Resurrection, Passover, and Constantine

Many of us in the Messianic Jewish movement live in two worlds. I am part of the Jewish community and I am also involved in Christian community. In years like 2008, some of the differences stand out more clearly.

This is one of those years in which the majority of the Christian world will celebrate the Resurrection of Jesus about a month before Passover comes. Easter falls on March 23 this year while Passover is on April 20 (first Seder at sundown on Saturday, April 19). See http://tikvatdavid.com/Jewish_Calendar.html for the dates of Jewish holidays in 2008.

So what’s the story behind this disjuncture? Who decided the dates of Passover and Easter? Why are they usually together but sometimes apart?

The first part of the story is the history of the Jewish calendar. I will give you the short version. Before the Torah was given to Israel, the peoples of the Ancient Near East followed a lunar calendar and held festivals at agricultural seasons. When God gave the Torah, he gave to Israel an official version of the calendrical customs already in place.

God’s calendar is also lunar. The lunar month is 29 1/2 days. Twelve lunar months give 354 days, about 11 1/4 short of the solar year. This means every three years the seasons would fall one month behind. But Torah assumes some system of correcting the lunar calendar to the seasons. Torah does not explain how the correction is to take place.

One key measure of the new year is the barley harvest in Israel. Passover week includes the offering of first fruits of the barley. The old system of the calendar was simple: the judges of Israel would add a month in some years to make the Passover season fit with the barley harvest.

Yet, with no internet or radio or telephone service, things became complicated when Jews spread out all over the Roman empire. According to a somewhat doubtful tradition, Hillel II around the year 358, decided at the final meeting of the Sanhedrin to make the Jewish calendar mathematically-based and to eliminate the eyewitness tradition of determining months and seasons. Whether it happened in 358 or later, the Jewish calendar did become mathematically based.

The Jewish calendar today runs on a 19-year cycle with leap months being added every two to three years, for a total of seven out of each nineteen years.

2008 is a leap year on the Jewish calendar. As of this writing (February 2008) we are in that leap month, Adar I, added before the month in which Purim is celebrated.

All of that story boils down to one main point: in 2008, Passover comes at a late point in the year.

Meanwhile, there is another story. It is the story of Christendom in its early years. There had already been fights over Passover and Easter in the second century. Research sometime the Quartodecimanism controversy in the early church. Keep in mind that those telling the story were lacking some information. If they had understood, I think church history would record that Polycarp was the last great leader in Christendom to celebrate Passover.

All that aside, our story is now in the fourth century, 325 C.E. It is the year of the Council of Nicea. The council was primarily called for two reasons: (1) so Constantine could exercise some authority over the religion he authorized in his empire and (2) to denounce Arius, a theologian who taught that Jesus was not divine.

Constantine and the bishops gathered there did not want to follow the practice at the time of dating Easter as the Sunday following Passover (Note: Orthodox churches continue to date Easter as the Sunday after Passover and also call it Pascha rather than Easter).

Constantine is quoted in Eusebius:

it appeared an unworthy thing that in the celebration of this most holy feast we should follow the practice of the Jews, who have impiously defiled their hands with enormous sin, and are, therefore, deservedly afflicted with blindness of soul. … Let us then have nothing in common with the detestable Jewish crowd; for we have received from our Saviour a different way. (Life of Constantine, 3:18).

So, if you wonder why Christians, except those from Orthodox churches, are celebrating the resurrection of Jesus early this year, look no further than the Council of Nicea and its anti-Semitic conclusion on the matter. They decided Easter should always be on the Sunday after the first full moon on or after the day of the vernal equinox.

Interestingly, March 23, 2008 is a bit of an anomaly in Christian history. The earliest Easter may ever fall is March 22, which hasn’t happened since 1818 and won’t happen again until 2285. March 23 is about as early as Easter gets and it won’t be this early again until 2160.

What a great year, then, for Christians to decide, not as a group, but in local communities: do we keep the date of the resurrection founded in anti-Semitism or do we, like the Orthodox Christians, celebrate the resurrection on the Sunday after Passover, April 27, 2008?

About Derek Leman

IT guy working in the associations industry. Formerly a congregational rabbi. Dad of 8. Nerd.
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