00.3 The History of Easter

Antenicene References to Easter are Actually to Passover

And when he had apprehended him, he put him in prison, and delivered him to four quaternions of soldiers to keep him; intending after Easter to bring him forth to the people.   (Acts 12:4 KJV)

There is a reference in the Bible to the word Easter, in the King James Version, as shown above.  However, the word is mistranslated. It is the Greek word Pascha, meaning Passover.  The practice of calling Passover Easter, in translation, is seen in the writings of Melito, Irenaeus, Theophilus of Caesarea, Polycrates, Tertullian, Origen, Dionysius of Alexandria, and Anatolius.  It can also be seen in the Apostolic Constitutions.

Here are some examples, remember that in each case the term “Easter” is really the Greek word “Pascha” which really means Passover.  Notice that in each case the reference talks about some controversy concerning the practice of celebrating Pascha.  Remember that one of the first doctrines of original Christianity was that the law was fulfilled. That meant that observances of the law no longer had to be practiced, i.e., circumcision, all of the numerous laws in the Law, etc.  However we see from the earliest days of history that the Passover was an event that Christians recognized. That is the point of acts 12:4 above, and references by such noted early church fathers as Polycarp:

When the Blessed Polycarp was visiting in Rome inthe time of Anicetus,… They were at once well inclined toward 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 forgo the observance [of his Easter customs]  inasmuch as these things had always been observed by John the disciple of our Lord, and by other apostles with whom he had been conversant.[i]

From the above citation we see that the practice of observing the Passover had been continued from the time of John up until Polycarp in the second century. But there was dispute over what day Passover should have been continued to be observed. There was a dispute over whether the day should be the 14th of Nissan, (which technically is the day before the Jewish practice of Passover), or the Sunday following the 14th because the Lord rose on the first day of the week. [ii] The argument had a geographic component.  The believers in Asia Minor held that it was important to follow the tradition from Judaism of always honoring the date, i.e. 14th, whereas the Roman thinking was that the day, Sunday, being the day the Lord rose was the important element.[iii]

It is also obvious that different practices like fasting and kneeling in worship had begun to be part of the ritual for Christians during this time of Passover:

We consider fasting or kneeling in worship on the Lord’s Day to be unlawful. We rejoice in that same privilege also from Easter to Pentecost.[iv]

Christians developed the practice of observing certain days, and Passover was one of them. Origen writes what the meaning of Passover was to Christians. It was that Jesus is the eternal Passover lamb, so that by his sacrifice God’s wrath passes over us:

We ourselves are accustomed to observe certain days. For example, there is… Easter… He who considers that “Christ our Passover was sacrificed for us,” and that is his duty to keep the feast by eating of the flesh of the word, never ceases to keep the Paschal feast. For pascha means “passover.”  So he is ever striving in all his thoughts, words, and deeds to pass over from the things of this life to God.[v]

Just like some practice a period of Lent today with fasting it was the practice then to fast before Easter. However, as seen below, it was not known when it was proper exactly to end the fast:

You have sent to me, most faithful and accomplished son, in order to inquire what is the proper care for bringing the fast to close on the date of Easter. You say that there are some of the brethren who hold that it should be done at cockcrow. However, others say that it should end at nightfall… It will be cordially acknowledged by all those who have been humbling their souls with fasting should immediately begin their festal joy and gladness at the same hour as the resurrection… However no precise account seems to be offered in [Scripture] as to the hour at which He rose.[vi]

The apostolic constitutions (compiled circa 390) made some clear declarations. One was that it was proper to observe Passover.  Secondly it set a definitive time as to when the fast should end; at the cock crowing:

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.

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![vii]

From these references, we see that from the days of original, primitive Christianity there were both fasting and celebratory practices of Passover.  The Apostolic Constitutions dictated that the time of fasting was to end on the morning of the resurrection Sunday, specifically at the cock crowing, from which time the celebration of the resurrection was to occur. The Apostolic Constitutions, however, were never recognized as legitimately being directives handed down from the Apostles.  Nevertheless, they give us valuable insight as documents into the thinking of the late fourth century, as that is when they are estimated to be written.  As such they reflect practices and beliefs of 4th century Christianity.

The above citations do not tell how intense the dispute actually was. There was a dispute about the year 167 as to what day Jesus actually died, some holding the 14th of Nisan while others held the 15th. In the year 190 there were synods held in Rome, Palestine and other places that decided in favor of the Roman practice.[viii]

In the year 224 Hippolytus worked out a calculation of the days of Easter for the years 222 to 233 according to a cycle of 16 years . In the year 256 Fermilian of Cappadocia stated that the Roman dating of Easter was wrong, accusing the Roman leadership of not honoring the now long held tradition.  In 260 Dionysius worked out another system and in 277, another Alexandrian, devised another system.  At the council of Nicea Constantine believed that the Easter controversy was second only to the Aryan controversy in importance.  Constantine, of course, followed Western practice, and Easter Sunday became the practice of Christendom.  The controversy was sufficient to have split the church[ix]

The Change to the Name “Easter”

In the above discussion we see that early Christianity celebrated Passover, and elevated the importance of the resurrection in choosing Sunday as the day of celebration.  However, none of the above discusses how the name changed from Passover to Easter.

As Christianity became the national religion for the Roman Empire longstanding traditional pagan festivals were eventually replaced by Christian ones.  Both Christmas and Easter are examples of this practice, although Easter appears to be an Anglo-Saxon practice.  According to ChristianityToday.com, the source of the practice is uncertain, but the best source is Bede the Venerable, who wrote in the late 7th century:

“[Bede] says Easter’s name comes from the Anglo-Saxon goddess Eostre, associated with spring and fertility, and celebrated around the vernal equinox. So there you go. As Christmas was moved to coincide with (and supplant) the pagan celebration of winter, Easter was likely moved to coincide and replace the pagan celebration of spring.

And while we’re at it, the Easter Bunny comes from these pagan rites of spring as well, but more from pagan Germany than pagan Britain. Eighteenth-century German settlers brought “Oschter Haws” (never knew he had a name, did you?) to America, where Pennsylvania Dutch settlers prepared nests for him in the garden or barn. On Easter Eve, the rabbit laid his colored eggs in the nests in payment. In Germany, old Oschter lays red eggs on Maundy Thursday. If anyone knows why children in an agrarian society would believe a rabbit lays eggs, please tell us or a historian near you. We’re all dying to know.”[x]

So, that’s how it became called Easter instead of Passover. In the replacing of the Pagan Easter Festival, some of the pagan activities (with their pagan symbolism) crept in. Thus we see Easter bunnies, eggs and so forth.

[i] A DICTIONARY OF EARLY CHRISTIAN BELIEFS, David W. Bercot, Editor, Hendrickson Publishers, Peabody, MA, 7th Printing, March 2008, p. 223, reference to Irenaeus, 1.569
[iii] A HISTORY OF THE CHRISTIAN CHURCH, Williston Walker, Scribners, New York, 1959, p. 60-61
[vi] A DICTIONARY OF EARLY CHRISTIAN BELIEFS, p.223, Dionysius of Alexandria, 6.94
[vii] A DICTIONARY OF EARLY CHRISTIAN BELIEFS, p.224, Apostolic Constitutions, 7.447
[viii] A HISTORY OF THE CHRISTIAN CHURCH, Williston Walker, Scribners, New York, 1959, p. 60-61
[ix] THE RISE OF CHRISTIANITY, W.H.C. Frend, Fortress House, Philadelphia, 1984, p. 242-243
[x] Christianitytoday.com, http://www.christianitytoday.com/ch/news/2004/why.html

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