A belated Easter message

By Nick Gier
Reader Columnist

Easter was late this year, and the date changes every year according to an astronomical calculation. After much controversy in the early church, it was finally decided that Easter will be on the first Sunday after the first full moon that falls on or after March 21. 

Easter can occur as early as March 22 or as late as April 25, depending on the appearance of the full moon, which is also the date of the Jewish Passover. 

Those of the Greek Orthodox faith will celebrate Easter on April 28, because they follow the Julian rather than the Gregorian calendar. I just watched a Rick Steve’s Easter Special in Europe, and I was struck by the difference between the rituals in the West as opposed to the East. Swiss volunteers playing Jesus were scourged and allowed themselves to be hung on a cross, while in Greece an icon of Jesus was paraded in a non-violent manner.

Designating Easter Sunday at the beginning of spring indicates that the date was of pagan origins. Even the New Unger’s Bible Dictionary agrees: “The word Easter is of Saxon origin, Eastra, the goddess of spring, in whose honor sacrifices were offered about Passover time each year.” The 8th-century Anglo–Saxons who converted to Christianity turned from, as someone artfully phrased it, “worshiping the rising Sun to the rising Son.” 

There are many contradictions and historical errors in the Bible, and an interesting one concerns the date of Jesus’ death. In the Synoptic Gospels (Mark, Matthew, and Luke) the Last Supper is a Passover meal on the eve of the day before the Jewish Sabbath. By this account Jesus probably died on April 3, A.D. 33. 

In the Gospel of John, on the other hand, Passover and the Sabbath coincide: the Last Supper is not a Passover meal, and Jesus died simultaneously with the slaughtering of the paschal lambs, probably April 7, A.D. 30.  Jewish sources definitely support John’s account: “Jesus was hanged as a false teacher and beguiler on the eve of the Passover which was also a Sabbath.”  

Some conservative Christians go to amazing lengths to harmonize the Passion chronologies of John and the Synoptics.  For example, they reinterpret Passover in the phrase “day of Preparation of the Passover” as a seven-day festival, thereby avoiding the obvious conclusion that it was really Passover Eve. C. C. Torrey introduced this thesis back in the 1930s, and although quickly dismissed by scholars, it is still used by some to insist that the Bible does not contain errors of any sort. 

Mark writes that “at noon, darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon” (15:33), and Jesus then died at 3 p.m. There were no solar eclipses at that time, and some have suggested a big sand storm. Most likely, however, we have here yet another instance of alleged astronomical events, many quite spectacular, common in the stories of the world saviors.

There was much discussion in the early church about how to set the date of Easter. Jewish Christians wanted it to coincide with Passover, but Gentile Christians were very much against this idea. Some believed that the church should support the Synoptic account, but John’s chronology won out for theological reasons.

Around A.D. 200, Hippolytus of Rome condemned Christians who followed the Synoptic date for daring to suggest Jesus ate a Passover meal before his crucifixion. Hippolytus insisted that Jesus could not have eaten the ritual meal because he himself was the sacrifice.  

Previously I have written that the Christmas story is a redeeming myth, and the death and resurrection of Jesus is of the same kind. We who are not Christians can celebrate Easter as pre-Christian Anglo-Saxons and other pagans did. For them the arrival of spring redeems both the earth and all living beings. 

Nick Gier of Moscow taught religion and philosophy at the University of Idaho for 31 years. Read his essays on religion at webpages.uidaho.edu/ngier/religion.htm. Email him at [email protected]

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