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Scott P. Richert

Reader Question: Is the Date of Easter Related to Passover?

By April 16, 2009

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A reader writes:

Eastern Orthodox Easter is NEVER celebrated before Passover. Christ rose from death AFTER Passover. How can we, as modern Christians, celebrate His resurrection before the Passover?

This is a question that I have discussed from a number of different angles over the past two years, yet readers remain confused. The problem is that there is much misinformation and many misconceptions about three things:

  1. How the date of Easter is calculated
  2. The relationship between the Christian celebration of Easter and the modern Jewish celebration of Passover
  3. The reason why Western Christians (Catholic and Protestant) and Eastern Christians (Orthodox) usually (though not always) celebrate Easter on different dates.

So settle in, because it's time to provide the definitive answer to all three questions, and that's going to take a while.

How Is the Date of Easter Calculated?

The reader seems to be assuming that Eastern Orthodox and Western Christians celebrate Easter on different days because the Orthodox take into account the date of the modern Jewish Passover. That's a common misconception--so common, in fact, that Archbishop Peter, the bishop of Diocese of New York and New Jersey of the Orthodox Church in America, wrote an article in 1994 to dispel this myth.

That same year, the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of North America published an article entitled "The Date of Pascha" (the word used by Eastern Christians, both Catholic and Orthodox, for Easter, and a word which will be important to this discussion). That article, too, was an attempt to dispel the widespread yet mistaken belief among Orthodox Christians that the Orthodox calculate the date of Easter in relation to the modern Jewish celebration of Passover.

As more evangelical Protestants and Catholics have developed an interest in Eastern Orthodoxy (especially in the United States) over the past few decades, that misconception has spread beyond the Orthodox. In years such as 2008, when the Western celebration of Easter came before the Jewish celebration of Passover while the Eastern celebration came after, that misconception has caused great confusion--and even anger at those (myself included) who have tried explain why the situation occurred. (See the comments on my March 7, 2008, blog post "Reader Question: Why Does Easter Come Before Passover This Year?" for examples of that confusion and anger.)

Which brings us back to the beginning: How is the date of Easter calculated? Here's where things get very interesting, because, with only very minor differences, both Western and Eastern Christians calculate the date of Easter the same way.

The formula for calculating Easter was set down at the Council of Nicaea in 325--one of the seven ecumenical councils accepted by both Catholics and Orthodox, and the source of the Nicene Creed that we recite every Sunday at Mass. It is a fairly simple formula:

Easter is the first Sunday that follows the paschal full moon, which is the full moon that falls on or after the spring equinox.

For calculation purposes, the full moon is always set at the 14th day of the lunar month (the lunar month begins with the new moon). This is called the ecclesiastical full moon; the astronomical full moon may fall a day or so after or before the ecclesiastical full moon.

The Relationship Between Easter and Passover

Notice what isn't mentioned at all in the formula set down at the Council of Nicaea? That's right: Passover. And with good reason. As the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of North America rightly states in "The Date of Pascha":

Our observance of the Resurrection is related to the "Passover of the Jews" in a historical and theological way, but our calculation does not depend on when the modern-day Jews celebrate.

What does it mean to say that Easter is related to Passover in an "historical and theological way"? In the year of His Death, Christ celebrated the Last Supper on the first day of Passover. His Crucifixion occurred on the second day, at the hour when the lambs were slaughtered in the Temple at Jerusalem. We call the first day "Holy Thursday" and the second day "Good Friday."

Thus, historically, Christ's Death (and therefore His Resurrection) are related in time to the celebration of Passover. So if Christians wanted to celebrate the Death and Resurrection of Christ at the same point in the astronomical cycle as it occurred historically, they now knew how to calculate it. They didn't need to rely on the calculation of Passover (their own calculation or anyone else's); they could--and did--calculate the date of Christ's Death and Resurrection for themselves.

Indeed, around 330, the Council of Antioch clarified the Council of Nicaea's formula for calculating Easter. As Archbishop Peter of the Orthodox Church in America mentions in his article:

These canons condemned those who celebrated Easter "with the Jews." This did not mean, however, that the dissidents were celebrating Easter on the same day as the Jews; rather, that they were celebrating on a date calculated according to the synagogal computations.

