Easter History

The word Pasch or Pascal Feast is another name for “Easter.” It is derived from the Hebrew word Pesach or “Passover,” commemorating the night (around 1446 B.C.) on which God destroyed the first-born sons of Egypt while “passing over” the first-born sons of Israel. The Israelites, who were slaves in Egypt, were instructed by God to put the blood of a lamb on their doorframe so that their lives would be spared. The Israelites were also instructed to cook and eat the lamb as their Passover meal. That very night, the Israelites were freed from their captivity in Egypt, and they have since celebrated Passover as a festival to the Lord. See Exodus 11 and 12.

The famous Last Supper of Jesus in the early first century was a Passover meal. It was the day “on which the Passover lamb had to be sacrificed” (Luke 22:7). That night, Jesus was arrested, and he was crucified the following day. He himself became the Sacrificial Lamb. As John the Baptist prophesied on first seeing Jesus, “Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world!” (John 1:29). Consider how profound this declaration was! It would have seemed exceptionally strange to John’s listeners to hear Jesus called a “lamb.” However, with the benefit of hindsight, we now understand that Jesus is indeed the Lamb whose blood ensures that our sin is “passed over” and that death is overcome!

Fortunately, the story of Jesus does not end with his death. Three days after his crucifixion, Jesus was raised from the dead showing that death did not have mastery over him. Easter is a celebration of this resurrection. The Apostle Paul writes, “If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins . . . . If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are to be pitied more than all men. But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead . . .” (1 Corin 15:17-20).

Paul also writes, “Or don’t you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life” (Romans 6:3-4).

Interestingly, the beginning of spring, or the vernal equinox, had long been celebrated as the season of new life, or the “rebirth of the earth.” Though the eighth century English monk and scholar, The Venerable Bede, claimed that the word Easter was derived from the Anglo-Saxon name of a Teutonic goddess of spring, Eostre, there is evidence to suggest that the Anglo-Saxon name for April, Eosturmonath, more likely meant “the month of opening,” the season when the buds open (a time that Christians can reflect on the tomb that opened!). For an intriguing article by Dr. Anthony McRoy on this subject, see “Was Easter Borrowed From a Pagan Holiday?” It should be noted that the name for Easter in most languages clearly derives from either the Latin word for Passsover (“Pascha”) or the Hebrew word (“Pesach”): “Pascua” in Spanish, “Pasqua” in Italian, “Pasg” in Welsh, “Pasen” in Dutch, etc.; English is an exception.

Though Easter was a well established holiday by the second century, much debate took place as to which day it should be observed. The question was whether Easter should be celebrated in accordance with Passover, which is based on the Jewish calendar (the 14th of Nissan), or always celebrated on a Sunday. The question of the date of Easter was one of the main concerns of the Council of Nicea in 325 A.D., called by the Emperor Constantine. The council determined that Easter should fall on the Sunday following the first full moon on or after the vernal equinox (whose date was fixed as March 21) thus making it a “movable feast.”

Regardless of the date on which we celebrate, the resurrection is one of the most central tenets of the Christian faith. As the Apostle Paul says, “And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith” (1 Corin 15:14). The Apostle Peter writes, “Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! In his great mercy he has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and in to an inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade — kept in heaven for you” (1 Peter 1:3-4).

For more on the Easter season, see the following articles:

Lent (Mardi Gras, Ash Wednesday, and Lent)

Holy Week (Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Holy Saturday)

Eastertide (the seven weeks from Easter to Pentecost)

We welcome your questions and feedback. If you are seeking information on the history of Easter that is not found on our website, please contact us.

This content has a copyright © 2009 by Angie Mosteller. Please cite the source and/or link back to this page if you use this material: http://www.celebratingholidays.com/?page_id=2754.

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