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Bible Q

What are the origins of Easter?


The term ‘Easter’ is simply an old English word that was used in the earliest vernacular speech to substitute for the Greek (and Latin) term Pascha, which in Jewish Greek Old Testament and in the Greek New Testament is a transliteration of the Hebrew term Pesakh, Passover. The term has now been removed from modern English Bibles but can be found in one place in the King James Version:

“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 (Greek Pascha) to bring him forth to the people.” (Acts 12:4 KJV)

“Christ our passover”

There is no mention of Pascha as an annual commemoration of the the Passover  in the New Testament, and the one mention of Passover in Paul’s letters clearly shows Passover as replaced by the weekly Lord’s day (Sunday) gathering and memorial bread and wine.

“Purge out therefore the old leaven, that ye may be a new lump, as ye are unleavened. For even Christ our passover is sacrificed for us” (1 Corinthians 5:7 KJV)

Jewish Christian origins of Easter

Nevertheless documents shortly after the New Testament show that Jewish Christians – or at least the congregations in Palestine and Asia Minor where Jews still predominated – had maintained either some celebration of the Jewish passover itself on 14 Nisan (the day that Christ died), or on 17 Nisan (the day that Christ was raised). This created three questions:

1. whether to mark the season of Christ’s death and resurrection at all?
2. whether to mark it according to the Jewish calendar at the same time as the Jews were marking 14 Nisan and 17 Nisan? – known as Quartodeciman practice.
3. whether to dislocate the marking of the annual anniversary to the day that most Christians gathered – the first Sunday after 14 or 17 Nisan.

By the end of the second century the trend had decisively moved in the western churches to marking the annual Pascha on the Sunday following the Jewish Pascha. Matters came to a head in the last decade of the Second Century when the bishop of Ephesus (Polycrates) wrote to the bishop of the church in Rome (Victor)  arguing the case for keeping to the Jewish calendar (Quartodeciman practice). Victor responded by breaking fellowship not just with Ephesus but with all of the churches in Asia Minor.  Victor’s extreme position was argued against by many other bishops who felt that marking Easter/Pascha on the same calendar as the Jews or on the following Sunday was not an issue worth dividing the churches. Those arguing for tolerance of other dates included the influential bishop of Lyons, Irenaeus, even though he himself had presided over a synod in France which had decided on a Sunday Easter in their region.


Paul and modern responses to Passover/Easter

Given that the New Testament contains no mention of Jewish Christians marking a separate Christian passover from the Jewish passover, there is no mention of Jewish Christian (or Gentile Christian) involvement in passover and other Jewish festivals other than Paul’s permissive comment to the Colossians:

Therefore let no one pass judgment on you in questions of food and drink, or with regard to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath. (Colossians 2:16)

The word for festival, or feast, there (Greek heorte) can refer to any Jewish feast, but in Acts 18:21 where Paul heads to Jerusalem to “keep the feast” is thought most likely to the Passover as a time when Paul would be able to meet the largest number of pilgrims to Jerusalem. The context of Colossians 2:16 is Paul’s overall teaching on Jewish practices – tolerance to Jewish Christians still attached to them, and warnings to Gentile Christians not to adopt them or be coerced by “judaizers” a term used by Paul of Peter’s behaviour in Galatians 2:14.

When I saw that they were not walking in line with the truth of the gospel, I said to Cephas in front of them all, “If you, who are a Jew, live like a Gentile and not like a Jew, how can you compel the Gentiles to live like Jews?” (Galatians 2:14)

This does make it clear that Christians are not meant to celebrate the Jewish passover, but the weekly passover. The later development of an annual passover/Easter Sunday in early Christianity is detailed in the footnote.



From the article on Easter in The Encyclopedia of Christianity 1999

4. Debate over the Date : The death and resurrection of Jesus Christ occurred during the Jewish passover. There was a concern in the early church to keep the annual Christian celebration of the resurrection in proximity to the Jewish festival . Ecclesiastical debate centered on whether the annual commemoration of the paschal mystery should be on the 14th of Nisan ( cf. Lev . 23 : 5 etc. ) , the first day of the full moon of spring , no matter what day of the week this fell on, or whether it should be on the Sunday after the 14th of Nisan , in keeping with the weekly celebration of Christ’s resurrection on the “ Lord’s Day”. The first alternative was defended by the so – called Quartodecimans in Asia Minor , who were concerned to celebrate the Lord’s passion on the very day of his crucifixion. Rome and most other local churches , however , celebrated Easter on a Sunday , the day of the Lord’s resurrection. The Quartodeciman celebration of pascha probably had its roots in Palestine and reflects the oldest observance of Easter. On the eve of the 14th of Nisan , when the Jews were eating the passover , Christians kept a → fast until dawn ( see 3 ) . Like Jews , Christians awaited the Redeemer’s coming on this night . Christ obviously took the place of the paschal lamb. His presence was experienced in the Eucharist , which represented the resurrection , and his parousia was joyfully awaited. The Sunday celebration of Easter clearly developed out of this early observance . Perhaps it first arose in Jerusalem and Palestine after the year 135 with the new → Gentile Christian congregations . Under the Roman bishop Soter it was introduced about 165 into Rome ( K. Holl ) , but it might well have arisen there independently about 115 under Sixtus I ( B. Lohse ) . It can hardly go back to the first century ( W. Rordorf ) . Sunday was the day of the Lord’s resurrection ( 1 Cor . 16 : 2 ; Acts 20 : 7 ; Rev. 1:10 ) . It thus attracted the celebration to itself , especially as Nisan 14 came on different days of the week . The separation from → Judaism also The separation from → Judaism also favored this development . Commemoration of the resurrection now received more emphasis as the content of Easter .

Volume 2 – Page 7. ed. Erwin Fahlbusch et al.1999

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