But what's the big deal? As long as the Jews calculate the date of Passover properly, why can't we Christians use their calculation to determine the date of Easter?

There are three problems. First, as I've mentioned above, it's unnecessary. Easter can be calculated without any reference to the Jewish calculation of Passover, and the Council of Nicaea decreed that it should be done so. Second, to rely on the calculation of Passover when calculating Easter gives control over a Christian celebration to non-Christians. And third (and related to the second), after the Death and Resurrection of Christ, the continued Jewish celebration of the Passover no longer has any significance for Christians.

This is where the theological point comes in. What does it mean to say that Easter is related to Passover in a theological way? It means that the Passover of the Jews was a "foretaste and promise" of the Passover of Christ. The Passover lamb was a type (a symbol) of Christ. But now that Christ has come and offered Himself as our Passover Lamb, the symbol is no longer needed.

Remember, Pascha, the Eastern word for Easter? It means the Passover lamb. As the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of North America notes in "The Date of Easter," "Christ is our Pascha, our Passover Lamb, sacrificed for us."

In the Latin Rite of the Catholic Church, during the stripping of the altars on Holy Thursday, we sing the "Pange Lingua Gloriosi," a hymn composed by St. Thomas Aquinas. In it, Aquinas, following Saint Paul, explains how the Last Supper becomes the Passover feast for Christians:

On the night of that Last Supper,
seated with His chosen band,
He the Paschal victim eating,
first fulfills the Law's command;
then as Food to His Apostles
gives Himself with His own hand.
Word-made-Flesh, the bread of nature
by His word to Flesh He turns;
wine into His Blood He changes;
what though sense no change discerns?
Only be the heart in earnest,
faith her lesson quickly learns.

The last two stanzas of the "Pange Lingua" are known as the "Tantum Ergo Sacramentum," and the first of the two makes it clear that we Christians believe that there is only one true Passover, that of Christ Himself:

Down in adoration falling,
Lo! the sacred Host we hail;
Lo! o'er ancient forms departing,
newer rites of grace prevail;
faith for all defects supplying,
where the feeble senses fail.

Another common translation renders the third and fourth lines thus:

Let all former rites surrender
to the Lord's New Testament.

What are the former rites here mentioned? The Passover of the Jews, which has found its completion in the true Passover, the Passover of Christ.

In his homily for Easter Sunday 2009, Pope Benedict XVI concisely and beautifully summed up the Christian understanding of the theological relationship between the Passover of the Jews and Easter. Meditating on 1 Corinthians 5:7 ("Christ, our Paschal lamb, has been sacrificed!"), the Holy Father said:

The central symbol of salvation history—the Paschal lamb—is here identified with Jesus, who is called “our Paschal lamb”. The Hebrew Passover, commemorating the liberation from slavery in Egypt, provided for the ritual sacrifice of a lamb every year, one for each family, as prescribed by the Mosaic Law. In his passion and death, Jesus reveals himself as the Lamb of God, “sacrificed” on the Cross, to take away the sins of the world. He was killed at the very hour when it was customary to sacrifice the lambs in the Temple of Jerusalem. The meaning of his sacrifice he himself had anticipated during the Last Supper, substituting himself—under the signs of bread and wine—for the ritual food of the Hebrew Passover meal. Thus we can truly say that Jesus brought to fulfilment the tradition of the ancient Passover, and transformed it into his Passover.

So the Council of Nicaea's prohibition on celebrating Easter "with the Jews" has a deep theological meaning. To calculate the date of Easter with respect to the modern Jewish celebration of Passover would imply that the continued celebration of the Passover of the Jews, which was only ever meant to be a type and symbol of the Passover of Christ, has meaning for us as Christians. It does not. For Christians, the Passover of the Jews has found its completion in the Passover of Christ, and, like "all former rites" it must "surrender to the Lord's New Testament."

