He is Risen!
The word ‘Easter’ occurs in our New Testament only once. It is translated from the word ‘pascha’, which appears 29 times. Twenty eight of those times, it is translated ‘Passover’; once it is translated ‘Easter’, in Acts 12v4:
“And when he [Herod] had apprehended him [Peter], he put him in prison, and delivered him to four quarternions of soldiers to keep him; intending after Easter to bring him forth to the people.”
To most people, the term ‘Easter’ refers to the whole period that includes Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, Easter Sunday and Easter Monday, or any part thereof. The early Christians used the word ‘pascha’ in their writings to refer only to the day they celebrated the resurrection. However, for convenience, I will be using the word ‘Easter’ to refer to the Christian celebration, meaning either the resurrection day. I do this for two reasons; first, in common usage, most people understand the word Easter to be referring to that period when the Christian church commemorates the death and resurrection of the Lord, Jesus Christ. Secondly, using the word Passover might cause confusion with the Jewish Passover, rather than the Christian festival. It is also the word used (for the same reasons) in the quotations from the early Christian church writings, even though the original in those works is also ‘pascha’.
In my last post, I put forward the idea that the crucifixion did not happen on a Friday, but rather on a Thursday. My intention was to show that the Bible does not support a Friday crucifixion with a Sunday resurrection. The early Christians fasted prior to the day of resurrection, but it would seem that their fast was held the day immediately prior to the resurrection day, rather than on the Friday (ie, two days before):
“Break your fast when it is daybreak on the first day of the week, which is the Lord’s Day. From the evening until the cock-crows, keep awake; assemble together in the church; watch and pray; entreat God. When you sit up all night, read the Law, the Prophets, and the Psalms – until cock-crowing....And from that point on, leave off your fasting and rejoice! Keep a festival, for Jesus Christ, the pledge of our resurrection, is risen from the dead!” [Apostolic Constitutions (compiled c390AD)]
Dionysius of Alexandria (c262AD) wrote:
“You have sent to me, most faithful and accomplished son, in order to enquire what is the proper hour for bringing the fast to a close on the day of Easter. You say that there are some of the brethren who hold that it should be done at cockcrow. However, others say that it should end at nightfall....It will be cordially acknowledged by all that those who have been humbling their souls with fasting should immediately begin their festal joy and gladness at the same hour as the resurrection.”
So appealing to a traditional day of fasting by the early church does not teach us that the Christians fasted on the Friday, but on the day before Easter. If Easter was on a Sunday, then the day of fasting would necessarily be on a Saturday.
If therefore we can accept that the crucifixion did not happen on a Friday, what is there to say that the resurrection actually occurred on a Sunday? Have we got that day wrong as well?
Again, we need to appeal to the early Christian writings:
“Sunday is the day on which we all hold our common assembly, because it is the first day on which we all hold our common assembly, for it is the first day on which God...made the world. And Jesus Christ our Saviour, rose from the dead on that same day.” [Justin Martyr]
“We celebrate the Lord’s Day as a day of joy. For on it, He rose again.” [Peter of Alexandria: (c310AD)]
“On the day of our Lord’s resurrection, which is the Lord’s Day, you should meet more diligently, sending praise to God.” [Apostolic Constitutions]
Clement, a friend of the Apostle Paul, stated:
“Christ rose on the third day, which fell on the first day of the weeks of harvest, on which the Law prescribed that the priest should offer up the sheaf.”
From these references, we can see that the early Christians worshipped on Sundays because that was the day the Lord had risen from the dead. There is no mention of fasting, or meeting on Friday or each Friday, in acknowledgement of the death of the Lord.
So, having established that Christ rose on Sunday, and that He Himself said He would be three days and three nights in the grave, then we can safely assume that the crucifixion occurred on the preceding Thursday.
The next question we need to settle is: when is the proper date for the celebration of Easter? When did the early church celebrate it?
