When Christianity spread to Europe, the yearly Christian celebration of the resurrection of Jesus Christ, which itself represents life, would eventually become known as Easter. Early Christian fathers (i.e. first and second century) would have had no concept of calling Christ's resurrection Easter. They would have called their celebration of the day of Christ's resurrection either The Saviour's Pascha or The Festival of Life. However, by the fourth century A.D. Christians everywhere were referring to the day of Christ's resurrection as Easter.According to the historian Eusebius (A.D. 311), it was the custom of the early Christian churches to mark the resurrection of the Paschal lamb with a period of fasting preceding the day of resurrection, followed by a festival or celebration feast on the day Christians officially celebrated Christ's resurrection. The churches were varied as to their fast customs, some fasted a single day, others two, and some even more days prior to breaking the fast with a feast of celebration.
A Controversy Unfolds
A controversy arose in the Christian churches around 190 A.D. related to the ending of the fast days associated with Christ's Pascha and the timing of the official Christian celebration of the day of Christ's resurrection. The churches of Asia, since the time of the Apostle John, would end their fasts on the fourteenth day of the moon in the lunar month of Nisan. The fourteenth day of Nisan is the day in which the Jews were ordered by God to sacrifice the paschal lamb and place its blood on the doorposts of their homes so the death angel might "pass over" (Exodus 12:6). Nisan is the first month of the Biblical Jewish lunar calendar and corresponds to sometime in March or April in our calendar. Modern Jews still follow their Old Testament lunar calendar and Nisan 14 continues to be the day set aside by orthodox Jews to commemorate Passover(Pascha). Of course, Jesus of Nazareth, the true Paschal Lamb of God, hung on the cross of Calvary on Nisan 14. The timing of Christ's death points us to the fulfillment of the Old Testament laws through His work on our behalf and it reveals our Lord as the Paschal Lamb of God, sacrificed by our Heavenly Father on behalf of His children.
The early Asian Christian churches, claiming to follow the instructions of the Apostle John, would fast the days preceding the fourteenth day of Nisan, and then would break their fast on Passover Day and celebrate Christ's resurrection with "the feast of the life-giving pasch" on the very day Jews celebrated Passover - Nisan 14. It mattered not on which day of the week Nisan 14 fell (Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, etc . . . ), the Asian churches would break their fast and celebrate Christ's resurrection (i.e. Easter) on the same day Jews celebrated Passover. This date never changed on the Jewish calendar - it was always Nisan 14 - but it would fall on different days of the week. However, Christian churches outside Asia would fast until the SUNDAY after 14 Nisan and celebrate the resurrection of Christ on the Lord's Day AFTER Jewish Passover.
The controversy that erupted in 190 A.D. occurred over the question of whether the festival of the celebration of the resurrection of Christ was to be kept on a Sunday, or whether Christians could observe it on the Jewish Holy Day of Passover, the fourteenth of Nisan, regardless of the day of the week on which it occurred. Those Christians in Asia who kept Easter on the Jewish Holy Day of Passover came to be known as Quartodecimans or terountes - names intended to be both identifying and derogatory. In 190 A.D. the Quartodecimans were declared to be "non-conformists" and were ex-communicated from "the true church" by Victor, the head of the Christian church in Rome. Another pastor, Irenaeus, while expressing disagreement with the Quartodeciman practice, nevertheless reproached Pastor Victor for his declaration of excommunication. Irenaeus' reproach of Victor is one of the clearest and earliest evidences that the pastor of the church in Rome, though influential, was not considered "the head of the church" (i.e. the Pope). Further, it is interesting to note that Irenaeus suggested that Victor should follow the moderation of his pastoral predecessors by accepting Christians who disagree over tertiary issues. In spite of Irenaeus' defense of the Quartodecimans, they soon died out in both influence and number.
The Flashpoint of Controversy Changes In Time
Barely a century after what is now known as "The Easter Controversy" of 190 A.D., Christian leaders gathered in the town of Nicaea to debate another "Easter" controversy. Churches were becoming confused as to the particular Sunday that they should celebrate Christ's resurrection. We have no extant records from this meeting except for a handful of letters from the emperor Constantine, who himself was present at the council and wrote to the Christian churches afterwards to share his thoughts on the decisions made. The historian Eusebius, in his work The Life of Constanine records for us one of the emperor's letters where he writes of the meeting in Nicaea:
At this meeting the question concerning the most holy day of Easter was discussed, and it was resolved by the united judgment of all present that this feast ought to be kept by all and in every place on one and the same day.
The question of the Sunday on which the resurrection of Christ should be celebrated was a source of major discussion at the Council of Nicaea because Christian churches had begun to celebrate Easter on different Sundays and argued about who was right. For instance, the Syrian (Antioch) Christians always held their Easter festival on the Sunday after the Jews kept their Pasch (or Passover) on 14 Nisan. On the other hand, at another important city, Alexandria, and seemingly throughout all the rest of the Roman Empire, Christians would calculate the time of "Easter" for themselves, paying no attention to the Jews. For this reason, the dates of "Easter" as kept by Christians at Alexandria, Antioch and other cities did not correspond with each other by the fourth century A.D.
The Council of Nicaea sought to establish a uniform day in which the celebration of "Easter" should be kept by all Christian churches. The leaders at Nicaea concluded:
Easter shall occur the first Sunday after the full moon that occurs after the Vernal Equinox of March 21st.
The Vernal Equinox (equiox is Latin for "equal night") is the first day of spring north of the equator and the first day of fall south of the equator, and is characterized by exactly 12 hours of daylight and 12 hours of darkness. Since the time of Julius Caesar Western Civilization had followed the aptly named "Julian Calendar" instead of the various lunar calendars used since the dawn of civilization.