It's the same reason why Christians celebrate the Sabbath on Sunday, rather than retaining the Jewish Sabbath (Saturday). The Jewish Sabbath was a type or symbol of the Christian Sabbath--the day that Christ rose from the dead.

The Real Reason for the Difference in the Date of Easter Between East and West

So, if all Christians calculate Easter the same way, and no Christians calculate it with reference to the date of Passover, why do Western Christians and Eastern Christians usually (though not always) celebrate Easter on different dates?

This should be the easiest of the three questions to answer, but it is often the hardest for people to understand. In fact, it's largely because people don't understand what I'm about to explain that they look around for other explanations for the difference in dates, and come erroneously to believe that it must have something to do with the date of Passover.

While there are minor differences between East and West in how the date of the paschal full moon is calculated that do affect the calculation of the date of Easter, the primary reason why we celebrate Easter on different dates is because the Orthodox continue to calculate the date of Easter according to the older, astronomically inaccurate Julian calendar, while Western Christians calculate it according to the much more astronomically accurate Gregorian calendar (the calendar we all use in daily life).

Here's how the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of North America explains it in "The Date of Easter":

Unfortunately, we have been using the 19-year cycle in calculating the date of the Resurrection ever since the fourth century without actually checking to see what the sun and moon are doing. In fact, besides the imprecision of the 19-year cycle, the Julian calendar itself is off by one day in every 133 years. In 1582, therefore, under Pope Gregory of Rome, the Julian Calendar was revised to minimize this error. His "Gregorian" calendar is now the standard civil calendar throughout the world, and this is the reason why those who follow the Julian Calendar are thirteen days behind. Thus the first day of spring, a key element in calculating the date of Pascha, falls on April 3 instead of March 21.

We can see this same effect of the use of the Julian calendar in the celebration of Christmas. All Christians, East and West, agree that the Feast of the Nativity is December 25. Yet some Orthodox celebrate the Feast of the Nativity on January 7. That doesn't mean that there is dispute between Christians (or even just among Orthodox) about the date of Christmas: Rather, December 25 on the Julian calendar currently corresponds to January 7 on the Gregorian one, and some Orthodox continue to use the Julian calendar to mark the date of Christmas. (See Reader Question: What Is the Real Date of Christmas? for more details.)

But wait--if there's currently a 13-day difference between the two calendars, shouldn't that mean that our celebrations of Easter should always be 13 days apart? No. Remember the formula for calculating Easter:

Easter is the first Sunday that follows the paschal full moon, which is the full moon that falls on or after the spring equinox.

We've got several variables in there, including the most important one: Easter must always be on a Sunday. Combine all of those variables, and the Orthodox calculation of Easter can vary by as much as a month from the Western calculation.

Doubt No Longer, But Believe

I know that this is a lot of information, and I know that some Christians (especially Orthodox and evangelical Protestants, but even some Catholics) will continue to be skeptical of statements I have made above. But there's no reason to be: You can verify this yourself by reading both Orthodox sources and secular sources, in addition to what I have written.

You can find a good selection of such materials below.

If you have a question that you would like to have featured in our "Reader Questions" series, send me an e-mail. Be sure to put "QUESTION" in the subject line, and please note whether you'd like me to address it privately or on the Catholicism blog.

Catholic Resources Concerning the Date of Easter:

Orthodox and Protestant Resources Concerning the Date of Easter:

Secular Resources Concerning the Date of Easter:

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Comments
April 18, 2009 at 2:05 pm
(1) lee says:

If the vernal equinox (spring)in the Julian calendar is Apr. 3, the first full moon after this date in 2009 was April 9. Why is the Orthodox Eater on April 19, and not on the first Sunday after the full moon, namely April 12?

April 18, 2009 at 3:10 pm
(2) Scott P. Richert says:

Good question, Lee! Remember when I wrote above that, “with only very minor differences,” all Christians calculate Easter the same way? Well, this is one of those minor differences.

It is related, again, to the Julian calendar, and specifically to the astronomical inaccuracy of it. The Gregorian calendar applies various corrections at various times to bring the calendar back into sync with both the solar cycle and the lunar cycle.

