What is the History of the Easter Holiday?

Easter is, specifically, the annual celebration of the resurrection of Jesus Christ. More generally, Easter often refers to the season surrounding that celebration wherein the suffering, death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus are especially remembered and proclaimed. These events are at the very center of the Christian faith, as Paul aptly summarized:

"For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received, that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that He was buried, and that He was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures," (1 Corinthians 15:3-4).

Yet, these things are celebrated by Christians all year round. Every time believers celebrate Communion, they do so to remember the death and resurrection of Jesus. Every time a church gathers on Sunday as a special day of worship, they do so because Sunday is the day Jesus rose from the dead. For Christians, every single day is a day to celebrate, remember, proclaim, and live in light of the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus. So, where did the idea arise of setting aside an annual holiday for this purpose? When and how did it start? Is it biblical?

The Early Origins of Easter

The New Testament never mentions a yearly celebration of the resurrection like Easter. Thus, Easter was not a binding feast like the Old Testament festivals where God divinely established a precise set of dates and practices and commanded Israel to always keep them. The practice of celebrating Easter seems to have developed quite early, but there was local diversity in the timing and the traditions surrounding it. As one fifth-century historian explained:

"Neither the apostles, therefore, nor the Gospels, have anywhere imposed the ‘yoke of servitude’ on those who have embraced the truth; but have left Easter and every other feast to be honored by the gratitude of the recipients of grace. Wherefore, inasmuch as men love festivals, because they afford them cessation from labor: each individual in every place, according to his own pleasure, has by a prevalent custom celebrated the memory of the saving passion. The Saviour and his apostles have enjoined us by no law to keep this feast: nor do the Gospels and apostles threaten us with any penalty, punishment, or curse for the neglect of it, as the Mosaic law does the Jews" (Socrates Scholasticus, Ecclesiastical History, Book 5, Chapter 22).

He goes on to say:

"The feast of Easter came to be observed in each place according to the individual peculiarities of the peoples inasmuch as none of the apostles legislated on the matter," (Socrates Scholasticus, Ecclesiastical History, Book 5, Chapter 22).

In the early churches, this feast was simply known as "Passover." Indeed, in most languages today it is still called "Pascha," a term that harkens back to the Jewish feast. The name "Easter" is a peculiarity in English and German that developed much later in history. The earliest Christians were Jews. Even the earliest Gentile converts were mostly gentiles who already worshiped the God of Israel and often even attended synagogues and knew something of the Old Testament. It is quite natural that many aspects of early Christian tradition grew out of Jewish worship. Jesus was crucified during the season of the Jewish Passover and the Feast of Unleavened Bread in Jerusalem. Thus, the feasts and Christ's death and resurrection were intimately tied to one another. The celebration of Easter, or the Christian Passover, seems to have arisen very early on in Christian life and to have originally developed out of the Old Covenant Passover celebration. As historian Phillip Schaff notes:

"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. It is based on the view that Christ crucified and risen is the centre of faith. The Jewish Christians would very naturally from the beginning continue to celebrate the legal Passover, but in the light of its fulfillment by the sacrifice of Christ, and would dwell chiefly on the aspect of the crucifixion. The Gentile Christians, for whom the Jewish Passover had no meaning except through reflection from the cross, would chiefly celebrate the Lord’s resurrection as they did on every Sunday of the week."1

Indeed, a manuscript has survived of an Easter sermon from the mid-second century. The sermon is an exposition of the Passover texts in Exodus in light of the incarnation, suffering, death, and victorious resurrection of Jesus Christ, the dawn of the New Covenant in this gospel, and on the ultimate salvation found in Him. In the sermon's opening, it reads:

 "Therefore, understand this, O beloved: The mystery of the Passover is new and old, eternal and temporal, corruptible and incorruptible, mortal and immortal in this fashion: It is old insofar as it concerns the law, but new insofar as it concerns the gospel; temporal insofar as it concerns the type, eternal because of grace; corruptible because of the sacrifice of the sheep, incorruptible because of the life of the Lord; mortal because of his burial in the earth, immortal because of his resurrection from the dead" (Melito of Sardis, Paschal Sermon).2

Thus, Easter was initially born as a celebration of the Passover with the Old Testament imagery and events seen as a fulfilled prophecy of Christ and His ultimate sacrifice.

