Is Easter named after Ishtar?

by Matt Slick

The word "Easter" is of ancient origin. Some believe it was related to Ishtar the ancient Babylonian goddess of war, sex, and fertility that had symbols which included the egg and rabbit. However, that is not accurate.

"Originally a Saxon word (Eostre), denoting a goddess of the Saxons, in honor of whom sacrifices were offered about the time of the Passover. Hence the name came to be given to the festival of the Resurrection of Christ, which occurred at the time of the Passover."1

The Bible never uses the word in the original Greek of the New Testament. However, the King James Version uses the word in Acts 12:4, "And when he had apprehended him, he put him in prison, and delivered him to four quaternions of soldiers to keep him; intending after Easter to bring him forth to the people." The word in Greek in that verse is pascha, not ishtar or Eostre or easter. Pascha points to the Old Testament Passover.

Ishtar was an ancient fertility goddess of the Akkadians that was worshiped in Mesopotamia until around the first century BC. Ishtar was associated with the planet Venus2 and Tammuz, the god of vegetation, which is mentioned in Ezekiel 8:14.

The English word itself seems to be derived from Old English and/or Old High German that formed around A.D. 900-1200.

  • Middle English estre, from Old English ēastre; akin to Old High German ōstarun (plural) Easter, Old English ēast east
  • First Known Use: before 12th century3
  • before 900; Middle English ester, Old English ēastre; cognate with German Ostern; orig. name of a goddess and her festival; akin to east4

Should we use the pagan originated word "Easter" to designate Christ's resurrection?

We have seen that Easter is not related to Ishtar; but it is, as a word, related to the ancient goddess of the Saxons. So, is it proper to use such a word that has pagan origins in order to describe such a sacred Christian celebration? The answer is simple. Using it is not a problem. Let me explain why. 

The origin of the word does not mean that the word is bad, any more than the origin of technology used by the Nazi's (jet engine) means that it is bad.

If we are to avoid using words of pagan origin, then we should be consistent and avoid using such words as . . .

  • Jupiter--the ancient Roman god of the heavens and the weather.5
  • Mars--the ancient Roman god of war.6
  • Saturday--the day of Saturn, the ancient god of agriculture, hence, Saturn day which became Saturday.7
  • Saturn--the ancient Roman god of agriculture that we used to describe whatever planets.8
  • Thursday--derived from the ancient word Thursdagr, which designated the Norse god Thor from which Thorsday derives.9

So we can see that many words have pagan origins, but we still use them today. It's not bad to use them; and it doesn't mean that if we use a word that originated in a pagan context, that we are somehow involved in paganism. Therefore, it is okay to use the word Easter because we understand it to mean that time of the year when Jesus rose from the dead.

  • 1. Easton, M. G. Easton’s Bible Dictionary. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1893.
  • 2. Achtemeier, Paul J., Harper & Row and Society of Biblical Literature. Harper’s Bible Dictionary. San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1985.
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About The Author

Matt Slick is the President and Founder of the Christian Apologetics and Research Ministry.