Friday, June 17, 2016

The Calendaring of Easter and Passover

The history of the calendar is quite interesting. Quick: How many legs does an octopus have? Eight, right! Because “oct-” is the prefix meaning eight. Then why is October the tenth month? (And, “sept” means seven, “novem” means nine and “dec” means ten, as well. Why does February have 28 days? Well one legend says it is because one Caesar couldn’t dream of allowing another Caesar to have more days in the month named after them (July is named for Julius and August for Augustus). And the doozy of all calendar issues, in my mind, is that our first president never had his twenty-first birthday. He was 20 and the next time the calendar date came around to the date of his birth, he was 22.

But how we view the calendar affects some key dates for those who believe the Bible. This last week, our church, following the Jewish calendar celebrated Pentecost (or the Feast of Shavuout (or Weeks) as it is called in Leviticus 23), while many churches celebrated this day on May 15. The reason for this difference is because of the dates related to Easter (this year on March 27) while Passover fell on April 23-24. If Jesus, as the sacrificial lamb was killed with respect to Passover (He was, see Matthew 26.17-19, Mark 14.12-16, Luke 22.7-15, and John 18.28, 39 and 19.14), and His resurrection is celebrated on Easter,* then how can this discrepancy be? Well, the answer is relatively simple (man tried to make a system that works), while also being complex (the simplest way to say this is that most calendars are based on a solar calendar while the Jewish calendar operates on a lunar calendar).

*This post is about the dates of celebration, not the attempts to mix holidays such as the birth and resurrection of Jesus with traditional pagan holidays that were celebrated at the time. That post must wait for a later day.

First, let us see how the dates are given. Passover (Pesach) is always on the 15th day of the seventh month, or 15 Nisan. (The Jewish new year changed dates which made the first and seventh month switch places after the Law was given in Leviticus 23. Again check how our calendar changed in the date of the new year from the spring in 1752 to January 1 in 1753 – an eight month year for comparison with 11 missing days in Sept. of 1752 to sync calendars between the British Empire (Church of England) to a change made in the Roman Catholic Church in 1582.) The problem is that just like the calendar you may use daily, the first day of the seventh month of the year changes year after year after year. For instance, this year the first day of our seventh month (July 1) is Friday. That would make the 15th of July on Friday as well. But last year July 1 was on Wednesday (remember this year is leap year) and next year July 1 will be on Saturday. Thus, July 15 obviously moves as well.

This would be no problem except that Jesus rose on the first day of the week (Matthew 28.1, Mark 16.2,9, Luke 24.1, John 20.1,19). According to the calendars of that day – which must serve as the context for working from that statement – the first day of the week was Sunday. Thus, the idea is that we celebrate Easter always on Sunday. But if Jesus was killed on or near 15 Nisan, and rose three days later, what happens when 15 Nisan is on a Monday? Are we to celebrate Easter mid-week?

And thus the challenge. So, in 325 AD, the Church, meeting at the Council of Nicea decided on a few pertinent matters for the church. One such matter was to settle a long debate on when Easter should be celebrated. The decision was that it should always be celebrated on a Sunday (following the idea that Jesus rose on the first day of the week) and thus created a formula that Easter would always fall on the first Sunday after the first full moon after the vernal (Spring) equinox. Thus, Easter’s date will fall on the first Sunday after the first full moon after March 21. This year, the first full moon after March 21 was on March 23rd, so Easter was March 27. (We should realize that some, like the Eastern Orthodox Church does not follow this convention – they always celebrate Easter after Passover.)

As for the Jewish calendar (and this is simplified), because they use a lunar calendar (again, simplified), which has 29 to 30 days each month (instead of our 30 and 31 in most cases), they have fewer days each year which produces the need to have a leap month every three years or so to ensure that Passover (Pesach) is in the Spring (which the accompanying feast must be at the Spring harvest). This 13-month year is referred to as a pregnant year because of the added month. This may sound odd, but recall my first paragraph for how we have arbitrarily manipulated the calendar. However, the Jewish approach has been consistent for thousands of years even if not always as scientific as it is today.

So, should when should we celebrate Easter? Well, technically, the Bible doesn't say we should, however the greatest event in history does deserve something, doesn’t it? While I think the early Councils were beneficial for various reasons, I think they erred on this issues. We celebrate the birth of Christ on a certain date regardless of day, so why not the resurrection? Sure, it would change the meaning of Good Friday, but it didn’t look good on that particular day, and it likely was Thursday anyway (again, another post – around Passover next Spring).

I hope I haven’t confused the issue further, but again this is both a simple and complex issue. Ignore the complexities if you must and just realize that different calendaring systems will produce different dates for differing holidays celebrated by different faiths. But for those that want to dig a little deeper, this issue may just be scratching the surface for you. Dig deeper if you will, but don’t overlook that the most important fact is that Jesus did die and He did rise regardless of the dates we choose to celebrate.

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