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This blog site will feature essays, columns and musings that deal with the intersection of Christianity and journalism and the American Songbook.

“Some historical background on Easter questions” (letter: Observer, CWU student newspaper)

Observer, Student newspaper
Central Washington University
March 9, 2000

In last week’s Observer, there was an interesting and challenging guest column by Niki Abraham that rightly deplored ignorance on the part of any Christian who would celebrate Easter without knowing its roots. The column addresses Easter and its date, Easter and the Passover, and Easter and the egg. As a Christian who believes that minds are redeemed as well as souls, perhaps I could help explain “what we are really observing and what the Bible really says about [Easter]” in three connections.

First, Easter and the Passover: According to the Venerable Bede (735), the English word “Easter” comes from the Anglo-Saxon word “Eastre,” a Teutonic goddess to whom sacrifice was offered in April, so the name was easily transferred by Christians to the Spring paschal feast. “Pascha” is the Greek and Latin word for “Passover.” The word “easier” does not properly occur in Scripture, although William Tyndale (1492-1536) gives “Easter” as a rendering of “pascha” in his translation and the King James Bible (1611) has “Easter” in Acts 12:4 where it stands for “Passover.” The Greek word is rightly rendered as “Passover” in the Revised Standard Bible (1885) and subsequent translations. There is no trace of an Easter celebration in the New Testament, though some would see an imitation of it in I Corinthians 5:7-8. Theologically, Easter and Passover are connected in the death of Jesus in the following way: According to the Old Testament, the passover lamb was slain on the 14th day of the month (Exodus 12). It cannot be disputed that the passover lamb was regularly sacrificed on the evening of the 14th of the ancient Jewish calendar month of Nisan (roughly April) and that the passover meal was eaten that same night. The New Testament gospels are perfectly clear and uniform in declaring that Jesus ate the passover meal at the regular time on the evening of the day on which the Jewish law required that the lamb should be slain. The New Testament picture is that Jesus ate the passover on the evening of the 14th of Nisan, was crucified on the 15th, which was Friday in our language, lay in the grave on Friday, Saturday and arose from the dead early in the morning on Sunday.

Second, Easter and its date: Eusebius, the historian (Ecclesiastical History, V), gives us the earliest written evidence for an Easter festival which appears in the so-called “paschal controversy” over the correct date for Easter, which began with the correspondence in 154 between Polycarp, bishop of Smyrna and Anticetus, bishop of Rome. The Jewish Christians in the early Church continued to celebrate the Passover, regarding Christ as the true paschal Iamb, and this naturally passed over into a commemoration of the death and resurrection of Christ (i.e. Easter). Differences arose as to the time of the Easter celebration, the Jewish Christians naturally fixing it at the time of the Passover feast which was regulated by the paschal moon. According to this reckoning, Easter began on the Evening of the 14th day of Nisan without regard to the day of the week, while the Gentile Christians identified it with the first day of the week, i.e. the Sunday of the resurrection, irrespective of the day of the month. The Gentile practice finally prevailed in the church. But differences as to the proper Sunday for the Easter celebration which led to long and bitter controversies. The Council of Nicaea (325), decreed that Easter should be on Sunday, but did not fix the particular Sunday. It was left to the bishop of Alexandria to determine, since the city was regarded as the authority in astronomical matters. But this was not satisfactory, because some bishops celebrated Easter as early as March 21, and others celebrated it as late as April 25, and still other bishops followed dates between. The rule was finally adopted, in the Seventh Century, to celebrate Easter on the Sunday following the 14th day of the calendar moon which comes on, or after, the vernal equinox which was fixed for. March 21. Easter was thus fixed by these rules, except in the East, which is another story.

Third, Easter and the egg: I am not aware of any orthodox Christian teaching which gives any theological significance, whatsoever, to Easter and the chicken egg.

The Easter feast has been and still is regarded as the greatest feast in the Christian Church, since it commemorates the most important event in the life of Jesus the Christ, and therefore, in the life of the individual Christian.

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