Easter is the Christian holiday that celebrates the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Christian tradition links the date of the Easter celebration to the Hebrew calendar based on a combination of astronomical events. Easter and the Jewish Passover festival are strongly connected. The passion of Jesus Christ in the gospels is often presented with the festival of Passover as a background.
There are two possibilities for the source of the term “Easter”. One is that the name comes from the Saxon fertility goddess Eostre (sometimes spelled Eastre or Ostara). The legend goes that Eostre owned an egg-laying rabbit or hare and the story symbolized fertility and life. In the 8th century CE work De temporum ratione, written by an English monk named Bede, the author claims that, during the month of April, the pagan Anglo-Saxon community used to have feasts to honour Eostre, but that custom had died out by the time of his writing, replaced by the Christian celebration of the resurrection of Jesus. Another accepted origin of the term Easter is that it comes from the German “Ostern”, which comes from the Norse word “Eostrus”, meaning ‘Spring’.
The pagan holidays of the goddess Eostre (or Ostara) celebrated fertility and new life: The egg symbolized perfection and wholeness in its natural state and the rabbit was a symbol of fertility. For many cultures, the beginning of the spring season was a symbol of rebirth. This relates to the fact that after the darkness of winter, nature gains a new strength that was symbolized as the ascent of life from the realm of darkness to the world of light.
The Connection between Passover & Easter
Romance languages derived the term Easter from the Greek “Pascha” (Pâques in French, Pasqua in Italian, Páscoa in Portuguese, Pascua in Spanish), which comes from the Hebrew “Pesah”, meaning ‘Passover’, the Jewish celebration which early Jewish-Christian communities used to celebrate jointly with Easter.
The first day of the festival of Passover is observed by the Jewish community on the fifteenth day of the month Nisan (March/April) and it commemorates the Exodus of the Hebrews from their captivity in Egypt (as related in the biblical Book of Exodus). Because in Judaism a day begins at dusk and lasts until the following dusk, the first day of Passover begins after dusk of the fourteenth of Nisan and ends at dusk of the fifteenth day of the month of Nisan, which is why one sometimes reads that Passover begins late on the fourteenth day of the month Nisan.
After many displays of power, so the Old Testament claims, the god of the Hebrews decided to kill all firstborns in Egypt in order to persuade the Egyptian pharaoh to release the Hebrews from their captivity. To avoid the slaughter of their own firstborns, the Hebrews had to observe a specific celebration. The Old Testament explains the origin of the Passover in Exodus 12.1-36 and it also includes the features involved in the celebration:
- On the tenth day of the month, the animal to be slaughtered was selected and set aside for safekeeping
- The animal had to be a flawless one year old goat or lamb (Deuteronomy 16.2 includes calves). The animal was slaughtered on the fourteenth day late in the afternoon.
- Some blood of the animal was smeared on the doorposts and lintels of the Hebrew houses. It was believed that God would bypass the homes marked this way during the slaughter of the firstborn.
- The animal was roasted whole. The flesh was eaten, along with unleavened bread and bitter herbs, by members of the household. The meal was eaten in haste, with the participants dressed for flight.
- Any uneaten meat was to be burned next morning.
The Jewish community celebrates the Passover annually. From the standpoint of the New Testament and Christian theology, Jesus Christ is the Christian Passover victim (1 Cor. 5.7). Jesus Christ as the “Lamb of God” is stressed many times in the gospel of John (1.29; 1.36), and we also read that Jesus was crucified while the Passover lambs were being slaughtered in preparation for the feast (19.31). Also John 19.36 is directly connected to Exodus 12.46 where some Passover restrictions related to sacrificial lamb are described.
The Council of Nicaea: Setting a Single Date for Easter
The earliest Christians did not care much about accurately dating the crucifixion of Jesus Christ, probably because they hoped their saviour would return soon enough. However, when Jesus failed to return as soon as they had hoped, a dating system for Easter became an important concern. This was, and still is, the holiest of Christian holidays. When to celebrate Easter was not a simple question. It was known that the event took place on a Friday, but one question remained: Which Friday?
The first problem in dating Easter was that Jesus Christ’s resurrection occurred during the Jewish Passover and this celebration is calculated according to the phases of the moon (the lunar calendar). Therefore, the date for Passover (and of Easter) drifts against the solar cycle shifting every year. To accurately synchronize the moon’s phases with the solar year was a task beyond the astronomical competence of early Christians.
