Easter or Resurrection Day? … Or Neither?

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.

Notes

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.

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17 Responses to Easter or Resurrection Day? … Or Neither?

  1. Saraph says:

    A little clarity on the pagan history of EASTER SUNDAY

    Easter or Ishtar, also known by her biblical name Semiramis and later called the “Queen of heaven” was the widow of Nimrod and mother of Tammuz. Easter is the bare breasted pagan fertility goddess of the east. Legend has it that she came out of heaven in a giant egg, landing in the Euphrates river at sunrise on the first Sunday after the vernal equinox, busted out, and turned a bird into an egg laying rabbit.

    To honor this event, pagan sun-worshippers would go out early in the morning and face to the east to watch their sun-god arise over the horizon before having a mass (sacrifice) in which the priest of Easter would sacrifice three month old human infants and take the eggs of Easter and die them in the blood of the sacrificed infants. The blood-red colored Easter eggs would later hatch on December 25th, the same day her son Tammuz the reincarnate sun-god would be born…how convenient!

    Easter married her son Tammuz who was by legend the reincarnate sun-god. Tammuz went pig hunting and was gored to death by a wild boar and that is why pagans eat ham on Easter. Because Tammuz was killed when he was forty years old, pagans fast one day for each of the years that he lived leading into Easter. This practice is known as Weeping for Tammuz by pagans but called Lent by Catholics.

    You know that when you were pagans you were led astray to mute idols, however you were led.(1 Corinthians 12:2)

    • Shammah says:

      I’ve read this explanation of the origin of the word “Easter,” Saraph, but not everyone agrees with you. It is also assigned to Oestre, spelled Eostre in this article. They give a reference from Venerable Bede, and the story they give makes a lot of sense.

      I haven’t had time, and probably never will, to research that subject more thoroughly.

      Weeping for Tammuz is not the source of Lent for the Catholics. That’s impossible. Christians were discussing–uh, embarrassingly, arguing about–how long to fast before Passover in the early second century. Forty days was one of the positions, and that has obvious Biblical origins.

      Without researching, I would be willing to venture a hypothesis that no one can produce a reference for Tammuz being killed at 40 years old. I’d put money on it, though I would be hesitant to bet the farm. Sorry, but that sounds invented, and invention seems to be an accepted historical research method among those seeking pagan origins for Christian practices.

      I’m not saying that there aren’t pagan origins for some Christian traditions. Obviously, I just said that Venerable Bede’s statement about the origin of the word “Easter” makes sense. I’m just saying that when it comes to the details, there are a lot of people willing to invent stories, then write books and articles defending those inventions, and a lot of people who then spread those stories as truth.

      That’s why I’m so fastidious about quoting my sources. I may be wrong at times, and no matter how careful I am, a few of my sources burn me, but there’s always a good reason I’ve taken a position.

      • Additionally, it’s worth remembering that at weddings the exchanging of rings and the carrying of a bouquet all have Pagan origins…yet I doubt anyone would assert that Christian couples who follow these traditions are secretly worshiping a God other than the Lord.

        • Shammah says:

          On a complete rabbit trail, but too interesting to avoid mentioning, Vine’s Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words says that the modern Greek word for wedding ring is the same word translated “earnest” in Eph. 1:14. The Holy Spirit was our “arrabon” in Eph. 1:14, and now the word is applied to the wedding ring. I think the idea of the Holy Spirit as a wedding ring is not inappropriate in the context it’s used in Eph. 1.

      • Saraph says:

        Well maybe a fact staying more true to your history site would be: After much debate, the Nicaean council of 325 A.D. decreed that “Easter” should be celebrated on the first Sunday, after the full moon, on or after the vernal equinox. Why was so much debate necessary if “Easter” was a tradition passed down from the Apostles? The answer is that it was not an Apostolic institution, but, an invention of man! They had to make up some rules.

