Dates for Easter
See Also: The Council of Nicaea
By Elizabeth McNamer
Assistant Professor of Religious Studies
Department of Philosophy and Religion
Rocky Mountain College
In 1997, a large stele, bearing an image of what looked like a bull, was found at the archaeological dig at Bethsaida. It caught the attention of scholars worldwide. Though the stele was no longer intact and scattered into 5 pieces, scholars recognized the importance of the find and eventually deciphered the Bethsaida stele as the “moon god.” The four-foot-tall volcanic stone was carved into a bull-headed figure with long crescent-shaped horns, wielding a dagger. Most likely, the bull-headed stele represents the moon god often depicted in Mesopotamian religious texts as a bull. The stele, long before the Hebrews had settled in Israel at the beginning of the Iron Age, had once stood behind a basin inside a niche in the inner gateway of what had been the largest gate complex in Galilee.
The moon god was of greater importance than the sun to people in ancient times. The bright light in the dark of night brought order to chaos: the moon god was worshipped as the creator. Calendars were based on the 28-day phases of the moon. Discrepancies with the sun cycle were dealt with by adding another month or two, here and there. They celebrated the moon in the spring with feasts.
The Jewish feast of Passover was also celebrated in the spring. It commemorated the Exodus and freedom from slavery in Egypt. It was observed for seven days starting on the day of the full moon in April. Most scholars recognize that the Passover was most likely two springtime celebrations: one, an agricultural ritual celebrating the festival of “unleavened bread” (Ex 23:15, 34:18), and the other, a nomadic custom regarding the sacrifice of a sheep or a goat “without blemish, a year-old male” (Ex 12:5). Scholars have had difficulty in reconstructing the historical development and combination of these two festivals into the Passover: theories range from the Israelite emergence into Canaan to the reforms of King Josiah (640-609 BCE).
Jesus instituted the Eucharist in conjunction with Passover. The three Synoptic Gospels (presenting the same or common view)— Matthew, Mark, and Luke—agree that the Last Supper was the Jewish Passover meal. However, according to the Gospel of John, Jesus was crucified at noon on the Preparation Day, one day before the first full day of Passover. Though a minority opinion, some scholars argue that the Last Supper could not have been a Passover meal. In any case, according to traditional Christian belief, Jesus died and rose from the dead during the Passover festival. The early church celebrated these critical events in the life of Jesus, and they coincided with the Passover celebration. This Jewish-Christian feast became known as the Quartodecimans rite.
For hundreds of years before the Christians changed the date of Easter, some Church Fathers had been denigrating Jews and Judaism in a fervor to validate early church doctrine. As Christianity spread among the Gentiles, some groups felt that the Christian feast should not be associated with the Jewish Passover. Certain major themes dominated Christian anti-Judaic polemics: Jews had murdered God and were guilty as a people; the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 C.E. was God’s punishment for the rejection of Jesus; Jews have misunderstood the Law; Jews are no longer the true Israel and heir to the divine promises; Christians are not to celebrate the Sabbath on Saturday; and the miserable conditions of the Jews were God’s divine judgment. These arguments and the relationship to Passover and Easter led to consternation among the various Christian groups. Because the Quartodecimans (Easter) was observed on different dates, the date grew controversial and needed to be settled.
In 325 CE, Emperor Constantine convened a landmark ecumenical council at Nicaea to resolve the Arian controversy and set the date for Easter. A large part of separating Easter from the date of Passover was motivated by the church’s animus toward Judaism. In a Latin sermon, dated to the third century, perhaps from the Bishop Cyprian, addressed the matter: “It should never be possible for Christians to stray from the way of truth and to trail like the ignorant people after the blind and stupid Jews as to the correct day for Easter” (Michael 34, 2011).
Throughout his reign, Constantine initiated antagonistic policies toward the Jews. After the council at Nicaea, in a letter preserved in Eusebius, Constantine stated: “It appeared an unworthy thing that in the celebration of this most holy feast we should follow the practice of the Jews, who have impiously defiled their hands with enormous sin.” He added that Christians should “have nothing in common with the detestable Jewish crowd.” Constantine further described Jews as “that nation of parricides who slew their Lord...” Christians need to avoid “all participation in the perjured conduct of the Jews” (Eusebius, XVIII, XIX).
The Council’s disengagement of Easter was set for the first Sunday after the first full moon after the vernal equinox. The only problem was that the dating of the vernal equinox was calculated according to the Julian calendar (devised by Julius Caesar) and the vernal equinox came a little earlier each year. Julius Caesar had developed the solar calendar in 45 BCE. The Roman armies hibernated during the winter and began warring again in March to honor the god of war, Mars. March 1 was the first day of the year. The calendar had a regular year of 365 days divided into 12 months. A leap day was added to February every four years. Astronomers had known that the year was a few minutes shorter than 365.25 days, but the Julian calendar did not compensate for this difference. As a result, the calendar year gained about three days every four centuries.
In 1582, Pope Gregory XIII reformed the calendar. A papal declaration took eleven days off the calendar. People went to bed on October 4 and woke up on October 15. (This caused riots as people asked to get their eleven days back!) The first day of the year moved to January 1. The calendar reduced the number of leap years. Centennial years, such as 1700, 1800, and 1900, ceased to be leap years, but years that could be divided by 400, such as 1600 and 2000, were leap years.
The Gregorian calendar satisfied Catholics, but because of the Protestant Reformation, many countries did not go along with it and continued to use the Julian calendar as did Orthodox Christians. Between 1582 and 1752, two calendars were in use. The English year began on March 25, the Feast of the Annunciation. However, in 1752, England removed eleven days from the year and designated January 1 as New Year’s Day. The Gregorian calendar became the standard. It is still not entirely correct. The year is still a few seconds off and will be made up for by dropping an hour every hundred years or so.
This year, Easter for Catholics and Protestants will fall on April 1. Some Orthodox churches have returned to the Julian calendar for the observance of feasts. For them, Easter Sunday this year will be on April 8.
Eusebius, The Life of the Blessed Emperor Constantine. https://sourcebooks.fordham.edu/basis/vita-constantine.asp (accessed March 20, 2018).
Michael, R. History of Catholic Antisemitism: The Dark Side of the Church. [Place of publication not identified]: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015.