The Date of Easter

But, if Easter began as a Christian celebration of the Passover as fulfilled in Christ, then why does Easter not typically coincide with the date of the Jewish Passover? This actually goes back to very early in church history as well. As we noted, Easter customs early on varied from one place to the next. In the second century AD, the issue of the date of Easter became a point of contention. As Eusebius noted:

"A question of no small importance arose at that time. For the parishes 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 be observed as the feast of the Saviour’s Passover. It was therefore necessary to end their fast on that day, whatever day of the week it should happen to be. But it was not the custom of the churches in the rest of the world to end it at this time, as they observed the practice which, from apostolic tradition, has prevailed to the present time, of terminating the fast on no other day than on that of the resurrection of our Saviour. Synods and assemblies of bishops were held on this account, and all, with one consent, through mutual correspondence drew up an ecclesiastical decree, that the mystery of the resurrection of the Lord should be celebrated on no other but the Lord’s day" (Eusebius, Church History, Book 5, Chapter 23).

So the difference in dating first arose from a disagreement of whether the Christian celebration should be on the exact date of Passover or whether it should always be on a Sunday, since Christ rose on a Sunday and not directly on Passover. According to early accounts, this disagreement on the date led to a variety of complications between the churches that turned it into a heated issue. Victor, Bishop of the Church in Rome and champion of the Sunday date for Easter, threatened to break fellowship completely with churches who continued to celebrate on the date of the Jewish Passover. Irenaeus, the famous Bishop of the Church at Lyons, agreed with the Sunday celebration but urged Victor and others to moderation and charity, allowing for differences in spite of the complications while working civilly toward agreement. His words are also instructive to us on the general variety of Easter practices in those days. He wrote:

"For the controversy is not only concerning the day, but also concerning the very manner of the fast. For some think that they should fast one day, others two, yet others more; some, moreover, count their day as consisting of forty hours day and night. And this variety in its observance has not originated in our time; but long before in that of our ancestors. It is likely that they did not hold to strict accuracy, and thus formed a custom for their posterity according to their own simplicity and peculiar mode. Yet all of these lived none the less in peace, and we also live in peace with one another; and the disagreement in regard to the fast confirms the agreement in the faith" (Letter from Irenaeus to Victor of Rome).3

Irenaeus points out that they were willing to disagree on other things, like the timeframe of the traditional pre-Easter fast, which also led to complications whereby Christians in one church might be feasting while visitors from another church were fasting, yet they were able to be at peace with one another, a testimony to the common faith that united them. He goes on to claim that the previous generation had faced this same disagreement but remained in perfect unity:

"...when the blessed Polycarp was at Rome in the time of Anicetus, and they disagreed a little about certain other things, they immediately made peace with one another, not caring to quarrel over this matter. For neither could Anicetus persuade Polycarp not to observe what he had always observed with John the disciple of our Lord, and the other apostles with whom he had associated; neither could Polycarp persuade Anicetus to observe it as he said that he ought to follow the customs of the presbyters that had preceded him. But though matters were in this shape, they communed together, and Anicetus conceded the administration of the eucharist in the church to Polycarp, manifestly as a mark of respect. And they parted from each other in peace, both those who observed, and those who did not, maintaining the peace of the whole church" (Letter from Irenaeus to Victor of Rome).4

Through such testimony, Irenaeus calmed Victor's zeal and managed to maintain the peace. Tensions remained, however, and in the third century we continue to see some voices offering rather biting criticisms. Hippolytus of Rome, for example, wrote:

"And certain other (heretics), contentious by nature, (and) wholly uninformed as regards knowledge, as well as in their manner more (than usually) quarrelsome, combine (in maintaining) that Easter should be kept on the fourteenth day of the first month, according to the commandment of the law, on whatever day (of the week) it should occur. (But in this) they only regard what has been written in the law, that he will be accursed who does not so keep (the commandment) as it is enjoined. They do not, however, attend to this (fact), that the legal enactment was made for Jews, who in times to come should kill the real Passover. And this (paschal sacrifice, in its efficacy,) has spread unto the Gentiles, and is discerned by faith, and not now observed in letter (merely). They attend to this one commandment, and do not look unto what has been spoken by the apostle: 'For I testify to every man that is circumcised, that he is a debtor to keep the whole law.' In other respects, however, these consent to all the traditions delivered to the Church by the Apostles" (Hippolytus of Rome, Refutation of All Heresies, Book 8, Chapter 11).

Hippolytus implies that to utilize the traditional Jewish Passover date rather than the Sunday date of Jesus' resurrection recorded in the gospels is a form of heretical legalism and returning to the Old Covenant Law, much like demanding circumcision as a requirement for salvation. To be fair to Hippolytus, it is possible that he was responding to people on the other side who had themselves escalated to the point of claiming that the Sunday Easter was sinful, thus giving more weight to Hippolytus' argument and explaining his description of their "quarrelsome" manner. At any rate, the division was fierce for some time, though it never led to a complete schism. By the fourth and fifth centuries, however, the Sunday view had largely prevailed. Still, this was not the end of the debate. Even those who agreed that Easter should be on Sunday disagreed on which Sunday. As one fifth century historian notes:

"While therefore some in Asia Minor observed the day above-mentioned, others in the East kept that feast on the sabbath indeed, but differed as regards the month" (Socrates Scholasticus, Ecclesiastical History, Book 5, Chapter 22).

