by Luke Wayne
There is no obvious connection between the two, but colored eggs have become ubiquitously associated with the Easter celebration of Jesus' resurrection. This practice is clearly not "biblical" in the sense that the Bible nowhere prescribes or even implies the concept of Easter eggs. Indeed, eggs are scarcely mentioned at all in Scripture, and certainly never in any connection to the death and resurrection of Jesus. One would never read the Bible and come away with anything like the concept of dyeing eggs for Easter.
But where did the idea of Easter eggs come from, and does it violate any biblical command or principle? To answer that, we need a little more historical background.
Pagan Cultures and Decorated Eggs
There is a common popular reasoning today that, because birds lay eggs in spring and because eggs are a beginning of new life, Easter eggs must come from some kind of springtime pagan fertility practice. While there is a sort of logic to this guess, few can offer any solid historical evidence to substantiate it.
It is true that, over the centuries, many pagan cultures have decorated eggs. There are ancient examples in Africa, the Near East, and along the Mediterranean of elaborate art etched into the thick, hard shells of ostrich eggs. Some cultures, like China, have a rich tradition of beautiful, delicate carvings made out of hollowed-out eggshells. The idea of using eggs as a medium for artistic expression and decoration is clearly ancient and diverse. Still, there is no obvious connection between these kinds of examples and the practice of dyeing colored, hard-boiled chicken eggs for Easter. These examples are also often from too early a time period or too different a location to be plausible as an explanation for the origin of Easter eggs.
In an obscure passage related to the magical practices of pagans and heretics in his day (third century AD), Hippolytus of Rome seems to describe a form of divination that involved displaying hollowed-out eggshells that were not only etched but also dyed with ink, fig juice, and other substances.1 This sounds a bit closer to (though still quite different from) Easter eggs, but it is still far too early. Christians did not start dyeing eggs for Easter until much later, and there is no evidence that the practice Hippolytus described was widespread or persisted down through the ages. While Hippolytus' reference to the practice is quite brief, there is nothing in it to suggest any connection to springtime, Easter, resurrection, or anything else that would lend itself to the development of Easter eggs, nor is there any evidence that Christians ever made Easter eggs for anything comparable to divination. While both practices involve dyeing eggs (or at least their shells), there is no other meaningful connection between them. There is no logical or historical line that would suggest one had anything to do with the other.
Perhaps the strongest examples to which some might point are the Persian "New Year" celebration of Nowruz and the Egyptian festival of Sham en-Nessim. Both of these holidays are springtime celebrations that occur very close to Easter. Both also have traditions of decorating eggs. Both holidays have ancient roots and have persisted as cultural celebrations down to today. Both holidays are centered in places where Christians came to live, and so would have been exposed to the local traditions. So, many will claim that Christians must have borrowed their tradition of Easter egg decorations from one of these holidays. The real historical situation, however, is not so simple.
It is true that, just like Easter, both of these holidays have come to include egg decoration as part of their celebration. The earliest sources on these events, however, mention nothing about the dyeing or decorating of eggs. Just as with Easter, the eggs seem to be something that was added to their celebrations sometime much later in history. Indeed, one could make the reverse argument that the Christian practice of Easter eggs came first and that these other spring holidays borrowed it from them. Such borrowing is not without precedent. Today, for example, Egyptians use Easter to calculate the date of Sham en-Nessim, always celebrating it the day after the Coptic Church celebrates Easter. Still, one need not assume direct borrowing one way or the other. The traditions, which are not identical, may have begun fully independently. Mere parallels do not prove dependence or borrowing. It may also be the case that they arose separately but out of a common cultural affinity for egg-decoration as an art form, and thus are very loosely, but not at all directly, related.
One factor often overlooked is that almost all of these examples involve elaborately and beautifully decorated eggs, but that is not actually how Easter eggs began. Quite distinct from these other examples, the earliest Easter eggs were notably plain, all dyed only solid red. They seem to have been made much more out of simple symbolism than out of beautification, and that is quite unique among all the other examples generally offered. While Christians later did develop Easter eggs as an often elaborate art form, that is not their origin. The truth is, there is no solid data directly linking Easter eggs to any pagan practice. What's more, there are solid reasons to suspect that the custom of Easter eggs developed another way.
Eggs in Early Christian Tradition
Eggs don't feature often in the earliest Christian literature. Almost every reference to an egg by a Christian writer during the first few centuries of the Church is either to Jesus' words about a son asking for an egg and being given a scorpion (Luke 11:12) or to the judgment prophecy in Isaiah about God looting the nations like the eggs of an unguarded nest, (Isaiah 10:14). As early as the fourth century, however, we begin to see some Christian writers using bird eggs as an analogy to illustrate the idea of bodily resurrection.2 They were not writing about Easter and Jesus' resurrection but rather the future hope of resurrection for all believers.3 There is no evidence that Easter eggs were in use at this time, so it seems that the idea of eggs as a picture of resurrection comes before the actual practice of using eggs at Easter.
Eggs and the Easter Meal
Easter itself developed out of the Jewish Passover feast. It is worth noting that, among the Jews, hard-boiled eggs were part of the traditional meal of grief or mourning during times of loss.4 For related reasons, they became part of the traditional Passover Seder plate5 and, for many Jews in the East, part of the main Passover meal as well.6 So, while we have no sources that detail what foods were eaten by Christians at Easter, it would not be at all surprising if hard boiled eggs were actually a common dish on many Easter tables from an early date (though certainly not dyed or decorated).
