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A Brief History of the Dating and Name of Easter

emptytombFollowing the precedent of the Tyndale (1526) and Coverdale (1535) versions of the Bible, the King James Version of the Bible translates the Greek term pascha as Easter in Acts 12:4.1 What is interesting about this translation is that pascha actually means Passover. In fact, he KJV uniformly translates pascha as Passover in all of the other 28 instances of pascha in the NT, and other translations typically translate all 29 instances of pascha as Passover. What is also interesting about this translation is that it reflects something of the history of the name and dating of Easter. The dating of Easter has biblical roots in the Old Testament Passover, and beginning in roughly the eighth century, the name Easter was commonly used with reference to an annual celebration of Christ’s resurrection. What follows below is a brief history on the dating and name of Easter.

The History of the Dating of Easter

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).2 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.”3 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).4

Over time, motivated in part from anti-Semitism (i.e., Christian Gentiles held Jews responsible for Christ’s death),5 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.6 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.7 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).8 The Roman Emperor Constantine (c. 285–337) mandated his empire to celebrate Easter on the Sunday after 14 Nisan.9

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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.10 (A vernal equinox occurs in the spring at the point when day and night are relatively equal.11) 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.12 Though Protestant and Eastern Orthodox countries were reticent to use the Catholic calendar at first, they eventually acquiesced to accommodate international trade.13 For Western Christendom, the timing of Easter now falls anywhere between March 22 and April 25 as a result.

The History of the Name Easter

Some claim that the meaning of the term Easter is uncertain.14 Others claim the name Easter comes from Eostre, an Anglo-Saxon name for the ancient Germanic goddess of the spring. Sacrifices were offered to her each vernal equinox,15 which typically occurred in April, the month that Germans used to call by the name of Easter (ostermonat).16 The etymology of her name suggests that she was “the divinity of the radiant dawn, of upspringing light, a spectacle that brings joy and blessings, whose meaning could be easily adapted to the resurrection-day of the christian’s God.”17

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Some who see Christianity as a religion that evolved from other religions suggest that Easter borrows elements of fertility and renewal in light of its theme of new life (i.e., resurrection) and timing during the spring.18 Following this approach, it is said that Christians borrowed elements of Easter from the Jews, and the Jews borrowed elements of the Passover from the ancient cult of Tammuz (cf. Ezek 8:14), a god whose lover at times was Ishtar, the goddess of fertility and war.19 Interestingly, many Christians who would eschew such an approach to Scripture similarly claim that the term Easter comes from Ishtar (sounds like Easter), thus giving rise to reject Easter altogether due to its alleged pagan roots. However, a quick look through multiple evangelical reference works for articles on the terms Ishtar and Easter reveals that scholars do not even suggest such a connection, which leaves one to infer that a connection between Easter and Ishtar is speculation at best. Whatever the exact derivation of the name Easter may be, it is Germanic in origin and was commonly used at least by the eighth century.20

David Huffstutler

About David Huffstutler

David pastors First Baptist Church in Rockford, IL. David holds a Ph. D. in Applied Theology from Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. His concentration in Christian Leadership focuses his contributions to pastoral and practical theology.



Endnotes:

  1. Donald. W. Burdick, “Easter,” International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1988), 2:7. []
  2. Fred A. Grissom, “Easter,” Holman Illustrated Bible Dictionary (Nashville, TN: Holman Bible, 2003), 451. []
  3. Reginald H. Fuller, “Easter,” Harper’s Bible Dictionary (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1985), 233. []
  4. Marvin R. Wilson, “Passover,” International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1988), 3:676. []
  5. Philip Schaff, History of the Christian Church (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1910), 3:405. []
  6. Burdick, “Easter,” ISBE, 2:7. []
  7. Fuller, “Easter,” 233. []
  8. Burdick, “Easter,” 2:7. These Christians were called quartodecimanians (“about the fourteenth”) because they held to the observance of Easter on the fourteenth day. []
  9. Fuller, “Easter,” 233. []
  10. Burdick, “Easter,” ISBE,
    2:7. []
  11. Wikipedia, “Equinox.” Online: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Equinox. Accessed 04 Apr 2014. []
  12. Ibid.; Wikipedia, “Julian
    calendar.” Online: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Julian_calendar; accessed 04 Apr 2014. Leap years do not occur, however, during centennial years that are not divisible by 400. []
  13. Wikipedia, “Gregorian calendar.” Because of its Catholic origin, Eastern Orthodox and Oriental Orthodox churches still do not follow the Gregorian calendar for the date of Easter but continue to use the Julian calendar []
  14. F. L. Cross, and Elizabeth A. Livingstone, editors, “Easter,” The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church (3rd ed.; New York: Oxford University Press, 2005), 525. []
  15. Burdick, “Easter,” ISBE, 2:7. []
  16. Jacob Grimm, Teutonic Mythology (trans., James Steven Stallybrass; London: George Bell and Sons, 1882), 1:290. []
  17. Ibid., 1:291. []
  18. Cf. Edwin Yamauchi, “Cultic Clues in Canticles?” Bulletin of the Evangelical Theological Society  4 (1961): 80–88. []
  19. Robert M. Good, “Ishtar,” Harper’s Bible Dictionary, 433. []
  20. Burdick, “Easter,” ISBE, 2:7. []

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