Why does the date of Easter move about so much?

Very few people seem to understand how the date of Easter is calculated, or why.  I am not among that select group!  I am deeply ignorant of the details.  But I thought that I would share what I do understand, because most people don’t even know as much as I do.  And it is Good Friday, and an Easter post seems appropriate.

Easter is the anniversary of the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.  The following is the sequence of events:

  • Thursday night – the Jewish passover  began at dusk.  Jesus ate the “Last Supper” – which was actually the passover meal – with his disciples.  He then went out to the Mount of Olives, and was arrested.
  • Friday – Jesus was tried and executed, and died before the sabbath began at dusk; in fact the Romans made sure that he was dead before the sabbath.
  • Saturday – the Jewish sabbath.
  • Sunday – the resurrection.

As we can see, the date of the resurrection is very closely connected with the Jewish festivals.  Because Jesus was a Jew, and was carrying out and fulfilling the Jewish law, you do want to connect your anniversary with these events.

The problem is, you can’t.  And it’s the Jews’ fault, and you can’t fix this unless the Jews change their calendar.

This is because the Jewish calendar is a lunar calendar.  It doesn’t relate to the solar calendar that we have.  It has 13 months.  So any date on that lunar calendar moves around, by about a month, when you look at it on our solar calendar.  This is why Easter keeps moving around between March and April in our (solar) calendar.

In fact the Jewish calendar doesn’t even relate that well to itself.  Because the Sabbath is on a Saturday.  But the passover moves around on days of the week.  Thus the passover does not usually start on Thursday night, immediately before the sabbath.

Now the date of passover, which is specified in Leviticus, is the 14th of the Jewish month of Nisan.  This should be on the first full moon of spring (note the lunar element to this).  The first full moon of spring is defined as being the full moon after the spring equinox.  And the spring equinox is the day on which the day and night are of the same length.

But even so the calendar doesn’t really work.  Sometimes an extra month is inserted.  I am told that, in fact, sometimes the rabbis had to adjust the calendar manually to get the passover to appear in the spring at the right point.

So the Jewish calendar is a pain to use.  On the other hand … if you don’t use it, you lose the connection with passover.

Now the decisions had to be made back in the first century AD.  At that time, the situation on calendars was not as simple as it is today.

Firstly, the Jewish calendar is a very ancient thing.  Defective as it is – as all calendars of that period were – it was used wherever the Jews had a synagogue, and so in every city in the Roman world.  It was universal.  So you could follow it anywhere in the Roman empire, or indeed outside.  Your local synagogue would provide the dates.

You could, if you wanted, use the Roman calendar instead.  You’d always know when Sunday was.  But the Roman solar calendar – the Julian calendar – was not used nearly as universally.  Cities would often use the Macedonian months, instead of the Roman ones.  The year would start and stop at different dates.  The main means of dating an event was from the election of annual magistrates.  So in your city, you might not have the choice of saying “23 March”; if, locally, nobody used March to reckon time.  In the east, indeed, nobody did use the Roman months.

The Christians of the 1st and 2nd century AD therefore faced some difficult decisions.

In this awful situation, what are the options?

You can celebrate the Sunday, on the Julian calendar, always on the same solar date.  This is simple – so long as your city uses the Julian calendar! – but then you lose all the connections with the Jewish passover.  This isn’t good, because passover is what Jesus was actually doing when he was arrested and executed.  Passover is the first holy communion.  Jesus sacrificed himself, as a perfect passover sacrifice for sin, once for all.  You want these links, because the meaning of Easter is about that sacrifice.

Or you can follow the Jewish pattern, and have the Easter celebration based on passover.  That’s simple enough; you hold it on 14 Nisan, and ask your local rabbi when that is.   But in that case, it won’t be on a Sunday.  And the resurrection did actually happen on a Sunday, the day after the Sabbath.  So you lose your anniversary.  Worse yet, your celebration date is being determined by some Jewish rabbi.  Now Christianity is illegal.  That rabbi probably hates you all.  He may even have denounced you to the authorities a few months earlier.  How can you possibly have someone like that deciding when Easter is?

So it’s really difficult.

Stepping back a little from this, the anniversary is the anniversary, not of Jesus’ death, on the passover, but of his resurrection.  If you have to choose, surely that is the more important?

Well, the ancients took a middle path between all this, and tried to hold to as much as they could.  They decided that the anniversary of the resurrection would be celebrated on the first Sunday after the date on which the passover should happen; and if the passover was on a Sunday, then Easter would be the next Sunday.

