For Christians worldwide, Easter is a celebration of the resurrection of Jesus Christ. While the eschatological doctrines associated with Christ’s crucifixion, death, and resurrection are a matter of faith, the attestation of primary accounts makes Jesus’ emergence from the tomb a matter of historical record. And many of the contemporary symbols associated with Easter date back centuries — and represent elements of this most holy event from the life of Jesus of Nazareth.
To a historian, primary sources are the bedrock to validate or invalidate events or individuals averred to be historical. Princeton University’s History Department defines a primary source as “a document or physical object which was written or created during the time under study. These sources were present during an experience or time period and offer an inside view of a particular event.”
Primary sources regarding the life of Jesus of Nazareth are plentiful. The eyewitness accounts of four contemporaries are recorded in the Synoptic Gospels, the first four books of the New Testament. There are many secular primary sources that attest to the fact that Jesus lived at the time, including Roman historians Tacitus and Suetonius, and the Jewish historian Josephus.
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As a quantitative matter of fact, there are more primary sources confirming the reality of Jesus of Nazareth than there are of the Roman leader Julius Caesar. Yet to my knowledge, no serious historian of the antiquities questions whether Julius Caesar really lived.
Validating this concept, Rylands professor of biblical criticism and exegesis at the University of Manchester, F. F. Bruce, wrote, “The historicity of Christ is as axiomatic for an unbiased historian as the historicity of Julius Caesar.” World historian Will Durant indicates that, to the best of his knowledge, “no Jew or Gentile from the first-century ever denied the existence of Jesus.”
One of the most prolific classicists of our era, Michael Grant, has said, “In recent years, no serious scholar has ventured to postulate the non historicity of Jesus’ or at any rate very few, and they have not succeeded in disposing of the much stronger, indeed very abundant, evidence to the contrary.” In another of his works, he states, “There are those who argue that Jesus is a figment of the Church’s imagination, that there never was a Jesus at all. I have to say that I do not know any respectable critical scholar who says that anymore.”
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The public death of Christ, by crucifixion, is also broadly accepted as historical fact. Michael Grant said of that event, as well as the account of his baptism, that those “two facts in the life of Jesus command almost universal assent.” Jesus’ public crucifixion is likewise referenced by secular historians of the age, Josephus and Tacitus.
Primary accounts of Jesus’ resurrection, however, are exclusively non-secular. Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John’s accounts of Jesus’ life, death, and subsequent resurrection were canonized. Yet they were written, and widely promulgated, during the time when most of their contemporaries could have dismissed their accounts if they were perceived to have been fabricated or in error.
F.F. Bruce confirms this perception: “Had there been any tendency to depart from the facts in any material respect, the possible presence of hostile witnesses in the audience would have served as a further corrective.”
Most of the original apostles died ignominious and horrible deaths as a direct result of their avowed faith in Jesus as Messiah. They died as martyrs for their convictions and testimony regarding the risen Christ. It is wholly unfathomable that someone would die a martyr’s death for a story thought to be no more than a fable. The fact that eleven of them, twelve including Paul of Tarsus, would do so only attests to the veracity of their witness statements. They forever sealed their testimonies with their blood.
Our contemporary iconography associated with Easter is colorful, literally, starting with the Easter bunny. Rabbits are widely known to be prolific procreators, and in some ancient cultures symbolized new life and fertility. The first Easter bunny arrived in America in the 1700s, courtesy of German immigrants, who perpetuated their tradition of an egg-laying hare called “Osterhase,” or “Oschter Haws.” German youth would make nests where the hare could lay its colored eggs, which later simply became decorated baskets for the multicolored eggs.
The egg itself represents new life. For Christians, Christ emerging from the tomb is symbolic of newborn life exiting an eggshell. Coloring and decorating eggs, according to some sources, dates back to the 13th century, undoubtedly with some pagan influence.
The timing of the Christian world’s Easter celebration is somewhat enigmatic to many since it is observed anywhere from March 22nd to April 25th. This is because early Christians felt that since the resurrection of their Lord occurred after the Passover, they always wanted Easter to follow that Jewish feast, which is based on solar and lunar cycles. The short explanation, roughly speaking, is that Easter is celebrated on the Sunday following the Paschal Full Moon.
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Whether celebrated for its theological implications, or its secular treats, Easter represents new life and resurrection, as the Northern hemisphere springs to life following the dreary, darker, and shorter days of winter. The symbolism likewise can represent as much or as little as one desires, but traditionally links back to rebirth and new life. How we respond to the symbolism and the day itself is wholly up to each of us.
Former Cardinal Basil Hume said of Easter, “The great gift of Easter is hope.” And in a world of so much ugliness, evil, and negativity, we all need all the hope we can get.
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