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Only six days until Shabbat!

  • Daniel Botkin

Bede Bashing by Facebook Buddies

About this time of year, we can look forward to seeing the first signs of spring: flowers pushing their way up through the soil, robins happily hopping on our lawns looking for worms, and mean-spirited Messianic people on Facebook bashing Christians who celebrate Easter.

The mean-spirited Messianics will point out that the English word Easter comes from the name of the old Anglo-Saxon fertility goddess Eastre, who was known by similar names in other parts of the world. The Hebrews called her Asherah (plural Ashtaroth); the Akkadians called her Ishtar; the Greeks called her Astarte; the Persians called her Sitara. The mean-spirited Messianics will also point out that the widespread use of fertility symbols such as eggs and rabbits in the Easter celebration is further proof of the holiday’s connection to the pagans’ springtime celebration of the fertility goddess.

In response to the mean-spirited Messianics, some kind-spirited Messianics will claim that all this information about Easter is false, and that we should not criticize the celebration of Easter. Many opinions will be exchanged, but few minds will be changed.

I saw this happen a few years ago on Facebook. I did not want to get too deeply embroiled in the debate, but I did ask the kind-spirited Messianics why they claimed that the claim about the origin of the word Easter was false. After all, dictionaries and encyclopedias and books at the library say it is true. Why do some say it is a false claim when so many reputable sources say it is true?

The answer I was given was that all these sources are just repeating the claim of Bede, and Bede was wrong.

Who was Bede, and what did he say about the word Easter? And how reliable is Bede as a historical source?

Bede (A.D. 673-735) was a man who from the age of seven spent his entire life in a monastery in England reading, researching, teaching, and writing. According to noted English historian Barbara M. H. Strang, “Bede became in his own lifetime a legend throughout Europe.”1 Bede wrote 34 books, some in Latin, some in English.

What did Bede say about the English word Easter? According to the Dictionary of the Middle Ages, Bede said that Christians “stole the name, and thus the power” of the Anglo-Saxon fertility goddess Eastre. The New Oxford American Dictionary, 3rd Edition, under Easter, says: “According to Bede the word is derived from Eastre, the name of the goddess associated with spring.” Similar statements appear in other dictionaries and encyclopedias.

Even if the dictionaries and encyclopedias are just repeating what Bede said, what is the reason to reject Bede’s claim? When I asked some Bede-bashing Facebook buddies this question, I was told that Bede was a historian but not a linguist.

Well, I guess that depends on a person’s definition of the word linguist. My Webster’s Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary defines a linguist as “a person accomplished in languages; esp. one who speaks several languages.” According to the Dictionary of World Biography, “Bede eventually became a master of both Latin and Greek, and he even knew some Hebrew... [h]e also wrote linguistic and literary works... the list goes on and on.”2 The Encyclopedia Britannica says that some of Bede’s works are “grammatical” and include “treatises on spelling and figures of speech.”

Even if the above information from reliable sources is not enough to convince Bede-bashers that Bede was indeed a linguist, does a historian need to be a bonafide linguist to record a linguistic fact? Bede was not just presenting his own personal unscholarly speculation about the word Easter; Bede did not operate that way. Bede meticulously consulted and verified his sources.

How reliable is Bede as a historical source? In graduate school at Illinois State University, I took a course on The History of the English Language, using a textbook by Barbara Strang, who was considered one of the top experts, if not the very top expert, on the history of our language. I was taught that Bede is the most reliable and accurate source for the history of English up to his time. Consider the following:

Barbara Strang says that Bede’s “standards of historical scholarship” were such that his standards “would not be matched for over a thousand years.”3

The Dictionary of World Biography says this: “Unlike many writers, Bede nearly always named his sources. He also often quoted his source documents verbatim and at great length... he attained a high level of accuracy in his quotations... His writings became accepted reference works even while he was still alive.”

The Encyclopedia Britannica says this of Bede: “For his sources he claimed the authority of ancient letters, the ‘traditions of our forefathers,’ and his own knowledge of contemporary events... it is the work of a scholar anxious to assess the accuracy of his sources and to record only what he regarded as trustworthy evidence.”

The New World Encyclopedia says Bede was “known for his assiduous scholarly practices. He is the first writer to rigorously cite his sources, rarely making an assertion without having a substantial body of documentation to support his argument. His method of documenting his sources -- and always being critical of their veracity -- has become the de facto standard for academic writing.” Furthermore, Bede “had at his command all the learning of his time,” and he “was very concerned about the veracity of his sources. Bede has been referred to, somewhat jokingly, as the ‘father of the footnote,’ but the attribution is quite apt.”

With all this information (from real encyclopedias) about Bede, it is going to take more than a claim on Facebook to convince me that Bede’s claim about the word Easter was false, especially when I consider the fact that Bede lived 1,300 years closer to the introduction of the word Easter into the English language than we do.

Yes, I am aware of the more modern theory about the source of the word Easter, the theory that Old High German eostarun (“dawn”) was used to refer to the Christian holiday as a result of a misunderstanding of the Latin phrase hebdomata alba, “white week,” when the newly-baptized wore white garments during the Christian holiday. Because alba can mean “white”or “dawn,” this theory suggests that perhaps alba was mistakenly translated into Old High German as “dawn” (eostarun) and later found its way into Old English as eastre.

I have known about this theory for many years. As a matter of fact, I wrote about this theory in the mid-1980s in a research paper for a class I took in graduate school on The History of the English Language. I still have the paper. After discussing the modern theory about the origin of the word Easter, I concluded that Bede’s explanation is much more believable.

When considering word origins of the ancient past, I’m always open to new information. However, I consider new information only if it is based on solid, verifiable facts. Mere speculation without proof remains speculation.

Is it possible Bede was mistaken about the origin of the word Easter? I suppose it is theoretically possible. But if people want to claim that Bede was wrong, then the burden of proof is on them. And speculation about Christians accidentally translating alba as “dawn” rather than as “white” is not a solid, verifiable fact. It is mere speculation, and without proof it remains speculation. The only real way to prove Bede was wrong is to find a reliable source that predates Bede’s claim. As far as I know, no one has ever done this.

For these reasons, I still believe Bede’s claim about the origin of the word Easter. However, that does not mean that I approve of mean-spirited Messianics bashing Christians for their celebration of Easter. Yes, Christians need to be told about the paganism that saturates some Christian holidays. But they need to be told in a kind-spirited way, not in a mean-spirited way.

Happy Passover!

| DB


Image: "The Venerable Bede Translates John" by James Doyle Penrose (1862-1932) Inset from "The last chapter (Bede)", exhibited at the Royal Academy (1902)

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