The Great Easter Controversy

John sitting on a benchIt seems the date of the resurrection of Jesus Christ has been a source of controversy almost from the beginning. There is no doubt that Jesus was crucified during the procuratorship of Pontius Pilate on Friday, the eve of the Passover, nearly 2,000 years ago. However the exact date of that Friday is a matter of controversy.

We know that Passover fell on the 15th day of Nisan, but because the Jewish people followed a lunar calendar based on cycles of the new moon, the exact date is difficult to determine exactly. Pontius Pilate ruled from 26-36 A.D. so that narrows the date down to a decade. People have also used a chronology based on the life of the Apostle Paul to narrow the date down a bit more while others have appealed to astronomical models to determine when Jesus died. Since Matthew tells us there was an earthquake during the crucifixion, scientists are even analyzing the geologic record to find the date (although I have yet to find an earthquake fault with the day of the week inscribed on it). The two best dates based on all these facts are April 7th, 30 A.D. or April 3rd, 33 A.D. (I personally lean toward the earlier date, but certainty is nearly impossible to achieve.)

So when is Easter? Jesus was crucified on Friday and resurrected on Sunday, so rather than celebrate Easter on a fixed date, most Christians celebrate Easter on a fixed day: Sunday.

Even here there is division. The Council of Nicea (325 A.D.) decreed that Easter would be celebrated on the first Sunday after the full moon (the Jewish Passover moon) following the March equinox. Once again, there is controversy because on most years the actual equinox falls on March 20th, but for church purposes it was decreed the equinox is on March 21st. Wait! It gets more complicated than that because we have to ask, “Which calendar do we use: the Julian calendar or the Gregorian calendar?” (The Gregorian calendar was adopted by Catholic countries in 1582 to ensure that Easter would fall in the right season.) Right now the two calendars are about 13 days apart. Generally speaking the Eastern Orthodox churches follow the Julian calendar while the western churches follow the Gregorian calendar, hence two different dates for the celebration of Easter.

Let’s add one more controversy: “What shall we call this holiday: Easter or Resurrection Sunday?” While most people connect Easter with the resurrection of Christ, the historical background of the name “Easter” seems rooted in a English pagan holiday for Eostre – a fertility goddess or perhaps the Babylonian goddess, Ishtar (thus bunnies and Easter eggs) .

Confused? Don’t be. The one thing we know for certain is Jesus really lived and really died and Christians celebrate his resurrection every Sunday not just one day a year, so celebrate every Sunday of the year!

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