We’re all familiar with the solar corrections–we add one day every four years, unless the year is divisible by 100 (but not by 400). But very few people know about the lunar corrections, primarily because they don’t affect the dates on the calendar. What they do, instead, is adjust the calculation of the 19 year cycle that is used to calculate the paschal full moon. This cycle is related to the difference between the solar year and the lunar year.

The solar year is 365 days; the lunar year is 354. An “epact” is the offset in days between the solar year and the lunar year. Over time, that offset grows, but it doesn’t grow in increments of exactly one day (because the solar year isn’t really 365 days, but a little over).

The Gregorian calendar corrects for the inexactness of the growth of the offset by adding one day to the epact every 300 years in a cycle of 2,500 years. The Julian calendar makes no such correction.

The result is that the date of the paschal full moon, like the date of the vernal equinox, has been slipping in the Julian calendar relative to both the Gregorian calendar and to astronomical events. Currently, the date of the paschal full moon in the Julian calendar lags behind the Gregorian calendar by four to five days.

Therefore, the paschal full moon in the Julian calendar in 2009 was on April 13, which means that the Sunday following is April 19.

You can see now why I glossed over this other discrepancy with my remark about “only very minor differences.” :) It is interesting and important for calculating the date of Easter in the Julian calendar, but it is less so for explaining that the calculation of Easter in the Julian calendar is unrelated to the date of Passover.

Thank you, though, for giving me the chance to explain it.

January 10, 2010 at 5:35 pm
(3) Robert Wojciechowski says:

If Eastern-Rite Churches continue to use the Julian Calendar (which doesn’t skip any leap days) to calculate Easter and other feasts, then won’t their Ecclesiastical calendar continue to run further and further ahead the Gregorian calendar and therefore be out of phase with the tropical year?

February 3, 2010 at 11:01 pm
(4) Yochanon ben Avraham says:

You couldn’t be farther from the truth. St. Paul is as St. Peter once said “hard to understand”. Practically all of Christianity is based on the teachings of St. Paul. What G-d put in place as a statute forever is still binding for anyone who follows G-d – including Christians. It is what our Hebrew Mashiach (Messiah) followed – The Torah. Yeshua was Jewish as is Jewish forever. I recommend a great book called BOUNDARY STONES @ http://www.ffoz.com

March 26, 2010 at 8:54 pm
(5) Jonathan Lundell says:

“For calculation purposes, the full moon is always set at the 14th day of the lunar month (the lunar month begins with the new moon).”

And when is the beginning of the lunar month? The new moon occurs on one of two different days, depending on your time zone. Is the lunar month a local month, not necessarily coinciding globally? That doesn’t seem right, since it would lead to Easter being a week off, locally, from time to time. If I’m making myself clear….

April 13, 2011 at 4:52 pm
(6) Aline George says:

I believe Yochanon ben Avraham is correct. Easter at it’s core has nothing at all to do with following Yeshua (Jesus). It was contrived from a pagan practice and adapted into the Christian Church as laid out by Constantine. The spirit of Elijah is moving to and from amonth the nations right now calling beleivers to turn back to the Way of Father- YHWH and his scriptural feasts. Christians have inherited a pack of traditions, many of which are an abomination to the God of ABraham Isaac and Jacob. He who has ears to hear, listen to what the spirit is saying to beleivers all over the world. Turn back, repent, serve YHWH according to His ways. Anyone who is really searching and seeking to please our heavenly Father and His son, our Messiah, must turn back to Him. Therefor the dates for easter are irrelevent. Celebrate the Passover, the Lamb, His ressurection and the unfolding of His continued plan for His family as prophecied through the seven feasts of YHWH. And it doesnt have to be the traditional way- just read the Scriptures and do your best to obey His instructions no matter what a messianic or hebrew roots person might put upon you. Come out of her my people, this is the season of freedom from bondage!! Shalom, Shalom

December 13, 2011 at 6:47 pm
(7) Shelley says:

I agree with Aline George. It’s time for the truth to be revealed!! Thank you Yahweh and Messiah Yahshua.

