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Is the Date of Easter of Pagan Origin?

Misconception: The church borrowed the date of Easter from pagan celebrations, so Christians should not celebrate this holiday.

by Roger Patterson on April 12, 2011
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Many claim that what we call Easter today was developed as Roman Catholicism co-opted pagan festivals celebrated in different regions in honor of various false gods and goddesses.

Clearing Up Misconceptions

Over time, many beliefs with little to no Biblical basis have crept into common Christian thinking. This web series aims to correct some of the most commonly held misconceptions about the Bible.

You may have heard the claim that Christians should not celebrate Easter because of its origins. Many believe that what we call Easter today was developed as Roman Catholicism co-opted pagan festivals celebrated in different regions in honor of various false gods and goddesses. The claims are laced with names of scholars who have made connections between the names of the festivals and goddesses, the timing of the celebration, and the symbols used.

To take these scholars at their word seems charitable, but I question the wisdom of such wholesale abandonment of a celebration that is at the very heart of the Christian community and faith. Three separate issues need to be identified and evaluated: the date of the celebration, the name of the celebration, and the symbols employed in the celebration. My goal is to examine each of these ideas separately so we might understand the issue more fully, repenting of what is erroneous and embracing what is true.

This chapter will examine the date of the celebration held in the spring to mark the death and Resurrection of Jesus Christ. The next two articles in this series will cover the name and symbols of the celebration.

The Centrality of the Crucifixion and Resurrection

There is no contention that within the orthodox Christian faith the doctrines surrounding the Crucifixion and Resurrection are fundamentals. Without Christ’s substitutionary atoning death, taking the wrath of God against sinners upon Himself, we could not be forgiven of our sins. Without His renewal to life after lying dead in the tomb, it could not be said Christ has conquered death. These ideas are confirmed by the writings of the Apostle Paul in his epistle to the Corinthian church:

Moreover, brethren, I declare to you the gospel which I preached to you, which also you received and in which you stand, by which also you are saved, if you hold fast that word which I preached to you—unless you believed in vain.

For I delivered to you first of all that which I also received: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that He was buried, and that He rose again the third day according to the Scriptures . . . .

For if the dead do not rise, then Christ is not risen. And if Christ is not risen, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins! (1 Corinthians 15:1–4, 16–17)

Christ’s death and Resurrection are absolutely necessary elements of the faith. These truths should bring joy to the heart of everyone who has received God’s forgiveness through Christ, giving great cause to celebrate. Throughout Scripture, God directs His children to mark His accomplishments on their behalf with feasts and celebrations. The most prominent Old Testament festival related to the celebration of Easter is the Passover.1 This term was used to refer to the Christian feasts and commemoration of the Resurrection in the early church and continues today. There is no record of disputes about whether the festival was appropriate—the disagreements about the date and method of celebration were around as early as AD 120.

Phillip and David Schaff discuss the origin of the date and customs of the Resurrection celebration, giving us a good place to begin the discussion of its date:

The Christian Passover naturally grew out of the Jewish Passover as the Lord’s Day grew out of the Sabbath; the paschal lamb being regarded as a prophetic type of Christ, the Lamb of God slain for our sins (1 Cor. 5:7, 8), and the deliverance from the bondage of Egypt as a type of the redemption from sin. It is certainly the oldest and most important annual festival of the church, and can be traced back to the first century, or at all events to the middle of the second, when it was universally observed, though with a difference as to the day, and the extent of the fast connected with it.2

Early Church Practices

It appears clear from the earliest writings of the church fathers that the Resurrection was almost universally celebrated by the church. There were, however, differences in the manner and date of the celebrations. Fasting and feasting accompanied the remembrance of the date, but when to stop the fasting and begin the feasting was disputed. The date question fell into two camps: should the celebration be held on the day of the Resurrection or the date of the Jewish Passover?

In Asia Minor, a group of churches claimed that the Apostles John and Phillip appointed Nisan 14 as the date of the celebration. This group became known as the Quartodecimans (from the Latin for fourteen; also Quartadecimanians) because they supposed the celebration should begin at the time when the disciples ate the Passover meal with Christ in the upper room (Luke 22). This group concluded the fast at this time and began the feasting and celebration of the Resurrection.

