By Tom Anderson
In the UK, and many other countries, anyone who has ever had to design timetables and schedules for major educational establishments or corporate entities will well know the feeling of frustration over the shifting date of Easter. No schedule is truly replicable year-on-year without taking this into account; no two-week activity can be scheduled in Spring without checking each time whether the Easter break would come in the middle of the two weeks. The problem is such that many British governments have discussed the idea of permanently fixing the date of Easter, yet this remains too controversial to actually be pursued. Why does Easter move around? This article will not only address that question, but also show that disagreements over the dating of Easter are behind dramatic tides of history far greater than such concerns of scheduling events.
In order to understand why Easter moves, we first need to understand what Easter is. Scholars have dedicated libraries and lifetimes to the history and theology of this, so forgive me if this brief summary does not cover all the details! The roots of Easter lie in the Jewish festival of Passover (Pesach in Hebrew), which is celebrated by Jews in memory of the Exodus from Egypt and how it came about. Many modern readers may have first encountered this through either the Cecil B. DeMille epic film The Ten Commandments, starring Charlton Heston as Moses, or the more recent DreamWorks animated adaptation, The Prince of Egypt—both of which incorporate material from later fictionalised retellings of the story as well as the original canon, which may confuse matters. The Book of Genesis records that the Hebrews under their patriarch Jacob had come to Egypt, thanks to famine in their homeland of Canaan where Jacob’s grandfather Abraham had lived. As memorably retold in Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice’s Joseph and the Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat, this was made possible because Jacob’s favourite son Joseph (whom his brothers thought they had disposed of by faking his death and selling him into slavery) had risen to become Pharoah’s prime minister through the interpretation of the king’s dreams foretelling disaster. However, centuries later the Hebrews had become an oppressed minority in Egypt, with Moses himself being raised by Egyptian aristocrats as one of their own because his sister Miriam hid him from a government cull of male Hebrew children. Moses later encountered a burning bush in the desert as the manifestation of the Lord (the usual English rendering of the Hebrew Tetragrammaton YHWH, meaning I AM), and was sent along with his brother Aaron to demand from Pharoah that the Jews be released from captivity: as both films and songs render it, “Let my people go!”
Predictably Pharoah refused, and the Lord sent ‘signs and marvels’ against Egypt in the form of plagues and other disasters (traditionally ten, although the Book of Exodus itself does not number them). These began with the waters of the River Nile being turned to blood and its fish dying, but Pharoah still refused, and the plagues continued. For whatever reason, the Plague of Locusts has become particularly well-referenced nowadays, even though there was also a Plague of Frogs and a Plague of Gnats. The final disaster was that the firstborn of every Egyptian of all social classes (as well as those of their livestock) would die on the same night. The Jews were instructed to sacrifice a lamb without blemish and smear its blood on their door as a sign for them to be spared—that the Lord (or his Angel of Death in some renderings) would ‘pass over’ or ‘skip’ those houses. After the deaths of the Egyptian firstborn as foretold, from Pharoah’s son down to that of the lowest slaves, but with the Hebrews spared, Pharoah finally let the Hebrews go (though, as you may know, he later attempted to betray this decision—unsuccessfully).
Passover is celebrated to this day by Jews in memory of this event, but the marking of doorframes was almost immediately abandoned as a practice due to the Hebrews travelling for decades in tents. Instead, the Passover lamb (Korban Pesachin Hebrew, sometimes called the Paschal Lamb in English), sometimes with a goat substituted, was sacrificed in the mobile Tabernacle and later in the permanent Temple in Jerusalem when the Jews finally reached the Promised Land of Canaan. Those families unable to afford a lamb to themselves clubbed together for a group sacrifice. The regulations state that the lamb should be slaughtered at dusk on the 14th of the month of Nisan in the Jewish calendar; it should then be roasted and eaten on the 15th, without its internal organs removed, and any remains left over by the end of the day should be burnt. Today, as the Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed and Jews live round the world, they instead typically include a dish of food called the zeroa at their Passover dinner, which is served but not eaten as it represents the sacrifice. Other Passover regulations include baking bread without leaven (which is taken particularly seriously, with symbolic searches of a household for the removal of every trace of leaven) and, today, the questioning of children during the Passover dinner about the significance of it.
