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A Year with no Easter?

A Year with no Easter?

Most of the converts to the new faith were Jews by birth, culture, and religion. All the original Apostles were Jews. Even after the influx of Gentile converts, leadership of the church was overwhelmingly Jewish.

It comes as no surprise, then, that the calendar of the early church was the Jewish calendar. The seven-day week, which had not yet become dominant in the Roman world at large, provided the rhythm of religious life. (It was not until the 4th century, during the reign of Constantine, that the seven-day week was formally established in the Roman calendar.)

In the Jewish calendar, the first six days of the week were not named. Each day was designated by its number in relation to the Sabbath, except for when the sixth day was referred to as the “preparation day.” There were no Sundays or Mondays or Tuesdays, etc.

Our familiar ecclesiastical calendar did not exist back in the 1st Christian century. There was no Easter, no Lent, no Halloween, no Christmas. The annual holy days were the ones in the Jewish calendar: Passover, Pentecost, etc. Sabbath, the seventh day of the Jewish week, was the regular day of worship for both Jews and Christians.

There is no biblical or historical evidence of a “Sunday” Sabbath in that era.

New Testament manuscripts never mention Easter, but the translators of the King James Version used the word in Acts 12:4 for the Greek word, “pascha.” “Pascha” means “Passover.”

When Christians began to commemorate what we call “Easter” they were not focused on Christ’s resurrection. Instead, they observed the anniversary of His death – at Passover. Passover was the fourteenth day of Nisan, the first month of the Jewish religious calendar. It could fall on any day of the week.

During the first half of the 2nd century a strong anti-Sabbath movement developed within the church, particularly among Gentile Christians. This movement went hand in hand with a deepening anti-Jewish sentiment. Influential church leaders in Rome and Alexandria promoted Sunday as the new weekly day of worship. Annual celebration of the resurrection of Christ, fixed to the first day of the week, became more and more popular.

During the 2nd and 3rd centuries Christians were divided over the Passover/Easter schedule. Many church fathers, particularly in Asia Minor, persisted in the Passover observance on Nisan 14, regardless of which day of the week it fell on. They earned the nickname, “fourteeners” – “quartodecimans.” Others, particularly in Rome, wanted to cut the celebration free from the Jewish calendar.

The issue was officially settled at the Council of Nicaea (325 AD). Constantine, the emperor, revealed the strong anti-Jewish motivation behind the council’s decision: “It appears an unworthy thing that in the celebration of this most holy feast we should follow the practice of the Jews…. Let us then have nothing in common with the detestable Jewish crowd.” (Eusebius, “Life of Constantine”)

Moonlit Easter

Moonlit Easter

During the 2nd and 3rd centuries AD the Christian world was divided over the Easter question. Should the celebration be tied to Passover? That meant that it could come on any day of the week. Easter/Passover would be on the 14th of Nisan according to the Jewish calendar.

The idea of cutting Easter loose from the Jewish calendar gained popularity. Looking back at that era, we can understand why.

For one thing, a small group of Jewish functionaries controlled the calendar. That must have irked some Gentile Christians. Worse, the Jewish calendar was subject to the occasional insertion of “leap months” to keep the yearly cycle of religious festivals in synch with the seasons. (More about that some other time.)

Political and social conditions may have played a role in the Easter debate. The Bar Kochba revolt (132 to 135) backfired on Palestinian Jews, and Emperor Hadrian expelled them from Jerusalem. Jewish Christians were swept out with the rest. Bad PR for the Jews reflected on the Christians, who were seen by some Roman authorities as an offshoot Jewish sect. Add the fact that Christians faced persecution that came and went at the whim of emperors. The unpopularity of Jews motivated Christians to distance themselves from all things Jewish.

It was during this same period that Christians in some parts of the Roman Empire shifted their day of worship from the Sabbath (Saturday) to Sunday. (Another fascinating chapter of history that is beyond the scope of this post.) There was strong support for the idea of assigning Easter to the new weekly holy day.

If the full moon coincided with Sunday, Easter would be delayed by one week. This last stipulation decreased the chance of Easter falling on the same day as Passover.

Why was it important that there was always a big moon at Easter? To provide light for night-walking pilgrims on their way to the holy shrines in Jerusalem.