Some early Christian communities celebrated Easter on the night of the fourteenth day of the Jewish month of Nisan, on whatever day of the week that day fell. In Rome, however, Easter took place only on a Sunday. The first record of this discrepancy is dated as early as 154 CE, when a bishop named Polycarp of Smyrna discussed these differences with Anicetus, the head of the Roman church. By that time, Sunday had become the Christian day for worship, since Jesus Christ's resurrection was believed to have happened on this day of the week.
Christianity, during the early days, behaved less as a single unified religion than as a collection of different sects and denominations following the same basic patterns but differing on many different points, such as when to celebrate Easter. It was, therefore, not easy to agree on a single date for celebrating Easter. So, when the Roman emperor Constantine organized the Council of Nicaea in 325 CE, one of the key concerns was to determine a date for celebrating Easter that would be the same across the board for all Christians. In other words, the challenge for Constantine was not so much to determine a dating method for Easter, but to get all the different Christian communities to celebrate Easter on the exact same day.
The solution agreed upon during the Council of Nicaea sounds easier than it actually was: Easter will fall on the first Sunday after the first full moon after the spring equinox [from the perspective of the Northern Hemisphere], but shall never fall at the beginning of the Jewish Passover. Constantine ordered that Easter should be “everywhere celebrated on one and the same day”. This solution, however, was far from an end to the controversy.
Despite the agreement reached during the Council, a number of challenges were still ongoing:
- Because the calculation for Easter was linked to the Jewish calendar and given that the Jewish calendar is lunisolar while the Roman calendar was a solar calendar, this resulted in a different date for Easter every year, a confusing notion for most people.
- To accurately determine the occurrence of the spring equinox in advance required a certain competence in astronomy that exceeded the skills of average scientists at that time. Due to the lack of scientists knowledgeable enough in the movements of the sun, earth and moon, most churches fixed an arbitrary date for the spring equinox: March 21.
- The calendar used by Rome at that time, the Julian calendar, had been established by Julius Caesar in 46 BCE and was based on a year of 365 1/4 days, which means that it had an annual error of 11 minutes. This meant that since Easter was calculated on the basis of a fixed date for the spring equinox (March 21), and since due to the 11 minutes error the calendar was drifting backwards at a rate of roughly 1 day every 128 years, the Easter calculation could never be accurate. In fact, the Julian calendar was already three days behind by 325 CE.
As time went by, the Easter calculation became even more confusing. In relation to this, the English monk Bede, around 730 CE, wrote, "It is said that the confusion in those days was such that Easter was sometimes kept twice in one year." (Bede, cited in Duncan)
Bede, who lived in the early Middle ages, knew something that most people did not know in his time: that the official dating of Easter was an error due to the fact that the official calendar was flawed. This problem would persist until 1582 CE, the year Pope Gregory XIII amended the calendar.
The “Dying and Reviving God" Motif
Some scholars have pointed out the close resemblance between Easter and its surrounding symbolism with the mythological motif known as the “Dying and Reviving God”. There are many stories in world mythology about gods that either die or are sacrificed and return to life for the good of the people or the land. In Egypt one finds Osiris, who is killed by his brother and revived by Isis, his wife. Adonis is the spring god of the Phoenicians, who became popular in Greece and Rome as a human with whom Aphrodite fell in love, who also died and returned to life. Odin, the Norse god who hangs himself on the World Tree to gain knowledge, is yet another example. Attis, the Phyrgian god; Dionysos, in Greece; Baal, in Ugaritic Canaan; Inanna or Dumuzi in Mesopotamian mythology, are all examples of dying and reviving gods who return from death; they all undergo a ritual of death and renewal which brings life to others.
The Dying and Reviving God motif is closely linked to the more universal motif known as “The hero’s journey” or “The hero’s descent into the underworld” where the god's or hero's apparent death is followed by a glorious resurrection that causes some sort of benefit to mankind.
- Coogan, M. The Oxford Companion to the Bible edition by B. M. Metzger,M. D. Coogan. Oxford University Press, USA, 1993.
- Duncan, D. The Calendar. Fourth Estate Ltd, 1999.
- Durant, W. Caesar and Christ. Fine Communications, 1994.
- Frazer, J. The Golden Bough. Oxford University Press, USA, 2009.
- Leeming, D. The Oxford Companion to World Mythology. Oxford University Press, USA, 2005.
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