Consider the following claims, which not only circulate the interwebs every spring, but are also strongly held and espoused year-round by some groups — such as Jehovah’s Witnesses; Seventh Day Adventists; and peoples associated with the loosely-held term Hebrew Roots, all of whom worship Jesus but forsake holidays celebrated throughout church history, like Easter and Christmas, if they were not explicitly set up by God in the bible. The claims go something like this:
Easter was originally the celebration of Ishtar, the Assyrian and Babylonian goddess of fertility and sex. Her symbols (like the egg and bunny) were and still are fertility and sex symbols (or did you actually think eggs and bunnies had anything to do with the resurrection?) After Constantine decided to Christianize the Empire, Easter was changed to represent Jesus. But at its roots, Easter (which is how you pronounce Ishtar) is all about celebrating fertility and sex.
Yikes! Who wants to unknowingly, let alone knowingly, commit cultural appropriation of pagan sex festivals in an effort to honor the most central miracle of the Christian faith? Not I.
So when I heard this — the first time was circa 2008 when the incredibly popular but poorly verified internet film Zeitgeist was making its rounds — I knew I had to get to the bottom of whether or not I was getting dressed up in pastels and bowties every spring to sing praises to a Babylonian goddess.
What I found put some bounce back in my bunnyhop.
There seems to be nothing predating 1835’s Deutsche Mythologie by Jacob Grimm to substantiate these claims; and Grimm’s own theories seem to be mere conjecture, as his citations are those of separate facts from which he weaves the narrative we’ve all now heard. On the contrary, as anthropologist Krystal D’Costa concludes in her Scientific American article, there is no evidence to connect the tradition of Easter or Easter eggs with Ostara or Ishtar or Eostre or any other pagan deity whose name might sound like the English word Easter. After all, consider the fact that only in English speaking parts of the world is this weekend’s holiday called Easter. Most people throughout history, including globally today, just call it Pascha from the Greek/Latin equivalent of Pesach. That’s Passover — the historical and still-celebrated Jewish festival commemorating the exodus led by Moses of the Hebrews from Egyptian captivity.
As Lutheran author Joseph Abrahamson points out,
A search of all the ancient literature left by the Germanic, Celtic, English peoples and their ancestors combined with a search of all ancient literature about those peoples by their contemporaries before to the 8th century A.D. (which is the first recorded claim of pagan roots for Easter) turns up nothing regarding a goddess with the name Easter, Eostre, or Ostara. There is nothing in any Edda, nothing in any history, nothing. 
Jürgen Udolph, a German onomastic (linguist who specializes in name origins) and professor, traces “Ostern / Easter” from a Nordic root ausa “to pour water,” which was proposed by Siegfried Gutenbrunner in 1966. This seems extremely plausible when coupled with the idea of baptisms taking place in European churches on the Sunday commemorating Jesus’ resurrection.
An even more innocuous possibility offered by 8th-century monk Bede —whose Reckoning of Time serves as the only documentary source for the etymology of the word. He wrote that Ēosturmōnaþ (Old English ‘Month of Ēostre’, translated in Bede’s time as “Paschal month”) was an English month, corresponding to April, which he says “was once called after a goddess of theirs named Ēostre, in whose was celebrated in that month”.  One who argues against celebrating Easter simply because it falls during April and April might be named after a pagan goddess, would also have to argue against holding any sort of celebration (Passover, etc.) on a Thursday due to the day’s etymology (Old English meaning Thor’s day after the Germanic/Scandinavian god). Bad reasons on both counts.
Ok, fine, the challenger says. The name, whatever.
..what about the hare and the eggs?!
D’Costa’s article reports that, “Ishtar doesn’t seem to be connected to eggs in any explicit way.” And I think she’s right. As far as I could find, the foundational piece of evidence used to claim that Easter eggs are recycled from pagan celebrations is a single sculpture in ancient Iran, carved by the old pagan Zoroastrians from then-Persia, showing people bearing gifts on the New Year day celebration on the Spring equinox. Among the variety of different gifts carried by the people in this sculpture… appears to be an egg. Gasp!
I like eggs. Do you like eggs? If we like eggs, and we care about someone — our Nana, our dog, a god — wouldn’t we want to share eggs with that person? It’s the very principle of a sacrifice: find something you like of which you have a finite number, and give some of those nice things to a person/god you want to please. I don’t know how shocking it is that ancients would do this with food, including eggs. Plus, aside from this carving, no ancient writings indicate the borrowing of the practice of giving eggs by early Christians from any other cultures. In fact, no written history puts Christians and Zoastrians in the same place at the same time pre-dating Easter practices.
Still, the modern Neopagans and Wiccans assert that the egg is their ancient sign of fertility. But even our health teachers in middle school used eggs as “a symbol of fertility” when discussing female anatomy as it pertains to procreation, right? It doesn’t require Wiccan origins to know eggs lead to babies.
So at best we have to contend with an archetypal symbol for fertility or offspring or new life being used by Christians to commemorate the resurrection of their Messiah from the dead. A solid case this does not make.
To figure out which truly came first, the Easter or the egg, let’s consider these important points:
The biblical Passover meal — of which Jesus partook the night before his crucifixion — includes a roasted whole egg placed as one of six food items on the Seder plate. If you’re Jewish, you know this. You might also know that the egg was the first dish served at Israelite funerals, in the time of Jesus’ ministry on Earth and in some Jewish circles today .
