all about indigenous Anglo-Saxon (thus Germanic) deities is characteristic of certain strains of hard right-wing thought.

6. The myth of pagan Easter is used in some fundamentalist Christian circles to discourage believers from celebrating it.

7. The insistence that ‘the Church hijacked pagan festivals to make it easier to convert and oppress the population’ paints a ludicrously unbalanced and ill-informed picture of how the early Church worked.

8. Facts good. Bullshit bad.

The ‘Easter was pagan’ myth manages to be anti-Semitic, anti-Catholic, anti-Christian and anti-pagan (because it peddles a false version of pagan belief) which is quite an achievement, really.

Which speaks for itself.

Thank you Adrian for trying to stem the flow of crud every Easter.


Why does the date of Easter move about so much?

Very few people seem to understand how the date of Easter is calculated, or why.  I am not among that select group!  I am deeply ignorant of the details.  But I thought that I would share what I do understand, because most people don’t even know as much as I do.  And it is Good Friday, and an Easter post seems appropriate.

Easter is the anniversary of the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.  The following is the sequence of events:

  • Thursday night – the Jewish passover  began at dusk.  Jesus ate the “Last Supper” – which was actually the passover meal – with his disciples.  He then went out to the Mount of Olives, and was arrested.
  • Friday – Jesus was tried and executed, and died before the sabbath began at dusk; in fact the Romans made sure that he was dead before the sabbath.
  • Saturday – the Jewish sabbath.
  • Sunday – the resurrection.

As we can see, the date of the resurrection is very closely connected with the Jewish festivals.  Because Jesus was a Jew, and was carrying out and fulfilling the Jewish law, you do want to connect your anniversary with these events.

The problem is, you can’t.  And it’s the Jews’ fault, and you can’t fix this unless the Jews change their calendar.

This is because the Jewish calendar is a lunar calendar.  It doesn’t relate to the solar calendar that we have.  It has 13 months.  So any date on that lunar calendar moves around, by about a month, when you look at it on our solar calendar.  This is why Easter keeps moving around between March and April in our (solar) calendar.

In fact the Jewish calendar doesn’t even relate that well to itself.  Because the Sabbath is on a Saturday.  But the passover moves around on days of the week.  Thus the passover does not usually start on Thursday night, immediately before the sabbath.

Now the date of passover, which is specified in Leviticus, is the 14th of the Jewish month of Nisan.  This should be on the first full moon of spring (note the lunar element to this).  The first full moon of spring is defined as being the full moon after the spring equinox.  And the spring equinox is the day on which the day and night are of the same length.

But even so the calendar doesn’t really work.  Sometimes an extra month is inserted.  I am told that, in fact, sometimes the rabbis had to adjust the calendar manually to get the passover to appear in the spring at the right point.

So the Jewish calendar is a pain to use.  On the other hand … if you don’t use it, you lose the connection with passover.

Now the decisions had to be made back in the first century AD.  At that time, the situation on calendars was not as simple as it is today.

Firstly, the Jewish calendar is a very ancient thing.  Defective as it is – as all calendars of that period were – it was used wherever the Jews had a synagogue, and so in every city in the Roman world.  It was universal.  So you could follow it anywhere in the Roman empire, or indeed outside.  Your local synagogue would provide the dates.

You could, if you wanted, use the Roman calendar instead.  You’d always know when Sunday was.  But the Roman solar calendar – the Julian calendar – was not used nearly as universally.  Cities would often use the Macedonian months, instead of the Roman ones.  The year would start and stop at different dates.  The main means of dating an event was from the election of annual magistrates.  So in your city, you might not have the choice of saying “23 March”; if, locally, nobody used March to reckon time.  In the east, indeed, nobody did use the Roman months.

The Christians of the 1st and 2nd century AD therefore faced some difficult decisions.

In this awful situation, what are the options?

You can celebrate the Sunday, on the Julian calendar, always on the same solar date.  This is simple – so long as your city uses the Julian calendar! – but then you lose all the connections with the Jewish passover.  This isn’t good, because passover is what Jesus was actually doing when he was arrested and executed.  Passover is the first holy communion.  Jesus sacrificed himself, as a perfect passover sacrifice for sin, once for all.  You want these links, because the meaning of Easter is about that sacrifice.

Or you can follow the Jewish pattern, and have the Easter celebration based on passover.  That’s simple enough; you hold it on 14 Nisan, and ask your local rabbi when that is.   But in that case, it won’t be on a Sunday.  And the resurrection did actually happen on a Sunday, the day after the Sabbath.  So you lose your anniversary.  Worse yet, your celebration date is being determined by some Jewish rabbi.  Now Christianity is illegal.  That rabbi probably hates you all.  He may even have denounced you to the authorities a few months earlier.  How can you possibly have someone like that deciding when Easter is?