What we do know is that the idea of fasting leading up to the celebration of Easter is very ancient, going back at least to the second century AD. At first, these fasts were typically only one or two days, but they eventually developed into the forty-day fast of Lent. Practices varied from place to place then (as they still do today), but eggs seem to have been almost universally forbidden during Lent. One fifth-century historian notes:
"Some abstain from eggs, and all kinds of fruits: others partake of dry bread only; still others eat not even this: while others having fasted till the ninth hour, afterwards take any sort of food without distinction," (Socrates Scholasticus, Ecclesiastical History, Book 5, Chapter 22).
The seventh-century Council of Trullo, addressing some Armenian churches who allowed eggs to be eaten on Sundays during Lent, had this to say:
"We have likewise learned that in the regions of Armenia and in other places certain people eat eggs and cheese on the Sabbaths and Lord’s days of the holy Lent. It seems good therefore that the whole Church of God which is in all the world should follow one rule and keep the fast perfectly, and as they abstain from everything which is killed, so also should they from eggs and cheese, which are the fruit and produce of those animals from which we abstain," (Council of Trullo, Canon 56).
On into the middle ages, Thomas Aquinas wrote:
"The Lenten fast lays a general prohibition even on eggs and milk foods," (Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, Second Part, Second Section, Question 147, Article 8).
So, while different regions and different time periods had different practices regarding Lent, in most cases eggs were a forbidden food even on Sundays (which were not, strictly speaking, fast days nor counted among the forty days of Lent). Thus, after over forty days of abstaining from eggs, around Easter people were again permitted to eat them. Since chickens did not abstain from laying eggs during Lent, there would be an abundance of eggs on hand and an urgency not to let them spoil. Thus, it is not surprising that, as the popularity of Lent grew starting in the fourth and fifth centuries, eggs became an increasingly prominent part of Easter feasting.
So this much we are sure of: by the late ancient period, eggs were a significant part of Easter meals because of Lent. Entirely independent of this, the idea of the egg as an analogy for bodily resurrection was developing in some areas of the Christian community. None of this gives us the practice of dyeing Easter eggs, but it certainly lays a cultural background for the custom to develop. Exactly when and how these things converged into the Easter egg tradition is not documented, but it makes sense that they would.
The earliest examples of dyeing eggs for Easter seem to appear in the Greek East, spreading from there to Russia and the Slavic states, to England, and eventually throughout Europe. As mentioned before, the earliest "Easter eggs" were dyed solid red. They seem to have been used as illustrative images of Christ's death and resurrection. There is no evidence that they were used in any formal ritual or act of worship, though it does seem that they were often distributed as gifts to the poor, to monasteries and churches, and to local officials. Only much later did people begin to make them more and more ornate and, in some places, turn it into quite an elaborate art form. The precise history and timeline of all of this are fuzzy. It does not appear to have been an important enough part of Easter celebrations for many people to write much about it in the earlier days of the practice. Still, there does seem to be enough information to conclude that Easter eggs are not a direct borrowing of any known pagan practice and have an explicable, if at some points vague, history of their own within the customs of ancient and medieval churches.
Should Christians Use Easter Eggs?
Easter eggs are certainly not established in Scripture, and there is nothing in the Bible that would especially commend them. Still, there is also nothing in the practice of dyeing eggs to celebrate Easter that seems inherently sinful. The eggs are not worshipped as idols nor are they offered to idols. The eggs are not a form of divination nor a sacramental means to try to obtain God's grace by some ritual work. They are merely a festive folk art form that developed around the holiday. As such, there does not seem to be any reason to dogmatically forbid Easter eggs.
It seems, then, that the custom is a matter of Christian liberty. In as much as one can use them, as our ancestors once did, as an illustration of and symbol for Christ's death and resurrection, there may even be some possible value in the tradition. However, if they distract from the focus on Jesus or cause the stumbling of a weaker brother who sees (even if wrongly) something dubious or pagan in them, it may be best to forego our liberties and our superficial pleasure in the custom for the edification of others. As in all matters of Christian liberty, whether we participate or abstain, may it be done to the glory of God and the benefit of our brothers and sisters in Christ. And may we not sow division over such differences.
- 1. Hippolytus of Rome, The Refutation of All Heresies, Book 4, Chapter 29
- 2. See, for example, Cyril of Jerusalem, Catechetical Lectures, Lecture 18, Section 8 and Ephrem the Syrian, Hymn 65
- 3. Another related though different egg analogy pointed out that, just as even the most beautifully formed egg must be broken and pass away for the bird to be born, so too must the present heavens and earth, though wondrously and purposefully made, pass away so that the new and eternal kingdom can come, (see Pseudo-Clementine Recognitions, Book 3, Chapter 28). This analogy, however, is preserved in the Pseudo-Clementine literature, which is heavily influenced by unorthodox and sometimes outright heretical ideas, and thus does not necessarily reflect imagery that was common among orthodox Christians.
- 4. Alfred Edersheim, Sketches of Jewish Social Life in the Days of Christ, (Hodder and Stoughton, 1876) 174-175
- 5. Hayim H. Donin, To Be A Jew: A Guide To Jewish Observance In Contemporary Life (Basic Books, 1972) Kindle Locations 2794-2796
- 6. ibid, Kindle Locations 2837-2838