From Passover to Easter

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This entry is part 6 of 22 in the series The Thread: God's Appointments with History

But now is Christ risen from the dead, and become the firstfruits of them that slept.

1 Corinthians 15:20

Occasionally, when I have said that “Easter” is nowhere mentioned in Bible, someone reminds me of the incident where Herod has arrested Peter and put him in prison, “intending after Easter to bring him forth to the people” (Acts 12:4). The problem is that the Greek word translated “Easter” is the Greek Pascha which, everywhere else it is used in the New Testament, is translated “Passover.” So why, 1600 years later, did the King James translators use Easter instead of Passover here?

As early as the third century, the entire church had begun to confuse Easter and Passover. How did it happen that the early church stopped observing the Passover and began observing Easter?

First, realize that at the beginning, this was not a Passover/Easter controversy. It was a calendar controversy. It was a question of when the church would observe Pascha, which is the Greek and Latin word for Passover. The issue is confusing, because even modern English works, when citing early Greek and Latin documents, translate Pascha as “Easter.” When discussing the Jewish observance, they render Pascha as “Passover.”

But what was at issue in the second century was whether they would observe Passover on any day of the week, as the Hebrew calendar allowed, or only on a Sunday. Later the issue became which Sunday.

The issue is further confused by a misunderstanding of the significance of the Sunday following the crucifixion of Jesus. This was an important day in the Jewish calendar. As noted in the previous chapter, it was the day of offering the firstfruits of the barley harvest. It was also the first day of the countdown to Pentecost, 50 days later.

Pentecost is a Greek word, and therefore it is not found in the Old Testament. There, the day is called the Feast of Harvest,i the Feast of Weeks (i.e., sevens)ii and the Feast of Firstfruits.iii On the Feast of Firstfruits, two leavened loaves of bread were lifted up to God, loaves made of the harvest of the firstfruits.iv

So here is the pattern. On the evening after the Sabbath was over, the very first sheaf of grain of the early harvest was cut from the ground. It was prepared that night by threshing the barley from the chaff and then parching it over a fire. The next morning, the priest lifted an omerv of the grain to God as the presentation of the firstfruits of the harvest. Now, compare this to Christian theology of the resurrection.

But now is Christ risen from the dead, and become the firstfruits of them that slept. For since by man came death, by man came also the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive. But every man in his own order: Christ the firstfruits; afterward they that are Christ’s at his coming (1 Corinthians 15:20–23 KJV).

It is clear enough, in referring to “Christ the firstfruits,” that Paul is referring directly to that first sheaf offered on the morning after the Sabbath by the priest. His wording leaves no room for doubt.

James will follow up on what is to follow: “Of His own will He brought us forth by the word of truth, that we might be a kind of firstfruits of His creatures” (James 1:18). What we see here is Christ as the first of the firstfruits in the resurrection, with the remainder of the firstfruits to follow at his coming.

So this particular Sunday was important to both Jews and Christians. To Jews, it was the day of the offering of the firstfruits, the first day of the seven weeks to the Feast of Firstfruits. To Christians, it was the morning of Jesus’ presentation to the Father and of his first appearance to his disciples after his resurrection from the dead. And it was the first day of the seven weeks to Pentecost.

For the first Christians, the symbolism of the Jewish observance was seen to point directly to Christ. The connection was clear and strong from the start. The early church had not adopted a calendar different from that of the Jewish majority in the first century,vi so the comparison between liturgy and events was, to them, even more apparent.

Now consider this carefully. This Sunday was celebrated early on as the day of Christ’s first appearance after his resurrection. It was an anniversary that appeared on the Jewish calendar on the first Sunday after Passover every year. As explained in the previous chapter, every place in the New Testament where you see the expression “the first day of the week,” it is referring, not to a Sunday, but to a singular day of the year. It is the first day of the weeks leading up to Pentecost. It is an annual, not a weekly observance. It was, for want of a better term, “wave sheaf Sunday.” How it got confused with Easter is an interesting story all in itself.

It is well established, both in the Bible and in history, that late in the first century the entire Christian church still observed Pascha on the 14th day of the first month of the Jewish calendar. This meant that Pascha, the Christian Passover, could fall on any day of the week. Meanwhile, much of the visible Christian church observed “resurrection Sunday” on the Sunday following the Passover.vii And, because it was the Passover season, they called the Sunday observance Pascha.

A controversy arose between the Western Christians, who observed Pascha on wave sheaf Sunday and the Eastern Christians, who observed it on the 14th day of the month. It is called the Quartodeciman controversy and is discussed at some length in the Catholic Encyclopedia. The controversy became important around A.D. 190.