December 25, 2011 at 7:37 am
(8) Johan says:

I couldn’t agree more with Aline George. Let us turn back to Messiah Yahshua. Thank you Aline for this posting. Easter has nothing to do with the Passover, period. Thank you Messiah Yahshua.

March 18, 2012 at 7:35 pm
(9) Mark says:

No wonder the entire world hates jews !

March 30, 2012 at 2:34 pm
(10) Joanie says:

Mark, your comment does not belong in this discussion.
What a shameful statement.
Happy Easter and happy Passover to all.

Shalom!

April 3, 2012 at 11:30 pm
(11) Tonja Smith says:

Amen @ Aline! The Spirit of God is moving among those who will listen to His truth. There isn’t one Word wasted in the Scriptures. It is the living, breathing Word of YHWY. Everything points to the Messiah! Anyone who refuses to see/hear that is missing a tremendous blessing. Praying for truth to be completely revealed this Passover.

August 16, 2012 at 5:18 pm
(12) Bellington Chitupa says:

Jesus was crucified on Good Friday and rose on Easter Sunday, that makes it 2 nights and one day in the tomb not three days and thre nights. Could you enlighten me on this one?

August 16, 2012 at 5:30 pm
(13) Scott P. Richert says:

It’s three days in the tomb, not three days and three nights. In the ancient world, days were counted even if partial. So Friday, Saturday, Sunday is three days.

January 1, 2013 at 7:23 am
(14) Maria says:

After so many years, many people have not yet understood the purpose of the Jewish Mesiah, Jesus of Nazareth. They still don’t have faith. Please read the scriptures and don’t go looking for what’s not there, instead listen, let faith and God flow through you and fulfill you. Believe it, don’t ever deny him.

Maria

January 12, 2013 at 11:59 am
(15) livingston lee3rd says:

Dear friends; Please just read your Bible Yourself You will find that the reference made in the article to the Sabbath is incorrect Sabbath is one of the original. commandments has nothing to do with the date of easter or passover. original in old and new testanent key word is Remember ; the Sabbath key word Remember some things are unclear. this is crystal clear remember the Sabbath old and new testament. I am not Jewish or Catholic but non denominational. These so called authorities obviously cannot read. please do not take my word I challenge ypu. Read it yourself

February 14, 2013 at 7:31 pm
(16) David Peach says:

Number of Days & Nights .. is not the answer in Geneis 1:5 And God called the Light Day and the Darkness he called Night .. And the EVENING and the MORNING were the First day .. NOTICE, the EVENING, Erev, was the first part of the day .. as soon as it starts to go Dark .. therefore as it is written in the Bible: 3 Days & 3 Nights ( Do not add or take away from God’s Word ) .. the Passover meal for Christ was then Wednesday evening, he went on into the garden, arrest, 6 illegal trials, substitute for a Murderer, beaten and Crucifixion that day of Passover, the Lamb of God … Feast of Unleavened Bread would be the next day after Passover, a Sabbath .. hence Christ had to be buried the same day before as we see it goes dark, Thursday still Passover (1st day), the evening now 1st night, the Feast Day and Sabbath Friday (2nd day) and evening of 2nd night, then the Sabbath of Saturday (3rd day) and the evening 3rd night, all be it’s the start of Sunday, it was not as yet the morning, at which time the Women found an empty tomb .. again read carefully your Bible… they went after the Sabbaths … that was not after 2 Saturdays, but back to back Sabbaths, so we get as it is clearly written and Christ specifically said “He would spend 3 Days & 3 Nights in the Heart of the Earth”. I’ll go with God’s Word everytime, after all Christ did, he didn’t answer satan “I’m the son of God” but “it is written” the very Word.

Do not remove the Ancient Landmarks … For me I’d soon go with the allotted time with Our Lord God at notonly Passover but the Sabbaths as a Saturday, than for any date of Easter..

I too am non denominational. If I can add 1 more thing read the Wonderful Word of Our Lord, after all we could have still been within the Dark Age that it was without the Word.