They also decided that they were just as capable of working out when the passover ought to occur as any Jewish rabbi, so they did their own calculation of this.  It wasn’t good for Christians – an illegal group – to be that much at the mercy of the hostile Jewish establishment.

Based on this, the early Christians worked out the calculation that we use today.

Is Easter really Astarte, a Babylonian goddess (or festival)?

It is terribly easy for the learned and scholarly readers of this blog – and even its author – to forget that most people in this world honestly have no idea about history at all.  To the ordinary man, the present fills almost his entire field of view.  To him history is a kind of cloud, somewhere far away and not at all important, in which float about Greeks and Romans and knights in armour and the like.  But to the educated man the world is like an onion, of successive layers, with the present growing out of the past.

These thoughts, which if I recall correctly are from C.S.Lewis somewhere, were prompted by seeing twitter posts asserting that Easter was Babylonian, or indeed the name of Astarte.  Only those utterly ignorant could suppose this.  But I wondered from where this came.

A little searching brought me to a curious anti-Catholic book by Alexander Hislop named The Two Babylons.  This seems to be the origin of it.

Consider this passage:

Then look at [the festival of] Easter. What means the term Easter itself? It is not a Christian name. It bears its Chaldean origin on its very forehead. Easter is nothing else than Astarte, one of the titles of Beltis, the queen of heaven, whose name, as pronounced by the people of Nineveh, was evidently identical with that now in common use in this country. That name, as found by Layard on the Assyrian monuments, is Ishtar.* The worship of Bel and Astarte was very early introduced into Britain, along with the Druids, “the priests of the groves.” Some have imagined that the Druidical worship was first introduced by the Phenicians …

But the unequivocal traces of that worship are found in regions of the British Islands where the Phenicians never penetrated, and it has everywhere left indelible marks of the strong hold which it must have had on the early British mind. From Bel, the first of May is still called Beltane in the Almanac;+ and we have customs still lingering at this day among us, which prove how exactly the worship of Bel or Moloch (for both titles belonged to the same god) had been observed even in the northern parts of this island.

“The late Lady Baird of Fern Tower, in Perthshire,” says a writer in ‘Notes and Queries,’ thoroughly versed in British Antiquities++ “told me, that every year, at Beltane (or the first of May), a number of men and women assemble at an ancient Druidical circle of stones, on her property near Crieff. They light a fire in the centre, each person puts a bit of oat cake in a shepherd’s bonnet; they all sit down and draw blindfold a piece from the bonnet. One piece has been previously blackened, and whoever gets that piece has to jump through the fire in the centre of the circle, and pay a forfeit. This is, in fact, a part of the ancient worship of Baal, and the person on whom the lot fell was previously burnt as a sacrifice. Now the passing through the fire represents that, and the payment of the forfeit redeems the victim.”

If Baal was thus worshipped in Britain, it will not be difficult to believe that his consort Astarte was also adored by our ancestors; and that from Astarte, whose name in Nineveh was Ishtar, the religious solemnities of April, as now practised, are called by the name of Easter—that month, among our Pagan ancestors, having been called Easter-monath. The festival of which we read in Church history, under the name of Easter, in the third or fourth centuries, was quite a different festival from that now observed in the Romish Church, and at that time was not known by any such name as Easter.* It was called Pasch, or the Passover, and though not of Apostolic institution,+ was very early observed by many professing Christians, in commemoration of the death and resurrection of Christ.

++ The Right Hon. Lord John Scott.
* The name of Easter is peculiar to the British Islands.
+ Socrates, the ancient ecclesiastical historian, after a lengthened account of the different ways in which Easter was observed in different countries in his time, i.e., the fifth century, sums up in these words: “ Thus much already laid down may seem a sufficient treatise, to prove that the celebration of the feast of Easter began everywhere more of custom than by any commandment either of Christ or any Apostle.” (Hist. Ecclesiast, lib. v., cap. 22).

 The author then goes on to discuss the idea of Lent, and to make a series of claims about the origins of this which need not detain us.

The argument above is simple, once we remove the verbiage, and so let’s examine it:

  1. There is a folk custom of celebrating “Beltane”, according to a 19th century almanac.
  2. The name must refer to the Babylonian god Bel or Ba`al.  (Why?)
  3. This is confirmed by a piece of folk-lore where people in Scotland burn something. (If this story is true, why does it relate in any way?)
  4. If Bel was here, then Astarte must be too.  (Why?)
  5. If the pagans of whatever period is mentioned worshipped Bel and Astarte, then Eosturmonath – the name of the spring season, given by Bede and nowhere else – must refer to Astarte.  (Why?)
  6. So the inhabitants of Babylon must pronounce Astarte in the same way as Britons of 19th century England pronounce Easter. (Why?)