The date of Nisan 14 had been prescribed because God instituted the Passover meal and the Feast of Unleavened Bread upon the Exodus from Egypt (Exodus 12:12–20; Numbers 28:16–25). This was the first month in the Hebrew calendar. The month would have begun on the new moon, and the fourteenth day would have been marked by the full moon. Unlike our current calendar, which begins shortly after the first part of winter, this was the beginning of the spring and had formerly been called Abib (Exodus 13:4).

Irenaeus (died c. 202) recorded an account of Polycarp (c. AD 70–155), who was Bishop of Smyrna and a disciple of the Apostle John. Irenaeus tells of Polycarp’s visit to Rome where he discussed the issue with Anicetus, the bishop of Rome.

For the controversy is not merely as regards the day, but also as regards the form itself of the fast. For some consider themselves bound to fast one day, others two days, others still more, while others [do so during] forty: the diurnal and the nocturnal hours they measure out together as their [fasting] day. And this variety among the observers [of the fasts] had not its origin in our time, but long before in that of our predecessors. . . . And yet nevertheless all these lived in peace one with another, and we also keep peace together. . . . For neither could Anicetus persuade Polycarp to forego the observance [in his own way], inasmuch as these things had been always [so] observed by John the disciple of our Lord, and by other apostles with whom he had been conversant; nor, on the other hand, could Polycarp succeed in persuading Anicetus to keep [the observance in his way], for he maintained that he was bound to adhere to the usage of the presbyters who preceded him. And in this state of affairs they held fellowship with each other.3

Polycarp understood from the Apostle John that the celebration was to be observed from the date of Nisan 14, while the tradition of the Western Church was to celebrate on the Sunday following the Passover. This difference did not lead them to break fellowship but to honor one another and continue with their practices in their respective regions. Other early church fathers who sided with Polycarp included Eusebius, Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, and Tertullian. Clearly, as early as the bishopric of Sixtus I in Rome (c. AD 114–128), there was a difference in the date of the celebration.4

The Western Church tradition, even as early as AD 150 according to the account of Polycarp above, was to break the fast on the Sunday following the Jewish Passover since this was the day of the week Christ rose from the tomb.5 This was the dominant view in the church at this point and found its support in the fact that the celebration was in observance of the Resurrection. Since Christ rose from the tomb on Sunday (Luke 24:1), the fast was broken and the celebratory feast began on Sunday. The contention over the date of the celebration was basically between a small group in the East and the majority in the West. However, this was not seen as an issue of orthodoxy until Victor I threatened excommunication of Quartodecimans around AD 195—a threat he abandoned at the advice of several synods.

The Council of Nicaea

For those who claim the celebration of Easter was assigned by Constantine as an accommodation of pagan practices, they must contend with the records of Irenaeus and others. However, at the Council of Nicaea in 325, the issue was finally settled by the church as a whole. The desire of the churches as a whole, even prior to the council, was to unite the entire body of Christ on this all-important day of celebrating the Resurrection—the established date had nothing to do with conforming to pagan festivals.

Though we do not have the records of the discussions that framed the debate, copies of letters sent to absent bishops still exist. It seems that one of the major issues of contention was that the celebration of the Jewish Passover had slipped to a period before the vernal (spring) equinox.6 To ensure the celebration did not continue to drift backward in time, the council members desired a date after the equinox. Thus, the council determined the date should be fixed to the first Sunday following the full moon after the vernal equinox. The Sunday observance was agreed upon by all and replaced the observance on Nisan 14 by the minority in the Eastern Church.

In light of the agreement by the council, a letter distributed to the synods of the Church of Alexandria stated:

We further proclaim to you the good news of the agreement concerning the holy Easter, that this particular also has through your prayers been rightly settled; so that all our brethren in the East who formerly followed the custom of the Jews are henceforth to celebrate the said most sacred feast of Easter at the same time with the Romans and yourselves and all those who have observed Easter from the beginning.7

This is not a date aligned to pagan celebrations but a date aligned to the Jewish date of Passover without being directly tied to it. The month of Nisan is a spring month and should rightly fall after the vernal equinox within a solar year. Thus, Christ’s Resurrection was in the spring. Knowing the moon has a 28-day cycle, the full moon would be comparable to the fourteenth day since the Jewish month began with the new moon. So the Sunday following this full moon would approximate the day of the Resurrection—the focus of the feast. The Easter celebration was assigned a date that corresponded to the Jewish Passover but was not necessarily tied to its date. With this calculation, the date of Easter is a movable date that may fall between March 22 and April 25 in our current calendar.