Additionally, an egg is consumed as part of Tisha B’Av, the saddest day of the Jewish calendar, commemorating the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem — the only place where a perfect Passover Lamb can be sacrificed for sins .
Lastly, the season preceding Easter is Lent, observed by many in both the eastern and western Church by fasting from meat and bird flesh, including eggs. Again from D’Costa:
While egg decorating kits offer a vibrant means of decorating eggs today, the link between life and eggs was traditionally made by using a red coloring…. Among Christians, red symbolizes the blood of Jesus. Among Macedonians, it has been a tradition to bring a red egg to Church and eat it when the priest proclaims ‘Christ is risen’ at the Easter vigil and the Lenten fast is officially broken.
That’s a well balance break-fast!
And what of our Easter hare or bunny? Like with the egg above, a picture has spoken a thousand words in the skeptic community. Here’s the oft-cited statue tying rabbits to pagan goddesses:
Is this Ostara and the Easter Rabbit? Naw, wrong time and wrong hemisphere. This is a Mayan statue depicting a 16th-century moon goddess . In Central America (and China, too!) the moon’s surface was often interpreted as showing the face of a rabbit, which meant their moon deities were close chums with bunnies. And since rabbits are fertile and breed like.. well, themselves.. so it’s not news to anyone that the rabbit or hare has been used by all kinds of religions around the world as a symbol in that vein. Each religion fitting its own teaching on the symbol of the rabbit, but as a single point of consistency amongst them, the rabbit represents new, fresh, abundant life.
So could it just be a coincidence that moon goddesses and other non-Christian deities looked like or hung out with rabbits, and that Christians for their own reasons use a rabbit in their depiction and remembrance of a man who said, “I came that they might have life, and have it more abundantly,” and whose biography includes a focal point of his emergence from a tomb which happened to look like a giant rabbit hole?
As Abrahamson points out, Christian art has several examples from the early times through the renaissance of rabbits as a symbol of Jesus. Here are a few:
- The three hare window in Paderborn, Germany (below) , as well as St. Joseph’s monastery in Muottatal Switzerland, where three rabbits — each with only one ear visible — are circled up to symbolize the Trinity 
- A 1470 engraving The Temptation of Jesus has three by three rabbits at the feet of Jesus Christ 
- Albrecht Dürer’s woodcut of 1497 The Holy Family with the Three Hares, showing two hares next to each other and the other going down toward a hole with a stone rolled next to it (below)
- Hans Baldung Grien 1512–1516 painted the altar for the Freiburg Cathedral with the second panel representing Mary’s Visitation to Elizabeth where he painted the rabbits about the feet of Mary and Elizabeth (below)
- Titan’s Madonna and Child with St. Catherine and a Rabbit which was painted in 1530 (below)
In the ancient Eastern Church the rabbit was used on tombstones and as a symbol of Christ. One author again points out that some early Christians viewed the rabbit’s hole as a symbol of the tomb of Christ. 
So what’s all this to my readers in the States? Well, America owes the traditions of the Easter Bunny to the Pennsylvania Dutch settlers who came from Alsace, a boarder town between Germany and France. In 1678, German physicist Georg Franck von Frankenau wrote the first-ever written story about Easter Eggs, where he warned against the excessive eating of these eggs by children whose parents would leave them in the name of the Easter Hare — a “character” representing the resurrected Jesus for the aforementioned reasons. The people from this region settled in Pennsylvania and brought with them their symbolism and traditions including the hare representing Jesus and the egg representing the tomb and the life inside, all culminating in a celebration of Christ’s resurrection through the giving, breaking, and eating of decorated eggs when the fast of Lent ended on Easter Sunday.
You’re welcome, Cadbury.
As a final note, it is important to mention that this journey I took to discover if the annual celebration of Jesus’ resurrection called Easter or Pascha or simply Resurrection Sunday was a reconfiguring of ancient pagan traditions, this pursuit was not made so that my family and I could keep the bunny and the eggs a focal point in the holiday. There is still a perversion and dechristianizing of this celebration when the eggs and rabbit remain but the resurrection is stripped away. I’ve written at length elsewhere about how silly a neutered version of the holiday should appear to adults.
Maybe don’t go to church this Easter?
Or, a call to examine whether we’re living consistent with our principles in adulthood
But next step taken by many says that if Easter is an amalgamation of non-Christian practices forced into Christian lives by the emperor Constantine and/or the Catholic church all those years ago, then it has no ties to reality; and if the holiday has no ties to reality, that the event at its center — the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth from his tomb after dying by Roman crucifixion — has no basis in actual history either. This is a dangerous slippery slope fallacy committed unknowingly by folks who don’t understand just how much historical evidence we have for the historical accuracy of the narrative of the Christian gospel. I’ve also written about that.
A Defense of the Resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth
Why Christianity is intellectually fulfilling
Please enjoy, and to you and yours I wish a very hoppy.. er, happy.. Easter!
Citations! Get ya citations, right here!
 Norman Davies (1998). Europe: A History. HarperCollins. p. 201. ISBN 978–0060974688. In most European languages Easter is called by some variant of the late Latin word Pascha, which in turn derives from the Hebrew pesach, meaning passover.
 Birgit Gehrisch’s Lepusculus Domini, Erotic Hare, Meister Lampe” Zur Rolle des Hasen in der Kulturgeschichte, Inaugural-Dissertaion zur Erlangun, VVB Laufersweiler Verlag, Wettenberg, Germany, 2005.)