The Origins of Easter


Have you ever wondered why the date of Easter bounces around every year?

Have you ever wondered why the date of Easter bounces around every year?
The first generation of Christians was Jewish in culture, and they continued to observe Jewish religious practices as they developed their new Christian congregations. Many continued to observe Passover. As the desire grew to have an annual Resurrection commemoration, they naturally linked it with Passover, just as Jesus had eaten the Passover with his disciples on the night he was arrested. In time the Old Testament Passover celebration faded away as people celebrated its fulfillment in Christ.
Passover’s date moves around as well. Leviticus 23:5 gives instructions on how to celebrate it: “The Lord’s Passover begins at twilight on the fourteenth day of the first month” (not our January, but the month of Nisan in the Jewish calendar). Here’s where the difficulties begin.
Setting up a universally accepted calendar was way harder than you might think. People of all cultures have used both the sun and moon to mark periods of time. But think about it—the sun and moon do not move in sync. We measure years by the sun, but the concept of divisions of months comes from the moon’s cycles. It is impossible neatly to fit lunar cycles into solar cycles—a typical moon cycle takes 28 days. To fit twelve months into 365 days we need months with different numbers of days.
The rabbis used a lunar system for calculating when the month of Nisan began—they didn’t use the Roman Empire’s system, which is closer to ours today. The Roman year began on March 1, and some of their months were simply number names—Septem, Octo, Novem, and Decem mean “7th, 8th, 9th, and 10th” month. But the Hebrew lunar months didn’t match the Roman system, and so the 14th of Nisan landed on a different Roman day each year. The early Christians would have to consult the rabbis to find out when Passover would come, and then they would know when to schedule Easter.
The Council of Nicea was called in 325 A.D. to resolve doctrinal problems about the identity of Jesus Christ. That’s where the main part of our Nicene Creed comes from. But believe it or not, the second most urgent item on the agenda was agreeing on a common date for Easter. After lengthy debate the decision was made to set the date on the Sunday following the 14th day of the paschal moon, i.e. the first full moon on or following the vernal equinox, March 21. A bitter minority continued to insist that Easter had to be on Nisan 14th whether or not it fell on a Sunday. But that’s why today we have a range from March 22nd to April 25th when Easter Sunday can occur.
Isn’t that crazy? Every so often a major church group will propose that Christians everywhere junk the old system and simply set a certain date, like, say, the second Sunday of April, as the permanent home of Easter, but those efforts so far have all failed. We’re stuck with the bouncing.
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