Tuesday, February 12, 2008

What We Can Learn of Civil Dissent and Christian Disagreement From the Controversy Over Easter's Date

The word Easter has been adopted by Christians to signify the day of resurrection of Christ from the tomb.  However, the word has pagan origins and is nowhere found in Scripture or primitive Christian literature. Eostre was the mythical goddess of sunrise or spring for the ancient Germanic tribe known as the 'Teutones.' The Romans first identified the Teutonic people in the second century B.C. The Teutones were the forefathers of those we call the Dutch people today.  Eostre was the Teutonic goddess of life represented by the dawn of a new day or springtime. The direction of the sunrise (East) is named for her and Eostre (sometimes spelled Eastre and Easter) is also the ancient Anglo-Saxon word for spring.

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,



Anonymous said...

So while some insist they have defined the speed at which the world turns, others observe and make adjustments accordingly!

Anonymous said...

Very informative. As usual, I learned a great deal from reading your post. Thanks!

Bill Simmons

davidinflorida said...

Hi Wade,

You mention the moderation of Irenaeus on the date of the Resurection.

Could this be because he was a second generation disciple of the apostle John, whereby he knew what was important and what wasn`t?

He wasn`t part of any denomination and he hadn`t been to seminary; the only two places where one can learn the correct interpretation of the Word.

He did recognize true heresies when he saw them (gnostics), and worked against them.

Unlike some today, (certain boards), he supported those who possesed prophetic gifts and those who spoke or prayed in tongues as the sign of a Christ follower.

The early Church was much different than the Church of today.

RKSOKC66 said...

A very informative post.

In the last decade or so there have been some additional small adjustments to timekeeping -- such as "leap seconds". This is needed because the time for the earth to make one complete rotation on its axis is not constant over time. It is very very very slightly changing over time away from 24.000000000 hours
or 86,400.00000 seconds.

Roger K. Simpson
Oklahoma City OK

ml said...

Hey Wade check your spelling of Eusibius. I think it is suppose to be Eusebius.

DL said...

I doubt Eus-e-i-bius is complaining. :)

wadeburleson.org said...


Thanks. That was a typo. I was waiting for someone to correct Nicaea, only to inform them that Nicea, the modern spelling, is not the way the city is spelled in all source materials. The English language has had a tendency over the years to drop double vowels that are back to back and spell the word with just one vowel. Another example of this is the name Irenaeus which is now spelled by some as Ireneus, dropping the 'a' after the 'n.' In addition to dropping double vowels, we Americans have an aversion to a soft 'c,' changing the spelling of many words with a soft 'c' to an 's', as in 'defense' from the British 'defence.' Language (and typing) is such a funny thing!

greg.w.h said...


Thanks for researching and posting this. When I did the research on the Council of Nicea for one of my (long ago) comments, I saw that disagreement and thought it would be something you'd enjoy exploring, but ended up not saying anything at the time.

As an aside, the Hebrew calendar is pretty marvelous, by the way. It is a lunisolar calendar that has ridiculously nice accuracy. This comment in Wikipedia sums up how the system works:

Because of the roughly eleven-day difference between twelve lunar months and one solar year, the year lengths of the Hebrew calendar vary in a repeating 19-year Metonic cycle of 235 lunar months, with an intercalary lunar month added every two or three years, for a total of 7 times per 19 years. Seasonal references in the Hebrew calendar reflect its development in the region east of the Mediterranean Sea and the times and climate of the Northern Hemisphere. With respect to the present-day mean solar year, the Hebrew calendar's year is longer by about 6 minutes and 25+25/57 seconds, meaning that every 224 years, the Hebrew calendar will fall a full day behind the modern fixed solar year, and about every 231 years it will fall a full day behind the Gregorian calendar year. This is due to the 0.6 second discrepancy between the Calendric "Molad" (lunar conjunction interval), which is fixed by Jewish Law,[4] and the actual mean lunar conjunction interval, which itself is slowly changing over time Wikipedia entry on the Hebrew Calendar

Some months back I used a quote that was a paraphrase of something I had heard before along the lines of "light is a disinfectant." I found the source of the original quote and think it is appropriate to the discussion of dissent:

Publicity is justly commended as a remedy for social and industrial diseases. Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants; electric light the most efficient policeman. Louis Brandeis in Other People's Money—and How Bankers Use It (1914) (Brandeis is more recognized as the Associate Supreme Court Justice that served from 1916-1939.)

Anonymous said...

Thank you Wade for helping me, to understand about this day, that we set a side to celebrate Christ resurrection. Let me ask you something? I wonder when the Council of Nicaea met, to establish a uniform day; do you think there was those who did not agree with this date, were censor?

The Old Gray Fox

wadeburleson.org said...


That's funny.



P.S. To answer your question: 'I don't know. The meeting was behind closed doors.' (wink)

Anonymous said...

And I thought that watching a Believer rising from the waters of Baptism was God's appointed testimony to the Death, Burial, and Resurrection of our Lord and Savior, not some day in the Spring?

Jim Atkisson

ml said...

Darby, I know he isn't complaining but seeing a misspelling is one of those things that doing a dissertation does to you. I am marred now as a result. But hopefully it makes me sharper in recognizing other errors on a bigger scale. And I won't even say or mention them since this is such an amiable post. :)

Wade, You are right. Much of the spelling of names is codified by time and convention. Often, due to continual error [based on the standards of that day], the error becomes the norm. I had to stop my son from reading the Lord of the Rings books because it was affecting his spelling in school.

