It was most likely the early church (i.e., prior to A.D. 100) who first replaced Passover customs with the Easter celebration of Christ’s death and resurrection (though not yet called Easter). This celebration took place “on the day following the end of the Passover fast (14 Nisan), regardless of the day of the week on which it fell.” The timing of the Passover was during the first full moon of spring, which would have been during the first month (Nisan) of the Jewish calendar (Ex 12:2, 6).
Over time, motivated in part from anti-Semitism (i.e., Christian Gentiles held Jews responsible for Christ’s death), a debate arose between Jewish and Gentile Christians over the Gentile Christians’ observance of the resurrection on a Sunday (typically the Sunday after 14 Nisan) as opposed to the day after the traditional Passover fast. The Gentile preference eventually won over, and this momentum led to Easter legislation by both civil and ecclesial authorities. By the end of the second century, the Jewish timing of the day was declared heresy in Rome and Christians who observed the day accordingly were excommunicated. The debate continued over the course of the next century, and the Council of Nicea (A.D. 325) ordered churches to celebrate Christ’s resurrection on the same Sunday (which was not necessarily the same from year to year). The Roman Emperor Constantine (c. 285–337) mandated his empire to celebrate Easter on the Sunday after 14 Nisan.
Though the debate continued for a time, it became relatively customary over the next three centuries to celebrate Easter on the Sunday following the full moon after the vernal equinox. (A vernal equinox occurs in the spring at the point when day and night are relatively equal.) However, because this time was set according to the Julian calendar (365.25 days per year), the date for the equinox kept moving earlier and earlier and took place as early as March 11 in A.D. 1500. Pope Gregory XIII (1502–1585; pope, 1572–1585) introduced the Gregorian calendar (365 days per year with an extra day every fourth year) in order to move the equinox forward, and thus the date of Easter moved forward as well. Though Protestant and Eastern Orthodox countries were reticent to use the Catholic calendar at first, they eventually acquiesced to accommodate international trade. For Western Christendom, the timing of Easter now falls anywhere between March 22 and April 25 as a result.
These are my own notes taken from Don N. Howell, Jr., The Passion of the Servant: A Journey to the Cross (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2009), pp. 351–61. Howell gives a great chart and ten pages of explanation for what I have abbreviated below.
Matthew 28:1–4; Mark 16:1–3; Luke 24:1; John 20:1
Mary (Jesus’ mother), Mary Magdalene, Mary (mother of James), and Joanna came to look at Jesus’ grave. Prior to their arrival, an earthquake announced Jesus’ resurrection. An angel showed himself to the guards and rolled away the stone from the tomb entrance. Jesus assumedly left the tomb at this point, and the women arrived but did not find Him there. Mary Magdalene ran to tell Peter and John that Jesus’ body had been stolen.
Matthew 28:5–10; Mark 16:4–7; Luke 24:2–8
Two angels announced to the remaining women that Jesus had arose. They commanded the women to announce this fact to the disciples and that they would see Jesus along the way. This they did, and they saw Jesus, his first appearance.
John 20:3–17; Luke 24:12
Peter and John ran to the tomb and found Jesus’ grave clothes sitting in one place and Jesus’ head wrapping in another, folded neatly. The returned to their homes. Mary stayed and wept. Jesus then appeared a second time, this time to comfort Mary.
The chief priests and elders bribed their soldiers to spread a lie about Jesus’ whereabouts. They were to claim the disciples took Jesus away during their sleep.
Luke 24:13–35; cf. 1 Cor 15:5a
Jesus appears for a third time. He walked with two disciples and did not reveal His identity at first and exposited the Old Testament prophecies concerning the Messiah. He explained that the Messiah had to die and rise again according to prophecy. Jesus revealed Himself to them, and when these two disciples went to join the eleven, they found out that Jesus had appeared a fourth time alone to Peter.
Luke 24:36–43; John 20:19–25
Jesus appeared to all but Thomas from the eleven, his fifth appearance. He showed His wounds and ate some fish. He was no ghost but a real, resurrected Person.
John 20:26–31; cf. 1 Cor 15:5b
Jesus’ sixth appearance was eight days later to the eleven. Doubting Thomas saw Jesus and His wounds and acknowledged Him as Lord and God.
Peter, Thomas, Nathanael (Bartholomew), James and John, and two others were fishing but catching nothing. Jesus told them to cast on the other side of the boat, which they did, and they caught many fish. They knew it was Jesus. When together at the shore for Jesus’ seventh appearance, Jesus asked Peter three times over if he loved Him, perhaps to let Peter reaffirm Himself to Christ from his threefold denial. Peter’s command was to tend His sheep.
Jesus gave the Great Commission to the disciples at His eighth appearance.
Luke 24:44–53; Acts 1:3–11; 1 Cor 15:6–8
The timing of Jesus’ ninth and tenth appearances are unknown. Paul records that these appearances were to more than 500 people at once and also personally to James, the half-brother of Jesus. Jesus’ eleventh appearance was to the disciples where He ascended from the Mount of Olives. Jesus appeared a twelfth time to Paul on the road to Damascus.
Pastor regularly writes articles for our Sunday bulletin. See his bio on our staff page.