There is much more detail that could be gone into here, but these are the most relevant parts when discussing Easter. While the significance of unleavened bread is debated to this day, the concept of a blood sacrifice can be said to reflect the idea of the sin of the human race as a stain of blood upon the earth (going back to Cain’s murder of his brother Abel) which starts an endless cycle of revenge. A blood sacrifice therefore represents (as well as representing giving up a valuable item, i.e. livestock) an attempt to break the cycle of blood for blood. This is of great importance when understanding what Easter is all about.
Over a thousand years passed between the coming to the Promised Land and the events remembered in Easter. This took in the conquest of the land, the founding of the Kingdom of Israel (which later split into Israel and Judah), and the decline of these states as their rulers (as recorded with a numbing sense of historical inevitability in the Old Testament) repeatedly turned away from the Lord and were defeated by their enemies as a result. Finally Jerusalem was destroyed and the remaining Jews taken into captivity in Babylon by King Nebuchadnezzar II. This captivity lasted about sixty years and forms the backdrop to the Book of Daniel, but came to an end when Cyrus the Great, King of Kings of Persia, allowed the Jews in exile to return and rebuild their capital.
Before and throughout this time, prophets warning of disaster had foretold the coming of a Messiah (meaning ‘anointed one’) who would reunite the Jews. In these times of trouble (especially as the returned Jews later found their kingdom reduced to a Roman vassal state) it was common to portray this Messiah as a great war leader who would defeat Israel’s enemies militarily. However, Christians believe that the Messiah was Jesus of Nazareth, called the Christ (the Greek translation of ‘Messiah’ or ‘anointed one’) who came not to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many. Christians descend both from the Jews who accepted Jesus as the Messiah and followed him as his disciples, and also the non-Jews (or ‘Gentiles’) who did the same. After three years of ministry and performing many miracles, while being publicly critical of the hypocrisy of the Jewish priesthood of the day and representing a threat to their power (and potentially that of King Herod and the Roman civic authorities), Jesus entered Jerusalem in the Passover week, called Holy Week by Christians, and the most important events of Christianity took place at this time.
The exact commemorations and interpretations of events on particular days vary between Christian denomination. Broadly speaking, Holy Week begins with Palm Sunday, remembering Jesus entering into Jerusalem riding on a donkey (as had been prophesised of the Messiah) while the crowds waved palm branches and chanted “Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest!” (‘Hosanna’ means ‘saviour’ or ‘to save’). In many churches, palm leaves are distributed at this time and woven into cross shapes (though historically the difficulty of obtaining palms in temperate countries sometimes led to local substitutions). There are no major events associated with the next three days (at least consistently), although some churches call the Wednesday ‘Spy Wednesday’, when Jesus’ treacherous disciple Judas Iscariot met with the Sanhedrin (the Jewish council of elders) to arrange his betrayal. This is followed by Maundy Thursday, ‘maundy’ referring to Jesus washing his disciples’ feet. Today the British monarch gives out ‘maundy money’ on this day, and until the reign of James II would also follow Jesus’ example of humility by washing the feet of poor people. Thursday was also the date of the Last Supper (or Lord’s Supper), in which Jesus instructed his disciples to remember him by the breaking of bread and its consumption along with wine, to represent the body and blood of the new Covenant he would establish between God and man. Today, this is called the Eucharist or Holy Communion in different denominations, and is practised with varying frequency depending on which one. Finally, it was the date of Jesus being betrayed by Judas to Roman soldiers in the Garden of Gethsemane.
Good Friday is the date of Jesus’ crucifixion following his condemnation by the Sanhedrin and the Roman governor, Pontius Pilate—‘good’ in the sense of piety, and it is often treated a mourning day in traditional churches, with various according rituals. Holy Saturday, also called Black Saturday, is the day that Jesus was sealed in the tomb donated by the wealthy Joseph of Arimathea; though not unambiguously mentioned in the Gospels, many traditions hold that his spirit descended into Hell and performed the ‘Harrowing of Hell’, in which all those who had died in sin were freed from Satan’s grasp. Easter Sunday is the day of his resurrection (on ‘the third day’, as prophesised) when the tomb was found empty and he appeared firstly to Mary Magdalene and another female follower, and secondly to his male disciples (who, predictably, did not at first believe them). After appearing to his disciples for 40 days, he ascended into Heaven (Ascension Thursday) and, ten days after that, the Holy Spirit descended upon his disciples (Pentecost)—during the Feast of Weeks, another Jewish festival.