DL said...

My comment was strictly a joke. I agree that accuracy is an important thing. If the guy whose name I'm now scared of spelling is in Heaven, Christ is all in all to him, and we can celebrate together. :)

wadeburleson.org said...


I would agree with your assessment!


Dave Miller said...

I don't know about the early church, but you need a doctorate in applied mathmatics to figure out when Easter is going to be today.

R. L. Vaughn said...

Seems if they'd never instituted an annual festival perhaps they'd have never gotten in the controversy over it. I'm with Jim, baptism (and every Lord's Day/Sunday) are the New Testament celebrations of the resurrection of Jesus Christ.

wadeburleson.org said...


That's funny.

R.L. Vaughn,

That's right!

Rex Ray said...

You said, “…since the time of the Apostle John…”

What year does history record the “time of the Apostle John”? Was that the time of his death, and if so, what was the year?

John was the only Apostle who had the courage, boldness, and defiance to witness Calvary. He asked Jesus to rain fire on unbelievers. Do not the bold die first?

When his brother was executed, had he shook his fist in the king’s face and called fire from heaven? Would that cause the king to get revenge by boiling him in oil as history records?

Tradition teaches John was not killed by the oil. Should we believe tradition, or should we believe the prophesy of Jesus, (Matthew 20:23 and Mark 10:39)?

ml said...

Wade, You know I am not sure if it is right but I read that Easter Sunday was Baptism Sunday in the early church? I have been doing this over the past three Easters. What better testimony to the resurrection than the lives of people who are eternally changed? It makes a much stronger case for the resurrection than my logic and it is a great day to do it b/c many people who come on Easter Sunday get to see something that is vital to the Christian life--the testimony of someone transformed by the gospel and now becoming a disciple of Jesus. I can't remember when I got the idea. It may have been leadership magazine article? It has been pretty powerful. The first year it was accompanied by a video testimony and the sermon was capped off with the video That's My King from Sermon Spice. If you havent seen that video preview it--http://www.sermonspice.com/videos/114/thats-my-king/

wadeburleson.org said...


I personally believe believe the prophecy of Jesus and hold that John was the last Apostle to die.




I would agree with your assessment. The more I see how bizarre and absurd the setting of the date of 'Easter' is, I believe we Christians should avoid great drama during 'Easter' and celebrate Christ's resurrection each Lord's Day.



Dave Miller said...

My comments keep disappearing into thin air - so if this one shows up twice, sorry.

I affirm Wade's comments about celebrating the resurrection.

When you study the gospel presentations made in the book of Acts, some interesting things become clear.

1) The gospel is never, as far as I can tell, presented in terms of "where are going when you die?" I believe in heaven and hell, but in the Bible, the gospel presentation was about trusting the Risen Lord today and experiencing his life-transforming power.

2) The key event in the gospel presentation in Acts is not the cross, but the resurrection. The cross is mentioned, but the resurrection is emphasized. The key is the life-transforming power of the Risen Lord which comes to those who repent and believe.

I am a man of the cross and the blood, but I am afraid too often we stop there, focus on having your sins forgiven and going to heaven when you die, and miss the whole point of the gospel in Acts.

Jesus Christ died for our sins and rose again as Lord. He is Lord of all and the rightful Lord of our lives. When we give our lives to him he radically transforms them today.

One day, the process will be completed in heaven for those who believe. But the emphasis is always on the temporal transforming power of the Risen Lord.

I am not a jewelry guy (old-fashioned machismo perhaps). But if someone can come up with an Empty Tomb necklace - I will buy it and wear it.

Rex Ray said...

Thanks for the reply. Would you elaborate some on what was the prophecy of Jesus, and how and when did John die?

I believe Jesus said John would die a martyr, and he didn’t accomplish martyrdom by dying of natural causes from old age.

I was curious of what year was referred to when you wrote: “The churches of Asia, since the time of the Apostle John, would…”.

Was a year mentioned by these historians you seemed to be quoting?

The Harper’s Bible Dictionary says James and John, the Sons of Thunder, died before 70 AD.

Rex Ray said...

Dave Miller,
You make a good point how great the resurrection is, but it can hardly compare to the Cross.

‘For every action there’s an opposite and equal reaction’ is the key for which is the greatest. In short, which one cost God the most?

To me, the Cross was a just a drop in the bucket compared to what Jesus would suffer in hell. In taking the punishment for all sin in the world, he did not go to hell and whip up on the devil.

The punishment was from God. Every breath would be a scream. Every moment would wish for death. For every tear Jesus cried, his Father cried two.

We cannot fathom how God could love us so much to stand what was necessary for our salvation.

Rex Ray said...

Dave Miller,
You said, “My comments keep disappearing into thin air.”

I was wondering what happened to your reply of Saturday October 9. Or are you pulling a ‘Patterson’? smile

Bryan Riley said...

I think my favorite observation in reading this is how I struggled to read it because it seems so insignificant. Clearly, contemporaneously it wasn't. I wonder how many things we argue about so passionately will seem so trivial given time and revelation.

Anonymous said...


Since no one else has picked up on your question about Easter being Baptism Sunday, I will attempt it.

It is traditional, among Catholics, to take in new members on Easter, specifically at Easter Vigil. (Where ideally, we start the service at night and finish it at dawn, when the Resurrection occurred.)

For many adults coming in, it does include baptism. (Catholics do not rebaptize, if a person has been baptized with the standard Trinitarian formula by a Christian Church.)

They went back to that, because the early church did that.