David

March 3, 2013 at 1:37 pm
(17) John says:

The Lord’s day begins at sunset. Therefore The Last Supper was on the Passover as well as the crucifixion. The following day was the Sabbath of the first day of the Feast of the Unleavened Bread. Jesus body remained entombed 3 days and 3 nights. He was resurrected on the weekly Sabbath evening and first appeared on Sunday morning. Test it by examining the Bible, Gods Word, and not the councils or traditions of men.

March 27, 2013 at 4:17 am
(18) Tracy says:

Please let’s stop using the word EASTER. What we celebrate is PASSOVER. Jesus is the Passover Lamb, not the Easter bunny and egg.

March 30, 2013 at 8:30 pm
(19) Mark says:

The article says …

“The Jewish Sabbath was a type or symbol of the Christian Sabbath–the day that Christ rose from the dead.”

That really seems to confuse/pervert which came first. Jesus and the Jews observed the sabbath long before somebody decided Sunday, the Roman hoy day, would be the new sabbath.

May 18, 2013 at 10:49 pm
(20) Dennis Haley says:

I have huge problems with the explanation. I don’t doubt that Christians, as I count myself, felt a need to separate the ideas of sacrifice of a lamb from a continuance of animal sacrifices after Christ’s death burial and resurrection. I can’t see the reason for naming paschal as Easter in Acts 12. I think the reason is better understood that the translators left it, not to keep unbelievers from controlling the day, but because we made it a matter of unbelief by naming it after idols. I think the translators left it because our reckoning of the date is Lunar, which in biblical terms is always used to describe Satanic activities and wickedness, while things of God are of the day, and years. Truth and light, health and righteousness go with light and not darkness. Thus considering the high Passover of Christ’s death by lunar means is wicked. Those who continue to worship Ishtar, translating the paschal lamb into Easter are the ones giving the day to the wicked and unbelieving. They left it so because if the believer will not sort out the truth, they can believe a lie that we celebrate Easter and idols. If the church won’t sort out its deeds in worshiping God, then it is worshiping falsely and will answer for it.

October 5, 2013 at 11:17 pm
(21) Gary says:

What do you mean by “MODERN Jewish celebration of Passover”?

February 22, 2014 at 8:11 am
(22) Sandra Murdoch Alvarado says:

GOD our Lor prepared the wy since the beginning to complete with JESUS Yeshua who is perfect G-d and Lord the passover is to pass to be slaves to freedom, slaves to our sins, the easy life and confort to be free but never will be easy need effort and faith in HIM, IF WE ARE IN THE DESSERT WE CANT ONLY THINKING WAS israilites, we need understand is all towns to walking withouth direction is only G-d who gaive us,and trust in Him , after this confort in Egypt but also to do hard job, still people complain and our Lord give us food, water and never to feel cold, or broken sandals, but bks MOISES NO SAID ALL WAS G-d job is when he cant see Holy Land close,G-d prepared the way to be strong and trust also if we are lost, was the lamb a symbol of love, and the sacrifice was at Himself like human but divine and perfect,and we celebrated both this part of our brothers Jewish is our too,and remind us also who died for us,and G-d also mark 8 days first promise circunsicion 8 days, and after shabat was another day celebrated, and hanukha same 8 days is so clear that shabbat and sunday are the day for God TO HAVE REST AND TIME FOR hIM AND FAMILYS AND NO DO FORCE JOBS TO BRING PHYSICAL HEALTH TO WORK ORDINARY DAYS AND BOTH ARE WEEKEND TO BE REST

February 25, 2014 at 6:37 am
(23) Tom says:

I’m surprised that there are so many comments, your article explained everything clearly. Not entirely sure why people are throwing religious opinions against astronomical calculations either.

March 6, 2014 at 11:01 am
(24) john w. king says:

Salvation is of the Jews, see the marvelous wisdom of God and you gentiles please don’t boast. Accept Jesus Christ as the Son of God and walk by His authority and look at what the apostles said and make sure your creed agrees with their word, try the spirits to see if they be of God.

April 8, 2014 at 7:23 pm
(25) Angie says:

Makes me wonder since I am from the U.S., a different time zone from Israel, if I am celebrating the wrong day for Good Friday and Easter.

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