But Easter is still not in the picture. These people were writing in Greek and Latin, and the word in both languages was Pascha, Passover. The Sunday observance of Pascha won out in most of the known churches, but early in the fourth century a second controversy arose. They had mostly settled on Sunday, but now the question was which Sunday.

Through the intervening years, the churches had increasingly distanced themselves from the Jews, dropping as many links as they could.viii The council of Nicea, in the year 325 made the following rulings:

1. Easter must be celebrated by all throughout the world on the same Sunday;

2. This Sunday must follow the 14th day of the Paschal moon;

3. That moon was to be accounted the Paschal moon whose 14th day followed the spring equinox;

4. That some provision should be made, probably by the Church of Alexandria as best skilled in astronomical calculations, for determining the proper date of Easter and communicating it to the rest of the world (see St. Leo to the Emperor Marcian in Migne, P.L., LIV, 1055).ix

What they had done at first was to move Pascha to the Sunday following the Jewish Passover. Now they moved Pascha to the first Sunday after the first full moon after the spring equinox. It was still, to them, the Pascha, but they had, by accident or design, moved the Passover to coincide with an ancient pagan festival called Easter. The name, Easter, comes from the Anglo-Saxon goddess of the dawn. In pagan cultures, an annual spring festival was held in her honor. She was also a fertility goddess, hence the fertility symbols of eggs and rabbits.

So the celebration of Easter, with a sunrise service for the goddess of the dawn, and all the Easter egg hunts, and bunnies and stuff, is an entirely different holiday from the Passover. But because the church moved the Passover from its original date to the date of Easter, the two holidays have become conflated to this day.

The name Easter comes from Eostre, an ancient Anglo-Saxon goddess, originally of the dawn. In pagan times an annual spring festival was held in her honor. Some Easter customs have come from this and other pre-Christian spring festivals. Others come from the Passover feast of the Jews, observed in memory of their deliverance from Egypt. The word paschal comes from a Latin word that means belonging to Passover or to Easter. Formerly, Easter and the Passover were closely associated.

The resurrection of Jesus took place during the Passover. Christians of the Eastern church initially celebrated both holidays together. But the Passover can fall on any day of the week, and Christians of the Western church preferred to celebrate Easter on Sunday the day of the resurrection. x

Easter, as such, has absolutely nothing to do with Christianity. Wave Sheaf Sunday has somewhat to do with Christianity, because it is the day Jesus first appeared to his disciples, and it is the day when Jesus was presented to the Father as the firstfruits from the dead. This lies along our thread, because Wave Sheaf Sunday is the day when the priests in the Temple waved a sheaf of the firstfruits of the barley harvest before God. It is on the day after the Sabbath following Pascha, regardless of when the equinox takes place.

The days from Wave Sheaf Sunday to Pentecost were days of harvest, an idea somewhat foreign to a reader who is divorced from the land. But to the first readers of the New Testament books, the imagery was vivid. The resurrection of Jesus as the firstfruits revealed something very important – he was not going to be the only one resurrected from the dead. So the resurrection of the saints was a vital doctrine of the early church.

But the idea was not without its detractors. In these early days of the faith, heresies sprang up like weeds. One of the earliest dismissed the idea of a resurrection. It isn’t entirely surprising, because even among the Jews there was a division between Pharisees and Sadducees on this very issue.xi Somehow, this schism made its way to Corinth.

Now if Christ be preached that he rose from the dead, how say some among you that there is no resurrection of the dead? But if there be no resurrection of the dead, then is Christ not risen: And if Christ be not risen, then is our preaching vain, and your faith is also vain. Yea, and we are found false witnesses of God; because we have testified of God that he raised up Christ: whom he raised not up, if so be that the dead rise not (1 Corinthians 15:12–15 KJV).

Paul threw down the gauntlet. There was no middle ground on this question. He and others had testified to the resurrection of Jesus. They were not merely misguided enthusiasts. If the dead didn’t rise, then they were liars. This is precisely what is at issue in some quarters today. Jesus was a good man, a great teacher, they say, but he wasn’t raised from the dead. But if Jesus wasn’t raised, all his claims to divinity would brand him as a charlatan, or a madman. Paul claims it goes even further than that. Following the thread through the agricultural season of the spring harvest, Paul makes his way toward Pentecost.

