Easter, Passover, Resurrection Day? What Is It?

I have read dozens of articles and sections of books that talk about the pagan origins of Easter.

What about the Christian origins?

From the very earliest times, the apostles’ churches celebrated the Passover each year. We know that there was a dispute over the date on which to celebrate Passover in 160 and again in 190 (dates estimated based on the reign of the Roman bishops involved). The first was resolved by the intervention of Polycarp, bishop of Smyrna, and the second resolved by the intervention of Irenaeus, bishop of Lyons in what is now France.

During the second dispute, Polycrates, bishop of Ephesus wrote:

Philip, one of the twelve apostles … John, who … reclined upon the bosom of the Lord … And Polycarp of Smyrna, who was a bishop and a martyr. All of these observed the fourteenth day of the Passover according to the Gospel. (Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History V:24)

Polycrates and the bishop of Rome (Victor) were arguing whether to celebrate Passover on the 14th day of the Jewish month of Nisan or to celebrate it on the Sunday nearest Nisan 14. Polycrates argues that it was the habit of Philip, John, and Polycarp to celebrate Nisan 14. Victor, bishop of Rome, argued that Paul and Peter had taught them to always observe Passover on a Sunday.

The point is that Passover was observed all over the Christian world by the middle to late second century, whichever day it was celebrated on. Further, the Christians of the latter half of the second century claimed that they had received this practice from the apostles.

I have a question.

Does anyone care?

Why don’t we ever hear any sermons about the fact that Easter descended from the celebration of Passover? Why aren’t we told that Christians everywhere celebrated Passover each year?

The huge majority of us follow in the footsteps of the early churches, and we don’t keep a weekly Sabbath; at least not one on which we physically rest. The early churches believed that Jesus had expanded the Law, bringing it to a spiritual fullness, and thus they kept a daily, spiritual Sabbath.

We follow their footsteps in rejecting a physical, weekly Sabbath, but we do not follow their footsteps in recognizing Passover. Instead, we’ve applied some pagan term to the day.

I’m not even objecting to the pagan term. I’m objecting to the fact that we don’t tell Christians what was before the pagan term. The apostles’ churches celebrated Passover each year!

Celebrating Passover

Not much is said about the way the early churches celebrated Passover. I see no indication that they had a Seder meal each year.

A new deliverance was wrought when Christ, our new Passover lamb, was sacrificed for us. Jesus delivered us from a spiritual Egypt, and he delivered us from a much more dangerous spiritual death and Angel of Death.

The Passover meal in fleshly Israel was a lamb that had lived among the family. The Passover meal in spiritual Israel is God’s Lamb, slain from the foundation of the world, that also came and lived among us. We eat his body, and we drink his blood.

Our Passover food is the bread and wine of the Lord’s Supper. It is true meat and true drink.

As far as I can tell, this is the only Passover meal that the Christians of the apostolic era celebrated. I can’t be certain of that because so little is said, but the whole feel of the early church writings makes me confident that they weren’t doing a Jewish Seder meal. They were eating the Lord’s Supper because Jesus is our Passover.

Baptism on Passover

It eventually became a habit to be baptized on Passover.

In the Book of Acts, all baptisms are immediate. The Philippian jailer was even baptized in the middle of the night.

The time from belief to baptism began expanding very quickly, however. The Didache, a late first or early second century document, speaks of fasting for one or two days prior to baptism. Later we read about it being a week. Finally, it’s Tertullian, around A.D. 210, who first discusses baptism happening on Passover, apparently only once each year.

That’s not surprising. False conversions had been a problem from the earliest times. Simon the Magician in Acts 8 is an excellent example. Asking a person to fast for two days before being baptized is an effective method for weeding out those who are just putting on a show!

It wasn’t effective enough, however, and it became normal in the third century for converts to be put in "catechism" classes to learn basic doctrine for a long period. Then they would be baptized when Passover rolled around.

I’ve often wondered if this is where the fast—what we call Lent—prior to Passover came from. When Justin Martyr mentions having a convert fast prior to baptism, he mentions that "we pray and fast with him" (First Apology 61). So were Christians fasting prior to Passover because of the baptisms that were coming?

Whether that’s the source or not, Christians fasted anywhere from one or two days to forty days prior to Passover. At the Council of Nicea in 325, this was standardized to forty days for all the churches, and our modern forty-day lent was born.

Fasting in the early churches wasn’t always completely doing without food. Sometimes it was limiting food intake to just bread and water, and any money saved was given to the poor. Other Christians might fast all day long, but then eat after the sun went down (much as the Muslims practice Ramadan).

Conclusion

That’s our heritage. I thought you might want to know. You don’t have to call it "Resurrection Day," though you can if you want. You can use the term the apostles’ churches used: Passover.

About Paul Pavao

I am married, the father of six, and currently the grandfather of two. I run a business, live in a Christian community, teach, and I am learning to disciple others better than I have ever been able to before. I believe God has gifted me to restore proper foundations to the Christian faith. In order to ensure that I do not become a heretic, I read the early church fathers from the second and third centuries. They were around when all the churches founded by the apostles were in unity. I also try to stay honest and open. I argue and discuss these foundational doctrines with others to make sure my teaching really lines up with Scripture. I am encouraged by the fact that the several missionaries and pastors that I know well and admire as holy men love the things I teach. I hope you will be encouraged too. I am indeed tearing up old foundations created by tradition in order to re-establish the foundations found in Scripture and lived on by the churches during their 300 years of unity.
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