First of all, we ought to establish what we mean by ‘the early church’ or ‘the early Christians’. Until around the sixth century, the church was united. There were no separate denominations; all were one. The whole period is referred to as the time of ‘the early church’. However, there were two distinct phases within that period, separated by the Council of Nicaea in AD 325.
The first period is known as ‘pre-Constantine’; the second, ‘post-Constantine’. That is not to say that Constantine had died, but acknowledges that a change occurred in the constitution of the church at the time of the Council of Nicaea. When I refer to ‘the early church/ early Christians’, I am specifically referring to the time pre-Constantine. These Christians of the first, second and third centuries were much closer to the original biblical writers and some of them to the Apostles themselves. For example, Polycarp and Ignatius were personally acquainted with the Apostle John; Clement was known to the Apostle Paul. These men were taught personally by the Apostles and, in turn, they mentored the next generation of Christian church leaders, teaching them the things they themselves had been taught. Being so close, there was less likelihood of corruption of the practice of the church from the practice of the Apostles themselves and the churches they were overseers of. It makes sense therefore not only to look at what the Bible teaches us, but to see how those early Christians put the words of Scripture into practice. There is no shortage of material within those writings about the early church’s practice of the celebration of Easter. Therefore, the vast majority of quotes are taken from the writings of early Christians prior to the Council of Nicaea.
So let us return to the question of when is the proper date for commemorating the death and resurrection of Christ. Interestingly, the church before AD 325 had two opinions on this matter. This became known as ‘the Paschal Controversy’. Churches in the eastern parts of the region celebrated at the time of the Jewish Passover; churches in the east celebrated on the Sunday following the Passover. The one region thought it sensible to celebrate at Passover because Jesus is our ‘Passover Lamb’ and His death occurred at the time of the Passover. The other region believed that as Jesus rose from the dead on a Sunday, then Sunday was the proper day to celebrate the resurrection. Also, the Sunday following Passover was the Jewish feast of first fruits (the early harvest) and Jesus was described as the first fruits from the dead – ie His resurrection was the first resurrection and guaranteed the resurrection of the saints on the last day (which is still to come):
“But now is Christ risen from the dead, and become the firstfruits of them that slept [had died].” (1 Corinthians 15v20)
David Bercot, in his book ‘Dictionary of Early Christian Beliefs’ puts it like this:
“The Paschal controversy concerned the day on which the Passover (Gr Pascha), known today as Easter, was to be celebrated. In the pre-Nicene Church, the main issue about Easter was whether it was to be celebrated on a fixed date each year, Nisan 14, or whether it was to be celebrated on the Sunday following Nisan 14, regardless of the date on which that Sunday falls. In Asia Minor, Christians celebrated Easter on Nisan 14, and they testified that they received this custom from the apostle John. In most other places, the Christian Passover was celebrated on the Sunday following Nisan 14.”
Polycrates (cAD 190), states:
“As for us then, we scrupulously observe the exact day, neither adding nor taking away. For in Asia great luminaries have gone to their rest, who will rise again on the day of the coming of the Lord...These all kept Easter (Passover) on the fourteenth day, in accordance with the Gospel.”
Putting the other opinion, Anatolius (cAD 270) says:
“For the obligation of the Lord’s resurrection binds us to keep the Paschal festival on the Lord’s day."
“The one party, indeed, kept the Paschal day on the fourteenth day of the first month – in accordance with the Gospel, as they understood it. They added nothing of an extraneous kind, but kept the rule of faith through all things. The other party – keeping the day of the Lord’s passion as one replete with sadness and grief – hold that it should not be lawful to celebrate the mystery of Easter at any other time but on the Lord’s day, on which the resurrection of the Lord from death took place.”
Despite these differences, there was no division or disruption to the unity that was in the church at that time.
Firmilian [cAD 256) states:
“There are some diversities among the churches. Anyone may know this from the facts concerning the celebration of Easter...Nevertheless, there is no departure at all from the peace and unity of the universal church on this account.”
In my next post, we will explore further the date of Easter and why we celebrate it at the time we now do.