Easter taking place at the time of Passover is not a mere coincidence, but draws a connection between the blood sacrifice of the Paschal Lamb and the equally bloody sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the cross: one sacrifice that pays for all sin (hence why Christians do not perform traditional blood sacrifices, they are no longer needed). This is also, of course, the meaning of Jesus being called the ‘Lamb of God’, which the Bible states was an appellation first given to him by John the Baptist. Related is the common metaphor of Jesus as the Shepherd of the flock of his followers, which also evokes the fact that King David was a shepherd before becoming king. Lambs are not the only animal associated with modern Easter, of course. Both Passover and Easter taking place in the Spring meant that both have, at different points of history, taken on aspects from pre-existing pagan spring festivals celebrating new life in the more prosaic sense (the name ‘Easter’ is of pagan origins). Eggs and chicks are invoked as a symbol of this. The more obscure example of the ‘Easter bunny’ stems from a German Lutheran children’s tale, but that was itself derived from the Church using hares (not rabbits) as a symbol of the Virgin Mary—due to the incorrect belief by ancient Greek scholars that hares were hermaphroditic and had virgin births.
In addition to the dates already mentioned, many Christians also celebrate the lead-up to Easter, or ‘Eastertide’. For 40 days before Easter, a period called Lent, believers prepare themselves and re-dedicate themselves through prayer, repentance and self-denial. The latter involves fasting and/or the giving up of luxuries. Shrove Tuesday is the last day before Lent, and became known as a day of feasting in which people indulged in luxury foods before giving them up (or used up perishable foods). In French it is called Mardi Gras (Fat Tuesday) for this reason. In some Catholic countries the festival is spread over a longer period before Lent and is called Carnival, derived from carne vale (“Farewell to Meat!” in Latin). Lent then begins on Ash Wednesday, in which (in some denominations) the palm crosses from last year’s Palm Sunday are burnt (or they may be burnt the previous day) and the ash used to mark the foreheads of believers as a sign that Lent has come. The traditions are somewhat different in the Eastern Orthodox Church, in which ‘Great Lent’ begins with ‘Clean Monday’. Easter Sunday then celebrates the end of Lent with a great feast and the return of luxuries—the origin of today’s practice of eating chocolate eggs.
With all these events hanging on the dating of Easter, it is clear this was an important question. The early Church fathers wanted to ensure Easter remained on the date of Passover. This was true even though they were operating in lands such as the Roman Empire, where the calendar was solar-based and festivals based on the lunar year (such as Passover, or for example Chinese New Year) would move around from year to year. However, the Christians took exception to the way the Jews calculated Passover, in part because of the need to fit a date to a particular day of the week. The first controversy within the Church about the dating of Easter came at the end of the second century AD, with the eastern churches sticking to the Jewish dating of observing the Lord’s Supper on the old Passover date of the evening of 14th Nisan (which would lead the ensuing days to shift through the week), while Pope Victor I in Rome and the western churches wanted Easter Sunday to always fall on Sunday. The followers of the eastern practice were called ‘Quartodecimanists’, Latin for ‘fourteenthers’. The westerners eventually got their way, even though the Quartodecimanists traced their practice back to what St John the Evangelist, who was there at the Last Supper, had instructed.
By the fourth century AD, Christians were still basing the calculation of Easter on the Jewish calendar, but were becoming sceptical about whether the Jews themselves were interpreting it correctly and feared the dating of the month of Nisan might have become corrupted. This was primarily because the Jews were ignoring the Spring equinox when dating Nisan, which the Christians believed had not been the case in former times. At the First Council of Nicaea in 325 AD, it was agreed that from this time forward Christians would compute Easter separately themselves rather than relying on Jewish informants. In a rather short-sighted move, the Council agreed only that Easter should be independently calculated and must be uniformly practiced throughout the Christian world, without ever specifying how it should be calculated. Various approaches to this were known as the computus (compare the modern word ‘computer’). Originally, the Pope could issue a decree dating Easter throughout the Church, but as communications broke down with the decline and fall of Rome, the various churches began computing it separately—and sometimes ended up with different answers.
