It doesn’t take much insight to realize that colored eggs and the Easter bunny have nothing to do with the original reason for “Easter.”
It takes a little research to find out that the word Easter comes from the name of a pagan god, though which pagan god seems to me to be disputed.
Either way, many Christians, trying to return to the original meaning of, uh, the day, have rejected both the name and the traditions of Easter and begun to call it “Resurrection Day”; a celebration of the day on which Jesus rose.
It takes a significant amount of research to find out that “Easter” was not Resurrection Day to the apostles or their churches.
The word “Easter” is found once in the King James Version of the Bible, in Acts 12:4, a mistake that would be embarrassing if any of the translators were still alive. Virtually all modern Bibles correct the translation of πασχα, rendering it “Passover.”
Passover was a feast of the Jews. It celebrated the day that the people of Israel were delivered from the tenth plague with which God, through Moses, struck Egypt. The messenger of death swept through the land of Egypt, killing the firstborn of both animals and humans. The only ones spared were those that had put the blood of a sacrificial lamb, in accordance with the instructions of God, on the pillars and lintels of their doors.
Jesus was crucified on Passover, and 1 Cor. 5:7 says that he is our Passover. He is the Lamb slain since the foundation of the world, the true “paschal” lamb.
The term “paschal” comes from the Greek word pascha, which means Passover.
Somewhere in history, pascha began to be translated as Easter, and because it was celebrated by Christians on Sunday, it came to be associated with Jesus’ resurrection rather than with his death as the paschal lamb.
The Quartodeciman Controversy
It was not always so.
Christians were celebrating Passover every year at least as early as A.D. 160. In fact, they were already disputing about Passover then. The dispute is known as the Quartodeciman (Latin for fourteen) Controversy, and it was not settled for 200 years, when the bishops at the Council of Nicea ruled that Passover should always be celebrated on Sunday rather than on whatever day of the week Nisan 14 fell on.
Nisan 14 is the day on the Jewish calendar that is prescribed in the Law of Moses for celebrating Passover, and it can fall on any day of the week. The Christians in Asia Minor, in the eastern part of the Roman Empire, celebrated Passover every year on Nisan 14. Rome and the churches of the west, however, always celebrated Passover on the Sunday nearest Nisan 14.
Around A.D. 160 Rome’s bishop, Anicetus, demanded that the Eastern churches celebrate Passover on Sunday like the western churches. The venerable bishop of Smyrna, probably appointed to his position by apostles, being around 80 years old, traveled to Rome to discuss the issue with Anicetus. Peace was brought, Anicetus withdrew his demand, and the churches decided to continue in their own traditions, which the western churches claimed came from the apostle John and which Rome ascribed to Peter and Paul.
Thirty years later, another bishop of Rome, Victor, threatened to excommunicate all the churches of Asia Minor over the issue. Polycrates, one of the eastern bishops, wrote back to tell Victor he was out of his mind. The eastern churches would stick to the traditions they had received from the apostles and the apostles’ companions.
Irenaeus, who was also from the east but who was living in Gaul (modern Germany) as a missionary, wrote a calmer letter to Victor. Irenaeus had sat under Polycarp’s teaching as a young man, and he reminded Victor of the agreement between Polycarp and Anicetus.
Victor yielded, and peace was restored again.
There’s not much mention of the Quartodeciman Controversy again until the Council of Nicea, which was dramatically anti-semitic. They determined that every church would celebrate Passover on the Sunday after Nisan 14 rather than on Nisan 14 itself so that they would not be like the wicked Jews who killed Christ.
Getting It Backwards
Because all Christians celebrate Passover on Sunday, and because we don’t call it Passover anymore, it has come to be associated with the resurrection.
What is ironic, is that the day that the apostolic churches celebrated the resurrection every Sunday. It was a tradition of the churches that since Jesus rose on a Sunday, it should be a day of rejoicing. On that day, Christians would not kneel because the resurrection was something to celebrate, not mourn.
The death of Christ was celebrated annually, on Passover, when he was remembered as the true Passover Lamb. In preparation Christians would fast, some for just a couple days, and others for as many as 40 days.
It is this tradition that gives us Lent in modern times.
Note: Early Christians did not fast as we think of fasting. Their fasting was only during the hours of sunlight. Once the sun set, they would eat dinner. As an additional note, my wife and I did such a fast twice weekly with a church in the 1990’s. At dinner, we would have only bread, which was usually bran muffins served with butter. Since we always ate those bran muffins hungry, they quickly became a delicacy for us, and we love them to this day.
In modern times, we celebrate Jesus’ death and resurrection exactly backward from the early Christians. Once a year we celebrate the resurrection, and every week we focus on Jesus’ death, preaching the atoning death of Christ week after week in some churches.
This is not to say there is a problem with remembering the death of Christ each week. The early Christians took communion each week (or “Eucharist,” a Greek word that means “Thanksgiving”; “communion” is just another word for “fellowship” from 1 Cor. 10:16). The communion bread and wine were, as Jesus said, for the remembrance of him, the breaking of his body, and the shedding of his blood.
Thus, the early Christians, too, remembered Jesus’ death each week as they gathered together, but the day, Sunday, was honored because of the resurrection every week, not just once a year. It was Passover that was celebrated yearly.
There is no record that the early Christians celebrated any other feast days.
There is clear record that the early Christians did not celebrate a weekly Sabbath or meet on the Jewish Sabbath day unless they were actually Jews, in which case Scripture makes it clear that they did not work on the Sabbath day. Jewish Christians, including the apostles, also attended the synagogue, not the church’s meeting, which was on Sunday (and often other days as well).
The early Christians discussed their view of the Sabbath often. They believed that like all other Old Covenant laws, Jesus had fulfilled, filled up, and expanded the Sabbath. Under the Old Covenant, the people of Israel were a fleshly, earthly people with a bodily, earthly rest. Under the New Covenant, the new Israel was a spiritual people with a spiritual rest that could be kept perpetually, a rest we must labor to enter into (Heb. 4).
See my fuller explanation of the Sabbath, with references, at “http://www.christian-history.org/sabbath.html.