        • Shammah says:

          Actually, the Council of Nicea decreed that Passover should be celebrated on the Sunday after Nisan 14. The whole complicated figuring of the first full moon after the vernal equinox came about later in an attempt to approximate Nisan 14 without actually using the Jewish calendar.

          The debate was never necessary, but the nature of man is such that debate has been around forever. Some churches celebrated Passover on Sunday, and some celebrated it directly on Nisan 14.

          There’s no doubt that the celebration of Passover was handed down from the apostles. You, I’m sure, would agree. The apostles celebrated Passover; even Paul mentions it in Acts. What you might deny, it appears, is that they handed down the fasting in advance, but since every church was fasting, with the amount of days varying from 2 to 40, already in the mid-2nd century, it’s pretty likely that tradition is something the apostles handed down. Both eastern and western churches claimed to have gotten their practice from the apostles.

          All the churches still celebrated Passover when the Council of Nicea happened, which is why the discussion of Sunday versus exactly Nisan 14 was still being discussed (as I pointed out in the OP).

          The word “Easter” and the bunny and the eggs belong to a much later date than the Council of Nicea.

        • Happy Pascha!

          >Why was so much debate necessary if “Easter” was a tradition passed down from the Apostles? The answer is that it was not an Apostolic institution, but, an invention of man!

          I think you would have to be extremely careful with that kind of argumentation.

          There was also substantial debate in the Early Church concerning the divinity of Christ, the Trinity and the canon of Scripture itself. Should we conclude that these too are inventions of man?

  2. Paul Pavao says:

    Vatican II is a 20th century council, so it’s no surprise that they use the term Easter and that they pinpoint the resurrection there.

    It’s the early Christians who called it Passover and remembered it as Passover, not as something else.

    I would also correct your references to other language. They don’t refer to Easter as Pascha, they have simply never adopted the name of a pagan god to replace Pascha.

    I thought the Eastern churches still used Pascha, since it’s a Greek word. But now I wonder how many of you remember the word is a reference to the Jewish feast of Passover?

    • >Vatican II is a 20th century council, so it’s no surprise that they use the term Easter and that they pinpoint the resurrection there.

      Ah, I see the section of that quotation you’ve focused upon. I had actually posted it to highlight the section which says “…on the Lord’s Day…[the Church] keeps the memory of the Lord’s resurrection…”. Every Sunday is a mini-Easter 🙂

      As far as I can remember only English and German depart from the “Paschal” etymology. The Vatican II document was originally written in Latin so you’ll be pleased that it used the word “Pascha” (“quam semel etiam in anno, solemnitate maxima Paschatis)

      > I would also correct your references to other language. They don’t refer to Easter as Pascha, they have simply never adopted the name of a pagan god to replace Pascha.

      When I said “Easter” here I meant that-yearly-Christian-celebration-of-the-Resurrection. I probably shouldn’t have quoted it. Sorry for being unclear.

      “It’s the early Christians who called it Passover and remembered it as Passover, not as something else.”

      This is the point I’m a bit puzzled over. It’s the Passover sure, but also much more than the Passover, surely? It’s the Passover with its Christological fulfillment.

      But now I wonder how many of you remember the word is a reference to the Jewish feast of Passover?

      I guess it’s like most things, if we’re well catechised we will 🙂

      Fortunately, as long as we stay awake during the Liturgy of the Word on Maunday Thursday, it’s spelled out for us:

      Exodus 12:1-8, 11-14
      “…It is the Passover of the LORD…”

      Psalm 116:12-13, 15-16BC, 17-18
      Hallel psalm

      John 13:1-15
      “Before the feast of Passover…”

      I would suggest that the Christian communities with a strong liturgical tradition generally maintain this connection because their liturgies are constructed in a way which shows “the New…hidden in the Old and the Old is unveiled in the New” (St. Augustine). If they’re German or English speakers…well, then they just have to try a little harder 😉

      • Felix Alexander says:

        What isn’t obvious in your list, Restless, is whether Passover and Easter have the same name in all those languages you mention. It almost seemed like that was your point, but then you said:

        In fact, even in the English-speaking Eastern Churches (Catholic & Orthodox), the word “Easter” is not used and is instead referred to as “Pascha”.

