Thursday, March 24, 2016

What This Year’s Early Easter Date Tell Us about Early Christianity

The bright moon this morning provoked a conversation in which my daughter asked a telling question that reveals a lot about early Christianity.

The date of Easter is the first Sunday after the first full moon after the Vernal Equinox. This year, the Vernal Equinox was March 20 (it is often on March 21). The full moon was March 23. The Sunday following is March 27. So we have an early Easter this year.

There is a logic to the date of Easter. Jesus was crucified on Passover, which is the fourteenth of Nissan, which is the month of spring (hence the Vernal Equinox). Nissan, like other months of the Jewish calendar, is a lunar month starting on the new moon. The fourteenth is thus the date of the full moon. The Resurrection was the Sunday following the crucifixion. 

On the calendar that we use, the Roman calendar, the date of Eastern changes from year to year. My daughters question was: “Didn’t they record the date of the Resurrection?”

The answer is that that they did, but they recorded it in the Jewish calendar, not the Roman calendar. The earliest Christians were all Jews or converts from Judaism. It was only later that the Christians started accepting converts from Gentiles, such as Greeks and Romans. So the early Christians recorded the date of the Resurrection according to the date on the Jewish lunar calendar, not the Roman solar calendar.

Starting in the second century, there was a controversy in Christianity between those that wanted to celebrate Easter on the 14th of Nissan (following the gospel of John) and those who wanted to celebrate it on Sunday and so the Sunday following (following the gospel of Matthew). The Easter controversy was not ostensibly settled until the fourth century.

There are only two Christian Holy Days that follow a Jewish calendar, that thus go back to the earliest period of Christian history. Both commemorate the Resurrection. Those Holy Days are Easter, and the Lord’s Day (Sunday). All the other Christian Holy Days follow the Roman calendar (including Christmas) and are thus later.

So, what we learn about early Christianity is that the Resurrection was the only event commemorated; it was memorialized in two Holy Days, Easter and the Lord’s Day. The dates of these events were recorded in the Jewish calendar, which was the one that the earliest Christians used.