So it’s really difficult.

Stepping back a little from this, the anniversary is the anniversary, not of Jesus’ death, on the passover, but of his resurrection.  If you have to choose, surely that is the more important?

Well, the ancients took a middle path between all this, and tried to hold to as much as they could.  They decided that the anniversary of the resurrection would be celebrated on the first Sunday after the date on which the passover should happen; and if the passover was on a Sunday, then Easter would be the next Sunday.

They also decided that they were just as capable of working out when the passover ought to occur as any Jewish rabbi, so they did their own calculation of this.  It wasn’t good for Christians – an illegal group – to be that much at the mercy of the hostile Jewish establishment.

Based on this, the early Christians worked out the calculation that we use today.


Is Easter really Astarte, a Babylonian goddess (or festival)?

It is terribly easy for the learned and scholarly readers of this blog – and even its author – to forget that most people in this world honestly have no idea about history at all.  To the ordinary man, the present fills almost his entire field of view.  To him history is a kind of cloud, somewhere far away and not at all important, in which float about Greeks and Romans and knights in armour and the like.  But to the educated man the world is like an onion, of successive layers, with the present growing out of the past.

These thoughts, which if I recall correctly are from C.S.Lewis somewhere, were prompted by seeing twitter posts asserting that Easter was Babylonian, or indeed the name of Astarte.  Only those utterly ignorant could suppose this.  But I wondered from where this came.

A little searching brought me to a curious anti-Catholic book by Alexander Hislop named The Two Babylons.  This seems to be the origin of it.

Consider this passage:

Then look at [the festival of] Easter. What means the term Easter itself? It is not a Christian name. It bears its Chaldean origin on its very forehead. Easter is nothing else than Astarte, one of the titles of Beltis, the queen of heaven, whose name, as pronounced by the people of Nineveh, was evidently identical with that now in common use in this country. That name, as found by Layard on the Assyrian monuments, is Ishtar.* The worship of Bel and Astarte was very early introduced into Britain, along with the Druids, “the priests of the groves.” Some have imagined that the Druidical worship was first introduced by the Phenicians …

But the unequivocal traces of that worship are found in regions of the British Islands where the Phenicians never penetrated, and it has everywhere left indelible marks of the strong hold which it must have had on the early British mind. From Bel, the first of May is still called Beltane in the Almanac;+ and we have customs still lingering at this day among us, which prove how exactly the worship of Bel or Moloch (for both titles belonged to the same god) had been observed even in the northern parts of this island.

“The late Lady Baird of Fern Tower, in Perthshire,” says a writer in ‘Notes and Queries,’ thoroughly versed in British Antiquities++ “told me, that every year, at Beltane (or the first of May), a number of men and women assemble at an ancient Druidical circle of stones, on her property near Crieff. They light a fire in the centre, each person puts a bit of oat cake in a shepherd’s bonnet; they all sit down and draw blindfold a piece from the bonnet. One piece has been previously blackened, and whoever gets that piece has to jump through the fire in the centre of the circle, and pay a forfeit. This is, in fact, a part of the ancient worship of Baal, and the person on whom the lot fell was previously burnt as a sacrifice. Now the passing through the fire represents that, and the payment of the forfeit redeems the victim.”

If Baal was thus worshipped in Britain, it will not be difficult to believe that his consort Astarte was also adored by our ancestors; and that from Astarte, whose name in Nineveh was Ishtar, the religious solemnities of April, as now practised, are called by the name of Easter—that month, among our Pagan ancestors, having been called Easter-monath. The festival of which we read in Church history, under the name of Easter, in the third or fourth centuries, was quite a different festival from that now observed in the Romish Church, and at that time was not known by any such name as Easter.* It was called Pasch, or the Passover, and though not of Apostolic institution,+ was very early observed by many professing Christians, in commemoration of the death and resurrection of Christ.

++ The Right Hon. Lord John Scott.
* The name of Easter is peculiar to the British Islands.
+ Socrates, the ancient ecclesiastical historian, after a lengthened account of the different ways in which Easter was observed in different countries in his time, i.e., the fifth century, sums up in these words: “ Thus much already laid down may seem a sufficient treatise, to prove that the celebration of the feast of Easter began everywhere more of custom than by any commandment either of Christ or any Apostle.” (Hist. Ecclesiast, lib. v., cap. 22).

 The author then goes on to discuss the idea of Lent, and to make a series of claims about the origins of this which need not detain us.