Each claim is open to a simple objection – that the claim made is not evidenced, and that there is no special reason to believe it.  Each and every step in this argument is open to the very same objection.  Yet unless all of them are true, the argument collapses.

And the claims are simply ridiculous.

Why should a modern Scottish folk custom relate to Bel of Babylon?  Why should a modern Scottish custom relate to the nomenclature of the Anglo-Saxons a millennium earlier?

Which people precisely are supposed to have adopted Bel – the beaker folk?  The celts?  The Romano-British?  The picts? For there has been much movement of peoples in Britain.

The claim to know how the ancient Babylonians pronounced Astarte … where does Hislop get his information? Time travel?

But it is pointless to go on with beating this drivel to death.  Hislop has no evidence, his argument is just a sequence of claims, none of them at all probable.  It’s drivel and nothing else.

As a final note, let’s return to Hislop’s footnote about Socrates:

Socrates, the ancient ecclesiastical historian, after a lengthened account of the different ways in which Easter was observed in different countries in his time, i.e., the fifth century, sums up in these words: “ Thus much already laid down may seem a sufficient treatise, to prove that the celebration of the feast of Easter began everywhere more of custom than by any commandment either of Christ or any Apostle.” (Hist. Ecclesiast, lib. v., cap. 22)

The HE of Socrates is online, and book 5 chapter 22 is here.  We may note that Hislop’s words are not to be found in it.  In fact Socrates doesn’t discuss that issue, but instead says that the exact date of celebrating Easter, and the fasts connected to it, were not specified by the apostles; not that celebrating it was not specified.

From my diary

It’s the evening of Easter Saturday.  I don’t use my computer on Sundays, so this is my opportunity to wish you all a happy Easter.  With or without chocolate eggs, bunnies, or whatever!

All over the world, Christian bloggers are wracking their brains on what to say about today.  I have nothing original to say.

Yesterday Christ died for us, denounced by a false friend, arrested and condemned on a charge which all concerned knew to be false, and executed in a manner unnecessarily cruel.  He warned those who follow him that, if he was hated, we should expect to be.  There’s been plenty of that in the news this week.  It is possible to become very depressed by the savagery and unconcealed bile directed towards harmless people.  I remember days when much of what is going on would have been unthinkable.

But God is in charge.  Times of peace may be nice, but this world is not our home.  In times of peace and plenty, morality decays.  It is remarkably hard to be pleasure-seeking, when fighting for your very existence!  This is why God allows wars and suffering; to prevent human society putrefying out of sheer self-indulgence.  After 50 years of peace, we can hardly complain if it is our turn.

It looks very much as if, over the next few years, God will now winnow the church with fire, separating the sheep from the goats.  There will be the fake Christians, who conform, and are rather contemptuously flattered by the world for dancing to its tune.  There will be the real Christians, who will not deny the gospel, and will be at risk of being imprisoned and having their property seized.  We must all pray to be among the number of the latter.

At the moment the issue chosen by the wicked men of the world is whether we endorse unnatural vice.  We shall be tempted to pay lip service to this absurd demand, for a quiet life.  We must refuse.  We should remember that the early Christians were persecuted for three centuries for refusing to burn a pinch of incense to Caesar – seemingly a small thing, which nobody else took seriously.  But that small thing was chosen, by the powers of this world, precisely because Christians could not do it in good conscience.  That is how persecution works; find an issue on which your enemy cannot give way, and use it to torment him.  We must never suppose that some “small issue” is not important.  It may be another “pinch of incense”.  Trotsky mocked Stalin for his show trials, for collecting “dead souls”.  That is the risk in conformity.

Tomorrow we shall be reminded that the powers of hell could not prevail.  Christ is risen, and those who thought themselves important, and wrote him off found themselves forgotten, except as footnotes to his life and victory.  So will it be with the great ones of our age.

In the mean time, we must remember to pray (and to check whether God answered, and to give him thanks when we find he does; and when we find that he did not).  We must find ways to evade the demands of the wicked, for we are under no obligation to make their evil task easier.  We must share the good news – that all this rubbish in ourselves and in the world is only temporary, that he can forgive our failings, and that if we give our lives to Christ, we can hope to see an end to it all and better days.

Happy Easter to you all.  Christ is Risen!