The Julian calendar was a solar calendar that measured time by the earth's rotation around the sun rather than the lunar calendar method of measuring the moon's rotation around the earth. The New Year in the solar Julian Calendar corresponded to 'Eostre' or spring and was always celebrated on March 25th. The Julian calendar was in effect in 325 A.D. at the time of the Council of Nicaea. The "Easter Debate" as to the specific Sunday on which Easter should be celebrated seemed to be settled by the Council at Nicaea; that is, until something strange began to be noticed by farmers, agriculturalists, and Christian leaders. As time passed, Easter moved further away from the Jewish celebration of Passover, and it seemed that the actual seasons (fall, winter, spring and summer) were a little off on the calendar. What was happening?
It was discovered that the scientests in Julius Caesar's court, authors of the Julian calendar, had incorrectly measured the length of the earth's year and seasons. The Julian year was short of a true revolution of the earth around the sun by a small fraction of a day. Therefore, as the centuries went by, Easter (or spring) on the Julian calendar, though a "fixed" date, was shifting in relation to the lunar calendar and the Jewish Passover. Further, the agricultural seasons seemed to be off kilter in terms of the calendar. If you were to look out your window on Easter in early spring in the late 1500's, it wouldn't seem like early spring. Because of the Julian calendar's small error in measuring the earth's year, the actual vernal equinox had shifted over time to about ten days later than it should - from March 21 in 325 A.D. to the first of week of April by 1570.
So, Pope Gregory XII, in the 1570's convened a commission to consider reform of the Julian calendar. Gregory rightly believed Easter should fall close to the Jewish Passover and a correction needed to be made to adjust the calendar to match the actual agricultural seasons. The recommended adjustments to the calendar by Pope Gregory were instituted in Roman Catholic countries in 1582 and became known as the "Gregorian Calendar." What happened to implement the Gregorian calendar was very odd. Ten days in the 1582 calendar were actually deleted, so that October 4, 1582 was followed by October 15, 1582 thereby causing the vernal equinox of 1583 and subsequent years to occur about March 21 instead of the first week of April, as it had happened in April 1582. In addition, the Gregorian calendar added "leap" years. A leap year is simply a year in which February is given an additional day for a total of 29 days instead of the typical 28. Thus a leap year consists of 366 days instead of 365 days. According to the Gregorian calendar, every year that is exactly divisible by 4 is a leap year, except for those years that are exactly divisible by 100; these centurial years are leap years only if they are exactly divisible by 400. This formula is not as complicated as it first sounds, but it is important to understand that Gregory established leap years in order to keep Easter in the spring and close to the Jewish Passover. This year - 2008 - is divisable by four, and thus is a leap year.
Confusion Over Old Style Dates and New Style Dates
The change to the Gregorian calendar from the Julian Calendar did not occur all at once throughout Western Civilization. In Great Britain, Parliament legislated the change to the Gregorian calendar (eventually known as the "New Style" calendar) in 1751 after two failed attempts at change in 1645 and 1699. Parliament declared that September 2, 1752 would be followed by September 14, 1752 to accomodate the errors of the Julian calendar. This 1752 change also applied to the American colonies, but Alaska didn't change calendars until 1867, when it transferred from a Russian territory to a part of the United States.
In the short term after the change to the Gregorian calendar, dates were written with O.S. (Old Style) or N.S. (New Style) following the day so people examining records could understand whether they were looking at a Julian date or a Gregorian date. For instance, George Washington was born on February 11, 1731 (O.S.), but his birthday became February 22, 1732 (N.S.) under the Gregorian calendar. The change in the year of his birth was due to the change of New Year's Day from March 25 under the old Julian Calendar to that of January 1 under the Gregorian calendar. For the centuries preceding the Gregorian calendar, March 25 was always New Year's Day, corresponding to spring, "Easter" and "new life." Ever since the Gregorian calendar was implemented New Year's Day has been celebrated as January 1. Those individuals who were alive during the change to the Gregorian calendar, and were born prior to the change between January 1 and March 25, had their birthdates changed in terms of the year (one year was added to their Old Style Julian birthdate year), as was the case with George Washington.Ironically, even to to this day, the Eastern Orthodox Church celebrates their holidays based on the Julian Calendar as an act of rebellion to the "Western" or Roman Catholic Church. Thus, the date for Easter in the Eastern Church is always different than the date for Easter in the Roman Catholic Church or evangelical churches in the West. For an even more precise explanation of the modern dating of Easter in Western Civilization, see this article by Mary Fairchild
What We Can Learn About Civil Dissent and Disagreement from Easter's Date
1. Matters which lead to debate and disagreement are usually far more complicated than some might wish them to be; thus, patience, reflection, and restraint from making simple, dogmatic, conclusive statements is always best.
2. If the moderation displayed by Iraeneus in his desire to accept Christians who disagreed over the date to celebrate Christ's resurrection had been followed by other early Christians, many major church conflicts during the patristic period could have been avoided.
3. Any Christian who spends more time debating the minutiae of "church" doctrine rather than cooperating with one another to lead the lost to faith in Jesus Christ has sacrificed true Christianity on the altar of man's religions.
4. The tendency to pronounce moral epitaths on those who disagree with you, including "ex-communication" from the "true church," is a problem that is neither new or uncommon.
5. One year's intense controversy soon fades into memory, and soon other controversies arise that are as inconsequential as the earlier ones. In all cases, the church of Jesus Christ will continue to grow and thrive. After all, He is the head of His church.
I hope this spurs your thoughts as we prepare to celebrate one of the earliest possible Easter celebrations in terms of date (Sunday, March 23, 2008). As for me, I prefer Nisan 14 (which happens this year to fall on a Sunday, April 20, 2008).But, then again, some call me a 'non-conformist.' :)
In His Grace,