The ancient world was not on one standard calendar. Indeed, the same person might use different calendars for different aspects of life. The Jews, for example, would often rely on local Roman solar calendars for many secular affairs, but for the ceremonial life of the festivals, Sabbaths, and new moons, they utilized their own lunar calendar that naturally differed in many respects. Indeed, even among the various ancient Jewish sects, there were debates about the proper calendar.5 When Christians sought to determine which Sunday should be Easter, the oldest method was to simply ask a Jewish neighbor when Passover would be that year and then schedule Easter for the following Sunday. In time, Christians began to seek an independent way to schedule their own festivals apart from reliance on the Jewish authorities. This led to a complicated history of various proposals which led finally to the calculations used today, which is still not uniform among all groups who celebrate Easter. Because of this, there have been a variety of disagreements over the date of Easter throughout the history of the church, and some still persist today.6

For all of these reasons, the dates of the modern Jewish Passover and the modern celebrations of Easter rarely coincide anymore, even though they share a joint history.

The Meaning of Easter

For all of this, the central meaning of Easter and the reason for its practice has remained constant through the ages. The conclusion to the Easter sermon of Melito of Sardis in the mid-second century would still resonate from any Christian pulpit today: 

"When the Lord had clothed himself with humanity, and had suffered for the sake of the sufferer, and had been bound for the sake of the imprisoned, and had been judged for the sake of the condemned, and buried for the sake of the one who was buried, he rose up from the dead, and cried aloud with this voice: Who is he who contends with me? Let him stand in opposition to me. I set the condemned man free; I gave the dead man life; I raised up the one who had been entombed. Who is my opponent? I, he says, am the Christ. I am the one who destroyed death, and triumphed over the enemy, and trampled Hades under foot, and bound the strong one, and carried off man to the heights of heaven, I, he says, am the Christ. Therefore, come, all families of men, you who have been befouled with sins, and receive forgiveness for your sins. I am your forgiveness, I am the Passover of your salvation, I am the lamb which was sacrificed for you, I am your ransom, I am your light, I am your saviour, I am your resurrection, I am your king, I am leading you up to the heights of heaven, I will show you the eternal Father, I will raise you up by my right hand. This is the one who made the heavens and the earth, and who in the beginning created man, who was proclaimed through the law and prophets, who became human via the virgin, who was hanged upon a tree, who was buried in the earth, who was resurrected from the dead, and who ascended to the heights of heaven, who sits at the right hand of the Father, who has authority to judge and to save everything, through whom the Father created everything from the beginning of the world to the end of the age. This is the alpha and the omega. This is the beginning and the end–an indescribable beginning and an incomprehensible end. This is the Christ. This is the king. This is Jesus. This is the general. This is the Lord. This is the one who rose up from the dead. This is the one who sits at the right hand of the Father. He bears the Father and is borne by the Father, to whom be the glory and the power forever. Amen" (Melito of Sardis, Paschal Sermon).7

The death, burial, and victorious resurrection of Jesus Christ is the center of our faith. We celebrate it daily in our own devotional lives and proclaim it through preaching the gospel. Yet Christians have often seen fit to build patterns of remembrance into the rhythms of their lives as well. Most churches worship on Sunday in honor of Jesus' resurrection. Many denominations have special monthly communion services, specially commemorating Christ's sacrifice each month. Likewise, the majority of Christians set aside a time each year to celebrate our risen Lord. It is not mandatory. It earns no merit before God. Those who do not celebrate Easter are not in sin or error when they abstain and those who celebrate curry no special favor with our Lord. But for those Christians who find value in it, Easter is an annual time of rejoicing and a reminder of what the faith is all about and a yearly opportunity to draw unbelievers' attention to it and proclaim the gospel truth.

  • 1. Phillip Schaff, History of the Christian Church, Volume 2 (Hendrickson Publishing, 1907) 207
  • 2. http://www.kerux.com/doc/0401A1.asp (accessed 2/22/2018)
  • 3. The letter itself has not survived, but its words here are preserved by quotation in Eusebius, Church History, Book 5, Chapter 24
  • 4. Iibid
  • 5. See, for example, the alternative calendars offered by the "Book of Jubilees" and the "Book of Enoch," or later, the debates between Rabbinic and Karaite Jews over the proper way to identify the timing of the festivals.
  • 6. Justo Gonzalez, The Story of Christianity - Vol. 1 (Harper Collins, 1985) 96, 236-237
  • 7. http://www.kerux.com/doc/0401A1.asp (accessed 2/26/2018)