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.
Pastor David Huffstutler
Pastor Huffstutler regularly writes articles for our Sunday bulletin. See his bio on our pastoral bio page.