The argument above is simple, once we remove the verbiage, and so let’s examine it:

  1. There is a folk custom of celebrating “Beltane”, according to a 19th century almanac.
  2. The name must refer to the Babylonian god Bel or Ba`al.  (Why?)
  3. This is confirmed by a piece of folk-lore where people in Scotland burn something. (If this story is true, why does it relate in any way?)
  4. If Bel was here, then Astarte must be too.  (Why?)
  5. If the pagans of whatever period is mentioned worshipped Bel and Astarte, then Eosturmonath – the name of the spring season, given by Bede and nowhere else – must refer to Astarte.  (Why?)
  6. So the inhabitants of Babylon must pronounce Astarte in the same way as Britons of 19th century England pronounce Easter. (Why?)

Each claim is open to a simple objection – that the claim made is not evidenced, and that there is no special reason to believe it.  Each and every step in this argument is open to the very same objection.  Yet unless all of them are true, the argument collapses.

And the claims are simply ridiculous.

Why should a modern Scottish folk custom relate to Bel of Babylon?  Why should a modern Scottish custom relate to the nomenclature of the Anglo-Saxons a millennium earlier?

Which people precisely are supposed to have adopted Bel – the beaker folk?  The celts?  The Romano-British?  The picts? For there has been much movement of peoples in Britain.

The claim to know how the ancient Babylonians pronounced Astarte … where does Hislop get his information? Time travel?

But it is pointless to go on with beating this drivel to death.  Hislop has no evidence, his argument is just a sequence of claims, none of them at all probable.  It’s drivel and nothing else.

As a final note, let’s return to Hislop’s footnote about Socrates:

Socrates, the ancient ecclesiastical historian, after a lengthened account of the different ways in which Easter was observed in different countries in his time, i.e., the fifth century, sums up in these words: “ Thus much already laid down may seem a sufficient treatise, to prove that the celebration of the feast of Easter began everywhere more of custom than by any commandment either of Christ or any Apostle.” (Hist. Ecclesiast, lib. v., cap. 22)

The HE of Socrates is online, and book 5 chapter 22 is here.  We may note that Hislop’s words are not to be found in it.  In fact Socrates doesn’t discuss that issue, but instead says that the exact date of celebrating Easter, and the fasts connected to it, were not specified by the apostles; not that celebrating it was not specified.


From my diary

It’s the evening of Easter Saturday.  I don’t use my computer on Sundays, so this is my opportunity to wish you all a happy Easter.  With or without chocolate eggs, bunnies, or whatever!

All over the world, Christian bloggers are wracking their brains on what to say about today.  I have nothing original to say.

Yesterday Christ died for us, denounced by a false friend, arrested and condemned on a charge which all concerned knew to be false, and executed in a manner unnecessarily cruel.  He warned those who follow him that, if he was hated, we should expect to be.  There’s been plenty of that in the news this week.  It is possible to become very depressed by the savagery and unconcealed bile directed towards harmless people.  I remember days when much of what is going on would have been unthinkable.

But God is in charge.  Times of peace may be nice, but this world is not our home.  In times of peace and plenty, morality decays.  It is remarkably hard to be pleasure-seeking, when fighting for your very existence!  This is why God allows wars and suffering; to prevent human society putrefying out of sheer self-indulgence.  After 50 years of peace, we can hardly complain if it is our turn.

It looks very much as if, over the next few years, God will now winnow the church with fire, separating the sheep from the goats.  There will be the fake Christians, who conform, and are rather contemptuously flattered by the world for dancing to its tune.  There will be the real Christians, who will not deny the gospel, and will be at risk of being imprisoned and having their property seized.  We must all pray to be among the number of the latter.

At the moment the issue chosen by the wicked men of the world is whether we endorse unnatural vice.  We shall be tempted to pay lip service to this absurd demand, for a quiet life.  We must refuse.  We should remember that the early Christians were persecuted for three centuries for refusing to burn a pinch of incense to Caesar – seemingly a small thing, which nobody else took seriously.  But that small thing was chosen, by the powers of this world, precisely because Christians could not do it in good conscience.  That is how persecution works; find an issue on which your enemy cannot give way, and use it to torment him.  We must never suppose that some “small issue” is not important.  It may be another “pinch of incense”.  Trotsky mocked Stalin for his show trials, for collecting “dead souls”.  That is the risk in conformity.

Tomorrow we shall be reminded that the powers of hell could not prevail.  Christ is risen, and those who thought themselves important, and wrote him off found themselves forgotten, except as footnotes to his life and victory.  So will it be with the great ones of our age.

In the mean time, we must remember to pray (and to check whether God answered, and to give him thanks when we find he does; and when we find that he did not).  We must find ways to evade the demands of the wicked, for we are under no obligation to make their evil task easier.  We must share the good news – that all this rubbish in ourselves and in the world is only temporary, that he can forgive our failings, and that if we give our lives to Christ, we can hope to see an end to it all and better days.

Happy Easter to you all.  Christ is Risen!