For if the dead rise not, then is not Christ raised: And if Christ be not raised, your faith is vain; ye are yet in your sins. Then they also which are fallen asleep in Christ are perished. If in this life only we have hope in Christ, we are of all men most miserable. But now is Christ risen from the dead, and become the firstfruits of them that slept. For since by man came death, by man came also the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive. But every man in his own order: Christ the firstfruits; afterward they that are Christ’s at his coming (vv. 16–23).

The season of the grain harvest was Jesus’ chosen metaphor. There were two major harvest seasons in Palestine. The grain harvest in the spring, and the fruit harvest in the autumn. The spring harvest, which started with barley and ended with wheat, took place between Passover and Pentecost. Pentecost is also called the Feast of Firstfruits because the season begins and ends with an offering of the firstfruit harvest – the first, barley, the second, wheat. So it is only natural that Jesus would use the harvest as an analogy for saving people.

Then Jesus went about all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues, preaching the gospel of the kingdom, and healing every sickness and every disease among the people. But when He saw the multitudes, He was moved with compassion for them, because they were weary and scattered, like sheep having no shepherd. Then He said to His disciples, “The harvest truly is plentiful, but the laborers are few. Therefore pray the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into His harvest” (Matthew 9:35–38).

The harvest metaphor is very strong in all of Jesus’ teaching, and it is also strong in the holydays of the Bible. The firstfruits of Wave Sheaf Sunday and Pentecost are especially meaningful to Christians. I noted above that James spoke of the disciples as “a kind of firstfruits of his creatures” (James 1:18). We find the same metaphor in Revelation.

Then I looked, and behold, a Lamb standing on Mount Zion, and with Him one hundred and forty-four thousand, having His Father’s name written on their foreheads. And I heard a voice from heaven, like the voice of many waters, and like the voice of loud thunder. And I heard the sound of harpists playing their harps. They sang as it were a new song before the throne, before the four living creatures, and the elders; and no one could learn that song except the hundred and forty-four thousand who were redeemed from the earth. These are the ones who were not defiled with women, for they are virgins. These are the ones who follow the Lamb wherever He goes. These were redeemed from among men, being firstfruits to God and to the Lamb (Revelation 14:1–4).

The pattern is clear enough. Christ is the first of the firstfruits. The saints are the rest. It is a crying shame that the Christian churches have lost the thread of the holydays of the Bible. For in the annual observance of these days, the study and preaching of them in their seasons, there is so much to be learned about God and his plan for man.

i. Exodus 23:16.

ii. There is no word for “weeks,” per se in Hebrew. The word commonly translated “weeks” is shabuwa, from sheba, the cardinal number seven. It is the past participle of shaba, “to seven,” as in “to complete.” So it is properly a “feast of sevens;” i.e. the seven weeks leading up to the Feast of Firstfruits.

iii. Exodus 34:22.

iv. Leviticus 23:17.

v. A dry measure of about two quarts.

vi. The calendar was crucial, because it defined the time of observance of the feasts. There is not a word in the New Testament to suggest any change from the Jewish observance. This comes from the Catholic Encyclopedia, article “Easter Controversy”:

The first was mainly concerned with the lawfulness of celebrating Easter on a weekday. We read in Eusebius (Hist. Eccl., V, xxiii): “A question of no small importance arose at that time [i.e., the time of Pope Victor, about A.D. 190]. The dioceses of all Asia, as from an older tradition, held that the fourteenth day of the moon, on which day the Jews were commanded to sacrifice the lamb, should always be observed as the feast of the life-giving pasch . . .”

vii. Ibid. It is of passing interest that in the Catholic Encylcopedia’s citation of Eusebius and Irenaeus, they translate Pascha as “Easter.”

viii. Samuele Bacchiocchi, in his landmark book, From Sabbath to Sunday, includes a thorough discussion of what he calls an “anti-Judaism of separation.” See pp 170 ff.

ix. Catholic Encyclopedia (Online), article, “Easter.”

x. Funk & Wagnalls Knowledge Center Online, article, “Easter.”

xi. And when he had so said, there arose a dissension between the Pharisees and the Sadducees: and the multitude was divided. For the Sadducees say that there is no resurrection, neither angel, nor spirit: but the Pharisees confess both (Acts 23:7–8).

Series Navigation<< The Passover By Any Other NamePentecost >>


Ronald L. Dart

Ronald L. Dart (1934–2016) — People around the world have come to appreciate his easy style, non-combative approach to explaining the Bible, and the personal, almost one-on-one method of explaining what’s going on in the world in the light of the Bible. After retiring from teaching and church administration in 1995 he started Christian Educational Ministries and the Born to Win radio program.

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Image Credits: Joel Montes de Oca