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Christian scripture asserts that Jesus' death and resurrection took place during the Jewish Passover festival. Indeed, early Christians interpreted the end of Jesus' life in light of the biblical story of Exodus, which explains the events behind the celebration of Passover. In this way they came to understand Jesus as a new kind of sacrificial lamb, one whose willingness to die for their sakes washed away their sins, thereby delivering them from a form of spiritual bondage and leading them towards a new relationship with God (see also Redemption). They began to celebrate this understanding in a new ceremony called the Eucharist, and in a new festival called Pascha.

Easter in the Context of Passover

Christian scripture - in particular, passages from the Gospels of Mark, Matthew, and Luke - describes Jesus' last meal with his friends as a Passover supper. At this meal Jesus asked his followers to remember him by breaking bread and drinking wine together in his name. In response to this request, Christians later created a special religious ritual called the Eucharist. This ceremony is celebrated weekly in many churches around the world, recalling the words and deeds of Jesus at that Passover supper (see also Maundy Thursday).

According to the Gospels of Mark, Matthew, and Luke, Jesus' arrest took place later that night. His trial and crucifixion occurred the following day, still the first day of Passover according to the Jewish calendar (for more on crucifixion, see Cross). The Gospel of John records slightly different dates. According to John, the Last Supper took place the day before Passover, as did Jesus' trial and crucifixion (for more on the Last Supper, see Maundy Thursday). Some scholars have pointed out that in John's account, Jesus is dying on the cross at the same time that the Passover lambs are being killed in the Temple. Thus in John's account Jesus is cast as the new sacrificial lamb in a very direct way. The Gospel of John introduces this theme much earlier, when John the Baptist recognizes Jesus as "the Lamb of God" (John 1:29). John also recounts that the Roman soldiers presiding at the Crucifixion refrained from breaking Jesus'legs (John 19:32-33). This echoes the requirement found in Jewish scripture that the Passover lamb be roasted and eaten without breaking a bone.

Scholars believe that John's Gospel was written sometime between 75 and 100 A.D. Nevertheless, the earliest Christian scripture to refer to Jesus as the Passover lamb was written by Paul decades earlier. Writing around the middle of the first century Paul draws the connection directly, declaring that "Christ, our Paschal lamb, has been sacrificed" (1 Corinthians 5:7).

The Christian Pascha

In Christian scripture and the writings of early Christians, the Jewish Passover is referred to as Pascha, a Greek pronunciation of the Hebrew word Pesah. In these early Christian texts the term Pascha refers not only to the Jewish Passover festival, the sacrificial lamb, and the Passover meal, but also to the emerging Christian festival later called Easter. This usage reflects the view that Jesus'death on the cross represented a new Passover sacrifice and Exodus experience for all who would later follow him. By the mid-second century this interpretation had become widespread in Christian circles.

In English the word "Easter" eventually replaced the Greek term Pascha as the name of the festival (see also Easter, Origin of the Word). Other European languages still retain traces of the original Greek term in their word for Easter, however. The Spanish refer to the festival as Pascua, the Italians call it Pasqua, the French Pâques, the Portuguese Páscoa, the Romanians Paste, and the Greeks and Russians Pascha.

By the second half of the second century, Christians were regularly observing a yearly Passover festival in commemoration of Christ's death and resurrection. They celebrated from sunset to midnight on the fifteenth of the month of Nisan (according to the Jewish calendar). Documents from that era suggest that the observance consisted of fasting, chanting, scripture reading (especially the twelfth chapter of Exodus), the Eucharist, and a homily. By the end of the second century Christian communities adopted the practice of baptizing new members during this yearly ceremony (see also Baptism).

The Timing of Passover and Easter

By the start of the third century, the framework of what was later to become Holy Week, Easter, and Easter Week (the week following Easter) had been established. Yet controversy simmered about the date on which to celebrate the Christian Pascha. Some communities, especially those in Asia Minor and Syria, wanted to continue celebrating it on the same evening that the Jews celebrated their Passover meal. Others lobbied for celebrating the festival on the Sunday following the fourteenth of Nisan. This sentiment may have been fueled by the fact that many of the new converts were from Greek and Roman backgrounds and so were accustomed to a fixed solar rather than a shifting lunar calendar. In addition, Christian scripture records the Resurrection as having occurred on the day after the Jewish Sabbath, that is, on a Sunday. All four Gospel accounts agree on this matter (see also Eight).

The debate concerning the date of the Christian Pascha was eventually resolved at the Council of Nicaea (325 A.D.). This important meeting of the leaders of the early Christian Church produced the Nicene Creed, a fundamental statement of the Christian faith, and other important decisions regarding Christian faith and practice. The Council decreed that Pascha would fall on the Sunday following the full moon that occurred on or after the spring equinox. In those days, however, significant differences existed in the calendrical calculations and astronomical observations of timekeepers from different parts of the ancient Mediterranean and Middle Eastern world. As a result the bishops also had to contend with the fact that Roman astronomers claimed that the spring equinox fell on March 25, while Alexandrian (Egyptian) astronomers argued that it fell on March 21. The Council members sided with the Alexandrians in this matter, proclaiming that for the purposes of calculating the date of Easter, the spring equinox would be reckoned as falling on March 21 (see also Easter, Date of).

The Nicene Council's decision concerning the timing of Easter disconnected the scheduling of the Christian Pascha from the Jewish festival calendar and launched it as an independent holiday. This decision helped to establish the Christian calendar. After Council members anchored Easter to a certain time of year the holiday began to provide a stable hub around which a new cycle of Easter-related festivals were developed (see also Ascension Day; Ash Wednesday; Lent; Holy Week; Pentecost).

Further Reading

Baldovin, John F. "Easter." In Mircea Eliade, ed. The Encyclopedia of Religion. Volume 4. New York: Macmillan, 1987. Bradshaw, Paul F., and Lawrence A. Hoffman, eds. Passover and Easter: Origin and History to Modern Times. Two Liturgical Traditions series, volumes 5 and 6. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1999. Finn, Thomas M. "Pasch, Paschal Controversy." In Everett Ferguson, ed. The Encyclopedia of Early Christianity. Volume 2. New York: Garland, 1997. Jacobs, Louis. "Passover." In Mircea Eliade, ed. The Encyclopedia of Religion. Volume 11. New York: Macmillan, 1987. James, E. O. Seasonal Feasts and Festivals. 1961. Reprint. Detroit, MI: Omnigraphics, 1993. Mac Rae, G. W. "Passover, Feast of." In New Catholic Encyclopedia. Volume 10. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1967. "Passover." In E. A. Livingstone, ed. The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church. Third edition. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 1997. Peifer, C. J. "Passover Lamb" and "Passover Meal." In New Catholic Encyclo- pedia. Volume 10. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1967. Senn, Frank C. "Should Christians Celebrate the Passover?" In Paul F. Bradshaw and Lawrence A. Hoffman, eds. Passover and Easter: The Symbolic Structuring of Sacred Seasons. Two Liturgical Traditions series, volume 6. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1999.
Encyclopedia of Easter, Carnival, and Lent, 1st ed. © Omnigraphics, Inc. 2002
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