        Obviously, the English word for Passover isn’t Pascha, so what do these other languages use for Passover?

        On other notes, considering that the first Easter happened a few days after Passover, it seems odd they should celebrate the resurrection on the day of the death. Apparently (this is probably not news to Shammah, but to me it is) in both early Christianity and contemporary Judaism, there was an expectation that the Messiah would come on Passover—that is, the early Christians were looking forward to the second coming especially on that day.

        • Shammah says:

          Nope, I’ve never heard of an expectation that the Messiah would come on Passover. Do you have any references for that?

          It seems counter-intuitive, for this reason: The Passover is already fulfilled in Christ’s death. Pentecost was fulfilled when the Holy Spirit came and “harvested” the firstfruits, the apostles and their companions. It seems sort of obvious, even when I’m trying to look at things through the exegetical (excuse my use of that word, I couldn’t think of another this morning) methods of the early Christians, that Christ’s return would fulfill some other feast than Passover or Pentecost.

          • Felix Alexander says:

            Sorry about the late reply, Easter intervened.

            I thought I had read it in a book I was reading, but if I had I can’t find it. The closest I can come is the “Escatology of the quartodeciman Pascal celebration” on the Wikipedia article on Quartdecimanism, where it is attributed to Joachim Jeremias—but I haven’t read the work cited.

        • As far as I know, the same word is used in those languages for both “Passover” and “Easter”. It’s certainly true for Latin, French and Spanish.

          With regards to the Messiah coming at Passover, like Paul, I don’t recall hearing that before. There was, however, strong ties between the Passover and Elijah.

          If you can track down a source for an Messiah expectation I’d be really interested, thanks.

      • Shammah says:

        Communication can be difficult when it’s by written word. Books have time to be clear, but one can’t write books just to facilitate conversation.

        Okay, I follow all that.

        I haven’t been in a liturgical church in decades except for occasional visits to a meeting. I don’t think most non-liturgical American Christians have any idea that “Easter” is related to Passover. I know for certain that most, um, let’s call them fundamentalist Protestants, don’t know the celebration that the early churches saw behind each Sunday–not just each Sunday meeting, but each Sunday.

        • I don’t think most non-liturgical American Christians have any idea that “Easter” is related to Passover…

          All the more reason to encourage all Christians to dig into the wisdom and richness of the Early Church Fathers 🙂

          In my own life I’ve found that there’s something really powerful in having my week shaped around the life of Christ. I remember reading the Didache for the first time and discovering the ancient practice of fasting on Wednesday (to remember Christ’s betrayal) and Friday (to remember His Crucifixion and death). It definitely makes me look forward each week to the Lord’s Day and a celebratory Sunday roast! 🙂

  3. Perhaps this goes without saying, but I think it’s worth pointing out that the linguistic disconnection between “Easter” and “Passover” is not true for all languages:

    Pâques (French)
    Pascua (Spanish)
    Pasqua (Catalan)
    Pasen (Dutch)
    Påske (Danish)
    ????? (Greek)
    Pascha (Latin)

    In fact, even in the English-speaking Eastern Churches (Catholic & Orthodox), the word “Easter” is not used and is instead referred to as “Pascha”. (The tradition of not kneeling on Sunday is also preserved in the East)

    Even in the Western Church the word “Paschal” is used throughout the Easter liturgy (“Paschal Candle”, “Paschal Lamb” etc).

    With regards to Sunday being a day of celebration concerning the Resurrection:

    “Every week, on the day which she has called the Lord’s day, [the Church] keeps the memory of the Lord’s resurrection, which she also celebrates once in the year, together with His blessed passion, in the most solemn festival of Easter.” – Sacrosanctum Concilium, Vatican II

    Wouldn’t most liturgical-based parishes would affirm the same?

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