The Bible doesn’t mention the word “Easter.” Well, the King James Version erroneously translates the word “Passover” as “Easter” in Acts 12:4, but the word Easter isn’t found in the Greek. The truth is that GOD does not instruct Christians to observe a special celebration of Jesus’ death and resurrection at the time of the annual Jewish Passover Feast.
Through the early Christians’ writings, however, we can gain insight into the ancient traditions surrounding Easter.
First, three quick notes:
- My purpose in this post is to share historical information, not to opine for or against the practice of celebrating Easter as a religious holiday.
- I’m not an expert on church history, and haven’t put a massive amount of research into this. My hope in sharing these things is to pique our interest and get us to thinking.
- The quotes below are taken from David W. Bercot’s A Dictionary of Early Christian Beliefs, which is a topical listing of early Christian writings compiled from Philip Schaff’s ten-volume series The Ante-Nicene Fathers.
The word Easter wasn’t actually used for several centuries after the Council of Nicaea (which occurred in 325 A.D.). An abundance of online sources exist for information on the origination of the word Easter, and that isn’t my purpose in this post. The early Christians instead used the Greek word “pascha,” which is translated in English, “Passover.”
The earliest known Christian reference to a celebration of Easter is dated approximately 170 A.D.:
When Servilius Paulus was procounsul of Asia, at the time that Sagaris suffered martyrdom, there arose a great controversy at Laodicea concerning the date of pascha, which had fallen due at that time.Melito (c. 170 A.D.), p. 223
In this quote, Melito indicates that the Christians had an established practice of celebrating the Passover. He also references what was a significant debate for the Christians in the second century—the “right” date to celebrate Easter. This disagreement was known as “the Paschal controversy”. David Bercot writes:
The Paschal controversy concerned the date on which the Christian Passover (Gr. pascha), known today as Easter, was to be celebrated. In the pre-Nicene church, the main issue about Easter was whether it was to be celebrated on a fixed date each year, Nisan 14, or whether it was to be celebrated on the Sunday following Nisan 14—regardless of the date on which that Sunday falls. In Asia Minor, Christians celebrated Easter on Nisan 14, and they testified that they received this custom from the apostle John. In most other places, the Christian Passover was celebrated on the Sunday following Nisan 14. Another minor paschal controversy concerned the calculation of the spring equinox under the Julian calendar—which ultimately affected the date that Easter would be observed.David Bercot, A Dictionary of Early Christian Beliefs, p. 500
About ten years after Melito’s writing above, Irenaeus shed additional light on the Paschal controversy.
When the blessed Polycarp was visiting in Rome in the time of Anicetus [c. 155 A.D.], . . . they were at once well inclined towards each other, not willing that any quarrel should arise between them upon this matter [the observance of Easter]. For Anicetus could not persuade Polycarp to forego the observance [of his Easter customs] inasmuch as these things had been always observed by John the disciple of our Lord, and by other apostles with whom he had been conversant. Nor, on the other hand, could Polycarp succeed in persuading Anicetus to keep [Easter in his way], for Anicetus maintained that he was bound to adhere to the usage ofthe presbyters who preceded him. And in this state of affairs they held fellowship with each other.Irenaeus (c. 180 A.D.), p. 223, 500
In my assessment, there is significant evidence to show that the practice of celebrating Jesus’ resurrection at the time of the Passover each year had been in place by the mid-second-century, and perhaps even as far back as the apostle John.
That the first Jewish Christians in particular would have celebrated Easter/Passover/pascha in accordance with the Law of Moses is essentially confirmed in Acts 21:20, which says:
20 When [James, the Jerusalem elders and brethren] heard this, they praised God. Then they said to Paul: “You see, brother, how many thousands of Jews have believed, and all of them are zealous for the law.Acts 21:20 NIV
Thankfully, some Christian writers clearly recognized that unity was more important than their personal customs and traditions. As Irenaeus said, despite the disagreement, “…in this state of affairs they held fellowship with each other.” Decades later, Firmilian expressed a similar attitude:
There are some diversities among the churches. Anyone may know this from the facts concerning the celebration of pascha. . . . He may see that here are some diversities among them. All things are not observed alike among the churches, such as are observed at Jerusalem. Similarly, in very many other provinces, many things are varied because of the places and names. Nevertheless, there is no departure at all from the peace and unity of the [universal] church on this account.Firmilian (c. 256 A.D.) p. 500
Sadly, others took a hard stance in defense of their tradition.
As for us, then, we scrupulously observe the exact day, neither adding nor taking away. For in Asia great luminaries have gone to their rest, who will rise again on the day of the coming of the Lord. . . . These all kept pascha on the fourteenth day, in accordance with the Gospel. . . . Seven of my relatives were bishops, and I am the eighth, and my relatives always observed the day when the people put away the leaven.Polycrates (c. 190 A.D.), p. 500
Our predecessors, men most learned in the books of the Hebrews and Greeks (I refer to Isidore, Jerome, and Clement) . . . come harmoniously to one and the same most exact determining of pascha—the day, month, and season meeting in accord with the highest honor for the Lord’s resurrection. But Origen also, the most learned of all, and the most discerning in making calculations, . . . has published in a very elegant manner a little book on pascha. . . . For this reason, also, we maintain that those who . . . determine the fourteenth day of the Paschal season by it make no trivial or common blunder. . . . Therefore, in this concurrence of the sun and moon, the Paschal festival is not to be celebrated. For as long as the [sun and moon] are found in this course, the power of darkness is not overcome. And as long as equality between light and darkness endures, and is not diminished by the light, it is shown that the Paschal festival is not to be celebrated. Accordingly, it is directed that the festival be kept after the equinox.Anatolius (c. 270 A.D.), p. 500
By the late fourth century, when Apostolic Constitutions was compiled, the mainstream church had established very elaborate traditions and, in many cases, were teaching these traditions as though they carried the weight of the commandments of GOD.
It is your duty, brethren . . . to observe the days of Easter exactly. . . . No longer be concerned about keeping the feast with the Jews, for we now have no communion with them. In fact, they have been led astray in regard to the calculation itself. . . . You should not, through ignorance, celebrate Easter twice in the same year, or celebrate this day of the resurrection of our Lord on any day other than a Sunday.Apostolic Constitutions (compiled c. 390 A.D.), cited in David Bercot’s A Dictionary of Early Christian Beliefs, p. 224
Break your fast when it is daybreak of the first day of the week, which is the Lord’s Day. From the evening until the cock-crows, keep awake; assemble together in the church; watch and pray; entreat God. When you sit up all night, read the Law, the Prophets, and the Psalms—until cock-crowing. Baptize your catechumens and read the Gospel with fear and trembling. And speak to the people such things as will assist their salvation. . . . And from that point on [i.e., cock-crowing], leave off your fasting and rejoice! Keep a festival, for Jesus Christ, the pledge of our resurrection, is risen from the dead! Apostolic Constitutions, c. 390, p. 224Apostolic Constitutions (compiled c. 390 A.D.), cited in David Bercot’s A Dictionary of Early Christian Beliefs, p. 224
We can clearly see, in hindsight, the danger that tradition can create and how something can start off as a good idea (to remember and celebrate Jesus’ resurrection), develop into a custom that becomes popular, becomes an ingrained tradition that is taught as a requirement, and eventually creates division. Regardless of our personal opinion on Easter and the celebration of religious holidays, we can learn valuable lessons from our early brethren in this regard.