The calculation was greatly challenging due to the complexities of a lunar calendar and the cycles of the moon, with different methods using 19-year cycles or 84-year cycles to try to make the phases synch up. One popular method was developed in Alexandria—but was based on the Coptic calendar, derived from the ancient Egyptian calendar, and not the Julian calendar as used in Rome. Dionysius Exiguus, a scholar from what is now Romania and Bulgaria, attempted to convert it whilst also introducing the idea of counting years in AD (Anno Domini, ‘in the Year of Our Lord’) rather than from the foundation of Rome or the creation of the world. Another attempt at the same was tried by Victorius of Aquitaine, but he introduced some significant errors. Meanwhile, the British Isles (cut off from Rome by this point) were using their own error-prone methods. The method used by the Celtic Church in Ireland (which sent missionaries to Northumbria) had so diverged from the Dionysian calculation that at one point King Oswiu of Northumbria was feasting on what he considered to be Easter Sunday, while simultaneously his wife Queen Eanflæd was fasting on what she considered to be Palm Sunday.
This controversy led to the Synod of Whitby in 664 AD, in which representatives of the Irish and Roman methods put their cases to King Oswiu. Tempers were clearly running high by this point; the Venerable Bede, who wrote The Ecclesiastical History of the English People about seven decades later, spends much of his time praising Irish missionaries like St Aidan while explaining to the reader that they couldn’t have known they were OBVIOUSLY WRONG about the dating of Easter! The Easter dating was, of course, only the most quantitative point of disagreement in a wider question of whether the Church in the British Isles should owe allegiance to Rome or not, a question that would recur repeatedly over the next thousand years.
King Oswiu went for the Roman option in the end, supposedly because Jesus had said St Peter was given the keys of death and Hades, while the Irish could not come up with a challenging boast about St Columba. This event formed the basis of one of two PODs (Points of Divergence) in the classic Alternate History story The Wheels of If by L. Sprague de Camp (1940), in which he posits a world emerging from 1) Oswiu selecting the Celtic option and 2) Charles Martel losing to the Muslims at the Battle of Tours. This leads to southern France becoming Muslim, while a state called ‘Northumbria’, but uniting all the British Isles and Scandinavia, colonises ‘Vinland’ (North America). In 1940 of that timeline, the Celtic Church is the dominant branch of Western Christianity, and the protagonist from our timeline finds himself waking up in the body of a bishop of that church who has made political enemies.
As astronomical calculations improved, the methods for the dating of Easter changed; this is one reason why the Catholic Church took such interest in astronomy (which later led to the Galileo controversy). When Pope Gregory XIII introduced the Gregorian calendar reform in, this changed the calculation method for Easter again, taking it out of synchronicity with the Eastern church, which continues to use the Julian calendar. The Protestant world reluctantly embraced the Gregorian calendar over a long period, with Britain adopting it with the Calendar (New Style) Act 1750. This formally stated that ‘Easter-day [Easter Sunday, on which the other dates depend] is always the first Sunday after the Full Moon, which happens upon, or next after the Twenty-first Day of March. And if the Full Moon happens upon a Sunday, Easter-day is the Sunday after.’ To confuse matters further, this does not refer to the actual phase of the moon, but to the ‘Paschal Full Moon’ or ‘Ecclesiastical Full Moon’ based on the lunar calendar calculation of the 14th day of the month. The actual opposition of the Moon to the Earth takes place abut 14.75 days in, and so the dating will vary depending on longitude—which became an issue considering Britain’s growing global empire at the time, and the fact that calculating the longitude was a challenge only then being solved by John Harrison and his clocks.
Other methods have periodically been suggested. The great mathematician Carl Friedrich Gauss introduced an algorithm for calculating Easter in 1800, allowing it to be calculated by either the Julian or Gregorian methods years in advance. Considering how groundbreaking his work was in other fields, it is a measure of how challenging the problem was that he made a significant mistake in his original publication and had to be corrected by a student!
As late as 1997 a new Easter calculation method using the latest observations was proposed, though not adopted by any church, and there have been recent ecumenical attempts for a new unified date between East and West. Finally, slightly missing the point of the whole affair, as previously mentioned there have been attempts to fix Easter to a single solar date due to the disruption of schedules based solely on that calendar. Doubtless in years to come, when people are living away from the Earth altogether, there will be a whole new set of controversies surrounding the dating of Christianity’s most important festival. But we can also probably guarantee that, as far as retailers flogging chocolate eggs are concerned, the Easter season will continue to start on approximately January 2nd.
And, to soften that cynical note about commercialism, we at SLP wish a Happy Easter to all our readers!
Tom Anderson is the author of SLP books including the Look To The West series (Diverge and Conquer, Uncharted Territory, Equal and Opposite Reactions, Cometh the Hour), The Twilight's Last Gleaming, Not An English Word, The Curse of Maggie, The Unreformed Kingdom, and The Surly Bonds of Earth