Now, let’s further demonstrate the false nature of the claim that the date was set to concord with the pagan festivals. Constantine provided a rationale for his desire to set a common Sunday date. As misguided as some may consider his rationale, it is clear that it was for unity and to distinguish Christian practices from the Jews.8

When the question relative to the sacred festival of Easter arose, it was universally thought that it would be convenient that all should keep the feast on one day; for what could be more beautiful and more desirable, than to see this festival, through which we receive the hope of immortality, celebrated by all with one accord, and in the same manner? It was declared to be particularly unworthy for this, the holiest of all festivals, to follow the custom [the calculation] of the Jews, who had soiled their hands with the most fearful of crimes, and whose minds were blinded. . . . We ought not, therefore, to have anything in common with the Jews, for the Saviour has shown us another way. . . . As, on the one hand, it is our duty not to have anything in common with the murderers of our Lord.9

Even after the unifying efforts of the Council of Nicaea, the actual date on which the Resurrection was celebrated varied. Disputes remained about which astronomical cycle would be used and on which day the equinox fell. The Romans held to March 21 while the Alexandrians set the date as March 18. Also, some churches would not celebrate on the Sunday following the full moon. Though minor disputes continued, the dates for Easter from the Roman Church were set in tables followed by a majority of churches.

Another discrepancy emerged as the 84-year sun/moon cycle for calculating was changed to a 19-year cycle and the Gregorian calendar replaced the Julian calendar in 1582. The Eastern Church continued to use the Julian calendar, and that observance continues today. Thus, the Western celebration often falls on a different day than the Eastern celebration.10

Conclusion

We must not forget that God gave the sun and moon for signs and seasons and for the marking of days and years (Genesis 1:14–19). The early Christians sought to honor Christ by celebrating His Resurrection with fasting and feasting. Although they didn’t have an explicit command from Scripture, various traditions arose to commemorate the risen Savior. There was never a debate about whether the feast should be celebrated, only about exactly when and how. Unity was sought on the issue, yet the early church fathers allowed liberty within this celebration.

The date we celebrate today is a reasonable approximation of the Resurrection of Christ with no connection to pagan festivals. During this season, let us focus our attention on Christ and His completed work attested to by His Resurrection, knowing He is the author and finisher of our faith.

Footnotes

  1. The name Easter will be discussed in more detail in the next article, but it is worth noting briefly that the early Christians still referred to their celebration of the Resurrection as Passover. Most languages still connect the Greek and Hebrew words, pascha and pesach respectively, to the celebration of the Resurrection, using translated words like paskha (Russian) and pasqua (Italian).
  2. Philip Schaff and David Schley Schaff, History of the Christian Church (Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 1997).
  3. Irenaeus of Lyons, from a letter to Bishop Victor of Rome, in Ante-Nicene Fathers, vol. 1, ed. Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson (Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, 1994), pp. 568–9.
  4. Ibid., p. 569.
  5. The discussion of the timing of the events of the trial, Crucifixion, burial, and Resurrection of Christ is beyond the scope of this article. For a discussion of this, see A Matter of Days? by Hodge and Taylor.
  6. This drifting is due to the method of keeping time on a lunar cycle and making corrections for the difference between the solar cycle. Adjustments were made to align the Jewish calendar more closely with solar cycles so that the spring months, beginning with Nisan (Abib), did not occur before the equinox.
  7. “The Synodal Letter,” in Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, vol. 4, 2nd series, ed. Philip Schaff and Henry Wace (Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, 1994), pp. 53–4.
  8. It is clear from the statements of Jesus (Matthew 20:17–19) and Peter (Acts 2:14–39) that the Jews and the Gentiles were responsible for the death of Christ. Ultimately, it is the fault of every sinner that Christ was killed. Unfortunately, many have used this charge against the Jews to persecute them. As Christians, we should seek to share the identity of the Messiah with all people, including the Jews, so that they might put their faith in Him and receive the forgiveness He secured on the Cross.
  9. “On the Keeping of Easter,” in Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, vol. 4, 2nd series, ed. Philip Schaff and Henry Wace (Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, 1994), pp. 54.
  10. No clear line distinguishes Eastern (Byzantine) and Western (Roman) churches today, but historically the distinction came at the division of the Roman Empire into East and West. Today, the Orthodox, Coptic, Assyrian, Syriac, and other denominations would be considered Eastern churches.

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