Rebuilding the Foundations
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The only annual feast that the apostles' churches kept is Passover. Over the centuries, as the church progressed from land to land and language to language, Passover somehow became known as Easter, and it became a celebration of Jesus' resurrection rather than of his sacrifice as the Passover Lamb.
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I won't concern myself with the pagan origins of the word "Easter." My concern in all my writings is to return to the faith once delivered to the saints; therefore, we will ignore what came later and attempt to reconstruct the early Christian practice of Passover.
Originally, "Easter" was known to the churches as pascha, which is simply the Greek word for Passover.
Because Jesus is our Passover Lamb (1 Cor. 5:7), the churches celebrated Passover every year, even among the Gentiles. In fact, one of the most famous controversies of the second century was the "Quartodeciman Controversy," an argument over which day the Passover should be celebrated on. Eastern churches celebrated Passover on the same day as the Jews, Nisan 14. Western churches always celebrated Passover on Sunday, choosing whatever Sunday was nearest to Nisan 14.
As the historian Eusebius (AD 323) records, citing sources from the second century:
A question of no small importance arose at that time. For all the parishes of Asia, as from an older tradition, held that the fourteenth day of the moon, on which the Jews were commanded to sacrifice the [Passover] lamb, should be observed as the feast of the Savior's Passover. It was therefore necessary to end their [pre-Passover fast, now called "Lent"] on that day, whatever day of the week it should happen to be.
But it was not the custom of the churches in the rest of the world to end it at this time, as they observed the practice which, from apostolic tradition, has prevailed to the present time of terminating the fast on other day than that of the resurrection of our Savior. (Book V, Ch. 24)
To make this long story short, the time Eusebius speaks of is the late second century, around AD 190. A number of western bishops held an assembly and determined that Passover was to be held on Sunday always. (Notice that Eusebius did not call the day Sunday, but "the day of the resurrection of our Savior.")
The church in Asia Minor refused to cooperate, citing Philip the evangelist and the apostle John as the source of their tradition. They would not change.
This controversy was not fully settled until the Council of Nicea in 325 when the council decided that all churches should hold the same practice and celebrate Passover only on the first day of the week (Eusebius, Life of Constantine III:5).
There are a lot of myths circulating the internet and promoted in The Da Vinci Code about the Council of Nicea. You can read about how we know the real story at Myths About the Council of Nicea on my Christian history site. If you want to know the whole story about Nicaea, I tell it in the book Decoding Nicea.
This section will be very short. Despite the Quartodeciman controversy, and despite the fact a second century Christian named Melito of Sardis wrote a sermon on the meaning of Passover, I have yet to find any description of how the pre-Nicene churches celebrated Passover.
That they did celebrate it is mentioned often. By the early third century, Tertullian tells us that some churches held off all their baptisms until Passover. However, whether they celebrated it like the Jews with a whole Passover meal is simply never mentioned or whether they held a typical Christian Lord's Supper is never mentioned.
Annoying, but true. If any of you know of any description of a pre-Nicene or Nicene era description of the celebration of Passover, I will happily be corrected!
It seems ironic to me that the early churches celebrated the resurrection of Jesus every Sunday and focused on the death of Jesus as our Passover lamb only yearly, while we focus on the death of Jesus every week and the resurrection only once per year.
Because Easter was originally Passover, when we drop the name Easter and choose "Resurrection Sunday" instead, we are simply continuing a tradition that does not go back to the apostles. The apostles' churches celebrated Passover every year, not "Resurrection Sunday."
For the apostles' churches, every Sunday was Resurrection Sunday. The first day of the week—or as pseudo-Barnabas calls it, the eighth day—was such a day of rejoicing that many churches disallowed kneeling on Sunday. Tertullian calls the practice so ancient that its apostolic origins cannot be doubted (De Corona 3. c. AD 210).
Sunday is the day on which we all hold our common assembly, because it is the first day on which God, having wrought a change in the darkness and matter, made the world; and Jesus Christ our Saviour on the same day rose from the dead. For He was crucified on the day before that of Saturn (Saturday); and on the day after that of Saturn, which is the day of the Sun, having appeared to His apostles and disciples, He taught them these things, which we have submitted to you also for your consideration. (Justin Martyr. First Apology ch. 67. c. AD. 150)
His death was not ignored on Sundays. As many of you know, the Lord's Supper was celebrated at least every Sunday by the early churches, and the Supper is a reminder that his body was broken and his blood spilled for us, for our sins, for our salvation, and for the establishing of the New Covenant. Nonetheless, the earliest Christians give consistent testimony that the first day was celebrated weekly because it was the day upon which he rose.