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THE CHRISTIAN ORIGINS OF EASTER

Past disputes over the date of Easter

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When have Christians celebrated Easter?

The Encyclopedia Britannica states: "There is no indication of the observance of the Easter festival in the New Testament or in the writings of the apostolic Fathers. The sanctity of special times was an idea absent from the minds of the first Christians." 1

According to BibleWorld.com, "Some church historians assert that Easter observance began in the first century (CE), but they must admit that their first evidence for the observance comes from the second century." 2,3,4

There was no consensus within the second century church about when to celebrate Easter. "...the early Christians had followed the Jewish calendar and celebrated the resurrection on the Passover which was the fourteenth of Nisan, the first month of the Jewish year...." 5 "By the end of the 2nd century some churches celebrated Easter/Pascha on the day of the Jewish passover, [sic] regardless of the day of the week, while others celebrated it on the following Sunday." 6 The Council of Nicea in 325 CE later set the date as the first Sunday after Passover. That is, if Passover was on a Sunday, then Easter was delayed by seven days. Thus, it was observed on a date between the fifteenth and twenty-first day of the Jewish month of Nisan. 5 Eventually, the date of Easter was set as the first Sunday after the first full moon (the Paschal Moon) on or after the nominal date of the vernal (spring) equinox: MAR-21. The church celebrated Easter between the 15th and 21st day of Nisan. However, this did not achieve harmony within Christianity:

bulletLocal differences "differences in the mechanics of determining the date of Easter/Pascha remained even after Nicea" 6 "...by the 6th century the mode of calculation based on the studies of Alexandrian astronomers and scholars had gained universal acceptance."
bulletThe Celtic Church did not delay Easter in the event that Passover occurred on a Sunday. Thus, they celebrated Easter on a date between the 14th and 21st day of Nisan. In about one year in seven, their observance would be one week before the Roman church. This practice continued for the remnants of the Celtic Church at Iona in what present-day Scotland until 716 CE. The Welsh church did not adopt the Roman dating until 768 CE. 5
bulletThe Julian calendar, which was used by the entire Christian Church until the mid 16th century was in error about 11 minutes and 14 seconds each year. This accumulated to form a full day error every 128 years. By the late 16th century, this error had accumulated to an intolerable 10 days. Pope Gregory XIII commissioned a study to decide how to correct it and how to prevent it from drifting in the future. The solution was to make most of the century years into non-leap years; only those which were evenly divisible by 400 (e.g. 1600, 2000, 2400 etc.) were to be leap years. Roman Catholic countries corrected the calendar by making 1582-OCT-15 CE follow 1582-OCT-4. England delayed the adoption of the Gregorian calendar until the mid 18th century. They made an 11 day correction; the day following 1752-SEP-2 was SEP-14. Eastern Orthodox Churches continue to use the Julian calendar. It is currently 13 days later than the Gregorian calendar. Since 1923, the Romanian Orthodox and Greek Orthodox churches have adopted the Gregorian calendar. However, they continue to use the Julian calendar for Easter calculations.

The gap between the two calendars continues to grow. Most Greek Orthodox churches currently celebrate Christmas on JAN-7 and New Year's Day on January 14 (according to the Gregorian calendar).
This gap generally causes Easter to be celebrated on the same Sunday in the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches only about once every three or four years. In other years, the Orthodox Easter -- called Pascha -- is delayed by one, four, or five weeks: 7
Year Easter
(Gregorian calculation)
Easter
(Julian calculation)
Matching dates?
2001 APR-15 APR-15 Yes
2002 MAR-31 MAY-5  
2003 APR-20 APR-27  
2004 APR-11 APR-11 Yes
2005 MAR-27 MAY-1  
2006 APR-16 APR-23  
2007 APR-8 APR-8 Yes
2008 MAR-23 APR-27  
2009 APR-12 APR-19  
2010 APR-4 APR-4 Yes

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References:

  1. Encyclopedia Britannica, VIII:859. Cited in Reference 5.
  2. Schaff, "History of the Christian Church," II:207. Cited in Reference 5.
  3. Latourette, "A History of Christianity," I:137. Cited in Reference 5.
  4. Ferrell Jenkins, "Should Christians Observe Easter?," at: http://www.bibleworld.com/easter.pdf. You need software to read these files. It can be obtained free from:
  5. "[Synod of] Whitby," at: http://itsa.ucsf.edu/~snlrc/britannia/
  6. "Toward a Common Date for Easter," World Council of Churches / Middle East Council of Churches Consultation, 1997 at: http://www.elca.org/ea/ and http://www.wcc-coe.org/

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Copyright 2003 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Originally written: 2003-APR-20
Latest update: 2003-APR-20.
Author: B.A. Robinson

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